I Died, Christ Lives

sermon on Galatians 1 & 2

 

I’d like to issue an apology to you.

I’m sorry for being just me.

More to the point, I apologize that I went quick as I could through college straight to seminary to become a pastor. I can’t say I passed it all with easy flying colors, but I eventually got the proper accreditations to be validated for this.

In that direct trajectory, I apologize I didn’t have the foresight to have been a rich lawyer steeped in rabid atheism beforehand. I wasn’t even one who strayed from the church for a time.

I further apologize for not having something thrilling like a prison record and awful criminal past to show how far I was gone and how much my life has changed, to illustrate my conversion.

In spite of a bit of homophobia when I was part of a fundamentalist youth group, and that I remain a male in a patriarchal culture, and a white person in this racist society, still I don’t have all that oppressive or hate-filled of a personal history behind me.

Heck, I’m even kind of a local boy, a native Wisconsinite. I could’ve had the wherewithal at least to be from somewhere a little questionable, outside of the norm, slightly shady. Like Illinois.

I know it’s not a flashy resume for grace and God’s unconditional welcome. And I apologize for that inconvenience for you as I preach.

I also know it seems backward, that I’m apologizing for not having done something wrong, but the lack of such experience may still be a problematic distraction. Although I’ll continue to have plenty of real reasons to apologize to you, if in these ways today it may seem like I’m a goodie-two-shoes, then you have the odd impetus not to trust this message of grace, instead saying, “What does he know anyway?!”

Now, a number of you don’t really like Paul. That’s a fine attitude, but you probably don’t like Paul for the wrong reasons. You may have some idea of him as curmudgeonly and strict and chauvinistic and who knows what else. I’ll defend him against those, because I find him absolutely full of life and love as he points so clearly to Jesus and away from all the other garbage.

Still, Paul should be awfully unlikeable, not for what he is, but what he was. He names it of himself at the start of this letter to the Galatian churches. He says he was violent and was a persecutor, trying to destroy gatherings of Christians. Not in the form of bombing churches, but doing everything he could to make life both miserable and brief for followers of Jesus. But then it changed. What he thought was right was wrong. Jesus got to him, and the good news worked on him, and he saw things very, very differently. It was a revelation.

So here’s the conundrum: his message of God’s love seems more valid because it was so far from his past, such a change. He’s believable exactly because you’d have doubted anybody like him would ever say it.

In Bible study this week, we sought examples of what it would be like to be confronted with one who had threatened to kill you now allegedly not only on your side, but a prime witness testifying on your behalf. We thought of presidents, and racists who saw the light, of convicts who reformed their ways.

My categories to start leaned in that direction, that the very things that could have disqualified me or made me not to be relied on would be seen as benefits, as qualifications. It reverses what would usually make a credible message and messenger, the paradox that the worse you were the better you are.

Some churches use this model. Where the stronger story of a conversion experience is an endorsement of potential. The sense that the calling comes from God and not from humans can also hold sway, as a person says God laid it on their heart to preach the word, so it doesn’t go through denominational channels like seminary, just as Paul said he didn’t get permission from any church hierarchy.

But the funny thing is that those attempts to show grace’s freedom can end up becoming legalistic all over again. The effort to show no qualification becomes its own qualifier. It’s not in our personal stories (or the lack of them), but only and always centered in Jesus. Certain characteristics may make it occasionally seem more shocking but don’t make it more true.

So apologies again that you’ve only got me as a preacher. But you’ve still got Jesus.

I’ll similarly accept your confession that you’re only you, except for Jesus.

Paul was also dealing with that in his community, their search for personal proof or verification though this can only be trusted. It remains unseen. In that time, within this Bible reading, there were two qualifiers operating, ways they tried to become insiders and find some certainty they were doing okay. One was a restricted diet, keeping kosher. The other was circumcision. I trace Paul as particularly against circumcision because it clearly left out half of all people: women who couldn’t wear such a mark of being an insider and would never have that proof. But at the root, the problem with either is an insistence that Jesus isn’t enough, that you need something else, something more, that there is a way to prove you’ve got it.

We still struggle with this. We still want it verified. We operate as if God’s love has contingencies. In some way, we want it to be dependent on us, don’t really like that God loves you not because of who you are or anything you’ve done but for Christ’s sake. We want to know what to do, how to become more spiritual or more peaceful or more generous, to be converted from our old ways. That may happen, but not per se, for an end result. Those would be incidental byproducts.

One really insidious form is with prayers for healing, that it should mean somehow our believing will be evidenced in our bodies, and that then there’s a right way for our bodies to look or be or feel if God is with us. Health and wellness are taken as marks of faith.

