Lord of Flies, Lord of Life

sermon on Matthew10:24-39; Romans6:1b-11
Having returned from the Boundary Waters, I can quickly admit we are not always at our most presentable. After a week of not showering, scraggly facial hair and using my only comb once, bug bites all over and mud smears on my clothes, that’s not how I generally (for example) try to show up on Sunday mornings.

But from that wild unkempt sense, I also want to start with “Lord of the Flies,” especially since the name “Beelzebul” in our Gospel reading gets converted to mean “Lord of the Flies.” (It sometimes is also referenced as “Master of Dung.”)

Anyway, I toyed with the notion of bringing “Lord of the Flies” along to read to my Boundary Waters group, but I decided that a story about a group of young people off in the wilderness who turned to the worst possible outcomes of being murderous maybe wasn’t the most sensible reading choice.

Yet now, returned from the wilderness, I’m nevertheless confronted by the same situation in this difficult Gospel reading, as it’s not only about the least presentable Bible reading we’d like to have, but it seems to embody some of our worst tendencies or outcomes. Maybe that it makes us uncomfortable is a good sign, at least.

So for those who don’t know the story, “The Lord of the Flies” is a book about a group of boys stranded on an island. They begin organizing themselves with systems to establish order—for who takes care of shelter and fire and food and cooperating on decisions. But they then veer toward laziness and fear and brutal aggression. We might tend to label the boys’ decline as returning to primal instincts from civilized behavior. We’re apt to describe society as good and the wild as bad. We also get diverted to believe our flesh and bodies and daily existence in this world are sinful and that we’re trying to escape to a more religious and spiritual and heavenly existence. But we can’t quite agree with those labels. The boys in the book had been scared of a beast, but it isn’t separate from them or part of nature. The island isn’t to blame; we get the much more terrifying insight that the Lord of the Flies is inescapably among and within them, dehumanizing themselves.

Against that, let’s consider what it means to be truly human, to be seen as good creatures of God, made in the image of God, to live with the life God intends for us. That is really what’s at stake here in the diabolical confrontation of what controls our lives.

To understand that, we can start to dive into this hard Gospel reading with one of the most important biblical distinctions for what it means to be human. Brace yourselves, because this may be uncomfortable. If you have a sense that someplace inside of you is a soul, that there’s a divine little spark, waiting to rejoin God even though the rest of you will decompose (and has already begun to decompose and rot and wear out as you age), if you think that flesh is corrupt, but there’s an ideal truer inner self, then you are not on track for how the Bible sees your humanity. In the Bible, there is no separate soul. Your soul does not go to heaven. You don’t have an invisible spirit that flies away when you die. That isn’t how the Bible talks about this. That is Greek philosophy. That is Plato and is a perversion of the Bible’s sense of God’s good creation.

That’s why it’s so important to understand, because that dualism incorrectly labels life here as bad, as ungodly. That directly contradicts God who says this is good, who says this is so good and loved this world so much that God wanted to be part of it, to come and share our existence, to be incarnate in Jesus. This is also why we talk about the resurrection of the body, because you’re all you. There isn’t a piece that can be separated out. If something of you will exist after death, it needs to be—and God wants it to be—the whole you.

Now, if you’re not only uncomfortable with that but are also the argumentative type, you may point out that the Gospel reading mentions your “soul,” as “fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”

Well, that shows an infected translation. The original word there is “psyche.” It’s a word we know as part of “psychology” (which we obviously don’t define as the study of souls). It may be helpful to know that psyche is also in the last verse translated as “life,” (“those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”). Life is a better sense of what psyche means in the Bible. It’s about truly living, about the life God intends, about being who and how we’re meant to be.

One example* I read this week illustrated it by saying that the loss of life during World War 2 isn’t only measured by the body count of soldiers, but also by Germans following Hitler and being corrupted by Nazi ideals in a way that truly defaced humanity, chasing after power and seeking to exterminate their siblings instead of loving and helping them in their time of need. (We do use the term “soul” in this sense, too, for when a nation is so misguided it has collectively “lost its soul.”) And in that sort of instance, we could pretty readily say that that’s not the sort of life that God intends. In a very honest way, life was being destroyed, thrown out to trash heap of burning refuse.

