sermon for Pride Sunday

on Psalm139:1,13-18; Luke10:25-37

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It strikes me that this story—even more than most—prompts us to locate ourselves, to see our place amid the it and which character we feel like.

We take the point that we should strive to be the Good Samaritan and so reflect on experiences saying, “Yeah, I did pretty well. I stopped and was helpful in such-and-such situations.” Or we may disappointedly recollect when we passed by and didn’t help, seeing ourselves more like the deficient religious officials.

As we gather here for Pride Sunday, we may be prepared to assign the role of the beaten-up, hurting, injured person to the community of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersexual, and identifying in other ways as queer. We may think this parable sets out a fairly simple process, then, of reflecting on the degree to which we can count ourselves as allies vs. where we’ve been slow to relieve oppression and injustice, when we should’ve done more.

I won’t say that that’s a bad question, but I think it also oversimplifies this amazing story from Jesus. If we boil it all down to a message of “I should help more,” it isn’t very alive as a story, it doesn’t breathe much, doesn’t call to us. Continually looking for how we can be self-justifying experts (like the man who questioned Jesus) or wanting to be the hero ends up eclipsing other meanings. (I had to get “eclipse” in here somehow.)

So another way to read parables from Jesus is to ask where he is or God is in that narrative. For example, when a story includes a rich landowner, we have often presumed that was a stand-in for God. In this one? Would we presume that Jesus himself could be the Good Samaritan?

Well, one of my favorite authors, Robert Capon—a favorite for tweaking our understanding to have to reconsider the story afresh—says: “The defining character—the one to whom the other three respond by being non-neighbor or neighbor—is the [one] who fell among thieves. The actual Christ-figure in the story, therefore, is yet another loser, yet another down-and-outer who, by just lying there in his lostness and proximity to death…is in fact the closest thing to Jesus in the parable.” Have you heard it that way before? Capon insists that this means our usual title for the parable is “egregiously misnamed” and continues “that Good Samaritan Hospitals have been likewise misnamed. It is the suffering, dying patients in such institutions who look most like Jesus…, not the doctors with their authoritarian stethoscopes around their necks. [And] it would have been much less misleading to have named them Man-Who-Fell-Among-Thieves Hospitals.”* Maybe you can sense why I like Robert Capon’s playful challenges and reconsiderations. For a Jesus of compassion who is identified with the cross, a man of suffering and acquainted with sorrow, he almost must be seen as the victim in this parable.

But with that degree of probing, we also need to ask again who the Samaritan character is. While generally we church professionals like to complain about biblical literacy and grouse how little “people nowadays” know of the Bible, in this case it might be the opposite: It’s a bit unfortunate that this is such a familiar story, since “Good Samaritan” has merely become synonymous with “do-gooder.” Yet the point in Jesus telling this is that the Samaritan should’ve been the least likely person to help. As opposed to our era of too much sexual abuse where clergy are immediately suspect, for the original hearers, it would’ve been presumed that the religious officials were the good guys. In the updated version, they would be cast as more like a firefighter and a nurse.

In that way, I remember hearing a version of this parable maybe a decade ago (though I couldn’t find it again now) that had a Robert Capon-esque twist. The Samaritan unlikely to stop to help in that version was portrayed as a rich businessperson in the back of a big black limousine, behind dark sunglasses. What really made me go searching for it this week was more specifically that that loaded limo-rider had been pictured as none other than Donald Trump. Again, this was before Trump as president and so much of what we know now. But in the last week, when he hasn’t done well even to speak kind words for the hurting, it may be even more shocking and unimaginable that Donald Trump could be bothered to aid the victim.

Yet that’s a representation of what Jesus’ story is depicting! The least likely one. The one you were sure would’ve wanted nothing to do with you. The one who, from any of our prejudices or presumptions or preconceptions, certainly would’ve passed right on by. But he stopped, inconvenienced himself, set his own interests and ambitions and profitability aside: he cared.

In still starker terms, the Bible conversation at Capital Brewery on Tuesday suggested a parallel that it’s as if an African American were injured in Charlottesville, and the person who came to help were wearing a swastika. The instant response to that offer of aid wouldn’t be gratitude but would be “get away from me.”

