Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust

a sermon on the ELCA human sexuality social statement* and Romans 13:9-10 and Psalm 139


As we begin, I expect two things.

First, I expect if you knew about the ELCA’s process of ethical discernment and social statements, it might be because of this on sexuality.

Second, I expect for Bible readings you probably didn’t expect that from Romans 13 (even though the chapter has recently suffered odd applications also from the Attorney General). You probably anticipated something else to go with this topic, since almost always sexuality is approached with Bible bullets and proof-texting.

Maybe third, though we consider ourselves open and affirming, I expect there’s some discomfort in this room to talk about sex. It’s in this preacher, if nothing else.

So, adopted by the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, this social statement famously passed the 2/3 threshold by one vote, and had a tornado go over the convention center at that moment. There’s also the notoriety that since then ELCA membership has gone down more than 10%, half a million people, a statistic often blamed on the decision by critics, as over 700 congregations have voted to leave the denomination.

I can tell you straight off that most of those people have never read this careful and care-filled theology, much less engaged in almost two decades of study and reflection before the vote. The headlines (and this was almost certainly the only social statement with headlines!) were about what the ELCA thinks about homosexuality. While the statement does include some of that, in grace-filled language—reminding us of the benefits of committed loving relationships, that all our bodies are created in the image of God, that we’re all responsible to love and to stop hate—yet it doesn’t go much farther than the sort of support a predecessor denomination was able to declare nearly 50 years ago in 1970.

Besides hesitancy on same-gendered relationships, it has little to say about gender expression and identity. Admittedly, our society as a whole has learned much on that since 2009. The statement is also meager on women and justice, but couldn’t have anticipated #MeToo movements about sexual abuse of power. Still, recognizing it “does not offer once-for-all answers to contemporary questions. Rather, [it says,] it seeks to tap the deep roots of Scripture and the Lutheran theological tradition…to discern what is responsible and faithful action in the midst of the complexity of daily life.”

That helps point us to a bigger purpose. Though there are social statements about a single issue (like abortion or the death penalty), and while this may have been prompted by a narrow question, the statement is certainly not only something like “what does God think about gays?”

In reality, I suspect a lot of the time that question gets asked because this topic makes us squirm and, for most of us, that’s a way to direct it away from our own daily life. We focus on somebody else’s behavior or identity not have to grapple with our own.

But of course the social statement won’t let us do that. It very nicely is about and for all of us. It’s intended for us who are in marriage, and us who are couples, and us who have been through some part of divorces or break-ups, and us going through puberty or changes or trying to figure out our bodies in whatever way, and us wondering who we are in relationships, and us who are single for various reasons, and us who are children, and us who are much older, and us who have been part of any kind of families. It’s for all of us, because all of us are human. Even though it gets lived out or practiced or not practiced in such a variety of ways, gender and sexuality is part of what it means to be human, to live together, to be created and formed by God, in each of our very, very, very different bodies, to be seen by God as very, very good.

That breadth of understanding may make the allegedly racy topic seem almost bland. Which shows we need to re-evaluate our expectations on sexuality. I was asked with concern this week about how graphic this would be and how I was going to keep it G-rated since there would be children present.

But we clearly know our children are nothing like secluded from this. The social statement laments that exposure, from media and marketing and all that culture throws at them, and at all of us. In one way, we attempt to address that concern with things like our Parish Protection Program. The statement commends the church in such safe-guarding concern for the vulnerable.

But it’s not only about putting up barriers or pretending we can ignore the world around us. It’s not only preventing the negative, but how do we encourage and practice the positive? If we don’t talk about sexuality in church, that leaves it to be defined by commercials, magazines, movies, books, peer pressures, clothing fads, political discourse, bullying and hate groups, pornography, and so on. So not talking about it at church only leaves out the loving voice of God.

In society that severely limits types of body that are called attractive, with brief beauty, we likely need to hear God say again, “It is good. You are good.” Amid a sense that anything about sex is secret and so shameful and somehow wrong, we need to be reminded it is not “intrinsically dirty and dangerous.” When so much is devalued, we re-assert the value. Since it has such power, we need to be reminded you don’t only “do it” because it feels good to you, but requires trust and love, that it has some of the most power for causing harm but also for sharing joy.

