The Good, the Bad, and Who’s Godly?

sermon on Jeremiah14:7-10,19-22; Psalm84:1-7; 2Timothy4:6-8,16-18; Luke18:9-14
Today we rejoin the Revised Common Lectionary. After fruitful and pleasant byways through oceans and with animals and amid storms and across the universe, we’re once again re-entrenched in sad realities of humanity, readings brimming with issues of arrogance and shame and exclusion.

Now, you may not feel you need to have these tendencies pointed out to you since, you’ve got American democracy, which has seemed intent on highlighting the very worst possibilities of gloating and blaming and fostering divisiveness and refusing to be humbled or shamed. But we’re likely not looking to politicians as our examples (tragic though that may be), so maybe it is worth re-grounding ourselves in these Bible readings.

It strikes me that there are sort of four quadrants or types in the mix of characters today. There are wrongly proud and rightly proud, and rightly humble and wrongly humble.

Let’s begin with the glaring example: the wrongly proud, namely the Pharisee in our Gospel reading or as Linda portrayed it for the children, as she is boasting about her devotions and comparing herself not only favorably but superlatively over others. She could use the elementary school reminder that when you point a finger at somebody, three fingers are pointing back at you.

A couple obvious notes about her: First, she was not doing a bad thing, but was trying to claim extra credit for a good thing. Our spiritual practices aren’t to earn us points. We don’t pray so we can use it as a bargaining tool. We don’t come to church as leverage to convince God we’re better than others.

Even tithing, that the Pharisee returned 10% of her income, is a good and worthwhile devotion. She’s not hoarding. She’s helping sustain the religious institution. She understands that what she has isn’t simply hers earning to be disposed with as she likes but is shaped by her connection to God and the community. During this time when we attend more directly to our giving and financial devotion, I’m certainly not going to tell you that being intentional and committed about how much you give is wrong. But I will remind you it’s about your faith practice and about the good of this community. As I suspect you already know, the return on your investment here is much more delight and joy than something to be held over others.

Which brings us to the other thing to notice about the wrongly proud Pharisee: She has herself awfully convinced that she’s better, that the tax collector couldn’t possibly fast or give 10% of his income (much less 11%!). In self-exaltation, she refuses to see others as anything but negative, as “greedy, dishonest, and impure” (in Don’s rendition).

That’s the risk for us and the trap we fall into when we only think how terrible others are. In another phrase of Jesus, you end up seeing the speck in your neighbor’s eye but fail to see the log in your own. With the 8th Commandment, Luther’s Small Catechism reminds us that not bearing false witness means we “do not tell lies about our neighbors …or destroy their reputations. Instead we come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” Whew! Such reflection is so continuously important, partly because it’s so challenging. It’s not just presidential candidates, but we also need to work on perceptions of situations from ex-spouses to violence in the Middle East, from people who are criminals to those who annoy us.

A small story: this week when I went to the hospital to visit Ken Johnson, the staff stopped me at the door and told me to wait down the hall so they could do their stuff for him first. After half an hour, I was out of time and they still hadn’t allowed me in. Feeling snubbed, I was hot under the collar even after my bike ride up to church. I was frustrated that they were dismissing my pastoral role and disregarding the spiritual care I was trying to bring. I was sure that I was in the right and they were neglecting to understand how right I was, even though I didn’t pause to consider the good they were offering Ken. I’m hoping there’s some gray area, that I’m not just like the Pharisee in wrongful pride and self-assessment, but may also have characterized my role rightly.

That uncertainty points us toward the next quadrant, the rightfully proud, possibly exemplified in the reading from 2nd Timothy. The author has done everything right—he’s “fought the good fight, finished the raise, kept the faith,” and is expecting to be judged as worthy of a “crown of righteousness.” His attitude may not be apparently very different from the egocentric Pharisee, except perhaps that the writer of 2nd Timothy isn’t trying to disparage others, but even prayed for them. That might be enough. Or maybe also where the Pharisee elevated himself over others, causing separations, in the case of 2nd Timothy others excluded him. He felt like an outcast, deserted by those he expected to count as supporters. Indeed, in the verses that the lectionary bypasses, he names others who have left to work elsewhere or have somehow disappointed him.

