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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I Died, Christ Lives

sermon on Galatians 1 & 2

 

I’d like to issue an apology to you.

I’m sorry for being just me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Luther’s works vol48, p282

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Minutes of the New Age

sermon on Acts 15:1-19

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Sermon is PG-13 (Hopefully Not R)

sermon on Acts 8:26-39

This old story is curiously current.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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When’s Easter?

sermon on Luke 24:13-35

 

This Bible story set on Easter evening fits for us a week out from Easter. We may ask ourselves what difference it has made in this week. Has the resurrection changed anything and helped us in these days? Has it redeemed anything? Saved us? What of that good news has gone with us, or what has gone away? Did you wish it would mean more, would do something better for you?

Those two people in the reading heard the same report we did: Jesus is not in the tomb. The proclamation is he’s been raised. They also had that message in their ears: Alleluia. Christ is risen.

But it didn’t help. They remained confused. They were still overcome with sadness. They kept trying to figure it out, to analyze it—to theologize or psychologize or mythologize or even eulogize the meaning as they went back on the slow, sometimes painful journey into regular old life, the life without Jesus.

They could repeat what had happened in those days. They even knew it would happen: Jesus had said he would die and on the third day rise again. They’ve got the creed right. But it didn’t seem to help those two disciples: After everything else, we thought this was it, this was the time, this was the solution, this was the way out.

It’s marked by maybe the saddest phrase we can speak or feel: we were hoping. We had hoped. It holds the bitterest of endings, the completely collapsing disappointment, utterly lonely lost-ness of all that could have been, was supposed to be.

It’s a phrase that glowers in our lives, when there is simply no more chance, no way, that the feeling of good is in the past: I had hoped to be able to have children. We had hoped the test results were not that, that the treatment would work. I had hoped to get into that school, to make the team, to make friends. I had hoped that this job was a good fit. We hoped our efforts could’ve been effective. I had hoped to avoid the accident. We hoped the election returns would come in with a few more votes to count. We’d hoped we were done with snow! I had hoped to live long enough… We were hoping this relationship would work out. I’d hoped I made the right decision. I hoped I’d get help. We were hoping, we had hoped. We used to have hope, but the hope is gone, has left us with only despair, an unhappy ending.

So sad and shut up, such past tense hope. There aren’t back-up possibilities then, and plan B’s and ready alternatives and second-best choices. With Everything pinned on it, when hope is gone, there’s nothing left. All is lost except hollow tears, aimless steps, disenchanted thoughts. I’m sorry even to mention it, to call them to mind. I grieve with you in each overwhelming, all-encompassing instance.

So Easter certainly ought to speak to that. Jesus needs to make a difference.

That is what we proclaimed last week: death itself is undone, so all the other dead endings have pathways out. It’s the start of a whole new creation, beyond all the old, a new 8th day that makes a difference, a new thing, a new hope. We celebrated not just for a pleasant little diversion, not just observing tradition. It wasn’t to spice up death, to dress it up, to put roses on a grave, make believe that things could be cheery and pretty, while ignoring the reality we really knew.

No, we said this changed everything. God’s blessing totally unleashed to set us free from all that had trapped us, all that held us back, all that left us in despair. We said that. Maybe even momentarily believed it, right?

But then we went out, back into the other existence, the normal rhythms, the close encounters with stuff that saps hope. From the blahs to frantic, from mild uncertainty to drowning despair, if you had a week at all like me, you could feel hopes slipping out of your fingers, unable to be gripped and held close to your heart. It wasn’t that I forgot. It was just that Easter didn’t eventually seem to matter much. I felt like I was facing it all without inspiration from the Holy Spirit, without God’s love, without the unstoppable Jesus.

In such moments, I go on the hunt. I don’t want to give up. I want to present-tense-hope it can and will be better. Because I’m desperate, I want Jesus. Feeling hopeless, I all but beg for hope.