In this, I hope you’re already hearing this ELCA perspective is not only different from what our culture normally conveys about sexuality, but also not what we’d usually expect from religions. This is not typical categorical judgments and finger-wagging condemnations and threats. Here in church we don’t need to be shamed or excluded; we need to rejoice in what goes right and lament what doesn’t, in society, but even more in our own lives.

Again, this is a different religious voice because it is not only saying that whatever happens outside marriage is wrong or what happens inside marriage is right. It’s no sacrament, not something that makes you holier. Like all the rest of daily living, but in one of the most intensified ways, it is where God operates with concern for the sake of life. Where the social statement extensively accentuates marriage, it is because it offers “the highest social and legal support” for our relationships.

Some religions make sexuality only about procreation. Clearly children and families play an important role in the social statement and in our understanding, but to limit it to making babies is a crazy restriction. There’s plenty about touch and intimacy and connection that isn’t only about how we make more people on this planet, or about how we take care of the ones arriving on this planet, but already about relationship as couples, and about what happens in our individual bodies, and about how our bodies interact much more broadly in community.

For that, as a second-to-last point, I want to return to the surprising Bible reading. This social statement is framed by Jesus’ teaching to “love your neighbor as yourself,” a version of which we heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans. That may not sound much like sexuality. That’s partly because we tend to distance our neighbors: they are migrant children at our national border, clearly an example this week of why families are important (as if we needed a social statement to clarify that wrong). But even for that, I’d say those aren’t your neighbors Jesus is most concerned about this week.

Your closest and most important neighbors, I’m always striving to help you remember, are the ones who live in your house, in your family, your most regular connections, in your closest relationships. That’s where love is required and most challenging. That is why we’re looking at this statement, not because we need to answer a question about somebody else, but because we need to keep working on it ourselves. How, then, does our conduct or our attitude affect those who are the very nearest to us? How do they feel? How are they loved?

In a last point, in want to tie that loving to the word “consummate.” It’s one of the many euphemisms for sexual relations, but I’d say it’s a vital and correct one. It’s a word that means “be all with,” sharing all of who you are. It’s with some of that sense that we celebrate and share the importance of sexuality. To say it another way that I hope you continue to hear how I use this word, it’s about a communion of souls. See, in biblical usage a soul isn’t a little separate part of you, not the little divine eternal spark. The Bible’s words for soul are about the fullness of who you are as a person—your heart and emotions, your spirit and connection to God, and also your body. Your flesh is not separate from your soul; it is vitally connected. And sexuality is about sharing that soulful all-of-who you are.

So, with the social statement, we recognize it isn’t something trifling, not only about you feeling good or your personal gratifications. It should not or maybe even cannot be momentary, since it’s about the relatedness of all your emotions, about a commitment of being connected most deeply at the heart. That is why it is so high, so important, why it is consummating the soul-whole of who you are with another, being all-in. Far from some mere physical act, this is the whole category of the deepest way we express who God made us to be with each other.

This vulnerability also carries so much weight and hardness and sadness and potential for harm and abuse and struggle and even exploitation. It is weighty and can cause problems in our relationships and carries so much demand for personal discernment and work on it exactly because it is filled—you are filled—with the joy and delight of such God-given potential. And you are good.

A post-script: knowing each of you face it uniquely but this was a blanket message, I absolutely don’t want you to feel left out or that this made something worse, so as always I’m available if it would help to talk more.


An excerpt from the ELCA social statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.

God created human beings to be in relationship with each other. Sexuality especially involves the powers or capacities to form deep and lasting bonds, to give and receive pleasure, and to conceive and bear children.

Sexuality can be integral to the desire to commit oneself to life with another, to touch and be touched, and to love and be loved. Such powers are complex and ambiguous. They can be used well or badly. They can bring astonishing joy and delight. Such powers can serve God and serve the neighbor. They also can hurt self or hurt the neighbor. Sexuality finds expression at the extreme ends of human experience: in love, care, and security, or lust, cold indifference, and exploitation.

Sexuality consists of a rich and diverse combination of relational, emotional, and physical interactions and possibilities. Erotic desire, in the narrow sense, is only one component of the relational bonds that humans crave as sexual beings. Although some people may remain single, either intentionally or unintentionally, all people need and delight in companionship, and all are vulnerable to loneliness.

The need to share our lives with others is a profound good (Genesis 2:18). Reaching out in love and care is part of who we are. Even if we never have sexual intimacy, we all seek and respond to the bonds and needs of relationships.

