A Prayer for Revolution

sermon on Luke11:11-3; Colossians1:15-28; Genesis18:20-32
In the Covenant Room this morning, (the UCC congregation) is practicing music as prayer, part of a whole summer series on prayer practices. But here we’re focusing on the same stale or problematic words of the Lord’s Prayer. Yet maybe we can again encounter these words as central to our faith, and in that way revolutionary and even subversive.

So let’s jump in to the prayer of Jesus in Luke’s version, a piece at a time. It opens by addressing “Father.” I’m still getting accustomed to the versions of this prayer we use here. There are good reasons for adaptations, but also with a risk of missing out; the fact that Jesus uses the term Father or Abba instead of a typical conception like Creator or Almighty is an important part of what we learn about this God of Jesus. It is a relationship of intimacy, of care, of trust. Where generic terms God or Spirit would leave it to our imaginations what in heaven’s name we might be dealing with, Jesus instead points to one you know and who knows you. Luther’s Small Catechism says the point of this language is to build your confidence, so you can ask just as a child would approach a loving parent.

Not all of us have that kind of relationship with our father. But part of the point is that God is not equivalent with your regular father, and Jesus says as much later in the passage, that even if some earthly parents were evil enough to give a scorpion when their child asked for food, our heavenly Father is not like that. (Though there, I should correct myself. Luke doesn’t have a Father in heaven, which would still leave distance or some sense of separation. Here Jesus just says “Father,” and here and now is part of God’s household, with all that exists.)

Again, there’s a risk and arguably a historical proneness to contort this for masculinity that reinforces chauvinism and blocks access for women. Yet the image of God Jesus shares is exactly striving to contradict patriarchy. This isn’t a stern father, or a punishing father, or an absent father, or with an opposite pairing in a caring, sensitive, supportive, cradling mother. This Father of Jesus nurses us (see John 1:18), somehow an attempt to hold images of mother and father simultaneously while highlighting where the problem and redemption’s task lie. This certainly shouldn’t be the only term we use for God. Still, if it’s set aside we might imperil the argument of Jesus and his effort to reshape culture in the ways that that Colossians reading was voicing, standing up against false gods of empire and pompousness and violence. We need caution so Jesus’ radical transformation isn’t thwarted by backfiring struggles for inclusivity.

I expect we can continue to discuss that in our years to come, but for now we’d better move on to “hallowed be your name.” This is old language that probably could use updating, since it only calls to mind Halloween or the hallowed halls of your alma mater or a venerable sports venue. Actually, though, if we can hang on to that image, it may be more descriptive for us than just substituting “holy.”

This is about God making God’s name respectable. That’s a good way to start a prayer, putting the onus on God by saying, “give us a reason to trust you. If you’re so loving, prove it.”

But it’s also an admission that God’s name is often not treated as hallowed. It’s not only the common conceptions of “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” Picture how you’d treat those “hallowed halls.” Walking into your old school may fill you with memories or hushed wonder. It may not be totally good, but you’d realize how that had shaped you. Or going to a favorite sports arena may lead you to awe or anticipation. That’s what the name of God does in this prayer—brings to mind all that has transpired through the millennia of God’s story and also anticipating rightly what’s yet to come.

(Only a slight tangent, notice how selling naming rights contorts this process. It’s harder to hallow stadiums named after cell phones, insurance companies, or banks. Yet those businesses do understand devotion, though, albeit in an idolatrous way, according to Colossians. In this prayer, too, we have to ask what’s in a name and what it does, what we expect from God.)

That leads to the next line, “Your kingdom come.” Again, Luke won’t let our vision stray or allow this to be otherworldly. There’s no “on earth as in heaven.” This is about our lives here and now. I know “kingdom” is another of those controversial terms. Yet, just as God the Father contradicted abusive, bossy, or controlling parents, so this statement is directly in opposition to the prevailing empire. Asking for God’s kingdom meant pushing the Roman Empire out, for the oppressive Pax Romana to be replaced by the peace of Christ. And still today, for lives controlled by corporate lobbying and manipulative marketing and capitalist consumption and all those -isms, we do know it’s a power struggle.