But Paul very clearly refuses to look at his body. I have died, he says. A dead body isn’t much of a place to hunt for evidence of goodness and blessing. So we instead look only to the body of Jesus. Since through his crucifixion, as God has died, all have died. And, with Easter, you’re already a new creation, as good as raised from death to new life. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Another of the main forms of losing focus on Jesus as we try to be right is in making church about what we do. About getting our lives in order. About your involvement here. About doing good in the world. About striving for justice and being on the right side of some cause. I know you carry burdens that you ought to be better, that you should do more in the community, that you want this to make more of a difference. Again, those can happen, but not because of our efforts, but as byproducts of grace.

Austin Channing Brown for our book discussion this week wrote of the goal in reconciliation like the wolf lying down with the lamb. No matter how good you are with animals or how woke for racial justice, good luck on that without Jesus.

Again though, Paul says we have died. Dead people may not do much good in the community, can’t be rallied to be better people, won’t fix creation. Try giving a pep talk to a crowd of dead folks and you won’t expect much for results.

That’s why sermons aren’t pep talks. They aren’t encouragements to go back out there and try harder. They aren’t motivational self-helps. They aren’t lists of things you should be doing. Partly it’s because none of that works, none of it makes you more godly or more loving, none of it is all that effective, trying to convince a bunch of dead people.

But it’s also that none of it really matters. It’s so trifling and a distraction from the main thing. God came to be with you, to love you, to be in relationship. God died for you, and speaks the word now that raises you, fills you with new eternal life. God is restoring creation and all relations, but you want to get trivial and make it about the little things you do? It’s like you’ve been freely admitted to the college of your dreams and then figure it’s dependent on how pointy your pencils are sharpened. It’s as good as irrelevant!

You want to be better, are worried about how much you need to do, don’t feel like you are good enough? Well Paul asks, will we get it right all the time? Clearly not. We’re still going to be sinners. But that doesn’t invalidate Christ, since nothing we do or don’t do can prove or disprove God’s love. So Paul won’t worry about what to eat or what to wear or how holy he’s acting. In Luther’s terms, we don’t even get too hung up on right decisions. His advice was to “be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”*

When the emphasis falls back on the trivia of oughts and shoulds as if those are the important thing, as if this is about anything we can do, then we’re tearing down the identity and the relationship and the righteousness that is only established in grace. We’re looking for life in our essentially dead selves rather than in the gift from God. We’re trying to muster resurrection on our own, when in the end our confidence, our joyful message is: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

*Luther’s works vol48, p282

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Minutes of the New Age

sermon on Acts 15:1-19

 

A confession to start: I have never willingly volunteered to take meeting minutes, and I might never even have unwillingly agreed.

Scott Bauer, on the other hand—an Associated Press reporter by vocation—makes minutes come alive. The best I’ve ever had the semi-pleasure of reading, even with colorful quotations. Here are excerpts from the MCC annual meeting minutes in January, the reality of church details, with some Scott touch:

  1. Steve Sellwood and Candi Bloedow of the Leadership Team called the 2019 annual meeting to order

2. Pastor Sonja Ingebritsen led the congregation in an opening prayer

3.  Karen Schwarz moved approval of the agenda, Lucetta Kanetzke seconded.

5. MCC Reports that had been posted online were open for discussion.

7. Spending Plans and Funds: John Rowe said, “We had a very good year at the MCC. Pledges and gifts have been growing. We had more income than expected and expenses have been less than expected.”

8. Other Business: Steve discussed several “big ticket” capital items, including replacing the siding, repaving the parking lot, replacing lights and redesigning basement bathrooms. Don Tubesing asked what MCC’s philosophy was for building maintenance. A task force was approved by a voice vote with no opposition.
In another piece of new business, the 50th anniversary of the MCC this year was discussed. “It’s definitely something we want to celebrate,” Steve said.
Hildy McGown thanked everyone who decorates the sanctuaries.

With a few Scott flourishes, there are abridged ins-and-outs of a church meeting here at the MCC.

Since you’re wondering why I’m reading bland business details instead of preaching the sort of thrilling, thought-provoking, hilarious, spiritually-resonant and culturally-competent, sermon you’ve come to expect (that got a rather large chuckle!), I better explain.

Sure, that was to celebrate Scott, and anybody who agrees to take minutes.

It also involved reminders on the ministry of the MCC this year.

