Seeing Sin

sermon on John 9


You’re in store for quite a Gospel reading.  It’s like TV’s best medical dramas and courtroom or police shows rolled into one, with sitcom humor on the side.  It’s long, at 41 verses, but is chockfull. Rather than preaching on some part of it, I’m going to unpack pieces as we go, though that means you’ll have to listen more carefully to keep the flow of the story amid my snippets of commercial interruptions.


The holy gospel according to John.  (Glory to you, O Lord.)

As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”


This is still a fairly common view, wondering when something bad happens, if it’s punishment. Though we’re Lutherans, we keep sliding toward a sense of karma.  Far from an abstract theological question, that’s dangerous. Jesus re-grounds us, though:


3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”


This chunk is a main reason I wanted to do this with disruptions. Almost every English version of the Bible gets it wrong. See, in the original, there were just strings of Greek capital letters all in a row, so as we translate the Bible, we make decisions and choices. Here a poor choice punctuates it breaking it as Karen read: “he was born blind* so that God’s works might be revealed in him. [period] We must work the works of him who sent me.” Check out the difference this makes: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind. [period] But so that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of him who sent me.”

In the first version, even if it weren’t a punishment for sin, still Jesus would have been saying God caused the illness for the sake of making a good example. That disturbingly still attributes suffering or exclusion or problems as God’s will and purposes. (Again, still a fairly common view.)

But Jesus was dismissing cause-and-effect thinking about sickness or disability or such troubles. Though we know there are results for our misbehavior, Jesus was saying God doesn’t cause sickness either because of sin or so that God can heal you. Some inexplicable and sad things just happen: this man was born blind.

But the question then becomes: what are we going to do about it? Jesus commissions us to join him: “we must work God’s works,” he says, to turn night back to day. Jesus is the light of the world, and as long as his work is being done he is enlightening and brightening lives that were in the valley of the shadow of death.


 6When [Jesus] had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes…

Does anybody have an association for what an image of God shaping dirt calls to mind? The Genesis creation story, forming life from the dust of the earth! Like with light in the darkness, this is a creation story.* A key of this story may be declaring that amid imperfections or what’s not right in life, God the Creator continues striving toward perfection. God is not yet done working with you or our world.


7 [And Jesus said] to [the blind man], “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).


More fully, it means “the sent one.” The name is a play on words. In this Gospel, Jesus is described over and over as sent by God; he’s the sent one. But this also highlights the blind man is one sent by Jesus (and the Greek word here is “apostle”).

Observe that in being sent, the blind man had to trust. He didn’t know who Jesus was, nor had Jesus explained what’s happening. The man had to find his way somehow through town to the pool, trusting Jesus. At which point Jesus disappears, from verse 7 all the way to verse 35. We’ll return to what that might mean.


Then [the man] went and washed and came back able to see.


He can see! But what’s hard for us to envision is that this isn’t about miraculous healing of an illness as we think of it. Indeed, for John’s Gospel these aren’t called miracles, but are “signs” (v16), and as signs are pointers to Jesus and God’s work, God’s vision amid community.  This man, though blind, would all-too-clearly have seen he was put on the margin of society, excluded from community. Without going too much into ancient optometry, he wasn’t just stuck in the dark; darkness supposedly came from him. The view would’ve been that the blindness was because he was evil.** In some essential way, Jesus was showing he wasn’t evil, which also restored him to a rightful place in community.

To understand this non-healing in our culture, it’s exactly what we heard from Deshawn in adult ed, that systems need to change so that peoples’ stories can be realized they are human from the day of their birth. To trace this, we can try a modern analogy on this “National Weekend of Prayer for Transgender Justice”*** and picture how those with certain gender expressions and identities have much too often been condemned and excluded. The man in the story was told something was wrong with him, that his body proved he wasn’t right. His identity theoretically displaced him from normal society. He was fearful and his very existence was allegedly against the rules. But in this sign, Jesus showed that that place wasn’t deserved and re-incorporated him into God’s work as a disciple and apostle. Peeking ahead in the story, when leaders reverse justice and fail to see good, Jesus would stand against such blindness in society. He refuses to label the persecuted with sin. He welcomes hurting and oppressed people, bringing light in dark places and continuing God’s creation that is seen as very good, even if it’s a work in progress.


8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask,”Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”


Another comedic bit. Some said, “are you the beggar?” Others said, “are you someone else?” He replied, “I AM!*” He didn’t choose one answer. He was both. (Or neither?) His identity wasn’t the blind beggar anymore, even though it’s still him.

