a funeral sermon

john-goltermannWith Thanksgiving for the Life of John Fredrick Goltermann

(4 June 1935 + 31 December 2016)

Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Colossians 3:1-4; Luke 6:20-23; Psalm 23

 

While celebrating John’s life, I’ve also been lamenting—partly since I met him but more in the past two weeks that I didn’t really get to know him.

I’ve been his pastor for nearly the past year, but our visits had varying amounts of connection, though he was always congenial and direct, graceful and genuine. Sometimes my stop would be as brief as a couple sentences, when he’d answer my question about a visit with, “Yes, why don’t you come back another time.” Other times we chatted more, still with his answers nearly as brief, a short few word replies to my inquiries. It wasn’t easy to draw him out or learn about his life.

Making it even more difficult, once when he was most talkative, I later learned from Jean and Fred that the dementia had interfered and John wasn’t actually remembering the stories and details as they’d actually happened. Still, perhaps the main point of that visit and the thing that I don’t have any reason to doubt was his statement that he had to thank God for all of his blessings. Even as he wasn’t feeling up to getting out of bed, and even as dementia was robbing him of his life, he spoke of offering thanks.

That is why we’re here today, to be able to say thank you to God in honest and enormous ways, sometimes in spite of everything else. Today, we say thank you for the gift of life, for sharing it with John through the years. We say thank you for him, even though he could be difficult to know, and even in spite of sadness at his death. We give thanks because the promise of life from God overcomes all obstacles, even in this moment of sorrow and loss and finality.

Again, to back up a bit, I wish I’d gotten to know more of John. There was a sparkle in his eyes as he talked about his fundraising work and its many relationships and what that work meant for him. That delight fits with our first reading from Ecclesiastes, which concluded “that there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy [yourself] as long as [you] live; [and] moreover, it is God’s gift that all should take pleasure in their toil.” John discovered that pleasure in his toil, from what I’ve heard and learned. And I’m also told that he did pretty well at Ecclesiastes’ vision of being happy and enjoying himself, including old days of tennis and the move up to the U.P. and walks around town here and Eva’s reflections of dining in Chicago with her father and toasting a great nephew’s 21st birthday and his quick humor.

Still, along with that Bible reading, we realize it wasn’t all those good times and happy memories. As much as we’d wish for those things to continue, the best Ecclesiastes can tell us is that we can’t figure out why God put our times together how they are. There are times to be happy and times to mourn. A time for embracing, but also when that doesn’t happen. A time to be born and a time to die. We may wish otherwise. We may not have the faintest clue of why God has done it this way. But we easily observe that this is how life goes.

We heard this same reading from Ecclesiastes as one of our Bible readings in worship on New Year’s Day this year, in a service inviting us to look back at the past year and forward into the next and to discover God’s blessing amid all of it. In general, there may be plenty of discontent about 2016 and trepidation for 2017. More specifically, that was also the morning when I announced with our prayers that John had died the day before, on December 31st.

Perhaps that gave us reason to look into 2017 as a relief from John’s suffering, for not having to struggle any more with the diminishment of life from what it should have been. But we also have to admit we’re looking into this new year without John, and that makes something obviously not right.

That sense of wrong Ecclesiastes was content—or at least resigned—to leave to the uncertainty of God. But that isn’t always the faithful answer. Our faith, which discovers God most closely and importantly revealed for us in death on a cross, has a tendency to look in the obscurest places for blessing. One example is that core verse we read from the 23rd Psalm: we don’t only look for God’s presence and blessing amid full tables with overflowing cups or along still waters, verdant pastures, and right pathways, but the most vital verse and dearest for us in that Psalm declares the shepherd accompanies us through the darkest valleys when we’re overcome by the shadow of death. That assurance is far from Ecclesiastes’ sense of enjoying life, but is the heart of trust and hope in this faith we share.

The reading from Colossians also shares an unexpected assurance that seems appropriate for John. Describing John’s personality, I’d use terms like introverted or reserved or a man of few words, keeping to himself. Colossians labels it that his life was hidden. There were things we didn’t know or maybe couldn’t understand about him, about his choices or his illness. Well, this reading says that even what we think we know about each other or about ourselves isn’t the full reality. In fact, these details we claim for our identity—our families, our work lives, our shortcomings, the history we may have forgotten, our favorite sports teams—these are as good as dead amid the fullness we have of life in Christ, though that remains unseen and unknown. Who John was and who we are is hidden in Christ, and will only be fully known through that love and the glory of resurrected life. That’s an astounding word of promise.

One last example today is in the words of Jesus typically known as the Beatitudes. These are words of hidden blessing, of unexpected and surprising reversals that God’s grace always brings to us. With the sense of those words from Jesus, we could continue to expand our faithful vision of this unseen reality with Beatitudes especially for John today:

Blessed are those with memory loss, for they will be remembered.

Blessed are the hard to know, because in them we nevertheless know God.

Blessed are the introverted, for in them we will find humor.

Blessed are the reserved, for from them we appreciate honesty of compliments.

Blessed are the strong in body, for in them we witness gentleness of spirit.

Blessed are the hard-working, for they will be given rest and leisure.

Blessed are we who weep, for we will sing Alleluias.

Blessed are you in death, for then you have the assurance of eternal life in Christ Jesus. Amen

 

http://www.cressfuneralservice.com/obituary/170972/John-Goltermann/

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God Calls David

sermon on 1st Samuel 16:1-13
Picture this if you can: an elected leader has lost trust, leading to the conclusion that a farm kid from Nowheresville could probably do a better job.

The elected leader in this case is a king. He is elected, since the people said they wanted a king like other nations, even though God warned them that he’d misbehave, in taking their sons for wars, and taking their daughters for other things, and taking their property in taxes, and mainly looking out for his own ego.