It’s a hard line to determine; there are lonely martyrs from time-to-time, those who take a hard stand for the right thing even when nobody else is willing to stand with them. But if we’ve got no community standing beside us and are against the whole world, we probably should be pretty careful about who or what we’re resisting and how our motives or convictions are formed.

With that feeling of abandonment or oppression, we may move from the rightly proud to the wrongly humbled or ashamed. There may be an edge of example in the Pharisee’s prejudice against the tax collector. Partly since we have a better sense of self-esteem than when our Bibles were written, this is a category we need to be aware of. We have come to realize that hierarchical powers label others with great detriment. Women and those without white skin have been told they’re not as good. Gender identity or sexual orientation can become marks to make people feel ashamed, as if there’s something wrong with you.

Or here in church: even if you don’t know the words for the liturgy or where to find things in the hymnal, if you’re a child who has been told to be quiet or a young person who hasn’t been fully embraced, if you’ve wondered if you’re wearing the right clothes or others are looking at you out of the corners of their eyes because you’re not here often enough, then you might know some of this wrongful shame, the place imposed on the tax collector by the Pharisee. To be shamed (by another) is wrong.

On the other hand, to be ashamed yourself may be right. We can still feel the force of this parable from Jesus because we might always want to claim excuses and exceptions for ourselves. But we have to notice that the tax collector wasn’t claiming something better for himself. It was wrong of the Pharisee to put him down, but it wasn’t irrational for the tax collector to feel shame; as Don indicated, he was an agent doing the dirty work of the ruling oppressive empire, taking wellbeing away from others by confiscating their livelihood.

For modern parallels, just as I’d hope we as religious people trying to be faithful aren’t equivalent with the wrongly proud Pharisee, neither should we equate that ancient tax collector with the IRS. Rather, we should see ourselves in him, pondering where we are agents of harm and oppression, collaborating with rotten and unjust systems, asking why we ought to feel shame. Maybe for all of our items labeled “Made in China,” we should hang our heads and beat our breasts. Maybe he felt humiliated because he wasn’t able to change or escape the destructive system.

Or maybe his humility wasn’t because he was a tax collector but that he had yelled at his family or been grumpy and pessimistic about the news or had cheated on his diet. Or maybe it was like the section I was reading again this week from Pope Francis’ ecojustice encyclical that said, “we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy…more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights” (2, V, 90). Maybe it was the very basic note that the tax collector didn’t need to count himself as better than others that enabled him to go home, as Jesus says, in right relationship with God and opens up God’s potential for his life.

Another perspective of being rightly humbled is in the words from Jeremiah. We only get a snippet of this stunning passage. The chapter begins by saying that these words were concerning a drought. Clearly the people were mourning and lamenting the drought, yearning for some rainfall. It says the farmers are dismayed (v4) and, in a heart-wrenching detail, that “even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn because there is no grass” (5).

I find it remarkable that this ancient biblical story attributed the ill effects of weather and dire results of a changed climate to the people’s bad behavior. Compared to their superstitions, our scientific understanding of our behavior and witnessing the catastrophe we are causing should certainly give us their sense that “our iniquities testify against us” in Jeremiah’s language and to “acknowledge our wickedness.” That would be honest shame and being righteous humility.

For all of this being about our attitudes and self-perception, we must close with a life-giving word on God’s attitude and perception of you. The most stunning word amid these sometimes bleak readings today came in the middle of the Jeremiah passage: “Yet you, O LORD, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name.” Even recognizing the wreckage they’d caused their society and environment couldn’t disrupt that core identity, and maybe it even contributed to their repentance and desire to do better.

This is your prime identifying mark. You are not known for the supposedly pious things you strive to do, not in the credit you claim you deserve, the accolades puffing your chest or the awards put on your shelf. You are not identified by how great you or others think you are. But neither is notoriety in what you do wrong or the marks that threaten to exclude you. And it may well be that in humility or even amid the desperation of shame, you see most fully your identity is secured by God’s presence and that you are marked and claimed in the name of the Lord.

