No Year’s Resolutions

sermon on John 1:19-34

 

Last week it was angels and shepherds. This week it’s John the Baptist.

Last week, angels were directing our attention toward a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And then shepherds brought us along for a visit as they shared the news.

This week, John the Baptist is out in the wilderness, with a similar role of pointing to Jesus.

I don’t want to spend all our time this morning on Bible study comparisons of the gospels and on recounts explaining history, but will say that for a while, we understand John to have been more popular and attractive, to have more of a following than Jesus. The other gospels say crowds were going out from Jerusalem and the surrounding country to hear him. Somewhat like Jesus, John was arrested and killed for being seen as dangerously revolutionary. That level of acclaim and influence seems to have persisted even after his death.

The other gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—give more of a portrait, with descriptions of John’s curious wardrobe and peculiar diet, and his message with baptism of repentance drawing the masses out to the wilderness.

With that message about sins and calling for radical reorientation in our life, I’d note that we usually hear these passages about John the Baptist in the middle of Advent. They can be awfully demanding and dour words in a season when we want to focus on cheer and all being merry and bright. With odd disjunctions in how our usual lectionary and liturgical year fit together, if we think about Advent as preparation for Christmas, remember that John wasn’t pointing toward a Messiah by getting ready for a birth; this is already when Jesus is an adult. And John’s preparing the way of the Lord isn’t the adornment and accumulation of the holidays, but is about clearing things away.

So maybe it actually feels more appropriate and fits better today, as you’ve cleared away some of the Christmas detritus and perhaps begun to clean up and pack away the ornamentation. Maybe that makes you feel ready to address straightening things out.

Indeed, that version of John the Baptist from other gospels may seem especially timely for us starting a new year, in these days that cause us to look back in reflection, to assess our lives, to take stock and resolve what needs to change. This transition to the new year can be a repentance moment.

And that may be some of the reason for John’s enduring popularity. He’s the self-help sort of figure. Evidently it’s not just us, but those ancient crowds also that like self-improvement projects and find them to be an endless diversion. There’s always something about ourselves we’d change, that we wish were different, that we feel to our core is a little rotten, is not quite right. Those ancient crowds could head out for a retreat of wilderness renewal, for the washing of water to give a sense of a fresh start, with assistance and direction from a guru instructing them exactly what they needed to do and how to practice being better.

The thing is, though, that’s not why we mark the enduring legacy of John the Baptist. And the Gospel of John focuses more directly on his importance for us as a secondary sort of character. In the Gospel of John, the main point isn’t his background baptizing or his potential in preaching repentance and radical reorientation of our lives and values. His central identity here is as John the Testifier or John the Witness. He is sent by God so that everyone might believe through him, it says. Which is saying something pretty big.

And yet for the huge importance of that role, he spends his time pointing away from himself. It’s emphasized and reiterated in our reading today: “he confessed and did not deny it, but confessed.” I am not! He said he was not the Messiah, not the anointed and chosen one.

He said he was not Elijah, the prophet we met this fall in conversation with the still, small voice of God, who was taken up into heaven and expected to return. That’s an interesting one, since the other gospels specifically try to associate him with Elijah, including as the reason he’s wearing that curious wardrobe. It’s so strongly connected that our Old Testament is arranged to end with the book of Malachi with the final words, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” which leads into the appearance of John the Baptist at the start of the New Testament in Matthew.

But here John says he’s not Elijah. And he says he is not the prophet. Even though he was out at the Jordan River to guide people back into the Promised Land, he distances himself from being identified with the prophet Moses said would follow in his footsteps as a leader. So there could be reason to see John in those roles, enacting those expectations.

But he says he’s not. He’s just a pointer to Jesus. That is his central role and identity, as a witness to the light. A billboard, and advertisement, as Linda said. John the Testifier. A penultimate, secondary character, who ranks lower.

The point of all of this is Jesus.

Well…so you may not be entirely surprised by that, at least until you stop to consider it. I think there is a fair amount of presumption that church and the practice of faith is really about making you a better person, that we think primarily of our self-improvement projects and resolving that we’ll be a little nicer and more helpful and holier in the coming year.

But that is pretty hopelessly self-centered, and with fairly bleak prospects. The reason we keep making new new year’s resolutions is because we keep failing. The reason there are always new diets and new workouts and new tips for healthy living is because we remain so unsuccessful, frustrated even at convincing ourselves we’re doing fine.

And I suspect a fair amount of our prayers and ponderings as we gather here weekly to confess are reflecting on the parts of ourselves we’d like to improve, and that there’s a broad sense of sermons as encouraging little pep-talks to send you back into life motivated to try again, with some notion that maybe by the end you’ll be able to sneak by as good enough to make it in to heaven.

But that’s not the point. That’s not the central message or why we’re here. That’s not why John is important to us. He points, points away from ourselves, points to Jesus. And as we continue in the weeks ahead with this fourth gospel, we’ll have the benefit of having our gaze continually refocused on Jesus. He himself is our core, the reason we’re here, the point of it all.

But that keeps coming with surprise. Last week those angels and shepherds pointed to the surprise of a baby in a barn, which pointed directly away from the usual expectations. The proclamation about the birth of a savior, the lord, and the son of god were words that usually indicated Caesar, the leader of the Roman Empire, the absolute ultimate central pinnacle of power. So an outcast baby in a backwater barn at the edge of the Empire, visited not by wealthy aristocrats and fierce generals and influential politicians, but attended only by shepherds, well, that would’ve been the opposite of any indicator of prestige or power or potential.

