sermon for Pride Sunday

on Psalm 82pride

I’m glad that this Psalm happened to show up today.

Let me set the stage for that:

A lectionary is a set of readings. This Psalm appointed for this day is listed in a set of readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s a three-year cycle with some origin in the ecumenical movement of the 1960’s, eventually giving rise to this version in 1994. It is used in lots of mainline Protestant churches, like some Lutheran and UCC, plus Episcopalian and Presbyterian, a few United Methodists and more. It’s also fairly close to the Catholic lectionary. So lots of us might be hearing a specific Bible reading on a certain day.

As we are amid a Psummer of Psalms, and as we prepared to celebrate Pride Sunday as the MCC, I was eager to discover what the Revised Common Lectionary had assigned for today. Would the passage fit? Would it be able to relate in any way? After all, if we randomly open the Bible and point at a page, we’re likely to end up without much spiritual insight. It could be an instruction about an ox or a verse about Egyptians or telling of destruction. Or lots of general praise for God’s goodness. So what would make us expect a coincidence of some Psalm having something to say on Pride Sunday?

This question is important because the most frequent way the church has looked for the Bible to say something about or to people who are LGBTQ has been to go through this big mixed book and pick out seven little verses that probably aren’t even talking about the same thing we are and then to begin issuing condemnations. We could just as well find lots in the Gospels where Jesus is close friends with other men, he even kisses them, and refers to Lazarus as the one whom he loved. We might as well claim gay Jesus as definitive instead of the condemnation passages. It would have at least as much to say to our current context. And there’s plenty where Jesus redefines gender roles and stereotypes and sees that divide as more fluid than fixed, and we could say he was an early proponent sympathetic to transgender issues.

Partly, then, a lectionary restricts me from picking and choosing to reinforce my view, skewing a message from God. Given today’s random Psalm, not chosen particularly for Pride Sunday, not cherry-picked as pro or con, it’s an interesting opportunity to ask what a broader overall biblical message might be.

With that question in mind, I was surprised and delighted that Psalm 82 really does seem to speak to today. To start, this Psalm declares God as a God of justice. That’s the criterion, and failing to do justice is judged as ungodly, as not-right. God doesn’t want us on the side of evil, and the good side is declared by God as being “fair to the poor and to orphans,” working to establish life for “the helpless and everyone in need” and offering deliverance to “the weak and homeless.”

For an easy point of contrast, the acting director of the federal department of Citizenship and Immigration Services rather notoriously decreed this week that the poem on the Statue of Liberty needed an adjustment, that it should say “Give me your tired, your poor…who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

But God’s voice in the Psalm will not make such distinctions. It doesn’t tell to rescue the weak and homeless, orphaned unaccompanied minor as long as they have proper documentation and can prove their asylum case and jump through legal loopholes. It doesn’t say to help the helpless as long as they look like you and talk like you and share your religion. It restricts no timespan on assistance. It doesn’t ask one in need to prove their worth; it’s a given.

Our current national wrongdoing and injustice becomes still more apparent, since the last verse of the Psalm is directed as God’s judgment on the nations. God has explicitly judged that as misbehavior, as miscarriage of responsibility: those with authority have not done what they were called to do.

Another note on authority in this Psalm: Following much of the ancient world, this Psalm talks about a divine council, or literally a congregation of heavenly beings. As we think “waitasecond! the Bible is monotheistic!” other gods showing up probably throws us off. Some interpreters say these heavenly beings are more like angels. Others see it with a common early belief that each nation had a god. In this Psalm, the God of Hebrews stands at the center of their gathering with the most moral authority, pointing out that others had failed in their duty.

If you don’t like to picture our God like Zeus with a Greek pantheon, aren’t sure about a heavenly courtroom, and don’t like this notion of other gods or whatever, still you can picture any unseen forces that are beyond our control, ruling over us. There’s often something invisible to wondering where wickedness comes from.

