Why God?

sermon on Psalm 8, Holy Trinity Sunday
Clouds, sleepiness, and other factors have complicated things so far, but I’ll keep trying (maybe in the darkness of the Boundary Waters) to see Jupiter four times brighter than the brightest star in the sky. It’s so close (relatively speaking, of course) that the four Galilean moons should be visible with binoculars. Those moons were first spotted by Galileo 400 years ago, the biggest of around 79 moons Jupiter has. There may even be a chance to see the Great Red Spot, a centuries-old storm that had been three times the size of our entire planet, but has calmed by 20% in the past month, and nobody knows why.

It’s so phenomenal, and fits exactly with the Psalmist’s neck craned heavenward to the sun, moon, and stars that the Creator set in their courses. Like the composer of Psalm 8, we may be struck by a feeling of insignificance. Thinking on that scale, particularly enveloped by wilderness night sky, we ask “What are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them?”

I was hearing that Ben, three-year old brother of baptism baby James, is fond of asking Why? Sometimes even 20 consecutive answers and explanations still prompt a 21st “Why?” His dad Mike matches that with his own perspective on God, asking lots of Whys, always wondering, wondering, wondering.

And that’s what’s in our Psalm today. Looking up across lightyears, trying to fathom the unfathomable, pondering our place: Why would God care for humans?

The Psalm seems to have one answer for what makes us special, which might strike us as pompous and domineering. It presumes a hierarchy and finds our uppity place in it. This view draws a chart with God at the top, then angels or divine beings, and humans still pretty close to the top, going down from there to good animals maybe like gorillas or dolphins or pet dogs, followed by lower animals like blue jays and salamanders and hermit crabs, and then slugs and jellyfish and mosquitoes, on down to trees and flowers, which are still higher than dirt and rocks and a muddy puddle.

That tiered system may try to label what’s alive or not. There’s also food chain elements to it. And it involves a perspective on complexity, that your eyeball is more evolved than a jellyfish belly.

But it seems slightly suspicious to claim I’m better as a human being, while an oak tree hundreds of years old is nothing, or a structured colony of bees, or even my dog who understands my language though I don’t understand his at all. Not to mention claiming that I’m alive means I must be favored over (possibly) lifeless Jupiter, even though it’s 2.5 times as massive as all the other planets in the solar system combined.

Not only is it slightly audacious and dubiously defined to stake out that position for ourselves, but it comes with a terrible risk. For some reason, we wind up quick to abuse our territory, claiming we can lord it over other creatures, can trample them and do what we like without regard for others.

We should clearly realize that this Psalm is far from giving us permission to do harm or use up this earth. After all, creatures declare God’s majesty. A lake with its fish poisoned, a sky too polluted to see stars, a dead field that holds soybeans but harbors no life, diminish the praise of a majestic God.IMG_2299

Even in this sanctuary, when it’s too focused on humans, loses the best and most authentic praise. I’d really like to get a bird to sing Alleluias with us. But at least for the summer we’ve got plants and fish that rightly expand our praise.

I believe the place of humans is not better or worse, but different. See, birds sing their praise without instruction. Plants grow and bear fruit. Fish naturally know their place. Jupiter doesn’t need to be told how to be a planet. But humans need the reminder. Unlike the rest of creation, it seems, we need to be re-placed in these relationships, to be set right.

So instead of ranking it in a hierarchy to make winners and losers, instead of carving out our niche as haughty trampling tyrants on the one hand, or falling from the moral high ground into lament and despair of the damage we’ve done and how difficult it sometimes seems it is to do right, to be well, to live life as we should—neither placing ourselves abusively above nor so low and feeble, instead today we have a different perspective, and it comes to us from James Robert, or maybe with him.

“What are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, O God, human beings that you should care for them?” That question remains. As a remarkable mark of mindfulness and care, God gives the promise in baptism.

God has claimed a place of prominence for James Robert. God has offered eternal assurances, tying him to the resurrected and unending life of Jesus. James Robert is clothed in the very presence of God, chosen for God’s mission in the world of right relationships of justice and peace. He has been sealed by the Holy Spirit.

Clearly that is a gift. Sure, we could say that James Robert is plenty cute, especially when he’s smiling. But God didn’t choose him for his looks.

It’s not because of his singing voice or because he knows the answers and can speak for God, though the Psalm says God’s praise and defense comes out of the mouths of babes and infants. I don’t expect the next time he’s wailing in the middle of the night it will feel like he’s praising God. Yet God must not need our articulate words, our songs pitched to praise. Even with a small sob, God wants to be identified.