So this envisions a new kingdom, though it’s another old term and we’re not even well-acquainted with the concept of king being negated here. But there’s not a great substitute. The “democracy of God” doesn’t fit, since we need the unique perspective of Jesus and not the dangers of majority rule (a reality we’re having to face in our political environment right now). “Household of God” isn’t broad or bold enough. “Kin-dom” could come close, standing for what binds us together and against what fragments us, but it lacks the oomph of God’s presence breaking into our world and lives to change the status quo and bring us out from the realm and stronghold of death into life.

If it helps, John Dominic Crossan suggests you can “mentally rephrase it as the ‘ruling style of God’ [and] imagine how the world would be if the biblical God actually [ran things]…It dreams of an earth where the Holy One of justice and righteousness actually gets to establish—…say—the annual budget for the global economy.”* Again, rather than re-entrenching fearsome patterns where might makes right, as we pray this it is an invitation to join the reigning of God, living into an entirely new style of encountering the world, which actually frees us from confining structures and stands up for others.

The next petition is “Give us each day our daily bread,” which clearly isn’t just peanut butter sandwiches much less communion bread, but is the sun and rain and soil and farmland and lack of erosion and pollinators and yeast and farmers and governmental protection and bread machines and factories and roads and all that’s required to get you bread. It’s a lot to cram into one line (as maybe we’re coming to expect).

That was also what John Goltermann was saying in our visit this week. He said that at 82 years old, his prayers in the evening are sometimes 20 minutes long in thanks for all the blessings of his life. He was saying that even amid being down that day, wishing he could do more, reflecting on struggles after his wife’s death, and also amid life-robbing dementia.

That may illustrate how this petition is revolutionary. After all, it’s at least characteristically American and maybe too human to want more, to be proud of accumulations, to have greed, the “pretentious symbols of self-aggrandizement” in those big, beautiful words of our Colossians paraphrase. To say thanks when we have an abundance may be good manners, but is hardly revolutionary.

But this petition isn’t about always yearning for more. It is gratitude for the fullness of enough. In John Goltermann’s words, it doesn’t need to lament passing up the “golden opportunities” to climb higher. Instead, it’s able to be satisfied. It doesn’t ask “give me everything I want,” but “give me the bread I need each day.”

Oh, but that requires revision, too. It’s not “give me.” We pray, give us what we need. It is communal, not selfishly individualistic, and that’s counter-cultural for sure.

As if it weren’t difficult to share material goods, the prayer gets harder with “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Just as the hallowing was about God’s name, this is how we view and treat each other’s honor. This means not getting what you claim to deserve, not holding to account, not keeping score of winners and losers. That erases a lot of markers we like to tally to prove ourselves worthy. It’s a radical word, even more so in Colossians’ appraisal that Jesus disarmed those oppressive powers by nailing them to his cross in sacrificial love.

Maybe the first reading from Genesis points in this direction, with a notion of positive contagion, that one good apple can save the whole bunch. It’s a fun reading, with Abraham’s incremental argument on behalf of justice or mercy or goodness or forgiveness or compassion or healing divisions or whatever we might call it. And while we should disagree with the sense that we have to coerce God away from destruction, we can pretty easily see that as applying to us, as an ongoing effort to offer redemption instead of reciprocal violence, or meeting evil with evil, bit-by-bit getting ourselves to practice really respecting others by “forgiving everyone indebted to us.”

This prayer Jesus continually is teaching us ends “do not bring us to the time of trial.” A prayer for deliverance is a fitting conclusion. It’s a prayer that all the rest of the prayer works out as it’s supposed to, that we’re led by the Holy Spirit not to put God to the test and don’t find ourselves standing on the wrong side of God’s revolution, a prayer that life wins, that forgiveness spreads, that all would have what we need and we would realize it’s enough, that God’s way becomes the world’s way, that we abide in God’s care forever.

At that point, all that’s left is to say, let it be so: Amen.

 

* Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p78

and here’s the stunningly powerfulColossians Remixed”paraphrased version of 2:8-19 by Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat

Make sure that no one takes your imaginations captive through a vacuous vision of life rooted in an oppressive regime of truth that parades itself as something other than a mere human tradition, as if it somehow had privileged access to final and universal truth about the world apart from Christ. You see, in Christ there is a radical presence of Deity, fully instantiated and situated in the particularities of history. And you have come to partake in that presence; that fullness is yours in Christ, who is the very source of every rule and authority that purports to have sovereignty over your lives.

