Little Christs

sermon on Isaiah 61

Isaiah sounds like he could be on a political campaign, a candidate declaring, “I’m gonna build up your ancient ruins and raise up the former devastations. I’ll repair ruined cities.” A big list of infrastructure projects, plus making things fair. We’re familiar with such campaigning and sloganeering, so we’d expect the one who claims to be the right choice won’t come through on it all.

In fact, that’s actually somewhat in the background of this Bible reading. This is 3rd Isaiah, because this long book is actually from three distinct time periods. One was before exile. Another was looking forward to coming home. And this final part is after the return.

It came with lackluster realizations that everything wasn’t instantly hunky-dory, like those returnees waking up Christmas morning and realizing they didn’t get everything on their Christmas list. Or maybe Hanukkah list, since they were Jewish, though Hanukkah wouldn’t come about for another couple hundred years. So we’ll just say their wishlist. They had big dreams of what it would be like to be back, home sweet home, visions it would be just right in their own place. Well, they found there’s still work to do, still renovation and remodeling and reconstruction. Their home remained a fixer upper.

But so that they weren’t too disenchanted, 3rd Isaiah again set their sights high.

Still, aside from a small dose of historical inquisitiveness, you are likely not all that concerned at how long the detours and orange cones had clogged the thoroughfares of ancient Jerusalem, much less the blueprints and budgetary implications and red tape of archaic political process. So we’ll bypass describing what this possibly implied for former ruins.

One interesting pause midpoint in history, though, is that this passage gave title to Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, which practically created the modern field of economics and prompted the rise of capitalist structures. The book introduced the supposed “invisible hand” of the free marketplace. Some may, in this passage, want to equate that invisible hand’s push with the Holy Spirit, making the freedom from captivity into freedom to gain wealth. The improvement in the reading would become development of profitable businesses, expanding neighborhoods and plowing up land and taking advantage.

But I’m not so interested in that narrowly defined economic vision as we encounter this message, nor even transposing in where current devastations are or our failures of expected greatness.

I’m grabbed most by the first phrase: “The Spirit of the LORD God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me and has sent me…”

I propose that this phrase isn’t only applicable to 3rd Isaiah, not just of some old-timey prophet who could claim to be the receptacle of the Spirit. It’s more.

My reasoning is in part from Jesus. We’ll hear some of these same words again next month. In his first sermon and first public appearance in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is in the synagogue for weekly worship and opens a scroll to read “The Spirit of the LORD God is upon, because the Lord has anointed me and has sent me” and so on. Jesus then rolls up the scroll and declares to the congregation, “Today this has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus knew that these weren’t outdated dead words, but still living and moving and claiming. That Spirit was still doing what it wanted to accomplish.

It’s plenty easy today to hear Isaiah’s words applying to Jesus, dropped here in this season of Advent. We know Christmas is coming, and we’ll hear words for Mary that the child conceived in her is “from the Holy Spirit.” Certainly we look to Jesus as the clearest image of God, embodying God’s presence, showing the precise pattern of God’s work.

But this passage means more. Even expecting that the Holy Spirit rested on Jesus and dwelt in him, we heard from the prophet Joel last week of the Spirit poured out on all flesh, on men and women and old and young and slaves and priests, and all children shall be dreamers. That reading also will come back to us, but not until Pentecost, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when that outpouring spreading Spirit cuts loose and begins really racing around.

Still, that’s a little easy. Our Lutheran heritage very valuably recognizes an important difference in how pronouns are used. So last week said the Spirit is poured out on everyone. That might communicate “on them,” as others. Or on us, plural. I want you to hear the singular: the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, yes you the individual. And you can speak Isaiah’s words, “The Spirit is upon ME!” Why don’t you try it: The Spirit is upon ME!

Now you’ve got some skin in the game. Or, for a big action movie tagline we could say: this time it’s personal. This isn’t about God broadly and generically working in the world. Sure, that’s good news. Joel’s words are valuable, that the outpouring of the Spirit isn’t restricted by gender or skin color or by age or anything we would categorically label as ability. We emphasize at Pentecost that Spirit is spreading to all nations, that it doesn’t in the end recognize the confines of locale or even of religion.

But you’re no bystander to this. Because you have the chance to say it again: The Spirit is upon ME!

Now, you may either tremble with trepidation or excitement at these prospects of being put to work. You might ponder your political ambitions, ready to repair ruined cities. You might examine your economic endeavors and inclinations to be moved by the free hand. You might have pious proclivities in thinking that Jesus is an important example for you to try emulating. I don’t quite want to quash those quests.

I’m not saying your work isn’t important or called for. What I’m saying is that your work isn’t your work. When you say The Spirit is upon ME!, that isn’t a vitamin supplement, a Popeye can of spinach, a dose of encouragement or motivating factor. The Spirit doesn’t show up as a little boost for what you already wanted to do.

No, the Spirit claims you for what the Spirit wants to do. And the Spirit does big things, producing the fruits of God’s work in the world. The Spirit is upon you and sends you to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and release to prisoners; to proclaim Jubilee, to comfort all who mourn and rejuvenate faint spirits. That’s certainly more than your task list for the week. It’s more to accomplish than a single political term. It may well be the work of a lifetime or across generations.

It’s similar to Mary’s list in the Magnificat, but notice without reversals, only of gain. There is no casting down or afflicting the comfortable. There is no proclaiming captivity to the liberated or bad news to the oppressors. This is straight all good news. Some may be downer and outer, but we’re all in need of God’s goodness, in need of new life, in need of restoration, longing for gladness and life rising up from the ashes.

