God’s Community of Support

sermon on 1st Kings 17 & for Reformation Sunday


Elijah is an Old Testament big wig.

When Jesus hangs out with the superstars of Hebrew Scriptures with a heavenly glimpse in the Transfiguration story, it’s Moses and Elijah, representing the categories of law and prophets.

It was feasible Elijah could show up since, instead of dying, a chariot of fire came to scoop him up by the Jordan River and carried him away. From that, our Old Testament ends with the expectation that Elijah will return, which is the famously waiting empty chair at Jewish Passover tables. Also from this, Jesus was asked if he’s Elijah, if he’s calling for Elijah’s help as he died on the cross, and he himself pointed to John the Baptist as the one filling this role of the ultimate prophet.

In a few amazing stories, Elijah called down fire from the sky and had major confrontations with nasty rulers and spoke with God and spoke for God and triumphed over 400 bad prophets in a duel.

But for all that large stuff of a big wig, in today’s reading, Elijah drops in for his first appearance and seems fairly small and around the fringes.

It helps to know that at the end of the previous chapter, King Ahab had just come to power. He was introduced twice by saying: “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him” (16:30, 33). Not a glowing endorsement, further accentuated in its dim appraisal by the pacifist activist priest Daniel Berrigan who wrote: “In the tally of royal delinquents, one, Ahab, shines for innovative spoliating wickedness.”* This king, following his forbidden marriage to a foreign wife, Jezebel (a name with demeaning derivation for a shamelessly morally unrestrained woman, as the dictionary would have it), Ahab worsened it by promoting cult worship while ridiculing and killing the good guys.

I mention that because this evil queen Jezebel was from Sidon, where our story spends most of its time today, with a widow. If we have one woman from Sidon who was not commendable, another was. One man of Israel failed to follow God while another listened.

Now, I don’t know exactly where you might find yourself in this story, and I’m reluctant to declare any role as yours. You might feel like the one proclaiming God in hostile territory, or akin to one offering what limited care you can. You might even feel like the lifeless son, or wicked rulers. I’m going to try not to assign roles or tell you what you should be doing, but (as usual) to point out what God is doing.

For that uncertainty, we’ll notice the start of the story, where God cares for Elijah without human support. God’s work without our hands. Ravens bring Elijah food. When Elijah does go to a human for assistance, the person is less willing and less able to help than nature was. Besides God’s non-human work in creation, we might take that, especially with this Reformation celebration of the church, as an observance that even we who are supposed to be offering care and embodying what God wants still may not be the most willing or helpful. We see where people of the church have not helped things to go right, where it’s better apart from us.

That is further highlighted by which human did become helpful here: one across the border, outside the realm of God’s people, not sharing Elijah’s religion, from the place of the evil queen.

This is exactly the offense Jesus is voicing in our Gospel window, that God’s preferential treatment and operation isn’t reserved for the religious insiders. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lifelong Lutheran or your perfect attendance awards in worship or how passionately you pray. God will be just as eagerly striving for the life of somebody on the other side of the border, speaking a different language, not sharing your WASP-y privileged presumptuous position. I don’t say that for a self-righteous immigration stance, but with the reminder that whenever we draw a line or barrier of righteousness, God will be working on the other side of that line.

This is important for us to see about God’s provision. Through this meager outsider, God provided and offered the sustenance to help the prophet’s life proceed. But it’s more than the physical relief effort. She also offered clarification about God. One commentator points out that “here a foreign woman is a sign to and of God’s people.” Once more: “a foreign woman [becomes] a sign to and of God’s people!”** To know who God is and who we are as God’s people, we may not be best served simply by looking at each other, in the obvious places of privilege, in insider mirrors.

Here we may see that benefit of being in this ecumenical partnership as the MCC. We may recognize that advantage in interfaith connections.

And in smaller perspective, it’s worth hearing on Reformation Sunday. I can be given to tout my German Lutheran heritage even over against you Scandinavians. I, too, can feel like a good chorale of “A Mighty Fortress” is the voice of our faith, but that it also can go the other direction in our mouths with good beer and some sauerkraut.

lutherans for reformationSo for myself as much as for you, the bulletin cover is a reminder not to be so confined in our sense of who a Lutheran is or what we look like or where we are. Such decolonizing Lutheranism is also why Christa Olson chose the Spanish setting of our liturgy for this service.

For seeing such places of God’s work, let’s add in the end of the story, moving from food for maintaining life to the interruption of life. Elijah met the widow as she was expecting death from starvation. That was averted, but death returned and took her sick son from her.

And then God’s work is still on behalf of life, returning breath into the son and returning him to his mother. This is small work, an isolated case, temporarily helping one family. Elijah will go on to stop the death-wielding forces of his government as he’ll struggle for life. The resuscitation of the boy, the restoration of family in a fringe location, is vital, but is a small hint, a symbol, a mere glimpse of something larger.