This may be a spotlight on Jesus’ work in your life, too. You’re still the same old you, not waiting for a whole entire transformation when everything is different. And yet the confining ways you defined yourself or how constrictively others looked at you are no longer able to encapsulate you. You are also somebody new.


10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.”  12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” 13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight.He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.”  16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.


In a sad re-reversal, the man who was just freshly validated and reintegrated into life is once more excluded in this big section of courtroom drama and belligerent interrogation, though John subversively portrays it as proving guilt against those leaders. They said Jesus couldn’t have the power to heal if he didn’t care about the rules, but if he did have power from God he shouldn’t have been breaking the rules. This shows their sense of justice is flawed. The sabbath was understood to be rest at the completion of creation, but we’ve already seen God recognizes there’s still work to do. Their logic fails, just as it failed in saying the man must’ve been evil because he was blind, and as we’re eventually discovering the real evil is in those who could see.


17So they said again to the blind man,”What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them,”Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”  20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”  22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews;for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”


I’ve been intrigued at how family plays into these Lenten readings. One week was ancestry, with the testament to you as descendants of Abraham and Sarah, but also of being born of Mother God. Last week involved marriage and partners, with a woman who’d been married to five men and was living with another, but Jesus gave her a new role separate from any condescending definitions. In this chunk, these parents didn’t seem to care about their son’s disability and needs, or to celebrate his new status, or to defend and guard him at all. They looked out for their own necks. Just as the reading is showing brokenness in social community, it seems the same in parent/child relationships. Finally, next week we’ll hear about two sisters who loved their brother but were utterly incapable of helping him in the face of death but Jesus—who also loved him—was able. I don’t know exactly what to make of all of this, but they’re intriguing reflections on family and faith.


24So for the second time [the religious leaders] called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”


“I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see!”


 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”  27[The man] answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen.Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”


Sarcasm alert!  Probably they didn’t want to be Jesus’ disciples.


28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses,but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”


In spite of being an outsider in the position of weakness, the man was winning the argument, which showed that so-called justice in society and those who control it were wrong in God’s perspective. In this last portion, the religious leaders blew it. They’d essentially put Jesus on trial to disqualify his potential, but then admitted they didn’t know where he came from. After repeatedly saying he didn’t know what to say about Jesus, this is an opening for the man to reply that they should be able to recognize he must have come from God.


30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners,but that if  people are devout and obey God’s will, God hears them. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.


That’s the end of the debate. Since they couldn’t win, they stifled his voice and kicked him out. This is too often the case in confronting authorities lacking justice or integrity: good and reasonable arguments are ignored anyway. Just as this began by refusing to explain illness or wrong—maybe frustratingly for many of you—it ends as a story not about improving health care systems or resolving political struggles or changing the minds of those in power, though such details would’ve been helpful for us these days.

Instead, this story focuses on when leaders don’t follow the apparent right path and won’t listen to reason. It’s for people who have been left out in sickness, and left out even if they recover, for people who are told their very identity is faulty, is bad. It’s one denied justice still being proven right and showing injustice in the system.

In all of that, it’s portraying Jesus on the side of life, welcoming the outcast. It’s about expecting that from him even when you can’t see him, and not blindly putting trust in the wrong place like authorities or justice or even health. That’s a hard thing when the struggle continues, when those in power drive you out, when you wonder if everybody is against you, including God. But it is in these moments that Jesus again shows up for you.


35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”


“You have seen him” here means that literally. This is the first time the formerly blind man has seen Jesus. It also has meaning for us, though we act now not by sight but by faith and in trust. As we gain confidence from our faith, we expect seeing Jesus mainly is still yet to come. We’ll encounter that theme again after Easter when the risen Jesus appears to help Thomas trust and believe, while reminding the rest of us, “blessed are those who have not seen but come to believe.”


38[The man] said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”


That’s all of chapter 9 of John’s Gospel, though the story continues in chapter 10 with Jesus as the Good Shepherd, where seeing Jesus is rephrased as recognizing his voice. It remains focused on his identity of bringing us out of sin to abundant life in the beloved community of creation. I’d say that’s why we’re here.


For the Word of God in scripture, for the Word of God within us, for the Word of God among us, (thanks be to God.)


* (even more, the words “he was born blind” aren’t in the original!)

