Finder Keeper

meditative reflections on Luke 15:1-10 and Exodus 32:7-14

 

“They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them.”

The sad assessment comes from our first reading, which is going to give us the story of the golden calf. It’s set at the base of Mount Sinai. God had just done powerful miracles with conviction on behalf of the people, announcing God’s people should be free from slavery, and trying to force the government to stop abusing these resident aliens, then finally busting through the armed forces and bursting past impenetrable barriers. God parted the Red Sea. They were free but hungry, so God gave bread from heaven. They were roaming without direction, so God called Moses to give commandments and order.

While Moses is up on the mountain, a mountain shrouded in fire and smoke with thunder rolling and the trumpet blast, right there under that very visible and convincing presence, the people nevertheless grow skeptical. He’s gone. So they turn away. Quickly turning aside, they look for something else. They gather their jewelry and have Moses’s brother make a cow. In theatrics that would have been as ludicrous then as now, they start genuflecting and prostrating and bowing down to this gilded graven image and saying “O, this shiny little toy we just made saved us from Pharaoh!”

Yup, pretty foolish. Somebody should’ve elbowed them and said, Uh, the real God is right up there on the mountain, see? Don’t you think God might notice and get a little peeved? A little bit of credit for all the hard work seems well-deserved. Or at least wait until God’s back is turned before mocking so blatantly.

Again, with melodramatic theatrics in the story, we might tend to shake our heads at the dolts. We at least have the good sense not to go ga-ga over a gold calf. The golden goose that grabs our gander is usually less flamboyant. We’d like to belittle those ancient people for treating something they just created as if it were the thing that had saved them, as if what they manufactured were better than they were, while we throw our devotions and attentions all sorts of directions and offer ourselves to all manner of silly things.

But I don’t want to bother enumerating where our wealth or our praise or inventions or time or interest goes. I just want to highlight that we find ourselves in the same result as the story.

They were at the foot of Mount Sinai, divine pyrotechnics blazing away over their heads, blisters of salvation still on their feet, Passover supper still winding its way through their lower GI tract just as they were winding tracks through the wilderness. But they forgot. They turned away. God seemed absent, and God’s goodness seemed distant.

It probably shouldn’t have. But it did. So they looked elsewhere. They looked to Moses’s brother. They looked to a lump of gold. They looked to a new party. They weren’t awful people. They weren’t trying to be idolatrous or blasphemous. They weren’t wanting to get it wrong. They didn’t intend to create a false new god or stray from their religion or forget goodness. They maybe should’ve known better. But they didn’t.

So God responds by sending Moses to preach to them, to call them back, to remind them of the relationship.

We gather here, reminded of the relationship, to have God’s goodness preached to us again. Our attentions and devotions have been elsewhere. It isn’t our repentant religiosity that restores us. It isn’t that we are so contrite, that we pray our way back into grace, that we bow even more heartily to the correct God. Our “Kyrie eleison” is understanding for ourselves that we are quick to turn. And then we sing the glory of God who welcomes us back with joy.

 

 

Sinful sheep and repentant coins. Odd characters, these.

If you’re like me, a first reaction to these lost parables may be a perturbed disappointment. I guess I place myself with the flock of 99 sheep and wonder why there isn’t joy in the presence of the angels of God over me.

Of course that’s self-justifying and a presumptuous view of myself. In the end, there really are no 99 sheep. There is only the one sheep, repeated at least 100 instances. We learned that from the gathering at the base of Mount Sinai, turning so quickly astray, following our appetites and our desires and losing track of the God who would seek always to save and bless us.

Though even that is not quite the right picture. That still leaves us to blame, feeling guilty that we couldn’t keep focus. Or maybe we get argumentative that the other things weren’t just idle distractions but were worth our attention and dedication. We may either be filled with regret, feeling that we’ve done too much wrong. Or we may resent if we’re told to repent.

But that doesn’t match these odd characters Jesus sets in front of us. As Emmy Kegler reminds us in her book titled for this passage, the coin didn’t do anything wrong to get lost. The sheep is just being a sheep.* If we’re identifying with these odd characters, it really isn’t about repentance as feeling regret. It’s not that we did something bad. About the only detail we have to hold onto is about relationship and about separation. If we can’t say it was a particularly sinful coin or especially evil sheep, if we can’t say why they got lost, if we can’t say whether the shepherd God or the homeowner God should’ve kept closer track, we don’t know. All we know is that she wants them back. She wants the separation to end, to be in relationship with you, to have you near.