Once more, Father Berrigan signals well the ultimate, that this resurrection is “a prelude to a greater wonder, the miracle himself rises from death…And what do we make of that, we who celebrate each year this conquest of the ‘last enemy,’ denying a last word to the empery of death?” (p95)

That’s spot on, but not enough. I’d expand it: we don’t only celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter each year, but each Sunday, maybe every day, with each moment that we face death large or small. We don’t only deny it the last word; we take its breath away, denying it any authority over us. Or, we don’t do it, but God does.

Not by some special power of prophet Elijah did the child have life breathed back into him. This is God’s work, always and constantly. Resurrection is on the loose in the world, spreading, expanding the realm of God across borders. We may see God working through nature and through those who don’t share our religion, but this is also what keeps us coming back. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” That Christ is risen isn’t only for Easter or at funerals, but in baptism, and on Monday, and at a ballot box, and on the news, and in cleaning your room, and for autumn leaves, and on and on.

One bit of that on this Reformation Sunday is to look back at history. We think of Martin Luther, maybe as another Elijah, another John the Baptist, another who pointed a way in the wilderness and named the sin that would try to contradict the Word of God that gives life. We may say that Luther breathed new life into a dying or decrepit church, one in bondage to the ways of the world that draw us from God. But it was not Luther’s breath, as he’d quickly remind us. The Holy Spirit did her breathing through him, taking whatever words she could use and filling them with godly inspiration and rejuvenation.

And that is what we continue to celebrate, that in all ways, whether enormously historical or fringe and fleeting, God’s Spirit is here, breathing new life into you and into our world, reforming us, renewing us, working that miracle in surprising places, like in the face of violently misguided government, in public schools, inside Lutheran churches, and outside the church, in a synagogue community, in food pantries and hospitals, and—maybe most surprising of all—in the obscurest and remotest of places like your life.



* The Kings and Their Gods: The Pathology of Power, p92

** Claudia Camp in Women’s Bible Commentary, p112


a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of George Philip Steinmetz, Jr.5bcb4eac8e636.image

April 21, 1931 + October 18, 2018

1Corinthians15, Matthew6


Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

Jesus speaks this as encouragement for generosity, for selfless almsgiving, for open-handedness that does clench a fist of entitlement but releases so abundantly and generously that it refuses to tally and ignores any kind of score-keeping record.

I know straight off there’s a risk in commending something that won’t keep score at the funeral of a guy who was a guard in the Badgers’ first trip to the Rose Bowl, maybe not least because George got to hold in his hand the astonishing amount of $1000 for tickets he scalped to actor Fred McMurray. And though the Badgers had the best stats of that whole season against USC, they got blanked 7-0.

Maybe that actually does promote not keeping score, that there was plenty to that experience and George’s identity as an athlete and growing as a young man that wasn’t about one final win.

But, again, it may seem even more strange to talk about a left hand not knowing what a right hand is doing for a heart surgeon, for a man who used to have dog heart valves stored in the garage where he had his office, for this doctor who extended care to thousands of open-heart patients, extended their lives, and extending the possibility of their loving relationships, while also extending that knowledge and research and training to subsequent generations of medical and surgical staff.

I’m not surgeon, and can hardly hold my hand steady enough to brush my teeth, and certainly would not be invited to do the precision work that might involve sharp tools and careful cutting, but having gotten to watch the finesse and artistry of some surgery this week, it sure seems that it’s worthwhile to keep track of what both hands are doing and not to let one go off and do its own thing unnoticed. So, yet again, this little verse spoken by Jesus may seem like we shouldn’t apply it too closely to George.

In spite of those parts that don’t seem exactly to fit, or to go hand-in-hand or hand-in-glove with George’s life story and personality, still I’ll say that this saying from Jesus occurred to me first because of how I knew George. I’ve been his pastor for less than three years, so I didn’t know the vibrant and strong George in the ways you did. I knew him after he lost much of his memory. He still had photos of Joe displayed prominently. He knew and cherished that Suzie was right there near him. He and I could talk about his childhood, growing up on Fox Avenue, and I think about him every time I’m walking my dog past his childhood house. He recalled growing up at Luther Memorial.

But then we’d start to lose track. He’d ask again which congregation I was from, and if he’d been a member there. He could briefly recall the gardens on our grounds and being excited by those. And he always knew he was a part of the dear group of guys called GEMS, the Grumpy Elderly Men, and remembered that connection.

So I’m hesitant to mention George’s lost his memory. He had so much good and full, in his career, in his family, in enjoying travels, in all of life. He was strong of body and of mind. It could seem only to highlight sadness and emphasize the loss of this moment to mention the contrasting moment.

But I mention it because that’s what I knew of George, how I came to love him, and that will be the way I miss him.

And I mention it because with this faith we gather around today and with the God in whose name we are gathered, this isn’t only something to be ignored or avoided. We can confront the illnesses and losses of life, and even face this terrible moment of death itself. Even as today we are especially clinging to memories of the past, we recognize that the goodness of our hope is not only in how well we recall what has been.

So when Jesus talks about a right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, we can take that as applying to George’s loss of memory, and realize that it doesn’t separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We may not assert that dementia brings us closer to God, but I’d gladly and eagerly proclaim that God brings you closer in such moments, that when thoughts won’t stay in a head and when you don’t have the capabilities you used to and wish you still did, that God holds you yet more tightly in the promise.

