All Saints Sunday / God Speaks to Elijah

sermon on 1st Kings 19:1-18
It’s hard to feel alone and have to carry on.

That is my first feeling on this All Saints Sunday, not to give thanks, not of celebration or praise, not of hope or blessing. I first feel the hardness, the lament at being left alone, the clear preference for it not to be this way.

Those people who have left me behind, those from our congregation who died, especially Eileen, John, and Lynne, those other funerals, the deaths we’re remembering today, parents and grandparents, siblings and sons, aunts and nephews, old friends, and at least one classmate, and dogs and cats, the broken community, and all the other losses we continue to bear with us—even when it wasn’t totally tragic and we might admit that the end was a relief, that suffering was over, that the wait had been too long, still I’m not ready to call that my preference. Even when the routines were difficult and existence itself uncertain, still mostly I could keep going in those relationships. In no case am I ready to be done being with the person, sharing life with them. I would rather it not be over. Even when it was a good goodbye, I don’t like goodbyes.

While we talk about a hello on the other side of this, about reunion, about being together again, while we confess our hope in life to come, in resurrection, and I cling to that hope, sometimes desperately, sometimes tenuously, mostly enthusiastically…I believe, and I believe it will be so unbelievably good…but still for this moment that later promise doesn’t sweep me into eternal joy, but feels like a shabby consolation prize. Even expecting God’s ultimate love and goodness, when confronting loss and grief and sorrow and death, it can be hard to see. It’s hard to believe when we’re feeling lonely, and hard to carry on. What we’ve known and trusted and loved about life is missing, and our lives are so dependent on relationships that when those are gone, it’s tough to know how to proceed, what to do next, even how to get up and get going in the morning.

In a way, this is what we hear of the prophet Elijah. Not exactly because of the death of loved ones, but still he is feeling alone, abandoned, diminished, with that accompanying uncertainty of how to proceed.

In Elijah’s case, he tries not carrying on. He’s reasonably running away. This is a veteran prophet, seen even by Jesus as the greatest in the Bible, and yet he’s ready to give up. He’s afraid and frustrated and is just trying to get away from it all. But, of course, a change in scenery doesn’t help, since it’s the nagging self-doubt and internal questions that hound after him. He’s so done he even asks to die. “I’m no better than my ancestors,” he says.

That points to earlier weeks in the Narrative Lectionary, of Elijah’s ancestors wandering in that wilderness. They were freed from slavery in Egypt, but didn’t find the readiness to live into their purpose. They still doubted God’s goodness for them. They kept looking back, as if there were no forward.

Like for those ancestors, then, God’s most basic work is in ongoing sustenance. God provided manna to the hungry complaining travelers in the wilderness. God provides a cake or maybe Palestinian taboon flatbread to Elijah to give him strength for the journey. God sustains you, even as you confront your doubts and feeling lost and not knowing where you need to go next or even if you can take the first step. As you gather at this table this morning, you are assured in the smallest bite of bread of God’s presence with you, God’s blessing for you, God’s life within you. And as you go out from this table to all the other morsels and meals, the bites of food and the breaths of fresh air, the places you sleep and the encounters when you awake, in all of that, you have a never-failing reminder of God sustaining you.

And yet that still may not be enough. The wilderness wanderers groused about manna. Elijah didn’t want to go on, so why would he want strength for the journey? It may not offer you any certainty, either.

So Elijah goes to Mount Horeb, where God had commissioned Moses, speaking from a burning bush to reveal God’s identity and purpose for liberation. In parts of the story the lectionary bypassed, it also says this was the mountain where God spoke amid smoke and lightning with thundering sounds, to give Moses the 10 Commandments so the people could live together well. Also on that mountain, Moses asked to see God directly, and God tucked Moses’ face into a cave and passed by, so Moses could turn to see the back side of God.

Well, that’s the cave where Elijah goes. He’s sustained for the journey by the food, but still isn’t sure why or what. He keeps feeling desperate loneliness and lack of direction. Maybe he has circled back to Mount Horeb to seek some assurance of purpose, to rediscover who God is and what that means. Maybe he needs a burning bush. Maybe he would like a clear command. Maybe he wants to see God. Maybe he longs for a Moses moment. And maybe you, too. For clear revelation. For something that makes a difference. To know that God is on the scene and doing something about it.