Those two disciples were trudging along, trying to figure it out. It may be hoping against hope, but they’re still talking it through, looking for answers. It’s over, seeming there’s nothing possible, but they keep looking.

I want to share a bit of a companion who walked along on my hunt this week, from the autobiography of Catholic monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton. I was reading it as one of my Lenten disciplines, but I’m not very disciplined and not all that diligent at devotion; even those good things can be too much and fall by the wayside. So I am only a third of the way through the book even though we’re beyond Lent. This week in a few pages before bed I read this passage on looking for God and goodness and direction and meaning but not being able to see it. I’m going to share an extended chunk. It’s also beautiful, as we’re celebrating Earth Day Sunday. Writing about when Hitler came to power, and when he himself wasn’t a believer, Merton said:

People seem to think that [horrors of war are] in some way a proof that no merciful God exists… On the contrary… There is not a flower that opens, not a seed that falls into the ground, and not an ear of wheat that nods on the end of its stalk in the wind that does not preach and proclaim the greatness and the mercy of God to the whole world.

There is not an act of kindness or generosity, not an act of sacrifice done, or a word of peace and gentleness spoken, not a child’s prayer uttered, that does not sing hymns to God…

All of these things, all creatures, every graceful movement, every ordered act of the human will, all are sent to us as prophets from God. But because of our stubbornness they come to us only to blind us further…

We refuse to hear the million different voices through which God speaks to us, and every refusal hardens us more and more against [God’s] grace—and yet God continues to speak to us…

God, how often in the last centuries have you not come down to us, speaking to us in our mountains and groves and hills, and telling us what was to come upon us, and we have not heard you. How long shall we continue to be deaf to your voice?

When I [traveled], your love went with me, although I could not know it, and could not make myself aware of it…

I was not sure where I was going, and I could not see…But you saw further and clearer than I…and you were even then preparing for me…my shelter and my home. And when I thought there was no God and no love and no mercy, you were leading me all the while.

(Seven Storey Mountain, p128-130)

In front of our eyes, through our lives is God’s tireless relentless effort for the good, the constant loving pursuit of life on your behalf. Yet we don’t know, don’t understand. For all of our searching and trying to figure it out, for all the truth that is right around us, we remain lost and despairing.

The two followers of Jesus walked the road with Jesus, with him right next to them, with the solution to their sadness, the very constant presence of hope, but didn’t (or couldn’t?) even know it.

We wander into here today, still looking, for what God would have to say, for reassurance, for some sort of possibility when in way too many ways it seems there isn’t anything left. We look and listen and ponder and still don’t see.

But Jesus walks in with you. He walks along as the Scriptures are opened and reveals himself in them. And he sets this table, an unknown stranger in our midst, and vanishes and isn’t visible as himself even as soon as you’d come to know that he was here. But in the breaking of the bread, as he himself takes it, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to you, he is here for you.

That is why we do these things week after week. This isn’t just a week later, gone by. As every Sunday, this is a celebration of resurrection, of the new creation, of Easter all over again. We gather with opening the Scriptures so Jesus can be illuminated in them. We gather at this table, because it is here he might be made known.

I can’t guarantee that you’ll see. I can’t make it happen. You can’t make it happen for yourself. But still more than in sprouting flowers or acts of sacrificial kindness or the path ahead that leads homeward, in this small and simple practice of ongoing Easter, this preaching and communion, this Word and Sacrament come to be reliable places where when all is lost, you may be found again, where when you’re wondering where Jesus is he may be revealed, where your hope may be restored, and life itself.

I can’t pull back the curtain. I can’t offer explanations. That would go back to theologizing and the fruitless trying to figure it out on our own. I can’t say how it functions to restore you, can’t detail what it means for Jesus to encounter your despair, how he deals with that to overcome your sadness.

But I trust he’s here. And I pray that once again you can go out with joy, with confidence, with hope, at least for another week.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.

