“God’s work. Our hands”

a reflection for a day of service

Welcome to worship, or welcome back to worship, as you’ve been off working on service projects. Besides this reflection, though, those projects may in themselves be worship.

To think faithfully about what constitutes worship, a frame might be in German terminology, where this gathering is known as Gottesdienst. It’s a fun almost play on words (if ever before the sprechen of Deutsch has been referred to as “fun”). Gottesdienst is literally translated as “God-service.” The play on words is in the tension of whether we are serving God or God is serving us. (In typical faithful paradox, the answer is probably “both!” A similar tension exists in the Old English origins of our word “worship,” which was fully “worthy-ship.” Our usual sense of worshipping God is that we offer praise, but this is also the venue for God making us worthy.)

With the Gottesdienst or God-service version as a good frame for this morning’s various projects, the play on words gets complicated when we add some pronouns and prepositions into the mix. It’s not just a matter of God serving us or of our service to God. It is also God serving “them” (to choose a broadly generic third person pronoun), and—still a notch more for playing with the words—it is God serving them through us, plus we serve others for Christ’s sake.

In another twist amid this already complex mix, as we understand God with us and embodied in us, we’re left with the question of where to identify Christ’s presence. With the “what would Jesus do” sense and when we describe behavior as Christ-like, we say that when we do good things, we are acting like Jesus. But also central to our faithful understanding is that what we do, we do to Jesus, in the “as you did it to the least of my sisters and brothers, you did it to me” verse (Mt25:40). There, Jesus may identify himself even more closely with those who need help than with those helping. In the upcoming Bible reading (Luke 15:1-10), then, God may be identified both with lost and finder, and we may equally be shepherds for God or sheep needing to be found.

One final bit of ambiguity to throw at you. I really appreciate the phrase, “God’s work, our hands.” It is the ELCA’s motto, the catchphrase of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and it’s a good one. But just like the good UCC motto of “God is still speaking,” it leaves ambiguity. Not everything we say is God’s speech, and not all that our hands do belongs to God. So what does? We might claim our projects today as godly—in quilts and advocacy and tending creation and all. What about what else you’ve done this morning, in getting your family ready and preparing breakfast and driving on streets and singing hymns and greeting others and even breathing? How do we see these more as God’s work for or through your hands? How can we consider all these layers of reality of your life and God’s more fully intertwined?

The breadth of the question is indicated in a poem I’d like to share. In spite of “God’s work, our hands” being a phrase claimed by modern Lutherans, this 550-year old poem is by a Spanish Catholic mystic, Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now but yours

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a labor hymn

In daily toil for daily bread

we sweat and strive ‘til we are dead.

With nothing new under the sun,

our chores and tasks are never done.

So the question still must lurk:

what gains are there in our work?

 

Yet even as we wonder “why?”

we may still be quite satisfied.

The jobs well done and lessons learned

are even more than paychecks earned.

Confidence we can do right

certifies our rest at night.

 

We do not just receive profits

but share our labors in service.

In roles of living as we should

our skills enrich the common good.

Through varied talents and arts

we are Christ’s own body parts.

 

Equipped for big tasks and small things

our vocations are God’s calling.

In office, neighborhood, or home

we are employed for God’s kingdom.

Inspired and sent across lands

we do God’s work with our hands.

 

Trying to capture various senses of “work,” this moves from the fairly unhappy realism of Ecclesiastes, toward contentment of Proverbs, on to Paul’s views of shared and mutual responsibility, until finally the broadest sense of Christian vocation throughout life.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Lela Josephine Kuehl (6 October 1913 + 3 September 2015)

Psalms 46 & 23; verses from Romans 12; Luke 17:5-10

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

Okay, I have to make a confession right off, because I know that doesn’t feel like a very complimentary ending to that Gospel reading to say, “we’re just worthless slaves.” My confession is that two Bible verses always get mixed in my mind. There’s this one, about doing the tasks that need to be done, no grumbling or questions asked, but ending with the denigrating, worthless word. Then there’s another one where the commendation is, “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt25:21, NIV). That is a nicer statement; unfortunately the rest of the passage is about doing work in order to be rewarded for it, which doesn’t seem as fitting for Lela.

I wanted us to be hearing the Gospel reading about one who does the work at hand, simply taking it as the right way to live. That fits with Lela. In her great new book, she says, “when I was quite young I already knew when I grew up I wanted to get married, be a good wife, be able to cook and bake, take care of my family.” All of that food preparation, her recipes, her care not to waste, she just expected to do it. So that goes with the verses about serving a household.