That is why we turn to baptism now for Grayson Ward and Harrison Maxwell, sons of Marcie and Chris, to speak God’s promise to them that they are claimed and chosen. No matter how they continue to live this out in life, if they go on as well as we anticipate to receive praise and earn trophies or are labeled for some reason as wicked, as outcasts, as greedy or impure, as lowly and shameful as the rest of us, through it all, they are sons of God, known by God’s name, beloved forever, freed and forgiven. Thankful and joyful, let’s sing in celebration of this identity.

 

(Hymn: Baptized in Water, ELW 456)

 

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sermon for Universe Sunday

(Season of Creation)universe

Proverbs8:22-31; Psalm8; Colossians1:15-20; John6:41-51
I invite you to pause for a moment and really appreciate where you are. Yes in church, in Madison. But also appreciate the wood of the chair you’re sitting on and light shining at you, in from windows and down from electricity. Appreciate the air you’re breathing, how it smells, how it tastes. And your surroundings, the clothes touching your skin, those gathered with you, and the trees and sky and soil surrounding you.

Now change your thought. Picture instead the farthest place away from here you’ve ever been. You may think of another country, or another geography, or another time and era. Recall how the people were different, and the birds you didn’t recognize, the weather that was unusual.

If that place seems far away, then think about this detail: six months ago, at the time we were celebrating Easter and resurrection, you were about 186 million miles away from here. Even if in this same sanctuary, you were located far away on the opposite side of the sun.

As the earth zips along its orbit at 66,000 miles per hour, even if you’re passing the time waiting for next year to be back to that same location, still you’ll be someplace new, as our solar system goes hurtling within the spiraling arms of our neighborhood in the Milky Way galaxy at 483,000 miles per hour. We won’t complete that trip of rotation around the galactic year for another 225 million of our years.

But even then you wouldn’t be back to an original location, because the whole of the universe has continued expanding at maybe 1.3 million miles per hour over the 13.8 or so billion years since the Big Bang.

If you’re trying to keep up with the math, these grand distances end up measured in lightyears, which are unbelievably great, since light moves at 186,000 miles per second, so the distance over a year is about 6 trillion miles. For that, we could say that you’ve covered a lot of territory in your life, but “territory” is still an earthbound word, for the terra firma of land. We don’t want to say that you take up a lot of space. Sillier still, this unfathomable scale has been summed up in a Monty Python song[1], so we need to dig deeper.

How about thinking of it this way: for the promise of resurrection to keep up with you since Easter six months ago, the Holy Spirit has had to fly after and keep trying to alight on you against the stiff breeze of million mile an hour solar winds and cosmic radiation. So, as our group prepares to travel to the Holy Land, we’re not reversing the spacetime continuum to go back to the Jerusalem or Bethlehem of Jesus, yet we must confess Jesus continues forward, not only the Lord of what has gone past but also the fullness of what’s to come.

Amid an expanse of his cosmic domain, let’s first pause for perspective at our nearest star, the sun. There’s been a sense for a couple hundred years that nature is “red in tooth and claw,” with survival of the fittest. Either that makes God our Creator a brute or else it plain doesn’t square with a Lord who was willing to die on the cross, emptying himself in love, in which case nature would (as old the old poet had it) “shriek against [the] creed” for those “who trusted God was love indeed.”2

Yet we need not be distracted by what goes violently wrong. We may still trust love as the shape and goal of the universe. With our detour past the sun, David Keesey-Berg shared an excerpt from cosmologist Brian Swimme,3 that the sun gives 4 million tons of itself every second for our life, using up and sacrificing for our warmth and light and photosynthesis creating food. And stellar fusion creates the elements that make up our bodies, perhaps a hint of life out of death. From this generosity of the self-giving sun, then, we see the shape of life not merely or even mostly in competition but as a symbiosis, sharing, life together, in relationship.

Trusting this is the Wisdom and guiding force present since before worlds began, we should be able to identify such fingerprints as godly indicators.

But the harder trust, the more incredible sense, may be to forecast that into the future, not only of origins but also of destinations, of goals. That requires the language of redemption, which the writer of Colossians understood must be entirely true to be true at all.