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Wanted: Dead or Alive

 Easter sermon on Luke 24:1-12

I was wondering about my place, about our places in this Easter Bible reading.

It may seem egotistical, but I think of my outfit for worship as pretty dazzling clothes. And if I invite John Rowe in his sport coat and necktie to stand up here with me, then we’d be two men in dazzling clothes! Since I’m stationed to deliver a message about resurrection, I can make the leap to picture us like those greeters in the reading.

It doesn’t call those two men angels, so we could probably just picture a coupla schnazzy dressers hanging around the cemetery Sunday morning with gossip, except the actual word isn’t just schnazzy or dazzling, but—even flashier—that their clothes looked like “lightning.” I can’t claim that, and neither can John. Maybe it involves more sequins? I guess you can sit down.

Continuing to look for our place in the reading, I then notice the women. These faithful women had been with Jesus since early in the story, aiding him, evidently wealthy enough to support him and his entourage.

As followers, they were there for his teaching, healing the sick, helping the poor, had been with him to feast and celebrate, through confusions and confrontations, radical inclusions and shocking expectations. They traveled with him as his face was set to Jerusalem, were with the multitude who acclaimed Jesus as a king of peace when he arrived last Sunday, with him at his last supper, as he was betrayed, arrested, condemned, demeaned, as he was crucified, died, and was buried.

That’s plenty of experience for these faithful women. They faced some daunting challenges, some daring mission, some horrible sadness, and now some creepy mystery. They’ve faced a lot, yet nevertheless they persisted.

After the tragedy, after goodbye, after loss and death, this morning they were no longer able to provide for Jesus’ needs, but at least to show the right respect to his corpse.

I figure they align with dedicated women, and a few non-women, here today, who have persisted through life’s ups and downs, sorrows and joys, through all the demands that come, striving to respond and meet them faithfully, as you are eager to do what’s right, as you want to be close to God.

Unfortunately, those women weren’t trusted and ended up sidelined, along with the shocking news they came to bear. The deeply egalitarian early church went on succumbing to neglect the goodness of this good news from faithfully apostolic women and instead ossified back into corrupting powers of patriarchal society, from which God’s Spirit is still trying to resuscitate us, call us out from deadly harm, so we, too, rise again, renewed for life in right relationship.

That tragic, failing edge, falling back to deadly ways makes me look for our place in the story neither with me and John cast as flashy angelic heralds, nor with our women who keep on keeping on, tenaciously continuing through life’s story.

We had the best news, the most incredible belief, liberating us for the sake of life that could not be stopped, and yet we somehow fell through and failed at it and kept backsliding and couldn’t break free. We give in to the ungodly. That makes me believe that our place in the story is with the dead.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” those dazzling messengers prompted outside of the tomb.

We must admit we draw these lines with self-confidence, never comprehending we could be wrong. We immediately say it’s either/or, dead or alive. In a cemetery, you claim your category simply by which side of the grass you’re on. I’d bet every one of you wants to tally yourself in the living column. Who here is alive?

Yet we begin to recognize it’s not so clear-cut or obvious.

This week there was an NPR story about pig brains.* (Not to nauseate you before ham lunch.) Scientists got pig heads from a slaughterhouse. We start with our unambiguous decision: severed pork skulls, living or dead? Dead! And yet the scientists pumped in a chemical cocktail of anti-seizure meds and ten hours after those cloven-hoofed cleaved-off craniums were officially dead, electrical signals kept sparking.

The story said, “The implications of this study have staggered ethicists, as they contemplate how this research… fits into the current understanding of what separates the living from the dead.” Because NPR is a classy outfit, they had the good taste to include a Princess Bride quote: “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.”

Now, I think that’s pretty cool research. But I’m not here for the details about it. I’m not here to tally what counts as all dead. I’m not here for the ethical conundrums. I’m not even here for good movie lines. And I’m certainly not trying to prove that Jesus, crucified and laid in the tomb, was not just “mostly dead” before he was alive again.