In that way, I want to commend to us two more Bible passages that not only manage to deal with losing memory, but find in it the way forward, the way to new life, even the celebration of blessing.

The first is again from the Apostle Paul, in striving for his own forgetfulness. He wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:10-13).

Paul claims that in forgetting the things that he would’ve considered his previous accomplishments or successes in life or marks of superiority, then he recognizes the fullness of life offered as he is made God’s own. Jesus has also claimed George, not mindful of what he had or hadn’t done in life, not only celebrating his career or integrity, but simply for his own love, straining on toward the heavenly goal of resurrection.

With that view from Paul for George, one more word of God’s own loss of memory. Exactly contradicting any sense of an eternal record keeper who logs our every action for good or ill, the prophet Jeremiah recognizes that God, too, must forget and proclaims this Word of the Lord (which even includes some heart surgery, we might say): “This is the covenant that I will make, says the LORD: I will write it on their hearts. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).

We have a God who doesn’t—who in fact refuses—to keep track, to tally our sense of accomplishment, and who sets aside what we lament as deficit. God’s own left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing, in lavishing on us the gifts of life, deserved or undeserved, abundant and grace-filled, the blessings of 87 years, the love of family and two marriages, of deep friendships, the care of tending life all the way to last days, and promises even more to come in an eternal victory.

So whether we know it or not, the one thing this God will remember is to be with you always in love.


Do-Nothing David

a sermon on 2Samuel7:1-17

A week ago, our building manager Anthony came back from getting various supplies at Menards. He said they had moved the Halloween display to make room for Christmas decorations. Anthony figured that—being a church—we might want to get in on a piece of that action and were running behind.

Well, last week we had a song from Hannah, of which Mary did a remix for her cover version. This week we have a promise spoken for David that gets echoed and repeated also to Mary before the birth of Jesus. It appears it’s not just the corporate capitalist extravaganza, but also our Narrative Lectionary that’s prompting us toward Christmas and a season pregnant with possibility.

But before I put up a big flashy twinkling star pointing toward baby Jesus, let’s take seriously what’s happening here in Hebrew Scriptures, in this part of earlier tradition.

Last week, we heard at the end of Hannah’s song about our revolutionary God of reversals working through an anointed king. Already that was looking past Samuel as prophet, past the first king he anointed, Saul, toward David. David was that youngest child who had been out tending the sheep, the meek and weak who overcame the giant conquering Goliath. He played music to soothe the troubled spirit of Saul. And he became a skilled and dynamic leader.

As today’s reading has begun, he has moved the capital to Jerusalem, from Hebron, closer to his hometown of Bethlehem. In the celebration of the move, David was dancing in front of the ark of the covenant—the special box that held the 10 Commandments and marked where God’s presence rested—with David leading the parade, not acting with pomp and honor fitting a king, but with sheer enthusiastic delight.

This guy was good at worship and praise, and that devotion fits today’s reading, where David said he wanted to build God a house, a temple, to move the ark of the covenant in from the tent of meeting to a permanent location, a beautiful shrine, something that seemed fitting for his devotion. This was accentuated because David felt guilty for building himself a nice house, a palace with imported materials and immigrant labor.

During this stewardship season, I could mention that you’ve invested in your own houses, and wonder about David’s guilt. I could point to grand and elegant cathedrals around the world, heartfelt projects invested in representing God’s grandeur and glory, and I could tell you those structures, the biggest and best of their time periods, exemplify David’s notion to build an appropriate house for God. Or we could notice that nowadays our magnificent expansions are about healthcare or entertainment or megamalls of glitzy shopping experiences.

But if you’re feeling compelled about donations and financial contributions to our congregation, or are worried about whether you’re feeling that way, and even if it would seem like a useful tool for me to clobber you with, the Bible story continues on: David thought he should build God’s house, but would not.

That resolution began with Nathan the prophet telling King David, “do whatever you want.” That’s not our usual understanding of religious ethics or of expectations laid on us. We tend to live with the feeling we’re failing, not doing it right, that there’s something more we ought to do or ought to give. It’s frequently accompanied by your feelings of guilt or inadequacy.

And so this is a stunning word of freedom: do whatever you want. You don’t need to feel bound by obligations, as if somebody is holding a moral standard over you that you inevitably won’t live up to. The prophet, the one who speaks the Word of the Lord, the angelic messenger of God directly says: “The Lord is with you. Do as you like. Whatever is on your mind. Go ahead!”

This is a really remarkable giving of permission, of license. You may think of the risks you’ve been holding onto, of ideas that excited you, of possibilities that seemed to have run into a wall.

On the other hand, it may be where your striving has been too excessive, where you felt compelled to keep going, even when it seemed painful or fruitless, where responsibility made you feel whipped and driven, where there was no carrot but only stick. Set that aside. You need not feel the coercion to be so duty-bound. Instead, as the prophet says, “do as you like.”