So, beginning to come back around with different conceptions in trying to recast this story to fit with Pride Sunday, we might have to say that the LGBTQ+ person is not the one injured. Instead most of us in the broader straight community might have to recognize ourselves as needing assistance, needing help, with the surprising (but I hope not offensive) shock that the gay or lesbian or otherly-gendered person is the one to offer aid. Extra surprising, because not only are we injured, lacking in goodness and righteousness, we are also the robbers who have caused the damage in the first place.

See, as we keep turning this story around, I believe today it’s not the most helpful so quickly to presume the LGBTQ+ community is the victim needing us straight folk to work up our do-gooder muster and come to the rescue. Instead maybe we should see the injury that we’ve caused, but also that we are in need of healing. Even though it should go without saying at this point, we’ll reiterate anyway: a non-conforming gender identity or non-heterosexual orientation is not the problem. That is not what needs healing or fixing or redemption. Instead, the queer community in our country, in this congregation, in many relationships has for so long born the load in giving with patient endurance and tireless persistence to bring the rest of us along as they offer us the vision that justice is worth struggling for, to redeem us from hatred, to help us value—each of us—our God-given identity, to help us see that our inherent worth isn’t because we match some societal standard but comes always and simply as a gift and blessing from God who knew us and held us from the time we were formed in the womb.

With that, I want to call your attention to one last parallel in the story. Just as we ask which character we are, let’s ask where the story itself is now, where we are on the road. Martin Luther King cleverly used to talk about the “Jericho Road Improvement Association” and said that acting as good Samaritans is only an initial act but “One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that [people] will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”**

On this Pride Sunday we pause to lament that it is not safe passage still for too many people—not safe passage into bathrooms or locker rooms, into public places and places of employment, recruiters’ offices and doctors’ offices, courtrooms and nightclubs, in encountering the words of the president and the words of family. And obviously way too many churches are the Jericho Road when for every possible reason they should have been sanctuaries, places of safety, refuge, support, good news, and love. That is what God intends and people need, but we have robbed that.

The actual Jericho road in Palestine is still a scary and intense place. Now closed off by a so-called security fence that’s also known as the apartheid wall, this ancient highway descends from Jerusalem up in the mountains, winding down to the lowest place on the face of the planet, 800 feet below sea level. From the air conditioned comfort of our bus, the travel group last fall experienced the modern version of this steep and rocky road, twisting sharply through sparse desert, bleak with parching heat. It was not easy to travel, this forlorn, precipitous, treacherous route.

Today, in our humid August weather, we also have the opportunity to travel figuratively what has been a dangerous road. We as a congregation march in the Madison Pride Parade maybe not to show how good we are, maybe not bearing much direct risk, but also to show we need healing, as the surprising Samaritans to confess that we Christians have far too long caused the problem and made the road harmful and fearsome. We march realizing that the Jericho Road needs improvement for all life’s travelers. We go down that road as witnesses expecting to encounter suffering and difficulty.  And that is why we will certainly find our longing and hurting Jesus today on the walk, and with him the amazements of healing, of reconciliation, and of overwhelming joy.

* Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, p212

** in “A Time to Break Silence,” A Testament of Hope, pp 284, 241

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a wedding sermon

for the Wedding of Colleen and Roanna

 

This is a rather formal event for in some way being a formality. Neither does it quite fit the traditional definition of a shotgun wedding, though there’s some element of that pressure and being under the gun here.

Which is to say that I’ve been reflecting on why we’re here today, what we’re doing, what this is about.

In the most basic regard, that might actually be a question about location. See, we know that you need to have a lawful signature on a piece of paper stored in a government building. We know that the previous way you’d been registered and officially partnered together is going away and so you need this new-fangled thing: a marriage license. Although for the question of why, we might first think to answer about insurance and legality. But for the simple sake of that signature, this could well have happened downtown in an office room. That it’s here instead extends the why question also to involve “where.”

As I told you Roanna and Colleen, I’d identify the central part of a wedding usually as the exchange of vows, those promises of love for each other. And though that captures some of the insurance sense of things with the standard promise of “in sickness and in health,” still after seventeen years (or so?), it doesn’t really seem like you two would need to do that formal promising. You’ve already been practicing those commitments and dedications of giving yourselves to each other in love for a long time, so this would seem like something not so new and doesn’t seem like exchanging those words will really change your relationship.