That elected leader King Saul has, indeed, lost trust. So today’s reading is about that farm kid (or shepherd boy) from Nowheresville being chosen as a better possible leader. (We know the name of this little town of Bethlehem—even through the birth of Jesus—only because this farm kid was from there).

This reading, then, has a lot to do with the criteria for choice. Along with our Gospel window in your bulletins, where Jesus suggests we should judge with right judgment, there is the central line in our story, “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” So our question may be how to judge in that godly way, how we might go about not seeing what we see with our own eyes, but look at the situation or person as God would, to look with God’s eyes.

Now, when Saul was chosen as the first king of these Israelite people, it seems his physical outward appearance did matter. Twice Saul is described as standing “head and shoulders” above the rest. Maybe that means he was imposing, or a big guy and ready to lead a struggling nation into battle. It also says there was not a man who was more handsome. All of that seemed to make him a crowd pleaser as he would rile up the troops and put on a spectacle.

So there would be good reason to suspect similar traits and trends as a replacement for Saul is being chosen. For his part, Samuel (who often had the role of speaking for the Lord and was frequently spoken to by the Lord and who maybe should’ve had some clue of the sort of God we have), Samuel went to anoint the successor, to mark the next one as chosen by God.

Going to the family of Jesse, and judging with society’s standards and not with God’s eyes, Samuel presumes he’s going to anoint the oldest. In a patriarchal system, he would be the one chosen, the one to receive more inheritance, through whom lineage was traced, the power player.

Still in our time, we make presumptions of birth order, that eldest children are the responsible ones, the overachievers, the brightest and best, the shining stars of the family. Of course, I say that as an eldest child myself! So my assessments and judgments of my place, staking out of turf, my presumptions of grandeur are not unbiased. If you’re also an oldest child, you may resonate with my bias.

But, of course, God doesn’t, and so in discernment moves past the eldest.

Neither is God impressed with the handsomest or the strongest, though that continues to contradict our societal standards. These two categories remain gender confines. Boys are supposed to be strong. Girls, to be pretty. These so frequently become defining markers of judgment for or against us, the criteria we bask in or struggle against. A favorite song, introduced to me by my friend Alissa, is from the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies and begins with these lyrics:

When I was born, they looked at me and said
what a good boy, what a smart boy,
what a strong boy.
And when you were born, they looked at you and said,
what a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl.

We’ve got these chains hangin’ ‘round our necks,
people want to strangle us with them before
we take our first breath.*

Now, we don’t know if the sons of Jesse felt like they were good and strong and smart and pretty. Maybe as the pageant paraded past Samuel, each son was confident he bore enough of those traits to be picked, to measure up well by those standards.

But, of course, each is passed by at this special worship service, until seven are done and gone and none is left. Except for the youngest, who was so far outside of possibility that he didn’t even bother to show up, didn’t do his makeup or get slicked up and gussied up, because he was too down and out. He was out with the sheep, out working on his ruddy tan in the wilderness, out and about, and not about to be chosen.

Except that Samuel called a halt to the worship service and sent those big brothers out to find the runt and bring him in, because God won’t be confined by the likes of our judgmental criteria.

When young David arrives, we must note he’s described as having “beautiful eyes” and handsome. That’s an interesting detail, since earlier God specifically bypassed the ones who were handsome, tall, etc. etc. I’d say the point is that none of those characteristics either qualify or disqualify a person as God’s choice. Though we often aim for and select such qualities, God doesn’t just choose the opposite.

So while not selecting the eldest son, neither did God choose David simply just because he was the youngest. After all, those of you who are the babies in your family may be used to being the favorites, so that wouldn’t break apart our criteria much, either.

A further distinction is also important: when it says God doesn’t judge by outward appearances but looks on the heart, we’re liable to label that as some sort of internal characteristic. We’d claim that God doesn’t care how big your muscles are but does care how big your heart is. Or that God chooses those of the right disposition, the caring and kind and passionate, and that your outlook and attitude should match God’s view.

I disagree. This isn’t saying David’s personality or perspective was more in line with God’s and that’s why God chose him. After all, in the next chapter this little David is eager to suit up for battle so he can try to become a hero by killing the giant Goliath. And it’s not too long before he’s a womanizer, eventually having one of his soldiers murdered so he can satisfy his lust for the man’s wife. David will get in bitter disputes not only with foreign enemies but with his own sons. He’ll have such a violent reign that God will forbid him from building the temple, since he has too much blood on his hands.

And yet he’s chosen.

Not because he’s so right, either on the outside or the inside, but simply because God chooses him. This story of choice is just to remind us that God chooses differently than we would. God chooses abundantly, gracefully, lovingly. God is so eager to operate in this way that that adulterous relationship of David’s won’t be swept under a rug but will remain obvious tracing down to his distant descendant Jesus. Yes, the family tree of Jesus explicitly points out his genealogy as the son of another man’s wife (Matthew 1:6). Because God won’t be confined or limited by our sense of propriety.

Similarly, this week in our book class on Trouble I’ve Seen, about “changing the way the church views racism,” we were discussing how “social hierarchy enables a…group to make their values and norms dominant” and define what a respectable life looks like. That in America is the “trinity of money, power, and respect,” and also says the way somebody wears their pants can be wrong, or if somebody says “ain’t,” or gets a criminal record, that skin color can disqualify from respectability.** But those ways we put others down and elevate ourselves are not how God sees things. These judgments even come in to affect our systems of justice, which unjustly see some people as inherently worse. That system is not only broken, it is by definition ungodly, anti-christ, against the perspective of our God who refuses to judge by appearances.