That is apparently about to happen in the story. At Mount Horeb, Elijah’s in the right spot for a big vision, for God to show up miraculously. Then come what the insurance industry still tries to convince us are “acts of God”—the earthquakes and hurricanes and lightning and raging fire. Certainly God didn’t avoid such phenomena in other places in the Bible. But just as those have at best an ambiguous message for us—more of destructive power than divine power—here, the cataclysmic events don’t reveal God. They don’t help Elijah.

Instead, finally, after the bombast and spectacle, comes nothing. A sound of sheer silence. Or a still small voice, a gentle whisper, calm and subdued, thin and quiet, a soft murmuring sound. These are all translations of this little phrase. This is God’s presence in a non-obvious way, and with it the question: “What’re you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah, still stuck in his fearful uncertainty repeats his feeling of loneliness. “I alone am left.”

God contradicts Elijah. It’s an odd consolation, perhaps. It isn’t dismissive that everything is going to be okay. Neither does it overturn the problem, for miracles to reverse Elijah’s fortunes. It’s a deeper, quieter, more lasting assurance that Elijah isn’t alone, that he can take the next steps, and, beyond that, God’s work will continue.

Admittedly, Elijah is sent to anoint not only his own successor to carry on the work, but with planned nastiness of regime change and brutal international politics against a tyrant ruler. But even amid those large scale words of war, the more important word—the quieter, again less obviously visible, but more lasting assurance—is that Elijah is far from alone; there are 7000 around him also going ahead with God’s goodness.

This communion of saints is why we gather here today, a brief pause, expecting God to whisper the reminder that you are not alone. As isolating and tragic as grief is, as desolating and difficult as confronting death can be, as much as only you know your loss and how that cannot be restored, and the solitary feeling of abandonment inflicted on you, still you are not alone. You are with this gathering of others, these also who are blessed and sustained by God to keep going.

And not just your own losses, but in larger tragedies and ugliness of violence and politics, you can continue striving, knowing that others—far more than the 7000—also carry on with this quiet, deep, sometimes fearful and often unspectacular blessedness.

Then there’s the still bigger picture of generations. As important as your work is, others were before and will come after us. The church of Jesus, this community of God, the work of God’s blessing and against tyrants in the world, this will persist. It does not stand or fall in our lives, in our dedication or lack of passion. God’s work will continue. That is good news, too.

And, finally, though without the obvious ways you’re told God could appear, nevertheless in your moments of sheer silence and deep, lonely, longing, God quietly is present for you in life now and forever. This isn’t a fantasy of miracles, not a dismissive faith that everything is okay because heaven is waiting. This today, amid grief and confronting the hardness, is the whispered presence to sustain you and give you strength for the journey.

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Jesus, Marriage, Divorce, and More

sermon on Mark10:2-16
Acacia’s family had a priest who would preach before reading the Gospel, to help with what was going to be heard. I almost did that with this reading, since these are not easy verses, especially for some of us. It can sound like a commendation or a condemnation. Some of us hear blessing in these words and some of us indictment, while some of us may not feel Jesus address us here at all.

Yet to hear the heart of the message of mutual benefit—and not just be self-congratulatory—we need background. In Jesus’ society, women could not initiate divorce. A man was permitted, however, to divorce his wife about as simply as handing her a note saying “it’s over.” So this was actually a strong word on behalf of women. To kick a woman out of the house would leave her without resources, without support, cutting her off from life. Within these words, Jesus is advocating for women.

So the question was about the law, but Jesus was trying to remove it from a legal framework to appreciate life and the value of relationship. To move us in the direction of focusing on blessing and relationship rather than restrictions and curses, and because of the different ways we hear it, I want to start by considering our many situations in life or the various stages through which we could be transitioning, trying to catch at least some of our enormous complexity and diversity.

Among us gathered together in this congregation, some are happily married. Some may be still in that honeymoon bliss kind of feeling, and others have found benefits in that pairing for 60 years and more.

Among us are also those who have not found marriage to be blissful or maybe even beneficial. Some of us think of it more as an inconvenient slog.

Again, some among us have ended marriages because they were no longer life-giving. There are also some who did not choose divorce but were nevertheless subjected to separation. So together we know divorce can be a painful fracture and feeling of brokenness, and at other times can be relief or fresh opportunity. Quite likely, it is all of that together—the good and the bad, the sense of being a quitter and of necessity. It’s hard and complicated, which (as we’ll say more about) means we don’t need a hasty churchy condemnation about it.