If that seems like ridiculously good news (and I hope you can hear that surprise, that freedom, that overturning of a too-typical sense of God always trying to force you to be better, to do right, to do more), then hold onto your hats, because it gets even more intense.

David said he wanted to build a house for God. Nathan the prophet said it wasn’t a requirement, but that David could do whatever he wanted. But then a follow-up message came from God, and Nathan had to offer a corrective, an intensification of the previous message: not only should David not feel obligated, God won’t allow him to do something that he could feel as an obligation. God says, “You won’t build my house.”

You have been freed from expectations that weigh you down. Still more, God forbids you from succumbing to such things. This may mess up a stewardship sermon, but if you’re feeling guilt about what you donate here or how involved you are, then God tells you to stop, not to do it, that it’s not for you.

God absolves David’s sense of shame, that he’s been too self-centered and should’ve been more pious in doing more for God, that he should’ve been more devoted and dedicated in celebrating and praising and glorifying God with some sort of accomplishment.

This relationship with God will not grow out of self-reproach or remorse, nor from your intensive efforts. Again, for any sense of divine mandate, that there are certain things you have to do to get on God’s good side, that God frowns on you not trying hard enough or being a good enough person, for any concept that you’re not living up to your potential, and how your internal so-called conscience tells you you’re doing it wrong and aren’t who you should be, for feelings of falling short and telling yourself you’re a disappointment, God puts a big red X over that, shutting down that internal dialogue, cancelling those demands, by ordering you to stop trying.

You’re not going to build a house for me, God tells David. I’m going to build a house for you, a dynasty, a promise of eternal blessing for the house of David.

In the story, this promise is a ways off. God said that a son of David’s would build the temple, but David hadn’t even met the woman who would be that boy’s mother yet. After their rocky relationship begins, the first son of Bathsheba will die shortly after childbirth, and David will grieve fiercely. Solomon will struggle with his family and stray from God. His descendants after will leave the kingdom a mess.

And yet here is God’s enduring promise.

Which may bring us back to Mary and thoughts of Christmas. The God who says you can do what you want, and whose only restriction is to forbid you from those obligations that make you feel you’re getting ahead or threaten to make you feel behind, we recognize this God in the birth of Jesus, not because he would grow up to be a mighty king winning battles like David, or because he would have wisdom and prestige like Solomon, or since he had the right DNA as a descendant, or would teach us how to behave rightly.

The angel proclaims favor to an expectant mother Mary and that this kingdom will have no end because God’s will will be done, on earth as in heaven. Even more clearly than in the illustrious but fallible King David, better than anyplace else, Jesus shows us God’s work in a birth as a baby to an unwed mother shut out from the glitz of celebration and any glory of sumptuous life.

Jesus grew to convey that this is God’s work and not our own in welcoming every last outcast he can find, forgiving every sinner he meets, and offering wholeness and redemption to those who need it, while disparaging the self-righteous and scoffing at the pretentiously pious, and spurning the machinations of the temple, that alleged dwelling of God, disregarding its very destruction. Jesus showed that this can’t be wrecked by an empire, in spite of their heedless injustice, can’t be undone by us followers who often forget to follow, can’t be stopped even by vile and violent death. It’s simply not dependent on you or your plans or timelines or sense of propriety and devout exertions.

This is God’s effort. This is God’s blessing. This is God’s promise. If something gets in the way of that, don’t do it. Otherwise, do whatever you want.


renewable energy for your congregation

a presentation for the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin, ELCA

Good morning, grace and peace be with you, a big howdy, and thanks for being here. I’m Nick, a pastor at Advent Lutheran, one of the two partner congregations of Madison Christian Community—or the MCC as we shorthand it—not too far from here on Old Sauk Road, just past West Towne Mall. I’m excited to be on the Caring for God’s Creation team from the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin that put this event together (and took off from the City of Middleton to have I think the first ever religious body resolution in favor of Carbon Fee & Dividend), and I’m also on the board of Wisconsin Interfaith Power and Light, for an extra shout and to continue holding the religious perspective and in a larger-than-Lutheran way.

In some regard, it may seem obvious to have somebody like me on this panel. Here we are in a Lutheran church. I’m an official Lutheran character as clergy. And this stuff is important to me.

But in another regard, I don’t fit in this mix of really astute and important folks you’re hearing today who know their stuff and find ways to make it happen. Neither can I compare with those at the tables in back, or your own capabilities and connections and success stories and bigger dreams. But I’d also say that makes it really, really fitting for me to be up here, to remind you that this isn’t about me.

Let me begin that by explaining that my congregation, the MCC, had solar panels long before I arrived. In fact, they were working on this nearly half my life ago. So I want you to hear that I can’t take any credit. I wasn’t the driving force. I didn’t have the expertise or know-how or insight or well-researched position. I wasn’t a motivator or techie or fundraiser. I’m here entirely as a tagalong, riding on coattails of this wonderful stuff, a Johnny-come-lately who can’t claim it, even while standing up here celebrating it all.

I admit that proudly. It may be your role, also. Or you may be the sort of person who makes it possible for other schmoes like me to stand up and cheer and celebrate. It’s the nature in our congregations, at least, and may be in other places as well.