In him you find your legitimacy, your entrance into the covenantal community, because in relation to him your real problem—a deeply rooted sinfulness manifest in violence and self-protective exclusion—is addressed and healed. The symbol of legitimacy is not the size of your stock portfolio or the number of hits your website gets daily, but that ancient rite of baptism in which you die with Christ to all these pretentious symbols of self-aggrandizement and are raised with him through a trusting and believing faith in the power of God, who raised Jesus from the dead.

Don’t forget that you were once dead too—dead in the dead-end way of life that characterizes our cannibalistic and predatory culture. But now you are dead to that way of life, and God has made you alive with Christ by dealing with the real problem through radical forgiveness. You see, when the idolatrous power structures that bolster this oppressive regime of truth nailed Jesus to the cross and poured out all their fury on him, all of your debts were nailed there too. All of the ways the empire of death held you captive and robbed you of your life—the exhausting and insatiable imperative to consume, the bewildering cacophony of voices calling out to us in the postmodern carnival, the disorientation and moral paralysis of radical pluralism, the loss of self in a multiphrenic culture, the masturbatory self-indulgence of linguistic and societal games, the struggle to not become roadkill on the information highway—all of this is nailed to the cross, and you are set free. Let’s not beat around the bush here. What is at stake in this conflict at the cross is indeed a power struggle. And Jesus takes precisely the principalities and powers that placed him on the cross—the idols of militarism, nationalism, racism, technicism, economism—and on that very cross disarms, dethrones, conquers and makes public example of them. In this power struggle, sacrificial love is victorious precisely by being poured out on a cross, a symbol of imperial violence and control.

If all of this is true, then don’t allow the front-men of these vanquished powers to tell you what to eat and drink….Don’t be duped by advertising that tells you that various products are indispensable to constructing certain images and personas. This is all crap. They are still trying to captivate your imagination, to suck you into a globalistic regime of homogeneous consumption. Resist this Mc-World nightmare with all the strength you have! Avoid the Disney-ization of your consciousness! This stuff has no substance to it, no depth. It suffers from the unbearable lightness of being. But in Christ we find substance, something of weight and power.

And don’t get sucked into consumerist ideology when it comes dressed up in the clothes of Christian faith. A “new manly piety” just might be more of the same old patriarchal power-grabbing, capitalist legitimating stuff that we have seen being pimped both at the mall and in the consumer-friendly church. And all the charismatic enthusiasm in the world, rolling the aisles with holy joy, amounts to little more than puffed-up humanism if it is devoid of a radical transformation of entire human lives. So much religious renewal seems so attractive, so comfortable, so safe. But it is fundamentally secular. Its cultural imagination remains in captivity to an idolatrous worldview, and it has lost contact with the real source of life. It cannot sustain deep and radical growth that is subversive of the regimes of truth because it is not nourished from the source of all things—it does not grow with a growth that comes from God.

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I Break for Jesus

“Lives Matter” sermon

(featuring Psalm13; Colossians1:15-28; Genesis18:1-10a; John10:11-18)
It seems obvious we can’t have a vacation from church because our lives won’t accept that pause.

A couple examples: I was in Hawaii, ready to play cards with family when news came about Orlando. And I was eating lunch when I heard of Philando Castille’s death in my seminary neighborhood. I was starting my weekend with a movie on the couch with Acacia when my phone buzzed about Dallas, visiting my mom as the Fort McMurray fire blazed, and was going to the baseball game when learning about France this week.

We can hold onto only so many of those moments, but nevertheless our routine lives become marked by them. Even as you’re adding a new Dallas tragedy to these layers, you may still hold the memory of where you were when President Kennedy was shot. I can picture in elementary school where as a 1st grader I knew something wasn’t right when the Challenger space shuttle blew up. I recall the seminary classroom on 9/11 when the first tower had been hit and a professor suggested we might want to be in chapel worship that day.

