sketch by John Mix

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Andrew John Remington

November 23, 1936 + August 3, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love was with Helen.

Love was with family.

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

Love was with Al-Anon.

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

Andy was great at love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mothering Rocks & Provocative Love

sermon for 4th Sunday after Epiphany

(Luke4:21-30; 1Corinthians13; Jeremiah1:4-10; Psalm71:1-6)
You may have heard of the Witness Protection Program, where somebody with information is secretly relocated in order not to be harmed by those they’re reporting on. Well, this Gospel reading from Luke might be identified as part of the Pastor Protection Program, where a pastor is relocated so they won’t be harmed.

This, after all, is shocking stuff. It’s never wise to compare ourselves to Jesus, but indulge me for a moment: In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus stood up in the worshipping community, read from the Bible, and began to give his first sermon. Similarly, last week Pastor Sonja and I gathered in our worshipping communities, stood up to offer a Bible reading, and preached first sermons.

Now, in these following verses, Luke tells us that Jesus enrages the congregation so fiercely that they’re about to hurl him off a cliff. Jesus manages to escape from the mob. But that might be where similarities break down; Jesus escaped, but your preachers might not be so miraculously favored. Thus, the Pastor Protection Program: the MCC pastors have been relocated for our security!

That’s obviously (or at least hopefully) tongue-in-cheek. We’re counting on goodwill persisting longer after our first sermons. But it does prompt the question as to just what Jesus could have said that would’ve driven his listeners so nuts. What from a sermon could be so outrageous as to make faithful people outraged? What in the world was Jesus talking about?

Well, love, of course. It’s because Jesus presses us on love, which has to be provocative. It begins well enough, with God’s love for you. We have beautiful words of that today. From before you were born, God has cherished you and held you. God has been bound to your existence and eager for the best for you. Whether you were raised in the church and baptized as a baby and have been here ever since, or if you were away for a while, or even if this is brand new and never had been part of your life, still God has been with you from the womb onward. Yes, you are most certainly loved. Always have been, always will be.

Our appointed Psalm at the opening phrased this lifelong trajectory, from birth and the cradling, tender, motherly arms, through youth. The Psalm then goes on to face difficulty, to talk about protection and about rescue and salvation and about experiencing shame and those who disagree with you. God is a refuge because we need it. God is a fortress because, at least occasionally through life, we need it.

Even that strange metaphor of God as a rock is because sometimes we need a rock, shelter to hide behind, or a small island to cling to when we can’t tread water anymore and the waves are sweeping over us. I counted 37 times in our Bibles where God is referred to as a “rock.” In other places that rockiness is a mark of permanence, standing against the weather. It’s also a reference of stability, a foundation, that when everything else erodes, you rest securely on bedrock. There are two other interesting passages for our direction today. Deuteronomy (32:18) mentions the “Rock who bore you, the God who gave you birth.” It’s hard to picture a less maternal or loving image than a hunk of stone, but evidently ancient people of faith saw it differently. More familiar for us, like our phrase of being a “chip off the old block,” the prophet Isaiah (51:1) reminds you to “look to the rock from which you were hewn.” In this case it reminds you of your likeness with God.

We’ll come back to being like God in a moment, after focusing on looking to God. But with that looking to God, to cling to that “rock” metaphor, any other reflections on how that is helpful as a strong, faithful image?

Okay, then looking to God, the main point of our Psalm. Remember, our faith doesn’t make God care for us. It’s not only when we believe that God will be mindful of us. But faith is about putting our trust in this God, understanding this refuge and place of security, about building on this foundational rock. Again, it’s not that God’s ignoring you in difficult times or that you had to pray harder. If you were away from church, if you doubted this belief or didn’t know about it, still God abides with you. There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more or love you less…but the benefit is to know that, to make use of it, to rely on it.

The Rob Bell video for last week’s adult forum featured a parent carrying an infant through a horrible rainstorm. Even as the child was terrified, the parent kept whispering “I love you. I’ll get you home.” The child didn’t know or anticipate that things would be okay. But it’s a whole other thing in the midst of storms to grow beyond childish ways, to trust that the arms of that loving Parent are always around you, that God’s love for you endures all things and never ends and is greatest of all.