And it’s always helpful to remember that a god is wherever we most put our trust. We continue to have other gods exerting their authority in our lives because we give allegiance to money or to laws, to national identity or in-groups, to popular culture and healthiness and to our own selves, claiming our own abilities and desires as the highest authority.

But in any of those cases, when it has called astray from defending the poor and assisting the vulnerable and working to establish a system that is on their side, when we fall captive to self-interests or to dominant ideologies, when the powerful get their way while the hurting are abandoned, this Psalm declares God’s strong judgment against it, warning that the very foundations of the earth are at risk and God’s intention for creation is threatened with collapse. But God declares judgment that those false gods will fall. Whatever immortality they had, whatever seemed to be godlike power will die. In one of the terms of our time, God essentially says there’s no such thing as “too big to fail.” This is a strong call to justice.

With that, I want to return to the emphasis that this Psalm was assigned for this calendar date. Not quite the randomness of flipping to any page, but this is what the Bible happens to be saying to us today, the voice of God being spoken, and asking to be applied into our lives, our context, including for Pride Sunday.

I would also pause to highlight that this is a more primary voice of scripture and of God than if we went on the hunt for seven little snippets reinforcing someone’s homophobia. To imagine that that perspective speaks for God or is what the Bible has to say in relation to LGBTQ lives is a gross warping of this more prevalent message that calls for justice and says God sides with the oppressed and vulnerable.

To be clear, that is part of why as a congregation we join our voices to God’s voice on this Sunday. It’s why I—as a straight, white, American-born, cisgender male—offer my presence, knowing still much too often, people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer in whatever way are threatened in our nation, facing injustices of losing jobs and housing, maybe risk life itself, living with unequal treatment, unfair opportunity, unkind interactions, and unjust pressures. If we follow our God, if we recognize God as the central moral authority and the judge, who created and holds the fate of the world, then we are called to stand on the side of justice, against persecutions, and together with these siblings, to be part of the work of “delivering them from the powerful hands of heartless people.” That is the life our God intends for all of us to be living together. Anything less won’t suffice. We’re clearly not there yet. There’s work to do.

But there’s another part of this Pride Sunday that doesn’t directly fit into the Psalm, that I want to keep inviting us into. That is celebration. The Hebrews reading reminds us we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, that many of our ancestors in this faithful journey continue to encourage us, to lead us to persevere, as we follow Jesus the pioneer. In this long view, we’ll get there together. They aren’t left out, and neither will we be. We’ve come this far by faith, and our weary feet will come to the place for which our parents sighed (ELW 841).

And so we, with good reason both in looking back and looking forward today, gather in celebration. This year is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, which makes it also the 49th anniversary of the first pride events. In faithful memorial, we might mark as martyrs for the cause, sacrificing saints who gave us steps forward to guide us on in progress.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the MCC. And we celebrate that for half of that existence, our congregations have been officially welcoming, striving for justice, witnessing to the world, celebrating that the image of God is equally and uniquely in each of us, that none of us is removed from God’s blessing, God’s effort for life. Since 1995, we have been continuing to practice more and more how we can be authentically the people God created us to be and is calling us to be. In 1995 there were only five open and affirming UCC congregations in the state. In 1995, Advent preceded any other congregations in this synod by a decade in becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. We have been and continue to be witnesses to God’s goodness, in our lives and for the sake of the world. This is to be celebrated, and we can be proud. We join in living with pride.

 

Psalm 82               Contemporary English Version

When all of the other gods have come together,
the Lord God judges them and says:
“How long will you keep judging unfairly and defending evil people?
Be fair to the poor and to orphans.
Make it right for the helpless and everyone in need.
Rescue the weak and homeless,
deliver them from the powerful hands of heartless people.
“None of you know or understand a thing.
You live in darkness, while the foundations of the earth tremble.
I, the Most High God, say that all of you are gods
and also my own children, all of you.
But you will die, just like mortals, including powerful rulers.”
Do something, God! Judge the nations of the earth; they belong to you.