She was right. We continue to need this. This is where we come for good news, for a change. This may be where we look for answers. We may expect to find something different, hope amid despair, find life amid death. We may seek community, since “Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”

Okay, those were theme song lyrics to the old TV show “Cheers.” I know that reference to a bar may not seem to fit the seriousness I was mentioning, but scan the obituary pages these days and notice the memorial services at a bar, or at a botanical garden or park. We have to ask if church is just another place to commiserate, with beautiful distractions in music or moments of quiet. If so, is this any different than those other places that are made to bear grief and sorrow and the longing for sympathy in these days?

Though church functions well in those quote-unquote “standard” ways, we have the burden of admitting that, in worse moments, we can end up hypocritical and less engaged in fixing the world and sharing love than we followers of Jesus should be.

We also have the added theological conundrum when these terrible things happen. A loving God who merely weeps with us wouldn’t seem to be very helpful. But a mighty God who causes catastrophe is left constrained in fear, not worthy of devotion or praise. President Obama’s remarks this week were constructively hopeful, but he phrased recent misfortune in terms that “God has called [the dead officer] home.” I disagree that God is the type to interrupt life with horrendous violence as a means to take us to heaven. But if that’s not what God does, it leaves the question of where God is in these moments, or the still harder wondering if God even exists.

As we’ve said before, though: here we are. We may gather in church intent on continuing to figure this stuff out, on confronting the hard questions. More, in the face of tragedy and sorrow, we not only desire answers when we cry out “why,” but also long for resolutions, for ways to resolve the problems and end the crying. We long not only for less pain, but to be people who can heal.

Yet today we remain hurting people. For this summer, there has been too much hard news, too much sad news and bad news, besides all the personal struggles and sadnesses that wear us down as we bear them. In what’s becoming more devastation than we and our world can handle, we just can’t catch a break. It seems there’s no vacation from all these problems.

That, again and centrally, is why we are here, why—in spite of travels and visitors and all that fills long summer days in often very good ways—why we find ourselves in church. We need a place to pause and collect ourselves. We need some beauty and music to fill our hearts and lungs, inspiring us. We need encouragement. We need the presence of each other, to sort through and talk about this stuff, or sometimes just for a hug or smiling face.

I’d contend, though, that church is not exactly a place of answers. If we yearn for “why” questions to get simple explanations like “because of God,” our lives, our world, and certainly the mystery of faith are more complex than that. As hard as we may work, it’s no easy fix. As powerful as the love and life of God is, even resurrection doesn’t eliminate the sting of death we face.

Amid complexities we hold as we gather here, we don’t claim total good in ourselves or condemn others as ultimately evil. We don’t say Muslims are bad or police are against us or that all trucks are dangerous weapons. We refuse such categorical fears. Even amid the deepest darkness, we strive to find and name the light. We long for, but also expect and trust redemption, both consistently and impatiently.

This is the faithful and paradoxical language of the Psalm chosen for this service. It is among the Bible’s vital reminders that faith isn’t being happy all the time, not blind rationalizing that God has a bigger plan, or anything like that. The Psalm gives us language to complain, to lament, to cry out “How long?! How long must I bear pain and sorrow?” And yet it goes on to sing, “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” Even as we gather today with too much grief, wondering when and how it will all be over, still we practice singing, with joy, trusting love that endures.

Another of the complex distinctions in the heated mix this week is the skirmish about #BlackLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter or #AllLivesMatter. Held by boundless compassion, we know these can be both true and also silly to squabble about. A child who skinned her knee needs different care in that moment than another. Or, in Bishop Mary’s example, the fire department treats all houses as worth their attention, but when a house is on fire, that one matters. Again, we can say that God loves everybody, but sometimes when it’s miserable and you feel horrible and you wonder if everything is out to get you, you need to know that God loves you.

This fits the lectionary reading from Colossians assigned for today, which essentially says “All Lives Matter.” But it isn’t only meaning multiracial of black, brown, and white skin tones. It isn’t limited for those killed on duty or those killed by those on duty. This stretches wider. Christ Jesus is making amends for all creation, reconciling “all things.” This proclaims an enormous vision of God’s work. Examining the expanse of this in terms of these days, it says that American Lives Matter and French Lives Matter, that Christian Lives Matter and Muslim Lives Matter, that Black Lives and Blue Lives Matter, that victims’ lives matter while terrorist lives also matter, and cancer lives and homeless lives and poor lives and wealthy lives all matter. Old lives and young lives matter. Plus polar bear lives matter. Monarch butterfly lives matter.  Democratic lives and Republican lives matter. Each and every one of these is worth announcing, for its own value. The huge scale of all these lives matter, and your small life still matters to God. None of these are excluded, and they’re also brought together in reconciliation, out from deadliness and hostility and competition to new life and peace in Christ Jesus. It’s among the Bible’s most stunning readings (though it’s not perfect). It’s an important promise for us to cling to in these hard days. The place of God’s amazing work in Jesus isn’t just inner spirits or after death but is spread through every complex intricacy and relationship of creation.