Again, those of you on Facebook have seen or been part of the #MeToo campaign in these days, following the news about Harvey Weinstein’s horrible misbehavior. But it’s not just him. This movement shows far too many women (and some men’s) experience of sexual harassment and abuse, that society’s standards for men results in dehumanizing effects and pushing into the shadows. #MeToo isn’t only for women to say, “I’ve also been hurt by predatory men” but saying “I also have voice, have value, have vitality.”

Though that should go without saying, with that, we remember that the way society elevates your status or has cast you out is not how God judges. Judging a gender as weaker or inferior, as objectifiable or as objectionable—these types of human disapproval cannot be in line with God’s view. Instead, in such desperately critical moments, the times of crisis and prejudices and judgment, you have the overwhelming guarantee and unconditional promise that God sees you. God loves you. God chooses you.

It is not, is never, based on what sort of income you have or the status of your job. It’s not the car you drive or the cleanliness of your house. It’s not how you look, when you feel that your appearance is wrong, unattractive, old, of less ability than you wish you had, not how you’re living up to your potential. It’s not based on power or prestige, your insecurities or what displeases you about yourself. It’s not what the neighbors think or what your parents would say or how well you rate. You have the guarantee that God sees you to the core. And when God sees you, God loves you. God chooses you.

As David was seen by God, loved by God, chosen by God, as he was anointed for a role, so also you have been anointed in baptism. Even perhaps from the time you were an infant, that mark of oil makes you a messiah, a christ, one chosen by God, loved by God, seen all the way to your heart and judged as just right for who God wants you to be. It isn’t that you’re waiting to measure up, to improve until your characteristics are of a higher quality. It’s not and never can be that you aren’t good enough, because you have already been judged rightly by God, with the judgment that ultimately matters. God sees you. God loves you. God chooses you.

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_i0yZTeTZ4Q

** Drew Hart, p132-137

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mini mini sermon for outdoor worship #3

Our theme is detours, and this mini mini sermon and our gathering itself take a detour, because of the press conference. In planning, we expected tonight to focus on how we find ourselves into or out of unexpected situations, and relating that to God’s story. Well, tonight provided us just such an unpredicted occasion.

So instead of a Bible story of Exodus travels, we ended up hearing God’s law for the people, a reminder of the dead end of slavery in Egypt, but how God surprisingly led to the land of the free. Knowing that history, we are told, should shape the treatment of foreigners, strangers, and immigrants, who are just as worthy of God’s intentions for life. God would not and will not tolerate exclusion. This is liberty and justice for all, and also grapes and olives and bread, and paychecks and a fair hearing. For All.

Maybe it reminds us that no dead ends are quite as dead as they seem, that no barriers are impermeable, that from God’s perspective what’s illegal is treating people as outlaws, that goodness shouldn’t be hoarded but is always to spread and be shared, and no sense of entitlement should close us off to each other, that foreign tongues can speak God’s blessing, that God loves you just as God loves all your neighbors.

(referencing this event: https://www.facebook.com/events/277205616370397/ )

14Don’t take advantage of poor or needy workers, whether they are fellow Israelites or immigrants who live in your land or your cities. 15Pay them their salary the same day, before the sun sets, because they are poor, and their very life depends on that pay, and so they don’t cry out against you to the Lord. That would make you guilty. 17Don’t obstruct the legal rights of an immigrant or orphan. Don’t take a widow’s coat as pledge for a loan. 18Remember how you were a slave in Egypt but how the Lord your God saved you from that. That’s why I’m commanding you to do this thing.
19Whenever you are reaping the harvest of your field and you leave some grain in the field, don’t go back and get it. Let it go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows so that the Lord your God blesses you in all that you do. 20Similarly, when you beat the olives off your olive trees, don’t go back over them twice. Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. 21Again, when you pick the grapes of your vineyard, don’t pick them over twice. Let the leftovers go to the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows. 22Remember how you were a slave in Egypt. That’s why I am commanding you to do this thing. (from Deuteronomy 24:14-22, Common English Bible adapted)

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lectionary 26b Care for Creation Commentary

19th Sunday after Pentecost in 2018

 

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Psalm 19:7-14

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

 

It’s not often a pleasant thing to admit, but I can relate to the complaining, whiny, grumbling, grousing character of the wilderness-wandering Hebrew people. It is a difficulty while traveling for knowing what can and should provide sustenance. I typically have my bag of sunflower seeds and a coffee thermos to keep me going, an ample supply of water, and…what? Peanut butter sandwiches will get me only so far. I wait for any fresh fruit or sliced veggies to turn bruised and slimy. As I try to keep putting on miles, covering ground and making distance, at some point I’m often faced with a difficult decision of what I can stop and purchase. When traveling with a group of youth from church, this whole process is greatly accelerated, and it’s often only a matter of minutes before somebody want to stop for a super-sized dose of fast food.

 

When travel happens along American interstate corridors or in the utopia (a word invented to mean “no-place”) of airports, the options are minimal and familiar. The same burgers and identical potatoes and soft drinks. Choices that are low in cost and low in nutrition and low in variety.

 

The people in Numbers have only recently left Mount Sinai. They’re still not even 14 months out of slavery in Egypt, not too much more than a year beyond that most special meal of remembrance and celebration and symbolic meaning, still fairly fresh from Passover, but they’re exhausted of traveling, with its limited food choices. It may have been a miracle that they had manna to eat day after day in ample quantity, but it may also be a miracle that I can find the same spice blend six chicken nuggets for a buck about every 15 miles at speeds that mean I have the opportunity nearly five times per hour.

