Syzygus*

sermon on Matthew 11:16-19,25-30; Romans 7:15-25a20170709_113619_resized
I want to start with Show-and-Tell.

The strips of fabric I wear are called stoles. During my ordination service at my home church, Trinity Lutheran in Eau Claire, one was first placed on me by George Carlson, my bishop at the time, and by Annie Engebretsen, who was chair of my first call committee. So the stole began to serve as the main visual representation that I am a pastor.

But in that,20170709_114104_resized like a lot of things about being a pastor, it has a built-in paradox: a stole is the sign of being a pastor, but at the same time is symbolic of what applies to all of us. That’s also true of my alb, this white robe. (“Alb” comes from the Latin word for “white”) (like Albus Dumbledore’s white beard in Harry Potter). My alb looks like special clothes, since I’m the only one here wearing it, but it’s also supposed to symbolize that all of us are washed clean in baptism and put on newness in Christ and match the saints described in the book of Revelation.

Again, I get to splash around in the font and declare that your sins are forgiven. That isn’t because I have special magic powers as a pastor, much less that I’m especially faithful or brilliant or eloquent. It’s just because you hired me to say those words to you, so that you could guarantee you’d get to hear what really any of us can and should say to each other, stuff like “God loves you. Jesus is with you. It’s not the end. You’re forgiven.” I don’t have claim to those words by virtue of being an ordained pastor (again, it’s certainly not grounded in my virtues at all), yet paradoxically I have special opportunity to announce grace, to put on a white robe, and to wear this stole.

The reason I describe this is that when the stole was placed on me, it was with the words from today’s reading: “Come to me20170709_114059_resized.jpg, all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This stole represents a yoke placed on my shoulders. Again, while realizing that Jesus wasn’t talking exclusively to future pastors, still this vestment had me contemplating what Jesus meant. What is light about this? And why is it still a burden?

As a snapshot of this yoke’s role, I’ll tell you that I was up north at the start of the week at a high school friend’s cabin. It happened to be her daughter’s 5th birthday party, and amid the balloons and piñata and ice cream cake, I was also taking advantage of the wifi to check messages from church. It could be argued that it’s standard for our 24-7 world these days to mean always being plugged in. I’ll say (for those of you who might be concerned) that I don’t think I’m overly distracted, not excessively tech-bound. That burden felt light; I was still able to enjoy friends in the northwoods. But it would be the wrong burden, anyway; being captivated by technology and our communication cycles is not likely the yoke Jesus wants.

So maybe another difference is in confessing why I was on my phone. The burden isn’t merely having lots to do, since long hours don’t inherently make it Jesus’ kind of work. For me, that moment on Monday had me worried about sick family members and struggles for housing resources and I was deliberating worship details and how to enliven Bible stories and overall pondering what benefits I could offer physically or by speaking God’s good news into those circumstances of life that range from desperate to mundane.

In short, I was focused on you. Since you are my work, I’d say that means (in the language of this Gospel reading) that you’re my burden and I’m carrying you with me most everywhere I go. Or to say it more fully, we are each other’s burdens. And not just us here, but others too, as we were reminded with the Dane Sanctuary Coalition press conference this week: we’ve discerned that we need to bear others of our neighbors who are facing special threats in these days. We find ourselves indentured into service for them.

Having that sense of service and Jesus’ work, though, I should stop to admit something else. It’s a bit self-promoting when I try telling you that I was working and focused on you up north at that birthday party. It’s harder to tell you stuff that doesn’t fit with your image of a pastor, which might be that I was drinking beers from 11:00 that morning, or that besides asking about you the friends also asked about one of my tattoos, or that that self-indulgent little getaway used a heckuva lot of gasoline, or that I probably wasn’t doing well in balancing my responsibility to Acacia. And those still leave out unspoken not-so-pure details that I should be able to trust and confide, but am uncertain of the words and am chicken. They leave me doubting myself whether I’m fit to be your pastor, the insidious traps that minds chase after.

You may rightly say that if there’s no virtue that enables me to be a pastor, there should be no vice that would exclude me. But fears of what disqualifies from God’s love and blessing hound and haunt. Honest moments face and recognize I do not do what you want, what I want, what I should. In gloomier times I wonder whether I can do anything right.

The solution for that is not to look on the bright side. Such self-confidence can be dangerous. Indeed, the term means placing faith with the self, with a paired risk of ignoring or mistrusting God. As those who are reading The Screwtape Letters are reminded, it is tricky and demonic when blinders prompt us self-assuredly to imagine our thoughts and concerns are so positive and benevolent and yet leave us failing to notice the malice and lack of charity really present in our daily life (eg, p28).