The Messiah who will come to save us, and the sign is a baby?! That’s certainly not the mighty new King David that the people were anticipating and yearning for. We get it wrong not only in thinking that it’s about us and how well we’re doing by society’s standards or God’s measurements, but also wrong in what we hope for or expect when God shows up for us.

So in a similar surprising way today, we get the same reversal of expectations with John’s pointing personality. We have the sense of what the people are looking for in their questions to John—they want a Messiah, probably meaning one to come and drive out the bad guys. They want an Elijah, a mystical undying miracle worker who drops down out of heaven to bring about God’s final vision. They want a prophet like a new Moses to guide them out of wilderness wanderings and lead them into a Promised Land. That’s what the people want, and we probably could agree with wanting a messiah to straighten out society and get things running right again, or somebody to show up with all the answers, to save us from our troubles, to be a great leader, with some sort of moral revolution, with panache and power and in whom we can be proud.

But not only does John the Baptist reject the claim to be any of those things, he won’t point to Jesus as fulfilling them either. He sees Jesus walking by and points his long bony finger and says, “There’s the one. Jesus. He’s the lamb.”

The lamb?!

Lambs aren’t especially known for their military might. They’re weaklings. They’re not known for their leadership capabilities, since they’re mostly apt to roam astray. They’re common, regular livestock not known as much of anything special. What they are known for is dying, for offering blood for a Passover marker and serving as dinner. With our ongoing surprise, John points to Jesus and says that that’s him, and that’s what this is all about.

As I was visiting family and friends in Eau Claire this past week, almost every conversation turned to assess the state of our lives and world through this past year and deeply asking what we can change or do about it. I know this congregation holds those concerns dearly, too.

But the pointing of John the Testifier doesn’t give us much resolution. This doesn’t come with a step-by-step how-to manual. It’s not explanation but proclamation, pointing to Jesus: Lo, unto you is born a savior, a tiny left-out baby who will die. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

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Grinchy Joseph, a Christmas Eve sermon

Almost all who(m) we know like Christmas a lot.
But Joseph, who lived just north of Jerusalem, did not.
The guy wasn’t sold on this whole Christmas season,
and I’d say he had some pretty good reasons.
It could be, perhaps, his taxes would jump.
It could be forced travel to Bethlehem, the old dump.
But I think the most likely reason, no maybes,
was his fiancée was soon expecting a baby,
which came with the added perplexitive bother
that a messenger said he wasn’t really the father.
So, whatever the reason, the trip or the tot,
helpless old Joseph knew he disliked it a lot.
He growled to himself, carpenter fingers drumming,
wishing he could stop all that bad news from coming.
“Life is pretty hopeless,” he snarled with a sneer.
“There’s not much I could do, it’s quite crystal clear.”
The dread fate grew closer, hour by hour,
the pressures of violence, of money, and power.
And the more Joseph thought of the terrible stresses,
life seemed to slip further away from successes.
And the more that he thought, with his furrowed brow,
the more he was distraught at what he put up with now.
But this wasn’t the time for grinchily moping about
since he had strict orders from one with huge clout.
Whether he felt a grump or people-pleaser,
Joseph had been commanded by Augustus Caesar
to make himself known and register with the empire
as demanded by a government filled with old liars.
He had to get his donkey in gear and start the long journey
to go and report to the district attorney.
So he gathered their bags and young rotund Mary
on a ramshackle mule, though still feeling contrary.
Curmudgeonly Joseph started them down
to Bethlehem, his ancestors’ sleepy small town.
When they arrived, it was dark. Quiet snow filled the air.
Behind the warm windows, they felt no one would care.
Then they came to the first little house on the square.
“This is stop number one,” the step-papa said,
as he slunk nervously and began creeping ahead.
With humble politeness, he tapped on the door
but was disheartened when he thought like before
that kindness was rare; no one was a neighbor.
Hard times had stifled most generous behavior,
leaving all feeling they were lost and were least.
Hope was dim on this night not fitting man nor beast.
Yet! the door cracked ajar with a breath of warm air.
Joseph curtseyed and asked, “Please, ma’am, would you dare,
to allow us inside? We just need to sleep.
My pregnant fiancée and I won’t make a peep.
We’ll be unintrusive, as quiet as mouses.”
Her answer was the same as at many more houses,
with refusals, “We can’t. I’m sorry. No room.”
The light disappeared, leaving Joseph in gloom.
Though he kept knocking, persistently begging and bummin’,
nobody could make space to allow them to come in.
Joseph wasn’t surprised. He thought it might be the case
that people were feeling too worn out to embrace
some strangers in need and smelling most unpleasant
when they’d prefer to feast and open their presents.
Some doors wouldn’t open, because folks were busy,
on errands and tasks and worked into a tizzy
as they pursued the happy seasonal distractions,
with shopping and parties, cookies and snacks, ‘n
others felt stuck in distress, and so hunkered down
to guard their own interests in their own small town.
“Life isn’t easy,” Joseph muttered in his beard,
“when there’s so much uncertain, so much to be feared.”
So they knocked and they knocked and they knocked!
Knocked! Knocked! Knocked!
But every door that they came to was shut up and locked.
As he was scheming if by creeping very nimbly
he could sneak them down in through a chimney,
well, that’s when young Mary got a sensation, an awful sensation.
She got a wonderful, awful sensation.
With no thought left for tough problems of society
Joseph knew it was urgent to find someplace quiet, he
guided his fiancée and dearly he held her
and gave up on knocking and searching for shelter
gave up on the houses and all of the people,
gave up on the holy folks under the steeple,
gave up on kindness and sympathy from strangers,
gave up on police to protect them from danger,
gave up on the inns, hostels, and hospitals,
gave on the beds and simply forgot it all.
He rushed them in to the back of a barn.
She labored until a small baby was born.
(Don’t like the barn/born rhyme from this alleged St. Nick?
Then write your own, if you’re so smart and so slick.)
They swaddled the baby to lay in the hay
trying to keep the cold and livestock far enough away.
Though tiny Jesus was poor, so greatly deprived,
still it was a relief that he was safe and alive.
But before Joseph breathed that sigh of relief,
again he was overcome in his disbelief,
at the struggles of life and feeling depressed,
at how all of existence was such a sad mess,
and he was stuck with the lingering frustration
at bringing new life into that disgusted nation
where any hint of improvement seemed awfully bleak
in the grind to make it through, week after week.
Yes, for poor Joseph, hope seemed far distant
as Mary cradled and nursed her newlyborn infant.
But then he heard a sound, coming over the snow.
It started out low, then it started to grow.
And Joseph cupped a rough hand to his ear,
and strained: what was that sound he could hear?
To guess, it sounded like an angels’ tune
coming drifting in from under the moon.
Joseph’s spirit lifted and so did his eyes
at this song, a delightful and shocking surprise.
This didn’t sound sad. It sounded merry.
It couldn’t be so! But it did sound merry. Very!
Yet while this sound sounded glad,
it was not quite angelic—a little more bad.
And then his wondering eyes saw the sight
of some figures drifting in through the night.
The not-heavenly earthy chorus Jo-seph’ heard
came from a band of dirty, vulgar shepherds.
They stumbled right into the maternity barn,
giving the mother some fright and alarm.
As she pondered what the strange sight meant
they shouted out in great excitement,
“We bring tidings from God of great joy
at the arrival of this here little boy!”
They hollered and cheered disrupting his snooze
while passing around a flask of celebrative booze.
Then, gone in a flash, and just as crazy,
they went into town, singing and praising.
As they left, Joseph had a big beaming smile
beaming-er than any in quite a while!
He puzzled and puzzed ‘til his puzzler was sore,
and Joseph thought of something he hadn’t before.
Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store—
maybe the answer, perhaps, means…not more
but Less!
The spirit, the season, life isn’t assessed like usual success.
The good news came without ribbons. It came without tags.
It came without packages, boxes or bags—
Well, that much you probably already knew.
But Joseph realized something simpler was true:
the start of changes, the hope of all earth
arrived in a lonely barn through this lowly birth.
The heart of God’s blessing, packaged in Jesus
who comes to love and save and free us.
So it’s not in how you ensure your security.
It’s sure not in chasing holy-seeming purity.
Neither is it in tallying what you’ve done
or in how you find diversions for fun.
It’s not in how well you extend season’s greetings,
how well you sing, or the people you’re meeting.
It’s not in the hunt to keep yourself happy
or what you put inside of bright wrapping.
It’s not measured by all that you’ve gotten,
but is just because life gets downtrodden.
The truth is, it’s nothing more th’n
that God’s favor comes to you as he’s born.
You are always in his grasp, and his aid’ll
hold you closely, just as he was cradled.
That’s no quick fix or instant solution,
it’s not that saying BooHoo’s done.
So Joseph began to trust, with no maybes,
that goodness was born to share with this baby.
As Mary’s heart grew, we, too, can treasure and nurse
the hope that saves us from whatever curse.
Like inbound outcast shepherds we can be shout-y
with rejoicing that even gets a little rowdy.
On Christmas, we can really celebrate.
With that, I’ll stop, since it’s getting late.
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Word Made Flesh

