Syzygus*

sermon on Matthew 11:16-19,25-30; Romans 7:15-25a20170709_113619_resized
I want to start with Show-and-Tell.

The strips of fabric I wear are called stoles. During my ordination service at my home church, Trinity Lutheran in Eau Claire, one was first placed on me by George Carlson, my bishop at the time, and by Annie Engebretsen, who was chair of my first call committee. So the stole began to serve as the main visual representation that I am a pastor.

But in that,20170709_114104_resized like a lot of things about being a pastor, it has a built-in paradox: a stole is the sign of being a pastor, but at the same time is symbolic of what applies to all of us. That’s also true of my alb, this white robe. (“Alb” comes from the Latin word for “white”) (like Albus Dumbledore’s white beard in Harry Potter). My alb looks like special clothes, since I’m the only one here wearing it, but it’s also supposed to symbolize that all of us are washed clean in baptism and put on newness in Christ and match the saints described in the book of Revelation.

Again, I get to splash around in the font and declare that your sins are forgiven. That isn’t because I have special magic powers as a pastor, much less that I’m especially faithful or brilliant or eloquent. It’s just because you hired me to say those words to you, so that you could guarantee you’d get to hear what really any of us can and should say to each other, stuff like “God loves you. Jesus is with you. It’s not the end. You’re forgiven.” I don’t have claim to those words by virtue of being an ordained pastor (again, it’s certainly not grounded in my virtues at all), yet paradoxically I have special opportunity to announce grace, to put on a white robe, and to wear this stole.

The reason I describe this is that when the stole was placed on me, it was with the words from today’s reading: “Come to me20170709_114059_resized.jpg, all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This stole represents a yoke placed on my shoulders. Again, while realizing that Jesus wasn’t talking exclusively to future pastors, still this vestment had me contemplating what Jesus meant. What is light about this? And why is it still a burden?

As a snapshot of this yoke’s role, I’ll tell you that I was up north at the start of the week at a high school friend’s cabin. It happened to be her daughter’s 5th birthday party, and amid the balloons and piñata and ice cream cake, I was also taking advantage of the wifi to check messages from church. It could be argued that it’s standard for our 24-7 world these days to mean always being plugged in. I’ll say (for those of you who might be concerned) that I don’t think I’m overly distracted, not excessively tech-bound. That burden felt light; I was still able to enjoy friends in the northwoods. But it would be the wrong burden, anyway; being captivated by technology and our communication cycles is not likely the yoke Jesus wants.

So maybe another difference is in confessing why I was on my phone. The burden isn’t merely having lots to do, since long hours don’t inherently make it Jesus’ kind of work. For me, that moment on Monday had me worried about sick family members and struggles for housing resources and I was deliberating worship details and how to enliven Bible stories and overall pondering what benefits I could offer physically or by speaking God’s good news into those circumstances of life that range from desperate to mundane.

In short, I was focused on you. Since you are my work, I’d say that means (in the language of this Gospel reading) that you’re my burden and I’m carrying you with me most everywhere I go. Or to say it more fully, we are each other’s burdens. And not just us here, but others too, as we were reminded with the Dane Sanctuary Coalition press conference this week: we’ve discerned that we need to bear others of our neighbors who are facing special threats in these days. We find ourselves indentured into service for them.

Having that sense of service and Jesus’ work, though, I should stop to admit something else. It’s a bit self-promoting when I try telling you that I was working and focused on you up north at that birthday party. It’s harder to tell you stuff that doesn’t fit with your image of a pastor, which might be that I was drinking beers from 11:00 that morning, or that besides asking about you the friends also asked about one of my tattoos, or that that self-indulgent little getaway used a heckuva lot of gasoline, or that I probably wasn’t doing well in balancing my responsibility to Acacia. And those still leave out unspoken not-so-pure details that I should be able to trust and confide, but am uncertain of the words and am chicken. They leave me doubting myself whether I’m fit to be your pastor, the insidious traps that minds chase after.

You may rightly say that if there’s no virtue that enables me to be a pastor, there should be no vice that would exclude me. But fears of what disqualifies from God’s love and blessing hound and haunt. Honest moments face and recognize I do not do what you want, what I want, what I should. In gloomier times I wonder whether I can do anything right.