This is a God who goes on the hunt for you, sweeping into every dark and dirty corner, a God down on her hands and knees to push aside the dust bunnies and questions of how good a housekeeper she is to begin with, persevering after you, a God even born into this messy world to come find you.

As complex as it is, as easy as it is to find yourself lost over and over again, still our statement of faith will recognize your glimmering feeling that you want to be found.

And though I believe this God is so persistent that she’ll find you wherever you are and will not let you remain lost, still I would also say that here in church is maybe the best and easiest place to be found. It’s here that you again and again have the promise that God loves you, is looking for you, won’t let you remain lost.

 

 

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Some grumbling people think that that would shame Jesus, would be an indicator that he’s doing something wrong. They were trying to keep pure, to follow not only etiquette but also the way they allegedly could be closer to God. It involved details not only of who but of how, how was the food prepared, in what. It came with lots of risk of contamination and loss of holiness, especially from those who should’ve been kept out. But here Jesus flagrantly was disregarding the health code and putting himself on the wrong side of his religion.

But Jesus wasn’t ashamed. Of course, that’s exactly where he wants to be. Some people say that any time you try to draw a line of who is in or to put up a fence, Jesus is going to be on the other side. Jesus exactly wants to welcome and eat with sinners.

This table we’re turning to now was originally set by Jesus on the night he was betrayed. It was for his betrayer. It was for the closest friend who would shortly deny three times even knowing him. It’s for those who would flee when their faith turned to fear.

This meal he set was recalling the meal on the night before Moses led those people into the wilderness, commemorating God’s relationship with a people who wanted not only to be free from slavery but often even from God and each other. Of course Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. That’s exactly the kind of God we have.

The best thing you can do, then, as we gather at this table is to find yourself among the sinners. Don’t draw the line that would claim you’re so good that you wouldn’t have a place at this banquet of sinners, this feast for finding the lost and bringing us back in together, even the grumblers. Jesus wants to eat with you. He’s been on the hunt to find you, to bring you back, even over and over, to keep you in God’s goodness and eternal embrace.

“When she has found you, she calls friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me.’” That’s what’s happening here at this table. Our God has found you, welcomes you, and she wants us all to rejoice at this party feast that you’ve been found again.

 

* One Coin Found, p2-4

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Prosperous Labors?

sermon on Psalm 112

 

I’ll admit I didn’t like this Psalm to start, and was disappointed it was the final one in our Psummer of Psalms.

At first, I thought it was offering false assurances and guarantees, trying to sell a bill of goods. I was reading it to declare that if you believe in God enough, you’ll be rewarded with descendants, wealth, riches, triumph. Put in a little supernatural dedication to get utterly this-worldly possessions. I don’t believe that’s true, even if it markets well.

I was further disgusted when I discovered there’s a book called “The Psalm 112 Promise: 8 Keys to Becoming Stable and Prosperous.” Yuck. Hinting what might be inside those pages, it says the author is quote “gifted with a strong apostolic anointing.” If the dubious theological language weren’t enough, the guy also has a weekly Christian television show! I know I’m letting my arrogance and condescension show, but c’mon. The back of the book asserts that “this step-by-step guide will help you achieve not just wholeness in your relationships, finances, and health, but also restoration in your heart and soul.”

Now, I recognize that as much as I’m deeply skeptical of such things, it has appeal. I don’t want to be so dismissive as to ignore that somebody may have arrived here today wondering about material rewards for devotion, whether God responds to prayers to help in relationships, finances, and health, just as the book alleges. It’s a big proposition.

Yet any time there’s an If…Then statement about you and God, I get alarmed. Like the divine butler Emily preached about last week, who comes to respond to your requests, this subverts God’s will and action to your own. It makes God’s love and blessing conditional and dependent on you and your behavior. It negates any sense of a promise from God—and that God always keeps promises is pretty much my basic definition of who God is for you.

This book takes Psalm 112 and tries to discern 8 steps, 8 “if…then” statements, such as “If we fear God, then our lives will be blessed. If we worship God through obedience, then we will have generational blessing. If we intimately know the God we serve, then we will have more than enough.”