I suppose I also have to concede that even though I define the vows as the central moment of a wedding day, there’s probably at least as much validity in the popular notion that weddings are about parties, about getting the family and friends closets to you and dearest around to celebrate. So there’s strength to that explanation for this day, since something like your love for each other is indeed deserves enjoyment and to be praised and enlivened with good music and your relationship is well worth toasting.

We could also do well to notice that festivities and celebrations were where Jesus hung out. Though we don’t often think of him as a party animal, that was sort of the reputation he had in his own time, that he wasn’t one to avoid a good time. Particularly, we could observe that the only story about him at a wedding wasn’t to lecture on how to love or what is right or wrong, but simply as the beverage service to make sure the wine kept flowing. That Jesus!

While we’re on that track, we could—and should!—say that a very worthwhile reason for this wedding is because this is exactly what God wants. God is pro-love. God is in favor of your love. God celebrates your love and nurtures and sustains your love and accentuates your love. God blesses your love for each other, Colleen and Roanna, and God enables your love with God’s own love. As your Bible readings declare and proclaim for us, when we think of love, we’re envisioning godliness and practicing what God’s will is for our lives. You two bear God’s presence for each other, and then also extend God’s goodwill to our lives and to the world. The rest of us depend on your love as sharing God’s love for us.

And though that’s the message I am most eager to announce to you today, I feel it also needs to be paired with another word. As a straight white male and an official of the institutional church, I want to apologize. We or I must confess that part of the circumstance for this wedding and this moment here, once more on the “why” of today, is that places like this and people at least sort of like me for far too long have warped and controlled church and society to say your love was not right. I’m so sorry for that and am also very grateful, because you still asked me to be here today, because you are rightly faithful and you recognize and you continue to show us—through 17 years, in this moment, and on into the future—that you are engaged in the godly work of love, that your love is not only for each other but also makes our lives better, and, yes, God encourages your love, celebrates your love, and God blesses your love.

So thank you, Roanna and Colleen, and congratulations. Now let’s get on with this formal stuff to the heart of the day so we can party.

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sermon for Land Sunday

on Genesis3:14–19,4:8–16; Psalm139:7-10; Romans 5:12–17; Matthew 12:38-4020170806_100140[1]
As good as vacation was—and I’ll say more in a minute—I lament not being here with you last week.

Partly that’s just because I never like to miss. What we do here together is so important and so meaningful and so worthwhile that it’s hard to be away from your lives and our community and the growth of big bluestem in the prairie. I particularly missed being gone for the start of this Season of Creation. I would’ve loved to have been here for Larry Henning’s forest reflections and trust that you were well served by the Spirit’s work through his good words.

Had I been here, I would’ve probably done some explaining for you like this: the Season of Creation was developed by a Lutheran theologian in Australia intending to fill a gap with the usual lectionary, which can leave us thinking much too much about people. It’s not even theological at that point; it’s anthropological, not God-centered but people-centered. We close ourselves inside these doors, thinking about Jesus as fully human but not as fully creature of earth. We ignore that God’s work is almost infinitely more vast than us. As Psalm 8 declares, when we look up at the unfathomable cosmic distances it’s awesome that God could be mindful of us and relate to us and care for us, but God does! We need that promise, need it in the context of our small spot amid a creation that delights God and is delighted by God. It’s so faithfully vital for us, so vitally part of this faith. Without this locale and cosmic setting, our faith wouldn’t begin to be what it is. God wouldn’t be who God is. It’s not an add on, not just that we pause from other things to think about creation and nature and the environment for four weeks out of the year.

And yet, amid my excitement about celebrating these weeks of the Season of Creation and finding them so core to what we should be always understanding, still this week comes as a shock. Instead of setting out to explore the gift of land, of the amazing diversity of how it encounters us, how it is formed and re-formed, instead of the delights and the blooming desert in Isaiah or the quaking earth of Elijah or the fertile soils of the Promised Land or even the stuff that inches out to be separate from the waters in the beginning and is seen as good, instead I come back from vacation to a curse and a struggle. A double whammy from the book of Genesis. Gee, thanks Genesis.