We may take a similar example with the resolution to move off the farm and down to Janesville, to be closer to son Jim as he attended the State School for the Visually Handicapped. It couldn’t have been an easy decision, leaving behind livelihood and a sense of home that still continued to draw her northward even long later, to the cabin on Tuttle Lake and even now the graveyard at Manchester as her final resting place. And yet, in spite of moving away from home and saying good-byes and changing life, it seems that Lela simply figured it was the right thing to do, as she did so much in caring for Jim and for the rest of you.

Again, thinking about another transition in life, we may mark the time when Lela had to go back to paid work to support herself and keep her home. It wasn’t just that she had to do it to earn some money; she also discovered those less tangible benefits of meeting people and helping them in their needs with the Coalition for the Aging. Such characteristics name a simple, dedicated work ethic, striving to do what was necessary, not for acclaim but just because it was right.

But that also brings us, for this moment, to that other Bible verse. If we say it that Lela just did what she was supposed to do, or had to do, that doesn’t speak very well of her life. Better, she should be celebrated! It’s not often we come to a funeral service like this, marking the end of nearly 102 years, and not just the expanse of time but years well-lived. There were struggles and illnesses and various hard times she had to overcome, and still she could continue to surprise us with her resiliency. And in the end, on her last day she ate breakfast, and died peacefully in her sleep. For this woman and a time such as this, our oldest congregation member, at the conclusion of this life, the other Bible verse better fits our emotions, to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

So maybe it’s not just in my confused, mixed up mind. Maybe also in Lela’s life, we see reason to mix together these two Bible passages.

With a bit different perspective, we can also witness in her life details of the Bible reading from Romans. It seems to have good bits of Lela in it, as she lived out her faith and became an example for us. It calls for us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. It encourages compassion and cheerfulness and generosity, to love one another with mutual affection. It says to be patient in suffering. These are traits we’ve been given to recognize in Lela’s personality and presence among us.

Still, Lela was honest and didn’t sugarcoat things, so I’ll also acknowledge I heard her grumble and grouse a fair amount, about living situations and such. I expect there’s no reason not to tell the truth in this moment. Really, we don’t need to say that she embodied every virtue always or that she was a perfect saint. That isn’t where our confidence needs to rest. It isn’t in how fully we’ve met the duties entrusted to us or how exuberantly we say, “well done, good and faithful servant.”

More than all the details of 101 years, of great memories and more than any of us know or even that Lela could recall, there’s one verse in the middle of that Romans section that speaks for us now. It says that we in our various roles and functions are like different body parts, each doing our own part. But all together, we are connected to each other as one body.

That’s for us now because it explains the pain we feel. We don’t just say that Lela lived long enough and did enough, that she was our right hand that served well and now gets to rest. No. Rather, because we’re joined together and united with her, we know the pain of not having that right hand with us any more, as if it’s been severed from us. If we are members of the body, this is then quite literally a dis-member-ment we suffer without Lela.

Some of that is healed in sharing stories, again literally re-member-ing.

But the larger resolution is not just that we’re connected to each other, but that the body we’re joined into and united in is the body of Christ. This is a body that doesn’t stay dead, won’t be kept in a grave. It is a body of healing and wholeness. This is a body of life.

And so, as Lela did throughout her life, we continue to trust: we are joined together in Christ. God will raise us up to new life. No separations are forever. It is joy and peace and love that last. This faith sustained Lela for her life, in the many good times and through difficulties, in all of her hard work and in coming to rest, in days long gone and to the end. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” Psalm 46 declared and Lela’s life proclaimed, “The Lord is with us.”

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Judas, Easter life, and your place here

7th Sunday of Easter (17May15)

John17:6-19; Acts1:15-26; 1John5:9-13

Near the end of this Easter season of resurrection life and new beginnings, we drag back into the midst death and destruction and tragic endings.

Maybe it takes this long to be up for it. On Easter Sunday everything is bright, golden celebration (if not totally erasing death’s confusions). As the season progresses, dwelling deeper in newness of life, living into it, we can risk asking with Thomas about scars and lingering nail wounds, and how Jesus is made known in breaking the bread, and about those who aren’t part of this flock, and what we should be doing to stay connected to Jesus in the meantime.

