a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Roger Duane Kinsonroger

15 August 1929 + 24 April 2017

Psalm23; 2Cor4:16-5:5; John17:1-13

 

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

I want to thank Pastor Elisa for the opportunity to be here. I used to be Roger and Nancy’s pastor. Now I’m just a twerpy sneaky evangelist. In that way, I want to add on to the very fitting Bible readings Nancy chose to add one more from the Gospel of Matthew:

A centurion came to Jesus, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And Jesus said to [the foreign commander], “I will come and cure him.” The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard him, he was amazed…And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour. (8:5b-9a, 13)

In the good ol’ days, before I became a twerpy sneaky evangelist, Roger took me to my first Badger football game. I’d never been to anything more than high school games, and I’ll also admit I’ve only been to one game since then. That might reinforce my status for Nancy as a “scrawny young goofball.” I didn’t know what to expect of the game or the experience, but Roger was so organized and ready on all the details. He knew when we needed to leave, what route to take, where to park. Those may seem small, but it impressed me at the time (though I was also a bit nervous as his big Lincoln went barreling through traffic). Once we were inside Camp Randall, he was pointing out all kinds of things I would’ve missed otherwise—what plays were happening, who was running where, what went on between downs. The man knew his football. He was also grandfatherly enough that while he was directing my attention toward the game, he directed me away from trying to hear the cheers coming from the student section.

This sense of Roger’s direction was something I got used to. In the same way that I’ve heard Oscar Mayer employees recollect his emphatic greetings and wave as he walked down hallways with his firm and demanding presence, I got used to Roger’s arrival in the office at St. Stephen’s. He would pull up with rakes and garbage buckets sticking out of the Lincoln and come in to schmooze the secretary Jane Voss, a lingering style of check-up that must have fit his days at Oscars. But it wasn’t just for a cordial howdy. He was investigating what was going on. I also knew that Roger would have some sort of idea in his head that he was ready to execute. He’d be talking about spraying chemicals on the weeds in the parking lot or what branches needed to be cut off of shrubs or how the Building & Grounds meetings should run differently. He’d have these plans fully formed and, even though I’d try offering other suggestions, there was absolutely no way of changing his mind.

In the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, that commander said he was a man of authority, used to giving orders and being obeyed. Roger, too, was used to being in charge, used to being listened to in his opinions or decisions, used to having final say. He could do it with great charisma and charm. He could lead with his loud, exuberant voice and his big smile. He could direct and guide with passion and love. If I knew him in that way even though I met him 15 years after he retired, I also know it must be true in the stories I’ve heard about him as a boss at Oscars, and I expect that you children also had sense of that caring but sometimes firm authority.

Maybe it softened for grandchildren. But about the only place it wouldn’t fly is with Nancy. You could change Roger’s mind. With you, Roger had to dialogue, doing these things not by dictating orders but by conversation, with mutual trust, through 63 amazing years of marriage and your miraculous care through the end.

With that, we know that Alzheimer’s disease changed his mind, too, making him somebody he wasn’t and leaving him unable to do what he wanted. He recognized that and began to cope with those changes long before this end.

Still, overall we have the feeling from the Gospel reading: Roger was used to having people under him and being able to say “do this,” just like that faithful authority in the story.

And, to our larger point of this gathering, this faithful authority pairs with an expectation of Jesus and of God: the centurion, from his own experience, identified that God is in control, in charge, that when Jesus issues a word of decree, that word is effective, is trustworthy, is to be counted on. The reading Nancy chose from the Gospel of John certainly agrees with this sentiment, as Jesus says the Father “has given him authority over all people, to give eternal life.”

That is our word for today, a word we trust and count on as effective and powerful, as authoritative for Roger. Roger Duane was claimed in baptism as a child of God, a beloved son, and that word of promise is utterly and completely insistent. Nothing could or can change God’s mind being set on this promise and bringing it to completion. That word of love and life held Roger from old days of centering the football, on through the start of a young family establishing life in various homes all the way to bring him to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The authority given to Jesus to abide as God-with-us went with Roger through the stresses and successes of work, directing his days and his deeds toward peace, amid changes and adaptations of retirement. It was a promise that nurtured him in service to congregation and community, in friendships and the love of family. This assurance of God’s strong presence is in pleasant pastures and beside quiet waters, in overflowing cups but also through the darkest valleys. So even when sickness seemed to interfere and interrupt, to change Roger from who he had always been, diminishing his big, bold personality and leaving us with him in terrible distress, still even then, nothing can separate Roger or you from this promise—neither death nor life, neither our firmest determinations nor deepest groanings, neither distractions of life nor disease, beginning nor end.