The solution for that is not to look on the bright side. Such self-confidence can be dangerous. Indeed, the term means placing faith with the self, with a paired risk of ignoring or mistrusting God. As those who are reading The Screwtape Letters are reminded, it is tricky and demonic when blinders prompt us self-assuredly to imagine our thoughts and concerns are so positive and benevolent and yet leave us failing to notice the malice and lack of charity really present in our daily life (eg, p28).

This is exactly the wretched assessment in Paul’s words from Romans. They are a loooong ten verses zeroed in on the perception of my individual circumstances, of being worse than I wanted. Finally when Jesus shows up to set things straight at the end, I’m surprised to find I’ve been desperately gasping for breath in longing for him. Really this passage is small potatoes, since the last we heard from Romans was that you were already dead to sin, and living only to God in Christ Jesus. Whatever struggle there is has already been declared won for God.

Having Jesus back in the picture returns us to an earlier question of service and his work: he tells us to take up his yoke. So where in this image is Jesus? I’d suspect the obvious thought would be that he’s the plowman driving the team, the farmer who has hitched up the oxen to do his work and plow the field. That probably squares with a view that the whole world is God’s estate and property, God’s creation that needs tending, the expanse of God’s garden. We may picture ourselves as beasts of burden to serve God, directed by this plowman Jesus as our boss.

But the yoke metaphor isn’t portraying Jesus behind you holding the reins. Rather, he uses the image to emphasize two necks paired together, side-by-side through the bows or loops of the yoke, and (if I understand what was probably already clear to the original listeners), a new ox was paired with an experienced one. So the ox working with you and teaching you is…Jesus. Jesus is your yokefellow. In this image, then, he’s not saying that he’s a nicer master who will spare the whip and make sure you’re well-fed. He’s saying he’s working with you, keeping you straight, leading you into his way that is gentle and humble and offers rest.

And if it culminates in sabbath rest, this is also a word about the work that you do as God’s creatures. Rather than “my burden is light,” it should be translated “my burden is better or is fitting.” The workload Jesus offers is more natural and fitting than the burdens you otherwise choose for yourself or get roped into. It’s natural and good that we should be dependent on service to each other, that we honor the relationships of creation. Caring for each other is the fitting way for us to live. Selfishness and reckless gain and ignorance about others around us instead create cycles that continue to make life more difficult and restless. We see it in exploitation of immigrant workers. We see it in environmental abuse. We see it when we neglect time with our families and end up requiring more effort to sort it out later. Even though we recognized with Romans that we end up at those dead ends, that is not God’s intention for us.

Jesus continues to speak of burdens since it’s right that we’re bound together. While we may react at first to this passage against the yoke, wishing instead to be set free, that’s a wrong model of freedom and of life itself. As our society celebrated the American form of independence this week, I’m disheartened how that’s framed that as freedom from others, as in “you can’t tell me what to do.” That is essentially a nonexistent impossibility. We must exist in relationship. We fit most naturally when we attend well to shared needs and demands.

For that, I’m so grateful for the yokemate Jesus. You aren’t left to navigate God’s work on your own, not of your own devices trying to plow good and straight lines. In your roles, it’s not whether you worry about feeling good enough, since the natural fit comes from Christ. And when the unnatural threatens and your doubts and distractions arise and you so constantly seem to stray toward the evil that you don’t intend, nevertheless Jesus your yokefellow remains to work beside you, to guide your steps into the way of life. We might say he’s pulling for you.

So even the invitation to take this yoke upon you is a bit of a misnomer, since Jesus has already yoked himself to you, as Immanuel, as God with you, born into your life, to take your suffering upon himself, who remains with you always. Jesus your yokemate will guide you, by your side in love, and that presence ensures the burden is light, good, and natural, and culminates in rest. That’s who you’re supposed to be amid God’s creation, and—in the concluding words from Romans—it happens, “thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

* the “yokefellow” from Philippians 4:3

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Maundy Meditation

(John13:1-17, 31b-25 )
There is so much to sort through in Holy Week: the confusing move from festival parade to betrayal, or going through death to new life as the darn-near inexplicable mystery of our faith. That—plus love!—is just plain lot to absorb, with so much central to us in this week.

It’s interesting to look at it by proportions: the Gospel of Luke has more than 5 of 24 chapters set in this week. For Matthew it’s 8 of 28. Nearly 40% of Mark’s story is told between Palm Sunday and Easter morning. The Gospel of John starts the story of Jesus “in the beginning,” at the birth of creation, and yet almost half the book takes place in one week, with about six chapters spent on this Maundy Thursday evening alone.