With all of that, with seven weeks of Easter under our belts, we can finally muster the courage to be able to consider the worst, to look back to the night in which Jesus was betrayed, at last now to confront Judas and to ask who is excluded, left out, condemned, who doesn’t receive the good news of Easter.

After all, Judas comes up in two of our readings today. And, even though the lectionary for our 1st reading would’ve skipped the hardest verses, and the very point of the reading was to exclude him from the group of believers, still we need to understand the vital question of how he fits in.

In the gospel, Jesus refers to Judas as “the one destined to be lost.” A more direct translation would be as “the son of destruction” or might be paraphrased for us as “the biggest loser.” As the son of death, Judas there might be contrasted with Jesus the Son of God.

Yet for all of his infamy, the guy isn’t really a major character in the story. During Jesus’ life, Judas was just in the mix with the other 12 disciples. And after Good Friday he’s mostly not in the picture anymore.

But that disappearance presents a hard question for us as we gather here. While we may not place ourselves exactly in the same camp as Judas, at some point we have to ask: if he could blow it and get himself excluded or damned, eternally separated from God’s goodness, destined for destruction, well what would it take to lose our place? Just how much unlike Judas are we?

For that, we may ask what makes Judas so bad, what corrupted him. Maybe he betrayed Jesus because he wanted the 30 pieces of silver, he was greedy. Or it may be he didn’t agree with everything Jesus was doing. (Judas was critical of Jesus’ ministry once and it’s often assumed that he wanted Jesus to be a mighty military messiah.) Evaluating ourselves by those standards, we can indeed be greedy and make poor choices for really a trifling amount of gain. We also turn away from Jesus’ mission and want power and dig in our heels when things don’t go our way.

There’s one other description of why Judas betrayed Jesus: the devil made him do it. To me, that’s more terrifying because it’s so helpless. It isn’t about willpower or making wise decisions, but is entirely out of our control. We can fail hugely and suffer the consequences just because we get trapped in evil. We’re captive to sin. We’ll return to the question of how permanent that trap is, how much our wrongs imprison us or separate us from Jesus.

To continue with the story, though, Judas agrees to betray Jesus, and does it with a kiss. That alone could fill a sermon, on how our affection is warped and perverted to accomplish the opposite of love, how we can be two-faced, how when we get the closest is when we can do the most damage.

After that kiss, Judas mostly disappears. When Jesus is handed over to Pontius Pilate in Matthew’s Gospel, Judas repents and tries to return the silver. Of course, they don’t want to take it back. So Matthew says Judas goes and hangs himself.

Acts instead has this peculiar story of Judas using the money to buy a field and tripping and having his guts burst out. The ugly scene portrays a sense that our problems are visited back on us, with a further notion that the curse spreads, to those around us and even infects the land. That’s probably both fair and nasty.

That there are these two different stories of Judas’ death I believe means the Bible writers were trying to deal with this hard subject in all of its disappointing awkwardness, trying to come up with explanations: Would his friends and fellow followers of Jesus have ever been able to welcome Judas back after he handed over to death their teacher and our Lord? If he wasn’t part of the community any more, what would’ve become of him? Would he have found a different leader to follow? Would he have lived out his days lonely and sorrowful? Did he suffer more directly for the wrongs he perpetrated?

Christian history has inflated this to ghastly proportions, degrading Judas to be the worst person who ever lived, worthy of punishment only secondary to the devil. In Dante’s Inferno, Judas is in the lowest pit of hell, suffering the fate of being eternally clawed at and gnawed at by the devil’s sharp teeth, stuck headfirst in one slobbering, painful mouth of the grand demon. That image is literally being trapped in sin forever, without escape and no end in sight.

Not only does that raise bleak prospects for considering our own sins and failings and associations with evil. It’s also a pretty miserable destiny for one who, we’d have to admit, brought to completion the story of salvation. After all, without Judas, would Jesus have been arrested? And without that, then no crucifixion, and no resurrection! Without Judas doing wrong, Jesus cannot overcome wrong. Without the sin, would there be forgiveness?

That’s not to praise Judas, but to recognize first that he isn’t simply excluded from our story. He’s not like Voldemort as he-who-must-not-be-named in Harry Potter. He’s not like Haman, the villain in the book of Esther, whose name is shouted over and drowned out whenever that book is read in Jewish assemblies. Even if the Bible writers tried to write him off, Judas remains part of our story, and in that way part of our community. Even if we’re not ready to confront it, still Judas shows up weekly as part of our gathering in the reminder of the words “On the night in which he was betrayed…” a meal which, after all, was given to Judas and is given to us precisely for the forgiveness of sins.

