Boundary Lines & Waters

sermon on Psalm 16
It’s often said with much of the New Testament that we are reading other people’s mail. Paul writing letters to deal with issues and relationships that weren’t meant for snoopy us to eavesdrop.

A notch worse, I realize I have the feeling with Psalms I’m inserting myself into somebody else’s prayers, ancient or your own.

I’ve gotten to consider today’s Psalm for a couple weeks, including the quiet time in the Boundary Waters, where it joined Psalms I’m reading for my devotions this year and Psalms the youth were selecting day by day to fit their experience. It was so steeped in my mind I started jotting sermon notes at early dawn beside Ashigan Lake.

It was occurring to me it will be a challenge this summer to preach on Psalms, since it’s essentially trying to preach a poem. In a minute, I’ll do what probably should never be done by dissecting the poetry, picking it apart for kernels of my choosing, even though that doesn’t let the poem stand in its full voice. I have doubts that I could let it stand in its fullness and be able to hold all of that (even in these little 11 verses) and preach on the whole poem today, partly because it has such movement, vast theme and feel.

But the stand-out snippets make meaning for each of us, where a poem speaks to us, or in this case where we pray and speak with the Psalm to God.

I’ve been told by a famous poet that it doesn’t really matter what the poet meant or was thinking when writing. When it comes down to it, it’s the reader in conversation with the poem. It makes the author a third party to the conversation, not really having a say.

That leaves me as preacher more like a fourth party, really out of the channel of communication you are having with the Psalm. The most this sermon can be is a little boost, an echo cheering and encouraging you. I especially cannot tell you what it means. It’s not speaking a new word, adding a competing voice, trying to debate the Psalm. It shouldn’t be in opposition, making you feel your interpretation—much less your prayer—was wrong. At best, it should offer an opening that validates your prayerfulness, amplifying not my voice but your dialogue with the Psalm. It’s especially important because it’s not just a literary topic but involves your relationship with God. That is to say, I’m deeply hoping—worried enough to have been awake in a tent ten nights ago—that something of my reflection will resonate for you, reinforcing your faith’s voice.

To begin the dissecting, the Psalm’s snippet that stood out to me was “the boundary lines for me have fallen in pleasant places.” Boundary lines and Boundary Waters. I kept spiraling back to that, instead of getting absorbed into other snippets, trying to explain away the violent wrongs of blood-sucking devotions, or to question the theology of chosenness, or to deal much with the first commandment and how often we do have other gods.

birch lake“The boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places” was a verse that grabbed me, becoming my prayer at least in part because I spent a couple days looking across Birch Lake with Canada on the other side. It was pleasant for the sun and sunsets and bird song and calm, quiet rippling waters and agenda-free hours. Instead of boundaries and borders as contentious and fearful, this boundary—an invisible international line floating someplace down the middle of the lake—felt very peaceful and pleasant.

I rightly realized I was lucky. My own fortunate place stood in contrast with many others, like as I was reading about Palestinians confronted with shifting boundaries that are deeply un-pleasant, and remembering last year coming back from canoeing to the news of family separations at our southern border, and that displeasing news continuing to fall all year long as we keep learning more about the horrific conditions we are putting those children through or of no-man’s-land demilitarized zones.

I may indeed feel very privileged, but the prayer of this Psalm doesn’t use that for guilt. It doesn’t mention my boundaries so I feel bad about others. It begins with gratitude. I can pray very honestly: “the boundaries for me have fallen in pleasant places.

“I have a goodly heritage.” It is, after all, an honor to spend a wilderness week with our young people as they’re overcoming challenges and exploring identity and discovering who they’ll be, thinking of their future.

Or if heritage is supposed to look back, it’s goodly heritage to be connected to Sigurd and Aldo and the 55-year-old Wilderness Act with foresight to preserve those Boundary Waters, and we inherit the rewards of their efforts. It’s also a stunning heritage to be on the same lakes and portage paths, not only of most of 50 years of the MCC, but more which French fur trappers and generations of native Americans used. Not to mention moose, wolves, and turtles with wild roses.

The Psalm says “My body rests secure,” itself a securing thought, instilling confidence while in a fragile tent and feeble body surrounded by wilderness winds and nighttime noises.

My boundaries extended back to Madison, of the goodness of life I came home to, back to my house, my routines, my rhythms, my fridge and running water, to stroll around the grounds and peruse my territory, to be in my own familiar and comfortable element. To be here now. The Psalm keeps helping me pray gratitude and contentment and hope.