* some good stuff here:

** stuff around here


* (another play on words with the divine name like Jesus!)


on the moral imperative to care for the earth

for an interfaith rally for human rights at the Wis. state capitol

We begin with an important distinction too often missed in these days: we are people of faith, but our religious perspective does not confine us to the narrow either/or of a confidence in God versus a confidence in science. Such a perspective is no broader than saying you can use your eyes or you can use your hands but you can’t use and trust both ways of encountering our world.

So as faithful people who are reasonable and committed to the truth of values and truth of knowledge, we are concerned about our impact on this planet and what it means for future generations of our children, for the poor, for the sick, for other creatures, and—really—for our own wellbeing in this place. Approaching the spring equinox with the balance of light and change of seasons, we are again reminded we cannot control nature’s patterns, but are called to live within them.

We know the overwhelming consensus of scientific data shows carbon dioxide impacts our atmosphere. Climate change is real. Fossil fuel companies are worsening it. It’s already causing a severe crisis globally and right here. So we reject extreme foolishness and ignorance

And we reject the bondage to those wealthy companies that would roll back regulations. These protections are already benefiting our health and our economy and are being adapted and adopted by the automotive industry and energy providers. So we reject the muzzling of wise and carrying voices and whole government departments.


And we refuse to be quiet. To echo to the top of this capitol dome and beyond, we exclaim “no” in the face of voices that claim lives are expendable (no!), that endangered species are out of luck (no!), that we must put up with pollution (no!), put up with wanton waste (no!), put up with un-natural disasters (no!), that we can live without beauty (no!), or live without forests (no!), that we can do whatever we want (no!), that only short term profit matters (no!), that our brains don’t matter (no!), that our lungs don’t matter (no!), that our children don’t matter (no!), that our hearts don’t matter (no!), that the earth doesn’t matter (no!).

We say yes we care. There is a better way. Yes. There is a way forward. Yes. Life is worth it. Yes! We say it so it echoes today: yes. And reverberates tomorrow when leaders are here for work: yes. And resonates on into a better future: yes!


Satisfactory Faith

­­­­­sermon on John 4:5-42; Exodus 17:1-7


One of the enduring fallacies of our faith involves contrasting the Old and New Testaments. At times termed a heresy, while in current jargon we might label it “fake news,” this is the false distinction that the New Testament God is preferable over the Old one.

The Bible as a whole portrays God in many ways, but claiming that between Old and New there are different gods or even different approaches is dangerous for reasons from anti-Semitism to idolatry. Mostly, it’s just not a very careful reading. To imagine the Old Testament is nastiness with an angry God ignores, for example, the 23rd Psalm. And we wouldn’t know Jesus as the Good Shepherd without that shape of earlier faith to point to him.

More to the point, today we’d suspect our prejudicial presumptions reverse themselves: the Old Testament God seems more satisfying than the stuff from the New Testament. In Exodus, the people got exactly what they asked for. They grumbled that they were thirsty and—voila—they were given fresh water. Simple and direct. Sure there’s some negative description around it—that they were quarreling with Moses and maybe threatening him, and were testing whether God was among them. But apparently it was a clear and direct “yes” as they got exactly what they wanted. Who hasn’t wished for prayer to be so satisfying?

Contrast that with where we’ve been in the Gospel of John. Although last week’s passage had the perennial favorite verse John 3:16, still it’s confounding. One of our Lenten House Churches was noticing that Nicodemus not only didn’t get a clear answer; he didn’t even get to ask his question! Jesus instantly ran in some obscure direction with the conversation, and kept throwing him off by talking on a whole ‘nother level. The discussion has no conclusion, so we don’t have a sense of whether Nicodemus left even less satisfied than he started. And yet…it’s got John 3:16 and remains a favorite passage we return to over and over.

Today is a companion story with a bit different dynamics. If Nicodemus was an elite male insider with religious power stumbling toward Jesus by night, here at high noon an unnamed woman, a religious, ethnic, and cultural outcast, has a showdown with Jesus. Whereas the conversation continually got away from Nicodemus, this woman at least keeps pursuing the train of thought, even if she doesn’t arrive at the conclusion she expected.

Let’s wade into it. The reverse of with Nicodemus, here Jesus prompts the conversation. Coming to the well, he says to the woman, “give me a drink.” In what seems an unusual role of prejudice and oppression, she has to explain to him that his religious beliefs and rules wouldn’t allow that.