That points us to some surprises. We know that prejudice cannot suffice as the end expectation, that God’s work continues and may pop up where we weren’t looking. This is what’s in the lectionary reading from Genesis: Sarah and Abraham receive strangers with hospitality, and then also receive unexpected good news and joy. We meet and receive God’s presence in people and places we know to look, in bread and wine where Jesus declares he will be found. But God may also show up with strangers and outsiders and unfamiliar faces. Amid or underneath any of the desperate circumstances around us, then, we may keep searching to find revealed the surprising good news of God’s work.

Life can’t be defined by tragedies, then, because the tragedies begin to be redeemed in the ordinary moments, these summer days, the very places and relationships you find yourself when the shockwaves hit. God is deep in all those events and commonplaces.

In the Gospel chosen for this service, Jesus the Good Shepherd similarly says there are other sheep not of this fold. His caring presence is not restricted to those who gather for church or even for the human contingent of sheep. Imagine how shocking that would’ve been to those earliest Christians, surrounded by fearful persecutions.

In some parallel way, we keep coming back here for the assurance of this declaration, so critically needed. As we’re surrounded by too much death, Jesus declares his life not stolen, but given. His sacrifice is not a loss of life, but a gift, a gain, a sharing. Different from but so connected to the disasters that have happened, in Jesus is the word that death does not triumph and enmity and hatred will not break our world apart because God will not give up at reconciliation. Unflinchingly, this Good Shepherd won’t abandon you but will go through death to abide in care.

That promise enables us to find relief and encouragement, to be sustained and resilient, to overcome almost overwhelming hopelessness, to find confidence in community, to rejoice in beauty and delight in song. These aren’t distractions or compensations amid the sorrows of life. Flowing out to these days when we seem to face unending sorrow and flowing out across this trembling world—flowing from this heart of God, who in the image of Jesus is revealed as a God of compassion, of care, of love, of life for you, and a God we all need at just such a time as this.

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Who is my neighbor?

sermon on Luke 10:25-37; Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Colossians 1:1-14

My favorite line in this so-called Good Samaritan story used to be the lawyer’s first question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

More on that another time, though, because this week, I’ve been bemused by the lawyer’s second question: “and who is my neighbor?” Maybe Ken Streit can advise if this is a lawyer-ly brain trying to chase down the loose ends and leave no stone of the law unturned. But it’s still foolish. If the question were unasked, if the lawyer would’ve left well enough alone, he could’ve gone off self-satisfied, thinking, “Well, the folks on my block like me pretty well. I get along fine with people at the office. Even my teenage daughter manages to put up with me.” Then that lawyer could’ve kept a nice, small vision of his responsibility and probably remained smugly self-assured.

But he instead opened up a whole ‘nother can of worms. The question slipped out: “And who is my neighbor?” Why didn’t he just stay self-congratulatory, figuring he was doing fine? Later in the Gospel, a similar guy is praying (or sort of praying, but more gloating) that he’s much better than the sinners. He saw himself favorably compared against thieves, rogues, adulterers, and a nearby tax collector. But!—that story concludes, in its coup de grâce—all who exalt themselves will be humbled (18:14).

So did pride make this lawyer ask the “who is my neighbor” question? Or earnest desire? Could he not keep his mouth shut? The story says the reason is that he wanted to justify himself.

That is all too often the problem. In regards to God and the world around us, we have a burning desire to show we’ve got it figured out and are acting just how we’re supposed to…or at least on a bit better footing than others.