With that, I’ll also clarify that this isn’t primarily a program I can offer. I’m not up here for a how-to manual on preparing to do renewables in your congregation. I’m not the example for your pastor needing to be a real green eco-freak to make this happen. There’s no magic recipe. Instead it’s always about the random coincidence of possibilities that converge in their own time and place, dependent on its own moment. You may like to term that God’s plan or fate or just happenstance, but regardless that’s what I’m here to attest to. So I’m going to zero in and tell the MCC story, and declare from the get-go that in practically no way will it match your story.

In our case, the question came up maybe 17 years ago. Environmental conservation had long been part of the identity. Our purpose statement now describes it as “living faithfully and lovingly with God, neighbor, and creation.” It was a congregation who built on donated farm land, and wanted to keep that connection, so for 50 years has hosted community gardening. For about 40 years they’ve worked on restoring native prairie on old farming soil, which (by the way) benefits carbon sequestration. They tried to embody this stuff as part of the pervasive Spirit of who they were.

They’d also done good like upgrades in lighting, moves many of us have made through CFLs and toward LEDs. They’d done audits and energy studies. That reminds us these efforts are multi-pronged. It’s not just the glamorous stuff, but the zillions of small bits toward what needs to be done.

Adding solar panels at the MCC came because of a passionate individual. That person has been long gone. It wasn’t the pastor. Staff was supportive, but I want you to hear this wasn’t possible because of an official leader or paid person.

We’re now on a second set of panels. The first set was decided on mostly because of affordability. That meant it was a small demonstration project. Again, we celebrate this in many and various ways. It’s not just equating with taking X numbers of cars off the road or powering so many hundred homes. The demonstration project was along a busy street where 10-20,000 cars per day would see it. Incidentally, that became not just an advertisement for renewable energy, but a huge banner of community recognition and reason people decided to join our congregation. It spread to members’ home systems and to other congregations who came for tours and such.

The first small set of panels were removed for a re-roofing project (and were subsequently donated to another congregation). That started a two-year conversation on what to do next. Though for the sake of the climate and planetary wellbeing we’re urgently needing to make these transitions as quickly as possible, I have to remind myself it still can be worth the time. At the MCC, that involved cost-benefit analyses, discussions in annual meetings and adult ed sessions. There were lots of options, not only on bids for how many panels and where to place them, but also if it would be better to invest the money in a community-buy—here or in Africa or whatever—or whether it was feasible at all. Again, it was driven by an eager set of regular folks and right circumstances, including the retired maintenance manager Tom who relayed all this to me.

In the end, they decided to proceed with an 18.6 kilowatt system, more than seven times what they previously had. The cost was going to be about $60,000. Sort of like the RENEW Solar for Good fund, Focus on Energy came up with a $10,000 grant. The remaining $50,000 still seemed like a steep amount, especially for those of you who know how tight congregational finances often are. But in this case, the capital drive raised it in less than two weeks. That’s one of the most exciting parts of this story to me, that people were excited and eager and found ways to offer support that they otherwise wouldn’t have.

So a little over a year before I finally arrived, the new solar array went up. It has been practically maintenance-free. It cut our electrical usage by 37% (and electricity bill) in the first year. It’s got this great software especially for us geeks that shows when a vacuum cleaner turns on or a cloud comes by and tallies our savings and our expenses, both worth watching.

Maybe as one more aspect of the multi-pronged necessity and our ways to plug in (for a little pun): when the panels first went up, we used to sell back to the energy company at the same rate we paid to buy electricity, but the politics of the Public Service Commission have meant we now have a lower, regressive rate of return. So it’s not just those with the chutzpah to push for solar panels, but in small choices we make and where we put our money and how we vote and advocacy efforts.

I’ve more than expended my expertise, so I’ll stop there for now. Thanks.


lectionary 28b creation care commentary

22nd Sunday after Pentecost in 2018


Isaiah 53:4-12

Psalm 91:9-16

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45


From top to bottom this week, the lectionary readings seem ready-made for sacrificial substitutionary atonement. This is the view that Jesus died for your sins, that his righteousness is offered as recompense to cover the debt of your sins, a sense of justice that must be retributive, and—most centrally—that a perfect Father demands satisfaction so that you need not be condemned eternally, but since somebody’s gotta pay for it Jesus died vicariously in your place. Built partly on one reading of the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2:5-11, God the Father sends the Son expressly for this purpose, and Jesus was so obedient to this command that he suffered even to the point of death on the cross. (I would say that’s a misreading, much preferring the sort of perspective that it is about love for humanity, like partially described here from David Fredrickson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=146.) This substitutionary satisfaction view has become the dominant sense (in American Christianity, at least) of the whole reason for Jesus. It has even become the default understanding, where any other theological perspective is inherently viewed with suspicion.
As a reader of a care for creation commentary, I suspect that you might not fully endorse such an atonement theory. In a model that mainly deals with eternal consequences, life in this world is mainly relegated to a tally sheet, keeping a record of how well you’ve done, or noting that no matter what you’ve done, meaning this eschatologically significant rupture of relationship with God. Given that it deals with and focuses on Jesus’ death, it seems to be a matter for after-life and doesn’t seem to connect much to actual relationships and interactions of our lives on earth now. For that regard, I’d simply guess that most people invested in caring for creation are not as directly concerned with Jesus paying for our sins. (Maybe someone could do a survey to find out just how much those two categories mix?)