Even more clearly, then, the status of humans generally and James Robert particularly is not from his potential, because he’s so powerfully capable. This is the really amazing thing about baptizing babies: it’s not their choice. It’s not their ability. It’s not their response. It’s not the good they have done or the bad that they’ll try to stay away from. It’s only and totally because God wants him. What are human beings that God is mindful, we little people that God cares? Well, with baptism we have the clear proclamation that our place is beloved. It’s not anything we are or aren’t but is because of what God is, a God of love, of relationship, a God of reconciliation and compassion, a God striving for life.

On this Trinity Sunday, maybe that’s what we notice, a God not of lording it over, not of power and might, but a God of possibility and life, even beyond death, a God delighting in creation, a God who is somehow with us right now.

We ask why. And we can’t fully know. We ask how, and we can just trust. We may only have that our tradition has been able to discern this God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God, the Father of Jesus, God incarnate suffering to make it right, God’s Spirit invisible but still bringing Jesus to be with us as she leads us into this truth. And all that because God wants you to know your place: you are loved.

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Minutes of the New Age

sermon on Acts 15:1-19

 

A confession to start: I have never willingly volunteered to take meeting minutes, and I might never even have unwillingly agreed.

Scott Bauer, on the other hand—an Associated Press reporter by vocation—makes minutes come alive. The best I’ve ever had the semi-pleasure of reading, even with colorful quotations. Here are excerpts from the MCC annual meeting minutes in January, the reality of church details, with some Scott touch:

  1. Steve Sellwood and Candi Bloedow of the Leadership Team called the 2019 annual meeting to order

2. Pastor Sonja Ingebritsen led the congregation in an opening prayer

3.  Karen Schwarz moved approval of the agenda, Lucetta Kanetzke seconded.

5. MCC Reports that had been posted online were open for discussion.

7. Spending Plans and Funds: John Rowe said, “We had a very good year at the MCC. Pledges and gifts have been growing. We had more income than expected and expenses have been less than expected.”

8. Other Business: Steve discussed several “big ticket” capital items, including replacing the siding, repaving the parking lot, replacing lights and redesigning basement bathrooms. Don Tubesing asked what MCC’s philosophy was for building maintenance. A task force was approved by a voice vote with no opposition.
In another piece of new business, the 50th anniversary of the MCC this year was discussed. “It’s definitely something we want to celebrate,” Steve said.
Hildy McGown thanked everyone who decorates the sanctuaries.

With a few Scott flourishes, there are abridged ins-and-outs of a church meeting here at the MCC.

Since you’re wondering why I’m reading bland business details instead of preaching the sort of thrilling, thought-provoking, hilarious, spiritually-resonant and culturally-competent, sermon you’ve come to expect (that got a rather large chuckle!), I better explain.

Sure, that was to celebrate Scott, and anybody who agrees to take minutes.

It also involved reminders on the ministry of the MCC this year.

But mainly it was to set the strange Bible reading in some context. Whether you consider MCC meeting details exciting or boring, small potatoes or blockbuster, relevant or off the main mark, maybe it resonates with what in our reading from Acts were essentially church meeting minutes, complete with Scott Bauer-esque stylings of key quotes. No matter how well it’s been recorded, you might share my feeling that it can suck the life out of really vibrant stuff of being the church.

To clarify: I love our annual meetings. They celebrate our community. I also am an odd duck who has been sitting contentedly in church council meetings since I was in high school. I know, pretty warped.

But still I regularly say I get frustrated if I’ve been in a meeting too long and Jesus hasn’t shown up. Even in good meetings, Jesus can seem more propped in a corner than alive and shaping and inspiring us. It’s like we think we’ve got something better to do, to focus on.

But how can we ignore this vibrant celebrative faith that keeps shouting: Alleluia! Christ is risen! This is joy. Jesus on the loose in our world, life on the loose. Unstoppable love, unfathomable love. Salvation spreading for all. God in our lives. This is good news, good news, good news!

So it’s so striking and disheartening that 15 chapters into the book of Acts we’re stuck in the middle of a church council meeting, with deliberations and legalese stifling the good news and sucking the life out of church, putting the body of Christ onto life support.

Earlier stories had rampaging abundance: of everyone fired up! Hearing the good news in their own tongue! Sharing everything they had! Making sure nobody went hungry! Of facing death fearlessly! Of even an Ethiopian eunuch from the ends of the earth incorporated, baptized into this party by one who had no business to be baptizing to begin with! It seemed like nobody would be left out. This was catching hold of people’s hearts and lives and souls and sweeping them—and us—up into God’s exciting goodness.