We keep trying at self-justification, even though in our hearts, we know and trust that this faith and God’s own self is about peace, forgiveness and grace, redemption and lives recreated and made whole, transforming sinners into saints. If you need that word of good news, please hang onto it, because in spite of salvation and unconditional love and all that Jesus came to reveal, giving freely, still with the lawyer we slip back in, unable to help ourselves in wanting to be proven right. We repeatedly dive headlong into the task of trying to justify ourselves.

So when we gather for church, we may accept a few challenges on a to-do list, but that really aims again to feel good about ourselves, to be reassured in our self-righteousness, so we can claim we’re doing okay, that at least we’re trying to be kind in our families, and striving to be the sort of citizens we should be, and not too nasty to those around us, so God must want to pat us on the back as much as we do.

In asking Jesus, the lawyer was presumably hoping for a nice, tidy legal category, that neighbors are those in a three-door vicinity, or they share your religion and values, or can relate to your socioeconomic status and past-times, that neighbors look like you and act like you. You know, something easy.

But Jesus blows the whole thing wide open. Not only do those in the story closest to the lawyer fail to recognize the beaten up half-dead guy who really could use some care. What’s worse, Jesus goes on to pick out a rotten Samaritan as exemplary, as the model. This is shocking. Samaritans were sort of a corrupt version of Jews. This lawyer would say Samaritans read their Bibles wrong and misplaced devotion and had gone astray in following religious practice. Yet Jesus commends him!

For much of our culture, the parallel today of a Good Samaritan might be to highlight a Good Muslim as the one doing it right, which would be so unexpected or even heretical for those who claim Muslims are infidels or prone to violence or somehow inferior. Or, to look at it from the other side (since we can’t be so self-righteous in justifying our worldview), it might be a conservative fundamentalist Christian who protests against Planned Parenthood or transgender bathroom rights. Since a “Good Samaritan” simply has become a synonym for a “do-gooder,” we can’t hear how Jesus’ example originally functioned instantly to undermine self-justification that demeaned the other.

After our self-assuredness is undercut, when we are stopped from claiming we’re so well on track, when blinders are removed to illustrate our privilege, when we have to re-evaluate what’s right, then we don’t list tasks to be completed, but see actual neighbors, as deserving or needing care, opening channels of compassion. Having identified love as the greatest commandment, as our supreme goal, Jesus brings us across the threshold from self-justification to obligation on behalf of our neighbors.

Which instantly becomes an enormous question, always determined by your own situations and contexts, of who your neighbor is. So I can’t enumerate or explain what needs to be done; instead, we can encounter examples of “who is my neighbor”:

I continue to be impressed at how well we offer care for each other in these two congregations. But maybe that reinforces this great opportunity to be outside, so we aren’t closed off in a sanctuary and can more directly see our neighborhood. This raised a question as we were preparing for this service: realizing that our music may be intrusive, we worried about offending or bothering the people we’re trying to reach out to. But we also wanted to share our joy and broadcast a welcome. On the third hand, we can’t presume that what these neighbors need is to be part of our worship service, though I continue to struggle with that.

Asking what our neighbors do need and how we may offer service also fits with being outside today. We can look to see reminders that neighbors are well-served by the summer Kids in the Garden program. There are those who receive from our food pantry gardens.

Our vision of neighbors is also broadened as we witness the restored health of prairie plants blooming and song sparrows calling and the buzz of insects. These aren’t just part of our surroundings, nor natural “resources” for our use, but are neighbors, sisters and brothers in creation.

That broad view asking about the wellbeing of others prior to our own utility can also raise questions about the source of our lunch or the labels inside our clothes. How do these help or harm the many producers, of farmers and garment workers and factory employees, and soil health and water supplies, and national politics? In each aspect of these decisions, the question of “who is my neighbor” invites us to be attentive to the benefits or repercussions, rather than simply passing by unaware or unconcerned.

But—you may protest—it’s not all butterflies and picnics. There’s more traumatic stuff. After all, Jesus chose to spotlight somebody who had been robbed and injured. And this week in particular we’ve had too many examples of tragic pain and loss, beginning with two more shootings and the shape of the most horrible edge in racial disparities, where it takes protesting to reiterate even that their lives matter. But then in sorrowful reversals, a wretched retribution, and the cycle of violence, we also have had to witness the attacks on police. It is shocking and awful and discouraging.