Jesus randomly veers to reply that she should’ve asked him for a drink. She responds logically to the ridiculous twist with one of my favorite lines in the Bible: “Sir, you have no bucket.” What could be more obvious? It quickly highlights how different it is than the Old Testament reading’s satisfying clarity. In Exodus, the people complained of thirst and were given water from the rock. In this story, the woman is told she should’ve known to ask for water and she rationally replies that this well has worked “well” (ha) for the hundreds of years since it was dug by Abraham’s grandson Jacob, so bucketless Jesus probably doesn’t have much more to offer.

But Jesus ups the ante. In southern Wisconsin-ese he essentially says, “I’m a perpetual bubbler.” The term “living water” just meant moving streams, flowing water, as opposed to standing water. Jesus says he’s got an artesian well, bubbling up, like a drinking fountain, always fresh and refreshing, and—even more—will quench thirst not just for the moment but forever. What he gives “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Now, let’s set aside this living water for living forever because the woman, still mostly on her original level, pursues the practical angle. She says, “give me this water” so I don’t have to keep schlepping out here and heaving and hauling buckets up out of this deep well. Makes sense.

But lest things become too sensible, Jesus suddenly asks about her husband. He somehow knows she’s been married five times and is currently shacked up with another guy (as our terminology might have said it). Still in our culture—much less back in her time—that would almost surely define this woman. That identity would be whispered everyplace she went. And—we should be ashamed to admit—the places she would go would probably not include church, where the whispering would’ve turned to outright scorn.

Now, I want to skip past how the woman changes the topic—with issues of whom we worship where—for a bit of background. It’s no coincidence this woman mentioned Jacob at the well. See, Jacob met his mate at a well. The local watering hole (so to speak) was a place of betrothals over and over in Old Testament stories. This is why the disciples find it strange that Jesus was chatting alone with a woman at a well: it looked to them like he was trying to pick her up.

We might agree that’s what he was trying to do, but in a much more tender and intimate (and spiritual) way than a date. For society defining a woman by whom she married, Jesus is re-placing her to give her stature outside of those confining condescending definitions. She leaves her water jar, and presumptions and —evidently refreshed with living water—becomes an evangelist, a good news bearer. She has something vital to say to the people of her city, and they listen to her. Rather realistically, it’s not that they celebrate her or put her on a pedestal, yet her role and voice is key for them.

Also fitting reality, it’s worth noting she doesn’t have it all figured out. Her message isn’t “I know the answer about God’s plan.” She’s still deliberating faith and still has doubts: it can’t be him, can it? Yet she’s confident enough to point to Jesus.

That sense of faithful “enough” is where I want to stop, about what is satisfactory (a word literally for making it enough). That seems crucial for faith, on whether you demand having all your wants satisfied, if you’ll accept nothing less than water from the rock, or if your expectations are fluid (for a play on words), if you can set aside disregard and disbelief of what a bucketless God must not be able to offer, and set aside your own water jugs and preconceived purposes, instead to find yourself filled with something surprising, inexplicable, and so delightful, reshaping your expectations, your identity, your place in community.

That’s not just in these reflections, but also as we come to this table where Jesus has chosen to give you bread and wine and himself, and considers that the ultimate gift. Can you possibly be confident enough to be satisfied with that?

I don’t have a more satisfactory closing that what I heard in visiting with Helen and Andy Remington this week: “God may not always give you what you ask for in your prayers, but you’ll probably eventually find out God is giving you something even better.”


Born and Bred for Love

­­­­­sermon on John3:1-17; Romans4:1-5,13-17; Genesis12:1-4a
There’s so much in these readings that I thought of just opening it up by asking, “So what do you want to talk about?” Why did Nicodemus come and Jesus respond obtusely? There’s being born again and the Spirit blowing, the odd serpent in the wilderness reference and Abram with issues of blessing and historical geography, the protective Psalm and the immensely dense but immensely vital stuff from Romans, which in its regular version describes being reckoned as sin vs. reckoned to you as righteous justification. There is so much, so many ways we could go.

Instead let’s sing a kids’ song. Stand up so you can join in the actions: Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you, so let’s all praise the Lord: (with a right, and a left, right leg, left leg, and the tongue, turn around).* Okay, you can sit back down. In the full version, each action accumulates verse by verse, but the whole sermon time with this kids’ song.

When I was younger and first sang it at camps and retreats, I thought it was about Abraham Lincoln. I hadn’t heard of him having lots of children, so I figured maybe it meant freeing slaves, which also helped break down the too often rigidly racial categories implicit in genetic parent/child relationships. I also realized as a young person that the song was deficient in saying he had many sons but leaving out daughters, so I figured it could be fixed a bit with he “had many kids.”