That is the cherished language we have from this beloved 1st Corinthians passage. Yet that also begins to point us more directly into the outrage that encountered Jesus. See, it is the most amazing thing to be loved so unconditionally and completely, but it changes how you hear it when you have to share this love. So when you’re told that God’s love for you will never end, that’s good news. When you’re told that your love for a partner or family or whomever should be patient and not envious or irritable, that becomes another matter. It quickly turns from a relief to a challenge.

So 1st Corinthians 13, with all of its love language, is often considered the Bible reading for weddings. Maybe it was read at yours, or you’ve been to weddings that used it or seen cards with it. But if it’s setting a standard or goal for a relationship of trying to love rightly, Acacia could list numerous ways I’ve blown it just in the last 24 hours (though I’m hoping her love is patient and kind enough that she won’t so quickly point out my faults).

Yet as hard as that is, it has still far greater proportions. With Jesus, this cannot remain with those closest to us. It’s not restricted to spouses or partners or our children or family members, not just kindness for our kin. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors. The smart young lawyer before the parable of the Good Samaritan looked for a loophole, trying to ask what qualifies as a neighbor, maybe seeking the technicality of it only being a two-door radius. But Jesus’ definition in the parable is for anybody we might meet, anybody in need.

Again, he won’t let us off so lightly, because in the Sermon on the Mount he tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44). That’s pretty darn tough, but it gets still worse because on the night in which he was betrayed, after stooping into the role of a servant, to wash the feet of his followers, Jesus gives that new commandment that we should love just as he loved us (John 13:34). This is when love is provocative, a word literally meaning to “call forth.” It’s the direct incident in Jeremiah—he was called forth to share God’s love, even if reluctantly.

And that became exactly the problem in the Gospel reading today. See, I get to proclaim how much God loves you. But Jesus goes on to tell about outsiders, foreigners loved and favored by God, including a hungry widow and, coincidentally, a despised Syrian military leader. It’s not only for us who consider ourselves well-deserving or qualified insiders. Now, I’m going to set aside the conundrum of God’s miracles going to the apparently unworthy instead of in response to faithful prayers.

Instead, we’re going to continue just a minute more with this difficult but fruitful question of loving like Jesus. Especially in the lead up to Valentine’s Day, we’re surrounded so much with love as a sweet, mushy, romantic idea. But Jesus conversely pushes us toward love that’s offensive and provocative. This isn’t sentimental, affectionate love—as Martin Luther King reminded us, not always about liking the other—but is God’s kind of love that rejoices in the truth and is patiently enduring and seeks healing and wholeness.

So where might love be provocative, where might God be calling us forth? Some examples: our society in these days has labeled Muslims categorically as enemies and as offensive, so we may figure ways to cross that divide. Closer to home, with Iowa caucuses tomorrow, this political process is causing lots of angst and anger. Perhaps offensive love would seek how to remedy that. What about relationships where we choose sides, especially when there’s been a wrongdoer? How does enduring love help to make it right amid hurt? Or what are the lives we deem more valuable than others: by color or age or profession, “real” Americans versus immigrants, human over other creatures? Where have we placed these boundaries?

On a broad scale for us, I was reading this week about the UCC as a “church of firsts.”* It’s an amazing list to celebrate—African American, female, gay leaders and pastors, abolition and civil rights stances, civil disobedience and schools to make a better society—these are remarkable aspects of a solid foundational identity and also marks of what could be seen as the offensive love of Jesus.

Yet I was also reading a piece this week by the always-provocative Chris Hedges on the “suicide” of the mainline church,** saying we have “looked the other way while the poor and workingmen and -women were ruthlessly disempowered and impoverished. The church was as silent about the buildup of mass incarceration as once about lynching. It refused to confront and denounce the destructive force of corporate power. It…busied itself with charity, multiculturalism and gender-identity politics [and paid lip service to diversity] at the expense of justice, especially racial and economic justice. It retreated into a narcissistic ‘how-is-it-with-me’ spirituality.”

Those are heavy words. They might be arguable, but shouldn’t be ignored. I don’t want to say more, either to blunt them or to overwhelm you. So let’s conclude with a moment of reflection, either silent or aloud on those who are most offensive and hardest to love for you. Where is the love of Jesus provoking you?




a wedding sermon

After those really deep and meaningful Bible readings (1Cor13, Col3), can I just pause for a second to marvel at how it is that we come to be here today?

I mean, sure it’s a beautiful park and nice enough place for a wedding. But here we are on the edge of Middleton, on the west side, for the two of you east-siders, MG grads who didn’t even really know each other, though you were only a year apart. And somehow that has led to this.