So what are we to do with these readings, if they seem to scream a perspective of internal, spiritualized ledger sheets? Here’s some of the litany for the week:

–Jesus said, “The Son of Man came…to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)

–He “was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole” (Isaiah 53:5)

–He was “stricken for the transgression of my people” (Isaiah 53:8)

–“It was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain” and “make his life an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:10)

–“The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Isaiah 53:11)

–Jesus “was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:7-9)


So how to confront these readings, or how to hear them in a way that isn’t about Jesus forced to serve as a vicarious satisfaction in substitute for you and your death demanded by a vengefully righteous God? Is there room for care for creation, or is that all is lost and we must look to heaven (or, perhaps more palatable to us, the new creation yet to come)?


In his review of the alternatives to this dominant atonement theory, Mennonite and nonviolent theologian J. Denny Weaver points out “In ‘God of the Oppressed,’ James H. Cone, the founder of the black theology movement, pointed out that the dominant Anselmian doctrine posed atonement in terms of an abstract theory that lacked ethical dimensions in the historical arena. Consequently, it allowed white people to claim salvation while accommodating and advocating the violence of racism and slavery” a criticism also leveled by feminist theologians, among others (“The Nonviolent Atonement,” p4). This begins to take seriously our human relationships and God’s actions in society, even as we who care for creation insist that this must be broader even than some multiracial and gender-inclusive anthropocentrism.


One way to approach these readings comes from Girardian theologian James Allison, who has posed the question “Who sacrificed who to whom?” The answer should not be so directly presumed that God insisted on killing Jesus for God’s own sake. Humanity was and remains too steeped in the practice of doing violence to each other. The death of Jesus, in this Girardian view, was a rupture designed to break the perpetual cycle of scapegoating and violence. Allison, who takes seriously the notion and practice of sacrifice, can remind us that this is about life being able to continue on, about God entering the creation and being restored in right relationship. (For some of those historical reflections on sacrifice, where it is clarified that in traditional sacrifice God was sacrificing God-self for the sake of humanity and creation, a “divine movement to set people free,” see this essay: http://www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng11.html.)


In spite of how readily these Bible passages might be enlisted for the purposes of the retributive violent atonement models, it also is readily apparent that the goal is about life. It is not a story of a God whose will is suffering or punishment or death. Rather than terms or pain, notice Isaiah’s efforts for healing, wholeness, prolonged days, and life. One phrase in particular that jumps out is “by a perversion of justice” (53:8). Clearly any of the suffering or pain cannot be seen as right, the afflictions and oppressions cannot be labeled as divinely intended, when that is a perversion of justice. It is when the system is broken that pain and suffering prevail, not by the system God designed and intended and planned.


I’m averse to saying that we have to learn the perfect submission or that our suffering will make us perfect in that way that Hebrews perceives it. But the brutality of Isaiah may make more sense through a perspective of self-sacrifice. It seems vitally significant that suffering is not something that one is told to endure, but that one chooses for oneself. This is not the oppression of groups of people explained away, the abuse done in relationships excused, the subjugation and disregard that takes advantage of others. No one may be told to suffer, to confine them by telling them to learn obedience to that way. Rather, this is chosen. Following Cone’s criticism mentioned above, rather than masters justifying their enslavement of others, this voluntarily takes the place of a servant. This is a slavery opted into for the sake of love and in service of life. With Isaiah, the prophet sees himself as the suffering servant (and is not predicting the fate of another, much less saying what God will do to Jesus).


Here is one explanation from Terence Fretheim: “At the very least, we must say that the suffering of the servant is reflective of the suffering of God; in the giving up of the servant for the world, personal self-sacrifice is seen to define God’s purpose here. But even more, as the servant is the vehicle for divine immanence, we should also say that God, too, experiences what the servant suffers. This consequence is something which God chooses to bring not only upon the servant but also upon [God]self. While God does not die, God experiences in a profound way what death is like in and through the servant. By so participating in the depths of the death-dealing forces of this world, God transforms the world from within; and a new creation thereby begins to be born.” (“The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective,” p164-65)


For this perspective of God’s efforts for life over death, one of the most useful aspects of this Gospel reading is as a corrective to the dominant and domineering readings of Genesis 1 that give license to the abuse of creation. When God offers the instruction for the humans to “have dominion over the fish of the seas and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28), dominion has much too frequently been interpreted as permission to do whatever we want. I believe it is helpful to consider the word “dominion.” It ties to the Latin “dominus,” for Lord.