So, again, this is a long view. This is God as a gardener, slowly tending and cultivating the soils, waiting for compost, collecting seeds and carrying on with the crop the next year. This is God as landscape restorationist: that you will be called a mighty oak means you take a while to grow. Even more than that, as a seminary classmate of mine and now religion professor points out, this is a new creation narrative, the Spirit that hovered over the waters in Genesis now arriving for you, as you again repeat The Spirit of the Lord is upon ME!* So this looks forward in enormous ways to how God’s kingdom comes on earth.

But it also looks back to your baptism when, with other words from Isaiah, you were given the gift the Holy Spirit: “the spirit of the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord,” the spirit of joy in God’s presence, both now and forever (Isaiah 11:2). Your baptism marked another part of this passage. As you proclaim The Spirit of the Lord is upon ME!, the next line continues, “the Lord has anointed ME.”

That word “anointed” in Hebrew is Messiah. In Greek, it’s Christ. It’s not pushing you to measure up to Jesus as Christ, as Messiah, as God’s Anointed One. This isn’t about that comparative sense. This is saying that you have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever, an oily emblem on your brow that signifies you are chosen by God, you are sent doing this spiritual work, you are a Little Messiah, a Little Christ, as you are able to declare the Spirit of the Lord is upon ME!

 

*https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2255

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Lamb King

sermon on Daniel 6

 

This is kind of a funny story.

I mean, not funny haha. I especially hope you don’t chuckle too much at the punishing, retributive part when those who have maligned Daniel suffer their own conniving scheme as, along with spouses and children, they are hurled into the lions’ pit and gobbled up—torn to shreds—before they hit the ground. Not a light-hearted bit of the story, that.

Though before you take it too seriously and once again cast aspersions at the violence of the Bible (while disregarding the violence in our stories now or the ways the Bible isn’t supposed to be a rosy picture but bears the hardness of real life), still that seriousness aside, it may be helpful to think of this like an old Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoon.

wile eThis is a funny story because it’s meant to be outrageous. Wile E. Coyote falls off a cliff, gets smashed by an anvil, has the stick of dynamite blow up in his face, and then the story continues along. Most of us don’t finish that cartoon feeling TOO bad for Wile E. Coyote. If you can accept the cartoon without lamenting the injury too greatly, then let me explain why I make such an association with this Bible reading.

Some of the setting is real. Within the historical flow of the narrative, at this point many leaders and officials and muckety-mucks had been hauled away from the Holy Land into exile in Babylon. They’d been living there for almost fifty years under pressures of the Empire, but not as captives in the way we’d think of a jail or a prisoner of war camp or anything, but in houses and with careers. raising families, simply not in the place they’d call home, where their temple was and had been destroyed.

They were trying to figure out life, and trying to figure out what to make of God, almost to the degree of wondering if God could still exist or matter at all if God’s home had been destroyed. Maybe there’s a hint of that conundrum as Daniel is insistent on prayer, and it’s toward Jerusalem, a distant devotion.

So some of the setting and conundrum are real, but there’s also some stuff here just for the sake of a good story, not least that the attackers have things flip on them and the dynamite blows up in their faces in good Wile E. Coyote fashion.

We could also note that the story was written maybe 200 years after this time period, when it wasn’t the Babylonians, nor the Persians who came next, but some time later under the Greek Empire. But it’s not as if we were telling stories of Napoleon or Genghis Khan with this King Darius the Mede. There was a King Darius, but he was later in the timeline, a Persian whose Empire helped the exiles return home and rebuild the temple. So it seems a King Darius in Babylon with the exiles didn’t exist, except here. Yet in that way this character may actually help us see the story as flexible and able to speak to our own situation.

See, if this remains how one time one guy was persecuted for his faith—or, more accurately, that religion was a target for getting rid of the competition—and that one guy managed not to get eaten by a hungry pack of giant cats, well, that doesn’t matter all that much to my life. I’m not likely to get thrown to the lions, and my faith in God isn’t contingent on whether or not I’d get chewed.

It’s similar to the story of another prophet we heard in our last shared MCC service: your religion is likely not determined by whether a giant fish could swallow you, spew you out onto the shore after three days, setting you on the way toward the enemy capital where a messianic, divinely appointed worm would teach you a lesson. I don’t need any of the details of that story to become my own factual happenstance in order to tell of a God who is gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, who redeems and reconciles and won’t be confined to my national borders. In that way, Jonah is one of the truest books of the Bible.

So that makes me ask what’s true in this reading today?

There’s some easy parts of that: First, some people are jerks. They didn’t like that Daniel was an honest hard worker and so manipulated to get rid of him.

Second, we should pause in our assessments and values. We know very little about Daniel in the story. Speaking just one sentence, he’s almost a prop. His work ethic may or may not have related to his faith, but we shouldn’t say being moved up the ranks was a blessing. It may have even been a curse, or at least caused a situation where his faith was tested.

Third, some leaders are obviously gullible and short-sighted. Again, nothing new here. This dolty King Darius got himself weaseled into signing a law he didn’t really want and got backed into a corner by it.

Next: not all laws are good. There are laws directly intended to infringe on the wellbeing and practice of others. Contrary to that, we might think of the antiestablishment clause in this country guaranteeing freedom of religion, that there shouldn’t be persecution based on faith. We could also notice that exiles in Babylon were, in actuality, given wide latitude to practice their religion. The Babylonian Empire had fairly strong religious tolerance, and—as we already heard—the subsequent Persians went so far as to help rebuild the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

What’s that truth for us? While we encountered recent violent anti-Semitism and are mired in anti-Muslim bias that has even been written into law, and while we as Christians remain in a dominant position, even amid a secular culture, maybe our own kind of Christianity isn’t. We may not want to be associated with the others, or can be nervous about being too bold, about practicing this faith, about what it might mean when people recognize us in this religion.