It’s not just me being thrown into this on my return from vacation. The whole story could feel that way. Life had barely begun in the Garden of Eden. We would’ve preferred more time to lounge around in paradise before the problems, but that’s not the function of the story. I would contend it’s less of an origin story and more intended to portray the current state of things. It’s not trying to cast blame back to some prototypical Adam and Eve, but is simply addressing the realities we already know to be true, the struggles we regularly exist amid, voicing that things just won’t go right in our relationships. As it’s set up for us on this Land Sunday, the main focus is what our relationship to land ought to be, but also where that’s gone wrong.

The question about curse, then, traveled with me on vacation through all kinds of lands. For the most obvious, I was last at Badlands National Park. With a name almost verbatim declaring curse, there’s wide and long agreement on the badness of these lands. For hundreds of years the native Lakota referred to them as makoshika: land of bad spirits, or bad land. French trappers concurred with the name les mauvais terres. Park service publications say these names “invoke visions of a harsh and inhospitable landscape, where dangers lurk down every canyon.” While they do warn of rattlesnake bites (which I won’t overemphasize as connection to the serpent in Genesis), the broader set of safety concerns amid the Badlands listed includes thirst and sunburn and stubbed toes and slippery-when-wet slopes and getting lost.

None of that seems awful enough, though, to account for the curse in Genesis. Those lands aren’t bad just because they offer extremes of dehydration or risk of fall; these difficulties in the Badlands paradoxically highlight their endurance. We go to the difficult-to-traverse Badlands specifically to traverse them, to wander the trails, to strain our muscles and bruise our knees. Our nation hasn’t thrown them to the trashheap but has especially set them aside, saving and conserving them as a nationally celebrated location, drawing a million visitors per year.

But our relationship to these lands is also in portrayed by my favorite historical phrase about Bryce Canyon National Park from its original white settler: “it’s a helluva place to lose a cow.” Our stock phrase is that it’s a good place to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. We are stuck with some view of land, then, as its utility or profitability to us. If farming can’t easily happen in the Badlands, that is precisely what makes them “bad.”

This tension is still sharper in Utah, with over a million acres of land set aside as wilderness, a term defined in law as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” (Again, we’ll leave aside for today the connections to Genesis’ curse of that sexist language that doesn’t say anything about how long women might stay in wilderness.) We’d have to admit that the wild lands of Utah and elsewhere, though rich in beauty and sometimes fragile in ecological value, are mostly set aside because they weren’t viewed as useful to us otherwise. Basically, they didn’t have farms on them.

We could pause to say this has been an exceptionally long trend. This is mostly how the Bible parses land, as well: that there’s desert that isn’t a place for people but is a haunt of jackals and ostriches (eg, Isaiah 34:13). On the other side is good land, even Promised Land, with orchards and fields. We’ve simply gone on to transpose that sense into our setting. Here in “God’s country,” with the rich loams of the Midwest as garden to feed us, we figure we must be amid promise and not curse.

More ambivalently, Utah’s land is not farmed or dwelt in, not humanized, so it can be set aside as wilderness…right until it can’t. Then we fight over land’s meaning. I’ve been reading Edward Abbey describing Glen Canyon as the most beautiful ever* with all the animals that called it home, until we decided we could have our use for it, which was to destroy it under a reservoir and the beautiful canyon was dammed and damned. And we cherish Arches National Park and Canyonlands, observes Terry Tempest Williams**, until we find that there is natural gas we could mine under the park, and then we’re eager to get rid of the wilderness designation and make use of the place.

The point is to question cursedness. Instead of anything inherently making locations bad lands—the topography or soil quality—it’s about our relationship and when we try to claim away from it instead of preserving and caring for it as it is. Amid the struggle—these thorns and briars, we lose sight of the land as good and focus only on what we can get out of it. It’s not just western abuses, but how our corporate farming practices are extractive industries pulling life from the soil. That’s not God cursing the land. It’s us.

And then we finally pull our own life from the soil, extracting ourselves from the ground where we, too, were meant to be planted. That is such a fascinating detail in the account of Cain and Abel. Even when he’s dead and gone, Abel’s blood can cry out from the ground. Something of his life remains there in place. But Cain is displaced. Genesis is compressing generations of human development (or, as we usually call it, progress), where the lifestyle of the nomadic herdsmen goes away and the farmer comes to dominate, but then the farmer leaves the land and—in the last verse—moves away. The ultimate point in the reading is that he’s gone to the city, from rural and land-connected to urban and separated from God. Again, this is the pattern we still see. Ultimately in cultural conversation, it’s not a struggle between Wisconsin agriculture and Utah wilderness. Both are derided in the popular term “flyover country.” They’re diminished, as if only the cities are the place of culture, the place for humans, while the land—all land—is oddly separate and remote and problematic. That is the final characteristic of the curse: not only are our relationships with each other broken down, between genders, in families. The ground cries out as our very relationship with it is lived out as a struggle, as something to be overcome, as we see it not as garden gift but as curse, as something to get away from.