 

Their complaining is introduced in a way that reminds us it’s an inappropriate response to grace: “The rabble among them had a strong craving, and wept again” (Numbers 11:4). They lament the loss of the Egyptian smorgasbord: free fish! Plus cucumbers, melons, leek, onions, garlic! It reminds me of the mouth-watering goodness and extravagance of the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box that is delivered to my house by my farmer! And—quite notably—that sounds nothing like the fast junk food that ends up in my belly when I’m traveling.

 

Of course, in our culture this isn’t only a distinction of being on the road versus arriving in the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey and with orchards and cattle on a thousand hillsides. Our whole lives are on the go and eating what does not satisfy (thinking in part of Isaiah 55:2). Or maybe we’re—again—more like the wilderness wanderers than we’d care to admit. In one of the verses cut out of this pericope, it says they would eat meat “until it comes out of your nostrils” (11:20). Maybe not exactly oozing out of our nose, still our infatuation with fatty fast foods has overflowed our body’s normal capacities, forgetting the delectable leeks and melons in a faraway foreign land.

That isn’t to say this passage is prompting us toward yet another dietary fad (“Healthy on the Go! Take the Egypt diet with you!”), but does prompt us toward reflection on how our bodies and interactions with food are part of our relationship with God and with creation, and perhaps on where our desires lie. In that way, even to rail against a certain kind of eating as detrimental to life expectancy may skew the focus of our faith.

 

This comes to bear perhaps more intensely with the 2nd reading. James assures us that “the prayer of faith will save the sick” (5:15). That may be a confounding or debilitating word for some who hear it, who have prayed fervently, who have asked to be added to the prayer chains in all their friends’ churches, who have had visits from their pastor, who have participated in rites of healing and been anointed with oil, who nevertheless remain sick.

 

The danger in this focus is the sense that if you don’t get what you want, it is because your faith is not strong enough. It’s certainly not only selfish concerns or individual matters of illness and disease. James goes on to tell the story of Elijah and the drought (5:17-18; see 1st Kings 17 & 18) as if it is only a matter of Elijah praying that determines whether or not rain will fall. (Note the distinction in the original that it is the word of the LORD that says there will be a drought, not the prophet’s own word.) If it were a matter of our fervent human prayers, then we ought to be able to pray hard enough to get rain for our crops or to stop forest fires; we should be able to pray for torrents to stop when they are causing flooding; we should be able to pray our way out of climate change.

 

One possible positive part of this difficult passage is this emphasis on community. Prayers are asked of and offered by the elders of the congregation (5:14), and there is something in the prayers for healing that is also (or perhaps even primarily) the healing of relationships (5:16). We need not read this passage to say that sickness is the result of sin; we can perhaps better understand it to say that sin and the breakdown of relationships is the sickness itself. As we forgive and seek healing together in community, we end the sickness. In light of the example of Elijah and the drought, we must observe this is not merely an individual’s prayer, but affects human relationships (including a widow and her son in 1st Kings 17) and also is a prayer of healing and relationship with the rest of creation—the air and weather patterns and crops and ravens and leaders of nations.

 

We might see an emphasis on those relationships in the Gospel reading, as well. Under a broad heading “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40), Jesus broadens our view of who is accepted into community. This includes wonder workers doing deeds of power who aren’t explicitly among the small group of followers or disciples of Jesus. It includes the “little ones,” often taken as among the references of Jesus’ concern for children, but also standing directly in contrast to last week’s Gospel reading request of John and James wanting to be the greatest; this is blessing for those who cannot see themselves as great, but as obscure and weak and ineffective or impotent and little. (See, for example, Donald Juel’s Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Mark: “The term ‘little ones’ is not restricted to children, though they are not excluded. The term applies to followers of Jesus who are to think of themselves not as great but as small.” p135) And—far from being able to call down rain from the heavens—Jesus promises reward for those who are able to offer or accomplish so little as sharing a cup of water.

 

It’s not about being thought so much better than others, if little people and little actions still share great blessing. It’s not about being in the right place at the right time (like Eldad and Medad who were not at the special ceremony but nevertheless receive a share of Moses’ spirit and prophesy, Numbers 11:26). It includes us, whether or not people follow us. It includes the sick and the sinful who are still part of the community (like in James).

 

If that is our measure and value, then it also invites what we can get rid of, what’s fit for the trash heap or the burn pile (to take a more literal reading of “Gehenna” as the ancient landfill outside Jerusalem, rather than extrapolating it into eternal fires of Hell). In Jesus’ words, we may pluck out eyes, sever hands, amputate feet when they threaten to lead us astray. Maybe we also think about these as parts of community, parallel in that way to Paul’s imagery of “the body of Christ” (see, for example, Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man on this).

 

Most productively, rather than pondering which of our individual body parts may be ready for surgical removal, or wondering which of the people in the pews around us we’d like to toss out to fester in the compost pile or extinguish from the assembly, maybe we best pay attention simply to what gets in the way. Do our fast food diets hurt relationships, with our selves, with God, with neighbor, with the rest of creation? When do our wants or enlarged appetites seem to take ultimate priority, and when do our special meals sustain us for the journey? What in the practices of our traditions obscure these relationships, when some of our classic hymns make it seem like God’s blessing is something only for another realm after death? How do our prayers not get diverted to salvation that happens in eternal heavenly clouds, but relate to the really present clouds of rainfall and a changing climate? For which relationships should we be seeking restoration? When would illness or concern about the effectiveness of our prayers preclude the larger wellbeing of God’s wholeness? When do our views of insiders vs. outsiders or our sense of morality and propriety obscure God’s larger work in the world? When are we so focused on quantity of life that we ignore how God really intends for us to live, to be alive?