That’s an interesting detail in the story. It’s not that Daniel is wearing it on his shirtsleeve. He’s not up in anybody’s business about it. There’s an earlier detail where he’d only eat vegetables so that he didn’t break his religious dietary laws. But here he’s praying in his own private space, and still it causes difficulty for him.

There’s truth for me in this story that even in a tolerant society and even without directly trying to get ourselves into trouble, still we should expect that our faith involves both a fair amount of civility, and civil disobedience. If we’re getting along too easily and not any different than everyone else, we need to ask what we’re missing, what we should be subverting, why our faith has turned out so unimportant.

If it’s a truth about how we continue our practice and remain faithful even when it’s not easy, I appreciate that truth. I have less interest or use if it’s meant to be about my God beating other gods or my culture coming out on top.

We shouldn’t presume it’s a good thing when Darius declares that all should worship the God of Daniel. Becoming the official religion of Empire, it won’t be the same resistant religion that had been able to speak truth to power and could engage differences with grace and understanding. It happened with Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire or with this being the alleged religion of the American.

Finally, then, on this Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday, we are reminded that the one we follow is not about sparing us from danger, not about magic escapes from death, not focused on career advancement, not in for retributive justice, and certainly not about aspiring to power that shames others. The Lamb of God is not a conquering lion.

We call this a kingdom of God almost to be funny, to reset our assessments, since it’s outrageous. Celebrating Christ as King is not for the triumph that all the enemies get tossed to the lions, but with a history of sacrifice, of willingly being thrown to the lions. This religion at its truest won’t succumb to corrupting influences that Might Makes Right and instead turns the whole imperial mindset on its head.

The direction of this kingdom of our crucified Lord is for “the freedom of those oppressed [and] comfort of all distressed,” as we sang, the realm where the “Spirit chooses the weak and small to bring the new reign where mighty fall,” as Jesus’ mother herself sang before his birth, not of exalting thrones, but of bringing down the powerful. It is in that that we join our voices, sometimes in the face of opposition, at others amid acceptance. Sometimes it’s entirely serious, but may be tongue-in-cheek, too. Sometimes when things are going easily and well, but occasionally when it involves risk. Sometimes when it feels lonely, and yet joining a billion voices and the song of all creation.

 

Hymn: “Soli Deo Gloria” (ELW 878)

 

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Thanksgiving 2018

sermon for ecumenical worship,
with Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Matthew 6:25-33

 

I start out thinking I’m pretty good at this Thanksgiving thing.

I mean, I’ll sit down at a big table tomorrow with the company of good people and enjoy the food. For my busy weeks, it’s a pause that will make me relax and not rush around quite so much. I could almost tell myself that I’ve figured out what life is about, at least for the day.

Sure, it may not turn out perfectly. For some reason my mom even decided cooked carrots should be part of it, and I won’t be thankful for those. I’ll also look around the table and notice people who aren’t there, and I’ll mourn some loss and have to confront some absence. It’s not that everything is just right. I’m not claiming any quintessential picturesque embodiment that’s exactly what life is supposed to be in America. I’ll be balancing sorrow and maybe even discouragement along with happiness. But on the whole, for the day, I’ll try not to focus on those things and will put my thumb on the scales of the good outweighing the bad.

Plus, I’m not so confined only to see what’s in front of me. I’ll manage to extend my appreciations. I’ll be thinking of my CSA farmers, Tony and Dela, as I cook the Brussels sprouts they struggled to grow for me in a changing climate. I’ll be cherishing the premier place of our state as I eat cranberries from the farmers’ market. As a usual vegetarian making an exception, it’s apparent to notice the turkey that’s given its life for me, though I’ll know next nothing of just what that life may have been like. Still, I’ll keep appreciating it through the leftovers on a roll with some brown mustard. Heck, I may even find gratitude for the work of sugar-hungry yeast in fermentation. So just by looking down at my plate and into the bottom of an empty glass, I’ll have the impetus to realize my thanksgiving isn’t self-contained but required broad involvement of people and creatures.

You know, I’ll even put on a necktie to look good and mark it as a genuine celebration. It may not be perfect, but plenty sufficient, plenty good enough. Yes, I’ll be pretty assured that I’m doing well at giving thanks. I know what I’m going to wear for the occasion, and have plans on my food and my drink…

But then along comes Jesus, saying “Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or drink. Don’t worry about what you’ll wear.” Well, Jesus, that was most of what I was worried about, and aside from that I hardly know where to start for Thanksgiving! He goes on, “Doesn’t life consist in more than these things?” I don’t know, Jesus! Does it?! I wasn’t preparing to pay attention. Yet Jesus prompts me to be a little less self-satisfied. If I’m thinking I’m pretty good at this Thanksgiving thing, I’ll need something besides a full belly, probably even more than pitching in on the dishes afterward.

So maybe it’s in the conversation and discussion around the table. For that, our reading from 1st Timothy makes a bold suggestion: that our Thanksgiving ought to be political. Well, just out from election day, you may feel still be overloaded on politics. At my table, there’s a chance my mother will voice relief at all the SuperPAC ads being off her TV. There won’t be heated dialogues or diatribes, but at most some political snickering or poking fun.

But 1st Timothy will have none of that. Before the oven is heating up, before the shopping list is even made, this pushy little book of the Bible tells us “first of all” we should make “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” for all in high positions. Foremost is thanks for government, according to this scriptural suggestion.

