Holy Moly Wholly

sermon on Isaiah6:1-8

“Here I am; send me!” It’s an obvious phrase on a day for making our pledges to contribute to God’s work in this place.

Our focus through this stewardship season has been on Jubilee. Jubilee jumped out as a 50-year debt release celebration pairing with the 50th anniversary for Hope. But not just 50 years. Even more, for proclamation of liberation.

At the MCC, we cherish liberty and justice for all, not with pompous flag-waving, but in a way that honestly seeks to respect all life and to do our part in making it better, rather than infringing on or confining it. That’s the mission we understand from God, and we want to be the kind of people joining in that.

You’ve been preparing to turn in pledges, thinking how you accentuate and assist that mission, to respond, “Here I am!” It’s in the hours you share of time and talents here. It is how you take this mission into the rest of life. And it is in offering your financial devotion.

Besides the great ongoing work here and the 15₡ of every dollar shared as mission support for the larger church and other places joining our liberating labors, I’d like you to know that a basic baseline for next year’s tentative budget involves an increase of 3%. That’s just to keep up with higher water bills and some landscaping and website updates and health care costs and cost of living for your staff, not even to raise in gratitude for their enormous part in carrying this mission.

I’d further like to remind you as you look at your forms that there’s a check box for learning about the Endowment, for estate planning in your will or other gifts. That kind of giving supported the Big Read by purchasing 100 copies of the book so everyone could join in “changing the way the church views racism.”

For one more, a stretch goal we hope to accomplish that will require a bigger growth in giving, I want to tell you about bathrooms. (I don’t usually get to talk about bathrooms in sermons.) We’re looking to redo the downstairs bathrooms, to make them into separate individual gender-neutral facilities.

I want to offer you a story about why. Recently someone was telling me how going to church has often been scary. One particular difficulty is not knowing which bathroom to use. Whether choosing a men’s room or women’s, this person might get strange looks or even comments about being in the wrong place. That’s not a comfortable conversation, I’d think, especially without knowing how to respond about gender identity. So this person’s Sunday morning solution for years has been to look down into a cereal bowl and realize the milk that has held the frosted mini wheats is the only amount of safe liquid to have that morning, including serving to swallow prescriptions. Certainly a cup of coffee would have to wait.

Avoiding coffee is far from the reality of how most of us need to prepare for church (and I lost track of how much I’ve had so far today). But I can hold that reality and use it in my own preparations for church. It was on my mind as Acacia and I stretched the increase of our financial pledge for 2019. It is part of how we can respond as community to have this be a place of proclaiming God’s liberation, a liberation that can be so simple as to mean that a person can come here and not need to be afraid of something so common and mundane as being able to go to the bathroom.

Now, it would be convenient if I could tell you that God is calling you to do this, calling you contribute as prophetic liberators, standing against oppressive and fearful culture, that God wants you to open your hearts and open your minds and open your wallets for this work, and that since you are faithful, you will respond, “Here I am! Send me!”

But, as usual, it’s not so convenient as that. A nice phrase is that God doesn’t call the equipped but equips the called. But this isn’t even really that.

Last week, Jonah was repeatedly told to go to Nineveh, an equivalent of being sent to Nazi Berlin to proclaim God’s love. But in this Bible passage, God doesn’t choose Isaiah. God doesn’t direct his mission. God doesn’t call him especially. There’s nothing that would say Isaiah was special or particularly qualified. He identifies himself as a sinner among sinners, one of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips.

The divine response is to purify him. That is what makes him ready. Then, though uncalled, he responds. This is apparently almost accidental, prophetic vocation and righteousness by association, by proximity, coincidence.

For this stewardship Sunday, I can’t tell you the right thing to do is to give more, that God is expecting it of you. All I can do is proclaim again the word of purity, touching your lips with the hot coal that may provoke your response, announcing to you that all your sins are forgiven and your guilt is removed.

Fortunately, that is also why you may be here. It’s not quite a smoke-filled temple, not quite the intimidation of majesty with a mere drape of a robe overflowing the space. You’re met only by a scruffy bespectacled pastor, not the terrifying angels flitting about. (Sidenote: biblical angels are more scary than pretty. These six-winged beasts called seraphim’s name means “burning.” It’s the same word for poisonous serpents. These are fiery sneaky snaky obscure angels.) For all the difference of trepidation in the story versus sacrilegious me, of a holy, holy, holy vision versus unadorned familiarity of the Blessing Room, you may still come for interaction with divine presence.