We do not lose heart, because in this very hour we hear again the strong word of God that claimed Roger extending to give eternal life. In that light, as our words from 2nd Corinthians observed, even the worst we suffer becomes like a slight momentary affliction. Jesus, the Word of God, speaks the word so that you may be healed, made whole, as he calls into being a new creation and out from death calls you into new life with Roger. “Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? In his arms he’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.” Alleluia. Amen

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No Big Boss in the Sky

(Luke7:1-10; Galatians1:1-12)

Who’s the boss of you?

It’s a question first raised by sibling rivalry, of my little sister protesting, “you’re not the boss of me.” But it also grows up out of childhood, as you almost certainly have felt the weight of being bossed around. Occasionally we may get to be the boss, but feel it much harder when we’re the ones being bossed. Similarly, when you’re remanded into the custody of the authorities, that’s not a good thing.

This authoritarian pondering is prompted by the term “authority” in our readings, both in Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches and in our Gospel reading. It appears right away in Galatians, that Paul is an apostle not sent from human authority.

It’s more central and emphatic in the Gospel reading when the centurion contacts Jesus with a message, “I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers and slaves under me” who obey my orders. This man is a master of slaves and is a military commander in charge of 100 soldiers. He is accustomed to being obeyed. In fact, his words to Jesus on authority could almost be paraphrased in that boot camp cliché “If I tell you to jump, you say ‘how high?’”

Even as we’re remembering on this Memorial Day weekend those who have submitted to such strict military authorities and sacrificed themselves under an obligation to others, we’re also confronted with the question of whether Jesus is that type the centurion commander seems to expect as he puts Jesus in his same own position. Further, would we also expect that God is the big boss in the sky, Mr. High-and-Mighty, who’s in charge of where we go and what we do?

Though it’s a popular image, that’s not the good news of God or the Jesus presented to us in the Bible. Again, God’s authority is not as the one to boss you around, generally making you do what you don’t want to do.

I did some sleuthing this week on the word “authority” to reveal for us where this term, this idea does and does not apply. In his Gospel, Luke uses the word 15 times, and a fair amount of those are not very complimentary. It is for the rulers and authorities opposed to Jesus. It’s for King Herod’s jurisdiction. Those who arrest Jesus on the night he was betrayed he called “authorities of darkness” (22:53). The worst example is when the devil tempts Jesus by offering to give him his authority over all the kingdoms of the world.

(With that scary thought about Satan and kingdoms, it’s helpful and relevant to think of what Jesus discusses when he refers to his own kingdom or the kingdom of God. He doesn’t say, “My kingdom can beat up your kingdom” or even talk much about power and glory. Instead, his kingdom is compared to a tiny mustard seed and the invisible work of yeast and a wide open picnic. It’s like someone who has property and children stolen away, he says. And the kingdom is for the poor and for children. None of that sounds very bossy, does it?)

On the other hand, Luke does say that Jesus has authority, and even that he has authority “over.” His authority is in his teaching, in his word, and is the authority to forgive sins. He has authority over demons and diseases. His power is to heal. (The centurion must not mean this aspect, since Jesus’ authority over sickness is a different category, not equivalent with soldiers and slaves serving under their master.)

We’ll come back to good news about the authority of Lord Jesus, but let’s look now to Paul, in Galatians and elsewhere. I’m a fan of Paul. I believe he mostly gets our faith right in a way we’ve hardly captured since. That’s usually a minority view. Often he’s disliked as anti-woman, anti-gay, pro-hierarchy, pro-establishment, self-serving. I’d argue against all that, in part based in this look at authority.

First, we could note that the Greek word for authority doesn’t even appear in our reading today. What it actually says in the original is, “Paul, an apostle not from humans or through humans but through Jesus and God the Father who raised him from the dead.”

At any rate, there are other times where Paul does talk about human authority. One perhaps overused passage from Romans is that we should “obey the governing authorities.” With Christians through history, we can discuss to what extent that’s a faithful concept versus when we might be obligated to resist government or question authority.

But also we should hear a stunning reversal of any notion that God endorses authorities. 1st Corinthians says the end is after Jesus “has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.” (Destroyed authority!) “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (15:24-26).