Well, this is a national holiday, declared by presidential proclamation. So to shape my supplications and prayers, I generally go back to the formative 1863 statement from Abraham Lincoln, who adjoined us to set apart “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent” God. (I like his proclamation mostly for that term “beneficent.”) Lincoln concluded with the difficult political recommendation “that while offering up” our prayers for blessing, we might “also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to [God’s] tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers … and fervently implore [God] to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore … the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.” That’s not just in Civil War, but still worth hearing, amid civil strife where too many are harmed and we are terribly disjoined.

This prompts hearing from Joel, that we’ve known ravages, but don’t fear those as the end of the story. We can give thanks even when plates haven’t been full and death has left empty places at our tables. We expect soils and plants will rejuvenate, that God’s will is to restore life.

Thanksgiving isn’t only in what satisfies my stomach, nor disabled in spite of what’s missing from satisfaction. We give thanks that God’s vision is larger than our own peculiar interests and pursuits, not limited by what we claim as abundance or deficiency, more than our past or hopes for the future. “We are especially reminded on Thanksgiving of how the virtue of gratitude enables us to recognize, even in adverse situations, the love of God in every person, every creature, and throughout nature.” (That sentence came from the 2018 Thanksgiving proclamation signed by President Trump!)*

For me to be able to give thanks, broadly and even in adverse situations, I need to be together with you tonight, to remember with this assembly that it is about community that is more than the familiar bounds of comfort, that has to adapt to welcoming strangers (who, it turns out, aren’t that strange), has to look beyond what I consider good for myself, has to look beyond the politics I’d claim or even notions of a nation, has to hold a big ecological picture that we are all members of God’s household, God’s kingdom, God’s purposes for life.

To give thanks, then, I need to remember this is about God, and God’s persistence for us. I need to see that it’s not only about a plate in front of me, but about a cross in our midst. In that way, I can remember that Jesus wasn’t addressing a crowd gathered around my full Thanksgiving table with all of its well-clad pleasantries, but those who didn’t have food or drink or clothes and for whom life was extremely tenuous and threatened, most especially by the government over them. And still, Jesus could point to the ultimate heart of the matter that they were in his care, and that no lack and no abundance could separate us from the love of God, and God’s insistence on vindicating life. That is what fills us, with gladness and joy.

* https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/presidential-proclamation-thanksgiving-day-2018/

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Old/News

sermon on Jeremiah 36:1-4, 21-24; 31:31-34 and Psalm 137

 

Ecclesiastes, on of my favorite books in the Bible for sharing the dim appraisal I refer to as “realism,” gave us the line “there is nothing new under the sun.”

This reading from Jeremiah introduces a despicable and ignorant leader in government. His ignorance is in so intentionally ignoring this message, and despicable because he doesn’t care about the people he’s governing. We might draw connections to leaders who refuse good advice and seem concerned about nobody except themselves. There’s nothing new under the sun. This story is old news.

But as we seek association, let’s hear background of this Narrative Lectionary passage: Jehoiakim’s father Josiah was one of the great kings. He rediscovered what we know as the book of Deuteronomy, and when he heard those words from God read for the first time, he was so moved he tore his clothes, and went on to reinstitute a grand celebration of Passover for the first time in a couple hundred years (2Kings22-23). Picture if we had all forgotten about Easter, the central salvation festival of our faith, and then got it back.

Jehoiakim is exactly the reverse. He hears God’s Word from a prophet and ignores it completely, going so far as this memorable image of cutting off each passage at it is read to burn it up. I wonder whether he carelessly dropped them into the flame or crumpled and threw them?

Josiah had been killed by Pharaoh Neco of Egypt, who also then deposed another son of Josiah’s and made Jehoiakim king. In the meantime, the Babylonians became the mightier power and Jehoiakim served them as vassal for three years, paying steep tribute through heavy taxes, until the Babylonians attacked, laying siege to Jerusalem, eventually killing Jehoiakim and installing his brother as king, until deporting him and many of the officials and elites into exile.

Around Jehoiakim, his people suffered, with food supplies cut off and no resources to support life. It’s a telling detail that the king is waiting out winter with a warm fire going, into which he’s feeding the scraps of the scroll, since many of his people were freezing and starving. It’s in a palace he built without paying his workers (22:13). Worse, this focus on luxury is the opposite of his father’s pursuit of justice, of helping the poor and needy.

That amplifies the tragic detail in verses we skipped over that Baruch the secretary had read the words of Jeremiah to an assembly of the crowd, who repented and listened exactly to what God was saying to them. With words that doom and destruction could be averted, the people believed.

But when those words were read to the one in authority, he thought he could get rid of what seemed like bad news, like fake news, as we’re overly prone to say now, in perhaps an ancient book burning, an effort to stifle truth.

Of course it didn’t work. As Dr. King reminded us in a mix Lindy put together for the mosaic event yesterday, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” So just after these verses, it simply says, “The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll” with an addendum that Jehoiakim would remain unburied, with no one from David’s lineage to sit on the throne, a reworking of God’s method.

Another method, a development of something new under the sun, this being on a scroll indicates spreading literacy at the time. Earlier, we heard of Isaiah’s lips touched with a burning coal, a purification meaning the message was mainly oral then. We may take the spoken word as an event, but the written word as a record. It would not be so easy for Jehoiakim to be rid of these words, written down to persist beyond destruction and exile even to our own day in each of our Bibles.