a sermon on John 1:1-18 for the 4th Sunday of Advent

 

In the beginning was the Word.

Before we ask what that Word was, what it spelled out for us, the first thing we might notice simply about it being the Word is that it means organization. Letters grouped on purpose, for a reason or with reason. Logical.

Indeed, that’s exactly the original Greek word here: Logos, Logos—logic.

That’s a remarkable notion, that there was logic and order, the Word in the beginning. Remarkable the Word was there from the start, partly because it was so long—billions of years until us, many millennia then until we had words for that beginning, much less had developed any language at all, and generations more of pondering, then coming to understand, and even now still studying and trying to explain what happened, what brought this about, what this order is. But the Logos says such sense was there before the first moment.

And it’s remarkable because we’d have no reason to presume there was order or logic to the universe. From a Big Bang explosion and the hot plasma that eventually birthed galaxies and nebulae of hydrogen and carbon and gold and water and single cells. Or logic for how we attempt to make sense of the world around us or organize our week or search for meaning in life. There is no apparent defining logic, through the end of a telescope, in a survey of cultural patterns, in trend reports, in navel-gazing.

Addressing a smaller question of logic, it may seem backward that we’ve been through 14 weeks of the Narrative Lectionary, through centuries of the Old Testament and progress of the story and development of relationships…and suddenly we’re starting over? After all of that, we’ve rewound and find ourselves back at the beginning?

Looking for the logic, maybe we return to the beginning now for 20/20 hindsight, a way of reorienting the past and reframing the history that also allows us to understand better what is coming in our own lives. Maybe we see something different about the Old Testament because of the reminder that the same God has been working in the same ways with Logos since the start.

And maybe this isn’t that those who forget the past are condemned…but is about the arc of the universe, about knowing the grain so we’re not going against it. I’m not sure we’d say this Logos sets a pattern that must be followed, an order or rule to life. It sure doesn’t feel like any of this is quite that insistently compelling, but rather feels almost optional, as if you could get away with doing whatever you want. While it’s a conundrum that we’re apparently able to work against following the directions of the universe, still, maybe in being properly oriented we find assurance or wisdom or our values. Maybe we find it a way of saying that it does, after all, matter who we are and what we do.