This is exactly the wretched assessment in Paul’s words from Romans. They are a loooong ten verses zeroed in on the perception of my individual circumstances, of being worse than I wanted. Finally when Jesus shows up to set things straight at the end, I’m surprised to find I’ve been desperately gasping for breath in longing for him. Really this passage is small potatoes, since the last we heard from Romans was that you were already dead to sin, and living only to God in Christ Jesus. Whatever struggle there is has already been declared won for God.

Having Jesus back in the picture returns us to an earlier question of service and his work: he tells us to take up his yoke. So where in this image is Jesus? I’d suspect the obvious thought would be that he’s the plowman driving the team, the farmer who has hitched up the oxen to do his work and plow the field. That probably squares with a view that the whole world is God’s estate and property, God’s creation that needs tending, the expanse of God’s garden. We may picture ourselves as beasts of burden to serve God, directed by this plowman Jesus as our boss.

But the yoke metaphor isn’t portraying Jesus behind you holding the reins. Rather, he uses the image to emphasize two necks paired together, side-by-side through the bows or loops of the yoke, and (if I understand what was probably already clear to the original listeners), a new ox was paired with an experienced one. So the ox working with you and teaching you is…Jesus. Jesus is your yokefellow. In this image, then, he’s not saying that he’s a nicer master who will spare the whip and make sure you’re well-fed. He’s saying he’s working with you, keeping you straight, leading you into his way that is gentle and humble and offers rest.

And if it culminates in sabbath rest, this is also a word about the work that you do as God’s creatures. Rather than “my burden is light,” it should be translated “my burden is better or is fitting.” The workload Jesus offers is more natural and fitting than the burdens you otherwise choose for yourself or get roped into. It’s natural and good that we should be dependent on service to each other, that we honor the relationships of creation. Caring for each other is the fitting way for us to live. Selfishness and reckless gain and ignorance about others around us instead create cycles that continue to make life more difficult and restless. We see it in exploitation of immigrant workers. We see it in environmental abuse. We see it when we neglect time with our families and end up requiring more effort to sort it out later. Even though we recognized with Romans that we end up at those dead ends, that is not God’s intention for us.

Jesus continues to speak of burdens since it’s right that we’re bound together. While we may react at first to this passage against the yoke, wishing instead to be set free, that’s a wrong model of freedom and of life itself. As our society celebrated the American form of independence this week, I’m disheartened how that’s framed that as freedom from others, as in “you can’t tell me what to do.” That is essentially a nonexistent impossibility. We must exist in relationship. We fit most naturally when we attend well to shared needs and demands.

For that, I’m so grateful for the yokemate Jesus. You aren’t left to navigate God’s work on your own, not of your own devices trying to plow good and straight lines. In your roles, it’s not whether you worry about feeling good enough, since the natural fit comes from Christ. And when the unnatural threatens and your doubts and distractions arise and you so constantly seem to stray toward the evil that you don’t intend, nevertheless Jesus your yokefellow remains to work beside you, to guide your steps into the way of life. We might say he’s pulling for you.

So even the invitation to take this yoke upon you is a bit of a misnomer, since Jesus has already yoked himself to you, as Immanuel, as God with you, born into your life, to take your suffering upon himself, who remains with you always. Jesus your yokemate will guide you, by your side in love, and that presence ensures the burden is light, good, and natural, and culminates in rest. That’s who you’re supposed to be amid God’s creation, and—in the concluding words from Romans—it happens, “thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

* the “yokefellow” from Philippians 4:3

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mini mini sermon for midweek outdoor worship #1

Beauty may seem an unlikely place to begin this summer series on the Gifts of the Garden. A flower garden might exist for beauty. But as we focused on sharing the Green Team’s work of the Food Pantry Garden, likely our first term would be “produce,” on production, on the fruits that feed. We can’t quantify beauty, but can measure poundage. As long as the food fills bellies, would clients at the Lussier Center or Middleton Outreach Ministry really care whether their vegetables were beautiful?

And yet beauty matters to God. And in God’s eye, it’s an abundant beauty. There’s too much sense in our culture (and too much even as I was searching the Bible) that beauty applies to a very specific appearance and almost always to women.

But God sees you and all that sprouts in the spring as beautiful, as glorious as wedding garb. God clothes wildflowers and lilies in splendor, so we should pause to consider them (and you’ll have a chance to stroll amid the prairies and the Easter lilies re-blooming on the other side of the building). Jesus starts us with a focus not on our hard work and dirty hands, but on beauty as the lavish gift of God.