 

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andy

sketch by John Mix

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Andrew John Remington

November 23, 1936 + August 3, 2019

 

The first time I ever met Andy became I think the longest hospital visit I’ve ever done.

I generally figure hospital visits should be and are brief. A sick person trying to find energy for healing and rest doesn’t really need a clergyperson loitering about trying to make small talk, especially when that clergyperson is a stranger. So I figured I’d pop in, and if Andy was in the room and awake I’d introduce myself and hear a bit of what why he was there and say a quick prayer about it then be on my way home to supper.

Well, something over an hour later it had gotten dark outside and not only was it maybe my longest pastoral care visit, but also the one with the deepest theological conversation as Andy shared his view on things and invited my thoughts and feelings.

He took this stuff seriously. In the language of our Bible reading, he wouldn’t probably claim quite the extent of “understanding all mysteries and all knowledge,” but he was seeking to understand. In the millennium-old definition of theology, he had “faith seeking understanding.” But it wasn’t just to engage his brain or to try for a deep conversation. His faith was truer than that.

The reading also talks about having “faith to move mountains.” And again though it’s not the limit of this for Andy, certainly another of the characteristics of Andy’s faith was his conviction for miracles. Most of my visits with him insisted on trusting in miracles, that there would be enormous surprises from God. I value how he didn’t expect those only to be in an instant flash of light, but included that God’s goodness would find us in more ways than we had reason personally to expect. That outlook was even embodied in his refrain that he never achieved all he was capable of, but still he did more than he thought he could, better than he imagined.

He very much counted his relationship with you, Helen, as a prime example of such miracles, and also then the extension to the amazing family he gained and to be able to be called grandpa. For a man who saw miracles, that was probably the biggest. And I’d say there’s been something miraculous about it for you, too, Helen, including as people around Advent have been remembering much in these days those terribly hard times at the sudden death of your first husband. Andy came in with more goodness than you’d expect and got to enjoy and be secure in for so long.

Those initial connections make me also think of early days through Al-Anon and how Helen has told me that Andy was so committed in leading the 12-step program that he said there was no other way, that you had to follow it. Some of that sounds like Corinthians’ refusal to rejoice in wrongdoing, and those very difficult efforts to set life right or at least better as bearing all things and enduring all things and hoping all things. It takes that kind of commitment to make it through sometimes, to pursue truth.

For comparisons, he also for some reason wanted it said at this service that he liked learning about time-outs as a wise discipline method for children. Maybe we’d pair that with the reading talking about putting an end to childish ways and reasoning.

But again, his faith wasn’t just that. It wasn’t understanding theology. It wasn’t solely expecting miracles. It wasn’t only about trying to do right.

Of course, what I’m dancing around here is what you probably know deeply about Andy through and through: that for him, the core was love. He’d say that some guys were bashful about love and wouldn’t want to say “I love you,” but he’d say it straight out and deeply mean it. I’d give Helen a hug with my goodbyes, and he’d insist that he wanted one too and didn’t feel bad about it.

Another of those particularly Andy surprises that he wanted stated at this service was that he discovered after a few years of marriage that it wasn’t only about the sex. (There you go, Andy. It’s not the sort of thing I’d say in a church service, but you get your request.) And it’s maybe a funny and silly line, but we also trust it as truly Andy, that he most definitely lived more fully in love.

Love was with Helen.

Love was with family.

Love was with friends, including the words from the GEMS we’re hearing.

Love was with Al-Anon.

Love was with the briefer connections, like with staff at Sienna Crest or nurses in the hospital, where he’d joke and poke a little fun with his sly smirking smile as a way to change their work day and, indeed, know they were loved.

Andy was great at love.

I’ve been pondering since I got the news of his death on Saturday morning about the last line of the Corinthians passage, that faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love. Why love?