Then comes this episode of Roberts Rules of Order. Parliamentary procedure. With “no small dissension and debate.” Someone taking the floor to testify in favor of an amendment. All to determine whether outsiders would be allowed in, and how many hoops they’d have to jump through to be permitted.

Now, I don’t want to belittle circumcision in Jewish practice. From twelve chapters into the start of the Bible, God had promised that all peoples would be blessed, all nations welcomed through Abraham, and the sign of this relationship would be circumcision. Abraham went through it as an old, old man. But what’s definitive isn’t just that he could manage it so others should put up with it, too.

So I don’t want to get into details of circumcision’s trauma for infant boys. I also don’t want to poo-poo this church decision as affecting the recruiting strategy of the early church: “Would you like to join us as followers of Jesus? Oh, I should mention, there’s just one little thing you have to do first…”

We probably need to admit that this decision of not troubling men about what they do with their body parts isn’t how it goes when it’s about women’s body parts. Even this week some who call themselves Christians were all-too content to impose ridiculously excessive demands to trouble women’s bodies.

Holding dumb human deliberations in perspective, though, we notice God was way out in front of the church in Acts. The Holy Spirit had already been surely finding a place for outsiders for half the book at this point. Even the central leaders were slowly getting dragged along to God’s abundant way, as Peter’s speech testifies. Paul had had his life turned around and was excitedly spreading that reconciling and forgiving good news where it was technically not allowed by peoples’ policies. Humans keep slowing it up and get stuck in meetings, but God goes with us still striving for good. God is with us even in church meetings.

With all of that, I love a line a few verses later. After more bureaucracy, saying “we have decided unanimously to choose representatives and send them,” then it gets to a dynamo line, conveying radical reorientations for us, too. Ready? “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials.” It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us! They don’t know, but suppose and move ahead to follow God’s lead. They dig into their founding documents, for the purposes of figuring how to welcome and include and be community together.

Maybe to take seriously this reading about what it meant to become part of an essentially Jewish community that used to be defined by circumcision, we could ask what it means for people to become part of church now, including this Madison Christian Community. How can people fit in? What’s essential?

For our founding documents, the Community of Hope bylaws begin with a declaration: “We welcome all people to join us on our faith journey, affirming our common humanity and reconciling our differences.” There are participation suggestions members are “encouraged to covenant” to do. Then comes one sort of definitional stipulation: “Membership in the Christian Church is begun by baptism.”

Advent follows a more formal ELCA format and says “Members of this congregation shall be those baptized persons” etc. etc. and “all persons, irrespective of [this and that] shall be welcome for membership” and membership includes the so-called “privileges and duties” of worship, moral living, and stewardship.

That hits the big stuff as far as being allowed in to the MCC.

Since both zeroed in on baptism, I’d mention there’s serious discussion in the church these days, at least in my Lutheran circles, about whether it’s permissible to receive communion without having been baptized. Is it a requirement? In a culture where infant baptism is no longer a given, what do we do? While they debate and deliberate who All is or what Welcome might mean, at the MCC we don’t believe our job is needing to sort it out, but just declare “All are welcome at Jesus’ table.” We trust he means it.

For entrance rites here, we don’t have rigorous coursework of new member classes. Even Confirmation is more about an experience. Is it helpful that we don’t instruct right beliefs? There are also churches where it’s about behavior, where a strict morality is the gateway to entry, these days often about sexuality, but even here with an element of presumed politics.

Beyond that more official theology, what about de facto practice: Do you feel welcome? Is it confusing or enchanting? Can you tell something exciting is happening, or does it feel stodgy? Does church mostly serve to make you feel even worse about your life, or do you know that God is here for you?

Where are barriers to inclusion when a person doesn’t know our rhythms and routines or the “that’s just the way we do it here” or why we do what we do and say what we say? We’ve got generations of the amazingly deep and dense relationships of support, but before that how does one newly integrate into this community?

How does it work for small children, or for those with dementia, or for people who are differently-abled, or don’t speak our language? Or what about people like you? Again, what’s welcome for both victims and perpetrators? How do we practice love in broken and sinful lives? If inclusion involves our reconciling, how are our differences okay and not needing to be flattened out or homogenized, that we say you’re welcome but it really means “as long as you’re like me.”

I hope this doesn’t come across as head-scratching conundrums of church polity, but as exciting questions of God’s mission, not the obstacles we erect to entry, but how we help incorporate each other into the body of Christ, into the church that Jesus intended as a gathering to be life-sharing and life-giving. Sure, it may involve an agenda to make it work, but it’s God’s work. This is where the gospel happens, in the nuts and bolts, minute by minute details of our real lives. It seems good to the Holy Spirit. How about us?