From Isaiah:
Let me tell you how joyful God has made me! For God has clothed me with garments of salvation and draped about me the robe of righteousness. I am like a groom in his wedding suit or a bride with her jewels. Just as the earth brings forth buds, and as a garden in spring has young plants springing up everywhere, so the Lord GOD will show justice and praise springing up across the world. Isaiah 61:10-11, adapted from the Living Bible

From Matthew:
Jesus said, “Why worry about clothes? Look how the lilies and wildflowers grow. They don’t work hard to make their clothes. But I tell you that King Solomon with all his power and riches wasn’t as well clothed as one of them. God gives such beauty to everything that grows in the fields.”
Matthew 6: 28-30a, adapted from the Contemporary English Version

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Dane Sanctuary Coalition press conference

I’m Nick Utphall, pastor of Advent Lutheran of Madison Christian Community.

Along with my welcoming you here on behalf of my congregation and my colleague Sonja Ingebritsen and Community of Hope UCC, I’m eager to share that this congregation proclaims welcome.

We strive to be welcoming people, because that is who we believe and understand God to be: a God of unconditional love and abundant welcome.

That welcome from this place has especially extended to those who have been made in other ways to feel out of place, oppressed or antagonized, unwelcome.

Such animosity should have no place in our community, in our culture, in this society, much less in a nation that often tries to label itself as “Christian.”

From the perspective of our God, all of us are declared to be family, as equal, and are beloved.

From the perspective of Jesus, we are to be neighbors to anyone in times of need.

And yet that is not what our government or the domineering voice of our culture has been proclaiming. Instead they have said that some are not welcome, that some are to be categorized as worse, that some families don’t matter, and that some don’t even deserve the guaranteed protections of due process in a fair system.

Because our congregation has heard that those fears have become so threatening to the immigrant and refugee population, and because our faith is founded on the assurance of God’s repeated encouragement with the words “do not be afraid,” the Madison Christian Community proclaims “¡Santuario para inmigrantes y refugiados!” and has joined the Dane Sanctuary Coalition and over 1000 congregations nationally as one of the local sites so far to agree to serve as sanctuary congregations for those who are valued and valuable members of our society, who are not only beloved in their own family but are beloved amid God’s human family.

In this congregation, we are being prepared for the possible instance of welcoming an individual who is facing deportation that would damage their life, fracture their family, and rupture the good of our community. Sanctuary is part of giving that person a publicly visible place to dwell while waiting for a lawful hearing, and to exhibit to our society how we can and should do better in welcome and caring for each other.

This is what we understand to be the request from our local neighbors and our calling as Christians in God’s world.

Estamos unidos. We stand together. Thank you, and you’re welcome.

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a prayer for immigrants and refugees

Here are words and a prayer I almost got to speak on behalf of Madison Christian Community and Dane Sanctuary Coalition for the Stop AB 190! No Hate in Our State! Voces de la Frontera rally at the state capitol on June 28 for immigrants and against harmful pending legislation:

My name is Nick Utphall, a pastor of Advent Lutheran of Madison Christian Community.
At the start of this month, my congregation voted to become a sanctuary congregation. We did this after hearing an urgent request from our neighbors in the community and we wanted to respond to the needs voiced by these sisters and brothers.
Those are important sets of terms in my tradition – sisters and brothers because we are all equally children of God’s family, and neighbors because Jesus says that to follow him is to love those in need.
This task for our congregations and religious community has become all the more vital in the face of a society and a government that seems entrenched in immorality and unjust attitudes that are claiming privilege for some at the expense of others and that are bent on making already hard situations worse.
Against those injustices and anti-Christian behaviors, our congregation–with the Dane Sanctuary Coalition–is ready to be a neighbor amid God’s beloved family, including laboring for peace through justice, offering sanctuary, and opening our ears, our doors, and our hearts.

In that spirit, and for all that we have heard, for the efforts of this day, for our ongoing striving for what is right, Let us pray:
O Lord, the refrain of Scripture is “Do not be afraid,” so encourage us and strengthen us to stand up to those who would threaten and intimidate.
Amplify our voices to resonate through these halls and across the land.
Send your Spirit to renew and inspire us to be filled with your joy and peace.
Build us up so that we may be the presence of sanctuary, of security, of community to those who are desperate.
And as people of firm hope, hold onto us so that we may embrace each other with your love.
In that spirit, we trust ourselves and pray: Amen.
With your power, we shout: Amen!
United together, estamos unidos, we join in saying: Amen

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Lord of Flies, Lord of Life

sermon on Matthew10:24-39; Romans6:1b-11
Having returned from the Boundary Waters, I can quickly admit we are not always at our most presentable. After a week of not showering, scraggly facial hair and using my only comb once, bug bites all over and mud smears on my clothes, that’s not how I generally (for example) try to show up on Sunday mornings.