But mainly it was to set the strange Bible reading in some context. Whether you consider MCC meeting details exciting or boring, small potatoes or blockbuster, relevant or off the main mark, maybe it resonates with what in our reading from Acts were essentially church meeting minutes, complete with Scott Bauer-esque stylings of key quotes. No matter how well it’s been recorded, you might share my feeling that it can suck the life out of really vibrant stuff of being the church.

To clarify: I love our annual meetings. They celebrate our community. I also am an odd duck who has been sitting contentedly in church council meetings since I was in high school. I know, pretty warped.

But still I regularly say I get frustrated if I’ve been in a meeting too long and Jesus hasn’t shown up. Even in good meetings, Jesus can seem more propped in a corner than alive and shaping and inspiring us. It’s like we think we’ve got something better to do, to focus on.

But how can we ignore this vibrant celebrative faith that keeps shouting: Alleluia! Christ is risen! This is joy. Jesus on the loose in our world, life on the loose. Unstoppable love, unfathomable love. Salvation spreading for all. God in our lives. This is good news, good news, good news!

So it’s so striking and disheartening that 15 chapters into the book of Acts we’re stuck in the middle of a church council meeting, with deliberations and legalese stifling the good news and sucking the life out of church, putting the body of Christ onto life support.

Earlier stories had rampaging abundance: of everyone fired up! Hearing the good news in their own tongue! Sharing everything they had! Making sure nobody went hungry! Of facing death fearlessly! Of even an Ethiopian eunuch from the ends of the earth incorporated, baptized into this party by one who had no business to be baptizing to begin with! It seemed like nobody would be left out. This was catching hold of people’s hearts and lives and souls and sweeping them—and us—up into God’s exciting goodness.

Then comes this episode of Roberts Rules of Order. Parliamentary procedure. With “no small dissension and debate.” Someone taking the floor to testify in favor of an amendment. All to determine whether outsiders would be allowed in, and how many hoops they’d have to jump through to be permitted.

Now, I don’t want to belittle circumcision in Jewish practice. From twelve chapters into the start of the Bible, God had promised that all peoples would be blessed, all nations welcomed through Abraham, and the sign of this relationship would be circumcision. Abraham went through it as an old, old man. But what’s definitive isn’t just that he could manage it so others should put up with it, too.

So I don’t want to get into details of circumcision’s trauma for infant boys. I also don’t want to poo-poo this church decision as affecting the recruiting strategy of the early church: “Would you like to join us as followers of Jesus? Oh, I should mention, there’s just one little thing you have to do first…”

We probably need to admit that this decision of not troubling men about what they do with their body parts isn’t how it goes when it’s about women’s body parts. Even this week some who call themselves Christians were all-too content to impose ridiculously excessive demands to trouble women’s bodies.

Holding dumb human deliberations in perspective, though, we notice God was way out in front of the church in Acts. The Holy Spirit had already been surely finding a place for outsiders for half the book at this point. Even the central leaders were slowly getting dragged along to God’s abundant way, as Peter’s speech testifies. Paul had had his life turned around and was excitedly spreading that reconciling and forgiving good news where it was technically not allowed by peoples’ policies. Humans keep slowing it up and get stuck in meetings, but God goes with us still striving for good. God is with us even in church meetings.

With all of that, I love a line a few verses later. After more bureaucracy, saying “we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them,” then it gets to a dynamo line, conveying radical reorientations for us, too. Ready? “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials.” It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us! They don’t know, but suppose and move ahead to follow God’s lead. They dig into their founding documents, for the purposes of figuring how to welcome and include and be community together.

Maybe to take seriously this reading about what it meant to become part of an essentially Jewish community that used to be defined by circumcision, we could ask what it means for people to become part of church now, including this Madison Christian Community. How can people fit in? What’s essential?

For our founding documents, the Community of Hope bylaws begin with a declaration: “We welcome all people to join us on our faith journey, affirming our common humanity and reconciling our differences.” There are participation suggestions members are “encouraged to covenant” to do. Then comes one sort of definitional stipulation: “Membership in the Christian Church is begun by baptism.”

Advent follows a more formal ELCA format and says “Members of this congregation shall be those baptized persons” etc. etc. and “all persons, irrespective of [this and that] shall be welcome for membership” and membership includes the so-called “privileges and duties” of worship, moral living, and stewardship.

That hits the big stuff as far as being allowed in to the MCC.

Since both zeroed in on baptism, I’d mention there’s serious discussion in the church these days, at least in my Lutheran circles, about whether it’s permissible to receive communion without having been baptized. Is it a requirement? In a culture where infant baptism is no longer a given, what do we do? While they debate and deliberate who All is or what Welcome might mean, at the MCC we don’t believe our job is needing to sort it out, but just declare “All are welcome at Jesus’ table.” We trust he means it.