But it’s not just about a new medium, about God now being able to communicate to us not just with the benefit of the printing press or on radio waves and TV broadcasts and podcasts and YouTube and weekly emails on our smartphones or to use this sermon as it is posted on Facebook. Sure, God can make use of any of our new media.

The main point, though, is that God’s Word and promise is not stopped, cannot be ignored by burning a scroll or shut up by changing the channel or defeated by the destruction of entire cultures. “God’s Word forever shall abide, no thanks to foes who fear it” we sang in the words of Luther’s hymn on Reformation Sunday.

In the first place, we may take this as good news that God’s Word remains forever, that the catastrophes of despicable and ignorant leaders, even while failing to do it any great honor or service, cannot threaten entirely to undermine God’s Word and work.

Even though Passover’s central saving story had disappeared for a while, still God was present and operating and engaged. To the people in exile, another prophet would proclaim that it is not in their ability or memory, but in the love of a Mother God saying, “Can a woman forget her nursing child? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Even if churches close their doors or we were to forget Easter and never say an Alleluia and neglect to celebrate God’s consistent gift of life, still God’s Spirit would breathe that new life into us, raising us from death.

This promise is persistent. It outlasts current events, transcends our ancestors and descendants, overrules rotten rulers, compresses oppressions, and unravels the tangles of newest-fangled innovations. It is news that is more than old; it is eternal.

Still, we may wonder not only about an arc of the universe or God’s big picture plans, but may rightly ask about our own lives. I don’t suspect that’s only western enlightened individualism, not just selfish-preservation, but a fair and faithful protest. Psalms trust God’s attention to remembering overall, but still find voice to lament and ask, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” Today’s Psalm is the most desperate communal lament, asking how the people could sing praise when in exile and things had gone so wrong. What were those people to do, who had listened to God but suffered because their leaders hadn’t?

What in the face of homes burning up? What of the death of the Great Lakes? What of injustice with racism raging across generations where—in the strong words of our youth Big Read book—“The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everyone,” where educational achievement gaps and arrest rates and abuse patterns don’t just harm individual children but come around to bite us all and make life worse.

And what simply when life doesn’t go how you’d wish, when you’re not ready to sing songs of joyful praise, when your voice trembles instead or is distracted and preoccupied? In ways large and small that life itself is interrupted, or you are ignorant and not going along with how God would have things go?

For that, I can’t say why God doesn’t simply right the wrongs and change it all. Instead of intervening to shout down opposing voices, for whatever reason our God chooses forgiveness. God who always remembers, who will never forget her love for you, still promises to forget, in remembering sin no more.

In the face of what doesn’t go right, confronting what I call “realism,” God chooses to reiterate, to keep speaking the promise. When a king burns the Word, God speaks and writes it again. When you forget or when new problems threaten to overwhelm, or death or life make you question, God repeats.

Jesus speaks it again, offering the promise as himself, as God’s presence to go with you at this table, reiterating words of God spoken through Jeremiah, of a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins. This covenant can’t be broken, because God’s promise for you can’t be broken.

It’s the promise spoken to Demi James in baptism, still at the start of her life, and not dependent on anything else to come, but consistent through all of her moments, of healthy days or sickness, of fun with older siblings Leo and Alexa or when she’s feeling picked on, for the great days of learning at school or when she wishes she had more friends, for wins at sports or losses, for relationships filled with contentment or frustrations, for new jobs and for the daily grind, her greatest successes and worst failures, through whatever happens in politics to come through her life and immigration debates and environmental efforts and economy and wars that drag and on and on, on all the way to the end, but even beyond that to a promise of life to come.

For now we speak that promise and keep repeating it, a reminder of God’s love and life that won’t be undone. But for this good news, today God declares a new thing yet to come, of the time when we won’t need prophets and scrolls that can die or be burned, won’t need Bibles and sermons that are easily forgotten, won’t need Sunday School and all the reminders, much less dealing with questions of religious insiders or despicable and ignorant leaders. “No longer shall they teach one another, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD, for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. I will put my teaching within them, and I will write it…on their hearts; and I will be their God,” and you shall be God’s people.”

 

Hymn: “Each Winter as the Year Grows Older” ELW 252

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Holy Moly Wholly

sermon on Isaiah6:1-8

“Here I am; send me!” It’s an obvious phrase on a day for making our pledges to contribute to God’s work in this place.

Our focus through this stewardship season has been on Jubilee. Jubilee jumped out as a 50-year debt release celebration pairing with the 50th anniversary for Hope. But not just 50 years. Even more, for proclamation of liberation.

At the MCC, we cherish liberty and justice for all, not with pompous flag-waving, but in a way that honestly seeks to respect all life and to do our part in making it better, rather than infringing on or confining it. That’s the mission we understand from God, and we want to be the kind of people joining in that.

You’ve been preparing to turn in pledges, thinking how you accentuate and assist that mission, to respond, “Here I am!” It’s in the hours you share of time and talents here. It is how you take this mission into the rest of life. And it is in offering your financial devotion.

Besides the great ongoing work here and the 15₡ of every dollar shared as mission support for the larger church and other places joining our liberating labors, I’d like you to know that a basic baseline for next year’s tentative budget involves an increase of 3%. That’s just to keep up with higher water bills and some landscaping and website updates and health care costs and cost of living for your staff, not even to raise in gratitude for their enormous part in carrying this mission.

I’d further like to remind you as you look at your forms that there’s a check box for learning about the Endowment, for estate planning in your will or other gifts. That kind of giving supported the Big Read by purchasing 100 copies of the book so everyone could join in “changing the way the church views racism.”