To continue on, there are others of us here, as well. We have dating relationships or long-term partnerships without marriage. Given that it’s a new reality in our state and country, we also recognize that there are those among us who have been long told we couldn’t be married, people whose sexual orientation or gender identity have been too much excluded as unusual. And we’ll return to a bit more on what Jesus is or isn’t saying about that.

There are also those among us who are single. That may include the young among us who anticipate or yearn for relationships to come. It may include widows among us continuing to live with the memories of a partner or spouse. Singleness at any age may be with a sense of fullness or of emptiness, either that life is missing something without a partner that society seems to declare is the standard pattern, or else that it’s not necessary, that life is good and full and rich without being coupled.

That perspective helps us all to recognize how we define ourselves and how we determine what is the fullness of life and what relationships are good and beneficial. Clearly none among us finds relationship with only one other person. Life doesn’t come only in pairs. We know richness of relationships are shared in an enormous web of blessing, in types of connections with the variety of so many people and groups, as well as (we must remember, especially on this St. Francis day) with pets and trees and cows and all the creatures that make our life, our life.

In turning more directly to ask what this Bible reading means for us and our lives in all these relationships, I’m interested to note that the version from the Gospel of Matthew was used at my cousin’s wedding in Tacoma last weekend. The surprise is in that her husband had been divorced, which the reading declares to be problematic. Yet at the wedding service we certainly celebrated and listened for God’s blessing for them. That’s vastly different from using this passage as a club. We need to be cautious of warping these words from Jesus from being about life into the opposite. We can observe that the pope, even as he talked on his visit about family, pivoted from the narrow structure that labels “family values,” as if other forms and shapes of families had less value or were depreciating it for others.
In that regard, it’s worth exploring these distinctions that contrast the legalistic and institutional view with what seems more in character for Jesus and therefore for us as Christians.

One typical problem begins in elevating marriage to an undue degree, making it an important sign of blessing or even a way to get closer to God. For Roman Catholics, it is one of the sacraments, a means to receive grace. But it’s not just Catholics that try to make marriage into something it shouldn’t be. Too often a passage from Ephesians gets used that says a husband is head of his wife like Christ is the head of his church. It’s a bad analogy to begin with and is poisonous as a prescription. Even Martin Luther mistakenly wrote on occasion that marriage was a blessed state fulfilling what humanity was supposed to be in the Garden of Eden.

The problem is quickly apparent that marriage is no Paradise. Being married quite obviously does not automatically make us better people, much less holier people. We fail in trying to embody love and grace and forgiveness. We fall short. None of us can bear the burden of having to be Jesus for each other. We need Jesus because we aren’t Jesus. Rather than marriage being what gives us strength and grace and blessing, we need blessing and strength and grace in order to keep going in marriage.

And we also need it outside of marriage. That’s the second and larger problem when we’ve overestimated and elevated marriage beyond what is should be. If marriage is seen as so highly blessed, then divorce becomes so wrong as to exclude a person from blessing, from God’s goodness. That gets it completely backward: we need God’s grace exactly because we are broken, because we are imperfect in our relationships.

That also returns to the original difficulty with this Gospel reading. We come to church seeking grace and blessing and God’s goodness and help for the week ahead. But this risks excluding some of us who need help and forgiveness and love. It even gets institutionalized as a policy that divorce means you can no longer be part of the church, that it directly separates you from what you need. Some of you may even have been told that you weren’t welcome to receive Communion because of divorce. That is an effort literally to dismember you from forgiveness, from community, and from our Lord Jesus himself. And it’s wrong! That excommunication is not from our God of welcome and of healing!

There’s something similar in the question of homosexuality here. This may be the closest Jesus indirectly comes to addressing same-gendered relationships, while quoting Genesis about the two becoming one flesh.

Yet before we restrict that understanding of unity, it bears noting how much we judgmental people enjoy quoting Scripture against others, again as a cudgel. Rather than letting it speak or apply to us, the energy is invested instead to exalt ourselves by condemning others, trying to tell them they’re wrong and we’re right. That’s another of the self-promoting efforts to claim that something we’re doing makes us inherently closer to God. Just as when we say marriage is right and divorce is wrong, we also try to say one kind of relationship is good and another bad. But that once again ignores and undermines the fundamental truth that we are all dependent on God’s grace and on Jesus for life.