With that, Joseph Sittler, a Lutheran theologian, gave a famous speech at a World Council of Churches gathering in New Delhi 55 years ago in which he proclaimed with Colossians that some views are too small, with the error (he said) of “assum[ing] that there were ‘thrones, dominions, principalities, and authorities’ which have a life and power apart from Christ, [assuming] that the real world was a dualism, one part… (ensconcing the power of evil) was not subject to the Lordship of the Creator in Christ.”4 Sittler highlights how Colossians won’t back down, though, emphasizing “all things” six times in these few verses. Sittler even says, in the aftershock of hydrogen bombs, that “When atoms are disposable to the ultimate hurt then the very atoms must be reclaimed for God and [God’s] will.”5 From the microscopic to the vastest unimaginable scale, this proclamation can leave nothing out.

So to be your redeemer and Lord, Jesus must be able to redeem you from your wrongs and sins, be able to redeem and restore fractured relationships, must offer salvation from illnesses and death. His message of resurrection must chase you through the stars and across the galaxy, and it must include not just small personal moments of human trust and doubt, of justice versus evil, of worries and endings, but must also include the eventual fate of the whole cosmos, or else it can’t be true. “All things, in heaven and on earth, things visible and invisible.” He must be Lord of your very specific life on earth, simultaneous to being responsible for and committed to the nearly infinite details of the universe.

So the instances of interactions with our life simply must be everywhere. Trusting this fullness and Wisdom of Christ as Lord of all, for example, we attend especially in this time of stewardship to him as Lord of our finances and schedules. But it’s not just the microeconomics of families, but the macroeconomics of this household of earth. So his lordship must also include banks that steal from customers and fail in their role even as they’re too big to fail and he must redeem them and us from their failure. And the lordship of Jesus must save us from commercial capitalism that tries to convince us comfort and convenience are our kings and queens. Mortgages and markets must not ultimately control or own us. Jesus must be Lord for the whole economic system that pretends it can persist in depleting a finite earth.

With Professor Sittler’s word on evil authorities, we must once again proclaim that Jesus is Lord of the sad, disgusting politics we face right now, not just in claiming votes of those who believe a candidate is chosen by God, but Jesus is somehow redeeming even those who are deemed irredeemable, since no rulers or powers remain outside his reach.

In another separate aspect of his same realm, Jesus is Lord of zoology and climatology and astronomy, as we’ve noticed better in recent weeks of this Season of Creation, delighting in beastly monsters and abundant animals, and commanding even the weather. So, again, Jesus must be Lord not only of sunsets over serene mountain lakes but also in redeeming toxic waste and bringing good, raising new life from landfills.

He is Lord not just of morality and ethics, as is most often the presumption of the religious, not just for the innermost contemplation that guides future motives, but also Lord of the nebulae and galactic clusters farther away than our best telescopes can peer into the past. And as Lord, he must be expected to bring newness not only out of supernovas but also somehow to pull life out of black holes and the cold, lonely distance of expanding entropy.

This Lord Jesus came because God so loved the world, God so loved the cosmos (with that original Greek word), and—should we discover realities beyond ours—God so loves the multiverse.

He came down from heaven, as he says in John. We needn’t hold that as someplace up above the sky, beyond space. We might simply say Jesus came to the existence we know, even if we only know it in part, only dimly. He came to give you life now, and on the last day—whatever that means and whatever we expect—on that day he will still be giving life. This is his ongoing work, the will of God, even when we don’t really get it and fall back into the clutches of the other authorities or imagine life lacks his wholeness.

Yet again to remind and reconnect you, of the blessing and your role in it, to conclude here is another poem from Colossians Remixed. As I shared back in July, this stunning updating is an expansion of the reading we heard today:

In an image-saturated world,

a world of ubiquitous corporate logos

permeating our conscience

a world of dehydrated and captive imaginations

in which we are too numbed, satiated, and co-opted

to be able to dream of a life otherwise

a world in which the empire of global economic affluence

has achieved the monopoly of our imaginations

in this world

Christ is the image of the invisible God

in this world

driven by images with a vengeance

Christ is the image par excellence

the image above all other images

the image that is not a façade

the image that is not trying to sell you anything

the image that refuses to co-opt you

Christ is the image of the invisible God

the image of God

a flesh-and-blood

here-and-now

in time and history

with joys and sorrows

image of who God is

the image of God

a flesh-and-blood

here-and-now

in time and history

with joys and sorrows

image of who we are called to be

image-bearers of this God

He is the source of a liberated imagination

a subversion of the empire

because it all starts with him

and it all ends with him

everything

all things

whatever you can imagine

visible and invisible

mountains and atoms

outer space, urban space and cyberspace

whether it be the Pentagon, Disneyland, Microsoft or AT&T

whether it be the institutional power structures

of the state, the academy or the market

all things have been created in him and through him

he is their source, their purpose, their goal,

even in the rebellion,

even in their idolatry

he is the Sovereign One

their power and authority is derived at best

parasitic at worst

In the face of the empire

in the face of presumptuous claims to sovereignty

in the face of the imperial and idolatrous forces in our lives

Christ is before all things

he is sovereign in life

not the pimped dreams of the global market

not the idolatrous forces of nationalism

not the insatiable desires of a consumerist culture

In the face of a disconnected world

where home is a domain in cyberspace

where neighborhood is a chat room

where public space is a shopping mall

where information technology promises

a tuned-in, reconnected world

all things hold together in Christ

the creation is a deeply personal cosmos

all cohering and interconnected in Jesus

And this sovereignty takes on cultural flesh

And this coherence of all things is socially embodied

in the Church

against all odds

against most of the evidence

In a “show me” culture where words alone don’t cut it

the Church is

the flesh-and-blood

here-and-now

in time and history

with joys and sorrows

embodiment of this Christ

as a body politic

around a common meal

in alternative economic practices

in radical service to the most vulnerable

in refusal of the empire

in love of this creation

the Church reimagines the world

in the image of the invisible God

In the face of a disappointed world of betrayal

a world in which all fixed points have proven illusory

a world in which we are anchorless and adrift

Christ is the foundation

the origin

the way

the truth

and the life

In the face of a culture of death

a world of killing fields

a world of the walking dead

Christ is at the head of the resurrection parade

transforming our tears of betrayal into tears of joy

giving us dancing shoes for the resurrection party

And this glittering joker

who has danced in the dragon’s jaws of death

now dances with a dance that is full

of nothing less than the fullness of God

this is the dance of the new creation

this is the dance of life out of death

and in this dance all that was broken

all that was estranged

all that was alienated

all that was dislocated and disconnected

what once was hurt

what once was friction

is reconciled

comes home

is healed

and is made whole

because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things

everything

all things

whatever you can imagine

visible and invisible

mountains and atoms

outer space, urban space, and cyberspace

every inch of creation

every dimension of our lives

all things are reconciled in Him

And it all happens on a cross

it all happens at a state execution

where the governor did not commute the sentence

it all happens at the hands of the empire

that has captured our imagination

it all happens through blood

not through a power grab by the sovereign one

it all happens in embraced pain

for the sake of others

it all happens on a cross

arms outstretched in embrace

and this is the image of the invisible God

this is the Body of Christ6

[1] “Galaxy Song,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23Dm7sQ1C1E (viewer discretion, please)

2 Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H.” canto LVI

3 The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos: Humanity and the New Story p39

4  “Called to Unity” in Evocations of Grace, p39

5 p46

6 from Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmat, p85-89

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sermon for Storm Sunday

Job28:20-27; Psalm29; 1Corinthians1:21-31; Luke8:22-25

http://www.letallcreationpraise.org/united-states-ecumenical/wisdom-series-c

Given the lack of Mosquito Sunday or Lamprey Sunday, Bacteria, Virus, & Parasites

storm

Sunday or Carp-With-a-Face-Only-a-Mother-Could-Love Sunday, given that Sundays of that nature are not named amid this Season of Creation, it seems Storm Sunday bears the weight of less lovely parts of creation and how to address those and see them as part of the whole. That will be our final direction, too, with a crucified God willing to engage the ugly and painful in creation and our lives.

We begin in continuing to recognize the complexity of creation not being straightforwardly constantly charming. Some in this vast family of creatures are even plain unlikeable (though honestly that just reinforces the notion of it being a family, since almost all of us know what it’s like not always to get along in our families, occasionally finding each other lacking in adorable lovability).

Already in this Season of Creation, we’ve dealt with aspects of creation that don’t appeal to us, that aren’t useful as “natural resources” and may even—in the very identity of their existence—prove harmful to humans. We glimpsed that broader delight—moving beyond the anthropocentric, human-focused view of the world—most specifically in God’s praise of Leviathan, the fearsome sea monster.