Now, we’ve tried to fit a lot for you into this evening: remembering that little children lead us. We’ve eaten together, the night of the Last Supper as an obvious time to share a meal. We told the Passover story, since Jesus was sharing that special meal and redefining it. But we also notice how that further increases the complexity; the Exodus meal provides the defining narrative of the Hebrew scriptures, but tonight becomes a background footnote for our gathering.

So how do we consider all of this? How do we fit it in? Can we begin to comprehend so much that is deep, complex, challenging, rewarding? Probably the most apparent answer is no, we don’t. We can’t. We could consider much more on freedom from slavery and ancient festivals and the practice of footwashing and political dynamics of Jesus’ arrest in the garden—which may or may not be more worthwhile than discussing menu options of communion bread or historical dilemmas of determining if we’re doing it right and who’s in. Overall there’s just lots to grasp.

Similar to the observance that the ancient creeds spend a lot of time on controversial details and miss out on the main point of what Jesus was up to, you came here this evening not to debate and deliberate details, not to learn history or try to repeat the past.

You’re here tonight for love, to be loved and striving to love in return. You’re here because we always need practice at this, never have it resolved permanently or perfectly, because it is the hardest, most complex thing in the world, even if it can feel so natural.

In this way, it’s no surprise that attendance dwindled since Sunday—either contrasting the crowds for the palm parade with Jesus only having his close disciples around him on Thursday, or comparing our fun and vibrant protest service with this group tonight. It’s not about being entertained or getting caught up in the hysteria; you understand being commanded to love means taking community seriously, is about acting as a neighbor, a citizen of earth, about engaging your gifts, taking a risk, asking what’s best for others.

Recognizing that loving can be exhausting and frustrating and sometimes draining of life, you also gather here to be loved, with Jesus who gives himself to you whole-heartedly, with all his life and all he has. We may question if that can fit in one night, or one Holy Week, or even in one life. But sharing it at this service, absorbing it with a bite of bread is a start.

Hymn: Will You Let Me Be Your Servant (ELW 659)

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Sharing the Road

Closing Reflection Sermon for 1st shared Madison Christian Community worship service, 1st Sunday in Lent      (Deuteronomy26:1-11; Luke4:1-13)
So here we are (or were), coming to the conclusion of this service together as Madison Christian Community. Though I’ve been tasked with giving final words, a summary drawing it together, really I had better just wrap it up quick, because we’ve got families who are headed off for tobogganing or brunch groups, or just leaving!

But even that fact that there’s more coming is exactly appropriate for this moment. You’ve engaged in diligent, faithful planning and deliberation over the past year and a half. That has led to this moment, to welcoming two new pastors simultaneously for the first time in MCC history, and now this first shared Sunday service. You may feel that the journey is complete, that you’ve reached the destination you were seeking on the Road Ahead. Like our Deuteronomy reading, you may anticipate that this—at last—is the Promised Land, that God has brought you to a good place.

But, of course, in another way we’re just getting started. There’s so much more good to come as we’re “sharing the road.” Incidentally, if you were looking to sing that sending-hymn-unofficial-MCC-theme-song of ours in Greek, you’d use the word “synod.” Where an “exodus” is a road going out, synod is the word for being on the way together. Those are fitting words to reflect on at the end of this worship service. In just a few moments, there will be an exodus, meaning you’re going to leave, to go out from this nice, warm, assuring gathering to the chill isolation of doubts and trials and temptations and just regular routines. As Jesus insisted over against the devil, it is an unmiraculous life—no magical fast food, no apparent guardian angels, no clarity of majestic divine authority. That may be difficult and disappointing.

Yet even as you go out—yearning to be back here, with those who believe like you do, and try to live life like you do, and where you’re again reminded and assured of God’s blessing—even as you go out, just because you’re leaving doesn’t mean that you are being scattered. Many of us will go separate directions, but this isn’t just a fragmentation or, as we considered on Ash Wednesday, a disintegration.

For starters, you’re still community. You are God’s people. Deuteronomy declared the whole batch a bundle, from those engaged in the holy priestly tasks to the aliens who seemed so different, all in it together, cared for by God, even the crops growing from the soil part of the God-given community.