With all of that, these words from Jesus would be better used in pondering how we are called to appreciate and foster life and blessing and relationships. That is, after all, the central point from Jesus: our relationships aren’t solely for our own benefit. He cautions us against being so hard-hearted, so stubbornly self-centered, that we lose sight of the greater good we are intended to share. We are called to attend to and take care of each other, to be responsible and aware of how we affect others, to seek the good and strive for the best in our relationships. We should be mindful of what it means to be united, to be joined together, to be so inseparably connected, and to recognize this as God’s work for and among us. We can observe that to be true in marriages and as couples, and being tied together and dependent on each other is also true in our families, in community, as part of neighborhoods and nations, and being sustained by creation. Existence is mutual and communal. So Jesus isn’t just setting a strict legal standard. He’s opening our eyes to the goodness, the richness, the broad extent of what God intends in our relationships, to be caring and cared for.

One final note, turning toward the second part of the reading that we’ve only touched indirectly: by again welcoming a child into his arms Jesus insists once more that all need access to his grace and love and blessing. So it’s one thing to say we should be nice to kids or understanding of youth. It’s another to be proud of a vibrant and growing Sunday School program. But to take up the ethic of care and the promises we make in baptism, we should probably be asking in our families where other activities or selfish priorities are obstructing our children’s access to Jesus and God’s blessing. We should ask how our worship is indeed welcoming them and where it impedes that. We should ask if we ourselves are making use of the means of accessing blessing for life, of being sustained in relationship with God and this community and the fullness of creation.

Hymn: This Is a Day, Lord, Gladly Awaited (ELW #586)

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Jesus is for Losers

sermon for 13Sept15 (Mark8:27-38; James3:1-12; Isaiah50:4-9a)

There are Christians who believe that blessing from God means getting more and more, an increase in wealth and status and power. But we Lutherans are not that kind of Christian.

There are also Christians who see that you may not always find success in life, but claim that faithfulness merits eternal rewards, that you’ll receive a larger mansion in glory or get another jewel in your crown or gain some bonus bit of heaven. But we Lutherans are not that kind of Christian, either.

See, we Lutherans waste too much time listening to Jesus and following Jesus to be that sort of Christian. Jesus, who instead of pointing us to success or victory or prosperity points to suffering and death with the commandment to “deny yourself.” It’s not about winning much at all, because Jesus is for losers. I’m not trying to cast aspersions that you’re hanging out with the wrong crowd, but being here you definitely have guilt by association. You’re in the company of losers.

We could quibble over how that term is applied. Being a loser with Jesus isn’t the same as the Revenge of the Nerds or Rebels without a Cause. These losers aren’t synonymous with being dweebs or geeks or freaks or queers or outcasts or the feeble and meek, though there’s possible overlap in those categories.

We’ve also got this Garrison Keillor Lake Wobegon concept that we Midwestern Lutherans are humble and bashful. It’s a good joke that the definition of an extroverted Lutheran is one who looks at the other person’s shoes when they talk. But this Public Radio caricature of our personality likely emerged because we are so steeped in Jesus, in the cross, in being losers.

And so, trying to get a sense of what in the world Jesus is talking about and questioning if you really are hanging out here with losers, you may be ready to sneak a glimpse out of the corner of your eye at the person sitting in the pew next to you. There’s a good chance they’re dressed just fine, and may even be well-bathed. They may look a fair amount like you. They may even seem respectable and upstanding.

And that may make you think more, about what this congregation is. You may view this as a good and vibrant place, with dedicated folks who’ve been here for years, plus plenty of young faces who are newly and eagerly engaged here. You may care about these people and also think that we’re pretty nice to newcomers, that we are welcoming, kind, and compassionate.

You may even take pride in what we accomplish together, that our Food Pantry meets lots of needs in our community. Or you may be ready for the service projects today, to help at the school and to care for seniors and to spread education and health around the globe with relief kits.

You may think about all these things and, failing to find them offensive, you may think we’re doing pretty well here at St. Stephen’s and it may even make you wonder whether we could actually qualify as a batch of losers.

But that just shows how corrupted you already are, that your definition of being a loser has been warped by Jesus and your presence in this congregation. See, your do-gooder-ism and your compassion and sympathy and your efforts to make the world a better place, these aren’t things of victory. It’s not the typical model of achievement and success, nor are you doing these things only to feel better about yourself. That external focus that cares to be invested in another’s wellbeing—much less puts them first—is not what society tells us is good. It is good from Jesus. These are exactly part of what it means to be a loser, giving your life away, giving it up for somebody else.