For the good of life, we need to realize our humanity with and in the humus, connected and dependent, as earthlings. But instead we’re quite literally uprooted. This has implications for our sense of place, for governmental policy, for the food we eat, and on and on. That’s huge and dire and I’ve said terribly little of good news.

Even though the readings leave us here, we know this isn’t the end. If we speak of curse without getting to redemption and reconciliation, our Christian message is incomplete. For brief forecasts of that blessing beyond condemnation, we might take it as actually good that “to dust you shall return,” that you aren’t forever estranged but in your end are reconciled with the earth and recycled and recreated. Maybe in the words of Jesus’ burial we see a godly replanting, that life is meant to be in and of earth for good, even then of God putting us back in our place, that God kills the curse and redeems death.

Finally, then, is the place of God in Genesis. I want you to notice that although all kinds of relationships—with neighbor and with creation—are seen as struggle, as broken down, as accursed, that is not a description of relationship with God. The relationship with God is not described here as cursed. Though Cain may stray and find himself in a place where the relationship is strained, and God’s presence feels further, God will not cut you off. Jesus comes to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found.

(Hymn of the Day: Joy to the World)

* The Monkey Wrench Gang, p64

** The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, p253-299

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Sermon on the Best Verse of the Bible

Romans8:26-39; Matthew13:31-33,44-52

A couple weeks ago as we gathered for staff meeting, Jen was consterned and consternated (both!) about what seemed to her a trite lyric from a kids’ song that said, “If God is for us, who can be against us?!” I instantly blurted, “That’s from Romans 8! The best chapter in the Bible!” At which point, the staff sort of stared at me, maybe generally surprised that there is a best chapter in the Bible, or that I thought everybody should know which that is.

It should go without saying that not all Bible passages are created equal. Nobody would argue that Leviticus 18 is as vital as Psalm 23. You’d be silly to the point of offensive if you claimed the “wives be subject to your husbands” of Ephesians 5 was at all comparable to Easter resurrection of Jesus in Matthew 28. As folks who are reading through the Bible this year are all-too-regularly reminded, plenty in there is hardly worth reading. But other stuff is so important—the best of news!—that we want to keep re-reading it or hearing it again and again.

With that, I’d say that Romans 8 is the top of the heap. If we were left on a desert island with only one chapter of the Bible (it’s a frequently raised puzzle), this would be the one to pick. And this passage today especially. In fact, the last verse of the reading, I would call the culmination of the Bible’s whole message: nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This verse could itself be construed as the mustard seed, the yeast that gives rise to everything else, the pearl of great value. I really hope it sounds almost unfathomably good to you, and gives you a little shiver it feels so wonderfully surprising to discover.

But if not, well, that’s where some of my challenge lies. If this is the best Bible passage and the most important for you to hear, then I’d wish this would be my best sermon. (In that regard, I’m not off to a very good start.) More, we’ve been listening to Romans 8 for three straight weeks now, but rather than a sense of you saying “wow” or “ooh, ahh,” I’ve instead had numerous conversations about the confusion. Even though I haven’t gotten to unpack any of it in preaching, I’ve tried to make it closer to a zero-entry wade-in kiddy pool instead of the roaring ocean depths. To help you appreciate what you’re hearing today, last week we did the section as a paraphrase and dialogue, so your own voice could capture and hold onto the persevering hope and you could acknowledge in your very being that you have been adopted as children of God. The week before, instead of the usual New Revised Standard Version, we used a different translation that I further adapted, trying to help this in your ears.

Before that, this is actually the seventh straight week proceeding through Romans. It’s hard to hold onto that continuity when it’s separated by a week inbetween worship services, harder still with summer schedules that pull us elsewhere. This chunk today is the crest of an eight-chapter-long wave in Paul’s deliberation, an enormous moment of resolution to a conundrum.