But from that wild unkempt sense, I also want to start with “Lord of the Flies,” especially since the name “Beelzebul” in our Gospel reading gets converted to mean “Lord of the Flies.” (It sometimes is also referenced as “Master of Dung.”)

Anyway, I toyed with the notion of bringing “Lord of the Flies” along to read to my Boundary Waters group, but I decided that a story about a group of young people off in the wilderness who turned to the worst possible outcomes of being murderous maybe wasn’t the most sensible reading choice.

Yet now, returned from the wilderness, I’m nevertheless confronted by the same situation in this difficult Gospel reading, as it’s not only about the least presentable Bible reading we’d like to have, but it seems to embody some of our worst tendencies or outcomes. Maybe that it makes us uncomfortable is a good sign, at least.

So for those who don’t know the story, “The Lord of the Flies” is a book about a group of boys stranded on an island. They begin organizing themselves with systems to establish order—for who takes care of shelter and fire and food and cooperating on decisions. But they then veer toward laziness and fear and brutal aggression. We might tend to label the boys’ decline as returning to primal instincts from civilized behavior. We’re apt to describe society as good and the wild as bad. We also get diverted to believe our flesh and bodies and daily existence in this world are sinful and that we’re trying to escape to a more religious and spiritual and heavenly existence. But we can’t quite agree with those labels. The boys in the book had been scared of a beast, but it isn’t separate from them or part of nature. The island isn’t to blame; we get the much more terrifying insight that the Lord of the Flies is inescapably among and within them, dehumanizing themselves.

Against that, let’s consider what it means to be truly human, to be seen as good creatures of God, made in the image of God, to live with the life God intends for us. That is really what’s at stake here in the diabolical confrontation of what controls our lives.

To understand that, we can start to dive into this hard Gospel reading with one of the most important biblical distinctions for what it means to be human. Brace yourselves, because this may be uncomfortable. If you have a sense that someplace inside of you is a soul, that there’s a divine little spark, waiting to rejoin God even though the rest of you will decompose (and has already begun to decompose and rot and wear out as you age), if you think that flesh is corrupt, but there’s an ideal truer inner self, then you are not on track for how the Bible sees your humanity. In the Bible, there is no separate soul. Your soul does not go to heaven. You don’t have an invisible spirit that flies away when you die. That isn’t how the Bible talks about this. That is Greek philosophy. That is Plato and is a perversion of the Bible’s sense of God’s good creation.

That’s why it’s so important to understand, because that dualism incorrectly labels life here as bad, as ungodly. That directly contradicts God who says this is good, who says this is so good and loved this world so much that God wanted to be part of it, to come and share our existence, to be incarnate in Jesus. This is also why we talk about the resurrection of the body, because you’re all you. There isn’t a piece that can be separated out. If something of you will exist after death, it needs to be—and God wants it to be—the whole you.

Now, if you’re not only uncomfortable with that but are also the argumentative type, you may point out that the Gospel reading mentions your “soul,” as “fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”

Well, that shows an infected translation. The original word there is “psyche.” It’s a word we know as part of “psychology” (which we obviously don’t define as the study of souls). It may be helpful to know that psyche is also in the last verse translated as “life,” (“those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”). Life is a better sense of what psyche means in the Bible. It’s about truly living, about the life God intends, about being who and how we’re meant to be.

One example* I read this week illustrated it by saying that the loss of life during World War 2 isn’t only measured by the body count of soldiers, but also by Germans following Hitler and being corrupted by Nazi ideals in a way that truly defaced humanity, chasing after power and seeking to exterminate their siblings instead of loving and helping them in their time of need. (We do use the term “soul” in this sense, too, for when a nation is so misguided it has collectively “lost its soul.”) And in that sort of instance, we could pretty readily say that that’s not the sort of life that God intends. In a very honest way, life was being destroyed, thrown out to trash heap of burning refuse.

World War 2 was also a stark instance of the division that these tensions create. For Jesus’ notion of bringing a sword to strike against those who would abandon the goodness of life, some might take even so much as the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in that light. That may be too stark, though, as I’d wonder about the cure being as bad as the disease. Still, it leads us to the sense of divisiveness Jesus describes. If we are standing on the side of life, it must mean we are opposed to what would steal it away or destroy it. In the early Christian community, some of that difficult sense was likely even present in families, so the divisions Jesus names weren’t prescriptive but descriptive for those who were having to face the hard realities of life not going as it should.

This soul-threatening destruction is also the sense in the book “Lord of the Flies.” Those young people on the jungle island turned from supporting each other and caring for each other instead toward Beelzebub and that corrupting influence. Even while they still lived, they lost what the point of life was. They didn’t need to bow down to idols to lose track of the goodness God intends in their lives. The way of death came to hold dominion or dominance in their existence instead of the way of life.