Similarly, the word in Genesis 1:28 in the Septuagint or Greek version of the Old Testament includes Kyrie—which we know from “Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.” Although the term Jesus uses is the exact same word (katekyrie) for “lord it over,” we can see that he advocates and leads us into a very different kind of dominion. Though we might be more apt to be “like the nations” (in Jesus’ phrase from Mark 10:42), our own practice of lordship should not be to “lord it over” as tyrants, but should follow the model and example of the one we name as Lord. As disciples of our Lord Jesus, we see that dominion is about service, that greatness is found in being a “slave of all” (10:44). That is more representative of the kind of God we have. God is not one who is so far above us that we must fear threats. God is not so distant from us that we can’t even begin to hope to be so proper and holy that we could gain proximity. Our God comes to strive on our behalf, to offer God’s own self for the sake of our lives and ongoing goodness of creation.


Since this is what it means not just for John and James but also for us to be associated with Jesus, to share his baptism and receive from his cup, then we find our place separate from the “great ones” (with the depictive Greek phrase “megaloi”) who claim authority over others. It almost can feel like a Godzilla, stomping through the city and across a landscape, leaving a wake of destruction, entirely careless for what it has abused. We, instead, are called to serve, even to enter into the suffering Jesus has been describing and is moving toward in Jerusalem.


This is likely what is meant by the term “ransom,” in a paradoxical or ironic way. Similar to Luther’s paired theses in “The Freedom of a Christian,” that a Christian is “totally free master of all, subject to none; and totally bound slave of all, subject to all,” Jesus frees you in order to serve. “The term [‘ransom’] referred to the price required to redeem captives or purchase freedom for indentured servants” (Ched Myers, “Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus,” p279). Jesus frees you from slavery to the tyrannical overlords, in order that you may be slave not just to their whims but “slave to all.”


Further, we recognize that sometimes giving life should, indeed, be perceived as in line with God’s will. Parents give up and restrict their opportunities and options on behalf of their children. A firefighter will freely risk her own wellbeing, maybe even sacrificing to save others from a burning building. As a dog owner, I know that it means I’m up in the middle of the night and out for walks in the cold. As a gardener, I’m rubbing sore back muscles and fighting sunburn and swatting mosquitoes so that I can care for those vegetables and flowers. Some labor is referred to as “punishing,” even though we might only be subjecting ourselves to the work. That seems a better and more life-giving view, and more appropriately tied to a God who created and sustains out of love, than one of obedience and being stricken for transgressions.


Hannah’s Prayer & Song

sermon on 1st Samuel 1&2


The prayerful lament of a vulnerable woman. And then it turns to praise.

I wish this turning could be more broadly true in what have been especially sad and hard days for vulnerable women. And although this Bible reading isn’t directly able to be extrapolated and applied to all vulnerable people, still I believe and expect that the fundamental message of the story is, indeed, for all.

We heard a rivalry, between two women, perhaps an unfortunate breakdown in what could’ve been mutually understanding and supportive. Hannah, whose name means “favored,” certainly seemed out of favor. We heard her taunted and ridiculed and ostracized, yes bullied, for her infertility and lack of children, by one whose name means “fertile,” Peninnah.

That situation is a miserable, lonely place to be in our time, but, as we’ve continued to hear, in this ancient culture it was downright dangerous. Even more than now, having a child was clearly a status symbol for a place in society and expectation of women. But it was also sustenance. Where we cite a statistic that it costs $233,000 to raise a child to age 18*, the focus in Hannah’s time would have been the opposite, that food and shelter wouldn’t have been available to her without a child. She faced that vulnerability.

That’s bad enough. Worse is that Peninnah taunted her about it.

Her husband would seem to be better. He really favored Hannah, so much as to give her the double share. But still he didn’t seem to grasp her sorrow or difficulty. He asked, “am I not more to you than ten sons?” Not very empathetic, and, as commentators point out, it would have been more caring to have said, “Hannah, you are more to me than ten sons.” At any rate, no matter how much he loved her, it didn’t really resolve it.

Then there’s the religious official, Eli. When Hannah was in distress, he responded with presumptuous accusation. Ironically, Eli accused Hannah of being drunk, even while she’s promising her offspring wouldn’t drink.

Finally, there’s God. Though the reading says God has closed Hannah’s womb, we might try to say that infertility isn’t the will of God. But we also have to expect that the response to infertility needs to tell us something about God. And, more broadly, what happens when we are amid suffering and longing and life not being what it should? When traumas linger? Where is God in that?

Here Hannah prayed, sharing her problem. Now, we should notice that there’s no magical incantation or special words. She prayed good and strong and didn’t tiptoe around it, pointing out her misery and asking God to be attentive to that. She trusted that God doesn’t want us to be miserable, with faithful expectations that, when we’re down and out, not only should God want to do something about it, but God can! “Don’t forget about me, God!” It’s just a version of “Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.”

One other comment on Hannah’s petition. She made a promise about this child she hoped for, but it’s not best to hear that as bargaining, that she’d make the boy into a priest as payment back to God for giving her offspring in the first place. God isn’t in the business of making deals, of being connived, of any tit-for-tat relationship, in being our God only in response or reciprocation for our pious promises.