And encountering that presence, you may have Isaiah’s realization that you fall short, that you aren’t very holy, holy, holy, that you don’t do all that well, so there could be reasons to fear. Plus you’re stuck living in a culture breathing threats with lies and hatred. Being amid a people of unclean lips may even sadly be church culture of gossip in small circles, or meetings where we get worked up and fail to speak as kindly or hopefully as we should.

The reading is similarly situated amid a specific religious and political landscape, in Jerusalem at a transition of power, from King Uzziah. It’s not a time when things are going all that well. God’s people are a mess, rebelling against what God would want. The book of Isaiah begins, “Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who are utterly estranged!” (1:4) Not the best heart-warming description.

Facing such rotten times, there may be a reaction of wanting to hunker down, just to find a pleasant diversion, to try to forget about it all, certainly to hide from the danger, much less to be wary of divine parental discipline. But in those ancient hard times, when rulers could be no good and culture was corrupt, something inspired God’s prophets to step forward. God’s work needed to be done, was begging to be done. And some unusual suspects got swept up into it.

So like Isaiah, here you are, amid a surprising encounter with the divine, transforming you and your place in culture. As you look to our world, to what still needs to be improved, to the work to come, your lips are touched, are cleansed, unsealed—not so you can tout your own plans or accomplishments, not to turn to celebrating the victories of our side, but to proclaim God’s glory of liberation, from a God who fills creation, a God more mighty than we can possibly envision, but who abounds in steadfast love and loves to hang out with sinners and failures, in a vulgar culture and here in unholy hypocritical religious circles, and coming into your daily regular unspecial life.

So I can’t tell you that this God expects you to take another look at your pledge sheets, to reconsider, to leap up with a grand “Here I am” readiness to do more of your part. In fact, this God probably has reason to expect the opposite. But the work needs to be done, if nothing else so that everyone can safely and comfortably go to the bathroom. That’s part of God’s mission.

Even if you don’t have some eagerness or special thing to contribute, if you just happen to be in this holy place around this holy conversation, still God loves you and reaches out to forgive you and purify you. You are made holy, not because you deserve it, whether you ask for it or not, and even though you may not know what to do with it. Simply since here God’s word proclaims liberation.

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sermon for World Communion Sunday & the burning bush

(Exodus 2:23-3:15, 4:10-17)

 

There’s so much that could be said about these Narrative Lectionary stories, and today you have the benefit of having two preachers unloading on you, so you should get to hear plenty over the next 45 minutes or so. Just to be clear: that’s a joke. Some of you were already squirming, so I’d better get on with it.

My initial point is that it’s good you have two pastors. Sonja and I wanted to give you a chance to hear different perspectives amid this passage. Moses asked “who is God?” and the answer was “I AM!” revealing God’s identity as “I AM WHO I AM” or “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE,” something of both personal integrity and also all being. We’re going to explore this weird name for a few minutes, pondering who this I AM is, what it means to have I AM as your God.

 

I AM who responds

The first theme about this God is that it is I AM who responds. We may think of this as a call story, of God calling and commissioning Moses, even as Moses argued knowing he was unqualified, still he repeated that phrase of acceptance we hear a lot in these weeks, “Here I am.” Sonja is going to say more, but with calling we should notice it’s first responding. The reading starts thick with this: God heard their groaning, God remembered, God took notice. Before God is I AM who calls, I AM responds. Our work is always preceded by God’s initiative and compassion.

That is critical because these people who were groaning and crying out apparently weren’t even expecting God to be listening. They likely felt very left out, living in the wrong place at the wrong time, without help, without hope, without God. Their entire existence of slavery in Egypt, of a vile, oppressive leader taking and killing their children, of deadly workloads and frustrations, that must all have seemed like desperate separation from God. And yet God heard. I AM responded.

God listens. God hears. God cares. Suffering and sorrow may feel so isolating, but they cannot cut you off from this I AM God who is striving to respond to you always. Your existence can’t be apart from I AM. Let’s keep listening for what it means to have a responsive God, the I AM who is centered on you and your needs.

 

I AM who accompanies

From Sonja’s focus on calling and equipping, I want to add a word about location. That the God I AM didn’t go to be directly amid the hurting people seems disappointing, but I can’t really give a reason for why that would be. Instead God shows up with a burning bush. Maybe it’s just storytelling flourish to have God show up in the vegetation.