That also reminds us God can work wonderful things out of our worst actions. Certainly we label current events that hopeful way: that sin or tragedy may yet be turned to something good, that a benefit may even come through death.

Much more, though, here you know your existence is centered by a God in Jesus who brings new life out of death, who confronts sin with forgiveness, who reciprocates to the kiss of betrayal with a kiss of peace. To all that would threaten to exclude you from community and dismember you from this body, Christ Jesus re-members you into being here.

So this isn’t just a hypothetical question for Judas, of whether God could possibly forgive him or if he irreparably destroyed his place among the church crowd. No, this is a word for you. A word of forgiveness, of restoration, of remembering, of bringing you into new life, even if it means restoring ruptured pieces from the old life.

That association with Judas is important for us, vital for us to recognize. See, we often picture ourselves as the do-gooders, as those trying to do the right thing, as so helpful. Flip through our hymnal and the words pile up about how we feed the hungry or care for the distressed, about how we bring light to dark places.

But this is even more important for the other side. This is a word for when you know you’ve done wrong, when you’re the one needing help, when you’re not good enough, when you’re in the dark (which, after all, is at too many points in life and at its end). It’s for when you can’t be or aren’t part of this assembly, when you’re excluded from church. It’s a word for when you’re lonely and feeling abandoned and in danger, when things just won’t go right, when you’re in what sure feels like hell and that damned Satan is gnawing on you.

Here is this vitally essential word for you once again: there is no curse, no wrong that can separate you from the love of God, from the blessing and life of Jesus our Lord. Our faith proclaims that Jesus has toppled the gates of hell. In these very words I proclaim to you, he has freed you from the shackles of your sin and throws away the key. He fills your dead lungs with the Spirit of new life.

In one fun mark of the reversal that you yourself will proclaim, instead of guts bursting out as a sign of punishment, notice that in our hymn we’ll be singing that is “shouts of holy joy [that] outburst.” That’s the only way for it to be. After all, Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done (ELW #366)

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Stop Dis-membering the Body

Sermon for 7Sept14        

Matt18:15-20; Ezek33:7-11; Rom13:8-14

Welcome home.

That’s important to say first, because no place else is home quite like here. The family of God, with all of you sisters and brothers, is not the same when you’re not here, nor is it the same anyplace else you’d go.

I begin there as clarification for our last words from Jesus. He said, “wherever two or three are gathered, I am there among them, in their midst.” We like that verse. It gets used a lot.

But here’s something of what he’s obviously not trying to say. Yesterday, two or three of you (and a few more) gathered at the Badger football game. I’m not arguing that Jesus was not there; indeed as the ruler of the cosmos we expect that he’s everywhere—within every cell, in every tiny tree leaf as Luther said, even in this table’s bread and wine. That’s omnipresent, in the old official terminology.

Yet Jesus being there mostly didn’t matter to you who were gathered at Camp Randall. Again, I won’t rule out that it could matter, that at the game you may have been clinging to the promised presence of Emmanuel, God-with-us. But likely not so much. You weren’t reacting to his presence with you by saying, “Yo, Jesus, I’m going for nachos. Can I grab you a brat?” Even if you pray for the Badgers, still that is not what Jesus means in this Gospel reading, as he promises his presence where two or three are gathered.

Another thing this passage does not mean is just exactly how it gets used at a lot of church functions. As church, we sadly become used to some pretty low expectations, and so when turnout isn’t great for whatever the event might be—the monthly peace prayers, or volunteering to clean the kitchen, or holding a prayer group, or gathering leaders to work on stewardship, or taking families on an outing—in the many circumstances of our life together, if we face disappointing numbers, we then go on to quote Jesus, not confidently but as a joking, shrugging consolation. “Well, wherever two or three are gathered…”

I’ll tell you right now, though, that low expectations and lack of involvement was not what Jesus was aiming for when he said this. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. His words are intended as the strongest of encouragements, the reminder of just how important and powerful our gathering together is.