 

In the end, these Bible passages remind us that God’s abundant and wonder-working Spirit is on the loose in the world, ahead of all of our presumptions, and we join for our small part in this miraculous ministry.

 

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Palm (or Cloak?) Sunday

sermon on Luke 19:29-44

 

How you tell a story matters.

We know this is a culminating moment, since all the way back at Ash Wednesday we heard Jesus had his face set to go to Jerusalem. At last he arrives, but maybe not exactly how we expect.FullSizeR

We paraded around with Olive the mini-donkey, but we might notice that Luke doesn’t mention a donkey in the reading today. It says a colt. My inexpert researching says a young donkey is called a foal generally, or jack or jenny based on gender.

Maybe we’re dealing with translation issues going back to the King James Version misnaming it a baby male horse and we don’t have to presume the original people, in their agrarian land-based environment, were confused into thinking Jesus was supposed to show up on a donkey but accidentally actually came in on a baby horse.

They’d recognize a donkey, and they would recognize, more specifically, that it wasn’t a war horse. They’d recognize that Jesus was following in patterns celebrating the original three Israelite donkey-riding kings: Saul, David, and Solomon (whose name even means King Peace) and when the prophet Zechariah set the stage by speaking of a king who would come on a donkey, that king wouldn’t be a warrior, but would preside over peace.* Jesus is acclaimed for a reign of peace.

Besides the colt-not-donkey distinction without a difference, we might also notice Luke tells the story without palms or branches or anything like that. Instead, there are cloaks. I guess instead of “Palm Sunday,” we should technically call this Cloak Sunday, huh? That spreading is another biblical image for greeting to receive a king.

I want to point out something, since the translation “cloak” may make us think of a British gentleman dapperly draping his cape over a puddle for a damsel exiting a carriage. Most of the time this word here isn’t translated “cloak,” but simply “clothes.” See, these people had two layers of clothing. One was a softer layer closer to the skin, maybe like we’d think of underwear (or for the fancy and sporty of us, a base layer).

This outer layer wasn’t one of the jackets they chose out of their closet for marching outside on a cool and damp spring day. Neither was it selected from hangers in a closet or drawers in a dresser. These folks didn’t even have closets or dressers, because almost all of them only had one set of clothes.

Here in Holy Week, one neat detail I like to share is that in the early church baptisms only happened at Easter. Late at night, they’d go down to the river to pray, and with the rising sun (like the rising s-o-n Jesus), they’d be baptized naked, naked as the day they were re-born, we might say. Then coming out of the water they’d get new clothes.

The white gowns that babies still wear is sort of a carryover from that sense of newness, of putting on Christ, of a fresh start and new beginning, a new life. We have trouble getting much of that feel because, even if you’re getting a spiffy new outfit for Easter, it may be special and pretty, but isn’t the clothes you’ll also go on to wear on Monday through the rest of the week until they wear out.

Even though you do have other clothes to change into, still today you probably wouldn’t be very eager to take off your jacket or your sweater or whatever clothes and toss them in a heap for Olive the mini donkey to tread on (or, as I know many of you have been speculating, to do something else on).

Your having spare wardrobe on hand magnifies the devotion or excitement when these people peel off their shirts and toss them on the road in front of Jesus. They are poor, with nothing more than the shirts on their backs, and yet give themselves to rejoicing that this peaceful king means good things for them.

That low estate of humble origins also points to another detail in how this story is told. That joyful exuberant crowd is singing, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” If we’re paying attention to Luke’s story, those words may well sound like an echo for us, or a bookend, or another prelude. It may make you think back to Christmas when at Jesus’ birth, as he was hailed with royal kingly titles, a heavenly chorus sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace!” So as that song was a prelude at the beginning, to who Jesus would be through his life and ministry, this song by the crowds today, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven,” is the prelude at the end, to who Jesus would be in this final week and grand finale.

Similar to that humble, lowly birth, an outcast laid in a manger, he is here celebrated by the lowly and poor, as well. Yet what only angels and their audience of shepherds knew at his birth, now it says “the whole multitude of the disciples” knows and celebrates. It’s common knowledge, known by all the common folks throughout the land, that this guy means good news of salvation.

That also points us to another really good detail in how Luke tells the story. You may be acquainted with old Good Friday or Passion Sunday readers’ theatre where the congregation had the voice of the crowd, of the people, including being forced to shout out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” It’s a difficult vehemence to get your lips around and leaves a sour taste in your mouth.

But that’s not how it works in Luke’s telling. Here on Palm Sunday, the common folks of the community recognize this king who comes in the name of the Lord and celebrate this savior, this one who comes to save people of every nation. We’re used to bitter details of betrayal and desertion, but Luke finds loyalty and hope, that even when all the powers turn against Jesus, still some of these people won’t flee, but will be standing by with him all the way to the very end, and beyond.

And yet, we may wonder if that is futile, wasted effort, devotion that bears no good result, pointless in the end, that they took a risk to be with Jesus, and had hope in him as the king given by God, but instead of getting peace or singing glory to heaven, by Friday of this week, maybe they’re saying, “What in heaven’s name were we thinking?” Jesus will be dead, and this whole festive day will seem like a long way in the past, and maybe even foolish. Those selfish and shortsighted leaders didn’t know the things that make for peace, opting instead for enmity and hatred and violence. Still, as ever too often, it will seem that they have won, that these people acclaimed the wrong king, and that the God of the lowly is just a loser on the side of losers.