But even the fact that we are seeing it means something in the context of this story, that it fills us with emotion, that we are moved with compassion. That is a start. We see that neither black lives nor police in uniform can in these days be equated with the robbers in the Bible story, where those were just non-characters of the set-up, (though perhaps in the larger vision we’d see them also in need of care and redemption and healing). The point of the Bible story isn’t in determining who the bad guys are. It is the question of recognizing neighbors in need, which in these days we can see both in police officers and in people of color faced with inequality. Jesus then asks us to see ourselves as neighbors who can help amid a desperate situation.

I’ll tell you that on Friday morning I almost scrapped my original sermon to focus entirely on this, and you may or may not believe that would’ve been the right thing to do. But I don’t believe preaching is just responding to current events, because, as important as this is, and as much as it’s part of a bigger and terribly complex problem, we’re also good at forgetting and moving on, only to be shocked and saddened by a next calamity. That makes us again into priests and Levites who pass-by rather than Good Samaritans. Neither is this Scripture text about one issue, no matter how important.

So I am continuing on, since we’re also aware of so many other worries we encounter. We can find neighbors in those who suffer oppression (and have too often been met with our apathy), like the LGBT community after last month’s shooting or the vulnerability of victims ensnared by human trafficking or families in bondage to poverty and the homeless we meet through The Road Home. It’s in disaster situations like after flooding in West Virginia. Almost certainly we should be motivated on behalf of refugees too easily tuned out as “not our problem” and ignored by those who officially should be helping, a precise modern parallel of the Bible story.

Speaking of modern examples, the setting of this Bible reading, this road from Jerusalem to Jericho, now has a wall running right down the middle of it. 30 foot tall concrete, cutting off this Palestinian route, a path used for centuries no longer accessible, allegedly for self-security of Israelis but in actuality severing families from each other and making life less livable. We can no longer pass by this apartheid wall without asking “who is my neighbor?”

And with the image of this same location, this same road, Martin Luther King called us to “develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness” * on a system-wide scale. Here are some of his words:

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values (he continues) will look with righteous indignation [at capitalist systems that] take profits out with no concern for the social betterment and [will] say: “This is not just.” [And] this business of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.**

In the end, we’re left with no excuse, no self-justification for failing in love and justice. It’s no relief that we’re not directly to blame nor because we didn’t notice the suffering. This journey with Jesus along life’s highway becomes all-encompassing. I realize seeing all this hurt and standing against hate is no small agenda, no easy task, no quick solution. But this is the can of worms that gets opened with the question, “who is my neighbor?” If we’re honest, it’s not a surprise. As described in the Deuteronomy reading, you couldn’t argue; you know in your heart what’s right. Love is not about your self-satisfaction to feel like you’ve done enough, but is an ever-expanding role. Though it’s never perfect, never complete, never fully attainable, the Colossians reading nevertheless invites you into this calling of such enormous terms to “lead a life worthy and pleasing to our God in every way, [to] multiply good works of every sort and grow in the knowledge of God.”

If you still think the lawyer’s question was right to be asked, the only remaining word is this: “Go and do likewise.”

 

Hymn: Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love (ELW #708)

* p284 in Testament of Hope

** p240-1 in Testament of Hope

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One Nation Under

sermon on Luke10:1-11,16-30; Ps66; Isa66:10-14

As can surprisingly often be the case, the coincidence of these lectionary readings fit well this weekend.

The prophet Isaiah speaks glowingly of the homeland, perhaps a natural reaction after years of being away, held captive in exile in Babylon. On this weekend when this country turns toward celebrating our heritage and the blessings of living in this nation, Isaiah’s delight is a strong and worthwhile reminder of others celebrating that as well. The words of the prophet glorify the capital city of Jerusalem, turning attention and devotion there, expecting that from the capital flows prosperity, wealth, comfort, and relief from needs.

While in these days few lavish such praise on capitals—whether for what happens down at the Square or for how things function in Washington, DC—still this weekend expects the same general acclaim for our nation. With calls to devotion to this country, we are still supposed to be living into the dream that America is a place—or even declared the place—of prosperity and wealth, of comfort and relief. We continue to abide with “city on a hill” identifications, and recognize that this remains a place of hope, of refuge, a place of asylum and also potential. Even if we’re not living into the fullness of that, even if we’re putting up walls that would keep out those seeking to share in what this country offers, even if the wealth is increasingly isolated among the few instead of shared and extended like the “overflowing stream” of Isaiah’s vision, still we have to admit that this is the typical conception of our country: a good place, a desirable place, of potential and hope.