That brings us directly to the reading from Romans. Alongside the divisive Gospel reading, this may feel quite pleasant. But I also want us to pause with it to continue hearing some shock. As it talks about baptism, and as we are preparing to turn toward the font for Rakesh Allen in just a minute, I’ve been feeling this passage this week not only with our standard Lutheran ears but also with Rakesh’s mother’s ears, with non-Christian Hindu ears. As we said to begin, this may not present ourselves with our best foot forward, because it could be terrifying that the reading proclaims what we’re doing in these waters is putting her son to death, co-crucifying him with Jesus, killing his old self. For this nine-month old, we probably maintain a notion of innocence and original blessedness, of the goodness of God’s creation. For Rakesh, we’d likely be ready to argue against Plato who wanted to claim that this life is corrupt.

But if we don’t see babies as bad, why is Rakesh being put to death? Why do we claim he needs a new life?

For that, the importance of this sacrament is in its proclamation of dominion, of who or what is Lord, and who can control our existence. This precisely is a statement against the corrupt and defiling ways. In the baptismal service, we state it as a rejection of sin, of turning away from the forces of evil, the devil, and his empty promises. You’ll be invited to join in that rejection with a hearty and lively “I renounce them!” As much as they try to convert and spoil you, to subvert the goodness, to turn you toward fears and frustrations and feuds, baptism gives you the power to say “No!”

In a strange sense, our Christian theology proclaims that those powers of evil are defeated at the very moment they seemed to be victorious. Jesus can risk sharing with you that “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose life will find it” because in the ultimate sense that’s exactly what happened to him. The death-dealing powers of oppressive might and greedy influence put Jesus to death. In that would be the clearest example that their dominion won, their lordship prevailed. But in the resurrection, we proclaim that their way of death was only a lordship of stink, the mastery of dung. Death had been undone by the Lord of life.

And what we proclaim in baptism for Rakesh and for you is that those deadly powers are now impotent. They have no control over you. The Lord of the Flies has lost, has been exterminated. Since you have died with Jesus to evil and sin and live now only to God’s ways. The only thing that can rule for you now is life. That is what finally has control. So even while the old ways continue to try to corrupt or cause consternation, you can retort that you have been baptized and can find encouragement and stand steadfast that God’s goodness will not be undone, that resurrection gives you confidence in the Lord of life. With that assurance, you are free to join in sharing the risk of the struggle for life, not just for yourself in the survival of the fittest, but on behalf of all of God’s good creation.

So let’s get ready for it, as it’s renewed in ourselves and as we witness Rakesh Allen is enlisted not only for the struggle, but celebrating that he is alive, now and forever.

 

* http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/proper_7a/

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sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday

(Matthew 28:16-20; 2Corinthians 13:11-13; Genesis 1:1-2:4a)
Get ready to puzzle and puzz ‘til your puzzler is sore, because this is Trinity Sunday. We start with an invented word. Trinity is a term made up to combine tri-unity, for three-in-one and one-in-three, talking about God in a mysterious way that can’t be resolved.

Aside from the approximation in images of a shamrock or the stages of water, steam, and ice, or Jed’s apple, this name and identity may actually be better pictured by items Jed couldn’t have grabbed from his garage: a three-wheeled unicycle, or a one-wheeled tricycle. Or—worse still—both of those at the same time. I know: that’s impossible. You can’t figure it out. It’s maddening. No one would want to stand up and say, “I believe in the existence of a one-wheeled tricycle” because it just sounds foolish. Most feel similarly about confessing our belief in the Trinity.

Yet if we tried to get rid of this explanation of God, in an effort to sound more reasonable, we’d not only lose out on our faith but also on the fun of foolishness, that stimulation of making our brains puzzle. As Justo Gonzalez—a Christian historian—and his wife Catherine write in the book Heretics for Armchair Theologians, “we know we are supposed to believe [this]…important element of Christian faith. But we really cannot make heads or tails of it, and we would much rather just mention it and move along to something else…But mystery has beauty and power only as we seek to penetrate it, as we see its far-reaching implications, as it overpowers and engulfs us” (78).

Still, if you’re uncertain whether  we should be considering how to speak about the Trinity and what in the world difference it makes for what we’re doing here, then you may not be excited to realize that not only is Trinity a made up term, it’s not in the Bible! That really may have you wondering if we couldn’t just as well fuggetaboutit.

But you’re probably not going to like that solution much either. Even though Trinity is a later term, and even if it feels like it causes more confusion than it resolves, it’s trying to comprehend what is described in the Bible. We heard two of the most concise forms of that, naming God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” There’s your alternative. If you’re trying to ditch the nonbiblical term “Trinity,” then you’re left with the name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” That seems unfortunately masculine, and if we’re trying to avoid exclusive lingo, we’re stuck with this name.