That’s what the earlier verses were about. Brokenness in this family causes such deep harm to our shared mission, making mutual accountability an absolute must. Jesus began by saying that if a brother or sister sins against you, have a conversation him or her about it. That’s already a persuasive and perhaps scary suggestion. When we know we’ve done wrong, we usually believe the remedy is to bow our heads in confession at the start of the service. We confess to God our list of the week’s sins, or our more general sinfulness, and await God’s response of forgiveness.

In this reading, however, it’s not kneeling before God in silent prayer that Jesus tells us to do, but is about talking to each other, about saying aloud what the sins are and then forgiving each other, with all the authority of God in heaven.

In some way, that’s what is intended as we share the peace, not just for saying “howdy,” but for reconciliation, to turn to each other, not obstructed by your errors or faults, to mend any brokenness. We’re able to do that, not because we’re so perfectly caring for others or, said another way, because we’re so careless about our own rights or feelings or opinions when wronged. What we share, what mends us, is the peace of Christ. We recognize that what brings us here and what keeps us together isn’t that we agree on every topic or that we’re such whole-hearted, devoted folks, or even really that we’re at all likeable to each other. What binds us together is Jesus.

With that, today I’d suggest that Jesus is talking more specifically. Besides exchanging the peace of Christ as a remedy for when you’re grumpy at somebody, or even straight-up pissed off, this is also for something else. If we’re united here together in the Body of Christ, this is about things that may directly harm the health of that Body, or that fail to exercise the Body’s parts, or that ignore our unity.

Along those lines, I will directly tell you right now at the start of a new program year that when you fail to show up, when you decide to put other priorities before this gathering, you are hurting our Body, it dis-members and dis-integrates us, making us all something less by your absence. When you fail to pay attention to announcements and the newsletter, when you ignore what is going on, you dis-able us and cut off some of our good work, some of God’s mission. When you forget your prayers, when you don’t take part in Bible studies or classes, you are leaving the Body less agile, weaker in faith than we could be. When you shortchange financial devotion and do less than you could or should, it leaves others needing to compensate, to pick up your slack. When you fail to step forward and leave it to the same old cadre of volunteers to teach Sunday School or to ring handbells or pull weeds or help our service projects today, you are sinning, offending the church, giving insult and injury to the very Body of Christ.

I hope all of you feel implicated somehow by those words. I do, too. And if you have other grievances with me, for Christ’s sake you should tell me.

But the purpose of this isn’t to be ashamed. It’s not to guilt trip or point fingers or rub your noses in it. Ezekiel says God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Rather, these are good and reasonable expectations. It’s to help you recognize the relationships and the blessing, to inspire you in faith, to hold each other accountable.

Because this is so important. It is so very good that we are here together. And not only when you personally need the feeling of peace from all of life’s stresses, but so much more. It’s life-changing. This practice of community here is a kind of love and openness and welcome that is even more than in our families, maybe especially there, where brokenness is so difficult to get past. Still more, this neighborhood and all of God’s good creation needs the love that we have to share. It needs what we can accomplish together.

That is why we gather here in Jesus’ name, gathering sometimes in too small of numbers but still with his presence among us. That’s why with his presence in this meal, we practice being in communion, sharing, receiving exactly what we need. And before that, that is why straight off the bat, no questions asked, you are assured once again of forgiveness, of grace, that it is all right, that for the sake of Jesus Christ, your sins are removed, so we can proceed forward together into his new creation.

And again for his sake, you are sent, to use all your skills and talents and abilities, and also your quirks and your foibles and all whom God made you to be, sent to love your neighbor and to care for this whole wide world.

I started with a word of Homecoming. I want to end with what seems like perhaps the best word out of all three of our Bible readings for this rally Sunday. Paul wrote, “you know [that] salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Instead of the expectations, like a syllabus to start a new semester, this is an indicator of graduation, the commencement of Jesus’ rule breaking into our universe and our own lives.

God’s work continues to spread across this world in more ways than we can fathom, broader than we can understand, through channels and means we never could have expected. It’s reaching out to people we thought were unreachable or unforgiveable or untouchable. It’s at Winnequah School today, and also tomorrow, spreading across the globe, across the cosmos and, yes, even at Camp Randall. The love and peace of Christ is on the loose and at work, with you or without you, whether you’re ready or not. But seeing how good this is, and how the kingdom of God is already in our midst, it’s good that you are here to be joined in the work and the blessing of Jesus.

 

Hymn: God, When Human Bonds are Broken (ELW #603)

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