Which points to another hard part of this: it isn’t a story. It’s not a nice narrative. This is thick theological pondering. Paul has been working through huge questions like: who are insiders and who are outsiders and what does the story of the Old Testament tell us about that? What can get us into trouble with God and what can rescue us from that? How well do we need to behave, what is supposed to help us behave, and why does it remain so hard to behave? Why do we suffer, why is there suffering in the world? All of that is finally and in some way entirely addressed by this: nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If you’re having trouble wrapping your mind around that vast arc of Romans, here’s one specific example of this sweep through the book, from that start up to today’s final verse:  chapter 1 portrays sin and falling away from God and, in that, Paul happens to use a term that gets interpreted related to homosexuality. That place in chapter 1 has then been used in arguments to say that sex can separate you from the love of God, even though the reason Paul raises it way back there at the start of the letter is so that at this point in chapter 8 he can say “No!” there’s NOTHING that can separate you from the love of God. You’d think we could have that core message sink in and people could shut up about how evil this or that is and how it must condemn a person to hell. But the good news is continually interrupted and so desperately in need of reinforcement.

An obvious personal place to begin is in thinking of what’s been problematic in your relationships lately, where you know what your faults are or where somebody thinks they are: your stubbornness and impatience, that you work too much or too little, that you’re not quite trustworthy, a little dishonest, where you got angry or you just didn’t care. Amid any of those problems, still here it comes: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Less hypothetically, I’ll confess I picture faces with that. This past week I’ve been living alongside relationships breaking down and the fracturing of our human commitments and promises because of fights, and because of neglect, and because of dementia, and because of death. All those are wrong, and even as those dearest relationships and places you most wanted love to be true may fail, still here it comes: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Or if you’re not relating to individual brokenness and accusations of falling short and can’t see those in yourself, then think about us as a larger group and the hungry people we didn’t feed, the sick we haven’t been visiting with compassion, those we left locked up in something, those people or creatures from whom we took away life instead of helping and the way we worsen creation’s groaning. Yet, even when we recognize ourselves as too wealthy, too consumeristly-driven by comfort or convenience, too violent, too privileged and white, too mainstream, and could not be labeled as authentically Christian, still here it comes: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Again, from the theoretical to very direct examples, we have people among us—in our very congregation, you must hear me say—who need housing and are amid the crisis of homelessness when they should not be. Farther away, but still near to my heart, my dear friend Ali in Jerusalem reports worry for his fellow Palestinians during the standoff that kept Muslims out of the Dome of the Rock complex, and I have to realize that conflict should have no reason to have lasted so long, last month marking 50 years since the Six-Day War. Or, again, I’m haunted by images of the squirrel that died in my yard last week, and haunted by the terror of my farmer Tony of Scotch Hill Farm belaboring that the destructive rains are climactic change that we’ve brought on ourselves. Yet still, here it comes: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God won’t be stopped by any alleged impossibilities.

But if that seems almost incomprehensibly huge, then think about what’s just not right in life. This is a big deal, because Paul is talking about what makes us right with God. So if things aren’t going right, that would ultimately concern our relationship with God. Think about illnesses, your uncertainties about how to live, what your purpose is, the doubts and struggles, the sadness, being too busy, when life doesn’t feel very special, when you’re bored or unimpressed, everywhere things just don’t quite go as they ought. Those aren’t indications you’ve been forsaken or that you’re fatally on the wrong path. If anything, these may become sacramental moments to serve as reminders, mementos, and more deeply reassure you that—here it comes—nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. No matter how wrong you tell me I am, still my core identity cannot be changed: I am loved by God.

For those of you whose brains are built around storytelling, it might be that if I said more about any one of the specific examples I’ve listed, then you’d feel like you’d better appropriated and retained the message of love, that you were holding it more clearly. But Paul isn’t working in individual specifics. He’s not spinning a yarn or dabbling in metaphor or unfolding a narrative constructed for specific examples. He doesn’t want you to come away saying, “well, of course nothing about their gender identity separates them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Neither should you to say it about somebody’s race or health or productivity or church attendance or nationality or marriage status or income or criminal record or job or political persuasion or attitude just because you heard a story about them that addressed an isolated instance. So much more, Paul wants you to hear it for you, and to live into this framework that’s bigger than  your story or any story, a framework with all of creation groaning, yearning, hoping, being born into a new reality. That is why Paul arrives at this point and proclaims the most abundant good news, and here it comes once more: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

With that, if you’re thinking this conditionless love means none of those wrongs matter, that it absolves your opponents of all they’ve done to harm you and is forgetful about your own lackluster history, if that’s how this love seems…then you’ve got it exactly right.