So what’s our bottom line? What’s essential? Not for a quicker adjournment to our meeting, but more because it’s our life-blood, in the biggest picture, I believe it’s pretty well summed up by this: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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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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sermon on The Baptism of Our Lord

(Matthew3:13-17, Acts10:34-43)

 

The first thing for today is an explanation and apology. Epiphany is January 6, and this festival of the Baptism of Our Lord is usually the first Sunday after Epiphany, which was last Sunday, but we were celebrating our choral service. So when you have to explain to friends and classmates and coworkers tomorrow that your church is a little slow, I apologize for that. We’ll see if we can fix it by the end.

In spite of our slowness, this was worth not bypassing. Actually, Jesus says that right in the Gospel reading. John the Baptist wanted to skip past it, to avoid the baptism of Jesus, but Jesus says, “Nope. We need this.”

We may wonder what about the baptism of Jesus we need, or why this is worth paying attention to. We may ask, does it tell us something important about Jesus, or is it because it tells us something important about us?

To start reflecting on this occasion, it sure seems that the baptism of Jesus is not like ours. I mean, we had nine baptisms here this past year, most of them when we were gathered together for Sunday worship services. You were here and part of those experiences. So how would you describe them? Nice? Community-building? Good to see young families and cute babies?

Nobody said that at a single one of those baptisms the roof was torn off the building, a bright light shone in on the child or a dove came to rest on them. And the voices we heard didn’t come echoing with the thunder but were plain old regular human voices. So we might draw distinctions that the baptism of Jesus was extraordinary, was special, very different from our baptism.

With that, another line is often drawn that our baptism washes away sins, but Jesus didn’t have any sins to wash away. Matthew doesn’t seem concerned about making that theological point in this story. I mention it partly because we have a bad conception of sin, mostly viewing it as the nasty little secrets and bad habits and quirky peccadilloes and guilty pleasures, but that is really a weak definition of sin.

More than that, though, this account of the baptism of Jesus isn’t trying to tell us about what Jesus isn’t, but who Jesus is. That gets obscured by how our lectionary chooses pericopes, or little snippets, lifted out of the larger context. Here are the verses right before today’s reading: John the Baptist proclaimed “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but a more powerful one than I is coming after me; I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and…burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (3:10-12)

Against all that fierceness, you could feel the tone shift as if our reading today began with a big but: but “then Jesus came.” John seems to have expected a tough guy, busting in, taking charge, tossing out the bums. But Jesus comes, not with the ax or burning chaff or in all his glory, but comes and asks to be baptized.

That’s the first important thing we learn here about Jesus. Asking what it tells us, while you could take it that Jesus needed to repent or was just a wimp, it’s better and more likely that his means and ends weren’t John’s. So he could be modeling what it’s like to turn from our own ways and toward God’s way. Or showing us that God’s grace is never earned but always received as a gift. Maybe he goes through with it so we can hear about the Spirit resting on him and the voice calling him the Beloved Son. Maybe it’s about the importance of baptism.

That raises the next question, of whether the baptism of Jesus is like our baptisms or is completely different. By the simple fact that there aren’t these miraculous phenomena at our baptisms, does that mean we’re left with something second rate?

I’d argue wholeheartedly against that. I firmly believe some of the point in this story about Jesus is so we can understand the same thing in our baptisms. Even though you couldn’t see the Spirit descending on you, and even though it sounded like my voice, or like some pastor’s voice, or whoever did it, still by means of your baptism, with that splash of water, God was declaring: I choose you. You are my son. You are my daughter. I love you. I’m pleased with you. That message of claiming you always and delighting in you no matter what is exactly the purpose and reason for baptism.

Your baptism expressly connects you to Jesus. Within our baptismal liturgy, that’s proclaimed in words of prayer saying, “At the river your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit. By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection you set us free from the power of sin and death and raise us up to live in you.” That’s why the paschal candle is rekindled today, as a reminder that your baptismal candles share that flame, a symbol of Jesus’ death and resurrected presence. As we remember our baptisms in a minute, we renew the covenant connection with newness of life in Jesus.

That points to another aspect of reflection for this day. There have been times when we associated baptism with going to heaven, through the promise of eternal life. That was vital yesterday at the memorial service for John Goltermann, for example. It can be the central promise for baptism in newborn intensive care units.