Those expansions to the song are necessary, since the broad vision from our Bible readings today has Abraham as the ancestor of many, father of nations, whose descendants are more numerous than the stars overhead, in whom all families of the earth will be blessed. Meaning: a lot.

Our Genesis reading is the start of this saga. Even while clinging to this promise from God, Abraham will ponder how in the world he could become the ancestor of many when he and his wife Sarah have no offspring at all. He’ll sleep with Sarah’s servant as part of their conniving toward the promise. He’ll hand Sarah off to sleep with kings (a big risk for the certainty of his bloodline and exactly contradicting a chauvinistic purpose of the Bible’s laws against adultery). When Abraham is 100 years old and considers his flesh as good as dead, and Sarah is laughing incredulously, then they’ll have a son. And then a pair of warped grandsons, one a trickster and the other a buffoon. Then the dozen great-grandsons, each with various idiosyncratic scandals, leading on through the grumbling of 12 tribes of Israel, and the struggles of identity getting passed down through the generations.

Originally these identifications are about being born into the group—family, tribe, nation. And we should be honest: such delineations of our lineage are intentionally exclusive in drawing borders. We first think of connections to whom we’re related, our relatives, of shared DNA, like how for her birthday my grandma is getting a gift on to trace her (and my) family roots back to Ireland, Scotland, Germany and who knows what else. We expect ethnic origins have ongoing impact and stereotypes, that I’d have trademark Scottish thriftiness and like beer and that I’m skeptical of you Scandinavians. We draw these persisting identities, even as we sketch new boundaries to say I’m an American and I’m a Wisconsinite and I’m a Lutheran and I’m a Minnesota Twins fan and I’m a guy with a beard and these are my people.

Now, you might notice a couple of those involve self-selecting in or out. They aren’t the same kind of familial or tribal or ethnic or national identities, but are groups with more permeable boundaries. The offspring of Abraham and Sarah and getting tied into their family must be more that kind of merry mob. It can’t be just genetics. There must be room for adoption into this heritage, otherwise it wouldn’t be nearly so broad and most of us wouldn’t have a chance. If it were classified as a Jewish lineage or, more precisely, a Canaanite/ Palestinian/ Mediterranean/ Middle Eastern background, most of us would be excluded. From the start, they had to find ways to incorporate others, accommodate refugees, to “naturalize” the aliens (to use parallel terms still fraught with conundrums). So they extended status through distinguishing physical marks and by sharing peculiar practices. The men were circumcised, the defining characteristic of being an Abrahamic insider. They observed the sabbath and didn’t eat pork, a couple more distinctive traits.

The church pressed further, arguing that circumcision couldn’t serve as the brand, nor could it be flagged by national boundaries or religious practice. This needed to be a bigger group, explicitly available to foreigners, outsiders, those unlike “us,” and also very specifically in the early church that women needed to be able to be more centrally definitive. So most every old way of basing it—on patriarchal connections or genetic similarity or any physical characteristic—was gone. That stuff couldn’t count anymore as the basis for God’s family.

Yet it’s fascinating that the Romans reading emphatically connects us to Abraham and Sarah as “ancestors according to the flesh.” It doesn’t say spirit over flesh, but boldly recollects carnal connections. We can’t move it to some imagined higher purpose or purer potential. Indeed, even as it proclaims one big happy family, it rules out any sense of claiming especially pious qualities. It knows our usual motives are for reward, for payment, for what we earn or get out of the deal. It recognizes imperfections and family squabbles in saying the ungodly are included, as well.

In that, it deals with the difficult family conundrum of the will and inheritance, of who gets what and why. Yet rather than qualifications claiming “I should get more because he liked me best, I was the most responsible in caring for him, I’m most like him,” this chooses to spread the inheritance to all. It’s discouraging this is such a hard reading to muddle through (as legal documents tend to be) since at its core it’s plain astonishing. This language of a last will and testament is of God’s bequest to Abraham, and how that also is handed down to you, you who had no reason to be adopted into the family of that promise, who weren’t connected to the tribe, who didn’t bear the ethnic identity, who may not have even bothered to follow the rules or live up to the standards. So much for the northern European Protestant work ethic.