To be clear, I might not have done that first; where up north I could’ve thought of bug bites and blood-sucking leeches and raindrops, and all that I was missing, and then arrived back here to wish again I was away from stress and emails and the stupid stuff in life, the Psalm instead keeps pointing me to gratitude and security.

Still, Bible and Beer on Tuesday night raised a question of gloating, of having it easy on the west side of Madison. Ken Streit compared it to wearing an old “Life is good” t-shirt. It could make us wonder whether this Psalm is only pray-able by fairly well-to-do people like us.

Yet that probably reads the Psalm backward. Circumstances don’t prove or disprove God. It’s not because I’m in a pleasant place that I can gain reliance on God. The Psalm doesn’t read from a happy situation as the lead-in to faith.

Rather, just the reverse and often the opposite, trust in God leads through the valley of the shadow of death. The Psalm begins exactly with a migrant, somebody displaced and maybe worried about being on the wrong side of the boundary or border, one worried about oppression: it says “I take refuge in God.” I, too, am a refugee. Even (or maybe especially) from American life, I seek refuge and a hiding place, and that place is in God. A refugee in whatever way danger and harm confront you, God is the safe place. This Psalm voices your confidence.

With this focus on Psalms, I had the chance this week to dust off my Hebrew a bit, and there’s a good word here: shamar. Many times the Psalms assert God as shamar, as Keeper, it goes with the image of a shield. But it’s also the word in the Garden of Eden, when the earthling is told to till and keep the soil, observing and tending and preserving. In a way, a translation of that Genesis phrase often gets placed on police badges; not just till and keep, the phrase can be “serve and protect.” It also is translated with guarding, watching over, caring for, remembering. For one thick view of God’s “keeping,” I suggest reading Psalm 121, where the word is used five times in eight little verses.

This expands the boundaries of our view of God. Yes, we can give thanks for all the good. But when something bad happens, it is not that God has forgotten you or turned against you. It is not that your prayer has failed. God is your Keeper, a refuge. Maybe not a shield that prevents any wrong from hitting you, but God will keep on keeping you. God will keep watching over you, without batting an eye, never slumbering. God will strive to lift you out of the mire and muck. God won’t give up.

This Psalm gets picked up in the New Testament, where it exemplifies the extent of God’s care. It is used in reference to the resurrection of Jesus, with the snippet verse “you will not abandon your holy one to the grave.” Far from saying that “life is good,” this is a confession that even though death may strike, God still will not give up. Even then God will rescue you, raise you, and bring you safely into the path of life with pleasures forevermore.

Again, I don’t think that’s needing to compare and say it’s even better than your life now, or that it makes up for the shortcomings now. It’s most directly that you may have confidence in God’s goodness. In the end, it’s not about how well you keep faith in God. It’s that God will faithfully always be your Keeper. And you are never left out of bounds for God.

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Why God?

sermon on Psalm 8, Holy Trinity Sunday
Clouds, sleepiness, and other factors have complicated things so far, but I’ll keep trying (maybe in the darkness of the Boundary Waters) to see Jupiter four times brighter than the brightest star in the sky. It’s so close (relatively speaking, of course) that the four Galilean moons should be visible with binoculars. Those moons were first spotted by Galileo 400 years ago, the biggest of around 79 moons Jupiter has. There may even be a chance to see the Great Red Spot, a centuries-old storm that had been three times the size of our entire planet, but has calmed by 20% in the past month, and nobody knows why.

It’s so phenomenal, and fits exactly with the Psalmist’s neck craned heavenward to the sun, moon, and stars that the Creator set in their courses. Like the composer of Psalm 8, we may be struck by a feeling of insignificance. Thinking on that scale, particularly enveloped by wilderness night sky, we ask “What are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them?”

I was hearing that Ben, three-year old brother of baptism baby James, is fond of asking Why? Sometimes even 20 consecutive answers and explanations still prompt a 21st “Why?” His dad Mike matches that with his own perspective on God, asking lots of Whys, always wondering, wondering, wondering.

And that’s what’s in our Psalm today. Looking up across lightyears, trying to fathom the unfathomable, pondering our place: Why would God care for humans?

The Psalm seems to have one answer for what makes us special, which might strike us as pompous and domineering. It presumes a hierarchy and finds our uppity place in it. This view draws a chart with God at the top, then angels or divine beings, and humans still pretty close to the top, going down from there to good animals maybe like gorillas or dolphins or pet dogs, followed by lower animals like blue jays and salamanders and hermit crabs, and then slugs and jellyfish and mosquitoes, on down to trees and flowers, which are still higher than dirt and rocks and a muddy puddle.

That tiered system may try to label what’s alive or not. There’s also food chain elements to it. And it involves a perspective on complexity, that your eyeball is more evolved than a jellyfish belly.