For entrance rites here, we don’t have rigorous coursework of new member classes. Even Confirmation is more about an experience. Is it helpful that we don’t instruct right beliefs? There are also churches where it’s about behavior, where a strict morality is the gateway to entry, these days often about sexuality, but even here with an element of presumed politics.

Beyond that more official theology, what about de facto practice: Do you feel welcome? Is it confusing or enchanting? Can you tell something exciting is happening, or does it feel stodgy? Does church mostly serve to make you feel even worse about your life, or do you know that God is here for you?

Where are barriers to inclusion when a person doesn’t know our rhythms and routines or the “that’s just the way we do it here” or why we do what we do and say what we say? We’ve got generations of the amazingly deep and dense relationships of support, but before that how does one newly integrate into this community?

How does it work for small children, or for those with dementia, or for people who are differently-abled, or don’t speak our language? Or what about people like you? Again, what’s welcome for both victims and perpetrators? How do we practice love in broken and sinful lives? If inclusion involves our reconciling, how are our differences okay and not needing to be flattened out or homogenized, that we say you’re welcome but it really means “as long as you’re like me.”

I hope this doesn’t come across as head-scratching conundrums of church polity, but as exciting questions of God’s mission, not the obstacles we erect to entry, but how we help incorporate each other into the body of Christ, into the church that Jesus intended as a gathering to be life-sharing and life-giving. Sure, it may involve an agenda to make it work, but it’s God’s work. This is where the gospel happens, in the nuts and bolts, minute by minute details of our real lives. It seems good to the Holy Spirit. How about us?

So what’s our bottom line? What’s essential? Not for a quicker adjournment to our meeting, but more because it’s our life-blood, in the biggest picture, I believe it’s pretty well summed up by this: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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This Sermon is PG-13 (Hopefully Not R)

sermon on Acts 8:26-39

This old story is curiously current.

That it can seem an archaic artifact, admittedly still doesn’t prevent me from squirming, and I’ll begin apologizing now if it is uncomfortable for you addressing a guy whose private parts have been chopped off. It precedes next week’s reading that also involves a question of what proper genitals are. Today the issue of circumcision is moot, though, for this person who’d been castrated. That severing may have served as part of an official role, to make this person be or become less disposed (to say the least) to put an heir on the throne or steal to support a family or to disrupt the harem, less likely even to be able to fit into society, and so maybe reliably loyal and dependent on a place in the palace.

Besides that unfashionable uncontemporary form of ensuring servitude, many other details in this story seem old. We don’t much think of palace rooms filled with gold, counted by court officials (though maybe we do picture security guards and vaults?). This week we were confronted with a queen and behaviors around royalty; still, unfortunately, we might not be prone to picture Ethiopia or anyplace in Africa as having celebrated queens.

Even the detail of the chariot probably places this in some fairy tale olden time. Much less that the occupant of that chariot was passing the travel time by reading scripture. Thank goodness we’ve got phones and playlists and podcasts and Minecraft now, so we don’t have to “waste” our time on trips by reading the Bible!

Yet this old story is also plenty present, curiously current. In the end, there’s the stunning line, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”

This exciting moment in the book of Acts is a new beginning in the sweep of the Christian story because it meant the good news was spreading, salvation from Jesus was reaching to all nations. Back in chapter 1, Jesus told the apostles they would share the good news in Jerusalem, to the surrounding area, and on to the ends of the earth. Well, at that time Ethiopia was what they knew as the end of the earth.

For more breaking boundaries, in this book called “the Acts of the Apostles,” Philip, the one conveying God’s blessing, was not technically an apostle, not chosen as an evangelist or a pastor or a preacher, but merely selected as a waiter on soup kitchen detail. Yet here he was suddenly driven by the Holy Spirit to spread the preaching and the splashing of baptism farther than it had ever gone. It wasn’t in his job description, but that silly, surprising Holy Spirit was ignoring the people’s presumptuous rules.

A couple chapters later the central apostle Peter will baptize a Roman centurion, meaning that the Holy Spirit had clearly chosen to include a non-Jew into this saving movement of Jesus. Though this story today stretches to the ends of the earth, it might seem like some in-crowd. We notice that this Ethiopian eunuch was familiar with Jewish practice and with the Bible.

But to be sure we’re hearing why that was still hugely shocking, we can’t say that the eunuch was actually Jewish, because the scriptures kept this sort of person at least at arm’s length. Having been in Jerusalem, the eunuch still certainly would not have been permitted to pray in the temple while there.