So what do you do about it? Well, first, we should notice and reiterate there’s no good reason to use the pronoun “he.” While Jesus seems inescapably to be a boy, God isn’t. We’re limited in pronoun options, but “he” doesn’t cut it for God. On the other hand, while the nouns for God were masculine (and gave us “he”), the Spirit is a feminine noun in the original language, so that should expand our sense of possibilities.

There are also plenty of examples of images for God that aren’t exclusively male, and we should be using those. (And at MCC, we are.) I’ve also been reminding people this week it’s not only about images of God as mother or nurse or hen. When we think of a judge or potter, those roles shouldn’t represent just one gender. Even warrior metaphors, as the U.S. military is so slowly understanding, are not for men alone. So some of the problem isn’t with the church but with more insidious human systems (as we’ll discuss more in the Faith, Sexism, and Justice study a week from now.)

There is even diverse gender identity available for the clearly male Jesus. The church Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was once the biggest church in the world. Its name can mean “Saint Sophia.” But that name Sophia was actually referring to Jesus as “Holy Wisdom” (which we pick up on with the Benedictine nuns across Lake Mendota). The idea of Jesus as the eternal Word, the Logos, the shape of God’s plans, rests in this feminine tradition of Lady Wisdom.

So instead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could we use “Mother, Sophia, Dove” or a generic “God, Wisdom, Breath”? I’d say it’s presumptuous for us to re-christen God with a nickname or decide God needed some updating, as if God’s name were the old-fashioned Mortimer, Buford, and Brunhilde and we jazzed it up as Matt, Buffy, and Bryn to make it sound fresher and hipper.

There’s also risk in ditching this name. After all, Jesus himself tells us to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The reason we have baptism at all is based in this commissioning from Jesus. He says, “Go do this.” So we’ve gone and done it. And if baptism can be compared to God staking out God’s territory or turf, of God claiming you as God’s own, imagine a geographic explorer taking a flag she had just redesigned, planting it in the soil, and saying “I claim this land in the name of Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam.” We’d suspect it wouldn’t be as valid with a made up or altered identity.

So if not a change, what about a substitution? In trying to remove the gendered nature from “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” some have taken to using “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.” Now, it’s said you can hardly you’re your mouth about the Trinity without treading into something sticky the church long ago discerned to be a heresy. While I figure my feet are pretty well stuck in heretical muckiness and I even provoke that, still the kind of revision that labels God as “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” is the old heresy known as modalism. It either means there’s only one God who wears different masks (overemphasizing one, ignoring the differences of three), or else one part of God gets stuck with different jobs while the other two sit on their duffs (too deeply dividing three at the expense of one).

The real problem is that defining God by tasks is not how the Bible has it. We’re not inventing these concepts from scratch, but trying to make sense of what we’ve received and experienced. Even aside from a name, throughout the story of Scripture, God is referred to as interactively relational. It’s not like Jesus was on his own for redeeming or saving. He prays to the Father and receives the Spirit and—as we heard last week—shares the Spirit. We heard the reading from Genesis today because it is seen as portraying three different aspects of God, including Spirit and Word of God, amid creation. So trying to say only one part of God works as Creator wouldn’t cut it.

Maybe a helpful step forward comes from the 4th Century theologian Athanasius (whose name is attached to the longest and most insistent of the three ecumenical churchwide creeds*, even though they aren’t his words). In Athanasius’ view, the Father isn’t called that for being the Father of creation, but for being the Father of Jesus. Again, we are somewhat stuck with this language of God as Father because Jesus called God Father and taught us to pray “Our Father in heaven” and because Scripture refers to us as adopted children, too.

Notice the point of that relational terminology may be less about what it means to think of God in a fatherly way and more what it means for us to be counted as children of God. It’s more for our sake than God’s. The term Father (often more precisely and dearly called out to as Abba, the equivalent of Papa or Daddy) definitely shows us the relationship better than a term like Almighty or something indistinct like “Source of All.” If we’re describing God as caring and tender, or offering guidance and discipline, or fostering life by placing food on our tables, or whatever we might take as essential roles of parenting, that could just as well refer to God as Mother, which would keep or enhance the intimacy of the relationship. Jesus certainly could’ve called God “Mother.” But he didn’t. And I think it’s weak to blame that on the culture of his time. As we’ll notice, he’s plenty countercultural, so it must be intentional he used “Father.”