One church-speak phrase for such sentiments is “prosperity gospel.” Hawked by the sort of preachers who have toothy grins and drive (or are driven) around in luxury sedans, this claims the main focus of the good news, the driving purpose of God, is to make some people rich. And faith is then proven or showed off in being wealthy.

Such a concept would read this Psalm to mean that if you’re righteous, then you’ll be rewarded with the materials gains our world is constantly striving after. One commentary I read this week pointed out that if it actually worked that way with automatic compensation, righteousness might be more universally pursued.*

Yet even more than testing a bank account’s alignment with faithful dedication, the notion of God rewarding you with prosperity is given the lie most quickly simply by looking at Jesus, the embodiment of God’s will. When we want to know what God is like and how God acts, we look at Jesus. And Jesus is, of course, well-known for his nice white teeth and riding around in a luxury sedan. Wrong! He didn’t even ride a luxury donkey. The opposite of being blessed with wealth, Jesus was homeless, scorned, poor, and killed. How’s that for a vision of God’s blessing active in our world? Not so much the prosperity gospel.

When I went back with that sense of God through the lens of Jesus, I actually discovered the Psalm was closer to our Christian identity and further from the well-dentured limo-riders, and then I began to appreciate the Psalm more.

For our usual cultural sense, prosperity comes not from obedience, but it’s wickedness that pays. The cheats, the schemers, the liars, the selfish are the ones who get ahead, at least in our society’s definitions of who is winning and who is behind. We’re even told that greed is good, that the admirable ones are the cutthroat hedge fund billionaires or CEOs who manage to cut ends by mistreating their employees.

But this Psalm doesn’t actually establish the bottom line as a balance, as gross income, as net worth, with power over others. Instead, the focal point is those who deal generously and lend and act justly. Offering no interest loans is not a get-rich-quick scheme in the framework of our economy.

In fact, it’s probably better to remove this from our categories of economy altogether. We’re warped into thinking it’s all always about money. But this is really about relationships, about interpersonal interactions, about how we respond to people and their needs. This Psalm isn’t a handbook on shortcuts to financial independence, but rather commends dealing well with each other.

It reminds us that that is what offers security. We aren’t kept safe by taller walls and bigger guns and meaner attitudes gnashing teeth. Just the reverse, anger will proliferate the evil tidings and prompt fear and in the end prove futile. In the words of Jesus, those who take the sword will die by the sword. But if rage is defused, if it’s not a retaliatory environment, if it’s not about aggression over others, if it’s about cooperative relationships, then that clearly reduces fear that somebody is out to get you.

Again, that’s not modeled much in our world of border disputes and zero-sum bellicosity, where fear is marketed to us and most of our systems are structured around what you lack.

So what would convince you to give up pursuing that path, chasing the wind, rushing from discontent to discontent, always feeling the lack and fleeing fear?

Well, this Psalm is working to convince you. It proclaims that God’s way is with this generous living, the sustenance of relationships. You may come to church not so much with the questions of whether there’s a way to connive God into giving you wealth and a bigger house. Even with lingering yearning, you may not be quite convinced that there are 8 simple steps to God fixing your relationships and ensuring your health.

But I suspect you may well be like me, that you need this opportunity to be reminded that this way of living is good and right, that it is worthwhile, since generous living in relationships takes dedication and some courage.

When the cries of the world fight against a vision of charity and kindness and peace, when fear lurks in every decision, and when you’re worried about whether you have enough, whether you’ll get by, whether your kids will match the model of success, this needs some reassurance.

This is God’s way, God’s goodness, God’s freely given abundance that is every breath and every heartbeat and every bite of food and all our existence. This is the care and virtue God intends for us and from us. And so it is worthwhile to live this way.

It is especially worth considering on this Labor Day weekend. We most often think of labor as something to avoid. We consider work as a contrast to rest. We conceive of jobs as a way to make money, and often little more, and yet we define ourselves by that role and not by other relationships.

But this reminds us that God’s blessing extends in all the areas of our life, and our vocations are callings from God and callings on behalf of these relationships.

So instead of thinking how we fill our days or what our obligations are or what makes the most money, we are invited to consider how we extend God’s love and generosity, where our roles aren’t just for selfish gain, but serve to benefit others and extend security and delight.

We’re accustomed to see that in our offerings and donations as doing good for others. But it’s perhaps most in our families, where our deepest relationships are intended to foster life for each other. Such holy living isn’t by any means restricted to professions such as mine, nor the volunteering that you do in this place. God’s love and blessing radiate into all the places of your life and all aspects of your days, so that it may extend also to others, as you are blessed to be a blessing.