Beyond that, one more word for us. (You’re already discovering I’m a word geek, or to use the word-geek-word, a “lexophile.” Words are “affectious” to me, to use Sam Szalkowski’s spelling bee word.) “Community” is to be joined as one, in service to each other, from Latin. Similarly, you are “companions,” those who have shared bread. You will not be separated by distance or discord. Through this meal we shared, the Holy Spirit does her work of binding us together in the Body of Christ, members of one another, companions broken to sustain each other, to nourish and enjoy and provide. You don’t go alone!

Dear companions, sharing the road, how good it is!

 

http://psalmimmersion.bandcamp.com/track/sharing-the-road-ps-133

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Unity and Brokenness — a newsletter article

I’ve been sad because of a loss, lamenting that a friend and seminary classmate has decided to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Partly I’m sad because I’m convinced the ELCA is right. We live the liturgy, we embody our faith in loving service, we embrace Jesus.

Yet I’m not so naïve as to whine, “Can’t we all just get along?!” After all, I’m darn adamant in what I believe. Try saying that Jesus doesn’t matter, that crucifixion and resurrection aren’t important, that creation’s life is no big deal, and I’d be eager to argue. I’m disgruntled and disappointed that my friend’s decision involved homosexuality. But as much as I’d want to debate it theologically, scripturally, and socially, I couldn’t change his mind or convince him he’s wrong.

So much of my sadness is simply the brokenness. I don’t like separations, the pains and sorrows of our losses, whether like long-distance lovers yearning to be reunited or the harder grieving in death, waiting for the more consummate reunion in eternity. Some splits are stubborn disagreements that have gotten out of hand, while others for irreconcilable differences can be reasonable and necessary.

Amid such sorts of schisms, I also want you to know—for myself and for our community—that it’s a rupture or fracture in the Body when we’re not together here, even a single Sunday. Life is a busy balancing of priorities, but it still hurts to be away from you.

With all these dividings, we may wonder what we can do about it. How do we face brokenness in our relationships? If we can’t simply fix or correct what’s gone wrong, how do we move forward?

On the bright side, separations aren’t essentially the same as endings. I’m hoping my friend will remain my friend, in spite of our differences and this distancing. Transformations of the old may have good surprises. A new beginning may even be worth the steep cost.

Other times, we can only cling to hope. We heard John 17 a couple weeks ago, with Jesus’ prayer for us, that his followers would be one. Yet among both denominational and personal relationships, we’re pretty rotten at small “c” communion (being “united with” each other) or big “C” Communion (for the Lord’s Supper). We’re not unanimous (“one in spirit”).

But “uni’s” are not always desirable. We don’t believe that Jesus wanted us to be uniform, our voices in unison without harmonizing, for this to be monotonous. We’re reminded this Trinity Sunday that even God is not simply “One” but also distinguished as “Three.”

And in spite of it all, we believe and confess that we are indeed Unanimous, tied together by the one Holy Spirit, joined by God. Our fate, our hope, our existence is in God’s hands alone. Even when our divisions or barriers seem insurmountable, still we live in the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We are bound together in love—in a grand family and with all creation.

If that seems like an elusive wish, maybe our parting words—the terminology of going away—can be instructive and put flesh on it. The Germans say auf Wiedersehen, “upon-seeing-you-next-time,” sort of our “see ya later.” An adios or adieu commend somebody “to God!” in Spanish or French. That meaning is also hidden inside our “good-bye,” a contraction of “God-be-(with)-ye!” Our faith connects with the Hebrew shalom and Arabic salaam that say, “peace be with you.” Even the secular “farewell” bids the best, a salutation (meaning a “salve” for healing, health, wholeness).

Rifts in life are hard, but it’s not over until it’s over. When all else fails, maybe we practice prayerful separations, asking the best for the other. Ultimately God won’t fail. We can commend each other to God’s care and trust in what is to come; the finality remains with God who is all in all.

+ nick

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My Generation and Church

Lenten Midweek reflection for 11Mar15
Isaiah 44:24-45:5; 61:1-4; Psalm 1

Paired with verses from the hymn O Blessed Spring, we are proceeding through our ages. Last week Paige talked about lively energy of children. Next week Edward may reflect on resolution and rest toward the end of life. Yet, today’s reflecting on faith among my age group is a matter of disruption, with probably the defining characteristic being that we don’t participate.

My age is approximately where many of your daughters and sons and grandchildren are. I share your pain and lament of wishing and wondering why they don’t come to church. I’ve even heard several of our older generation of members as they’ve been dying, that having their offspring connect to church would be almost a last request.