That view of wiping out the authorities and getting rid of them as the goal of God’s kingdom is in some essential way central to Paul’s theology and also his ecclesiology, his view of the church and what we should be up to under the model of God and the Spirit’s influence. Rather than a structure of authority, rather than bosses in charge, even rather than bishops and big wigs, Paul favors community. He’s not for an authority. He’s for the koinonia, the communal sharing, the give-and-take of this all, the mutual relationships. That, not isolated imperiousness, is what represents and proclaims God.

That’s probably some of how we should be hearing this start of his letter to the Galatian churches when he says it comes from Jesus and not from humans. That isn’t to claim a special spiritual vision that overrules any human perspective. In a way, it’s just the reverse. He’s saying that all of those human methods and manners are trying to rule over, are trying to be structures of new authorities, trying to keep you in place with guidelines to be obeyed. He’s even saying that religious institutions from humans are trying to do something Jesus didn’t show us and God doesn’t want from us. When religion insists that some are holy and some aren’t, that there are insiders and outsiders, that certain behavior qualifies you for definite rewards, that God loves some better than others, these pious-sounding authorities end up obscuring the good news and are—as the Bible and Luther used the term—anti-Christ.

This also gives insight to our Gospel reading. Against a perspective that the centurion commander and Jesus reciprocally recognize and compliment each other as fellow bosses, more appropriate and logical is to notice the phrase “I am not worthy.” On the one hand, in spite of being a powerful boss—a muckety-muck who had done good things, who was praised  by the locals for building the synagogue and well-established with community leaders—on the one hand, he doesn’t try to claim credit for that. He declares himself not worthy.

And on the other hand, Jesus is not blinded by this being a foreigner, or an unclean outsider, or even the occupying, oppressive enemy. Jesus does not claim those make the man unworthy, should not exclude him from blessing and community, do not cut him off from the work of God. That God’s work is not dependent on our self-evaluation or human standards of worth is exactly the heart of our faith, the faith Jesus is amazed at or admires in the centurion. You, too, may cling to and trust there is not anything you are and nothing you aren’t, of what you’ve done or failed to do that determines God’s presence with or work for you.

That brings us to one final piece to wrap up reflections on authority. I began by noticing the phrase “you’re not the boss of me” arises often among children. Well, one of my nephews tried it on his dad, who promptly replied, “actually, I am the boss because I’m the dad!” Thinking of parental care, this perspective from Jesus and through Paul reorients authorities for us, not to be authoritarian and bossy but to be in the role for guidance and compassion, a discipline that teaches and doesn’t just punish, a source of blessing striving to heal and to overcome death. This is why calling God Father or Mother fits much better than titles of Almighty or Ruler. And we should always remember when we call Jesus “Lord” it is simultaneously redefining the term as embodied in one who serves and loves and laid down his life for the sake of others.

Similarly, then, besides the role of parents, there are many among this congregation who are bosses, or supervisors, or leaders in charge. And this faith shapes how we live into the roles. It isn’t about power over or acclaim or thinking yourself better than you ought. Instead, it is a role to serve, to do that Jesus work with his authority to forgive and teach, to overcome disease and evil, to struggle to the end against death. In this way, through your life and through Jesus, being handed over to the custody of the authorities finally may be good news!

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Christ the King & Author

sermon for Christ the King Sunday (John18:33-37; Revelation1:4b-8)
This is a day that begs us to slow down and think what we’re saying.

First is that when we say “Christ the king,” we have to notice that we don’t have a king, and so don’t relate much to that idea. The closest we typically come is the King of Hearts and Burger King, neither of which promotes much reverence or devotion, unless in a pretty warped sense.

Further, we’re also instilled with this Revolutionary American notion that we want to get away from kings. Freedom from kingly pressures is exactly why we attribute those alleged forebears of ours—the pilgrims whom we recall at this time of year—were getting out of Dodge and sailing across the ocean in the Mayflower and why Paul Revere rode at midnight and Boston became the site of that rebellious Tea Party.

Of course, we can’t say “Tea Party” without calling to mind the present political climate and those who view government still as too authoritarian, too oppressive, too domineering, and perhaps monarchical, that almost any government is a shackle to be cast off.

So, again, as we celebrate Christ the King, how does that relate to other authorities? What sort of king is Christ? There are, on one hand, Christians who resist, still believing we need to get away from kings, even Christ, and they avert any references by systematically excluding terms like king and lord from worship. I understand the notion, but it undoes what Jesus was already trying to undo, how he was working to subvert regimes of traditional patriarchies.