As God’s will and new testament is read, Holden Evening Prayer phrases it, “O Faithful One, you promised to Sarah and Abraham kindness forevermore.” The Word of promise became flesh in them, and it carries down to you. And no amount of legal bickering could dislodge you from your guaranteed inheritance. With Romans’ play on words, it isn’t based on your belief or trust, but that you’ve been written into God’s Charitable Trust. Quite simply, you and this enormous family of yours have been blessed with God’s goodness and entrusted with the earth itself, without so much as a wagging finger not to squander it. (Though we might notice amid our adoption as God’s children a couple chapters later on confiding that creation groans with eager longing for us actually to act like the children we’re revealed to be becoming.)

That moves us from language of death to birth and new life. For that we turn to the conversation portrayed in the Gospel. Nicodemus’ confusion has continued to cascade through the generations and made people think that spiritual rebirth disassociates us from these bodies. Yet when Jesus talks about the Spirit and about heavenly things, he isn’t pointing elsewhere, separated from the reality we know. Think with Jesus’ prayer, “your will be done on earth as in heaven:” this is about God’s way, God’s intents and purposes and about spreading them here and now. Jesus is striving to connect Nicodemus and all of us into that life. He wants it so dearly he moves deeper and more intimately than the language of adoption or inheritance and calls it a new birth. He declares that you are born not just into Abraham and Sarah’s family of promise and trust but into God’s own family. Simultaneously countering centuries of too much masculinity, these are delightfully rich images of a mother God, who carries you in her womb, who labors to bring you to life, who nurses and nurtures you in love.

This mothering God so loved the world that she gave her firstborn Son, the Son who was born into human flesh and had a human mother as well as this compassionate heavenly Mother, a Son who became flesh and dwelt among us—who, to bring the heaven-ish purposes to life among us, was sustained by an umbilical cord, entered this world through a birth canal, and nursed on breast milk, at the same time (again, in intimate maternal language from John 1:18) that he was held close to the bosom of God and was a Mama’s boy to the end. That is what Jesus is bringing to birth in you, as well. You are born of God and, in that, share the eternal life. In your flesh is the genetics of God. You are born and bred with the love of God, the blessing that extends beyond the confines of family, tribe, and nation to all the world and all creation.


* sort of like this


Romans.   Nick’s Redone Version

1What can we say was found by our human ancestor Abraham? 2If Abraham became good by what he did,   then he’d have reason for pride. But he doesn’t have that in God’s presence, 3since it says in the Bible, “Abraham trusted God, and that’s why he was counted as good.” 4You do things for what you earn; that’s  what counts. And it’s not thought of as charity but as what’s owed. 5But what counts in becoming good—even without doing anything!—is the trust of the one who can count even the ungodly as good.

13See, the promise of inheriting the world didn’t come to Abraham and his descendants through rules but through trusting goodness. 14If we became heirs through rules, trust would be emptied and the promise  nullified. 15Rules mean punishment, but if there are no rules then they can’t be broken. 16So our inheritance comes through trusting, accomplished by charity, and the promise is enacted for all the descendants, not only those who follow the rules but for all through the trust of Abraham, since he is the ancestor of all, 17just as the Bible says, “I’m making you the ancestor of many peoples” in the presence of the trustworthy God who enlivens the dead and calls things that aren’t to be.



Contending with Satan

­­­­­sermon on Matthew4:1-11; Romans5:12-19; Genesis2:15-17,3:1-7

The devil almost never makes an appearance in our Sunday readings, but it’s trouble when he does show up.

It’s trouble not because the devil is such a rotten, hellish demon. Actually, much worse than that, the devil has us tricked into expecting a cartoon, imagining when he shows up it’s almost comical as the little red guy taunting us on our shoulder. That silly caricature is addressed in my favorite part of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. ( Wordy George Clooney declares, “Of course there are all manner of lesser imps and demons, but the great Satan hisself is said to be red and scaly with a bifurcated tail and carries a hayfork.” He’s contradicted by the African American guitar player who says, “Oh no. No sir. He’s white, as white as you folk.” That sense of “white as you folk” may put us on a more serious path.

Still, the conversation was prompted by the guitar player saying he’d sold his soul to the devil. When asked what the devil gave him for his soul, he replied, “he told me to play this here guitar real good” which is met with a pitying response, “oh, son, and for that you traded your everlasting soul?” He simply says, “well, I wasn’t using it.”

Again, we’re tricked into placing these conversations in terms that don’t bear much real weight. We either trivialize it as being about an apple or guitar or obscurely imagine the eternal fate of imperceptible souls hangs in the balance, which is so unclear as to become basically nonsensical.