Yet there aren’t obvious answers. We can’t force each other to go to church. In spite of huge amounts of research and strategizing and books and books on the topic of faith and my generation, there is still no quick fix.

To start, some standard generational differences are helpful to highlight. The World War 2 generation built St. Stephen’s and many mainline congregations. That generation by-and-large trusted authority. They came to church just because it was the right thing to do. The Baby Boomers were more skeptical. They went through Vietnam and Watergate. They were willing to question church, among other authorities, and hold them accountable.

We younger generations, however, are said to have lost almost all confidence in institutions. There is nothing about a national brand of ELCA (or McDonalds or Oldsmobile) that automatically has our loyalty. We won’t say, “my country, right or wrong.” Instead, our loyalty is relationship-based, in diffuse small groups, online connections, and what we experience.

One way this is talked about is that the older generation would give out of a sense of duty and would give just plain to support the budget of the church, but younger generations respond specifically to causes or projects. And the more evidence they have their giving makes a difference, the better.

Among my people, I’m an anomaly. I wasn’t a church-geek as a kid, but since I started college I’ve probably hardly missed two weeks of church in a row. That’s weird. My peers don’t have that kind of rhythm. Sometimes it’s because our lives are actually busy, and work weeks aren’t 9-to-5 Monday to Friday. Or because we’re more mobile, and traveling on weekends. Or because life just feels more distracted, since we’re bombarded by news from around the world and are always in touch through social media and have zillions of other media options. We’re the generations that were first to have VCRs and cable, on to video games and cell phones and the internet. Even having children, which in former times was supposed to bring people back to church, doesn’t work well in my generation, with lives so overprogrammed from the get-go.

A lot of this reflection seems pretty dismal. So the first of my bright sides amid the darkness is that, even though my generation is less in church than others were, still when we we’re here it’s because we want to be, because it’s important to us. I like to share my anecdotal evidence that even in the 10 years I’ve been here I’ve witnessed a change. It used to be that young families brought children to be baptized as an insurance policy in case something bad happened (we’ll say more about that later) or just because they’d been baptized and thought it was what they were supposed to do. The same for parents of Confirmation students, saying, “I had to go through this even though I didn’t like it, and so my kids have to, too.”

Now it’s more like parents I met with today who said they’re bringing their daughter for baptism because they want her to be part of this community and to know God’s love and to learn to live with these values. Even when parents aren’t mindful of it, students themselves are seeking to be part of our Sunday School and Confirmation gatherings. Being here is not just by default, but because you really want to be, and find some sort of value in this.

So what sorts of values are there? I’d say the church is still looked to as a moral authority, a place of answers, and probably some peace or serenity compared to the rest of life. In this week, I’ve had people who are otherwise not at all connected to church asking me—and therefore asking for some sort of official church response—about the shooting of Tony Robinson, and for prayers during sickness, and for financial assistance amid a time of crisis. That people are turning to the church in those various needs and concerns still says in our society we’re seen as a resource, a place of morality and insight and caring. In the words of our hymn, people still expect from Christians “gifts of beauty, wisdom, love.” That’s another of the potential bright spots.

The shadow side of it, though, is that it’s tough to exist only as that occasional resource. If people aren’t listening to the church or listening for God except in sporadic moments of emergency or panic or despair, first of all that’s not a very pleasant way to live life, and second it doesn’t allow for any sort of sustained involvement. It leaves faith as a sound bite instead of the Word that becomes flesh to inhabit and inform all of your lives and outlook on the world.

That sort of superficial connection is also problematic for sustaining the way we’re used to doing church. In pre-marriage counseling I ask about generosity and what people do for charity. One couple said they support the Humane Society and American Heart Association drives at work, and said they put $10 in the offering plate when they come to church. But if they’re here once a month, that level of support sure doesn’t pay my salary!

It also doesn’t do very well to build community. I can get by visiting my dentist twice a year or car repair shop only when I need it. But for church, community is vital to who we are. We’re not just an outlet for theological answers or a venue for finding inner calm. We are—from the very core of our identity as people of God—in community. This is what we understand of God in Trinity. God is not God by being the Solitary Highest Individual. Nor is Trinity a pyramid scheme, where the Father is boss and the Son and Spirit are subordinate. No, the theological vision is all about mutuality, agreement, and balance. And since God is like that, then that’s our shape, too. But, again, it’s hard to be community when we’re around each other only once a month, and when we’re also trying to put on a good face to mask our problems and pains.