In the beginning was the Word. Logic. Cohesion. Intention.

It’s all the more remarkable because our sense of God couldn’t be so orderly. If we’re trying to uncover evidence by looking at the overall blueprint or shape of our lives, there’s a birth on one end but death on the other. The form of that pairing reveals or tells us nothing about God to discern the logic of life. Similarly, there’s beauty around us, but destruction also confronts us. Loving caring relationships stand versus the unknown stranger with our uncertainties, insecurities, fears. Evolution and progress, but certainly not on a clearly upward trajectory. No, from all of that, if we were trying to label God, we may well not come up with the insightful clarifying Word of timeless logic at all, but merely an odd jumble of letters.

Let’s try that as an experiment: give me six letters right now… [I think we ended up with something like M-R-X-T-A-Q.] Nonsense. Not a word. Made up. And if we added much more than that little bit, it would be utterly confusing.

plensa

In a similar feeling, I’ve been stuck deliberating about an art exhibit at MMOCA, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The pictures in your bulletin show this exhibit by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, made up of random letters from eight different alphabets: Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, and our own Latin alphabet. The letters are totally disorganized, intentionally unintentional, broken apart from our normal sense of letters forming words. They are lumped together to be nonsensical, to take the letters away from their usual purpose of language and communication.

It becomes a reminder of global diversity and differences. The sculptures are described as breaking through cultural, linguistic, and geographic barriers. In a way, I like it—the sense that we may be standing next to and connected with somebody we don’t understand and can’t hardly comprehend.

But in another way, it was disturbing to me. I suppose partly because I’m a person of words and explanations, scientifically-minded, who likes logic. This exhibit, then, picked that apart and left it disintegrated, as if words don’t have meaning. Or maybe the reverse of that, the reminder that when letters float off by themselves out of any context, they are nonsense and emptied symbols until re-formed into a word, and then can communicate and share meaning and provide understanding. But if not rationally assembled, then are left like our six unprounceable letters as pointless, arbitrary, and literally insignificant—refusing to signify anything.

I’ve been contemplating this exhibit for several weeks now in light of today’s Bible reading. There, rather than an amalgam of random alphabets formed into a sculpture of the universe, of creation, of humanity, of something that would only have meaning by inventive happenstance, we are told this all came into being with logic, by the Word, that God has an organizing principle for creation, and that you, too, have significance as part of God’s Logos.

The Word for this logic of God’s creation, for our lives, and for God’s own self, this Word isn’t law, or order over chaos. It isn’t life. It isn’t growth or expansion or development, though we might label those in our community projects and in the complexification of the galaxy. God’s Word isn’t fundamentally even love.

God’s logic, the Word of God, is Jesus. In him is the embodiment of what God intends and conveys, is spelling out for us to understand. With hindsight from Jesus’ birth, we can see not just one star over a manger but that the cosmos from the Big Bang sings for him. The highest host of heaven condescends to kneel before him. Lowing cattle give way to make room. All of this as big flashing arrows pointing as signs from God for us. In Jesus, we come to comprehend God’s logic for creation, of healing and welcoming, of teaching and serving, of putting down and lifting up, all to save.

And looking ahead to where this story ultimately leads, the shape of God’s order in Jesus, finally, is cruciform, shaped by the cross. God’s order for the universe bears the marks of suffering for another, and of rising to new life beyond that suffering.

I don’t know which you may find more shocking and stunning, that Jesus is the Word that defines and gives sense to you, or that Jesus is the Word that defines and gives sense to God.

Jesus is the shape of your life, not because you are ordered to emulate him, but because in a happy exchange, at this table and more, he takes on your flesh, gives you his Spirit, dwells with you, becomes you, so that your own life embodies God’s Word. Your significance is shaped by Jesus.

And Jesus is the shape of God, because the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in him, and he alone has made known to us God’s heart, a heart filled with sacrificially dying and yet endless, eternal, infinite love. God’s significance comes from Jesus.

The reason we go back to the beginning is for the ongoing clarification: If you want to understand your life, listen to the Word Jesus. If you want to understand God, listen to the Word Jesus.

 

 

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Ezekiel: Valley of Dry Bones

sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14
We hear from 2nd Isaiah next week with the Sunday School program, but this is the last preaching on the Narrative Lectionary’s sweep through the Old Testament. Then we’ll be in the Gospel of John from Christmas until Easter, with the life of Jesus.

From the trajectory of this autumn, we remember back to origins, stories of progenitors, sources of family connection, in Abraham and Sarah and Isaac, Jacob and Esau. That family took us ahead several hundred years to the population explosion outnumbering the Egyptians, with stories of Exodus on the way to the Promised Land, and settling to increase their institutions of government and religion. That brought us to prophets who called for reform and justice, and (at least in their suppositions) being conquered as punishment for misbehavior.

We’ve been in exile for three weeks now, and Isaiah next week will see a path toward home and restoration. Though I recount those details as human narrative, with people as the main characters, this is actually God’s story, the account of God’s ongoing goodness, God striving in God’s world.

So once again, with that sweep of history, with today’s reading still more than 500 years before Jesus, we repeat in the story’s plot: these people weren’t waiting those 500 years for the Messiah to show up, twiddling their thumbs until Christmas finally came. There are words of hope, but not with sights set on a Messiah a half millennium later.

Rather, it was simply a longing for home. Indeed, as Isaiah makes rare use of the Hebrew word for “Anointed One,” the term is applied to a foreign leader. That’s good to keep in mind as we’re wrapping up our time with the Old Testament. Isaiah called Cyrus a Messiah—the king of Persia, the next in the line of empires, this time to knock out the Babylonians and allow the Hebrew people to go home (45:1). That was its own moment of salvation.