Perhaps on the reverse side are Christians who are so totally subject to worshiping Christ as king that they refuse any other sense of order, claiming Christ must be victorious in visibly and noticeably ruling our lives.

Being the sort of folks we are, I expect we’re more apt to find ourselves in the middle. To begin, we’d say that following Christ directs us to the obligation to love our neighbor. We may, then, see governments in service of this task, welcoming the stranger in immigrants or in preventing hate crimes, and feeding the hungry through food stamps, and making sure we can’t kill each other willy-nilly. Those are roles that our government should be up to, according to the perspective of trying to follow the order of Christ.

Yet, for us in the wise middle, we also observe neither an evil empire nor shining beacon, not demons or heroic knights, but an awful lot of gray area. We would be reluctant to equate anything in our society—much less in our own lives—as all that “Christ-like.” As much good as we do, and for all the successes of our government and society in caring for the vulnerable and oppressed, we’re also met with glaring examples of falling short.

With that dual perspective, scripture tells us in one place (Rom13:1) that we ought to respect the governing authorities, and remember that they are in place to do God’s work. Yet our Lutheran forebears held that verse and let Hitler get away with way too much. Even today in our Gospel reading, the government official goes exactly counter to the will of God: the crafty Pontius Pilate finagles the system and ignores integrity in order to have Jesus killed. He is clearly not on the side of justice. So much the opposite, in fact, that while he’s trying to entrap Jesus in his words, Jesus counters by saying that his role is to testify to the truth.

It reminds me of a favorite quote of my Grandpa Utphall, that he’d “been lied to by experts.” We are much too accustomed to lying experts. That is our default understanding, fitting with the tragic joke that asks, “how do when you know when an authority is lying? Their lips are moving.” This accusation is most frequently leveled against leaders, but also against news reporters, and against salespeople and corporate mouthpieces, and sometimes medical professionals, rallied against teachers, applied to the church, and on and on. If anything, our basic sense of society becomes that we are always being lied to and manipulated and most everyone is for hire or is just so selfish that we can trust no one.

So maybe Christ the King is the start of reversing that trend. If our usual sense is that authorities can’t be trusted, then we can begin again to reground our hope and find a foundation in this one who came to speak the truth. The basis of our faith is, in fact, that God’s Word is good, that God keeps God’s promises.

The clearest case-in-point today is the baptism of Ada Florence. Her grandmother, Sally Keyel, is well-involved in this community. But that isn’t the reason for the baptism. Sasha and Anna aren’t even going to live in this state. She’ll not be part of our Sunday School. With the news of my impending departure, we’re faced with the rather direct reminder that, even though I’m doing the baptizing, I won’t be around to care for her and raise her in the faith. Even more, I like to remind families that there’s the possibility that this would never be mentioned again. We baptize babies who’ll have no individual recollection of it. And yet we believe that Ada will be held as a beloved daughter in God’s care for all her days no matter what, amid her successes and failures, in celebrations and brokenness, as long as she lives, and even beyond that. We trust that God’s promise is good.

With that, we’re getting closer to the heart of what it means to recognize Christ the King. In the Gospel, Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world. We might first take that to mean that his kingdom is up in heaven. But I believe there’s something more striking and meaningful. See, where the President presides over this country, or where a Burger King rules over the other burgers and the King of Hearts may be the most powerful of his suit, where an earthly king reigns over a territory and dictates what is or isn’t allowed in that area and fights to make sure somebody else doesn’t take away his power within his boundaries, the kingdom of God isn’t about power or a locale exactly. This is different.

Here’s a phrase we heard today from Revelation: Jesus is making you into his kingdom. That wording is really, really important. He’s not bringing you to his kingdom, as if it’s someplace else and you’re not there. He’s not making you fit for his kingdom, as if it’s about following a certain specific set of rules. He’s not waiting, as if it’s for you to acknowledge who’s really in charge. He’s made you his kingdom.

When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, that is not in defeating another religion or overcoming fundamentalist radicals per se. Neither is its success marked by making our own nation somehow more quote-unquote Christian. We may have any of those as our pet projects and firmly want to believe we are doing right. Yet, since Jesus somehow discounts the fighting, evidently this kingdom is not identified by the spread or resilience of those triumphal marks or any of our other worldly standards of combative competition.

