I Break for Jesus

“Lives Matter” sermon

(featuring Psalm13; Colossians1:15-28; Genesis18:1-10a; John10:11-18)
It seems obvious we can’t have a vacation from church because our lives won’t accept that pause.

A couple examples: I was in Hawaii, ready to play cards with family when news came about Orlando. And I was eating lunch when I heard of Philando Castille’s death in my seminary neighborhood. I was starting my weekend with a movie on the couch with Acacia when my phone buzzed about Dallas, visiting my mom as the Fort McMurray fire blazed, and was going to the baseball game when learning about France this week.

We can hold onto only so many of those moments, but nevertheless our routine lives become marked by them. Even as you’re adding a new Dallas tragedy to these layers, you may still hold the memory of where you were when President Kennedy was shot. I can picture in elementary school where as a 1st grader I knew something wasn’t right when the Challenger space shuttle blew up. I recall the seminary classroom on 9/11 when the first tower had been hit and a professor suggested we might want to be in chapel worship that day.

She was right. We continue to need this. This is where we come for good news, for a change. This may be where we look for answers. We may expect to find something different, hope amid despair, find life amid death. We may seek community, since “Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”

Okay, those were theme song lyrics to the old TV show “Cheers.” I know that reference to a bar may not seem to fit the seriousness I was mentioning, but scan the obituary pages these days and notice the memorial services at a bar, or at a botanical garden or park. We have to ask if church is just another place to commiserate, with beautiful distractions in music or moments of quiet. If so, is this any different than those other places that are made to bear grief and sorrow and the longing for sympathy in these days?

Though church functions well in those quote-unquote “standard” ways, we have the burden of admitting that, in worse moments, we can end up hypocritical and less engaged in fixing the world and sharing love than we followers of Jesus should be.

We also have the added theological conundrum when these terrible things happen. A loving God who merely weeps with us wouldn’t seem to be very helpful. But a mighty God who causes catastrophe is left constrained in fear, not worthy of devotion or praise. President Obama’s remarks this week were constructively hopeful, but he phrased recent misfortune in terms that “God has called [the dead officer] home.” I disagree that God is the type to interrupt life with horrendous violence as a means to take us to heaven. But if that’s not what God does, it leaves the question of where God is in these moments, or the still harder wondering if God even exists.

As we’ve said before, though: here we are. We may gather in church intent on continuing to figure this stuff out, on confronting the hard questions. More, in the face of tragedy and sorrow, we not only desire answers when we cry out “why,” but also long for resolutions, for ways to resolve the problems and end the crying. We long not only for less pain, but to be people who can heal.

Yet today we remain hurting people. For this summer, there has been too much hard news, too much sad news and bad news, besides all the personal struggles and sadnesses that wear us down as we bear them. In what’s becoming more devastation than we and our world can handle, we just can’t catch a break. It seems there’s no vacation from all these problems.

That, again and centrally, is why we are here, why—in spite of travels and visitors and all that fills long summer days in often very good ways—why we find ourselves in church. We need a place to pause and collect ourselves. We need some beauty and music to fill our hearts and lungs, inspiring us. We need encouragement. We need the presence of each other, to sort through and talk about this stuff, or sometimes just for a hug or smiling face.

I’d contend, though, that church is not exactly a place of answers. If we yearn for “why” questions to get simple explanations like “because of God,” our lives, our world, and certainly the mystery of faith are more complex than that. As hard as we may work, it’s no easy fix. As powerful as the love and life of God is, even resurrection doesn’t eliminate the sting of death we face.

Amid complexities we hold as we gather here, we don’t claim total good in ourselves or condemn others as ultimately evil. We don’t say Muslims are bad or police are against us or that all trucks are dangerous weapons. We refuse such categorical fears. Even amid the deepest darkness, we strive to find and name the light. We long for, but also expect and trust redemption, both consistently and impatiently.

This is the faithful and paradoxical language of the Psalm chosen for this service. It is among the Bible’s vital reminders that faith isn’t being happy all the time, not blind rationalizing that God has a bigger plan, or anything like that. The Psalm gives us language to complain, to lament, to cry out “How long?! How long must I bear pain and sorrow?” And yet it goes on to sing, “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” Even as we gather today with too much grief, wondering when and how it will all be over, still we practice singing, with joy, trusting love that endures.