Even more, there are the weird coincidences where you just so happened to be ready and at a good moment to move in with each other, and then found it was easier than you expected, that you got along better than you thought you might, that your levels of cleanliness were pretty similar, except that Dillon was more fussy about the kitchen and Nicole about the bathroom. Sounds like a pretty good pairing to me. We could say that it’s a really random chance that all the pieces fit to arrive right here, right now, that it’s remarkable that life turned out this way.

And we’d have to notice that kind of thing is true for you as individuals, too. It is, indeed, weird Nicole that Dillon is this mix of tough and sensitive, that he’ll race dirt bikes on the weekend but also be content to settle down and watch Teen Mom with you. Yeah, weird. An idiosyncrasy, something that’s only true of him as an individual. And Dillon, the same for Nicole, that she’s so sweet and loving, unless you wake her up too early in the morning, and that she’s less into shopping for brand names than you are. These are just your personalities, your own identities.

And these just happen also to be characteristics that go really well together, that appeal to each other. For all the things that could’ve separated you, that could’ve gotten in the way, that might even have ever prevented you getting together in the first place, here you are. And here you are, ready to commit to so much more in life together.

That’s an exciting thing about a wedding, about marriage. It isn’t just saying that things happen to be going really well, better than you had any reason to expect, that it was a nice coincidence and you hope it will last. Instead, this is a moment where you get to say, “hey, you know what, this is really good and it’s worth some effort to try to make sure it lasts.” This is a time when you vow to do the best you can at that, through good and bad.

So I really like the sand ceremony for the first part of that, the image of two very distinct lives that get all mixed up together, that come to be so stirred together you couldn’t possible separate them again, and that form something even more beautiful when they come together.

I’ll invite you now to pour your sand.  [SAND CEREMONY]

(Maybe it’s okay that not all of your sand poured out of your jars. Maybe we can take that as symbolizing that some of your life remains separate? Maybe it also leaves room to add some sand from Cancun into the central jar, as a sign that fun and relaxation together can cap off all the other parts of life?)

But there’s another part to all of it. Maybe we think of that as the glass vase that holds the sand together. So if we’re talking about the two of you coming together, I suppose in some very basic way we could say that you’re held together by a marriage license at the courthouse, that the law says you are bound together.

In a larger, better way, we’d talk about love as the vase. All of those grains of sand could blow and scatter, even with the littlest bit of wind, the slightest disturbance, but held contained in that glass, they will remain together. Your love that is patient and forgiving and works to help each other and to build trust has been doing that and will continue doing that in your lives together.

And it’s no coincidence that that’s the kind of enduring, lasting love described in your Bible readings you chose. See, love is this invisible larger presence. You can describe how your love works or feels for each other, but you can’t prove it. You can witness that your families and friends love you and support you and help you to stay together, but often can forget that important part. And most definitely this is what God is doing for you and between you, holding all of us together in love, sustaining and preserving us, bringing you through difficulties and enabling beauty and joy.

That’s not just a hypothetical question, that is exactly what we have embodied for us in Jesus, a God whose love persists through the worst, and even goes beyond death for new life. A God who celebrates with us in joy and will even join us in the party. A God who will go so far as to sacrifice himself, to give up his own being, for the sake of the beloved.

That is the kind of love you share, Nicole and Dillon. That is what today is about. And that is what holds onto you from this day forward. Congratulations.


a wedding sermon

With those very nice Bible readings (1Cor13:1-8a; Col3:12-14; Matt5:13-16), I also want to drop in one more huge thought from a little Bible verse we’ll hear tomorrow in worship, which is also a pretty good mark of what this day is about. It says, “God is love.” (1John4:8. 16)

Now, that’s about the most helpful direction and overarching sort of statement I could think of. I mean, try to picture other things that God could be. We might imagine that God is Power. Or that God is Controlling and in control. Or that God is All. Or that God is Justice, about right and wrong and following rules and punishing offenders. Or that God is in heaven.

As much or as little as any of those might be true, they aren’t what we have in the statement God is Love. And I think I don’t prefer them. I’d be scared of a God who is only about power and might. I have questions about defining God by control; because what does that have to say about the earthquake in Nepal or about our own stubborn sinfulness, even to those we have said we love? I’m not helped by a God who is off in heaven, or a God who is inconspicuously a spark inside of everything. Those aren’t what I need.