Rather, the truly shocking and almost ridiculous thing is that the kingdom of God is founded in you, your unstable, uncertain life, followers who betray and hand him over. Yet Christ the King makes you the kingdom. You are his turf. Not just his subject who should be obeying his orders. You are his territory, his realm, the place where his power is wielded and manifest, where his claim is. You are the kingdom of Christ.

To say it in another way, Christ is your authority. Except because our ears are attuned to lies and our lives accustomed to rebellion, even that we need to understand afresh. He is not the authority meaning the boss of you, at least not most fundamentally. He is your authority as in the one who authored you. Christ is your author. You have been created by God and owe your existence to God, just as a character of fiction would not exist if an author had not put a pen to her paper.

And now, like a fictional character, you’ve soon taken on a life of your own. Stan Lee no longer controls Spiderman. JK Rowling couldn’t have known what Harry Potter would become. They’ve grown in unexpected ways.

For us, too. The stories of our lives collide and part ever in new ways. The circumstances of our world bring us with each passing calamity and each bright invention to something new, to become something we weren’t before. It can feel worrisome, since there’s no prescription and it doesn’t leave us with much clarity. We wonder what will happen with the decisions we make and if we’re doing the right thing amid anxious possibilities. We have regrets that linger and too many endings that continue to haunt us with sorrows. Such flux involves some very nervous tension in the present.

Today is the assurance that little Ada Florence is blessed by God. Her story was thus begun by God, but it isn’t pre-written or prescribed. She will live it in her own unique—and creative—way. But neither is it that she as God’s good creation is only to be released to try to succeed in life or to try to follow the rules as best she can and had better or to struggle solo against the horrors and frustrations of life in this world. After all, she is the kingdom of Christ.

So here’s where we come to the other part of Christ the King. He is Alpha, your creator, the one before you, your author, your source. He is also Omega, your destination. From Alpha to Omega, from A to Z, he is with you. He has the final word; it all wraps up with him. And somehow he will bring you to the ending in him. It’s not because he manages to manipulate every moment of your existence. It’s not predictable. Just the opposite, though we are in the messy middle of things that seem unclear and worrisome, though so much seems out of any control, still he will not release you or fail you. You are his kingdom and the ending is secure in him.

If an author begins a story, I wish we had a word for the one who can gather the chaos of terrors and somehow bring it to its goal. It’s not just an editor, for God can’t erase your wrongs. Rather, this must be a word for one who manages to tie it all together, holding it all, redeeming the worst, making hurts whole, and bringing it to majestic and glorious fruition. I guess our only term for that is “Christ the King.”

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Craving Whatzits

sermon on John 6:24-35 Exodus 16:2-4,9-15; Psalm 78:23-29

Fun Nick fact: I’m a big fan of The Little Mermaid. When my sister used to watch it, I’d be singing along with Ariel: “I’ve got gadgets and gizmos a-plenty / I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore / You want thingamabobs? I’ve got twenty! / But who cares? No big deal / I want more.”

In the movie the little mermaid has a collection of items that humans use on land. She doesn’t really know what these things are, so she has names like snarfblatt or dinglehopper, whozits and whatzits. In spite of being oblivious, she still obsesses over and craves them so much she wishes she could be a human instead of a mermaid, though we know that this desire will make her a fish out of water, so to speak.

Well, that’s the mixed up mess we have today, too. People who don’t even really understand what they’re after, still wishing and yearning, begging and complaining for something else.

In Exodus, the crazy people of God are griping that they want to be back in slavery, thinking at least in Egypt they sat by fleshpots and ate bread. They don’t remember that they groaned in suffering and that just a month and a half before, to rescue them God had sent plagues and Passover and a pillar of cloud and fire and parted the Red Sea and “Pharaoh’s army got drownded.” It would seem memorable, but somehow they forgot and can’t hear over their grumbling bellies.

So they murmur and complain against their leaders and against God. And God sends them bread, or something sort of like bread. They aren’t too sure what it is or what to call it; our word “manna” is actually the Hebrew word for “whatzit.” So each morning, they would go out to gather this bready whatzit, sort of like fine flakey frost, or like gum resin it says in another spot (Numbers11:7).

Actually in that spot, it says that even though God was sending them daily bread, still the people were grousing that they wanted grouse, or actually quail. They wanted some meat, so God rained fowl down on them. (It’s tough to be a carnivore, eh?)