 

*https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3160

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sermon for Pride Sunday

on Psalm 82pride

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

Let me set the stage for that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Psalm 82               Contemporary English Version

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

 

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andy

sketch by John Mix

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Andrew John Remington

November 23, 1936 + August 3, 2019

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love was with Helen.

Love was with family.

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

Love was with Al-Anon.

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

Andy was great at love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Life is Costly

sermon on Psalm 49

Why do good things happen to people?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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meditative reflections on Psalm 25:1-10

7God, do not remember the sins of my youth and my transgressions;
Graciously remember me according to your steadfast love
and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.

The sins of my youth.

Does this Psalm remember when I stole the spray paint from my dad’s work bench, tested it out on the back of the garage door, then lied in trying to deny that I was familiar with a certain culprit who’d put that paint there?

Maybe it’s the namecalling I used to do in playground competitions or the fierce figuring of identities in middle school, taunts now deemed both culturally inappropriate and individually harmful.

Or perhaps the Psalm’s sins of my youth relate to difficulties of having parented me, that I was a little jerk, obstinate, unkind, selfish.

I had a professor at seminary. I think he was about 80, but was still the sharpest guy around. Discussing whether we can actually improve our behavior and become less sinful, he said in older age some sins just weren’t as interesting to him anymore. So are those what this Psalm means by sins of my youth?

What about more serious ones that come later? What if I’d just as soon forget some of these things ever happened?

Even though this Psalm prays for forgetting, that those are not remembered, still some of that setting aside begins as we call them to mind. We realize these things can be detrimental, harm the relationship, have lasting damage. They aren’t just bygones. They are relevant. So we admit. We confess. We recognize that we don’t stand blameless and self-confident. We ask for mercy: Kyrie eleison.

 

7God, do not remember the sins of my youth and my transgressions;
Graciously remember me according to your steadfast love
and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.

So what to do about those sins of my youth that don’t go away?

The Psalm doesn’t say Give me another crack at it and I’ll be a better boy. It’s no claim I used to be a stinker but am a pretty nice guy right now. It’s not asking God to consider my good in comparison and hope it outweighs the bad.

For judicial or legal interpretations, if the sins of my youth are a crime, if I transgress or trespass against God, then God is both the prosecution and the judge, and I can’t offer much in defense. In a courtroom, the mitigating factors trying to divert and look at a bigger picture may try to ask for some leniency, some mercy. But they are never enough to cancel the offense. And we live with a reality where convictions don’t really ever go away; in our society, functionally you can never be an ex-con. It always defines and limits you.

Yet in this Psalm and the vast biblical understanding of this relationship, the sins of my youth are not definitive. The transgression does not define you. You are much more than the worst thing you’ve done or the sum of all the little bad things. You are not limited.

You are actually more than the sum of all your parts. It’s not only about being critical when you look in the mirror versus overly generous, nor even about complete honesty. It’s not just you. As the Psalm recognizes, this is about how God chooses to see you, how God considers you. And that’s not just knowing everything about you, God knowing you more than you know yourself. This is knowing God, who God is, and what that means. Your sin doesn’t define you because God won’t let it. God doesn’t operate with those definitions. You are remembered not on account of yourself, but on God’s account, with steadfast love and goodness.

This doesn’t fit a courtroom setting. It’s as if a case were decided not with a verdict of innocence or guilt, not with charges dropped, not even with a leniency of punishment, but decided based on the integrity of the judge.

When God looks at you, God doesn’t see good person or bad person, doesn’t see somebody struggling to do right. Of course, God knows all those things and is operating within them. But primarily God looks at you and remembers God’s own goodness. You are not being evaluated and judged. You, rather, are being loved.

The voice of this God, choosing and claiming you, persists in the assurance, “Do not be afraid; I am with you…I love you and you are mine.” (ELW 581)

 

7God, do not remember the sins of my youth and my transgressions;
Graciously remember me according to your steadfast love
and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.

At this point, you’ve remembered the sins of your youth plus more recent ones, maybe up to when you walked through the doors this morning. You’ve remembered them in order to have them not remembered by God. You are remembered as beloved, according to God’s goodness. You are defined not by your worst, nor even portrayed in the kindest light. Your identity instead is summarized in relationship with God whose love is steadfast and whose goodness will never fail.