For one more, a stretch goal we hope to accomplish that will require a bigger growth in giving, I want to tell you about bathrooms. (I don’t usually get to talk about bathrooms in sermons.) We’re looking to redo the downstairs bathrooms, to make them into separate individual gender-neutral facilities.

I want to offer you a story about why. Recently someone was telling me how going to church has often been scary. One particular difficulty is not knowing which bathroom to use. Whether choosing a men’s room or women’s, this person might get strange looks or even comments about being in the wrong place. That’s not a comfortable conversation, I’d think, especially without knowing how to respond about gender identity. So this person’s Sunday morning solution for years has been to look down into a cereal bowl and realize the milk that has held the frosted mini wheats is the only amount of safe liquid to have that morning, including serving to swallow prescriptions. Certainly a cup of coffee would have to wait.

Avoiding coffee is far from the reality of how most of us need to prepare for church (and I lost track of how much I’ve had so far today). But I can hold that reality and use it in my own preparations for church. It was on my mind as Acacia and I stretched the increase of our financial pledge for 2019. It is part of how we can respond as community to have this be a place of proclaiming God’s liberation, a liberation that can be so simple as to mean that a person can come here and not need to be afraid of something so common and mundane as being able to go to the bathroom.

Now, it would be convenient if I could tell you that God is calling you to do this, calling you contribute as prophetic liberators, standing against oppressive and fearful culture, that God wants you to open your hearts and open your minds and open your wallets for this work, and that since you are faithful, you will respond, “Here I am! Send me!”

But, as usual, it’s not so convenient as that. A nice phrase is that God doesn’t call the equipped but equips the called. But this isn’t even really that.

Last week, Jonah was repeatedly told to go to Nineveh, an equivalent of being sent to Nazi Berlin to proclaim God’s love. But in this Bible passage, God doesn’t choose Isaiah. God doesn’t direct his mission. God doesn’t call him especially. There’s nothing that would say Isaiah was special or particularly qualified. He identifies himself as a sinner among sinners, one of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips.

The divine response is to purify him. That is what makes him ready. Then, though uncalled, he responds. This is apparently almost accidental, prophetic vocation and righteousness by association, by proximity, coincidence.

For this stewardship Sunday, I can’t tell you the right thing to do is to give more, that God is expecting it of you. All I can do is proclaim again the word of purity, touching your lips with the hot coal that may provoke your response, announcing to you that all your sins are forgiven and your guilt is removed.

Fortunately, that is also why you may be here. It’s not quite a smoke-filled temple, not quite the intimidation of majesty with a mere drape of a robe overflowing the space. You’re met only by a scruffy bespectacled pastor, not the terrifying angels flitting about. (Sidenote: biblical angels are more scary than pretty. These six-winged beasts called seraphim’s name means “burning.” It’s the same word for poisonous serpents. These are fiery sneaky snaky obscure angels.) For all the difference of trepidation in the story versus sacrilegious me, of a holy, holy, holy vision versus unadorned familiarity of the Blessing Room, you may still come for interaction with divine presence.

And encountering that presence, you may have Isaiah’s realization that you fall short, that you aren’t very holy, holy, holy, that you don’t do all that well, so there could be reasons to fear. Plus you’re stuck living in a culture breathing threats with lies and hatred. Being amid a people of unclean lips may even sadly be church culture of gossip in small circles, or meetings where we get worked up and fail to speak as kindly or hopefully as we should.

The reading is similarly situated amid a specific religious and political landscape, in Jerusalem at a transition of power, from King Uzziah. It’s not a time when things are going all that well. God’s people are a mess, rebelling against what God would want. The book of Isaiah begins, “Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who are utterly estranged!” (1:4) Not the best heart-warming description.

Facing such rotten times, there may be a reaction of wanting to hunker down, just to find a pleasant diversion, to try to forget about it all, certainly to hide from the danger, much less to be wary of divine parental discipline. But in those ancient hard times, when rulers could be no good and culture was corrupt, something inspired God’s prophets to step forward. God’s work needed to be done, was begging to be done. And some unusual suspects got swept up into it.

So like Isaiah, here you are, amid a surprising encounter with the divine, transforming you and your place in culture. As you look to our world, to what still needs to be improved, to the work to come, your lips are touched, are cleansed, unsealed—not so you can tout your own plans or accomplishments, not to turn to celebrating the victories of our side, but to proclaim God’s glory of liberation, from a God who fills creation, a God more mighty than we can possibly envision, but who abounds in steadfast love and loves to hang out with sinners and failures, in a vulgar culture and here in unholy hypocritical religious circles, and coming into your daily regular unspecial life.

So I can’t tell you that this God expects you to take another look at your pledge sheets, to reconsider, to leap up with a grand “Here I am” readiness to do more of your part. In fact, this God probably has reason to expect the opposite. But the work needs to be done, if nothing else so that everyone can safely and comfortably go to the bathroom. That’s part of God’s mission.

Even if you don’t have some eagerness or special thing to contribute, if you just happen to be in this holy place around this holy conversation, still God loves you and reaches out to forgive you and purify you. You are made holy, not because you deserve it, whether you ask for it or not, and even though you may not know what to do with it. Simply since here God’s word proclaims liberation.

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God’s Community of Support

sermon on 1st Kings 17 & for Reformation Sunday

 

Elijah is an Old Testament big wig.

When Jesus hangs out with the superstars of Hebrew Scriptures with a heavenly glimpse in the Transfiguration story, it’s Moses and Elijah, representing the categories of law and prophets.