I probably have times of wanting faith to be biggest, trusting in God or in Jesus. I want to get my theology right and to know and to understand. But it says that’s not biggest.

I often want hope to be biggest, to be confident it will all work out, that there’s something amazing around the corner and more to come. That’s not the greatest.

Well, I already said Andy didn’t have all the answers, so it wasn’t ultimately faith for him. And in spite of his thought of miracles, he had some very hard moments of doubt and worry when the cancer diagnosis came in and as he anticipated death. He had peace, too, but I won’t say it’s only that. So he wasn’t suspecting or hoping everything would be okay or that the cancer would just go away.

And he certainly continued to persist in love, in his concern for Helen and very precious close times and conversations together, and for the rest of us. Still, the readings says, “love never ends, but now we’re without his love. There are no more hugs, no more deep-voiced gravelly assurances of “I love you.”

But for what I don’t have figured out, and what Andy may not always have had either, for the sake of pondering today about this passage, I’m grateful that Helen insisted on our other Bible passage. “For God so loved the world that God have the only begotten Son, so that we might have eternal life.”

What abides, the greatest of these, isn’t our faith. It’s not the power of what we hope. It’s not even that we love. It’s that God loves without end. We can say we knew a reflection of that love in Andy, the unstoppable unfathomable complete love of God in Jesus. God loves you. Even now and forever, God loves Andy. That remains eternally, and that’s the greatest.

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Life is Costly

sermon on Psalm 49

Why do good things happen to people?

That’s not our usual question, is it? We like to wonder why bad things happen to good people. Of course, we could just as well wonder why bad things happen to people period, to anybody. We don’t really need to label people either good or bad, since that’s mostly our own biased judgment anyway. And we could also ask why good things happen to people—not to bad people, as if they should be precluded, or to good people, as if some folks should be extra deserving. No, let’s just ask why good things happen to people.

But then we’d also better pause to ask what the good things really are. Lisa got us started on a question that I wanted to ask not just the kids but all of you: what do we typically count as the good things? …

 

That’s a good list – clean water, career achievements, family, friends, a house, compassion, health. As we think, we can get pretty esoteric, an enlightened perspective. I was going to add: Life long enough to enjoy grandkids. Traveling and exploring. Freedom. Praise or acclamation. Laughter.

But if boil it down, if we’re honest and a bit crass, we know our culture has one predominant answer. What’s the most important thing? Money. The big bucks. Moola.

We might say money enables you to buy most of the other stuff. It buys security and much of your identity. It funds wellbeing, at very least in terms of health care or food to sustain your body. Education, even if followed by student loans. It pays for vacations and leisure and relief from bad things. Though the Beatles sang Can’t Buy Me Love, tell that to Chalmer’s jewelers. Heck, you can even purchase legal assistance to spring you if you’ve gotten yourself into most sticky situations. That might make us observe that money is a good thing that happens much too often to bad people.

So this may raise questions of Why, of allotment. Why isn’t distribution equal, or at least responsive to a cause? Some may have earned their millions or billions with extreme skill at sports or as amazing innovators who came up with ideas helpful to humankind or they were really good managers or simply that they gamed the system and knew how to make it work.

For fairness and economics, we don’t much directly say that it is divinely influenced, that God apportioned wealth, deciding somebody should be rich while leaving others in poverty.

Well…we don’t directly say that, but I mention it exactly in order to remove that subtext from our brains. If we think wealth is a good thing and that God chose to give it to some and preclude others, by and large that is not the message of the Bible, and is frequently opposed by the God known in Jesus who sides with the poor and seeks to overturn the rich.

When we believe people with big retirement accounts are successful and lived fruitfully, and churches with big budgets are doing something right, and claim God blesses America as the lucrative financial place to be, then that misses the light of Christ and is idolatrous in identifying God with wealth, when we can’t clearly say where God is in it.