At any rate, this has to be about the biggest miracle in the Bible, aside from resurrection and creation itself. See, this whatzit scattered on the ground each morning sustained them for 40 years. The ration was about a gallon per person each day. That’s quite a bit of sustenance. But they kept on complaining, even wishing to be dead instead of receiving this miracle from God, claiming it was better back under Pharaoh’s heavy yoke because at least then they had fish and cucumbers and melons and leeks and garlic.

That sense of abundance brings us to the Promised Land, a land “flowing with milk and honey,” as it’s described, growing with fruit trees and vineyards. If nothing else, after the tedium of manna, they had variety. So you’d think that was the good life, that after being in slavery for hundreds of years and then a whole generation dying out while they wandered the wilderness that—at last—this would be the fulfillment of their hopes.

But just as their ancestors wished to be back in slavery, in our Gospel reading the people wish they could be back in the wilderness. “Hey Jesus,” they say, “Moses used to give out bread every day. How come we can’t just eat that whatzit manna like they used to?” They plead to go back to exactly what their ancestors wanted to get away from, just as their ancestors wanted to go back to what got away from.

Now, we could say that people are stubborn whiners or just kind of dumb or never satisfied. We could blame wandering eyes and jealous hearts, that the grass always seems greener and hindsight…yadda-yadda. Yet we, too, keep wishing that a new job or different house or shnazzier hairdo or the latest health regimen will change things. So another part of this isn’t just satisfaction but that we claim to know better as our own authorities, declaring what’s best for us and what we want.

We’re so adept at it that we even try answering other people’s problems. In this peculiar reversal, instead of begging for our own desires, we can turn it into a lecturing accusation against others, if not out loud all too often thinking we know better. To the woman facing abuse, we say, Why does she keep going back? To the man and his addiction to alcohol, we ask, Why doesn’t he just stop? To the one who’s lacking a job, we accuse, Why don’t they get off their lazy butts? To the one with an unwanted pregnancy, it’s, Why did they have sex in the first place? To the one in trouble with the law, Why didn’t he just behave himself? To the one with bad grades and a bleak future, Why doesn’t she try harder? To the one who can’t afford rent, Why do they waste their money on other things? To the critical, why can’t they find some compassion? We feel like we can assess all these fates, which then goes on to treat the people in these situations as if they had neither sense in their heads nor hopes in their hearts.

This week, a woman named Cheryl came in in tears. Her energy assistance was cut off because she got funding help from a church. She had no power to run fans to cool her grandchildren living with her or her CPAP machine or the refrigerator with her diabetes medicine. She’s trying to balance where money goes—to a broken car so she can get to her caregiver job or to the electrical bill. What’s our answer for Cheryl? Try harder? Buck up? Work more? Get smarter? Don’t worry about the grandkids? Find better assistance programs? Win the lottery? Vote differently? Change society so that this issue isn’t there in the first place? Pray?

We try to name these solutions, wanting answers, to be authorities on meeting desires and having everything go right. We grumble and yearn and pursue all our own whatzits. It leaves us gasping like fish out of water.

It would be plenty easy to declare here in church you’re choosing the wrong things, that if you’re after grand acclaim or a fancier car or easier life or more relaxation, then you’re selfish and doing it wrong, that Jesus called those the “food that perishes,” and instead you need to focus on God to satisfy your desires. One of our Boundary Waters devotions used this passage to pronounce that instead of trying to fill our spiritual hunger with worldly things we “need to feed on [God’s] word each day” (Pedersen, 180).

I’m sure not going to say that’s a poor idea compared to wishing for more stuff or trying to solve the world’s problems from the comfort of your own self-justifications.
But neither is that what Jesus is about. You don’t need a new lecturing accusation that you should be more godly. Rather, we’re just plain not very godly people. God was working the biggest miracle in sending daily bread, and the people of Exodus complained. Jesus was standing in the midst of the people, feeding their need, and they asked for more of exactly the wrong thing. It isn’t that we need more. It isn’t that we’re to refine our wishlist or our sense of directions. We’re just broken enough that we don’t know what to ask, don’t know what is good.

But here’s the turning point. Here’s Jesus. He’s not about directions or spiritual satisfaction. He’s not a waiter for placing all of your prayerful orders for another round. His method isn’t to believe just-right and firmly-enough so you’ll get all the best stuff. His authority is as the author of life.