Another of the complex distinctions in the heated mix this week is the skirmish about #BlackLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter or #AllLivesMatter. Held by boundless compassion, we know these can be both true and also silly to squabble about. A child who skinned her knee needs different care in that moment than another. Or, in Bishop Mary’s example, the fire department treats all houses as worth their attention, but when a house is on fire, that one matters. Again, we can say that God loves everybody, but sometimes when it’s miserable and you feel horrible and you wonder if everything is out to get you, you need to know that God loves you.

This fits the lectionary reading from Colossians assigned for today, which essentially says “All Lives Matter.” But it isn’t only meaning multiracial of black, brown, and white skin tones. It isn’t limited for those killed on duty or those killed by those on duty. This stretches wider. Christ Jesus is making amends for all creation, reconciling “all things.” This proclaims an enormous vision of God’s work. Examining the expanse of this in terms of these days, it says that American Lives Matter and French Lives Matter, that Christian Lives Matter and Muslim Lives Matter, that Black Lives and Blue Lives Matter, that victims’ lives matter while terrorist lives also matter, and cancer lives and homeless lives and poor lives and wealthy lives all matter. Old lives and young lives matter. Plus polar bear lives matter. Monarch butterfly lives matter.  Democratic lives and Republican lives matter. Each and every one of these is worth announcing, for its own value. The huge scale of all these lives matter, and your small life still matters to God. None of these are excluded, and they’re also brought together in reconciliation, out from deadliness and hostility and competition to new life and peace in Christ Jesus. It’s among the Bible’s most stunning readings (though it’s not perfect). It’s an important promise for us to cling to in these hard days. The place of God’s amazing work in Jesus isn’t just inner spirits or after death but is spread through every complex intricacy and relationship of creation.

That points us to some surprises. We know that prejudice cannot suffice as the end expectation, that God’s work continues and may pop up where we weren’t looking. This is what’s in the lectionary reading from Genesis: Sarah and Abraham receive strangers with hospitality, and then also receive unexpected good news and joy. We meet and receive God’s presence in people and places we know to look, in bread and wine where Jesus declares he will be found. But God may also show up with strangers and outsiders and unfamiliar faces. Amid or underneath any of the desperate circumstances around us, then, we may keep searching to find revealed the surprising good news of God’s work.

Life can’t be defined by tragedies, then, because the tragedies begin to be redeemed in the ordinary moments, these summer days, the very places and relationships you find yourself when the shockwaves hit. God is deep in all those events and commonplaces.

In the Gospel chosen for this service, Jesus the Good Shepherd similarly says there are other sheep not of this fold. His caring presence is not restricted to those who gather for church or even for the human contingent of sheep. Imagine how shocking that would’ve been to those earliest Christians, surrounded by fearful persecutions.

In some parallel way, we keep coming back here for the assurance of this declaration, so critically needed. As we’re surrounded by too much death, Jesus declares his life not stolen, but given. His sacrifice is not a loss of life, but a gift, a gain, a sharing. Different from but so connected to the disasters that have happened, in Jesus is the word that death does not triumph and enmity and hatred will not break our world apart because God will not give up at reconciliation. Unflinchingly, this Good Shepherd won’t abandon you but will go through death to abide in care.

That promise enables us to find relief and encouragement, to be sustained and resilient, to overcome almost overwhelming hopelessness, to find confidence in community, to rejoice in beauty and delight in song. These aren’t distractions or compensations amid the sorrows of life. Flowing out to these days when we seem to face unending sorrow and flowing out across this trembling world—flowing from this heart of God, who in the image of Jesus is revealed as a God of compassion, of care, of love, of life for you, and a God we all need at just such a time as this.


The Heart of the Matter

3rd Sunday in Lent        8Mar15
Exodus20:1-17; 1Corinthians1:18-25; Psalm19; John2:12-23
When I work with wedding couples, one of the inevitable early prep questions is: how long will the wedding service be? It’s always followed by a statement that they want to keep it short. (As if they’re expecting other couples ask how we can drag it out to be tediously boring.)