Sexual love—the complex interplay of longing, erotic attraction, self-giving, and receiving defined by trust—is a wondrous gift. The longing for connection, however, also can render human beings susceptible to pain, isolation, and harm. The desire for sexual love, therefore, does not by itself constitute a moral justification    for sexual behavior. Giving and receiving love always involves mixed motives and limited understanding of individual and communal consequences.

The sharing of love and sexual intimacy within the mutuality of a mature and trusting relationship can be a rich source of romance, delight, creativity, imagination, restraint, desire, pleasure, safety, and deep contentment that provides the context for individuals, family, and the community to thrive.



Prayers of intercession:

God of communion, we are all united in you, together as the mystical body of your Son. Lead us to care for and recognize all these body parts in your church.

Your creation is good, very good. When we ignore the world around us or disparage body types, remind and renew in us the promise that you love this world, created us in your image, and were born into our flesh.

We pray for places of brokenness and hurt: for vulnerable children, for places where gender justice is desperately needed, in sex trafficking and abuse, for where people of various sexual orientations or gender identities suffer intense oppression, especially when these are part of religious life, and for the understanding we all need to pursue.

We pray also for our households and families, in celebration for when these good gifts of who we are can be consummated and foster life, but also for the places of brokenness and longing—for the lonely, for those hurting from divorce, for those hurting in relationships and looking for answers, for our bodies when they don’t behave how we want, for all the ways this can be a very personal and very difficult topic for us, be here now with your grace and love.







worship at Bible camp

sermon on Mark 4:36-41; Colossians 3:12-17


I’d like to start by telling you where these readings came from (I mean, besides from the Bible).

The Mark reading is the theme verse for the UCC Wis. Conference annual meeting this weekend. For those of us who are Lutherans, this is the UCC version of a synod assembly; where our South-Central Synod of Wis. covers a swath across from the Dells and down except for La Crosse and Milwaukee that are their own synods, the Wis. Conference covers the whole state.

They’re using this passage of Jesus stilling the storm along with a question asking what we have to fear or why would we be afraid. So we heard the reading to connect to that broader work and theme.

Colossians was suggested by Roger Williams. He’s a Hope member helping to lead the version of this service back on Old Sauk Road. (I’ve been using that odd phrasing of location, because I don’t want to say it’s back “at church,” since the church isn’t a building but is the group of people. We are also church, also the MCC gathered out here in the woods.)

Anyway, Roger thought Colossians was helpful to hear these days, speaking to him of tolerance, and commending to us ways to practice loving our neighbor in times when it can be exceptionally difficult.

That’s where these readings came from. Besides that, I expect you probably heard them in your own way, that God was speaking to you through them, into your own situations.

For us together, I want to jump in with one word that stood out to me as tying the two passages together: Peace. With Jesus, Peace came up as he was rebuking the stormy waters, at least in this version saying, “Peace. Be still.” In Colossians, it was this verse: “Let the Peace of Christ reign in your hearts.”

Getting going this morning with Peace, one way to think about it may be because we’re outside, in this place. Most of us camped. It’s the kind of activity that goes with the phrase “getting away from it all.” It’s quieter and calmer than the typical commotion of our TV- and computer- and car- and work- and school- agenda-filled lives. We just kind of get to BE. We have time for conversations. To play. To explore. We notice the world around us in nature. We pause to eat together. I like to sleep outside at least once each month to be sure I’m connecting to this. So clearly it’s vital to me.

And we’re having worship out in the forest, with native prairie nearby, in contact with sun and rain, birds joining our songs of praise to God, and maybe somehow also the mosquitoes. I believe that’s really important: that’s what true worship should be like. When we’re too closed off and shut in on Old Sauk in the building, we miss some of what worship should be, miss some of the Peace and relationship God intends for us.

But I also confess that this isn’t fully peace for me. We’re out of our usual element, so I’ve fretted more than usual about this service, about getting communion stuff together, about how music will go, about who’s going to jump in to each role, about whether we’ll all be able to find our way here. I’ve been unable to picture and plan even for where I’d be standing to give these words. And, yes, I worried about mosquitoes and raindrops interrupting us. So I’m not entirely peaceful.

That shows one definition of Peace; it can mean something like “carefree.” We may feel at peace when we’re at ease, not worrying, when everything comes simply.