World War 2 was also a stark instance of the division that these tensions create. For Jesus’ notion of bringing a sword to strike against those who would abandon the goodness of life, some might take even so much as the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in that light. That may be too stark, though, as I’d wonder about the cure being as bad as the disease. Still, it leads us to the sense of divisiveness Jesus describes. If we are standing on the side of life, it must mean we are opposed to what would steal it away or destroy it. In the early Christian community, some of that difficult sense was likely even present in families, so the divisions Jesus names weren’t prescriptive but descriptive for those who were having to face the hard realities of life not going as it should.

This soul-threatening destruction is also the sense in the book “Lord of the Flies.” Those young people on the jungle island turned from supporting each other and caring for each other instead toward Beelzebub and that corrupting influence. Even while they still lived, they lost what the point of life was. They didn’t need to bow down to idols to lose track of the goodness God intends in their lives. The way of death came to hold dominion or dominance in their existence instead of the way of life.

That brings us directly to the reading from Romans. Alongside the divisive Gospel reading, this may feel quite pleasant. But I also want us to pause with it to continue hearing some shock. As it talks about baptism, and as we are preparing to turn toward the font for Rakesh Allen in just a minute, I’ve been feeling this passage this week not only with our standard Lutheran ears but also with Rakesh’s mother’s ears, with non-Christian Hindu ears. As we said to begin, this may not present ourselves with our best foot forward, because it could be terrifying that the reading proclaims what we’re doing in these waters is putting her son to death, co-crucifying him with Jesus, killing his old self. For this nine-month old, we probably maintain a notion of innocence and original blessedness, of the goodness of God’s creation. For Rakesh, we’d likely be ready to argue against Plato who wanted to claim that this life is corrupt.

But if we don’t see babies as bad, why is Rakesh being put to death? Why do we claim he needs a new life?

For that, the importance of this sacrament is in its proclamation of dominion, of who or what is Lord, and who can control our existence. This precisely is a statement against the corrupt and defiling ways. In the baptismal service, we state it as a rejection of sin, of turning away from the forces of evil, the devil, and his empty promises. You’ll be invited to join in that rejection with a hearty and lively “I renounce them!” As much as they try to convert and spoil you, to subvert the goodness, to turn you toward fears and frustrations and feuds, baptism gives you the power to say “No!”

In a strange sense, our Christian theology proclaims that those powers of evil are defeated at the very moment they seemed to be victorious. Jesus can risk sharing with you that “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose life will find it” because in the ultimate sense that’s exactly what happened to him. The death-dealing powers of oppressive might and greedy influence put Jesus to death. In that would be the clearest example that their dominion won, their lordship prevailed. But in the resurrection, we proclaim that their way of death was only a lordship of stink, the mastery of dung. Death had been undone by the Lord of life.

And what we proclaim in baptism for Rakesh and for you is that those deadly powers are now impotent. They have no control over you. The Lord of the Flies has lost, has been exterminated. Since you have died with Jesus to evil and sin and live now only to God’s ways. The only thing that can rule for you now is life. That is what finally has control. So even while the old ways continue to try to corrupt or cause consternation, you can retort that you have been baptized and can find encouragement and stand steadfast that God’s goodness will not be undone, that resurrection gives you confidence in the Lord of life. With that assurance, you are free to join in sharing the risk of the struggle for life, not just for yourself in the survival of the fittest, but on behalf of all of God’s good creation.

So let’s get ready for it, as it’s renewed in ourselves and as we witness Rakesh Allen is enlisted not only for the struggle, but celebrating that he is alive, now and forever.

 

* http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/proper_7a/

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a funeral sermon

IreneWith Thanksgiving for the Life of Irene Josephine Rasmussen

September 1, 1919 + July 13, 2016

Exodus 20:9-12; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 14:27-28

 

“How long?” is a familiar question amid the Bible’s Psalms, a repeated refrain, even a persistent demand. I’ll come back to the Psalm later, because it takes a different tone, but let’s stick with the phrase “How long,” as it’s been on my mind in these weeks and months for Irene and since her death.

“How long!” might well begin as an exclamation for Irene. Her nearly 97 years made her the second-oldest member of this congregation, and well above most any expectation for life.

That time stretches back to the kind of farm life that hardly exists anymore and a Norwegian identity that has mostly been melted and blended into American culture. “How long” was such a length for her that it involves the increasingly rare trait of being shaped by the Great Depression, with thrift and endeavoring after careful and wise living. Irene could remember when their large garden produced almost all of her family’s food and that she didn’t have store-bought clothes for years, but only those made by her mother. She could recall when her father traveled to have a job with the Works Progress Administration, and—maybe even more remarkable for its contrast to this current culture—the overwhelming sense of optimism that went with hearing a speech from FDR. It sure feels like it must be a long time ago for somebody to say they were inspired positively by a politician!