I’ve heard from numerous peers and parishioners that the breakdown in relationship is indeed what separated them from church. They didn’t get the support they needed when a baby was born. They felt ostracized or were hurt or shamed by the very ones who were supposed to be about love and care. Church, which is supposed to represent God and to live Christ-like, as the Body of Christ, where we ought to be able to practice living as Jesus people with love and vulnerability, too frequently has instead become a liability in relating to God, leaving people to the hard task of trying to find a relationship with God apart from church. The difficulty is that it’s nobody’s singular fault, since we all need to practice being community together. For it to work when you need it, you also need to be here when others need it. It’s not about being perfect, but is for practicing grace, forgiveness, and compassion.

Besides those direct, personal failings in relationships, people also of course cite the broader categorical failings. Some see the church as anti-science, or anti-woman, or anti-gay, or as greedy or causing violence, or as navel-gazers who insularly talk about what we believe in but don’t stand up for it when the rubber meets the road.

I’d hope we could counter all of that. I’d hope we would understand science and faith are not mutually exclusive, that they cover different territory and may both inspire increasing wonder rather than reductionist blinders. I’d hope we would see the early church’s work of breaking down barriers to include so many in society—the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the local and the foreigner, the righteous and the sinners, young and old, men and women, slave and free—and that we’d be able to see society has taken 2000 years to get back to the equality Jesus and the early church were already embodying, seeing all humanity as valued in Christ, respecting insiders and outsiders of all types and abilities. I’d hope we’d continue to embody Jesus’ way of suffering love, not voicing brash aggression, but living out callings for humility and peace and reconciliation.

In my view, there are some bad reasons and weak excuses for not being part of church, but there are some really rational reasons, even if those aren’t usually what’s mentioned by those I’ve asked. For example, if you’re selfish and don’t want to share your resources or your time, then church should be a difficult place for you. If you think Jesus just doesn’t really matter and that there’s nothing in him that connects you to God, then church probably loses most of its meaning. If it seems that church has restrictive belief, that we claim that what we believe is true, well…I’m still not sure how to disagree with that.

For a final bit of grounding, I’d like to use our Bible passages. The first chunk from Isaiah I chose because it talks about God’s activity and operations even among the unsuspecting. Cyrus was the Persian emperor, a foreign. He didn’t worship God. He didn’t even know about God. Yet this declares that Cyrus was God’s shepherd, God’s chosen, God’s messiah, working out God’s good purposes and larger intent. That’s an interesting and helpful word for my generation, separated from a regular worshipping assembly. God is still working in our lives, even when we don’t realize. Those of us here may cling to the blessing of knowing what God is up to, joining in the callings to strive for God’s kingdom. Yet our lives are never cut off from God. The stanza of our hymn for this week seems to recognize busy lives filled with so many details and so much work, about “limbs holding a heavy harvest.” God is still producing fruit in our lives, through our various vocations and careers and places in life where we try to be productive and prosper. Sometimes it’s with our best efforts, and sometimes in spite of us. That’s a word of relief for us who can only continue to commend our friends or siblings or children or grandchildren into God’s ongoing care.

The other Isaiah passage is about the work that God is up to, that the Spirit anoints us “to bring good news to the oppressed and poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty, to comfort all who mourn…” to repair ruined cities, the devastation of many generations. Two things are significant about this: first, Jesus quotes this passage as the purpose of his ministry, too. Second, there’s no mention about the afterlife or going to heaven.

Church shouldn’t only be about the insurance policy of whether you’ll get in to heaven if or when you die. That isn’t a burning question for people these days, and it should never have been our sole focus. A more important question is who God is and what the church is and who we are for all the days of our life before death. I’d say if God so loves our world and is concerned about all hurting lives, and that that’s a word for so many of our moments and not only for facing death, that we will do well to receive that work and to join in on it. It is first what God does for us, but also what God does through us. As that kind of people, we’ll be sustained by a power that restores devastated generations.

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Love, Knowledge, and Unclean Spirits

4th Sunday after Epiphany       1 Feb 15

Mark1:21-28 1Corinthians8:1-13
I like books. But I’m also kind of sick and twisted and particularly like theology books. It’s so disgusting that, when I get a quiet Friday off, I even read theology in my freetime. Pretty gross. That passion made a friend once call me theologically arrogant.