So you may be part of this worship service in a calm state of mind, feeling like you left some hectic things behind as you came out to camp. Or you may be short on peace. You may not have slept all that well in your tent last night. You may have been confused in how to get here. You might just feel that this is different. So it may not fit that first definition of peacefulness.

That parallels the Boundary Waters trip that starts as three groups of us head north tomorrow for a week canoeing in the wilderness. In some sense, that is definitely meant to be “away from it all,” including for MCC youth as a relief from the rigors of the school year. 23 of us will be away from screens and news about nukes and celebrity gossip and tests and noise.

But this Gospel reading reminds us that getting away from the crowds can’t be equated with Peace. The followers of Jesus may have been dealing with one kind of unrest while the crowds were around. But, when they got away from it all, they were in a boat and ran into a fearful storm. So it may be that when we’re trying to get far that it’s out in our boats, floating in a canoe up north, that we have to face storms that really make us feel we’re short on Peace.

That reminder may be instructive, while also not feeling very helpful. The storms may be metaphorical, being bombarded by all that life so constantly throws at you. But a change in location doesn’t seem like it can offer resolution. Just getting out on the lake or away at camp doesn’t directly equate with Peace.

The point of the Bible readings is that Jesus is the one who brings Peace. He speaks it into the midst of our storms. Or, to be more precise, he shouts it. Our translation says peace, but what Jesus says to the storm is like, “Muzzle it! Shut up!” That’s not a very peaceful declaration. It’s certainly not a “can’t we all just get along?” It’s not a soothing calming voice of “take it easy, okay?” or “is there anything that would help your mood?” Jesus seems anything BUT peaceful as he demands peace.

That seems important. Peace isn’t about an internal state of calm or absence of conflict with everything being nice. Instead, it can be a declaration into the midst of chaos that there’s something more important, something connected to Jesus. That is the heart and identity of peace, not just that all is going how you’d prefer.

For that sense of what we’d prefer, I can’t help but notice the disciples’ reaction. They ask, “Who is this that even the wind and sea obey him?” They notice that the storm responds to Jesus’ call for peace, but they themselves somehow remain unconvinced and unmoved by it. The rain, the tide, the wind—even the mosquitoes—somehow listen to Jesus. But we, his followers, are the ones who won’t.

We could rephrase the question. Instead of them asking, “Who is this that even the wind and sea obey him?” we might say, “Who are we, that when even the wind and sea obey him, we still don’t?” The one who can insist on Peace for the physical storms is calling to you, too, to insist on Peace for your storms, and are you listening?

In that way, it’s not about location, about feeling that things are going just swell, that you’ve found the perfect place of ease. It’s not even that the storms stop for you to rest through. Rather, Jesus calls Peace into the very mess and destruction and worry that surrounds you. It is there that he speaks and takes control. It is when camping doesn’t seem so easy. It’s for bad weather in the Boundary Waters. It is as you drive back to town and to the busy rhythms. It is when clearly so much in this world is not as it should be.

Jesus rebukes that. He tells those stormy voices that bombard you to shut up. He won’t stand for you being assaulted by anything threatening to overcome you. Because those are not what is most important. Just as your inner contentment or serenity is not the definition of Peace, neither will he allow the nastiness to swamp you. He muzzles those domineering voices that claim top place.

That is why we worship, even in this place: To hear again the voice of Jesus as Lord, to be reassured that it is his Peace that reigns in your hearts and comes to define your life. The Peace the world cannot give, but that he insists on so extravagantly and miraculously and abundantly for you. “Peace. Be still” says Jesus. He calls you to rest secure, and to arise again to confront the storms, to persevere, to face fearfulness with confidence that God is love, that Jesus is Lord, and that you belong to him, now and forever.


The Church and Criminal Justice

a sermon on the ELCA Social Statement*

and Luke18:2-14; Hebrews13:1, 3; Psalm142;


These Bible readings help us enter the social statement or—better—to enter the whole situation of criminal justice.

We started with a widow pleading for justice, begging constantly for her case to be heard and to receive what she deserved, but the legal system ignored and disregard her.

While we likely see the widow as vulnerable, a lonely female at the mercy of perhaps a patriarchal structure, we should also be sure to notice that God’s identity is repeatedly defined through our Old Testament as the defender of widows. Widows are the poster children for God’s concern. Actually, I suppose orphans are the poster children; widows are the poster adults, for whom God is especially concerned. Repeatedly, “widows and orphans” define those who should not be denied justice and assistance. Refusing to help the widow and orphan is Old Testament shorthand for deserving of worst accursedness. That makes the unjust judge in Jesus’ story clearly despicable; he isn’t just ignoring a widow. He is ignoring God.