It was feasible Elijah could show up since, instead of dying, a chariot of fire came to scoop him up by the Jordan River and carried him away. From that, our Old Testament ends with the expectation that Elijah will return, which is the famously waiting empty chair at Jewish Passover tables. Also from this, Jesus was asked if he’s Elijah, if he’s calling for Elijah’s help as he died on the cross, and he himself pointed to John the Baptist as the one filling this role of the ultimate prophet.

In a few amazing stories, Elijah called down fire from the sky and had major confrontations with nasty rulers and spoke with God and spoke for God and triumphed over 400 bad prophets in a duel.

But for all that large stuff of a big wig, in today’s reading, Elijah drops in for his first appearance and seems fairly small and around the fringes.

It helps to know that at the end of the previous chapter, King Ahab had just come to power. He was introduced twice by saying: “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him” (16:30, 33). Not a glowing endorsement, further accentuated in its dim appraisal by the pacifist activist priest Daniel Berrigan who wrote: “In the tally of royal delinquents, one, Ahab, shines for innovative spoliating wickedness.”* This king, following his forbidden marriage to a foreign wife, Jezebel (a name with demeaning derivation for a shamelessly morally unrestrained woman, as the dictionary would have it), Ahab worsened it by promoting cult worship while ridiculing and killing the good guys.

I mention that because this evil queen Jezebel was from Sidon, where our story spends most of its time today, with a widow. If we have one woman from Sidon who was not commendable, another was. One man of Israel failed to follow God while another listened.

Now, I don’t know exactly where you might find yourself in this story, and I’m reluctant to declare any role as yours. You might feel like the one proclaiming God in hostile territory, or akin to one offering what limited care you can. You might even feel like the lifeless son, or wicked rulers. I’m going to try not to assign roles or tell you what you should be doing, but (as usual) to point out what God is doing.

For that uncertainty, we’ll notice the start of the story, where God cares for Elijah without human support. God’s work without our hands. Ravens bring Elijah food. When Elijah does go to a human for assistance, the person is less willing and less able to help than nature was. Besides God’s non-human work in creation, we might take that, especially with this Reformation celebration of the church, as an observance that even we who are supposed to be offering care and embodying what God wants still may not be the most willing or helpful. We see where people of the church have not helped things to go right, where it’s better apart from us.

That is further highlighted by which human did become helpful here: one across the border, outside the realm of God’s people, not sharing Elijah’s religion, from the place of the evil queen.

This is exactly the offense Jesus is voicing in our Gospel window, that God’s preferential treatment and operation isn’t reserved for the religious insiders. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lifelong Lutheran or your perfect attendance awards in worship or how passionately you pray. God will be just as eagerly striving for the life of somebody on the other side of the border, speaking a different language, not sharing your WASP-y privileged presumptuous position. I don’t say that for a self-righteous immigration stance, but with the reminder that whenever we draw a line or barrier of righteousness, God will be working on the other side of that line.

This is important for us to see about God’s provision. Through this meager outsider, God provided and offered the sustenance to help the prophet’s life proceed. But it’s more than the physical relief effort. She also offered clarification about God. One commentator points out that “here a foreign woman is a sign to and of God’s people.” Once more: “a foreign woman [becomes] a sign to and of God’s people!”** To know who God is and who we are as God’s people, we may not be best served simply by looking at each other, in the obvious places of privilege, in insider mirrors.

Here we may see that benefit of being in this ecumenical partnership as the MCC. We may recognize that advantage in interfaith connections.

And in smaller perspective, it’s worth hearing on Reformation Sunday. I can be given to tout my German Lutheran heritage even over against you Scandinavians. I, too, can feel like a good chorale of “A Mighty Fortress” is the voice of our faith, but that it also can go the other direction in our mouths with good beer and some sauerkraut.

lutherans for reformationSo for myself as much as for you, the bulletin cover is a reminder not to be so confined in our sense of who a Lutheran is or what we look like or where we are. Such decolonizing Lutheranism is also why Christa Olson chose the Spanish setting of our liturgy for this service.

For seeing such places of God’s work, let’s add in the end of the story, moving from food for maintaining life to the interruption of life. Elijah met the widow as she was expecting death from starvation. That was averted, but death returned and took her sick son from her.

And then God’s work is still on behalf of life, returning breath into the son and returning him to his mother. This is small work, an isolated case, temporarily helping one family. Elijah will go on to stop the death-wielding forces of his government as he’ll struggle for life. The resuscitation of the boy, the restoration of family in a fringe location, is vital, but is a small hint, a symbol, a mere glimpse of something larger.

Once more, Father Berrigan signals well the ultimate, that this resurrection is “a prelude to a greater wonder, the miracle himself rises from death…And what do we make of that, we who celebrate each year this conquest of the ‘last enemy,’ denying a last word to the empery of death?” (p95)

That’s spot on, but not enough. I’d expand it: we don’t only celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter each year, but each Sunday, maybe every day, with each moment that we face death large or small. We don’t only deny it the last word; we take its breath away, denying it any authority over us. Or, we don’t do it, but God does.

Not by some special power of prophet Elijah did the child have life breathed back into him. This is God’s work, always and constantly. Resurrection is on the loose in the world, spreading, expanding the realm of God across borders. We may see God working through nature and through those who don’t share our religion, but this is also what keeps us coming back. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” That Christ is risen isn’t only for Easter or at funerals, but in baptism, and on Monday, and at a ballot box, and on the news, and in cleaning your room, and for autumn leaves, and on and on.