In Jesus, God is for you, wants what’s best for you, even striving to satisfy the whiners and complainers, all the selfish, the do-gooders and those looking down their noses, the hungry and the grossly overfed, the greedy and the needy, those who don’t know their right hand from their left, who wander around looking for every new whatzit, for all of us ridiculous and incredulous fish out of water.

The proclamation is not, “I could be your bread of life” or “I should be” or “it would be best if I were.” Jesus declares flat-out, “I am the bread of life.” Your creation and existence, your sustenance, your ongoing life is never outside of his care, never neglected or overlooked or mishandled. Before you can even think to ask, to pray, to beg, to complain, he is giving you himself for your daily bread. Your life is in his keeping, from this time forth and forevermore.

This is a hard proclamation, because we want to make it into a program, an explanation, another lecture that can form an accusation, either against our doubting selves or the hungry hordes. We’d actually prefer to keep looking instead of settling in trust. Jesus says that we’ll never be hungry. So why do we need to have a Food Pantry, or write letters to our elected officials with Bread for the World? What does this have to do with Cheryl’s electric bill or your brokenness? We want special words to ask for pretty-please, or bonus points for being insistent, or re-evaluation of our needs. Or we demand signs and proofs. Or we go on to ignore Jesus since he doesn’t work like a spiritual vending machine for our appetites and hasn’t fixed our wishlist of the world’s problems.

And yet, there he is, abiding in that promise that spreads out through each moment of your life and across our world like the sticky dew just waiting outside of Exodus tents, the promise: “I am the bread of God that gives life to the world.” He’s for you, and that’s plenty.

Hymn: By Your Hand You Feed Your People (ELW #469)

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Subverting Authority with Love

Sermon for 28Sept14

Matt21:23-32; Ezek18:1-4,25-32; Phil2:1-13: Ps25:1-9

With this reading, I could just about repeat my last sermon, telling you to get off your kiesters and get to work, that simply paying lip service to faith won’t cut it, won’t count as devotion. But I don’t really want to re-give that sermon; it’s available if you need it.

Again, with talk about tending the Father’s vineyard, I could describe the People’s Climate March last weekend, and how, as God’s creation is faced with catastrophes of climate change, our civilization is at last turning from non-action toward caring responses, as 400,000 people focused on energy sources and agricultural ideas and political adaptations and technological innovations and concern for resources for the poor and compassion for all kinds of creatures and creative resistance and humor and being guided by faith, with delight and hope. But a travelogue isn’t a sermon, so I’ll thank you for your support and leave it to the photos on the TV and the words of my new hymn this morning.

Instead, let’s bite off the other part of the reading. By the time we got to the parable of two sons, disobedient each in their own way, but still striving to please the Father, perhaps we’d already overlooked what came first. This reading began with an obscure debate in the temple about authority.

The question for Jesus is, “by whose authority are you teaching?” As he’s trespassing on their turf, it’s a question of permission, like “What gives you the right?”

It’s not a bad analogy still to imagine yourself coming up here, pushing me out of the way, and starting to give your own sermon. (Perhaps that has already occurred to you, anyway!) If you tried to preach, still I might be expected to ask what gives you the right, what makes you think you’re so qualified and authoritative, what gives what you’re saying any credibility at all? In our times, you might say that you had a special spiritual insight to share, or maybe you’d been studying and had learned some things.

But in the ancient world, it didn’t work that way. There was no claiming credentials for yourself; it had to be given. And, in spite of how highly we think of him, Jesus just plain didn’t have that authority. He wasn’t a religious official or connected to the Roman government or well-educated or wealthy. He was poor and working class and rural and didn’t have a powerful father, or maybe didn’t have a father around at all. “Who gave you permission?” the muckety-mucks ask. It’s a trap. By their standards, Jesus had no claim to authority.

But, as usual, the sneaky Jesus reverses the trap, with a retorting question that begins to subvert their old standards of authority. So here’s what we know about Jesus’ authority: It’s not the old models, that he was of aristocratic lineage and born into a place of importance. It’s not the authority of the crowds, in an ancient popularity contest, because Jesus ends up pretty well abandoned by all. The authority of Jesus, plain and simple is from God.

But that still messes with us, really subverting our own views of authority, of credibility. The Christmas carol we sang this morning (Once in Royal David’s City) ties into these readings and themes. The image of Jesus in a manger challenges authority, changing our view of God. He’s not born into a palace, nor even a sterile and tidy hospital room. He’s born to a poor family, stuck where ox and ass are lowing. Lowly is definitely the word for it. A “humble life begun in scorn,” as another hymn says.