She meant it as a compliment, but it comes back to haunt me with this 1st Corinthians reading that says “knowledge puffs up,” saying my puffy arrogance could be destructive and counter to what builds up. It’s evidently dangerous territory. The story from Mark teases it out more horrifyingly. There the smartest guy in the room is labeled as having an “unclean spirit.”

Now, I’m going to ask you to work with this. Stories of exorcisms and demon possessions just seem weird to us. We picture horror movies, or an ancient culture disconnected from our experiences. But rather than quickly writing it off as so foreign, let’s slow down and enter the story.

In this Bible reading, one wisenheimer knows a lot about Jesus, saying, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” In fact, he identifies Jesus better than anybody else has in Mark’s Gospel. Next, notice that this happens at a weekend worship service, with other worshippers who are there to learn about God and to praise God. So rather than picturing an ancient horror flick, a better parallel would be to look around at this place here today.

Which makes us need to ask: if the Holy One of God walked in right now, wouldn’t that be, like…a good thing? Isn’t that sort of the whole reason we’re here? And wouldn’t we be happy for a smarty-pants to be able to help identify the Holy One of God?

But, somehow the opposite, this man expects Jesus is destructive, and so Jesus rebukes him, actually tells him to shut up. I’d suggest the man in the story recognizes what Jesus is about and doesn’t want to be part of it. We could say that what he claims to know is in opposition to Jesus. And being against the Holy Spirit’s work means he’s working with an unclean spirit.

Further, there’s plenty still today that Jesus could want to muzzle. If Jesus is Lord of your life and of the cosmos, think of all the things he would want to get rid of or destroy, the obstructions and confusions to his mission that he’d remove. Rather than something shockingly demonic and terrifying or one bad apple, perceiving an unclean spirit this way is more insidious because we can all get trapped in the thoughts of our brains, leading us away from Jesus and his Spirit’s guidance.

So what is the work of the Holy Spirit? To return to 1st Corinthians, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” An unclean spirit is content in self-satisfaction, whereas the constructive work of love is in building community, in supporting each other, in reinforcing the weaker elements, in bridging differences, repairing divides. While knowledge too often can be just hot air, love makes an edifice, is literally edifying. I hope you’re hearing these many helpful building-block and construction images. With that, it’s worth remembering that the church is not this physical structure; the church is the connected group of us, the living stones formed around the solid foundation of Christ our cornerstone, united in efforts of refuge and sheltering, of reinforcement and support.

But we neglect this, forgetting to focus on the structure of relationships and to strive for mutual good. We make faith so individualized, or place it in heaven and ignore what happens here and now. So when the Holy One of God shows up in our midst and God-in-the-flesh comes up for a handshake as we exchange the peace, it’s a wakeup call. We have to pay attention to each other. Our lives and relationships matter. This is about love, and whatever obstructs love is wrong.

For an illustration of that I’d like to tell you about Marcus Borg. This past week, theology-type folks have been grieving the death of this popular teacher. A marquee name in the church, Marcus Borg was among the founders of the Jesus Seminar, a project intending as accurately as possible to uncover the “historical Jesus,” meaning not later reflections about him, but who was the guy who wandered around Palestine and said enough inflammatory things that he got killed. In some ways, this important and helpful project tries to hone in on what Jesus was really about, since knowing his engagement with culture helps us engage our own.

But along with keeping track of quotations of Jesus, Marcus Borg and his colleagues also wanted to revise or look again at some stuff like the resurrection, finding a metaphorical meaning “truer” than a literal, factual, traditional kind of meaning.

You’ve probably noticed that resurrection is kind of a big deal for us. So for the last couple of decades, this scholarship has caused a couple problematic or destructive side effects in the church. On one hand was a reaction from those who embraced Marcus Borg’s teaching so much that they looked down their noses at anybody who would still be silly enough to put creed or hope in an empty tomb. Supposing themselves to be more tolerant and realistic and cosmopolitan, at the same time they offend the honest faith of those right next to them. Like the Bible story’s smartest guy who had the unclean spirit, this side became a class of Christian elitists, puffed up with pride, claiming to know better, but too often distracting from the heart of what our faith is about and what Jesus tries to do among us.

The reverse side is those who have dug in their heels to ignore any new teaching at all. If the studies messed with their vision of God, then they wanted to stick to old Sunday School lessons and call it good. I’d say that’s not a great basis for understanding Jesus. Refusing to learn about each other prevents us from growing in relationships. So ignorance can be as obnoxiously obstructive as knowledge. Reactions puffed up in anger can selfishly resist or deny knowledge, like flat-earthers stubbornly sticking heads in the sand, putting on blinders to avoid seeing larger truths around them.