But it seems slightly suspicious to claim I’m better as a human being, while an oak tree hundreds of years old is nothing, or a structured colony of bees, or even my dog who understands my language though I don’t understand his at all. Not to mention claiming that I’m alive means I must be favored over (possibly) lifeless Jupiter, even though it’s 2.5 times as massive as all the other planets in the solar system combined.

Not only is it slightly audacious and dubiously defined to stake out that position for ourselves, but it comes with a terrible risk. For some reason, we wind up quick to abuse our territory, claiming we can lord it over other creatures, can trample them and do what we like without regard for others.

We should clearly realize that this Psalm is far from giving us permission to do harm or use up this earth. After all, creatures declare God’s majesty. A lake with its fish poisoned, a sky too polluted to see stars, a dead field that holds soybeans but harbors no life, diminish the praise of a majestic God.IMG_2299

Even in this sanctuary, when it’s too focused on humans, loses the best and most authentic praise. I’d really like to get a bird to sing Alleluias with us. But at least for the summer we’ve got plants and fish that rightly expand our praise.

I believe the place of humans is not better or worse, but different. See, birds sing their praise without instruction. Plants grow and bear fruit. Fish naturally know their place. Jupiter doesn’t need to be told how to be a planet. But humans need the reminder. Unlike the rest of creation, it seems, we need to be re-placed in these relationships, to be set right.

So instead of ranking it in a hierarchy to make winners and losers, instead of carving out our niche as haughty trampling tyrants on the one hand, or falling from the moral high ground into lament and despair of the damage we’ve done and how difficult it sometimes seems it is to do right, to be well, to live life as we should—neither placing ourselves abusively above nor so low and feeble, instead today we have a different perspective, and it comes to us from James Robert, or maybe with him.

“What are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, O God, human beings that you should care for them?” That question remains. As a remarkable mark of mindfulness and care, God gives the promise in baptism.

God has claimed a place of prominence for James Robert. God has offered eternal assurances, tying him to the resurrected and unending life of Jesus. James Robert is clothed in the very presence of God, chosen for God’s mission in the world of right relationships of justice and peace. He has been sealed by the Holy Spirit.

Clearly that is a gift. Sure, we could say that James Robert is plenty cute, especially when he’s smiling. But God didn’t choose him for his looks.

It’s not because of his singing voice or because he knows the answers and can speak for God, though the Psalm says God’s praise and defense comes out of the mouths of babes and infants. I don’t expect the next time he’s wailing in the middle of the night it will feel like he’s praising God. Yet God must not need our articulate words, our songs pitched to praise. Even with a small sob, God wants to be identified.

Even more clearly, then, the status of humans generally and James Robert particularly is not from his potential, because he’s so powerfully capable. This is the really amazing thing about baptizing babies: it’s not their choice. It’s not their ability. It’s not their response. It’s not the good they have done or the bad that they’ll try to stay away from. It’s only and totally because God wants him. What are human beings that God is mindful, we little people that God cares? Well, with baptism we have the clear proclamation that our place is beloved. It’s not anything we are or aren’t but is because of what God is, a God of love, of relationship, a God of reconciliation and compassion, a God striving for life.

On this Trinity Sunday, maybe that’s what we notice, a God not of lording it over, not of power and might, but a God of possibility and life, even beyond death, a God delighting in creation, a God who is somehow with us right now.

We ask why. And we can’t fully know. We ask how, and we can just trust. We may only have that our tradition has been able to discern this God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God, the Father of Jesus, God incarnate suffering to make it right, God’s Spirit invisible but still bringing Jesus to be with us as she leads us into this truth. And all that because God wants you to know your place: you are loved.

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Free from the Babysitter

sermon on Galatians 3:1-9,23-29

 

You’ll be shocked to hear that I was called a geek this week.

It partly related to pointing out June 25th will be the 489th anniversary of a definitive Lutheran statement, including that the church is “the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments administered.” In 1530, Lutherans had to present an accounting of their beliefs, and that bit has stood as our main definition of the church ever since.

Now, I don’t care if you are also ready to call me a geek. Mostly I care that you know what church is.

So I’ll begin by congratulating you: being here involves you in what it means to be the church, as you listen to preaching and receive sacraments, turning again to the waters of baptism and to be fed at the Lord’s table. Here you are connected to the crucified Jesus, as he his set forth in proclamation, and as we again proclaim the resurrection with new life breaking free and spreading: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

For one thing, this means we don’t define church as a building. So much for “here is the church, here is the steeple.” No, church isn’t a place you go; it’s people you’re with.