Again, apologies if this causes uncomfortable conversation on your family chariot rides home, but here’s an exemplary verse from Torah, the teachings of Moses, the definitional law for Jewish religion. Ready? “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD” (Deut.23:1). I don’t share that just for impropriety so we’re all uncomfortable, but because that verse highlights what is going on in today’s reading.

Now, I don’t know if the chariot had a “eunuch on board” bumpersticker or something, but the story tells all the private details. So when the eunuch asked, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” the only response is: you are clearly… definitely…. legally… unquestionably restricted, in fact strictly forbidden from being included in the assembly of the LORD. That’s the right answer. For the Bible tells me so. You are prevented. Period. You’re out.

And yet Philip—not an apostle, not a pastor, not one who was supposed to preach, much less be baptizing—is nevertheless compelled by the Holy Spirit to go on with the baptism. What’s to prevent you? What in the holy name of God Almighty? What for Christ’s sake could get in the way of your baptism? Boundaries? The rules? The Bible itself? Aw, let’s do it! Incorporating one from the ends of the earth into the community of Christ. Breaking down what clearly classified an outsider.

Wow. This is amazingly good stuff, so let’s be clear we’re recognizing it for a second with an Alleluia! Christ is risen! (It’s the clearest boundary-breaking good news message, which is why I like saying it so much.)

That was shocking stuff then, but we’d better not hear it as an old, old story, but still curiously current here and now.

For simple starters, the Ethiopian was black. That’s also part of the point. We admit we shouldn’t picture Jesus as white. Jesus wasn’t some blondish-haired blue-eyed northern European-looking dude, am I right? We have to acknowledge that when God chose to become incarnate, to be born into our world and appear in our lives and our skin, God chose brown Palestinian, Arabic skin and eyes and hair.

But the story still has what we would identify as a racial divide. This is a black-skinned person, very intentionally included into the church. The Holy Spirit isn’t into identifying skin colors as barriers to blessing.

That racial inclusion is plenty difficult for us to live into, but maybe what sounds even more extraordinary is that this is a story about a person of ambiguous gender incorporated into the church, directly claimed and received by the Holy Spirit herself. This Ethiopian eunuch is without that body part that would most clearly identify a man, but is also not a woman. It breaks apart the gender binary.

Again that’s curiously current, as our society is struggling unfortunately even on whether, but also with good intentions on how to incorporate people who have nontraditional gender identities or expressions. Here at the MCC, we’re trying to figure out what to do with pronouns on our nametags and how to restructure our bathrooms. We keep trying to live into it, but there’s no question that the Holy Spirit will bring us into the body of Christ no matter our body type and will extend salvation beyond—and as more important than—our old stale categories.

God is intent on chasing down these lost sheep, especially when religious people have been the ones who scattered them and refused to flock together. Our story is that this is who God is. Already three chapters after that passage the eunuch was reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed the word of the Lord saying, “To the eunuchs I will give an everlasting name that shall not be cut off, and foreigners I will make joyful in my house of prayer for all peoples” (from Isaiah 56:4-7). This promise of God is especially made known in Jesus, who joined the lost and injured sheep to extend salvation to all. This God’s story continues as the Spirit sent Philip scampering after a chariot in the middle of the desert midday sun to catch a eunuch. And this story of a God in Jesus chasing along remains curiously current.

In the terms of this story, you may be a Philip, an unappointed apostle, finding yourself in unusual settings and circumstances, proclaiming good news. Playing catch-up to the God who breaks down barriers, you may get a part in extending an unexpected word of grace.

Or you may identify more with the eunuch, one who didn’t expect to be incorporated, whose corporeal reality, whose very body and life kept you excluded, or who was on the outs for some nonsensical reason. You may have some inner yearning to understand this God and be surprised that God yearns for you, too.

Or you may be, admittedly, a combination. Our faith is shaped and guided along not just by insiders, not even just by unofficial insiders like Philip. Some of us who have been the insiders are being taught about Jesus and salvation and what it means to share in the body of Christ by those who had been on the outside, had been excluded, by people we were even told were wrong, weren’t allowed, who surprise even us as embodiments of grace. We can give thanks we are taught God’s love in a richer way by companions who identify as LGBTQ+, by people of a different skin color, by people whose bodies are different, differently abled, or disabled, by people from elsewhere on the planet, by those who aren’t as studied or learned as us, even by situations that may give us discomfort.

With this kind of God, there are always surprises, even about being in it all together, finding a place for everyone. What will prevent it? Nothing. Not even death itself. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

 

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