The essential aspect for us to notice—both for the sake of these United States and within our Bible reading—is that the goodness is not inherent. Jerusalem is not a source of blessing in and of itself. We anticipate the good of America not because America is so good. The blessing always comes from God.

This is beautifully stated in Isaiah, in some of the most tender language in Scripture. These are nearly the concluding verses of the 2nd longest book in the Bible, and they speak with the warm embrace of this mothering God. The prophet invited his listeners to realize they were being nursed and comforted from the consoling breast and to drink with deep delight from the glorious bosom of Jerusalem. That’s already a reorientation from a notion of the mighty fatherland, of patriotism. This, instead, is “matriotism,” understanding the homeland as giving you life, as what nurses and raises, consoles and swaddles you.

Beyond that, it isn’t only the matriotism of what you receive from your country. That all comes from the maternity of God, for thus says the Lord (as Isaiah relates): “you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, dandled on her knee. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” Where the words of today’s psalm, Psalm 66, proclaim that God keeps watch on all the nations, that all the earth is blessed and may well respond in song and with joyful noise, Isaiah’s more intimate message won’t leave God as some beneficent presence on high, a kind yet distant ruler who cares for his subjects. No, Isaiah notices that all your nourishment is the milk of God, that when you lay your head to rest, wherever that may be, it is on Her consoling breast, that all your tears are not only heard by but cradled in the arms of God.

Such tender and gracious language almost makes the next words from Jesus a nasty surprise, a stumbling block. There seems little compassion or consolation in his words about the surrounding citizens, but instead warning and opposition for the children “like lambs in the midst of wolves.” How did those wolves come to inhabit the same country Isaiah saw as tender toddlers held by God the Mother?

Yet the harsh edge and the worry of Jesus’ words is not unknown to us, either, on this Independence Day weekend. As good as our nation can be, as fruitful and bountiful of a place to live, as a place of home and so much care and security, as embodying that image of a mothering God who strives with all her being to ensure that our needs are met and that we don’t suffer undue harm—as strongly as we know or wish that our United States will be that sort of presence for us and for others, still we also quickly recognize the other side, where we fail, where our culture is harmful rather than nurturing and caring. We realize our society has a long way to go in being a mother to all the children of this household.

And for that, the fiercest word of Jesus may actually speak the truest. When he says he “watched Satan fall like lightning,” it is about tearing down from the pedestals all the false gods, the corruption, the entrenched patriarchies, the powers that only want to claim power over and not power on behalf of. As much as a nation fails to be a mothering presence, as much governments neglect or abuse the authority of a God who delights and dandles and consoles and cares, as much as those with the strength to help the weak instead devour them, they abdicate their shepherding or motherly role, and oppose the will of God.

In that case, Jesus sends us out—even if we’d been part of the problem—sends you and me, to extend peace and proclaim the kingdom that stands against the kingdoms that have too long stood over the good of this world, have too long squashed and squelched and hoarded wellbeing. Jesus sends us to embody his message, his vision, his care to set the world right, to contradict and overcome the demons, this satan, those false gods and terrible authorities that fail to do what needs to be done.

That is our model for Independence Day. More than an occasion to barbeque and enjoy fireworks, and certainly not just the chance to assess our standing in the world, to assert our superpower, this is an opportunity to recall God’s mothering presence, watching out for you and for us, and watching over all the nations of the world, eager to hear the cries of the despairing. As we celebrate our blessings from this God, we also attune our ears to those cries. We rightly celebrate the good that comes from our country, and also amid other nations. And we rightly confront the wrongs, throwing ourselves into the project though we may be fiercely opposed or violently disregarded, yet nevertheless trusting that our God is on the side of the hurting and suffering, the weak and the longing, and that the kingdom of God comes near and is present even as we meet new challenges to serve as God’s children in ensuring care for all our sisters and brothers, in this country, in all nations, and throughout creation.

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