Another distinction is about all of us here, and far, far beyond. It’s not just an assembly of believers, but the assembly around the world, and across time. We all become the church. And that big, big group is very different than trying to define church as under a pope or a bishop or pastor. For us, leadership doesn’t define the church. In fact, the descriptions go on to say I’m not exactly a leader of this congregation, but a servant. I’m here simply because you need to hear preaching and receive sacraments. I’m at your beck and call for that. You ask for somebody to tell you about Jesus, so I do. I’m grateful you even pay me for doing it.

One other distinction seems more often to affect our sense of what church is: we want to think of church (or believe about ourselves) that it is about doing good and being good.

Not to single them out but illustrating our general notion, in Confirmation this week with students and mentors, thoughts were mainly that church is about being helpful or kind. It means All Are Welcome. Plus we’ve got a garden.

To be clear: I’m in favor of all of that. I hope those are feelings you have about Advent and the MCC and are stories you tell about us. But it’s pretty darn risky as a definition of church.

Similarly, for core identity of church, there’s a banner in the Covenant Room with nine statements labeling a version of what it might mean to “be the church,” things like protect the environment, care for the poor, fight racism, enjoy this life. Once again, I’m absolutely in favor of those. I hope that it’s not just great UCC PR, but fits us in the broader church, too. I want them to be what happens.

But I reiterate: that’s risky. It is risky because those may fail. I may get too comfortable in my white supremacy and ignore racism. Or if I leave a light switch on and hop on another plane and don’t protect the environment. Or if I don’t show much hospitality even though I’ve said All Are Welcome. Or if the garden gets flooded out. Or if I’m not very helpful or kind. Then that has undone what we’d claimed it meant to be the church.

We’d better pause to consider: if the church is about what we do, it’s at risk. And it rapidly becomes pointlessly redundant. Not only can I try protecting the environment apart from church and this group of people, but plenty of people who don’t come to church do it a lot better. So that had better not be our definition.

So instead of church being something we do, let’s realize it mainly happens to us. Instead of making our actions or attitudes the center of church, it is really about Jesus. It is what God is doing for us in Jesus, being in relationship, reaching out, renewing us. And then we’re aware that the main place church can happen and we receive faith is here in worship.

If it’s not about what we do, but about what God gives us in Jesus, we also understand the historic emphasis on his death and resurrection. It doesn’t neglect the life and ministry of Jesus, but is a prioritizing distinction. Again, if we thought church were mainly learning what Jesus did so we could try to go and do likewise, we’d be sorely disappointed, disenchanted, and misdirected. Death and resurrection isn’t something we can do. This is proclamation of a new reality.

This is what’s going on in Galatians. Faith vs. a category Paul names “works of the law.” We could substitute in “things we do,” all the shoulds and oughts, stuff supposed to make us feel right, but with false confidence on one hand and horrible accusation too often on the reverse.

For such instructions, as a kid “Be nice to your sister,” was an indicator insisting I wasn’t being very nice, and it still met a minimal response from me.

More largely, Paul asks why we are so thoughtlessly beguiled, seduced, or bewitched to think that’s how it should work, with rules to follow and imagining we can prove we’re doing it right. Here in 21st Century North America, it’s clearly because that’s the water we’re swimming in. You’re not only told to be nice to your little sister, but how to apply lotion to avoid wrinkles and keep cavities at bay, plus behaviors for allegedly avoiding cancer. There’s what kind of car will make you macho, or safe in bad weather. What is the right diet is followed by what is now the righter diet, and then what is really the right diet. Guilty feelings come for failing at being a better partner or parent or child or employee, with an abundance of ideas and suggestions for improving. There’s what you’re supposed to be in charge of to avoid getting arrested or needing an abortion. There’s how you are successful in life, with grades and resumes and five year plans. Not to mention phone plans.

We might notice it’s an exceptional privilege to imagine we have capacity to address those things and many more, which we wouldn’t in another place or time. But it’s also an incredible burden, destined for disappointment, fraught with failure. Our self-doubt ironically signals the foolishness of such searching for self-confidence. What we try to do for reassurance leaves us all-the-more susceptible to despair.

It’s not entirely negative. There are good things to do; it was right to be told not to hit my sister.

But there’s something a little childish about being mesmerized into all of it.

That goes with the word “babysitter” in my re-translation of this Bible passage. The actual Greek word is “pedagogue,” which we associate with a teacher. But originally this person was on the way to school. It literally means “child-leader,” A pedagogue would walk a child to school, keeping them safe and out of trouble along the way. Kind of like daycare outings when children have to hold onto a rope in single file. That’s what Paul says the law is like. A babysitter along the way.