A God of love, though, of compassion, a God who is with me in my needs, a God who won’t forsake me or forget me.

The problems are that sometimes we’d prefer something more than love or something other than the hard work of love. A God of power wouldn’t have died on a cross. A God of purity wouldn’t have hung out with the screw-ups and the failures and certainly wouldn’t tell us to love our enemies and those who are hard to love (especially a word for weddings of those closest to us). A God of black and white, right and wrong, simple answers wouldn’t have created a complex, hard, sad world, which is also a wonderful, beautiful, delightful world.

That somehow says this God is true for your relationship as well, Carrie and Jake. It’s not about perfection or wedded bliss. It’s not about everything being easy. Rather, your love and your relationship are about coming together, about supporting each other in spite of or even because of the hard times, and trying to figure out your differences and complexities, and continuing to work at it, because you matter to each other. Plus all the joys and delights of meals and great music at concerts and the Badgers and good times with Cadence and trips to Port Washington and enjoying Duluth and all the other stuff. It goes together as one package, the good and the bad and somehow all better because of love.

That’s an amazing thing, but also intimidating. This is big stuff. See, as you love each other, you are doing God’s work. As you commit to love in your wedding vows, you are committing to a godly task. As you strive to love each other, and to love each other’s families, and to continue growing in love and loving the world, you are embodying our faith, acting as the body of Christ, representing God who so loved the world. It’s big stuff.

And it could seem nearly impossible. That list in 1st Corinthians is quite a chore – to be patient and kind and never rude or insistent or selfish, to be able to bear everything and endure all things. Oof. It says that love never ends, which sounds exhausting.

It makes the other reading from Colossians sound better, that you clothe yourselves with compassion and humility and love. Clothing yourself and putting on Christ sounds easier and more sporadic. Like putting on a jacket or a pair of boots, you just could do it when you need it and take off love other times. Except we know that’s not really how it works, either, to be only occasionally loving. We may have moments of better or worse, but it isn’t something we get to stop.

So, for all of that, the real blessing today, of your shared commitment, of being in love, is that you’re not at it alone. It’s not only that you need to try harder to do what’s godly and good for each other. It’s also that God’s love abides with you. You cannot make yourself light or make yourself salt, as Jesus said. You are made bright and salty, you are made loving, by God’s presence. That is what unites you, what binds you together in a union, what sustains your life in blessing. The greeting we offer as we start worship isn’t just a wish or a suggestion. It is the reality you live in, for each other and for all: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit is with you. Amen


Love, Knowledge, and Unclean Spirits

4th Sunday after Epiphany       1 Feb 15

Mark1:21-28 1Corinthians8:1-13
I like books. But I’m also kind of sick and twisted and particularly like theology books. It’s so disgusting that, when I get a quiet Friday off, I even read theology in my freetime. Pretty gross. That passion made a friend once call me theologically arrogant.

She meant it as a compliment, but it comes back to haunt me with this 1st Corinthians reading that says “knowledge puffs up,” saying my puffy arrogance could be destructive and counter to what builds up. It’s evidently dangerous territory. The story from Mark teases it out more horrifyingly. There the smartest guy in the room is labeled as having an “unclean spirit.”

Now, I’m going to ask you to work with this. Stories of exorcisms and demon possessions just seem weird to us. We picture horror movies, or an ancient culture disconnected from our experiences. But rather than quickly writing it off as so foreign, let’s slow down and enter the story.

In this Bible reading, one wisenheimer knows a lot about Jesus, saying, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” In fact, he identifies Jesus better than anybody else has in Mark’s Gospel. Next, notice that this happens at a weekend worship service, with other worshippers who are there to learn about God and to praise God. So rather than picturing an ancient horror flick, a better parallel would be to look around at this place here today.

Which makes us need to ask: if the Holy One of God walked in right now, wouldn’t that be, like…a good thing? Isn’t that sort of the whole reason we’re here? And wouldn’t we be happy for a smarty-pants to be able to help identify the Holy One of God?

But, somehow the opposite, this man expects Jesus is destructive, and so Jesus rebukes him, actually tells him to shut up. I’d suggest the man in the story recognizes what Jesus is about and doesn’t want to be part of it. We could say that what he claims to know is in opposition to Jesus. And being against the Holy Spirit’s work means he’s working with an unclean spirit.