We may meet that idea still more deeply with storms, that there isn’t an unambiguous good in them. Just as we must see ourselves simultaneously as sinners and saints, there is the complexity of evil versus righteousness even within the elements of nature.

Water, for example, is most often glorified in our worship services as life-giving, as the cleansing spring to purify and renew us in our baptism, and as what parches the dry and weary deserts to refresh flowers and sustain our own bodies. Yet particularly in recent weeks, we’ve also endured a negative side of water, when there’s too much and it takes away life, when floods destroy crops and trickles find ways to seep into our basements.

With that sense, it seems we have to gird ourselves for the buffeting of this storm. Rather than retread the same territory of past weeks that declares God’s blessing as wider than the measures of our mind, today we can’t leave the creatures of the deep off to the side or declare that God is the mother who loves even the ugly faces.

In this confrontation, an obvious approach is awe. Storms demand respect or amazement. That may be with anvilhead cumulonimbus clouds blackening against the top of the troposphere with internal gales that can sling up and down softball-sized hail. I can’t quite comprehend that, much less truly big things like jet streams and the Coriolis effect. And then there are the stunning statistics, like lightning bolts being five times hotter than the surface of the sun and carrying a billion volt electrical charge. Or Hurricane Matthew with winds that sustained at more than 175 mph (while category 5)  and was bigger than the whole state of Wisconsin, with an intensity from which some will never recover, and yet amid that had an eye of the storm where it was calm and the sun was shining. I can’t really grasp the experience of either of those fronts.

Perhaps I don’t need to mention blizzards and windchills right now. I will say that a part of me unwisely longs to witness a tornado. But, again, I can’t fathom that it could peel asphalt from a road and lift homes off their foundation and bend metal vehicles beyond recognition and toss them miles away. The closest image I can hold of it is Dorothy’s house spinning up away from Kansas, with trees and a chicken coop, a rowboat and a cow drifting past. Even more incomprehensible is the thought that tornados can annihilate one house, and then leap completely over another and leave it unscathed. Particularly since among these destructive so-called “acts of God,” that sense of tornadoes is labeled on occasion as the “finger of God,” we’ll have to return to that.

In the meantime, we may trace at least some of the reason for this correlation. Indeed, when God speaks in the book of Job, it is out of a whirlwind. Both God and storms are seen as rare things larger than we are, enormous and unpredictable, as unapproachable and therefore associated with the terms fear and awe. That’s interesting, since we don’t much these days or in this place hang on to these concepts of God. We better envisage God as that loving Mother or as buddy Jesus—and what a friend we have in him!—or as a benign encouraging energy. But perhaps a side benefit to this Storm Sunday is not only that we pay attention to this part of creation, but also hold on to the inexplicable mystery of an awesome God.

So we might try to approach this fearsome grandeur (of either God or storms) by seeking the benefits, sort of peering past the humbling to glimpse more agreeable edges, finding that metaphorical silver lining in the literal thunderclouds. So we might notice that nitrogen essential for the growth of plants and for our own wellbeing is made available by the violence of lightning strikes. We may find gratitude for cyclones stirring ocean waters warming colder parts of the ocean and the planet. We may observe the spring floods not only carved the Grand Canyon but also year-by-year sustained life both by clearing away waste and by depositing rich silts, from making the ancient Nile fertile for farming for our predecessors to fostering the richness for abundant life in Mississippi backwaters in a way that our runoff-controlling dams no longer allow. We’re up against the balance of where storms encourage life and where our resistance to the storms also squelches ecological well-being.

Of course, while we talk about the power of storms, we also have to recognize our own power that magnifies the storms, that is making ocean waters more fertile for violence and is enraging wildfires and changing the content of clouds and is creating feedback loops that likely in some way are affecting not only our insurance premiums but our neighboring farmers and food prices and such. We aren’t merely victims in this complex and interrelated system.

But that, more than ever, might make us ask about the place of God, about where God is in the midst of the storms. This, of course, is Job’s question. In the verses we heard today, Job trusts that there’s some wisdom of God’s in the storms, a decree and shape for winds and lightning bolts, some kind of divine plan for where waters will flow. In interesting poetic language, Job declares that even Death and Destruction don’t understand this. We might take that to mean the storms aren’t only the work of punishment or disaster, but something more.