Countering that, you may notice our Gospel reading gives no description of the devil. It doesn’t say he’s red or has horns or looks scary or any of that. Neither is this about trading a soul in a Faustian bargain of temporary benefit. In this reading the temptations, while specific to Jesus, are really basic categories. Bread, hunger, bodily wellbeing. Identity. Desiring miracles. Regard or acclaim from others, wanting to be thought well of. None of it is very big or foreign or mysterious.

Again, then, it’s probably better not to picture a monster with fiery eyes and cloven hooves but to look at folks as white as most of yourselves—indeed, to look in the mirror. See, the fiercest thing about the devil is that he is so insidious he’s working inside of us. Temptations aren’t mostly an external reality of a serpent slyly slithering up with suggestions, but are your internal processes of worry and doubt.

Indeed, this fits the term “satan” and should cause us to rework how we identify satan. The word is Hebrew for adversary or accuser. There’s a reason for the saying that your own worst enemy is yourself. We have a terrible tendency to be self-accusatory, to look down on ourselves. I’m not saying we shouldn’t set high standards, and actually making excuses for poor behavior can fit into this same mold in preempting condemnation from others and thinking we need to try looking good. Guilt can be appropriate, but mostly the guilty feeling of shame and disappointment in ourselves isn’t helpful. It doesn’t help us improve, but inhibits goodness.

That’s also embedded in the term “devil,” which literally means slanderer, for scorning God’s work, challenging its goodness, and spreading lies or skeptical insinuations. That, and not a cosmic duel, is why we identify the devil as God’s opponent. Again, I’m suggesting it’s primarily internal, happening first and foremost inside us.

I told Virginia Stumbo I was going to mention her in this sermon. She was talking about her piano playing for worship and said no matter how well she plays, if there are a couple wrong notes—and even if nobody else notices them—that’s what she dwells on. That’s not to single her out, since without exception you can relate. Such feelings are, by definition, satanic. That self-accusation and denigration, focusing on the negative is the work of satan. It’s diabolical, for example, for Virginia to claim her musical leadership for our worship services is not good enough.

To place this back in the Gospel story’s categories of temptation, we might first recognize the physical and bodily accusations, hungering for more: that I’m not attractive enough or fit enough, that I should have different hair or a different diet. There’s adversity to self in dreading the aging process, of puberty and pimples and self-perception, sure we talk about that. But also of gray hairs and wrinkles and teeth that wear out and sore backs and minds that aren’t as sharp as they used to be. We perceive those as negatives, as faults we carry in our bodies. We’re so susceptible to it that entire industries spring up and the shape of society itself feeds on our warped sense of self-awareness, our fears and insecurities, marketing cures and improvements. It’s an easy sell because we’ve already convinced ourselves we need to change.

That’s bad in itself. But worse, it slanders God’s goodness for us. Our lives bear the image of God in our very being, in our exact existence. It’s not that we’re good when we are exceptionally caring or skilled or beautiful. Even if you feel ugly, unlovable, a failure, still you are God’s good creation. It’s a false accusation against God and you to say you need something else—whether that is turning stones to bread or new clothes or a fancier car or better habits. When such desires interfere with the most basic truth of your reality, they are lies discrediting God’s goodness in your life.

Next is the identity piece. For Jesus, to some degree it was a challenge to prove himself as the Son of God. Those satanic trials against our self-understanding come to us in feelings we should be better spouses or parents, should make better use of our talents or education or free-time, should have more impact on the world or else that we can’t possibly change anything.

Besides disparaging our identity, there are also the idealized versions, of Jesus being tempted he deserves a miracle, should be able to insist that angels catch him when he falls, is worth not suffering and dying. We’re not immune to those devilish accusations, either, when we claim we’re better and make excuses and look for loopholes, as if the rules don’t apply to us, with self-justifications to protect against others. It’s an odd double vision, that we both see ourselves in the mirror as fragile and broken, but also with rose-colored glasses that overlook our problems and harmfulness. We judge ourselves too harshly and too leniently, and neither is fair or real or how God would identify us.

The third aspect of Jesus’ temptation over the kingdoms is where internal reality meets external appraisal. We want to be thought well of. We want acclaim. We want assurance we’re doing the right thing. We want to move up in our positions and want the roles with more prestige, more power, more payment as proof we’re doing it right. A friend of mine used to ask how long I needed to be associate pastor before I could be a senior pastor, and even as I was trying to explain it away and express my contentment, I was dealing with the accusations of rank and worth.