So now what?

One approach might come through the word “shame,” which we read three times and comes up once more later toward the end of the Psalm’s alphabet. Joyce Anderson asked about the word at Beer & Bible on Tuesday, so I did some looking through the 115 Old Testament verses where it is used.

Joyce wondered if it related to how others perceive your faith, your relationship with God. Those verses do have a lot of that. You may have concerns about being identified as a Christian, about how that’s perceived. For most of us, it isn’t physically risky, but may be seen as offensive, as if people like us are the powerful problem causers in this country. Or it may just seem weird, unreasonable, a little foolish. That may fit with shame.

Aside from other’s opinions, though this is mainly whether you can trust this relationship as you interact with the world.

A major way this shame term is used is about those who worship other gods, and instead of shame it can be translated as “confounded.” For us it’s probably less useful to picture graven images and bowing down to carved idols. But we certainly can understand it as worldview. If your whole mentality and project and what you termed “success” were to get rich, to make lots of money, but then you discovered that didn’t make you happy and didn’t really matter or was even harmful, you’d have to reevaluate your whole life. You would be confounded. You’d be kind of lost. Your efforts would be pointless.

We could say the same if you put all your eggs in the basket of your career or striving for a cause or of parenting or sports or doing new things or maintaining traditions or whatever. Pursuing those paths stand to be frustrated, confounded, perhaps pointless in some degree for your efforts.

Which must prompt the question of why your relationship with God might be the thing that wouldn’t be frustrating or would seem so entirely worthwhile. When it seems to have so little direct payoff, why put so high of trust in this?

It may not measure up against those former categories of success. It may not increase your paycheck or your popularity. It may not help you win. Maybe the definition is because this is life, this is the way to live, this is the most in tune. Because this is who you’re supposed to be, who you are.

The very first place the shame term is used is in the Garden of Eden. God creates the earthlings, and it says they were wandering around naked, and they were not ashamed (Genesis 2:25). They were who they were supposed to be.

Picture that as your degree of confidence in this relationship with God. It means the sins of your youth, those marks that would seem to besmirch or scar you, what would be labeled as faults are not held against you. You are held in the love and goodness of God. That frees you to live. You are freed to encounter life unadorned, not putting make-up to cover those old blemishes. You, without shame, could walk down 5th Avenue or Old Sauk Road naked as the day you were created (at least metaphorically). You’ve got nothing that you need to hide, because all that matters in the end is God’s goodness. That is how you may live, shameless, confident in understanding yourself and encountering the world. With God, this is who you are.

Psalm 25:1-10

1Arising to you, O LORD, I lift my soul.
2Before all else, I put trust in you, O God;
         Bring me not to shame, and bring not my enemies to their triumph.
3Collapse none to shame who look to you;
         Condemn, rather, the treacherous to their shame.
4Display your ways for me, O LORD.
         Direct me in your paths.
5Educate me in your truth and teach me,
         Especially since you are the God of my salvation,
                  and in you have I trusted all the day long.
6Forget not, O LORD, your compassion and love,
         For they are forever and ever.
7God, do not remember the sins of my youth and my transgressions;
        Graciously remember me according to your steadfast love
                  and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.
8Honest and kind are your ways, O LORD;
         Hence, you help sinners.
9Into justice you lead the lowly,
         Instructing the humble in your way,
10Just as all your paths are steadfast love and faithfulness
Joining those who keep your covenant and your testimonies.

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One Nation Under

sermon on Psalm 66:1-9 plus 10 & 12

“O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine!” (ELW 888, st2)

Maybe some of our Psalm is in there, with God’s national concern and trials by fire. This Psalm has a verse about purifying silver; the song ups the ante with gold. I’d highlight the distinction that it singles out heroes and may end up misplacing the glory and adoration and worship, where the Psalm will attribute the good only from God, and for the common good.

We probably don’t need an exclusivist view that says we’re better than everyone else or that imagines we’re closer to God. When we read the Psalm in our more honest moments, we may even see not just others—other nations, other religions, other people—as the rebels and enemies of God, but see where our own country rebels against God’s will and we ourselves go astray.