Yet even while these verses proclaim some confidence in or acceptance of God’s work and wisdom in the inexplicable, Job won’t give up his protest. In this same speech a few paragraphs later, he accuses God of hurling him to and fro, saying “you blow me apart in the tempest” (30:22, NJB). So it seems we must deal with agency, of God causing the storms, of these, indeed being acts of God.

For that, the Gospel reading supposes two alternate possibilities. On the one hand, if the storm is allowed to wreak its havoc, if the waves swamp us and danger threatens to overpower us, if we are in some figurative or actual way “sunk,” then we have to wonder if God is asleep at the wheel, if Jesus is snoozing in the back of the boat and not at all mindful of our trauma or terrors. The version of this story in Mark’s Gospel has the disciples begging the incisive question, “Don’t you care that we’re perishing?!”

With the other perspective, it may seem that in that instance (at least) God cared. Jesus woke up and the one with power to command the winds and the water rebuked the storm, and the raging waves ceased.

Now, maybe those disciples had the benefit of being able to prod Jesus in their boat. Yet if we have the privilege of carrying everything to him and the promise that he hears, still we must ask about these storms, these alleged acts of God. I may be wrong, but I don’t believe that my petitions or insistent begging or frantic prayers would make the tornado skip over my house to hit somebody else’s instead. On the other hand, while I do believe God established patterns for weather and natural systems, I don’t believe God just puffed the atmosphere into existence and lets it run its course, but still interacts with us and responds to us and strives for us.

So what? What could that mean?

Perhaps again we turn to Paul’s stunning words from the start of 1st Corinthians for another perspective, this message of the cross as God’s wisdom. In this alternative vision, storms aren’t the “acts of God” wantonly spreading destruction, much less inflicted as punishment (as we’re sometimes told, for categories of sin or whatever). And God’s presence is not either ignorant of our concerns nor simply elevating us out of risk and worry. Rather, in the cross, we have the peculiar evidence of God with us in suffering and even through loss, a God who won’t miraculously still every storm at our insistence, but even more miraculously won’t abandon ship or leave you alone in your fears. God in Christ is not unscathed by the storm. This incomprehensible and awesome God, mightier than a hurricane and more persistent than the spread of floodwaters assures, “Fear not, I am with you, oh, be not dismayed, for I am your God and will still give you aid.” (How Firm a Foundation, ELW 696)

 

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reflection on Lutherans & Sacraments

for World Communion Sunday

(Habakkuk1:1-4,2:1-4; 2Timothy1:1-14)

 

In the MCC Vision-Tending team that is focused on this partnership, in worship committees, and other conversations have been requests about better understanding each other. We’re not smushing together denominations, but sharing while also maintaining our individual unique identities and beliefs. Of course, at MCC that’s still not just two categories of beliefs but uniquely proliferates to each of us gathered now. Still, this World Communion Sunday, celebrating what it means to be together and partaking in sacraments seemed like an appropriate time to reflect on similarities and differences.

So this is a fast reflection on the general Lutheran sense of sacraments. Clearly that can’t hit all the questions, but will at least try to establish a core. I want to jump in with the song the Chimes just played for us: Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so. That’s a perfect place to begin, making us ask: do you know Jesus loves you because of the Bible? The standard tale claims somebody hanging by a thread could open that well-stashed Gideon copy in their hotel’s drawer. But they most likely wouldn’t open to a passage that told them Jesus loved them. They may hit a part with rules they broke or a violent historical account. Even if they found exactly the right verse, while at rock bottom they likely wouldn’t believe that that message of love could be for them. That Bible, they’d figure, must’ve been written for somebody else.

Preaching is intended to resolve that gap, declaring to each other the message—or the Word from God—that Jesus loves you. Not that Jesus loved a type of person or somebody back when the Bible was written. Or that Jesus loves generically. The message of a sermon, or when we proclaim the gospel to each other, is that Jesus loves you. Yes, you.