Further, there’s plenty still today that Jesus could want to muzzle. If Jesus is Lord of your life and of the cosmos, think of all the things he would want to get rid of or destroy, the obstructions and confusions to his mission that he’d remove. Rather than something shockingly demonic and terrifying or one bad apple, perceiving an unclean spirit this way is more insidious because we can all get trapped in the thoughts of our brains, leading us away from Jesus and his Spirit’s guidance.

So what is the work of the Holy Spirit? To return to 1st Corinthians, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” An unclean spirit is content in self-satisfaction, whereas the constructive work of love is in building community, in supporting each other, in reinforcing the weaker elements, in bridging differences, repairing divides. While knowledge too often can be just hot air, love makes an edifice, is literally edifying. I hope you’re hearing these many helpful building-block and construction images. With that, it’s worth remembering that the church is not this physical structure; the church is the connected group of us, the living stones formed around the solid foundation of Christ our cornerstone, united in efforts of refuge and sheltering, of reinforcement and support.

But we neglect this, forgetting to focus on the structure of relationships and to strive for mutual good. We make faith so individualized, or place it in heaven and ignore what happens here and now. So when the Holy One of God shows up in our midst and God-in-the-flesh comes up for a handshake as we exchange the peace, it’s a wakeup call. We have to pay attention to each other. Our lives and relationships matter. This is about love, and whatever obstructs love is wrong.

For an illustration of that I’d like to tell you about Marcus Borg. This past week, theology-type folks have been grieving the death of this popular teacher. A marquee name in the church, Marcus Borg was among the founders of the Jesus Seminar, a project intending as accurately as possible to uncover the “historical Jesus,” meaning not later reflections about him, but who was the guy who wandered around Palestine and said enough inflammatory things that he got killed. In some ways, this important and helpful project tries to hone in on what Jesus was really about, since knowing his engagement with culture helps us engage our own.

But along with keeping track of quotations of Jesus, Marcus Borg and his colleagues also wanted to revise or look again at some stuff like the resurrection, finding a metaphorical meaning “truer” than a literal, factual, traditional kind of meaning.

You’ve probably noticed that resurrection is kind of a big deal for us. So for the last couple of decades, this scholarship has caused a couple problematic or destructive side effects in the church. On one hand was a reaction from those who embraced Marcus Borg’s teaching so much that they looked down their noses at anybody who would still be silly enough to put creed or hope in an empty tomb. Supposing themselves to be more tolerant and realistic and cosmopolitan, at the same time they offend the honest faith of those right next to them. Like the Bible story’s smartest guy who had the unclean spirit, this side became a class of Christian elitists, puffed up with pride, claiming to know better, but too often distracting from the heart of what our faith is about and what Jesus tries to do among us.

The reverse side is those who have dug in their heels to ignore any new teaching at all. If the studies messed with their vision of God, then they wanted to stick to old Sunday School lessons and call it good. I’d say that’s not a great basis for understanding Jesus. Refusing to learn about each other prevents us from growing in relationships. So ignorance can be as obnoxiously obstructive as knowledge. Reactions puffed up in anger can selfishly resist or deny knowledge, like flat-earthers stubbornly sticking heads in the sand, putting on blinders to avoid seeing larger truths around them.

As Marcus Borg was pointing to Jesus and trying to identify him, those have been two negative byproducts. Between those entrenched sides, however, it’s interesting that he himself was insistent on engaging dialogue. He wrote books in conversation with traditional scholars. He accepted all questions at his lectures. He tried not to shame or exclude. In that way, even if Marcus Borg didn’t believe the same things about Jesus that I do, he still wanted us to be Jesus people, confronting injustice and supporting each other, inspired by God. Even when his opponents and his adherents both missed the boat, Marcus Borg was still trying to be a person of love.

That fits these readings today. If you’re puffed up in anger or puffed up thinking you know better, that divisive spirit works against what Jesus is about. If you are striving to learn from Jesus and grow in him, if you are connected into this community with the purposes of being inspired in love, then you’re probably on the right page. That is the Holy Spirit working in you, and among us, for the sake of God’s world.

Almost to conclude, then, here’s another dose of encouragement that captures this spirit on learning to love better from Martin Luther King. In one of his last sermons, he said: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”*

That gets close to the heart of why we gather here and what the Spirit of Jesus is up to. But we need to say one thing more. We’ve said our faith isn’t about how much you know (or don’t know). But neither is it only about how loving you are, as if you can keep track with checkmarks on a list. The intersection of the two may be in knowing how much you are loved by God. That is what matters and is the central reason we gather here.