Maybe to move closer to our Psalm’s theology, and for speaking of our nation, here’s a new verse I heard last week on WPR’s Simply Folk, written by Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary:

“Oh, nation of the immigrant
The slave and native son
Whose loyal families labor still
That we may live as one
America, America
Renew thy founder’s call
Let liberty and justice be
The right of one and all”

That may feel more like us here, that it’s about justice and we’re working toward some sort of equity and equality, working to right former wrongs.

Still, compared with the faith of our Psalm, in that new verse God has disappeared from the scene. The focus is on us and on what we do.

As we’re considering this, we should notice that this Psalm is very, very specific. It specifies that God is the one doing it and specifies that God did it for someone else, one nation. You may have picked up hints of the Exodus story. We can’t claim special privilege or place. The specificity is not transposable to our own country. If we hear this as glorifying God’s connection to and work in a chosen people, it’s not appropriate for us to appropriate that biblical narrative and shoehorn in the United States of America.

While this may not be about the U.S. (nor is it about modern Israel), neither do we need to feel left out. We may hear echoes of our stories, echoes that resound in the hymn text, “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far on the way…keep us forever in the path, we pray” (ELW 841).

Further, this specificity is precisely meant to draw us all in. It portrays freedom from slavery in Egypt and going through the Red Sea, being brought into the Promised Land. But those details within the Psalm aren’t isolationist history or restrictive in favoritism. They certainly aren’t for gloating, either in solitary contentment or against the misfortune of others. The added verse reminds us that this isn’t about everything going great all the time or being singled out in God’s blessing when curses fall on others.

Rather than glorying in heroes of war or military might or economic clout or alleged moral superiority or bluer skies than other countries, as if we should or could claim credit in those things, this Psalm instead invites the praise of all nations, not a single national anthem but songs of praise, and indeed for all the world to shout with some kind of joyful noise. The end of the previous Psalm envisions the expanse we also witness in gardens and prairies here and farm fields around us. It says: “The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.” That leads straight in to our start: “Make a joyful noise to God, all earth.”

Through a specific lens, all are invited into the praise. And that seems what the Psalm wants us to know.

Plenty is not explained. It doesn’t say how God’s blessings are allotted or doled out, or even maybe what those blessings are or aren’t. It doesn’t say how God chooses or why. It doesn’t elaborate why bad things happen or how to rectify and reconcile when it feels you’re on the losing end. Maybe most troubling for us, it doesn’t offer any other agency. It doesn’t tell us what our responsibilities are or what we’re responsible for, versus what is dumb luck or what science might explain. The only credit the Psalm is willing to attribute is to God.

And our response still now, even for old stories that were far removed from us or our ancestors, is to join in making joyful noise.

Maybe we can think of the Psalm as an invitation to a party. When you’re invited to a party, it doesn’t involve explanations. It’s not suggesting alternatives. It’s not primarily about what you need to bring or do. It’s not really how you feel about it or how much you would’ve planned it that way. Instead, it’s graciously including you, asking you to share in the celebration.

Now, we could obviously see our response of praise and joyful noise as singing here in church. All are welcome in worship because from here God’s invitation extends without bounds. And the joyful noises don’t presume musical ability. I’ll say again I’m glad you came today to join in the celebration, you RSVP’d “yes.” Thank you.

But this is far, far from the only way. Beyond this, we might ponder how our whole lives sing and shout praise first to God, not seeking credit for ourselves, not gloating in our nation, not consumed by explanations, not lost in the negatives. How do we gird ourselves with overflowing joy? How do your days embody a reminder of God’s goodness?

There are zillions of possibilities. It might be that fireworks are a joyful noise, celebrating God’s blessings of life. It might be that splashing in water does it, or conversations that seek understanding. It might be as we turn our eyes to spacious skies. It might be in barbecues or brunch. As it says in the New Testament, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1Cor10:31).

Since this is about nations and our nation, it also quickly gets political. Praise and politics may be an unusual pairing of words these days. Since we’re recognizing the gift Ellen Lindgren has been to us in so many ways through the years, we can also celebrate how she’s come to the party, and how she’s brought us along with her. Ellen is certainly political, on her shirtsleeve and in signs she carries and through so many hours of her day. As we praise God, we can also give thanks for Ellen, who has worked so diligently for justice, for a politics that is about how life is enhanced and welcome is extended, so that more people may receive this invitation for an opportunity of abundant life, when living is itself praise of God.

Thank you, Ellen. Thank you all for being here. Thank you for the ways you expand praise and let your lives sing. And finally, thanks be to God.

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