So a key aspect of the term Father, perhaps obvious to ancient ears but less so now, is that fathers had an inheritance to hand off. That would not have been true of mothers in Jesus’ time. Our use of the term “testament” connects with “last will and testament,” that when we gather here, it is about disbursing God’s estate to God’s heirs, of you coming to possess what’s been promised to you. That is probably central to why Jesus and the New Testament call God “Father” and why it’s so important that you are children of God. You inherit all that has been God’s—all the earth, all responsibility, all forgiveness, all authority, all life.

At the same time as these terms are trying to define your relationship with God and your relationships with each other—that you are siblings always equal in possessions you’re given—that clearly stands against other patterns. Jesus explicitly declares that you should call no one else “father” (Matt23:9). It may seem harsh a week out from fathers’ day, but that firmly declares that calling God “Father” is a protest against of every other patriarchal authority. The whole point is that God’s will is counter to human culture and is anti systems of oppression. While we imagine we’re doing the right thing by abandoning the masculine term “Father,” the baby that gets thrown out with the bathwater means we concede the argument since God loses that definition of overturning all hierarchies that subjugate and dominate and claim exclusive rights.

Since you are heirs of God equally there is simply no way to say that one is better than another or worth more than another. You are all children of God. Through a creating and a created and incarnate Lord, you see God present in the complexity and diversity and ordinariness of our lives, see your bodies and all creation as good. And with God as Spirit breathed out and alighting on all flesh, we are bound together and see the glory of God. That is where God will be found—not in a popularity contest or as the biggest boss on the highest throne—but always with you, always among you, always in relationship, for love, for life, and always opposing what would steal that.

It may seem utterly foolish to proclaim that that’s our purpose, and not only ours but the shape and goal of the entire universe. And yet that foolish notion that comes from trying to comprehend a triune God, we call the good news and it’s the very thing we’ll risk spending our lives to figure out.

* https://www.ccel.org/creeds/athanasian.creed.html

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Kissing Jesus

sermon for Pentecost 

(John20:19-23; Psalm104:24-34,35b; Acts2:1-21; 1Corinthians12:3b-13)
Perhaps you’ve noticed I occasionally get around to pairing titles with sermons. If you’ve noticed that, you may also be wondering about this one, perhaps whether it pairs with the ignominious category of Christian rock praise songs disparagingly referred to as “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs. They come with lyrics like: In the secret, in the quiet place…I want to touch you, I want to see your face, I want to know you more. With such over-the-top sentimentality, they are the type where if they didn’t mention Jesus by name, you’d think they were love songs about a boyfriend. Although I’m pretty sarcastic about things like that, and though on the flip side I wouldn’t want to disparage nuns who view their chastity as marriage to Jesus, still my title isn’t about poking fun. I’m not trying to commend that you should be so passionate you want to kiss Jesus.

Instead, I’m pointing to the kissing being done by Jesus. There are interpreters who understand this breath and giving of the Spirit in the Gospel of John as being a french kiss from Jesus.

But, having set that odd image in front of you, I’m going to leave it aside for a moment. From that extreme intimacy with a sense of giving the Holy Spirit as so personal it involves a kiss, I want to back up to the most generic view of how you’re given the Holy Spirit. It’s generic, but incredibly awesome in its abundance. That’s the view from our Psalm. In the Psalm God’s Spirit is the breath that gives you life, and life to all humans, and to all creatures. (You might be well-served by the play on words that in both the Hebrew of the Old Testament and Greek of the New Testament, the same word can mean either breath or Spirit.) This passage says God is giving each and every creature the Holy Spirit with each and every breath. Far from Pentecost being a one-time phenomenal event, this is supramundane. God is with you to sustain every respiration, over and over again literally in-spiring you, putting the Spirit into you, and into cattle, and birds, and sea monsters, and (we’d understand more fully than the Psalmist) even into trees of the field, which also breathe (with the Amazon rainforest being called the “lungs of the planet”), and soils and oceans also inhaling in vast global processes of trans-spiring, the Spirit moving through and across our world.

I first want to pause so we can hear how astonishing that is. If we understood God’s Spirit as the breath of life for our world, it seems impossible to arrive at a conclusion to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Climate change is in a strong theological way the earth losing its breath, being so winded it just can’t catch a breath, being exhausted (for a different play on words, with the fumes from our tailpipes and smokestacks). It is directly causing respiratory issues for the poor and ill, the elderly and children who continue being born. Now, if the earth can’t breathe, it means it is suffocating for God’s Spirit, gasping for it, but since we are choking off God’s intention, earth is unable to breathe in, to be renewed, to sustain life.

Having said how remarkable that is and what an enormously faithful perspective, that in the time I’ve uttered these sentences, God has been replacing God’s Spirit, God’s breath within you over and over and over, as exhilarating or inspiring as that thought is (and I truly am hoping you’re receiving it that way, as a gift more than you can appreciate), I also want to realize that that’s not enough. God works constantly to renew, to rejuvenate, to revitalize you by filling you with the Holy Spirit. But even though that happens day and night, constantly and by definition through your whole life, still that’s not enough.