But mostly, when we gather in church and when we need to think about our baptisms, it isn’t because we’re worried about going to heaven. It isn’t only about death and resurrection like rising from the grave, but is dying to an old way of living and newness of life we’re living into already.

We have some of that perspective from Martin Luther. Today you have in bulletins the first bit of his Small Catechism, and it will be most of the way through this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation before we get to the section on baptism, but for a preview, Luther reminds us that baptism means a daily dying and rising. It’s not only amid tragedy or after we’ve drawn our last breath, but is about how we’re rising to live each and every day. It’s not just an eventuality, but is actually changing you here and now.

This is similar to a discussion with Confirmation students and their families and mentors this week, that it’s foolish to think of Confirmation as happening once and for all, that in the spring of 8th grade you’re able to say, Yep, I agree with this faith and am interested in participating in it. Rather, every single day we could be Confirmed, could gather here at church and say to each other, here’s what I believe today and where I’m left wondering, here’s what I find important, here’s how I expect God is working in me and in this world. That every-day-Confirmation would be essentially the remembrance of baptism, the daily dying and rising, the repentance of trying to orient our lives on what God is calling us toward and working in us.

The ongoing reality of living as beloved by God and embodying that for daily existence was also the case for Jesus; if it would’ve only been about his death, about his ending on the cross and the promise of new life from the tomb, then Jesus could’ve been baptized near the very end of the Gospel. Instead he does it right away, so we know this promise and the presence of the Holy Spirit with him in all of his life, in all that he does, with the power to go “about doing good and [struggling against] the devil,” as we heard Acts describe his ministry. Again paralleling our lives, most of us were baptized as infants, not as an insurance against something bad, but as assurance that God’s blessing is with us in all that happens to us, throughout our lives and beyond, giving us power to keep doing what’s right.

I began with an apology that you’d have to say your congregation is a little slow, but also wanted to redeem that slowness. For your existence this week, you may need the promise of God’s presence and some hope for life. This week, as we face new beginnings which may be accompanied by worries and challenging tasks and so many possibilities of striving to embody God’s goodness in our world, here to conclude are words of encouragement and blessing from Martin Luther King Jr.:quote-our-only-hope-today-lies-in-our-ability-to-recapture-the-revolutionary-spirit-and-go-martin-luther-king-55-75-20

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to [hu]mankind as a whole … This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all [hu]mankind.

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. … We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. …

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons [and daughters] of God, and our brothers [and sisters] wait eagerly for our response.*

That’s what your baptism is for. Amen

 

 

* from “A Time to Break Silence” in A Testament of Hope, p242-244

* from “A Time to Break Silence” in A Testament of Hope, p242-244

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The King & You

sermon for Christ the King Sunday

(Luke23:33-43; Colossians1:11-20; Psalm46; Jeremiah23:1-6)
I’d like to begin introducing you to Alexa Rose, her parents Danielle and Ramon and their family, to get ready for her baptism and to orient us amid this Christ the King Sunday.

The odd connection is Alexa’s grandmother Robin used to work with a man who became a church music director with whom I later worked. Tracing that forward some number of years, past Danielle’s graduation party (which, if I recall, was one of Ramon’s first visits to Wisconsin), beyond that, I had the privilege of officiating at their wedding, fue la primera y la única vez que hablé español en una boda.

Later, when Alexa’s brother Leo was only a newborn, came the misfortune of presiding at the funeral of Danielle’s little brother DJ. He was a delightful young man, with great care and a huge smile and the enormous tragedy of an addiction from which he couldn’t escape in this life. A couple months after that, yearning for something positive, we celebrated Leo’s baptism and how blessing continues in our lives. Danielle’s father, Darrel, polished the baptismal font to sparkling. Yet to come, he and I have long talked about doing some icefishing together.

So there’s a lot there. In one respect, that’s the kind of stuff I’m honored to anticipate sharing with you, the big celebrations, and hopefully not too much tragedy, and all kinds of really regular moments and conversations and details.

Much larger and more important, though, than me as a pastor who happens to intersect with your life is the notion today that Christ is the King of this. As King or Lord, it means all of this falls within the realm of Christ, under the influence of his reign and his jurisdiction. He has claim that extends over and around all of these moments.

In Alexa Rose’s baptism is the declaration that nothing in her life will be separated from Christ or left outside of his blessing: her delights in her big brother and her smiles at her parents. Their efforts in so many ways to keep her secure—in providing a home and working long hours and throwing birthday parties and struggling against society when its racism or sexism or tribalism would threaten her wellbeing. Christ is in connections with grandparents and the guidance and care of her baptismal sponsors. All of this is held and nurtured by Christ.