Life can be a mess and we can mess up and our world can seem to be totally falling apart. The more we know the less we like what we learn, and no answer may seem right or satisfying. So the point of theology and the point of gathering here together is again and again to be able to know love, to trust through all of it that you are held in Jesus’ love. As much as the demonic powers of the world or of your selfish brain, as much as the distractions and obstructions threaten to block it, what you need to know is that Jesus clears that all away and has claimed you in love forever.

All that’s left after that is to figure out what that means.

Hymn: Although I Speak with Angel’s Tongue (ELW #644)

* “The Drum Major Instinct,” Testament of Hope, pp265-66


a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Dorothy Jean Anderson  23 April 1927 + 1 January 2015

Psalm 23; Romans 8:35-39; John 1:1-18

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

We gather this moment in loss, the person you knew taken away. Death steals a loved one from you. That sad fact is also true in strong degree about dementia and Alzheimer’s, about bad illnesses and diseases that ravage somebody to an extent that you know longer know them, can’t recognize them as familiar.

I know this case has been in process since Dorothy moved to Wisconsin, at least since she became less capable and more dependent, since her mind deteriorated and her personality changed. The final fall into weakness and visit to the emergency room and her body finally deciding enough was enough has just been the last stage, even to an extent a stage of relief, for these many months of having your mother slip away from you, Chris and family. She was no longer the woman you had known.

There is blessing in many wonderful memories, the stories shared that make you who you are. With your mother and grandmother, there are things from long ago, of growing up around her. There was her care and guidance and watchful eye and all she taught you. As you grew, the memories change, but it is still the same woman you know and remember. For those of you who knew her at other times, you have your own recollections and cherished moments. Those are things that, in spite of what it meant to be losing her and even facing this larger loss of death now that nevertheless cannot be taken away. That part of her abides with you.

Yet as I’ve been reflecting on that, also striking me is how difficult—or impossible—it is really to know each other fully. Think for a moment on how much you don’t know: all the things you heard only second-hand, almost as tall tales or legends; the secrets that you heard about much later, as well as those that remain undiscovered; all the vast and long details of Dorothy’s life—from her childhood to daily routines to internal emotions—all that you just plain have no way of knowing.

I’m thinking about that because even as much of her as you knew and loved and have in some way lost, it still means you knew her only in part.

I’m also thinking about that because it echoes our Gospel reading, in discussing what we may or may not know of God. It says there’s plenty we don’t know, since nobody has ever seen God. But it’s not left to mystery or our imaginations. It says what we have known of God is Jesus.

That’s important for us, for this time of death and this time of holiday. At the end of the Christmas season, on this 12th day of Christmas, this reminds us that we know God as a baby in a manger, cradled and nursed by his mother Mary, as one born to be good news for Bethlehem and for shepherds and for kings and for the sick and despairing and for Dorothy and for us. Jesus is the heart of this good news, the core and crux of what we need to know about God. We know that God has come to be with us, to dwell among us and live with us, that God cares for us. That is the Word calling us into being, creating life in us, and then entering our life, the Word that becomes flesh.

It is also this Word we know in Jesus who will never leave us, who is God abiding with us. In Jesus, we know a God who holds us close, who is there to nurse and assist us in our weakness and help us in our needs. (With that, we should well note that the point of this gathering was in gratitude for the caring staff of Heritage Monona, who are serving as an embodiment of God’s work. Thank you for doing it.) We share in this God knowledge of compassion, since Jesus suffers with us, goes through loss and cries out in feeling lonely and forsaken. So we know a God who won’t abandon us even in the face of death. Ultimately God brings us through that, out of his tomb and out of our graves to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Again, the core and crux of what you may know about God at this moment is that God is not distant or unconcerned or powerless. In Jesus you have a God of love, abiding with you for life. You are brought into God’s family, an assurance for Dorothy long ago in baptism that she was claimed as a beloved child of God. As the beautiful Romans reading reminds us, nothing can stop that love. Nothing can stop God’s work. Nothing that interferes with life. Nothing that goes wrong. No diseases or struggles or brokenness. Not even death can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

That, finally, reminds me of one other Bible passage. It’s one we don’t usually relate either to Christmas-time or to funerals, but mostly to weddings. The “love chapter,” 1st Corinthians 13, works well at the start of a marriage, when families begin together, encouraging us to be patient, kind, and enduring in love. It’s guidance that can serve well in all of our relationships. But, as we said earlier, even at our best and closest, still we only know in part. As it says in those verses, we see in a glass darkly, or have a fuzzy view through a mirror. It’s not complete yet.