With that, maybe you have the sense why this isn’t ideal. You’ve got plenty that is vying for your attention, claiming to be the right rope to hold onto to get you safely across life’s streets and keep you from straying too far. You’ve got a whole herd of competing babysitters who want to watch over you and tell you how incapable you are.

You certainly don’t need the church to be one more version of that, to come here expecting that we are just another babysitter, another pedagogue, another set of rules to live by and to-do lists for a supposed happy, healthy, productive life. You don’t need it, and you’d have no reason to trust it in such a competitive marketplace anyway.

What’s more, that’s not how God is going to treat you. Sure, motivations and coercions and guidelines are helpful in their proper place. But God isn’t going to keep treating you like a toddler with a bad attention span.

Instead, God has freed you to live. You are clothed in Christ, trying on unlimited resurrected life. God puts the Holy Spirit into you through this worship service to go out, not just to follow rules or be confined into small roles. You have inherited the blessing. You receive the gift of faith, bestowing on you the inheritance from God. This is last will and testament language in the Bible reading. God’s estate has been conferred to you, not only as a steward for mid-level management, but as the full inheritor, the owner, the responsible adult.

Still more stunning, God is doing this, conferring this identity on you, regardless of who you are or have been or thought you were.

There is no insider to this blessing, as in that old category of neither Jew nor Greek; all are God’s people.

There is neither slave nor free, meaning your social status doesn’t confer it. Those were citizenship categories, of who had a voice in the nation. We could still say you aren’t entitled to more or less as citizen vs. undocumented immigrant or refugee. And if God is for it, who can be against?

Then, “there is not male and female.” I couldn’t find explanations, but I think maybe Paul switches terms from “neither/nor” to not male “and” female to highlight creation story language from Genesis, that “God created them male and female, in the image of God.” That was already a strong statement: all genders are created in the image of God and seen as very good. But maybe Paul is even more saying you’re not just living into the old gender-assigned roles. And in an old culture where only male children—only sons—could inherit the father’s property, Paul is negating that restriction. All of you inherit God’s blessing, God’s promise, this life in Jesus, this adulthood in faith.

The gift of these expansive redefining relationships given by God’s relationship with us is embodied in the Immigrant Creed that Sonja shared in the Facebook group this week, and which we’ll use as our statement of faith in just a moment. And notice again it’s about God and not about what we do.

This is what God is creating right here in this worship service. This is what God is doing in the church always, around the world, through all time, proclaiming an assurance, to free you not only from oughts and shoulds, but freeing you to live.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

NSRV (Nick’s Special Re-done Version) of Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

 
You thoughtless Galatians, who has beguiled you? Wasn’t the crucified Jesus Christ set forth in proclamation before your eyes? 2 I only want to know this from you: is it from works of the law you received the Spirit, or from faith preached? 3 Are you so unthinking, beginning with the Spirit but now ending with the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so much for nothing? (If indeed it was for nothing.) 5 So is the Spirit given to you and powerful works done among you because of works of the law, or faithful preaching?
 
6 Just as Abraham “had confidence in God, and it was considered to him as righteousness,” 7 you know the faithful are the children of Abraham. 8 The scripture foresaw that by faith God would set right the nations, and proclaimed the good news beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” 9 So the faithful are blessed with the faithfulness of Abraham.
 
23 Before faith came, we were being kept confined under the law, until faith was destined to be unveiled. 24 Thus the law was our babysitter until Christ came, when we would be set right from faith. 25 So faith came, and we are no longer under a babysitter: 26 you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 and all you baptized into Christ are dressed in Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And since you are of Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, inheriting what has been promised.

 

 

from The Immigrant’s Creed

Jose Luis Casal, General Missioner, Tres Rios Presbytery, PCUSA


I believe in Almighty God, who guided the people in exile and in exodus,

the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, the God of immigrants.

I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean, born away from his home,

who fled his country with his parents when his life was in danger,

and suffered the oppression of a tyrant of a foreign power,

who was persecuted, tortured, and unjustly condemned to death.

But on the third day, this scorned Jesus rose from the dead,

to offer us citizenship in heaven.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,

who speaks all languages, lives in all countries, and reunites all races.

I believe that the church is the secure home for all who constitute it,

the diverse Communion of the Saints who have the same purpose.

I believe in the reconciliation, which identifies us

more than does language, nationality, [social status, or gender].

I believe that in the resurrection God unites us as one people

in which all are distinct and all are alike at the same time.

Beyond this world, I believe in Life Eternal

in which all will be citizens of God’s kingdom, which will never end. Amen

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