But you still probably haven’t really appreciated it yet. If you become skeptical that this just whitewashes over the difficulty, then you’re not giving due credit to what love means and does in our lives. That complexity is exactly what Paul has been trying to help you comprehend, the ins and outs of how this love is unstoppably functioning in your life and across this world. And so—with him—I’m hoping we can continue to discover how we live into this love.

 

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Ellen Janean Oliversen Wade

November 21, 1955 + June 4, 2017

Psalms 35:1-5 & 23; Romans 12:3-6a,9-13; Matthew 6:26-29

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For all of the hardness of your loss without Ellen, I’m at a loss for never having gotten to meet her. In spite of that, it seems I’ve had some good verification in hearing repeatedly a few important details. In fact, two out of the three things I first knew about Ellen seem to come up again and again, in stories, in reflections written online, in photos and the shape of this gathering today. Those two of three things are that she was good to be around and that she loved Door County.

The good to be around fits with assessments of her customer service, of the relationships she established throughout her long career with USDA, connections with meat inspectors that stretch around the country, of people who both valued and enjoyed her. That personality makes it seem pretty reasonable that she said to Shannon not too long ago that she was thinking she could be a senator. We probably could’ve used her there.

And, speaking of Shannon, the good to be around is also importantly a word for family, for that strong caring marriage the two of you shared and all that went with figuring out life together for almost 40 years. It’s also for her parenting and grandparenting. Erik referred to his mom as his “rock,” which we’ll come back to in a minute with one of our Bible readings, saying he could always lean on her and she was never nosy but always open for his questions. And that she was good to be around also fits for being a daughter, and a sister, also very hard losses.

As a sister points us to Door County, a place where she could count on good time with family gatherings, where she could find tranquility and beauty, where she could snap photos of every sunrise. Along with mountains in Colorado, the lakeshore in Door County was a place that fit for her, Ellen’s own landscape.

So as we gather for this memorial service and the chance to remember Ellen, it is good and fitting that we remember her personality and relationships and care, and that we remember her delight in Door County.

I started by saying that those were two of the three things I first learned about Ellen. But for this moment, I also have to say that the very first thing I learned was that she was dying, when Jean came to tell me that Ellen was in the ICU with lots of things going wrong and she probably wasn’t going to come through it alive. Besides the fact of those medical issues was also Ellen’s viewpoint on illness and facing death: I’ve been told she probably felt ready to die, that she’d been having trouble eating for more than a year, that she was her usual stubborn Norwegian self in not wanting to go to the doctor, that she wouldn’t have wanted extraordinary measures.

Some of our task gathered here is to figure out what to do with all of that, how to hold onto it, to figure what we believe it means. Today is for looking back to celebrate life, to recall the many good things with and about Ellen. And today is about putting that not just in the past but in a larger perspective. And today is also for holding the tragedies and the endings and the loss, and finding a place for that, too, in the same larger perspective.

For that perspective, we’ve got several Bible readings for placing Ellen’s story within God’s story. We have readings about delight in nature, and our relationships, and facing hardness, about the spread of life in its ups and downs, good and bad, its fullness and also the lack in its ending, in death.

From the Psalms we heard God described as walking beside the still waters with us, a verse where it’s easy to picture the relaxation of the lakeshore and the calm of Door County. In the other Psalm, we heard of God not only as one to enjoy nature, but as the creator of these good places, who holds the waters and the heights of the mountains, who wants those things for our lives and is concerned for their wellbeing in the same way God is concerned for us.

That reading also used the term “rock” for God. I was intrigued that you called your mom “your rock,” Erik, because it’s an unusual image, both for God and for people, since it is so inanimate, so un-cuddly. But it makes sense. Calling your mother your rock and knowing God as the “rock of our salvation” is about reliability, about steadfastness, about ways that will not be swayed, like an anchor in a storm, like a warm and trustworthy place you’ve always been able to come home to.