And the promise continues far beyond what we know today, as she grows and meets new friends at school and discovers what her interests and passions and abilities are and as she begins making choices in her life (whether good or questionable, as all of us experience), on through years and decades.

We know this love and blessing of Christ was with Ramon and Danielle at their wedding, but we also confess with sure and certain hope that even death couldn’t separate DJ from love and life and blessing in Christ Jesus. Christ as King must be amid threatening politics just as surely as icefishing. Today we identify that for Alexa Rose, through the thick and thin of it, through the sorrows we’d so much like to spare her and the triumphs we wish heartily for her, all the way to her final breath.

And then, even as today we’re holding that very moment for a saint at the opposite end of life’s spectrum and saying goodbye to Eileen Bolstad and commending her out of what our care could accomplish, releasing her fully into the eternal care of Christ’s embrace, even in this moment of death we trust a promise of Paradise, that that last enemy will be overcome, and the love and life and blessing in Christ Jesus will continue.

So as we trust this for Alexa and for Eileen and as we are able to hold onto it for ourselves, let’s notice that in calling Christ the King, rather than it being a similarity to our typical rulers, we should hear a contrast. When we say Christ is King, we very particularly mean he’s not like other kings, those who rule and control and disregard our lives for their own benefit or whims. This title, exemplified by one being tortured and executed on a cross, clearly is not trying to claim Jesus is the mightiest or the bossiest. He’s not an authoritarian who always gets his way. He’s not in a posh palace separated from the realities of our life.

Embodied in his crucifixion, Christ’s kingship is precisely exemplary in patient endurance for reconciliation, is with suffering, knowing the realities of life, not separated from those mundane and difficult details of your existence. He is a King who can relate to you or, to say it stronger, is related to you, your brother. (That also has the implications that you are entitled to your inheritance as part of the royal family! That focus will have to wait for another day, but please don’t lose track of it!)

Another aspect of Christ being King also contradicts a common notion about faith and belief, and that’s in what makes him your king. Just as it wasn’t the ironic inscription on the cross that made him a king, neither was it by popular acclaim. It’s not that you invite him into your life. It isn’t the degree to which we attribute credit or how we pray or how we might try to claim favor. Jesus doesn’t need your confidence in order to be king. His work and his reign aren’t dependent on you or subservient to you like that. Though he’s a servant king, he’s not at your beck and call or waiting to do your bidding.

He—and he alone among all who would be called king—holds the role by divine right, in accomplishing God’s will. In the language of Colossians, this extraordinary passage that portrays for us the fullest widespread concept of a cosmic Christ—a king of the universe—the thrones and dominions and rulers and powers are subject to him not because they’re reporting for duty, but since his realm encompasses all.

So, in a huge distinction, while he doesn’t cause sin, he must in the end still be responsible for it. Tragedies and addictions aren’t attributed to him but neither are they outside of his realm. Even the worst corruption and decay and death, the nastiest and most virulent attitudes, the fiercest exclusionisms, the ugliest religious hatred, the most careless environmental destruction all fall within his redemption, are embraced by his healing love, are purged with the breath of resurrected life.

That’s for us, too. For Alexa at her baptism and Eileen at her dying and for your lives overcome with worry, yet bound in his kingdom, we have to confess it is vital he makes the promise good forever in baptism, because he’s not the king we’d choose. He isn’t the leader we’d like. He wouldn’t win elections or popularity contests.

Imagine and sense, if you can, some of the despair for the women disciples at the foot of the cross and those men who looked on from a distance. Imagine and sense their loss, their disappointment, their worry. It would be much more appealing to have a glorious and triumphal ruler, who shattered the cross, uprooted its deadliness, saved himself, then swung out with a force-field that brought his opponents to their knees and protected his chosen ones and helped us always to escape the worst scenarios.

That’s not Christ our King.

Our model is, yes, compassion and sacrifice and a long arc of justice. But the most important and most difficult word today of Christ as King is so countercultural you’ve likely hardly heard it in recent weeks: forgive. We may be surprised or even skeptical that it should be part of baptism for precious little Alexa Rose, but she’ll need it, and Christ will still be for her then. And as it sets her on the course for receiving forgiveness, it also prepares her to be forgiving.