With that one example, I really, really hope throughout this fall you’ve been hearing God’s striving for the sake of the world, and investment in all circumstances of our existence. It gets it terribly wrong to claim an old god was angry or could care less, so we were waiting for the nice and loving Jesus to bring a divine alternative. There aren’t two different gods. The God embodied by Jesus is thoroughly and absolutely the God encountering us in the faithful probing of these Old Testament accounts.

Yet, just as this God shows up in hidden and surprising ways—like as a baby and on the cross—God tends to work without blatant and apparent showmanship. The promise seems inevitably paired with doubt, the expectancy amid darkness, God’s blessing where we have all but given up hope succumbing to despair.

So as Ezekiel set his eyes toward God’s vision and the hopes of home, he saw only a dead end. A very honest dead ending. A valley of bones. An abandoned cemetery. The entire family tribe, lifeless and piled in a heap. Ezekiel had begun to figure there was no way out of exile, no return to the life they had known, no possibility for the future.

With that, besides the overall trajectory of the Old Testament story, I also notice a smaller trajectory—the arc of your life—in three of four weeks of these readings.

The first was Isaiah declaring hope in the gift of birth: “unto us a child is born.” Whether Hezekiah or baby Jesus or the young ones around us, or yourself in youth, there was a promise of God’s possibilities and blessing simply in that fragile existence, in the imperfection of not knowing what lay ahead, in small capabilities, yet with God’s care and potential with the birth of a baby.

The following week, Jeremiah moved to the middle of life. Even in captivity under a hostile government, when life was far from what people wanted, still the word of the Lord for the exiles was to build houses, to make their gardens grow, to celebrate marriages. You know, the regular sort of stuff that has kept you busy most of the time since you were born. The stuff you’ll go back to doing this afternoon, and maybe more seriously when the alarm clock goes off tomorrow morning. It’s the stuff of sustaining relationships and tending your spot amid creation, which often involves vacuuming it (as we’re stuck with typically un-thrilling aspects of the not-so-showy God). And it means not pretending you can escape to some utopia, but striving in the place where you are, simply since it’s not perfect.

So we had the start of life, the rest of life, and with Ezekiel come to life’s end, or to be precise, beyond the end.

That God’s concern for and potential in a baby would be a surprise may take a little extra pause for us to appreciate, to remember infant mortality rates and the insignificance on a scale where 255 babies are born onto this planet every minute. But in such small ways, God’s work persists.

And continuing for unspectacular daily lives, God sees potential. That doesn’t mean you could really make something of your life, that you could go on to win a Nobel prize or be a volunteer of the year for some organization or have your picture in the news as a hero. Rather, God is invested in your daily life as it already is, at home and at work and in your family and at the grocery store. God isn’t waiting for something to change, but trusts the potential with you right now.

Okay. So it’s fine that God sees what’s possible in the birth of a baby. It may even be realistic that God would find potential in the course of your life, even up to your dying breath.

But once you’re dead, could God really be seeing any potential then? Isn’t it too late? Relationships over? Isn’t death the point where all that’s left is to go through their clothes and look for loose change, as they said in The Princess Bride? Or for science and the conservation of matter, how your elements are recycled, not just as worm food, as Luther liked to point out, but returning to the soil and becoming crops that go on to feed the hungry? Is that all? Could God possibly plan more of you than that?

That hard language may well be considered morbid. Most of our discussion of death doesn’t really look at it, but euphemizes and ignores, and we say we lost someone or they passed and try to whitewash over how terribly terminal and critically fracturing death has been. There is nothing more to say or do about it. It is ultimate. Sad. Final.

Except not for our God. God will be stopped by no dead ends. Hope will not be overcome, ever. Death is not final. These dry bones will live. They have potential and a future. And so will you.

In Ezekiel, this is brought about by a sermon (or actually three sermons, if you like). Ezekiel preaches to those bones, offering them God’s word. Well, God has a word for you, too. Though none of you today are in the exact physical circumstance of Ezekiel’s sermon—none of you are dead, dry bones—you may either factually or figuratively find yourselves at any of these points in life—young, fresh with potential. Amid the flow and mid-stages and regular rhythms. At terminations where things look worse than bleak and all seems lost. Throughout, the sermon is that God is relentlessly filling you with life for God’s purposes.

In what to me is an utterly astonishing faithful declaration, this is an assurance that with every breath, God is renewing and refilling you, recreating goodness in you. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve done any Hebrew, so here’s another good one for you: ruach. It means wind and breath and Spirit. And with this from Ezekiel, as you are filled with each breath, it is God’s Spirit filling you. In respiration you are inspired; you are re-Spirited as the Spirit is put into you over and over. And even when you expire, even when you breathe out and breathe your last, still God will call for breath to fill and renew you yet again.

I started out saying that the prophets weren’t predicting Jesus. But we should still most definitely see their vision of God directly embodied in Jesus. With life to dry bones and the Holy Spirit that will take victory from death, probably our clearest understanding is in Jesus and the empty tomb, that the forces of enemies and powers of death were defeated, not only once, but for all. Even amid the season of Advent, even as we aren’t ourselves today facing death and the grave, even as we may be closer to birth, still this is always an Easter faith, always with its soul in the hope of resurrection, from birth, through life, and beyond death. We don’t need to and we shouldn’t pretend like we can’t talk about that as we’re getting ready for Christmas. That is the overall shape of our story, the fullness. Though it remains so totally unclear and prone to doubt and without visions of grandeur, with our God who shuns glitzy showmanship, still we know the ending. The end, finally, is life.