The “how long” isn’t only a distance in the past, though, but also a duration. We can certainly celebrate that Irene and Paul’s marriage lasted for 65 years, which likely didn’t feel too long at all. And we can celebrate all they enjoyed through the course of those years, especially in travels to camp: Maine, the Black Hills, Montreal for the Expo, and much more. A couple weeks on the road each summer, and almost a month of the year spent camping out. That’s a lot, a long time to be outside. On those voyages, following after “are we there yet,” “how long” may also have been a question from a son in the back seat.

Those camping trips inspired a couple of the hymns (How Great Thou Art and Beautiful Savior) and Bible passages we heard this morning. The Exodus reading is actually part of the 10 Commandments given to Moses while the people were camping in the wilderness at Mount Sinai. I like the part about honoring father and mother because it offers an encouragement, a blessing: “so that your days may be long in the land.” It’s such a good biblical phrase for the “how long” of life and enjoying the world.

And the previous commandment about honoring the sabbath with rest also seems to fit with the recreation of those camping trips with Irene, of pausing to enjoy the world around you, of breaking from regular routines of life, and observing nature and the glories of creation and life around you.

Similarly, the vision of Revelation isn’t a description of the heaven we are destined for, but is a grand assurance and broad insistence that in spite of all that goes wrong, we share the blessings of life with a multitude, humans from all times and places, and all creatures, on earth and in the skies and under the earth and in the seas, as it says. A beautiful notion of praise, I expect it is part of the worship that Irene found on camping trips.

It’s also a vision that fits this occasion, of being brought back together with those who have been through ordeals and suffering, of God’s ongoing striving for redemption and to wipe away tears, of the baptismal springs of resurrection to new life. Good words, carrying us into the “how long” of eternity that stretches out in front of Irene and awaits us.

But before we get there, we also need to pause with the Psalm’s sort of “how long,” asking “How long shall I have perplexity in my mind and grief in my heart, day after day?” (13:2) It’s not a cheery question, but that “how long” was more the sense that I knew in my brief months with Irene, and which she had been headed toward over the past several years.

Sometimes “how long” is a lament, a prayer to God, a question of yearning. That certainly must have been the case for Irene at the tragedies of death, for her son David, and grandson Jonathan, and when she lost her husband, and her siblings, and so many friends. That is certainly a hard down-side to longevity.

And we wondered the question for Irene, too. How long will dementia worsen? How long until she isn’t able to recognize me? How long before a worse fall? How long will she be able to last? How long will this life go on?

Asking those harder parts of “how long” isn’t to say the situation was desperate. “How long” also meant important time of care from Paul and Maria. Irene did remember family and longtime friends. She remembered her childhood. She delighted in the visits from her church circle and could relate very well. She eagerly welcomed me as her new pastor, often over and over again during our visits. She continued to be eager to receive communion.

And maybe that’s part of our answer to the question, that in some ways we don’t know “how long.” We don’t know what will last or what’s coming next. Besides good times, we have plenty of anxieties that surround and lurk after us. Yet this faith turns us continually back to God and repeated assurance of hope, inspiring us perhaps with patience, but also promising the peace that surpasses all understanding, such as the world cannot give.

So that is for you now, for the “how long” of these ongoing days without Irene and for the rest of life: the peculiar assurance that your hearts need not be troubled or afraid. Somehow, in spite of it all, your “how long” is held in the promise of God’s embrace, that Jesus is with you forever and always.

I want to conclude with a couple words about our next hymn (When Memory Fades, ELW 792). For “how long,” we could’ve sung Amazing Grace’s notion that “when we’ve been there 10,000 years…we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” Instead we’ll sing this hymn with its strong text, perhaps almost too strong. In that, there’s some yes and no of how these words do and don’t apply to Irene and for our gathering today. I’m hoping that you find value in them for what they do say, perhaps even in spite of the hard honesty of the laments of “how long.” But if it doesn’t exactly make you feel like the resurrection praise we heard about from all creation in the Revelation reading (and our opening and closing hymns are probably better for that), still this one is a great tune, and for Irene’s love of symphonic music, it’s worth singing with gusto.

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Jesus, Marriage, Divorce, and More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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