I could just directly answer couples that it almost always takes about 20 minutes. But instead I take the opportunity to talk through the wedding service and the day, explaining that it could be completed in about 30 seconds, if they really wished. The only necessary requirement is to say vows to each other. That, with official witnesses and signatures on the license sent to the record-keeper is what a wedding is.

Beyond that, the other pieces are pointers to what these vows say and mean. The rings are a visible symbol. Readings and music give voice to describe love. In prayers and proclamation we share belief and promise in God’s work to strengthen and sustain our relationships. We can recognize that love is worth the big party and worth preserving in memories to call upon, “in all circumstances of our life together, for better or for worse” as some vows verbally intend. Yet videographers, delicious cakes, stunning dresses, or any of the other details—good as they are—remain tangential, inessential.

You may say that if a wedding were only a set of vows and names signed on paper it wouldn’t be much. But, on the other hand, it is well worthwhile to remember what is the center of the day, what is essential, what is the heart. Clearing away the extra accretions allows us to see what is most important. Without vows of love, there’s no wedding and nothing to make a marriage. The vows truly are the fundamental foundation for everything else—not only a great day or honeymoon bliss but (what’s intended to be) a lifelong relationship.

That’s meant as an (ironically extended) introduction to the notion that these Bible readings are about zeroing in on the essentials. In this case, they’re not just between married partners, but really about all our relationships throughout life.

To start with the first reading, it’s rules for how we live in relationship. I can tell you, there’s a lot of this in Exodus and the other books of the law in the Old Testament. Jewish rabbis listed 613 different rules and rituals and regulations for maintaining right relationship, the things you had to do or were forbidden from doing. This list was intended to comprise most every detail of how you ought to interact in your relationships. So there were explanations of what to do if you accidentally broke your neighbor’s snowblower (though in older biblical terms, it was their ox). Exhaustive regulations like that go on and on, which you can keep reading after Exodus 20, if you wanted. Except I expect you probably don’t really want to, because it feels pretty litigious—the sets of laws and rules. It quickly seems onerous and burdensome, like there are lots of constantly worrisome details.

So if we’re trying to reduce it to the essentials, then maybe we figure that today’s list is a good summary way to do that, with the top ten commandments. Even here, though, things aren’t quite so set in stone as the story would say. Coveting, for instance. We know our commercial market economy would fall apart if you weren’t doing your part of coveting, of keeping up with the Joneses and wishing for stuff you don’t yet have. For bearing false witness, Monty Clifcorn has wondered if you can bear false witness for your neighbor, if not against them.

For stealing, our mind probably associates with burglary or armed robbery. But Martin Luther recognized it even has to do with paying fair wages.

If those gray areas start to hit home in our state, the essential is hammered home into our community this weekend for “you shall not kill.” As an African-American teenager has been killed by a police officer, it makes us recognize the brokenness in our relationships. Aside from questions of what Tony Robinson or Officer Matt Kenny were doing right or wrong, of what’s justified or what’s an injustice, still it’s obvious that this is not how it should be. This is a fracture, wrecking the order of our relationships. It hurts our community.

And yet such brokenness isn’t solved by reiterating the laws, or by setting up stone tablets in courtrooms that try insisting that God has said “you shall not kill.” We can’t so simply legislate morality or instruct in ethics. A lecture won’t change society’s behavior, or yours or mine. What we need is a change of heart.

There, we’re getting closer to the heart of the matter. All of that is built into the 1st Commandment: “I am the LORD your God; you shall have no other gods before me.” Even the big ten haven’t gotten us where we need to be. But this is about understanding and cherishing that God delighted to create you and claims responsibility for you. Realizing that would make you share in valuing and caring for your life, guiding you to eat right or exercise, to enjoy the talents God has given you. Yet God didn’t create just you but gave you the blessing of family and friends, and placed you amid society. In sad and difficult days, that may be cause to strive on behalf of those oppressed or suffering around you, realizing that God cares for them, too. As Martin Luther King saw in his “I have a dream” speech, black and white are inevitably united together—like it or not—in this great, fractious family. “Inextricably bound” in mutual wellbeing, was how he said it, that one cannot be well without the other.