Still, even that takes extra noticing for us. We are people nursed on and enamored of the so-called American dream, that even with such miserable beginnings, he might pull himself up by his bootstraps and really become something.   We love those sagas with surprise endings where the poor barefoot child went on to become CEO.

And so we’d fashion ourselves as bystanders at the manger, pointing to a helpless infant, “He may not look like much now, but he went on to become a better teacher than the temple priests. He became a mightier ruler than the emperor in Rome.”

Except that’s not the point. His ending was that he died on the cross, still weak and poor and powerless. It would appear to justify the question of the religious authorities: Without lineage or prestige, no special training or upbringing or prominence. With no typical credibility. And then killed as a criminal, so lonely that he even cries out that God has forsaken him. We’d have to say that’s about as low as he could get.

And yet what we confess, what we trust, is somehow that’s nevertheless, in spite of it all, where God chooses to be registered! From fragile birth and messy cow stall, to peasant family, associating with lowlifes, surrounded by the sick and unliked and oppressed, and finally dead, buried in a borrowed tomb. That’s how God wants to be known, and in that is exactly what our God’s authority looks like.

Which sounds miserable. But it also sounds like good news for miserable people, for broken and hurting people, for a sorry world. Jesus says today that it’s for prostitutes and tax collectors. It’s for those who don’t even have bootstraps to pull themselves up by. The sick and those who feel they’re no good. This God is for those who make mistakes, the wrong, and the wronged. This God is for you, even if you’re only as good as dead.

If that seems like you’re stuck with a consolation prize, if you’d prefer some other sort of God who is on the winning team and does everything right and is fancier and shinier and mightier than all the rest, if you imagine that the old authority of success was better than how things end up with Jesus, then you’d better keep listening.

Our reading from Philippians lays out this whole trajectory for us in such a stunning way: God didn’t want to be known as the biggest boss in the sky, and so God became human, though it would seem like a poor idea. As a human, Jesus didn’t seek the old style glory, but humbled himself, like a slave, a servant, like one who pours himself out for others. What he did was love, love those who weren’t even all that loveable, love you. And that got him killed.

But on the third day, that love was proven as God’s vision, raised from the dead, trumping those old powers of selfish preservation who thought they had such exquisite control. And the surprise ending is, as Philippians says it, that this crucified Jesus is worshipped above all. His way of suffering love, of pouring himself out, in the long view is proven as the shape of God’s will. Not the old standards of authority, going for fame and fortune and our American dream of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, for mustering the crowd to revolt and take control. Somehow, as we ourselves continue to see the kingdom spreading, Jesus is the way. Finally, in Philippians’ vision, everybody will agree with what God has already decided in Jesus. In the end, he’ll receive universal acclaim, as all creatures on earth and above and below will come to the authority of loving service in him.

This morning there are two saints of St. Stephen’s highlighting that for us, first in the baptism of Alice Elizabeth. Baptism is connected to Jesus’ resurrection, a promise of life. But the Great Commission for it, the shape of it comes from the end of Matthew’s Gospel, worth repeating today because of this theme of authority. Jesus says, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We baptize Alice Elizabeth into a life of discipleship, of learning to follow Jesus and being a representative of his authority of love. So it’s not saying, “here’s an extra boost of blessing so you can really make something of yourself in life.” Instead, she is chosen and commissioned to be Christ-like, to “care for others and the world God made and work for justice and peace in all the earth.”

Also this week, we mourn the death of Carol Wiskowski. More than most of us, she understood and embodied this life of pouring herself out in loving service. She was extraordinary in community work for seniors and abused women and on and on. Here, she wouldn’t even put up with being thanked for overseeing Easter breakfast, organizing Christmas decorating, taking care of our Foundation, donating lead gifts to capital campaigns, filling in weeks for secretary vacations in the office, and more even than I knew she was up to. In these past 17 months of cancer, she would say that the doctors thought they had the answers, but she preferred to trust herself to our God. “The Lord is my shepherd,” she’d repeat.

In the baptism, in an upcoming funeral, we see the true value of what Jesus was up to. For a baby and a dead woman, we celebrate and continue commending ourselves to live with love, and to be loved even beyond what we live.

Hymn: Rise Up, O Saints of God! (ELW #669)

climate hymn14

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