With that, I want to digress briefly. Last week I was mentioning some of the ways we as a congregation and as the broader Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or ELCA are making a difference for children near and far, from those school kits and meals to helping refugees and ending malaria. Those are among the reasons we’re eager to give away our financial resources, in offerings and what we term benevolences, a great word from the Latin that literally means goodwill. Another of the beneficiaries of these benevolences that we want to make sure we can catch up on and fully fund is Lutheran Campus Ministry at the UW. It was the country’s very first. The Lutherans here at Madison had this idea and understanding of caring for college students before any others. I mention it partly so you know there’s a new campus pastor, Emily Tveite, who is welcoming students this semester.

I also mention all of this because Emily’s immediate predecessor, Brent Christianson, remarked about this Lutheran identity of associating with losers. He said that the Lutherans never get asked to be chaplains for the sports teams because we Lutherans are too adept at seeing God’s presence and God’s work in the times of loss and sorrow and disappointment. We just aren’t very good at claiming that God wants us to win, that there’s a spiritual association with triumph, that God’s will is for us to be victorious, and if God is really blessing us then we’ll beat others.

That highlights some irony in our traditional kick-off rally day at this time each year that we call Homecoming. We may still say it’s good to support our “team” here. We may find it encouraging to sing our so-called fight songs. But even those are stuck with the peculiarity of our position. Lift High the Cross has militaristic and bombastic words of following our captain in conquering ranks, but it doesn’t even mention resurrection. There’s not a lot of glory there, but death in baptism and—over and over—the cross. Even the old Onward Christian Soldiers, banished from our hymnals for having too much pomp, still is focused on following Jesus even through loss and tumult and problems in the world.

So for following this captain, it’s difficult to compare that endless devotion and dedicated faithfulness even while facing loss after loss and having to give up so much. How long would Paul Chryst last as football head coach if the team never won? And yet Jesus Christ proclaims straight off that he’s not in it to win it, and that if you’re not willing to lose then you’re not with him.

This also shows how tough it is for us to give pep talks. There are some who claim sermons should be motivational speeches, to get you revved up for the week ahead. But this isn’t stuff that you get revved up for. That’s just not how we naturally work.

As an example of that, notice our reading from James, with twelve verses talking about how dangerous speech can be and how frequently our tongues cause problems, starting fires in bearing false witness and gossiping and just plain out of control. Twelve verses just trying to remind you that if you can’t say something nice, then you shouldn’t say anything at all. It’s a message we’re taught back in elementary school, and yet it evidently won’t sink in. Twelve verses just about how you use your words.

Contrast that with Jesus, telling you to take up your cross and die. If you can’t even control your tongue although you’ve constantly been told to, how in the world do you expect that a pep talk will motivate you to give up your life?!

It would seem we’re at a dead end, that Jesus is trying to motivate you to do something you don’t want to do and aren’t very good at doing, and that you’re skeptical of the loser label that goes with it anyway. It would seem—both from your experience and from Peter’s reasonable reaction in the Gospel reading—that Jesus is on his own on this one.

But then we also need to realize that this one who advocates death, who loves losers, who says you need to lay down your life, is not some mediocre coach or self-destructive nihilistic warlord with a deathwish charging into the maw of a pyrrhic victory. This is Jesus, the Lord of life and author of creation. So he’s not commending to you a peculiar option; he’s telling you the shape of his creation and the goal of his kingdom. It’s only when you try to reject that or imagine life to be something different, only when you seek value and meaning elsewhere, that you’re bound to be the loser who sees that you’ve wasted your energy on what doesn’t matter.

But lest you’re concerned that you aren’t good at following Jesus and can’t get to where he wants you to be, you can literally rest assured that he’s bringing you as his creature into his kingdom. He’s not just drawing you to eventual death, but has already joined you to his death in your baptism and already begun the work of filling you with his eternal and gracious life. Since there’s no real fixing your misbehavior, he decided to continue forgiving you instead. At his table, he’s removing any notions of your self-sufficiency with a reminder that you are fed by the gift of creation and sustained and renewed by his very presence with you. And in this sermon, he’s not just giving you a pep talk, but giving you his very own self, worming into your ear to take up residence in your heart and take over your hands to do his work.

So welcome home and welcome to work, you whose lives are oriented by the cross, you losers of Jesus.

Hymn: Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song (ELW #808)

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