And that reinforces for us God’s intentions and redirects our attention. The subtitle to the ELCA’s social statement on the Church and Criminal Justice is “Hearing the Cries.” If we’re not hearing the cries, then we’re like the cursed unjust judge.

The second part from Jesus warns us again, against thinking we’re so proper and are doing the right thing in worship while shunning those who have done wrong, that we’re not sinners, thinking ourselves more preferable to God than others, including criminals.

Further on priding ourselves on not being like those, we had the stunning little Hebrews verse: “think of those in prison as though you were in prison with them.” We create a distance that causes difficulty in conceiving criminal justice. It can be hard to put a face on what is mostly an unknown reality for us do-gooder church-goers—or, maybe more specifically, us white folks.

I remember a time being sick to my stomach in court, I was so confused and terrified and had no idea how anything worked, what I needed to be doing. It was something I’d never had to deal with, but many in that full courtroom—many of them people of color, and people with much less education and less financial resources and even less English ability—were more at ease, because they’d had to become familiar with this brutal and rigid operation.

You may not have been in many situations of being arrested and the rest. Beyond that, this remains not our reality because it is so easy to remove from in front of us. Prisons are meant to keep people out of sight and out of mind. They’re left faceless and vague, disparaged as bad guys. Vulnerable people like the widow in the parable remain easy to ignore.

So as we’re “hearing the cries” in the words of the social statement, as those cries and our God call us to be aware and active, it seems helpful to wonder how we might put a face on this, to show us whom we must love, as we said in our words of confession.

In this congregation, you regularly have a couple possibilities. You are part of supporting the work of Madison Area Jail Ministry. With prayers and with every dollar you put in the offering plate, you are helping care for both inmates and the sheriff’s department staff in the Dane County Jail. In this work of more than 50 years, you might associate faces of previous chaplains, John Mix and Julia Weaver. You might now know Christa Fisher.

Your offering benevolences also contribute to Madison-area Urban Ministry, or MUM. For decades, MUM has focused on re-entry programs for those who have been imprisoned, to foster a transition into a society that often denies the tools and too much even directly inhibits the ability to re-adapt to life. Here at MCC, you might picture the face of Ken, our most regular Just Bakery vendor who has worked up to become kitchen manager. You might also have seen a new MUM program about urban gardening in the Cap Times*. With Ken, director Linda Ketcham, Nasra from last year’s women’s salad supper, and others, you are part of these relationships.

And you might have other faces you associate. One of my friends works at the prison up in Stillwater; I hear about the stresses of his job. In my role, I’ve gotten to visit inmates to talk on phones through plexiglass, some of them church members and some people who were looking for a connection and support.

For me, the clearest now is Department of Corrections #618778: Bruce Burnside, my first pastoral colleague and once bishop, arrested and given a 10-year prison sentence after he killed a pedestrian with his vehicle. I saw Bruce a couple weeks ago at Jackson Correctional Institution, on my way back from fishing. Though intimidated by all the guards and razor wire and getting buzzed through so many doors and being watched and questioned, it was good to see him. Even in his blue pajama inmate attire, he is still Bruce. His letter this week said the heat wave made the cell like a brick pizza oven, without the pizza.

I know it can be either easier to forgive or to condemn Bruce. You could say he should’ve known and behaved better. Or you could point to good things he did in his life and say that his crime was an anomaly, so he deserves leniency. Whether we’d think his particular situation is just or unjust, still it is the present reality. As always, it’s complex and sad and not something somebody should have to deal with alone. So I’m grateful he gets lots of visitors and cards and attention and is in prayers and on people’s minds.

But that makes me mention Lamont, Bruce’s cellmate. I think Bruce had said that sometimes Lamont would hear from his mother on his birthday, the only caring contact he had in an entire year. So Bruce’s step-daughter Janna started visiting. It began with seeing Lamont when she went to see Bruce. But Bruce told me Janna had been there the previous week and he didn’t even know it until after she was gone, having driven five hours just to visit Lamont. Janna is hearing the cries.