One bit of that on this Reformation Sunday is to look back at history. We think of Martin Luther, maybe as another Elijah, another John the Baptist, another who pointed a way in the wilderness and named the sin that would try to contradict the Word of God that gives life. We may say that Luther breathed new life into a dying or decrepit church, one in bondage to the ways of the world that draw us from God. But it was not Luther’s breath, as he’d quickly remind us. The Holy Spirit did her breathing through him, taking whatever words she could use and filling them with godly inspiration and rejuvenation.

And that is what we continue to celebrate, that in all ways, whether enormously historical or fringe and fleeting, God’s Spirit is here, breathing new life into you and into our world, reforming us, renewing us, working that miracle in surprising places, like in the face of violently misguided government, in public schools, inside Lutheran churches, and outside the church, in a synagogue community, in food pantries and hospitals, and—maybe most surprising of all—in the obscurest and remotest of places like your life.

 

 

* The Kings and Their Gods: The Pathology of Power, p92

** Claudia Camp in Women’s Bible Commentary, p112

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of George Philip Steinmetz, Jr.5bcb4eac8e636.image

April 21, 1931 + October 18, 2018

1Corinthians15, Matthew6

 

Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

Jesus speaks this as encouragement for generosity, for selfless almsgiving, for open-handedness that does clench a fist of entitlement but releases so abundantly and generously that it refuses to tally and ignores any kind of score-keeping record.

I know straight off there’s a risk in commending something that won’t keep score at the funeral of a guy who was a guard in the Badgers’ first trip to the Rose Bowl, maybe not least because George got to hold in his hand the astonishing amount of $1000 for tickets he scalped to actor Fred McMurray. And though the Badgers had the best stats of that whole season against USC, they got blanked 7-0.

Maybe that actually does promote not keeping score, that there was plenty to that experience and George’s identity as an athlete and growing as a young man that wasn’t about one final win.

But, again, it may seem even more strange to talk about a left hand not knowing what a right hand is doing for a heart surgeon, for a man who used to have dog heart valves stored in the garage where he had his office, for this doctor who extended care to thousands of open-heart patients, extended their lives, and extending the possibility of their loving relationships, while also extending that knowledge and research and training to subsequent generations of medical and surgical staff.

I’m not surgeon, and can hardly hold my hand steady enough to brush my teeth, and certainly would not be invited to do the precision work that might involve sharp tools and careful cutting, but having gotten to watch the finesse and artistry of some surgery this week, it sure seems that it’s worthwhile to keep track of what both hands are doing and not to let one go off and do its own thing unnoticed. So, yet again, this little verse spoken by Jesus may seem like we shouldn’t apply it too closely to George.

In spite of those parts that don’t seem exactly to fit, or to go hand-in-hand or hand-in-glove with George’s life story and personality, still I’ll say that this saying from Jesus occurred to me first because of how I knew George. I’ve been his pastor for less than three years, so I didn’t know the vibrant and strong George in the ways you did. I knew him after he lost much of his memory. He still had photos of Joe displayed prominently. He knew and cherished that Suzie was right there near him. He and I could talk about his childhood, growing up on Fox Avenue, and I think about him every time I’m walking my dog past his childhood house. He recalled growing up at Luther Memorial.

But then we’d start to lose track. He’d ask again which congregation I was from, and if he’d been a member there. He could briefly recall the gardens on our grounds and being excited by those. And he always knew he was a part of the dear group of guys called GEMS, the Grumpy Elderly Men, and remembered that connection.

So I’m hesitant to mention George’s lost his memory. He had so much good and full, in his career, in his family, in enjoying travels, in all of life. He was strong of body and of mind. It could seem only to highlight sadness and emphasize the loss of this moment to mention the contrasting moment.

But I mention it because that’s what I knew of George, how I came to love him, and that will be the way I miss him.

And I mention it because with this faith we gather around today and with the God in whose name we are gathered, this isn’t only something to be ignored or avoided. We can confront the illnesses and losses of life, and even face this terrible moment of death itself. Even as today we are especially clinging to memories of the past, we recognize that the goodness of our hope is not only in how well we recall what has been.

So when Jesus talks about a right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, we can take that as applying to George’s loss of memory, and realize that it doesn’t separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We may not assert that dementia brings us closer to God, but I’d gladly and eagerly proclaim that God brings you closer in such moments, that when thoughts won’t stay in a head and when you don’t have the capabilities you used to and wish you still did, that God holds you yet more tightly in the promise.

In that way, I want to commend to us two more Bible passages that not only manage to deal with losing memory, but find in it the way forward, the way to new life, even the celebration of blessing.

The first is again from the Apostle Paul, in striving for his own forgetfulness. He wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:10-13).

Paul claims that in forgetting the things that he would’ve considered his previous accomplishments or successes in life or marks of superiority, then he recognizes the fullness of life offered as he is made God’s own. Jesus has also claimed George, not mindful of what he had or hadn’t done in life, not only celebrating his career or integrity, but simply for his own love, straining on toward the heavenly goal of resurrection.

With that view from Paul for George, one more word of God’s own loss of memory. Exactly contradicting any sense of an eternal record keeper who logs our every action for good or ill, the prophet Jeremiah recognizes that God, too, must forget and proclaims this Word of the Lord (which even includes some heart surgery, we might say): “This is the covenant that I will make, says the LORD: I will write it on their hearts. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).

We have a God who doesn’t—who in fact refuses—to keep track, to tally our sense of accomplishment, and who sets aside what we lament as deficit. God’s own left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing, in lavishing on us the gifts of life, deserved or undeserved, abundant and grace-filled, the blessings of 87 years, the love of family and two marriages, of deep friendships, the care of tending life all the way to last days, and promises even more to come in an eternal victory.

So whether we know it or not, the one thing this God will remember is to be with you always in love.

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