And though it risks confining that message and not allowing you to live into the full expanse, I want to tag on a word about Israel and Palestine for these days. Ezekiel’s people were captive under empire. Mary and Joseph were captive under empire. Again this week, we were reminded of the violent claims to power by an occupying empire. Even as our siblings at Christmas Lutheran in Bethlehem are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they are left more and more with a reality of the valley of dry bones, as people confined by razor-wired walls and the dead end of life. As our President worsened the obstacles on the path to peace this week by shortsighted and single-minded declarations on Jerusalem, this reminds us that the word out from death, a word of hope and the breath of life still needs to stir in us all, of a God who understands our weakness, who comes to inspire and to break down barricades, who will not be confined. Our God remains against all that would kill or remove life. The point of our story is not just to look back to one who was coming, but to see that the God of Jesus still comes into our midst and our troubled world now, with every breath, for the sake of life.

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Daniel: The Fiery Furnace

sermon on Daniel 3:1-30
The name Hananiah means “Yahweh (or the LORD) is gracious. Mishael is  “Who is like God?” And “The LORD keeps him” is the translation of Azariah.

And you’re wondering why in the world I’m mentioning these three names of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. Who has heard of them? Okay, who has heard of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Well, then you’ve heard of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah! They’re the same guys! Just with different names.

But it highlights an important detail for us. These men with names that directly named their faith, their connection to God, this identity was taken away from them in exile, under Babylonian captivity. After they were dragged away from Jerusalem, they lost their names and were forced into new roles for foreign king Nebuchadnezzar—though judging from his moniker, we have to admit the Babylonians names aren’t too shabby but even kinda fun. The prophet Daniel himself gets called Beltshazzar. Maybe I’ll start referring to Dan McGown as Beltshazzar McGown.

Although, for Dan and for Daniel and for these three other men, what might be gained in a fun name is a loss of identity and connection. Names ending in –el or –iah (think Nathanael or Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah) meant connection to the Hebrew God. But the Beltshazzar swapped that as a prayer to a Babylonian god, as “Bel help the king.” Similarly, Abednego is “servant of the god Nebo.” These name changes were changes of allegiance.

That gives a sense of what’s riding on this story of the fiery furnace. Besides that dangerous conflict of colliding cultures, I want us also to hear some subtlety. I’m not sure this story is best received as the risk of martyrdom and a faithfulness in the face of death. Sure, there are people undergoing persecutions in large and small ways all over our world today. There were the people killed in the mosque in Egypt after Thanksgiving because they belonged to the wrong sect. In smaller but vital ways, there’s also the difficulty of being Muslim in the United States, of the ostracizing and worse. But I’m not sure it’s most helpful to hold this story as if it’s about a God who will offer salvation and deliverance from enemies and death if you believe strongly enough and confess your faith heartily enough.

Instead, for a more helpful sense of the dilemma these guys were facing, I want to point away from the ordeal of the fiery furnace for a second to what is perhaps an even more terrifying situation of what exile meant. It’s not just being stuffed into blazing heat cranked up to seven times its normal searing intensity. No, maybe even worse for some perspectives, these poor guys, these sad captives in Babylon, the tragic fate of these people was that they were forced to be… VEGETARIANS! Oh, the horror! Hadn’t they already suffered enough! Appalling, right Debra? Because the Babylonian meat would break their dietary restrictions and cause them to violate the religious standards and understanding of how they maintained relationship with God, they refused to eat the normal rations and tried to survive without meat, if you believe that could even be possible.

And if you thought it was miraculous that the three young men weren’t incinerated in the fiery furnace, you’ll be incredulous at the earlier note that they stayed as healthy as everybody else, even without eating meat. It’s shocking! It’s amazing! It’s ludicrous!

Now, I want to pause for a second for you to understand I’m not being totally flippant. I’m not poking fun at the story. It’s not that I’m failing to take this seriously.

Rather, this story itself is meant to be taken lightly, to be some comic relief. There’s importance in that term—that humor can relieve some suffering and some worry. That’s what this story intends, for the people back in Bible times and for us now.

See, this isn’t only a story about how strong your faith is and whether God will do something about it when you’re put into the rotisserie oven. This is meant to reinforce your faith when things aren’t particularly going how you’d wish, and to lighten your mood, and to lighten the load a bit.

We heard the reading in the King James Version to highlight some of that, to give it its original sense of theatre. Those long, detailed, repeated lists that go on and on and are repeated over and over are meant to sound silly! There’s a pompousness to it that’s supposed to portray a farce.

For our ears, that’s accentuated when we hear that the marching band assembled to toot the horn of the king not only has cornet and flute, but also a sackbut. If you thought Nebuchadnezzar was fun to say, then you were just waiting for the sackbut! We hear an edge of the ridiculous regal procession of princes and captains, the treasurers and the counsellors. But we may catch some extra sense when the King James Version mentions that amid that ignorant throng were governors, judges, and sheriffs, and we may begin to sense this not as an old one-time story, but as a drama, a comedy of errors that plays out in our life, too. Through the hilarity, a king who started out so authoritarian and arrogant was manipulated by his jealous staff, went into blind rage, full of fury, but wound up praising in exclusive terms the very God he was trying to dismiss.

Now, while admitting truth can be stranger than fiction, I would say that generally if we’re looking for a repetition of these events or characters in our lives, then we may have too narrowly confined the meaning of the story. Whether our aim is with a hopeful chuckle about clueless leaders coming around to our side, or is with the serious dread and regret of Jewish lives not saved from the ovens, this isn’t really a story of that kind of direct application. If we’re waiting for somebody to set up a 90-foot tall golden idol or effigy or whatever and demand we bow down to it, then this is left as a laughable little fairy tale, without impact on our lives.