The prototypical story of Adam and Eve in Genesis also portrays conflict in having to encounter others. They became convinced they needed something more—more knowledge, more esteem and authority, being more God-like, even convinced they needed more clothes. Though our excerpt doesn’t go on today, we know they wound up in blame, trying to maintain their own sense of innocence by accusing each other: the man accusing the woman, the woman accusing the serpent, each passing the buck and in short order exhibiting the breakdown of relationships with God, neighbor, and creation.

That Genesis story has often been envisioned as the source of original sin. Now, I know that’s not a popular notion. But it’s not about trying to verify how sinful a baby is already when it’s born. Rather, it describes how inescapable these problems are. Just notice how through the centuries this story has been used against women, as if they shoulder more responsibility and as if Eve herself were guiltier of a worse crime. But this isn’t about gender bias. As original sin, such prejudices simply portray the truth of our bondage, or—in the words of our confession—that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.

What then? What of this captivity? What can we do about being enslaved to satanic tendencies, accusing ourselves, turning away from God-given goodness, as fault-finders who stumble into wrongs, bound up in sinful culture with implications for generations to come? Can we escape such a curse?

Although it may seem most obvious, it’s not primarily about resisting temptation. Don’t presume the story of Jesus in the wilderness begins our Lent as a model for you also spending 40 days contending against the diabolical in your life. Rather, let it stand at the start of a season of baptismal renewal once again to offer you assurance that he has overcome for you, has triumphed over satan, over sin, over our systems of shame and blame. In Jesus, you may know that God’s goodness cannot ultimately be undone. That is the source of your identity and your possibilities. Opposing powers are doomed to failure. Jesus conquers the corrupting influence. In the stunning view of our thick Romans reading, as certain as our imperfections, as sure as sin, as clear as the fact that we will all die, still more prevalent is God’s grace for you. Even more rampant than what tries to subvert God’s goodness, the victory belongs to Jesus. As much as you seem captive to evils—either as you commit them or are threatened to be crushed by them, either way being subjected to them—yet the reading proclaims they can’t maintain their control over you. “Much more surely,” it says, grace and God’s gift of right relationship “exercise dominion” through Jesus. The relationship can’t go wrong, since he makes it right—with God, with neighbor, with creation. Since he is Lord, since God’s goodness will persist, no amount of sin, no satanic temptations, no failure, nothing you imagine you lack can define you. They can’t own you. You belong to Christ. Your life is entirely his, now and forever.


a newsletter article


Ahhh, it’s Ash Wednesday! That pleasant time of year for the smear of decay on your forehead and the ringing of mortality in your ears. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Nothing to lift your spirits like being morbid, right?

From that tone, you may expect I’m jesting (and laughing in the face of death was the original role for the carnival jesters).

I suppose there are optimistic ways to appraise life’s short span: a motivation to get to work, the awe of your place amid the sweep of generations, the recollection that all hope and life must come from God because you surely can’t muster it yourself.

On the realistic other hand, I expect we are not entirely predisposed against ashes. We likely have a big picture view that our elements continue to be recycled; you are what you eat, which grew from the ground, and you’ll return to the ground and become another creature’s life. There’s ecological wholeness in that!

There’s also mystical science that reminds you that every atom of your existence was a result of fusion in stars and the gift of supernovae. So when Psalm 103 points out you are “but dust,” you can counter, “yeah, but I’m stardust!”

Again, we are people who particularly recognize the reality of new life surrounding us emerging from the ashes. Last week as we were teaching about the Holy Spirit in Confirmation and asking students to reflect on symbols of wind and fire for the Spirit, while they envisioned the wind as a gentle breeze, fire they saw as a sign of God’s anger. But then they looked out the window at our prairie that is purged and renewed and restored by burning.

Not that we should look for too reasonable of explanations for Ash Wednesday, though. It’s peculiar. We may consider we’re reusing last year’s palm fronds, but those lingering palms are an odd mark. Palm Sunday itself is such a disposable festival; the mood didn’t even last a week! Clinging all year to shriveling leaves from a trampled celebration isn’t sensible.

But maybe we need that awareness, as well. There are things we never understood and uncertainties we would just as soon get rid of. There are renovations we desperately long for. There are unusual rituals that contribute to our identity and lead us home. There are dead ends where our vision can’t foresee a new beginning, and that is the venue of God’s work.

In the water and the witness,

            in the breaking of the bread,

in the waiting arms of Jesus

            who is risen from the dead,

God has made a new beginning

            from the ashes of our past;

in the losing and the winning

            we hold fast.

                                                – We Are Baptized in Christ Jesus

                                                            John Ylvisaker (ELW #451)