As important and useful as it can be to put a face on this issue and recognize the sound of a voice as you hear its cries, this social statement isn’t only about personal relationships and bonds. Neither is it the religious services we might give to perpetrators of crimes or victims or families or those who work in law enforcement, though the statement does offer care and concern for all those groups.

So I want to mention a few points in this 64-page document and highlight a couple aspects of how it considers we might respond to hearing the cries.

First, we can say that a Lutheran perspective is in favor of criminal justice. We aren’t anti-cop. We can’t say that every prison cell should be thrown open because God forgives. Lutherans see laws as a way to restrain evil, to provide safety, to foster life, and therefore as good gifts from God and a way that God operates in our world.

But we also recognize a “no” along with this “yes.” The criminal justice system as it currently stands may be reasonable and have plenty of dedicated workers and vital work. But all is not well. Most primarily, the social statement stresses that the system is too focused on punishment. That should not be the only aspect of criminal justice. Paying a debt to society or paying for a life taken away is only one metaphor, and certainly not the sole way to obtain justice and order and set things right. Restorative justice, alternatives to incarceration, practices of rehabilitation beg for our attention.

The social statement also enumerates many areas where, rather than offering solutions for society, this system perpetrates worse injustice. These include racial issues we’ve come to recognize somewhat more through the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which are also in the social statement on race (which we won’t get to take up this summer). There is mention of the death penalty, which also has its own social statement. There is drug policy. There is the criminalization of mental illness. There is disenfranchisement of 5.3 million citizens from voting, sometimes permanently.* There is the escalation of children getting tried as adults, and ending up in life without parole. And of children who are affected when their parents are taken away. The statement remarks on immigration detention, and we’re certainly hearing the cries more these days of those families separated at the border.

There is the crazy amount of money we waste on this, including for profiteering private prisons. In spite of that, the statement also asserts that economic benefits of reducing costs should not be our main motivating factor for change. Instead, it reminds us of our theological perspective, with a moral evaluation of what helps people, and the core belief that all people are created in the image of God and there is nothing that can change that central and eternal identity.

Finally the promise of faith is larger than anything inflicted on us, than any of our failures, than any fears of violence, than any of our suffering as victims, than any of our possible responses to set things right. Not just consolation, the statement reminds us, but empowerment, the promise in Christ of being reconciled to God, a time when every tear will be wiped away, and the promise that God will find a way to right all that has wronged us not only is hope for the future, but also gives us courage to cope with partial justice and to meet the challenges of a world harmed by crime.*

We hear the cries, and respond.






* see p21 for these


Social Statement excerpt:

One in 34 adults in the United States is under some form of correctional control and more citizens are
imprisoned as a percentage of the population than in any other country on earth. The U.S. spends 60 billion dollars every year for corrections alone. They who work in the criminal justice system often feel stressed to the breaking point. Concerned that so many cries—from victims, the incarcerated, their families, communities, those wrongly convicted, those who work in the system—have not been heard, the ELCA is prompted to speak and to act.

This statement devotes significant attention to reform and calls for a dramatic shift in public discussion about criminal justice. The dominant public view, underlying the current system, equates more punitive measures with more just ones. The limited success of massive incarceration in deterring crime has not affected the
prevalence of “lock ‛em all up” rhetoric in public debate.

Prevalent views such as “tough on crime” policies make it more difficult to see each person involved in the criminal justice system as a human being. These views effectively override the conviction that all people are created in the image of God and worthy of appropriate and compassionate responses.

The ELCA speaks in this statement from among and to its members, to those affected by crime in any way, and to those who work for the public good in various civil offices related to the criminal justice system.
Drawing from Holy Scripture, this church holds up a vision of God’s justice that is wondrously richer and deeper than human efforts and yet is a gauge against which justice in God’s world must always be assessed.


a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life annette.jpgof Ruth Annette Lindstrom

June 1, 1922 + February 1, 2018

Philippians 1:18b-25


I’ll admit I’ve been on kind of a Philippians kick.

We had it for readings here in worship last month, and I just really, really love this part of the Bible, for what it says about our lives and about what we’re up to here together. We’d also done some Bible study sessions on it, and Lindy didn’t come to those. But that made me recall how she had come for some Bible study back in January (because it happened to be a gap in her schedule and she was in the neighborhood), but she ended up missing the rest of the sessions because she down in Rockford, with her mom for those last weeks of life, and with her dog Auggie, and with all the others who lived in the same care facility, and Bob’s practice of seeing her every day to sing together and family and all those relationships. And that loving assemblage, being together in compassion and joy even through the hard times, that’s kind of a model of Philippians, too.