I’d say it is important that what you recognized in your mom is also a characteristic of God, that the two are related. Just as we know God’s goodness through our enjoyment of natural beauty and re-creation, we also know and experience God’s love and care through the love and care of others. That’s why we heard the reading from Romans. It could seem like a list of rules for behavior—don’t think too highly of yourself, use the gifts you’ve been given, love genuinely, don’t give in to evil, be patient. But I didn’t include those as instructions, but as what Ellen seemed already to embody for you, how she lived her life. If we would describe those as godly traits, as how God wants us to relate to each other, we could say that she was living faithfully, whether she knew it or not, and whether she had to work at it or it just came naturally.

With that, we’ve said something about how Ellen’s relationships and her love for Door County fit into God’s larger story. But what about facing the end and her death? This one is always hard. Our readings remind us and assure us that God delights in life and strives for the best life and fullness of life for us. Hardship and illness and death are not part of what God desires for us. That might makes us wonder: would God have wanted Ellen to try harder, to listen to doctors, to fight for life? And where is God in it now?

I guess I’m holding the end also with a couple of our Bible verses. Jesus reminds us that worry can’t add a single hour to our life. He doesn’t explain why illness or death hound us, but he does assure us that God’s care and compassion and blessing are even more insistent and persistent. With that promise, there’s nothing ultimately to worry about.

And, as the 23rd Psalm reminds us in concluding, there’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God. Your shepherd will bring you through all the dark and deadly valleys, past what would hurt and harm you, even illnesses within your own body, and bring you to eternal life, to blessing that will never stop, never end. That’s the promise we hold today for Ellen, and the fullness of your story with God, too.

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mini mini sermon for midweek outdoor worship

We gather here at the Memorial Garden not just because it’s a flat space to set up for worship. We gather here because this gives us a fuller sense of worship. We worship together as the great communion of saints, as well as praising God with all creation. Today as flowers mark Brian Anderson’s grave, those are for his birthday. We could still be singing “Happy birthday God bless you” to him, though with a much broader and deeper sense of what God’s blessing means now.

 

We also gather here acknowledging and remembering how these departed saints gave us life and how we are bearing the fruits of their labors, these people who preceded us and led us as MCC, as humans, as family.
That is closest to how we’d consider this week’s Gift of the Garden: I have peas that I skipped eating so they can dry and go in the ground next year and—if they serve their purpose—go on to produce more pea pods for me in the next generation. As creatures, none of us lives to ourselves. With God’s blessing, we live that others may be more fruitful. In that way our lives applaud God.

 

Jesus said, “I can guarantee this truth: A single grain of wheat doesn’t   produce anything unless it is planted in the ground and dies. If it dies, it will produce a lot of grain.”                           John 12:24, God’s Word translation

 

Generation after generation stands in awe of your work, O God;
each one tells stories of your mighty acts.

Creation and creatures applaud you, God;
your holy people bless you.   Psalm 145:6, 10, The Message

 

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More than a Seed

sermon on Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

 

Not long after I started seminary, I looked up where that word came from and discovered that seminary means “seedbed.”

If we’re talking about trying to plant and cultivate the seed of faith, then seminary seems sort of like an odd greenhouse for its late start. With the same word, it feels more of an artificial insemination than the natural process of growth hinted at by Jesus. Clearly you don’t need to be found in a seminary to find yourself growing in faith.

Still, that notion of a seedbed as the location to fertilize growth has had me thinking about the expanse of sowing seeds. And like wheat that in dark earth many days has lain, I stuck this photocopied piece of paper in my Bible about four months ago, waiting for it like the risen grain to come forth and bear fruit. It’s from the amazing book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Discoveries from a Secret World. Since reading it, I’ve been waiting for this Sunday’s Bible passage to come around to share this excerpt with you, which starts out sounding like Jesus’ parable, but ends up with a very different outcome:

mt13.1-9,18-23 1stmt13.1-9,18-23 2nd

While not trying to argue with Jesus and his parable, but as a companion parable and extending the conversation about interconnectedness from Thursday Gifts of the Garden worship, we certainly remember that you are not just an individual seed who has fallen where you may. Nor are you carefully dug into place by God’s hands only to be left to grow on your own. Nor is this a matter of survival of the fittest or of lucky placement circumstances.

No, we have to extend Jesus’ parable with this message from the book. So I say to you: welcome to your place here amid the forest. Keep it close. Share, and grow well.

 

 

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