Still, we might well note that God did respond. We would typically say God answered Hannah’s prayer. That makes us think she did something right, to get what she wanted. Or it makes us wonder what we ought to be doing differently when our prayers aren’t answered, when problems remain, or we continue to feel ostracized, or when our place of vulnerability remains so tenuous and scary. If something worked out for Hannah, we want it, too.

We’d prefer to have it be so simple as getting just what we want, like she apparently (eventually) did. We’d like it to be that our vulnerabilities are removed and we’re instantly strengthened. We’d wish to switch directly from lament to praise. We’re good at spotting injustice, especially when we’re suffering it, and we’ve got no good reason to be patient with it. We want the secret code words of right prayers. I realize all that.

I’m sorry for those ongoing hurts. I’m not explaining them away, since they won’t just go away. But we do need to see and believe God does something. So when we turn to Hannah’s song, we may recognize we aren’t left out. We are already contained in this story. Hannah sings our situation, even if not the exact circumstances.

I know to start that is a dissatisfying answer for your individual pains and hopes for wholeness. But let’s carry forward to notice that Hannah’s song is barely about her. She mentions those who had been childless, but she certainly doesn’t gloat in the birth of her own son, but rather says braggadocio has no place anymore. In fact, it’s a remarkable song because it situates this one birth amid a much larger scope of amazing work across humanity and creation, of feeding the hungry, of ending war, of wealth no longer lording it over others, of bringing justice and integrity and honor to those who had been ashamed and dismissed.

These are powerful words, that our God of reversals is working a revolution in society. Exchanges of fortune fill these words, of the lowly lifted up and the high brought down (whether this is a vision of equality and sharing or a vision of changing places, of the 1% no longer having their turn, of those who lived in palaces being out on the street and the homeless moving in). However it may come, this proclaimed godly way is not the way of our world.

Further, we also notice this God of reversals is not our normal conception of God. Even the sense of God is flipped when these words apply across all of our perceived hierarchies. This reversal strikes God’s own self. I said before that God isn’t into bargaining, but our God, especially as most clearly embodied in Jesus, does strike a deal and go into a free trade in what Luther termed “the happy exchange.”

The Mighty One takes on the form of weakness, the eternal becoming mortal, and the one who is greatest and Lord of all comes to serve. With the song of Hannah, this God not only moves you up a ladder of societal stature, but gives you the riches and entity of God’s own self. God takes your sadness and gives you joy, your tears and gives you laughter. God takes your loneliness and gives you community, even with God’s own presence. God takes your vulnerability and gives you strength and standing. God takes your misery and fills you with promise, takes what it wrong and makes it right. God takes your shame and exclusion and gives you honor and calls you favored, just like Hannah. God takes your uncertainty and gives you faith. And all this is most clearly and emphatically true because on the cross Jesus takes your death in order to give you life. These are the happy exchanges, where God takes you and says, “All that I have is yours.”

Yes, these are powerful words. And not just words Hannah claimed for herself. This isn’t a self-congratulatory hymn celebrating that she is so blessed. It’s not about her happiness or relief at becoming a mother. These powerful words are also more than for her time and place, of her nation moving from fragmentation to unity.

We’re recognizing in this service that one of the most famous echoes of Hannah’s song came from the mouth of young Mary, the Mother of our Lord, before his birth. It was true for her. And in him—in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—we came to know and trust these happy exchanges that God is working.

But this wasn’t about one mother 3100 years ago or an ancient faraway people. Neither was this about another mother 2000 years ago who could’ve been shamed or killed. It wasn’t for her son’s efforts against an empire.

Continuing forward with these powerful words, I learned this week that Mary’s song was banned by the Guatemalan government in 1980’s because it posed a threat to the military order they were seeking to impose.**

And so we keep singing them. These words continue to announce, to celebrate, to spread. They are words that echo across and through our world today.

And they are words for you, for your life. Even while you remain with your hurt and your worry, as society around you seems to still stifle your concern and preclude your place, as it feels yet so far from any resolution, as you can hardly envision a good way forward, still this revolutionary and loving word is for you, that God is turning the world around, that you will not be left out, because our God is always on the side of life, even to the point of God’s own death. That is how our God most certainly turns vulnerability to power and lament to praise and you to what you should be.


Hannah’s song:

My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God.

My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

2There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.

3All bragging must cease. Boastful arrogance must come to an end.

The LORD is a God of knowledge, who weighs all mortal deeds.

4The bows of warriors are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

5Those who were full have hired themselves out for crusts of bread,

but those who were hungry are satisfied.

The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.

6The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up again

7The LORD makes both the poor and the wealthy, who brings low, and also exalts.

8The Lord lifts up the poor from the dust; and raises the needy from the ash heap,

to place them among the mighty and promotes them to seats of honor.

9The LORD lights the ways of the just, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;

for not by might does one prevail.

10The LORD’s adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High thunders against them in the skies.

The LORD will judge the ends of the earth.

The LORD will give strength to the king and exalt the power of the anointed one.


* https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2017/01/13/cost-raising-child

** cited in Wisdom’s Feast: An Invitation to Feminist Interpretation of the Scriptures, Barbara E. Reid, p57