“But then,” it concludes, “then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.” Those are words of promise for you and for Dorothy. She was fully known by God, recognized and loved and held throughout her long life. In faith, she clung to trust in this God through Jesus. And now she rests in the promise of completion, that she will know God fully, face to face.


a wedding sermon

You know, one thing that I’ve noticed about weddings—heck, I’d go so far as to say my gripe about weddings—is that the attention seems to be zeroed in on the bride and the groom. That may seem appropriate, but let’s ask who’s really most important here. As lovely as you are, Michael and Lisa, I’m going to steal your spotlight and direct the camera back on me for a moment. (Knowing your humor, and trying to make a larger point, I hope it’s okay.)

So to begin with the risk of drawing too much attention to this sermon, and realizing that I’ll never live up to the standard anyway, I’m going to highlight a line in the Bible reading you chose. It talked about speaking in the tongues of angels. Obviously there’s nothing in the lame words that I put together that could attain those heights, so I guess I am indeed left in the opposing category of the noisy gong or clanging cymbal. Having realized that, where it might make you think I’d go ahead and shut up instead of blathering on, making noise up here, instead I’ll foolishly press on, since I still cling to my “childish ways.”

Which leads to the next line with prophetic powers and understanding mysteries and knowledge. And, boy, even if I couldn’t articulate in the language of angels, at least here I’ve got the chance to…well, let’s face it, I’m not going to stack up well in this category, either. I mean, I enjoyed our pre-marriage counseling sessions together, but whatever good you managed to glean from any of that had nothing to do with my wisdom or insight. So prophetic powers are definitely out of my weakling reach.

The list continues on from there in even harder ways: moving mountains, sacrificing bodies and life itself. Even the bit about patience and kindness and not being rude, not boasting, not insisting on my own way. Maybe my strategy here of taking this time to focus on myself was a bad idea.

But that’s okay, because I really wanted to turn it back around to you two, anyway. See, in these categories, you two stack up much better than I do, not least because of the love you have for each other. You really are eager to listen to each other, to try to figure out the right words and the right tone. You bear with each other quite naturally and indeed rejoice in each other. Your love is a beautiful thing.

Still, though, if this is only about trying to measure yourselves on not getting irritable or always being patient, obviously I’m not the only one who’s going to fall short. All of us do, including you two.

So how do we proceed? Do we lower the bar and just say we’re not perfect and then go ahead and put up with a mediocre, marginal kind of love? That doesn’t seem like a very preferential option, especially today. It would leave you with vows that sounded something like, “Well, I mostly like you pretty well, and we’ll generally kind of get along, and it will be okay to spend the rest of our life together, probably.” You’re not here because you want to say that.

A bit different, you could use your vows to set the high standards, to hold you to account, to keep working at love, trying to improve.

But there’s something still more in those words of love. I get to remind you, because this is a sermon, that you are here because this is a church. And that points to the better, fuller solution, to the true embodiment of this love. See, what 1st Corinthians is describing sure isn’t best seen in how good of a pastor I am. It’s not best in our families or communities. It’s not even most in how loving you are to each other; though that is a very good reflection, in the words of that reading, it is still kind of a hazy image in the mirror.

The fullness of this love is revealed for us in Jesus. This is how we know who God is, and what God means for our life. In him, we learn that love is reliable, is trustworthy, and really is always worth it.

God is not about to abandon you when the going gets tough, much less to cause you pain or distress. This is what we know in the cross of Jesus and in his resurrection. This is the long-suffering love that brings you through it to the other side. It’s a love that fits with your vows that promise to share all the circumstances of life together, but it even goes beyond the partition of death to bring you to something still new, a reunion, a grand eternal wedding feast.

This is the heart of love. Sometimes we reflect it well, and sometimes not. Even the church too often distorts that image of love. Yet the best of our relationships are guided and sustained by it, even if imperfectly. Still more, this love of God for you and with you, it never ends.

But there I will end. So for your love, and for this even grander promise, congratulations, Lisa and Michael.