As Marcus Borg was pointing to Jesus and trying to identify him, those have been two negative byproducts. Between those entrenched sides, however, it’s interesting that he himself was insistent on engaging dialogue. He wrote books in conversation with traditional scholars. He accepted all questions at his lectures. He tried not to shame or exclude. In that way, even if Marcus Borg didn’t believe the same things about Jesus that I do, he still wanted us to be Jesus people, confronting injustice and supporting each other, inspired by God. Even when his opponents and his adherents both missed the boat, Marcus Borg was still trying to be a person of love.

That fits these readings today. If you’re puffed up in anger or puffed up thinking you know better, that divisive spirit works against what Jesus is about. If you are striving to learn from Jesus and grow in him, if you are connected into this community with the purposes of being inspired in love, then you’re probably on the right page. That is the Holy Spirit working in you, and among us, for the sake of God’s world.

Almost to conclude, then, here’s another dose of encouragement that captures this spirit on learning to love better from Martin Luther King. In one of his last sermons, he said: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”*

That gets close to the heart of why we gather here and what the Spirit of Jesus is up to. But we need to say one thing more. We’ve said our faith isn’t about how much you know (or don’t know). But neither is it only about how loving you are, as if you can keep track with checkmarks on a list. The intersection of the two may be in knowing how much you are loved by God. That is what matters and is the central reason we gather here.

Life can be a mess and we can mess up and our world can seem to be totally falling apart. The more we know the less we like what we learn, and no answer may seem right or satisfying. So the point of theology and the point of gathering here together is again and again to be able to know love, to trust through all of it that you are held in Jesus’ love. As much as the demonic powers of the world or of your selfish brain, as much as the distractions and obstructions threaten to block it, what you need to know is that Jesus clears that all away and has claimed you in love forever.

All that’s left after that is to figure out what that means.

Hymn: Although I Speak with Angel’s Tongue (ELW #644)

* “The Drum Major Instinct,” Testament of Hope, pp265-66

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Football, MLK, and What Matters

The Packers aren’t going to the Super Bowl. This adds to much writing about it, although from a less popular perspective—not to be contrary but out of concern. Among the many social media posts, my brother-in-law commented that he took out the loss on his punching bag in the garage instead of hitting his wife, my sister. It was an honest comment, one that was trying to be healthy in assessing the many positives of his life and declaring that the outcome of the football game didn’t lead to more negatives. But the note made me sick to my stomach. So did many other comments about the game.

It is, after all, a game. The point of games is that they should be fun and should probably build community or strengthen relationships, contributing to emotional health (if not physical fitness). It may be argued that the many voices of lamentation are some sort of commiseration—literally, of sharing misery, a collection of grief. Yet that strikes me as falling short of community with compassion or sympathy, words that are about sharing suffering.

Of course, I see most things through a theological lens. I can’t quite shake questions of god being where ultimate devotion and allegiance are placed, seeming to make of sports a pantheon of polytheisms. More importantly and directly, yesterday morning I preached about making distinctions on what is beneficial. I believe this is a question of caring for ourselves paired with loving and serving those around us. Is a team more important, for example, than family? What is worse than this loss?

So I’m sad and disappointed in the passionate investment over the football game. It is misplaced priority, wasted emotion. It is fruitless hope and misperceived tragedy. Notice how much happiness people put at stake: even if life hasn’t seemed that great, if only the Packers would go to the Super Bowl that would make things good. How is life actually, really, honestly better if a team you like plays another game? In the meantime, I hear of many yelling throughout the game at their TV screens. What is that anger accomplishing?

With the observance of Martin Luther King day, reflecting on a dream that continues to be deferred, on what he called the “fierce urgency of now” and the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism,” what if we invested that passion instead into improving the lives of each other, of our society, of our planet?

Instead of this being a moment where somebody—anybody—wanted to abuse his spouse, what if we were to strive and celebrate that no spouse should be abused for any reason, that we stand with those who really are hurting, that games may be fun but ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬, that there is more to life? What if our loyalty and our knowledge and dedication were invested instead in helping each other, and we refused diversions or distraction from what is truly important?

If the question even arises in your mind whether life is less valuable or fulfilling after a sports loss, shut off the game.

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