This is the challenging reconciliation that is at the heart of Christ’s kingdom and stands so starkly in contradistinction to all other authorities and rampant blame. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” We are people striving to embody God’s justice for our world in these days, but our identity is not just in trying to do better, much less in feeling better about what we’re doing or more self-righteous. We are people challenged as we give our lives in sharing this prayer: Father, forgive. Forgive their selfishness. Forgive their prejudice. Forgive their violence, their greed. Forgive their hatred. Forgive their incompetence or ignorance, that they don’t know what they’re doing. Forgive their disruptiveness and destructions. Forgive their incivility and immorality. And me, too, forgive me.

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The Good, the Bad, and Who’s Godly?

sermon on Jeremiah14:7-10,19-22; Psalm84:1-7; 2Timothy4:6-8,16-18; Luke18:9-14
Today we rejoin the Revised Common Lectionary. After fruitful and pleasant byways through oceans and with animals and amid storms and across the universe, we’re once again re-entrenched in sad realities of humanity, readings brimming with issues of arrogance and shame and exclusion.

Now, you may not feel you need to have these tendencies pointed out to you since, you’ve got American democracy, which has seemed intent on highlighting the very worst possibilities of gloating and blaming and fostering divisiveness and refusing to be humbled or shamed. But we’re likely not looking to politicians as our examples (tragic though that may be), so maybe it is worth re-grounding ourselves in these Bible readings.

It strikes me that there are sort of four quadrants or types in the mix of characters today. There are wrongly proud and rightly proud, and rightly humble and wrongly humble.

Let’s begin with the glaring example: the wrongly proud, namely the Pharisee in our Gospel reading or as Linda portrayed it for the children, as she is boasting about her devotions and comparing herself not only favorably but superlatively over others. She could use the elementary school reminder that when you point a finger at somebody, three fingers are pointing back at you.

A couple obvious notes about her: First, she was not doing a bad thing, but was trying to claim extra credit for a good thing. Our spiritual practices aren’t to earn us points. We don’t pray so we can use it as a bargaining tool. We don’t come to church as leverage to convince God we’re better than others.

Even tithing, that the Pharisee returned 10% of her income, is a good and worthwhile devotion. She’s not hoarding. She’s helping sustain the religious institution. She understands that what she has isn’t simply hers earning to be disposed with as she likes but is shaped by her connection to God and the community. During this time when we attend more directly to our giving and financial devotion, I’m certainly not going to tell you that being intentional and committed about how much you give is wrong. But I will remind you it’s about your faith practice and about the good of this community. As I suspect you already know, the return on your investment here is much more delight and joy than something to be held over others.

Which brings us to the other thing to notice about the wrongly proud Pharisee: She has herself awfully convinced that she’s better, that the tax collector couldn’t possibly fast or give 10% of his income (much less 11%!). In self-exaltation, she refuses to see others as anything but negative, as “greedy, dishonest, and impure” (in Don’s rendition).

That’s the risk for us and the trap we fall into when we only think how terrible others are. In another phrase of Jesus, you end up seeing the speck in your neighbor’s eye but fail to see the log in your own. With the 8th Commandment, Luther’s Small Catechism reminds us that not bearing false witness means we “do not tell lies about our neighbors …or destroy their reputations. Instead we come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” Whew! Such reflection is so continuously important, partly because it’s so challenging. It’s not just presidential candidates, but we also need to work on perceptions of situations from ex-spouses to violence in the Middle East, from people who are criminals to those who annoy us.

A small story: this week when I went to the hospital to visit Ken Johnson, the staff stopped me at the door and told me to wait down the hall so they could do their stuff for him first. After half an hour, I was out of time and they still hadn’t allowed me in. Feeling snubbed, I was hot under the collar even after my bike ride up to church. I was frustrated that they were dismissing my pastoral role and disregarding the spiritual care I was trying to bring. I was sure that I was in the right and they were neglecting to understand how right I was, even though I didn’t pause to consider the good they were offering Ken. I’m hoping there’s some gray area, that I’m not just like the Pharisee in wrongful pride and self-assessment, but may also have characterized my role rightly.

That uncertainty points us toward the next quadrant, the rightfully proud, possibly exemplified in the reading from 2nd Timothy. The author has done everything right—he’s “fought the good fight, finished the raise, kept the faith,” and is expecting to be judged as worthy of a “crown of righteousness.” His attitude may not be apparently very different from the egocentric Pharisee, except perhaps that the writer of 2nd Timothy isn’t trying to disparage others, but even prayed for them. That might be enough. Or maybe also where the Pharisee elevated himself over others, causing separations, in the case of 2nd Timothy others excluded him. He felt like an outcast, deserted by those he expected to count as supporters. Indeed, in the verses that the lectionary bypasses, he names others who have left to work elsewhere or have somehow disappointed him.