But if we understand it as hyperbole, as overstatement, as dramatized for effect, then we can see connections all over. If this story is simply about the challenge of where our faith collides with culture and what is dominant, then that turns up the metaphorical heat. Where do we symbolically bow down in the wrong direction, offering our lives to what usurps the place of God? How should we be living while in this strange country?

Would we be prompted to confront our leaders? Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego didn’t need to start this confrontation; they probably could’ve figured their actions and decisions wouldn’t make much of a difference. So should we see this story as a parable about what to do in the face of an ignorant, careless government?

But let’s take it down another notch. Forget about being tossed in a furnace. If we determined that it was what we needed to do to live faithfully, would we eat only vegetables? Would we risk our jobs or our social standing at school? Would we sacrifice our place on a sports team, or our income that we prefer to use to give ourselves a little bit of luxury? Would we give up some core part of our identity? This gets awfully serious and awfully implicating and awfully quick. It means we need some humor in our stories!

But if you’re not feeling scorched quite yet, here’s a blisteringly timely seasonal paragraph some of you may have read in Christian Century, about Christmas as

glittery rituals [it says] that have no biblical basis or meaning and become a kind of alternative religion competing with Christ. How many children can pay attention to the meaning of incarnation when they are encouraged to focus on gingerbread houses, candy canes, ornamented Christmas trees, and Christmas lights? Santa is no Saint Nicholas. He’s a Coca-Cola advertisement symbolizing the complete secularization of Christmas, replacing Jesus’ poverty, vulnerability, and self-sacrifice with magic reindeer, a pile of toys, and “Ho, ho, ho!”*

I don’t know about you, but that one burns a bit. I like Christmas and our decorations and the lights in the darkness and the mood of it all and am obviously endeared to St. Nick. I certainly don’t want to imagine that in any of that I’m venerating an allegorical 90-foot Coca-Cola statue.

But raising those small, hard questions in a humorous, outsized way is only one aspect of this story of the fiery furnace. There’s this personal interrogation of what I would do if I were in their place, and—even more difficultly—what I do in my own place.

But the other aspect of this story is God’s place. And that is—it should go without saying—the more vital aspect, much more than what you do or don’t do. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego recognize it. They didn’t see this as putting either their faith or putting God to the test. One of the most interesting lines of the whole story is their statement that it doesn’t matter if God saves them from the fire or not.

I find that to be astonishing and terribly important. It’s not that if you believe strongly enough then you’ll deserve miracles. The three men didn’t earn escape for displaying extraordinary devotion and faith. It wouldn’t disprove God if they didn’t emerge from the fire. More than your identity or circumstances, this is about God’s identity.

For that, three godly wrap-up points:

  1. No matter how high and mighty somebody thinks they are or how much they want to claim for themselves, they can never displace God. That’s why Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego wouldn’t bow down, but also why it didn’t matter what happened to them.
  2. Still, I think we can tentatively say that God’s preference, God’s design, the will of God, would not be for people to be chucked into a furnace, not to be made to suffer.
  3. And finally, the presence of the fourth divine Son of God in the furnace, that we can take as gospel. Jesus is with you, even when you are oppressed and suffering and in danger, even when things aren’t going right. In the words that (at least sort of) ended the prayers at Jean Oliversen’s sister’s memorial service yesterday, nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus: neither death nor life, nor things present, nor things to come, nor Nebuchadnezzar nor sackbuts, nor loss of identity, nor fiery furnaces, nor barbequed pork, nor a chimney with Santa Claus. And that’s no joke.

* https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/why-my-church-stopped-decking-halls

 

The comic relief, according to the King James Version:
Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, whose height was threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof six cubits: he set it up in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. Then Nebuchadnezzar the king sent to gather together the princes, the governors, and the captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up. Therefore the princes, the governors, and captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, were gathered together unto the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up; and they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Then a herald cried aloud, “To you it is commanded, O people, nations, and languages, That at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music, ye fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king hath set up: And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth shall the same hour be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.” Therefore at that time, when all the people heard the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and all kinds of music, all the people, the nations, and the languages, fell down and worshipped the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.

At that time certain Chaldeans came near, and accused the Jews. They spake and said to the king Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live for ever. Thou, O king, hast made a decree, that every person that shall hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of music, shall fall down and worship the golden image: And whoso falleth not down and worshippeth, that one should be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. There are certain Jews whom thou hast set over the affairs of the province of Babylon, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; these men, O king, have not regarded thee: they serve not thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

Then Nebuchadnezzar in his rage and fury commanded to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Therefore they brought these men before the king. Nebuchadnezzar spake and said unto them, “Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, do not ye serve my gods, nor worship the golden image which I have set up? Now if ye be ready that at what time ye hear the sound of the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, and dulcimer, and all kinds of music, ye fall down and worship the image which I have made; well: but if ye worship not, ye shall be cast the same hour into the midst of a burning fiery furnace; and who is that God that shall deliver you out of my hands?”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and God will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”

Then was Nebuchadnezzar full of fury, and the form of his visage was changed against Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego: therefore he spake, and commanded that they should heat the furnace seven times more than it was wont to be heated. And he commanded the most mighty soldiers that were in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and to cast them into the burning fiery furnace. Then these men were bound in their coats, their hosen, and their hats, and their other garments, and were cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. Therefore because the king’s commandment was urgent, and the furnace exceeding hot, the flame of the fire slew those soldiers that took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace.

Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellors, “Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?” They answered and said unto the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “Lo, I see four people loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.” Then Nebuchadnezzar came near to the mouth of the burning fiery furnace, and spake, and said, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, ye servants of the most high God, come forth, and come hither.” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, came forth of the midst of the fire. And the princes, governors, and captains, and the king’s counsellors, being gathered together, saw these men, upon whose bodies the fire had no power, nor was an hair of their head singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed on them. Therefore Nebuchadnezzar spake, and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who hath sent an angel, and delivered these servants who trusted in God, and disobeyed my command, and yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God. Therefore I make a decree, That every people, nation, and language, which speak any thing amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill: because there is no other God that can deliver after this sort.”

(Daniel 3:1-30, King James Version)

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving janfor the Life
of Janice Gail Kittleson Kelly

February 23, 1932
+
September 30, 2017

Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23;
from Hebrews 13; Luke 14:16-23

 

I need to begin this sermon by asking the obvious question: am I the only one who’d prefer to be eating banana bread right now?

I know I’m not alone in this and assume many of you got to experience and enjoy plenty of banana bread from Jan. She not only had creativity in what went into them—my fondness was for pumpkin pecan. Or maybe it was for cranberry orange. Well, it’s tough to say for sure—but besides the varieties, there’s the quantity. She was sure prolific! I marvel that she took the time for all that baking day after day, and the time for shopping that went along with it, and especially the time for deliveries to family and friends and the fire station and those loaves that even found their way toward me.

Something of that kindness and generosity is what I’m centrally holding onto for today.

Much more that could be said about Jan’s life. Maybe most significant are her years at the Forest Products Lab. Or maybe we’d focus on the relationships she developed out of that work, including friendships that abide still long after retirement. That JBJ group (for “Jan’s Birthday Junket”) formed with a bang to celebrate Jan’s 50th with an outing to Dolores Gust’s cottage, plus stops for refreshments along the way and ever since.

But it wasn’t all fun and games and happy hour. Far from it, because Jan also got a group committed to helping at WilMar center in serving monthly meals to hungry people in a way that’s continued on for more than three decades and been recognized in many ways all over the city and beyond.

And that’s just one notable way Jan’s care and sense of charity and sharing of wellbeing extended to those around her. There were cancer walks and Art Fair on the Square and baby blankets and blood donations and on and on in ways she raised money and volunteered. And pfeffernusse cookie dough for St. James Catholic Church, plus so much else she shared and offered to family and friends and casual acquaintances and strangers.

And, of course, the banana bread. Loaves and loaves, filling and enriching many lives, as well as (of course) many bellies. I mention that bread and hold it centrally in these days for three reasons.

The first reason is to mark that generosity. I don’t do that just to compliment Jan or celebrate her good works. I believe it is important to highlight that characteristic because it is godly, because she was Christlike, acting in a way that revealed God’s goodness in our lives.

Some of that is highlighted in the language of our second Bible reading, that this mutual love of our neighbors, the hospitality and kindness even to strangers, is to entertain angels unawares. And sharing what we have and doing good is a sacrifice pleasing to God.

I don’t really expect that Jan did all of this so she could please God, nor even that she felt like it was much of a sacrifice. I expect it flowed from her almost naturally. And that’s a little more in character and in line with how the Gospel reading portrayed the God whom we know embodied in Jesus. With abundant goodness, overflowing generosity, unconditional love. In the story from Jesus, this God is so eager to share blessing and celebration that offering goodness doesn’t need to be coerced. Rather, it is receiving the goodness that is compelled in rounding up people for the banquet.

Jan, too, could have more goodness and generosity to share than we even had been prepared to receive. I continued to learn from that, not only to benefit with another loaf of tasty banana bread, but by understanding something deeper and richer about Jesus and about our God through Jan. As she gave banana bread to me, she hardly even knew me to begin with and had no reason to like me and I offered nothing in return. In that, she was embodying for me the love and care of God who continues giving and blessing and sustaining and loving, even when I don’t deserve it and give nothing in return. It’s a true sense of being cherished, as Jan would regularly say, “I love you. I like you, too.”

Having valued that faithful reminder then points to a second reason I mention Jan’s generosity and banana bread: it’s a sign of missing her. Jean, her twin sister and best friend, the one who may be missing her most of all in these days, said there had been some question about having banana bread at lunch today. But she said she hadn’t saved any of Jan’s loaves and any other wouldn’t be quite the same thing.

There’s something as we go without, as we miss those deliveries and the joyful gift of a treat, as we lack that sacramental reminder of the character of Jesus, all reminding us we miss Jan. We shouldn’t fail to recognize that in these days. Sometimes in small ways and sometimes enormous life-altering fractures and gaps, we are not the same as we were. Things are different without Jan. Death is wrong that way. It is not as it should be. We lament and grieve, we are sad and hurt, and we also hope.

And that leads to the third reason I’m holding onto the idea of Jan and banana bread these days, because it indicates something more. It isn’t just her own generosity that reminded us of God’s love. It’s not only what she gave while she was with us. It’s also much more broadly that she, too, receives.

The point of the parable from Jesus wasn’t just as a sign of feeding hungry people or an instruction that it’s good to share. It was a word about looking ahead, about God’s abundance that pulls you in from being lost and left out, that won’t forget about you and won’t let the celebration go on without you. This is the God who prepares a table before you, even surrounded by your enemies, to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. This is the banquet promised in Isaiah, when we’ll be gathered together for a feast of rich foods, of well-aged wine, maybe of some JBJ cocktails, with unending goodness, of reunions with all those we miss and have said goodbye to and buried, with Jan, and—just maybe—with some banana bread.

 

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