Further, it’s not just human. Aldo Leopold, whose words I was reading yesterday, talked of us all joined as essential parts in the land mechanism, each as “small cogs and wheels” in the grand operation. So this also goes on to value and attend to your place amid creation, among other beings. That notion is beautifully proclaimed in our Psalm, that it’s not only your voice that sings praise to God; you are joined in praise, or even preceded, by the sun and stars and skies. We’d have to say, then, that pollution that smudges the atmosphere impairs the praise of God.

That’s getting really big. So to reduce it back down, I’m trying to show that all of that chain—from you and your actions to other people to society’s behavior to the skies—grows naturally out of reflecting on the first commandment, on understanding your relationship with God. As with getting swamped in the details of the wedding and enormous to-do lists while forgetting about the core purpose of the relationship, and not seeing the forest for the trees, so here it all boils down to the center that if your relationship with God is right, then all else falls correctly into place. That is the heart of the matter. With that foundation, everything will fit together well.

Moving to the Gospel reading, we change from the metaphor of clearing away the clutter and obstructions to an actual acting out of that idea from Jesus, in a non-violent protest, civil disobedience. The Selma march across the Edmund Pettis bridge 50 years ago served to disturb, highlighting a conflict and uncovering an injustice that the majority preferred to ignore and continue on with life, when society wanted to say “it’s mostly fine for now. Stop disturbing the peace. Wait for racial equality.”

There’s something about that here in Jesus’ actions, that he’s trying to cut through life as usual to bring up something better. He goes to the courtyard of the temple where there are moneychangers and vendors selling animals. Those were regular parts of what it meant to maintain relationship with God in Jesus’ time. So Jesus is not leading an assault on the temple itself, but is enacting a disruption of their worship patterns, of how they access God, clearing away the extras to get to what’s essential.

Although I’ve heard that former St. Stephen’s pastor Jon Enslin referenced this against having stuff for sale at church (like our olive wood display or youth fundraising goodies), this isn’t so much about money or profits or finances. A better present-day parallel would be to tear up our hymnals or smash Fred Hoff’s guitar or to wreck the sound system or even just to blow out a candle. It’s disorder to raise a question: what do we need to be connected to God? Would we still be able to worship without electricity, without beautiful paraments, without this building?

We might be ready to say Yes. Which means in part we’ve learned Jesus’ lesson. In his time, God’s presence was understood to dwell in the temple. If you wanted to visit God, that’s where you went. And you brought along your offering. We no longer view an inner sanctuary in Jerusalem as the place to go find God, nor sacrifice as a part of our holiness in being able to relate to God. And this is Jesus’ point, but with a distinction: it isn’t just that God is not sitting on a box in the temple because God is everywhere so it’s possible for you to worship God in nature or the quiet of your room just as well as here.

Rather the point is that we find God, we worship God, we have relationship with God through and in Jesus. The temple has been relocated from a place to a person. God’s presence abides with Jesus. And to build and extend on that, since you are the body of Christ, God’s presence and God’s activity takes place in your lives, as commercialized or corrupt or careless, as obstructive or distracted or uncertain as they may be.

We gather here, not as a special holy building, but because here is where the trash and diversions are again cleared away, cleansed, where your heart is renewed with the heart of God, where you are given new life. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection our relationship with God—and, again always therefore, with each other—is founded and set right. In Jesus, you are known and related to God and therefore to each other and to all God’s creation.

That is our core, our foundation. With that heart of the matter, we build outward. In this place, we could have church without olive wood and without hymnals. We don’t need fancy clothes. We could have church with no building. We’ve all broken the laws, so it’s not about perfect behavior. What, then, are our Christian essentials? Our short list probably includes: Water. Bread and wine. Our voices. Each other’s bodies, lives inextricably bound amid creation. This is how God comes into our midst, even through our sadness and suffering. So finally barring all of the other parts, we need the cross in our center.

That’s what gives shape to what we do here and how we think about ethics and all of our lives. It may sound foolish or at least unimpressive to say that the cross is the heart of it all for us, but that is where your trust may rest. Everything else is just details. But Jesus brings those details into focus. Even if it’s just in brief glimpses of insight, in these moments together he is clearing away the clutter, even if just momentarily before life becomes a mess again. But even amid brokenness and fractures and too much confusing chaos, still Jesus finds his way to you, clears a path to you, and will never let you go. That is what is essential.

Hymn: In a Lowly Manger Born (ELW #718)