So we’re going with Philippians today.

I picked this reading because I’ll say again that Philippians is really a love letter, an outpouring of how good it is to be together, joyful and enjoying each other, to share life, to share love.

In the first case, that’s about the writer of the letter, Paul, and a congregation he’s away from.

But that’s also some of what we heard in what the family had to share about Annette, or Yaya in that term of endearment, with stories of so much laughter and creativity together and adventure and the harmonies of music that should’ve been recorded and all the memories of good times shared and that deep, rich sense of connection. Those words weren’t just eulogy; they were a love letter, a love letter capturing life, but a love letter because of separation, since we don’t have the chance to tell Annette directly today.

This recalling of past happiness makes me think about a phrase that has come to be used quite a lot for portraying these sorts of gatherings. It’s popular now to refer to these or even to request them as “celebrations of life.”

Now, I have to say that I’m not quite sure what that’s standing in contrast to. Would the alternative to a “celebration of life” be a “disparagement of life?” Or a gathering of complaints and sharing of resentments? If so, I’ve certainly never led a funeral service that would fit those labels, and wouldn’t say that I’ve been to one, either.

I suppose two other alternatives are that a celebration of life means that we’re taking seriously the life the person lived, a memorial service full of memories, that we’re actually recollecting Annette and paying attention to who she was as opposed to some generic set of church-y words. Maybe there’s a sense that a funeral could be impersonal otherwise.

Or maybe it’s the notion that otherwise we end up focusing on the death, so we celebrate a life we had and shared instead of just gathering to lament a loss. But if that’s the case, then I don’t really like the term celebration of life, because it seems to overlook the obvious reality.

This is part of what Paul is facing in the letter with the Philippians. It’s such an intense love letter exactly because he’s separate from them. We cherish the remembrances of Annette today precisely because she’s not here to keep sharing them with us, because death has absolutely and matter-of-factly separated her from us.

Even as we gather on a beautiful summer afternoon, on what would’ve been the day after Annette’s 96th birthday, there’s some of winter chill that comes creeping back in. This isn’t all laughter and joy and the fondness for the past. I know that there’s been extra grief this week that has brought back some tears, that even while getting ready for a cheery and vibrant service and keeping humor, still it has meant confronting that loss and separation of death in a renewed way, of having to live back again also into the ending weeks this past winter, and again having to say goodbyes, farewells, the reality of being apart. Even if we’re so intent on celebrating life, that can’t help but make us face some sorrow that that life is no longer with us. The best of celebration for such a spunky, creative, friendly woman will also rightly be paired by the lament. If we didn’t feel that sorrow, then maybe we’d have to feel there wasn’t much of her life worth celebrating!

But, again, Philippians points us toward something more. It isn’t only that it was so good to be together, so many times of joy, such deep love. And it’s not only that that’s been fractured by death, that you can’t have what you used to have. Not a spark and sparkle that has gone out. It’s not that’s over and this is the end.

In this reading, Paul doesn’t contrast the joy of life versus the lament of death. Rather, he contrasts two kinds of joy. Or, maybe to put it another way, he has two celebrations of life—a celebration of the life we have known, and a celebration of the life to come, as we’ll sing in a lovely Swedish promise, “neither life nor death shall ever from our God her children sever.”

As we talked about it in the Bible study, the best image was a love triangle. It’s not just that Annette loved you and you loved Annette. It’s also that Jesus loves you and loves Annette. And Annette shared that love of Jesus, that passion and commitment and devotion. Paul recognized that even while a time like this of confronting death meant separation in one relationship—and even if he would’ve found plenty of joyful reason to want to remain—still he found even more in going to the sweet embrace of Jesus. It’s far better, he figured.

And that’s what we hold onto today, too. It would’ve been nice still to have Annette here, to be laughing and playing with her, to be celebrating her life by having a birthday party. Instead we have a re-birthday party and the celebration of new life, of a love that already was holding her through her life and will continue hold onto her forever, and that will welcome you more deeply and directly into it, too, when one day we’ll all be brought together again, for a feast without end, cups overflowing with wine, maybe a heavenly choir, angelic Lindy on the autoharp, banjos of Paradise, and Annette making sure the melody is well-covered. That’s really the life we celebrate today. Thanks be to God. Amen