But in telling this story, there’s one more line that is my very favorite. Knowing he is at risk, some people try to get Jesus to tamp down this big Cloak Sunday parade. “Tell these rowdy people to stop all their singing, all this confronting the powers that be!” And Jesus replies with the line, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

I like that line for the times when I do feel like a failed follower, like a fleeing disciple, like I’m not offering the praise or filled with the confidence I should be, like this is all foolish and bleak in my view, like God’s ways may not really matter much in the world, and so I just don’t know what to do. Jesus says it’s not dependent on me. If I happened to forget or get distracted, if my doubt stifles my lips and turns praise to a mumble, the stones will sing out. For a king of all creation, it certainly is not up to me to praise. At best, I join in the hymn of all creation.

Yet that does make me wonder when it might be true, not only as hyperbole, but when stones do shout. So I looked up where stones appear in Luke’s Gospel. And coming up on Easter morning, the women disciples get to the tomb, expecting to find death, to be confronted again with a dead end, with the loss and the sorrow of a king who didn’t reign very long, with praises drowned out.

They will find the stone rolled away. That yawning gap of a stone, that stone that opened its mouth and let loose Jesus is a stone that shouts and sings of life that wins, of a king who is only beginning to reign, of peace that prevails over violence, of salvation let loose for all, of redemption for the poor and lowly, of good news that cannot be silenced. That Easter stone shouts unfailingly. And today, with stones, with cloaks, with crowds, with donkeys, with EcoPalms, with burned prairie, with two congregations, with our hearts and our hopes, we, too, risk opening our lips to shout glory and praise and Hosanna. We tell a story that matters.

* 1Samuel10:1-2, 16:20, 1Kings1:33, Zechariah9:9
https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-the-kings-donkey-luke-1928-40/

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Security and Paradise

a sermon for Christ the King Sunday 2019

(Luke23:33-43; Jeremiah23:1-6)

Some of you have already heard about part of the ending of the Holy Land trip.

We woke up at 3:30 am to get to Ben Gurion airport, said goodbye to Nael, our guide and dear friend, and got in line for the Turkish Airlines ticket counter when an Israeli agent began to question, then cross-examine, then cross-cross-double-examine us. The main problem seems to have been Bethlehem.

Because we stayed in Bethlehem, I got pulled apart from the group for nearly 45 minutes as those so-called security agents rooted through my luggage and weren’t pleased to find Arabic writing—terrorizing propaganda …of the Lord’s Prayer and a poster from the Lutheran-run Environmental Education Center about that violent, extremist activity of bird-watching.IMG_1005

Seriously, the security strong-arms were peeved about these things and pressured me for answers and bullied me. They even directly told me I was lying, that I was not on a church trip. Dear siblings, I thought I was on a church trip! I tried to organize a perfectly legal church trip. I believe we were church as much as thick crowds with matching hats or t-shirts who thronged—as one of our group members colorfully articulated—to every nook and corner where Jesus allegedly hypothetically went to the pottie (though that tones down the color).

What really got them steamed for our endangering security and kept them chattering back and forth on walkie talkies was a Lutheran World Federation annual report+. (I swear, it’s the most worked up anybody’s ever gotten over a church annual report.) The despicable things in the report they kept paging through were about the Lutheran-run Augusta Victoria Hospital. As I kept insisting that this was a church trip and was part of what our church does, they didn’t like hearing that you help fund that hospital, that with your offerings, some small tidbit finds its way to helping Palestinians from Gaza do awful things, like get cancer treatments, and Palestinian children receive dialysis from their only available source.

As I was being called a liar and interrogated (and as I was worrying what harm I might cause to the amazing but trapped people we met and visited), I wanted to invert the interrogation and demand: What the hell is wrong with a hospital?! You may be grateful, though—if not slightly surprise—to know I can at least on occasion behave myself.

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. I will raise up shepherds over [my flock] who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.”

These words came from the prophet Jeremiah, and happen to come to us on this Christ the King Sunday.

I was reading some Walter  Brueggemann for the trip, and he gave the helpful parameters of the prophet’s role: “The prophet is intended [he writes] precisely for speech in the land, in the face of the king, against idolatrous forms of self-securing.”*

About forms of “security” and the state of Israel: that practice at the airport, a very minor instance of what Palestinians live with and have lived with for fifty years or more, was self-securing at the expense of others. The answer is always security. The reason for almost any aggressive or punitive action is given as security. Things that even violate international law are explained away as being for security.

But our experience wasn’t about rockets or suicide bombers. This was an attempt to intimidate a church group about a church-run hospital for people desperately in need of medical care and humanitarian assistance and with little place to turn.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote “The prophets were the first [people] in history to regard a nation’s reliance upon force as evil…The heart of God goes out to the humble, to the vanquished, to those not cared for.”**

Along those lines, it strikes me as all too apparent where a God who stands for the weak and vulnerable and dispossessed is standing, where God’s heart is. It seems clear which are the sheep being cradled and carried in this God’s arms. The prophetic voice says, stop it. Stop. Your evil doings are being attended to.

Of course our awareness through this trip was that though things are particularly awful over there, we have a log in our own eyes, too. It’s not just their apartheid wall. It’s not just their racist policies and divisive speech. It’s certainly not just their refusal to shepherd those in fear and in need.

Besides too often failing the vulnerable sheep in our midst, we too enable this dispossession and distress of the Palestinians. Our government has refused for three years to release funds assigned for Augusta Victoria Hospital, meaning that at the end of October they had to stop taking new patients because they can’t afford the chemotherapy drugs. And part of our group got off the plane in Chicago to learn of the new policy condoning settlements that steal land and resources that have belonged to families for generations, a practice judged criminal by international consensus. We find ourselves on the wrong side, contributing to worsened conditions instead of helping alleviate harm and animosity.