What struck me with this news story and the cutting-edge (butcher pun intended) research, is the element of surprise about what separates the living from the dead and questions of life vs. death. Those are old issues for us who come to church, especially during this Holy Week. We’ve known the blurriness of those lines all along, and known where we stand. Or perhaps lie. “We have been crucified with Christ, buried by baptism into death,” the early church proclaimed.

The lightning ambassadors at the tomb asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” To be honest, those faithful women weren’t looking for the living among the dead. They were expecting to find the dead among the dead. They thought they were alive, but that Jesus was firmly and forever removed from that category into the classification of dead. Period. Solid stop.

But Jesus undid that equation, not only for himself but for those women at the tomb seeking death, and for all of us, trapped in death and captive to its clutches. It’s an odd phrase for the standard framework, but here’s the truth: Jesus used to be dead. He isn’t anymore. You, too, used to be dead. No longer confined in the tomb, no longer finalized in death, no longer ended, no longer subject to the empire, no longer constrained by oppressions, no longer even trying to define the days by duties to do or how to avoid death as long as possible.

Jesus has stepped from the other side of our imaginary line, and left us realizing the line isn’t so clear as we name in statistics or in our scarediness and scarcity.

Why look for the living among the dead? Because that’s where Jesus comes to find us. He brings his life everywhere we’re entombed and doomed by death.

Yes, absolutely, this means the biggest thing: that death is not the end. That’s why our early service began in the memorial garden sharing communion. We are still and ever the communion of saints. The full graves and empty spots at our tables aren’t really the permanent reality. There is reunion feast and life to come. Separation is not final. Death does not last. Life is final and forever!

Still, this isn’t a hope on hold, a recourse only for what were allegedly last moments. If it’s about reunion beyond death, not just about one empty tomb long ago, but every final resting place becoming a mere rest stop on the way to fully renewed relationships, then it’s also about the so-called dead ends now, when things seem to be over. This must mean reconciliation, possibility, new beginnings, healing not just of fractured and failing bodies but of our interactions.

Sometimes that may hit close to home, like in your house, which may even feel like its own tomb needing new life. But it’s also much more rampant, running across this world, against a sense of helplessness or hopelessness. Besides death creeping into our bodies and lives, we feel despair in these days declared dark, that we’re worried, attacked, captive to trauma in each headline, with the inescapable harms inflicted on the planet through systems we can’t seem to do anything about.

In another death this week that was not quite ultimate, I kept reading that the burning of Notre Dame was sad because we needed a good, beautiful place like that when the world seems such a bad, ugly place. I have to say, that feels a like looking for the living among the living, as if God is someplace separate from this world, as if we need an escape room, to flee our reality in order to have good or find God.

But Jesus comes into and through death to share life. So maybe Jesus is not looking to be shut behind the stone, re-buried in our buildings, but instead wants to be out roaming and rambling on behalf of life, showing up in memorial gardens and hospitals and in detention centers and during despair and depression, against destruction and domination. He’s in this service of a memorial meal in confusing communion, but also at your lunch table agitations and somber fearfulness that awaits Monday and Tuesday and each day.

Why do you look for the living among the dead? You think you’ll find life by turning over each secret stone? This isn’t about your hunts and searching. I’m sorry, but this isn’t about the road to recovery or your path to success or pursuit of happiness or seeking the meaning of life or spiritual direction. Those only contend with death. And all your looking won’t provide a way out, while it also ignores the greater truth.

You come here to remember the words of Jesus, what he told you. That’s what the flashy messengers mention. We look back to look forward. As you’re looking forward to leaving here, you don’t go out with something to do, to chase after. You go out free. You go with confidence, with faith. You may go out with joy. Because Jesus is on the loose to find you, and he leaves no stone unturned or unrolled away. You go out to live, to life, alive. The one who always looks among the dead finds you to give you life.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

* https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/04/17/714289322/scientists-restore-some-function-in-the-brains-of-dead-pigs

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