From that place, consider this place. You may say there’s nothing so phenomenal here as shrubbery bursting into flame. To counter that, I’m going to remove my shoes to offer you a sensual cue. See, really the thing in the story wasn’t the bush itself. That was a sensual cue, also, to highlight God speaking, this I AM who responds and calls. That’s why we gather here, why we come to this place together, because we expect a word from God. We expect these messages and listen for words that tell us we are cared for and loved, that suffering is not what God intends for our lives or our world, listen for where we’re invited to contribute, where we’re called and sent to offer God’s care to our relatives and neighbors and people in need. That doesn’t mean God is only here. Rather, we come for the reminder that God is with us always everywhere.

In may seem less miraculous, but I’m amused that instead of a burning bush, God shows up today with a frozen loaf of gluten free bread, another sensual cue, directing us to the vital matter of God speaking to us. With bread at this table, God says “Here I Am, for you.” This is the word of presence, of joining with your life, of hearing your longing, of uniting you into the task, filling you with what (or who) you need to bear that presence for others.

This God is I AM who accompanies. In Exodus, God went with Moses, eventually leading the people as a pillar of cloud and fire. More for this name of God, I AM, is that Jesus claims this terminology in the Gospel of John, where we’re headed later in this Narrative Lectionary year. In his walking-, talking-, caring-, serving-, eating-, dying-, rising-self is the embodiment of the God I AM for you.

“I AM the bread of life,” is one of these ways Jesus identifies himself. He is the God who accompanies, literally breaks bread with you, abides with you for the journey, who knows and nourishes your life and will never leave you, through death and beyond.

We gather here to hear again that word of promise, here on ground made holy by the realization that your God is I AM who accompanies you.

 

 

Responding God I AM, we are standing on holy ground. Gathered together, we pray for all who are having Burning Bush Moments, For those struggling to believe that it’s actually You speaking, For those who, like Moses, think our insecurities or inadequacies disqualify us from your call, For those who receive callings that will require courage and sacrifice
We pray with expectant hearts…

 

Your call comes to us in words spoken here, through slow mouths and with lowly bread, with sounds of music and in quiet of prayer. Your presence is also with us amid bushes and trees that burn with autumn colors. You are with us in the wilderness and on mountains. And your voice finds us especially in the midst of hurt. When we’re fearing loss, you show up to fortify us with yourself, I AM. We pray with expectant hearts…

 

Equip us to do your will of justice and love. We pray for all leaders to hear the groans of the oppressed and respond with compassion and care. With you, we hear cries of those lives too long left in pain. We hear those suffering from natural disasters. We hear those facing war and poverty.  We hear those in our midst and on our hearts, including Ellen Lindgren in the hospital, Jean Oliversen at the death of her twin sister Jan Kelly, Jess Kaehny at the death of her grandfather,  Mary Margaret Nack,  Mara Bakken in her move to Paris, Emily Kuhn in Honduras, Don Falkos’ brother, Dennis, Thomas Wildman, Fred Loichinger, Ellen Roberts and Leigh, Phill Bloedow, recovering from shoulder surgery, Corkey Custer’s brother Mike, Nancy Greenwald and her mother Anita, Robin and Kathy Alexander, and Margaret Helming. We pray with expectant hearts…

We ask your blessing on these quilts, on the hands who made them this year, and blessings on all who will receive them through Lutheran World Relief.

We ask your commissioning care for the service trip for Habitat for Humanity in Jackson, WI, this week and pray for Mary Maxwell; Jean Einerson and Ann Ward; Rita and Rich Olson; Mary and John Rowe; Julie and Tom Walsh; JoAnne and Ken Streit.

We pray for these members of our congregation this week: James Hamre, Margaret Helming and Joe Powell, Jim and Jan Eastman, Kim and John Eighmy, Jean Einerson and Ann War.
God of our ancestors, God who joins us into a mystical communion of saints, God who is with us in every bite of nourishment to accompany us, God of all nations and peoples of this world together:  We pray with expectant hearts…

 

 

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a wedding sermon

It’s impossible to top those words that included this hemisphere’s greatest poet (Neruda, Sonnet XVII) and some of the most beloved reflections on life (Kahlil Gibran, “On Marriage) and history’s single most famous statement about what love is (1 Corinthians 13). It’s a good thing you didn’t throw in any Shakespeare, or I would’ve just been sunk, rendered mute and useless. We could’ve just signed the marriage license and moved on to cocktails. As it is, there’s no way I can add to the three readings on love, so I’m just going to ignore them and talk about something entirely different.