Still, that’s not foolproof. You may remain unable to hear my voice as a word from God applying to you. Given that I don’t know what you’ve done, can I claim that God could love you? Or you may have had a rotten week which sure didn’t exhibit God’s love, so it may still feel like the message is for someone else. Plus, I stand up here, and some of you sit way in the back.

Which brings us to sacraments, to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as Jesus trying to ensure the promise is delivered directly to you. In baptism, as the water hit Sawyer’s and Auden’s heads, it came with God’s declaration, “You are my son, my daughter, I love you. I will always love you, no matter what.” That promise was delivered with the splash of water so that Auden and Sawyer may trust it was exactly for them and nobody else in that moment.

And as you take a nibble of bread and sip of wine, Jesus is promising that he is there for you, with the fullness of his gracious, forgiving, loving presence, offering his life and all he has. For you. No matter what you’ve done, no matter how you feel about it, this is for you.

Saying this is Jesus’ body and blood almost certainly raises questions. Those of you with Catholic backgrounds know transubstantiation. Well, Lutherans don’t go in for that hocus pocus.* Instead, we might begin to ask: where is God? Quickly we’d respond that God is everywhere. That means God is in my shoe and out in the chicken coop and God is in the bread, because God is ubiquitous.

But the importance is in knowing where to look for God. We tend to look at death or tragedies, at refugees of war or a frustrating political mess and wonder where God could possibly be. That’s the situation we’ll hear in Habakkuk. But it’s vital not to be stuck with the guessing games of where God might be or what God might be up to. Instead here is the confidence in water of God promising love. God is in a piece of bread to offer forgiveness and life. So even when it’s miserable and you’d wonder if God forgot about you or maybe you’re even being punished, you can rather remember your baptism, receive and taste again the assurance of Jesus with you.

Though it’s surprising that God would use packaged bread from the co-op and Wollersheim wine and plain ol’ unholy tap water, you may even more doubt another of God’s means and ends, meaning me and you. First, what makes me a pastor? I’m a scrawny young goofball, and certainly no better than you are. But this role isn’t about being holier or having magical mojo. Really, anybody can say these words, just as whenever you’re told God loves you. I’m just here for reliability, hopefully so you can count on me (and the same for Sonja). I’m paid to hang around this place so when you need to be told God loves you, you can rely on me to say it.

And I’m supposed to do that for you with God’s utter abandon, with the total unconditional sense, not based on how good you’ve been or likeable you seem or anything like that. God is so reckless and so insistent on this love that it’s not based on earning it at all, as 2nd Timothy says (though indirectly, as I’m having to apply that message for you now). For this constant support and guide and resource, God chooses even babies. God makes this promise before we can prove how we’ll turn out in life at all.

With that was an interesting Confirmation discussion this past week. One student said she would’ve preferred a choice about being baptized. But do we ever have a choice about being loved? We can run or reject or rebel, but we can’t stop being loved—in good instances from people we know, but always from God. God chooses love before all and through all.

Alongside that, it strikes me as a little silly that we have elected that teenage as the time for Affirmation of Baptism. That age in life is about exploring all the edges and possibilities, pushing boundaries and testing authorities. Most teenagers would be hard-pressed to claim the love of family, of which they’ve had good evidence, so why ask them to affirm a love from God that requires much more uncertain trust?

Still, that exhibits the persistence of this promise. Jesus is still for you, still striving after love, still offering life, continuously working for and through you, whether you think you understand it or not, can explain it or not, whether you’d choose it, ready or not.

And that’s some of the important Lutheran word for a World Communion Sunday, that this isn’t limited by or dependent on how well we’re getting along or how well-qualified anybody thinks we are. This is the presence of the Holy Spirit more constantly than we can imagine and can only begin to trust. This is God’s way of using the mundane as sacred, the unexpected blessing, the earthy for godly purposes, the ordinary as miraculous, in bread, wine and water, from common folks, in drawing a diverse group of us together, binding us across the world, throughout the generations as family, and motivating us to share this life with all.

*As delivered, I’m realizing this was poor word choice.  Behind it, “hocus pocus” was a term from those who didn’t understand the Latin “hoc corpus meum est—this is my body,” and thought the priest had powers in magical incantations to transform the bread to something else. But that distinction got lost in what seemed like making light of disparaging others’ beliefs. I apologize.

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