But that godly uncertainty doesn’t bother us much, since we are mostly like the Psalm in getting focused on a life of bank accounts and stock markets and our own fiscal possibilities and impossibilities without much of any mention about God. The Psalm doesn’t indicate that God gives wealth or directly say that God sides with the poor, even though it seems addressed to alleviate some of the fear or resentment. It doesn’t really include God in the perspective much at all. There’s no hint whether God has anything to do with good or bad people winding up with too much money. Psalm 49 seems uninterested in the why questions of fair distribution. The original assigned excerpt for today ended after 12 verses, with only one mention of God which was for the sake of negating relationship with God. That doesn’t say much.

And yet I suspect that’s largely true of not only our cash flow but the flow of our lives. Mostly we carry on without much attention to God. We assess our own sense of what is good and right, our own judgment on what is bad. It may be something is beautiful or pleasant. It may be because it is painful or sad. We may just trust our conscience or rely on society’s perception. We think we know how things should go, or what we want to have. Maybe we pause in prayer about that, to ask God to give us the good, or to lament and argue with God when we feel we unfairly receive the bad. But by and large we continue on without God. Though that may seem especially true in an age when fewer people are attending church or even professing belief in God, evidently it’s been mainly true for well over two thousand years, if we can relate so clearly to the Psalm’s perspective.

This Psalm is a genre in the Bible known as Wisdom literature, which is why we had Martha’s voice as teacher. The book of Proverbs is probably the main association of it. With odd false assurances like “No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble” (12:21), it’s some of my least favorite stuff in the Bible, because it’s mainly about how we live and fails to have much about God. It can end up saying awful things from a place of smug satisfaction, that my prosperity is evidence God rewarded me for what I did, which means your problems must be because you didn’t behave properly. The book of Job is some anti-wisdom literature, because Job says he tried to do all the right things but didn’t receive good and so that system wasn’t true.

At any rate, this Psalm is of a different sort. If wisdom literature is about how we live, and this piece is about money, then we’d probably expect it to tell us how to get more money, or instruct what we should properly spend our money on. Even if it didn’t say much about God but gave some financial insight, we would count that as wisdom worth learning. After all, NPR mentions the Dow Jones average in every single news update. Even the president doesn’t get that much coverage, much less any issue more relevant to our faith.

But this wisdom tells us that that focus on money isn’t worthwhile. It doesn’t pay. In the end, in the biggest picture, it doesn’t matter. That’s what this wisdom claims.

I know you can argue that wealth will extend life and somehow make you live longer, all the way to Google Director of Engineering and transhumanist Ray Kurzweil, who figures he can upload his brain and therefore never die. But the wisdom of the Psalm, with its economic message, declares: no, no matter how rich you are, it won’t save you.

I know there’s lots of life in the meantime, with need for economic justice and your very personal financial worries. I complained that the sermon I heard last week on vacation warped Jesus’ very real concern for those in debt into something delayed and otherworldly. But that also might mean I’m guilty of putting money before God or the economy in the place of God, even if I want to claim I do it for good and godly reasons.

The Psalm will have none of that. It won’t let money get in the way of our primary relationship with God. It doesn’t care and completely disregards whether we have lots or too little. (Though there’s probably less risk of too little displacing God.) The wisdom of this Psalm may at first seem to be mainly a caution or a reminder simply about finances.

But we had to add extra verses to get the theological import and the real good thing that is our ultimate reliance. Its heart is in the words you spoke for yourself: “God will ransom my soul from death. God will receive me.”

Yes. In the biggest picture, for any of your successes or what you lack, for the short sweep with a very final ending, that is exactly what matters. God may teach us to love what is worth loving, as our Prayer of the Day said. But this isn’t only about what we treasure. That’s still about us. This is that nothing can overpower God’s relationship with you. Not money. Not death. Nothing. God gives you life. God sustains your life and your whole self. God cares for all of you. And God will never let go, not for the ease or the hardness of these days, not even releasing you into death, but paying with God’s own self that you will live.

 

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