Instead, I want to talk about jobs or work. For your identity, Emily and Seth, that seems like a vital piece (and even that word “vital” is worth noting in its heft; it comes from the Latin for “life”). Again, then, we often think of jobs or careers with the phrase “making a living.”

Don’t worry; we’re making our way back to the wedding and marriage. But in that trajectory, let’s first highlight how jobs become so much of our self-definition. Who am I? Well, I’m a pastor. Who are they? He’s a teacher. She’s a police officer. This even gets to be a mark of our success from childhood, on how well we’ve followed through on declarations of “what I want to be when I grow up.”

Yet having our lives defined in that way can also be problematic. It can mean that if you’re not part of the workforce or in some special role, then you’re left out. Oh, she’s “just” a stay-at-home mom. He’s unemployed. It’s only punching the clock.

Still, some of us do relate really strongly to our career, as shaping or aligned with our identity. That’s true for you two, right? You are doctors. The medical profession is an embodiment of who you are and also how you relate to each other. Your mutual support includes the ability to understand when something has gone wrong at work and instead of just offering care you also need to be cared for. Am I still saying this fairly?

You’ve also recognized that this role is so fulfilling and so involved that there’s a trap also in the medical field of wanting to work too much, to solve all the new problems. You want to help, want to make a difference to society, to “impact the world and make it better” as you’ve said, and obviously there’s always more care that can be given, more to do.

To stay toward the positives of meaningful work, though, let’s focus on your notion of wanting to make the world better. You also described that as a sense of accountability or trying to do the right thing. With that, I want to add in the term “vocation.”

Vocation is another of those words like “vital” that can be used without the full sense or weight of what they mean. Vocation is a more important word, than just a job. This one has its Latin root in “calling.” You are experiencing a calling. In trying to make sick people better and thereby to make the world better, you are responding to a call. You are answering your vocation.

My point is, this prompts a question for us: If you are responding or answering, who is calling you? Where does the voice that calls you into your vocation come from? Even if it’s simply labeled as trying to do the right thing, how do we determine what is right?

A theologian named Fredrick Buechner famously defined vocation as “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”* It wards off selfishness on the one hand and life-sucking demands on the other. So this isn’t only about what is satisfying or happy, but is also how you’re eager to help where you’re needed, responding as circumstances invite or demand. That sense of vocation may fit fairly well for you, and it may begin to describe the sense of love beckoning you to each other.

But there’s more about where that voice comes from. Some say that the longing to do what’s right is woven into our being, that we have an innate sense of it, or that there are evolutionary reasons for altruism, for acting ethically and humanely, even explanations from evolution for love.

For the Lutheran Christians among us, we say that this calling comes from God. And what is worth emphasizing in our Lutheran view is that this call is really an invitation into life in this world. We don’t believe that God is calling us to flee from the world or escape toward heaven. It’s not that we try to be nice and do the right thing for merits or karma or rewards, to earn points with God.

Our example in Jesus is a call directly into relationships, into life, “for God so loved the world.” In Jesus, not only do we hear that the greatest instruction is to love our neighbors. Even more, we see one who cared for the sick and who welcomed the outcast and who enjoyed plenty of wine at the party. We see Jesus as the embodiment and incarnation of a God who is concerned for your life and the life of those around you and the good of all creation. These are things to delight in and to take care of.

And maybe that, at last, also points us back toward this wedding and that fuller, better sense of vocation and of what you are in life. See, Emily and Seth, it is not only that you are doctors. What we do to make a living isn’t only for getting a paycheck. It is not merely requirements or what makes us happy.

In this Lutheran understanding (which I find has a heckuva lot of truth) our vocation is to be part of this world, engaged with our neighbors. And your closest neighbor, where you find yourselves most primarily and predominantly isn’t at a job. The central vocation and the place most in need of our love and care is within our family, our household. That’s our first place of responsibility, and where we are most cared for.

And so that is why this is a blessed event, a blessed day, because you, Seth and Emily, in this wedding and for this marriage are recognizing the importance of the absolutely central vocation, of being together. You are loved and loving. You are becoming husband and wife, claiming each other as the closest and most important of neighbors, glad and eager to be there for each other. In that, and in this day, you are willing to take up the charge, to answer God’s call, to commit yourselves to each other, to vow what you will be, through better or worse, in sorrow and in joy. And through all of that, it means your love for each other is, indeed, making the world a better place.

You know, it’s a lot of work. It’s worth a lot of prayer and devotion and attention. It’s also well worth a celebration. So blessings and congratulations!

* Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, p119

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