On this Christ the King Sunday, in the face of the corrupt and corrupting powers, we may be reminded that as church we belong not on the side of power but as the prophetic speakers in the land, those like Jeremiah, who go against the king, and against idolatrous forms of self-securing, meaning those ungodly but-claiming-to-be-good-practices that manage to ignore others. Sometimes that prophetic voice speaks to others. Sometimes it confronts our own complacency.

The airport insecurers asked how I knew about Augusta Victoria Hospital. The most direct answer would’ve been that I know about it because the ELCA encourages us to advocate, to raise our voices against our government’s bad policies and on behalf of what we ought to be doing. We are the prophets.

Yet I don’t want this to be about policy or about my self-righteous airport story or how well we do at these things.

That’s partly since prophetic speech may also seem too fearful, too daunting, too challenging, words we can’t swallow, more than you are capable of because your life is also wedged in the gears of those relentless oppressive mechanisms. In that case, self-security isn’t wrong. It’s what God desires for you, to hold you securely in the shepherd’s arm.

And so we look to Jesus.

On this last Sunday of the church year, this is the culminating Gospel reading, where empire is up to its usual tricks, distorting labels, calling names, shaming, trying to get a manipulative leg up, to put others down, with that placard taunting “King of the Jews” over one dying a painful wretched ugly death, while it’s simultaneously over a nation under occupation where self-determination was impossible.

Such forceful efforts from empire are met by Jesus. Not a powerful Jesus to wipe out the other powers. Not a miraculous one-ups-man who can’t be killed and climbs off the cross. And, I want to be sure you hear, not just a good example guy who would courageously see his commitment through to the end, even if the end was in getting lynched. To think of him trying to win for a cause just makes him like others striving after their way. Plus, in those terms he lost. I don’t want you walking away today thinking how you need to be braver like Jesus.

This Jesus is about promises and possibility. God is with you. Jesus is attending to those who need him, attending even to those who scorn and think they don’t need him. He confronts oppression with his self, giving up that security, giving to you. His word is new beginning as he forgives. His word is new life, even as he goes into death. And his word is for you: Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise. This is the voice of your Good Shepherd, calling you over all the other intimidating labeling noises, whispering through the clamor of life’s competing powers, reaching out to the dismayed, so that none will be missing. Today you will be with me in Paradise. For forgiveness. For encouragement. For a promise when it’s bleakest and you need you need something to secure you, Jesus calls to you: Today you will be with me.

https://jerusalem.lutheranworld.org/sites/default/files/documents/lwf_annual_2018.pdf

* The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, p87

** The Prophets, p212-13

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All Saints 2019

a sermon on Daniel 7; Luke 6:20-31

hans holbein

Woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497-1543)

These readings surprised me. When things are supposedly saintly, I expect them to be cleaner, cheerier, with pep and joy, like “when the saints go marching in.” I want to be in that number!

But the characteristic here is suffering. Jesus focuses on those who hunger, who weep, who receive hate. After that dour collection, he turns to declaring woe. Not much pep or joy. And that’s the pretty reading!

Daniel himself says his creepy visions worried and alarmed him. No kidding! Multiheaded beasts crawling out of the sea with wings getting torn off and beachside heart transplants and a mouthful of ribs, all before the final pyromania. It makes you wonder whether this freaky, gory reading was chosen more for Halloween than for All Saints Sunday. Oh when the saints go marching in, I don’t wanna be in that number! Leave me out of it!

That’s the surprise, the shock in these readings. We presume we’d want to strive for being a saint and actively pursue the parade. But these are a bit lackluster in their appeal. It sure doesn’t market very well: You, too, can be hungry and tearful and the least popular! If that’s not enough, act now to be threatened by terrifying beasts!

Jesus says, congrats! Good news! You can rejoice and leap for joy! And you’re practically unable not to leap up now clicking your heels with a big ol’ WHOOPEE! You can hardly wait to start loving enemies and turning the other cheek and facing persecutions. Sign me up! Where’s the line! I want to be in that number!

Now, I want to say directly and clearly that that is not commended to us in these readings or in faith. You are not to go on the hunt to seek out suffering. Don’t extrapolate. If you are being abused you should not just put up with it. If you’re oppressed you shouldn’t be patient. If your leaders are beastly you it’s not just to suffer through the chaos and violence. The message is NOT that such endurance will make you better. Yes, God wants you not to succumb, but to survive. But God is not telling those already hurting that they should be further humiliated or that pious quietude is the path ahead.

What is reinforced here, rather, is where we look for hope when things are bleak (which, after all, is when we look for hope). This flips our notion of sainthood on its haloed head. It’s not about achieving special spiritual status to move up the ranks of holy hierarchy. This isn’t primarily what you should choose to do, not for taking justice into your own hands. It’s certainly not about how good you are at suffering. The question is what will ultimately help. And the focus is on God’s will and Jesus’ work. That is where hope is.

So, again, I trust it’s apparent that when Jesus is saying “blessed are you who are hungry,” he’s not commending that you go on a diet. He’s not talking about fasting. As much as today we want our offerings to change lives, these words from Jesus aren’t really supporting emptying your cupboards for the food pantry. For people who are hungry and starving and lacking, Jesus says: you have a place in my kingdom. Even if you’re not receiving what any human should deserve, you have a place with God, in God’s household, as God’s children. You are not forgotten, not left out. That’s no small hope.

Luke particularly helps us know in Jesus this God of reversals, lifting up the lowly and casting the mighty from their thrones, God born to homeless refugees, who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, who includes the outsiders and speaks peace and won’t let death wreck our relationships.