It’s a hard line to determine; there are lonely martyrs from time-to-time, those who take a hard stand for the right thing even when nobody else is willing to stand with them. But if we’ve got no community standing beside us and are against the whole world, we probably should be pretty careful about who or what we’re resisting and how our motives or convictions are formed.

With that feeling of abandonment or oppression, we may move from the rightly proud to the wrongly humbled or ashamed. There may be an edge of example in the Pharisee’s prejudice against the tax collector. Partly since we have a better sense of self-esteem than when our Bibles were written, this is a category we need to be aware of. We have come to realize that hierarchical powers label others with great detriment. Women and those without white skin have been told they’re not as good. Gender identity or sexual orientation can become marks to make people feel ashamed, as if there’s something wrong with you.

Or here in church: even if you don’t know the words for the liturgy or where to find things in the hymnal, if you’re a child who has been told to be quiet or a young person who hasn’t been fully embraced, if you’ve wondered if you’re wearing the right clothes or others are looking at you out of the corners of their eyes because you’re not here often enough, then you might know some of this wrongful shame, the place imposed on the tax collector by the Pharisee. To be shamed (by another) is wrong.

On the other hand, to be ashamed yourself may be right. We can still feel the force of this parable from Jesus because we might always want to claim excuses and exceptions for ourselves. But we have to notice that the tax collector wasn’t claiming something better for himself. It was wrong of the Pharisee to put him down, but it wasn’t irrational for the tax collector to feel shame; as Don indicated, he was an agent doing the dirty work of the ruling oppressive empire, taking wellbeing away from others by confiscating their livelihood.

For modern parallels, just as I’d hope we as religious people trying to be faithful aren’t equivalent with the wrongly proud Pharisee, neither should we equate that ancient tax collector with the IRS. Rather, we should see ourselves in him, pondering where we are agents of harm and oppression, collaborating with rotten and unjust systems, asking why we ought to feel shame. Maybe for all of our items labeled “Made in China,” we should hang our heads and beat our breasts. Maybe he felt humiliated because he wasn’t able to change or escape the destructive system.

Or maybe his humility wasn’t because he was a tax collector but that he had yelled at his family or been grumpy and pessimistic about the news or had cheated on his diet. Or maybe it was like the section I was reading again this week from Pope Francis’ ecojustice encyclical that said, “we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy…more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights” (2, V, 90). Maybe it was the very basic note that the tax collector didn’t need to count himself as better than others that enabled him to go home, as Jesus says, in right relationship with God and opens up God’s potential for his life.

Another perspective of being rightly humbled is in the words from Jeremiah. We only get a snippet of this stunning passage. The chapter begins by saying that these words were concerning a drought. Clearly the people were mourning and lamenting the drought, yearning for some rainfall. It says the farmers are dismayed (v4) and, in a heart-wrenching detail, that “even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn because there is no grass” (5).

I find it remarkable that this ancient biblical story attributed the ill effects of weather and dire results of a changed climate to the people’s bad behavior. Compared to their superstitions, our scientific understanding of our behavior and witnessing the catastrophe we are causing should certainly give us their sense that “our iniquities testify against us” in Jeremiah’s language and to “acknowledge our wickedness.” That would be honest shame and being righteous humility.

For all of this being about our attitudes and self-perception, we must close with a life-giving word on God’s attitude and perception of you. The most stunning word amid these sometimes bleak readings today came in the middle of the Jeremiah passage: “Yet you, O LORD, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name.” Even recognizing the wreckage they’d caused their society and environment couldn’t disrupt that core identity, and maybe it even contributed to their repentance and desire to do better.

This is your prime identifying mark. You are not known for the supposedly pious things you strive to do, not in the credit you claim you deserve, the accolades puffing your chest or the awards put on your shelf. You are not identified by how great you or others think you are. But neither is notoriety in what you do wrong or the marks that threaten to exclude you. And it may well be that in humility or even amid the desperation of shame, you see most fully your identity is secured by God’s presence and that you are marked and claimed in the name of the Lord.

That is why we turn to baptism now for Grayson Ward and Harrison Maxwell, sons of Marcie and Chris, to speak God’s promise to them that they are claimed and chosen. No matter how they continue to live this out in life, if they go on as well as we anticipate to receive praise and earn trophies or are labeled for some reason as wicked, as outcasts, as greedy or impure, as lowly and shameful as the rest of us, through it all, they are sons of God, known by God’s name, beloved forever, freed and forgiven. Thankful and joyful, let’s sing in celebration of this identity.

 

(Hymn: Baptized in Water, ELW 456)

 

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