Because mostly you’re not aware of it. You’re not exhilarated by it. You’re not sustained by this constant sustenance. You don’t observe it everywhere you go among people and in nature. And that’s why you’re here. Or at least part of the reason you’re here. The Psalm says that we praise God with all our breath, and maybe you’re here to praise for God’s lifegiving care. But I suspect you’re here also because you forget it, because you doubt if God cares, wonder about God’s presence, because you need reassurance.

That connects with the two readings about the followers of Jesus gathered together. They are there because they’re worshipping, yes, and because they need each other. And they need more than each other, they need an assurance of God’s striving for life, even through and beyond death.

So then that breath of God, a Holy Wind of the Spirit comes whipping into the room in another way, comes to refresh, to re-enliven them, comes so that their young people may dream dreams and their old people may again envision the future, comes to release them from captivity, from all that binds and confines them, to forgive so that they may share that blessing with others.

In the Gospel reading, it is a direct application of the Spirit so that they may have confidence. Now, the reading itself just says that Jesus breathed on them. But is this more than letting them sniff whether he remembered to brush his teeth on the way out of the tomb that morning?

Rather than just blowing toward them as a little symbolic gesture that God’s breath was in them, it has been suggested that Jesus may have kissed the disciples.* In ancient culture, a kiss meant sharing the spirit or breath of life. When you kiss someone goodbye, it is so that a portion of life, of spirit, of being remains shared with each other. Even if we don’t express it, we retain some of the sense. There on Easter evening after the resurrection, when Jesus was going away to ascend into heaven, as the readings tell us, through this kiss and sharing of his Spirit he would still be present with his followers, with his beloved even after he said goodbye. This is exactly how the Holy Spirit is described; we heard a Gospel reading from John 14(:18) two weeks ago where Jesus says he’s going away, but he’ll give you his Spirit to remain with you and in you.

It may be from this kiss of Jesus as he says “peace be with you” that the church also got into kissing. Four of Paul’s letters end with an instruction to “greet one another with the kiss of peace.” For 1200 years, the church was trying to figure out how to honor that without giving in to promiscuity and having too much smoochy-face in the worship service. I think that reaction probably overdid it. We could probably use more sense that we are supported in life, that we share life with each other, that we are cared for by God, by Jesus, and through the Spirit of Jesus, within this community. We need to be here for that reassurance, to be bound together, to breathe together, which, for our plays on words is literally the word “conspire”.

And since we’re being conspiratorial here together, since that’s what comes from having the Spirit of Jesus within and among us, that propels us on to the next thing. We come because we need that reassurance and blessing for life, but when we come here, we’re also sent. In Acts, the followers of Jesus are sent to share good news with those who didn’t even speak a language they knew. In the Gospel reading, those followers are hiding behind locked doors, but Jesus directly sends them. He won’t let them stay locked up in fear; and the forgiveness may explicitly be for those whom they fear! That’s what this blessing of peace and life lead to when you’re inspired by God.

I don’t often do direct applications in my sermons. That presumes a sermon can be resolved, while I believe God applies the Word to you as you need it, often in miraculously unexpected ways. But today may call for some direct application, so I want to conclude with a word about our sanctuary meeting. After worship today, the MCC will be discerning our readiness to serve as a sanctuary site for an undocumented immigrant at risk of deportation and separation from her or his family and tearing up the fabric of our community. This isn’t an easy conversation. It could be likely the person doesn’t speak the same language we do. With ambiguous and unknown outcomes, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, to be afraid, to keep closed up by ourselves behind these doors and not be opened to God’s mission of offering peace and life. But I am truly hoping we can catch our breath, can confront the risks, and can be on the side of blessing.

I haven’t mentioned our reading from 1st Corinthians yet. Mostly we use this as a passage about each of us as individuals having diverse gifts—that Sybil can play the piano and Jean can organize the garden and Brian can be our president and John can swing a hammer and children teach us. But we can also hear the gifts of our congregation within the larger body of Christ. In asking the question of sanctuary, we may well have gifts that other congregations, other groups of eager people don’t. We may be in a better place to say yes, with facilities that will serve well, and your daringly faithful young staff, and a congregation who is accustomed—when facing hard issues—to offer leadership to the wider church.

And when trepidation remains, when we need another dose of assurance, that is why we are here together, brought into community by this kissing Jesus, and we’re inspired filled with fresh breath, with new life of his resurrection, moment by moment, week after week, and on toward the promise of eternity. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

 

* Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, Stephen Benko, p82

 

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