So “blessed are you who weep” may resonate today, when you’ve been invited to bring grief and sorrows and confrontations with loss. Again, Jesus isn’t suggesting you chase after sadness in order to get blessed. But when that is your reality, when you’ve encountered death that would seem to swallow up life’s goodness, when depression traps you, tears overwhelm you, when you know this much much too well, Jesus assures you remarkably—practically impossibly—that laughter will be yours. Joy will come, especially when you’ve been too long denied it.

It’s a strong reassurance, a really good word of hope, even without any specificity of details: when will we laugh, and why, and how? I don’t think Jesus is so imprecise as to be vague. He’s not promoting a notion that things change and life goes on. He’s sure not saying, yeah you may be sad for now, but you’ll get over it and forget the bad stuff. You’ll move on. It’ll get better. Those are dismissive platitudes, not God’s hopeful promises.

If it’s not directly clear in those verses that God is one who gives joy and laughter and love and satisfied appetites and your proper place and undoes all evil, Daniel makes it clearer that God is our hope, as after four beastly kings then God sends one like a Son of Man, the right leader forever and forever and ever, which sounds like a long time.

A little background: this story of Daniel is set in about 553 BC but is describing the course of events in 167 BC. It’s historical fiction, like if you wrote a story about having a vision when Abraham Lincoln was president that alluded ahead to Donald Trump.

So in 553 BC, Daniel’s people were in captivity under the Babylonian Empire. After that came the Medes and the Persians, the first three beasts. By 167 BC, they had been suffering under the Greeks. The particular emperor in power was represented by that little horn with a big mouth, bragging and bragging. Calling him little was a put down, but the bragging came from him calling himself “God Manifest.” This story proclaims that his rotten rule would be overthrown, that God wouldn’t let that stand. God would set things right. This vision is for encouragement to live with hope in God.

We might relate to a little man with a big bragging mouth claiming to be much more than he is coming to power. We can flee a beast and move to Canada. We may want to imagine if enough of us fight back, we could take the beast down. We may try to take comfort that the next beast to come out of the chaotic sea may be a bit better. “Impeach the beast” has a fun ring, but it shouldn’t be our best hope.

I don’t use these political statements lightly. I use them on behalf of people who don’t just dislike or disagree with our president, but are suffering, whose families are being torn apart, whose farms are lost, whose housing is taken away, who are being threatened and killed. On their behalf, it is false hope to say that they should suffer patiently and wait for the next election. Our hope needs more.

When people are hungry, real hope isn’t finding five dollars to buy a fast food burger. Not being drug tested for food stamps would be some step. But an assurance that they will be filled, that the God of the universe is on their side, that is ultimate and is necessary.

For many of us, these are very hypothetical. We live secure as the rich and full and laughing, those who are spoken well of. It’s easy for us not to hope.

But when we face mortality, that may remain our clearest moment of needing hope. Our physical fitness regimens no longer pay out. Vitamins don’t revitalize. Doctors and insurance policies and medical miracles prove vain. I’m reluctant even to name the situations, because this is the suffering that we privileged people still do know, and don’t need our noses rubbed in it. I can talk of destruction and hunger and persecution and those words may pierce us less. For however terrible our suffering is, really it still happens to be small. But weeping and death we know.

We, too, know we need hope. I can’t fully articulate the hope for you. I am reluctant to remove it only to some endtimes heavenly banquet, though I’m also certainly against dismissing that ultimate hope of the resurrection to eternal life. Hope is bigger than my visions or my words.

But if I can’t say how or when, I can still say that our almost impossible hope comes from God, who came as a human one, the Son of Man, who takes your hand, to institute God’s kingdom among us, loving enemies, bringing reconciliation, the first fruits of life that endures forever and forever and ever. You want to be in that number. And you are. Congrats! Good news! Here’s the promise of Jesus: you will leap for joy. Can I get a big ol’ WHOOPEE?

 

 

from Daniel 7                                                           CEB, adapted

Daniel had a dream—a vision in his head as he lay on his bed. He wrote the dream down:

In the vision I had during the night I saw the four winds of heaven churning the great sea. Four giant beasts emerged from the sea, each different from the others. The first was like a lion but had wings of an eagle. Its wings were plucked and a human heart was given to it. Then I saw a second beast, like a bear. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told: “Get up! Devour much flesh!” I kept watching, and there was another beast, this one like a leopard. On its back it had four wings like bird wings. This beast had four heads. After this, as I continued to watch, I saw a fourth beast, terrifying and hideous, with extraordinary power and with massive iron teeth. As it ate and crushed, its feet smashed whatever was left over. It had ten horns. I was staring at the horns when, suddenly, another small horn came up between them with eyes like human eyes and a mouth that bragged and bragged.

As I was watching, the Ancient of Days took her seat.
Her clothes were white like snow; her hair was like a lamb’s wool.
Her throne was made of flame; its wheels were blazing fire.
Ten thousand times ten thousand stood ready to serve her!

 I kept watching. I watched from the moment the horn started bragging until the beast was killed and its body was destroyed, handed over to be burned with fire. The dominion of the beasts was brought to an end.

As I continued to watch this night vision,

I suddenly saw one like a human being, like a Son of Man,

coming with the heavenly clouds.
His authority is everlasting—it will never pass away!—

his kingdom is indestructible.

Now this caused me, Daniel, to worry and the visions of my head alarmed me. So I went to one of the attendants who was standing ready nearby. I asked for the truth about all this. The attendant spoke and explained to me the meaning of these things. “These four giant beasts are four kings that will rise up from the earth, but the holy ones of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess the kingdom forever and forever and ever.”

 

SCRIPTURE ACCLAMATION             Alleluia! Jesus is Risen               ELW 377, refrain

 

 

Luke 6:20-31                                         NRSV

Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

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