Satisfactory Faith

­­­­­sermon on John 4:5-42; Exodus 17:1-7

 

One of the enduring fallacies of our faith involves contrasting the Old and New Testaments. At times termed a heresy, while in current jargon we might label it “fake news,” this is the false distinction that the New Testament God is preferable over the Old one.

The Bible as a whole portrays God in many ways, but claiming that between Old and New there are different gods or even different approaches is dangerous for reasons from anti-Semitism to idolatry. Mostly, it’s just not a very careful reading. To imagine the Old Testament is nastiness with an angry God ignores, for example, the 23rd Psalm. And we wouldn’t know Jesus as the Good Shepherd without that shape of earlier faith to point to him.

More to the point, today we’d suspect our prejudicial presumptions reverse themselves: the Old Testament God seems more satisfying than the stuff from the New Testament. In Exodus, the people got exactly what they asked for. They grumbled that they were thirsty and—voila—they were given fresh water. Simple and direct. Sure there’s some negative description around it—that they were quarreling with Moses and maybe threatening him, and were testing whether God was among them. But apparently it was a clear and direct “yes” as they got exactly what they wanted. Who hasn’t wished for prayer to be so satisfying?

Contrast that with where we’ve been in the Gospel of John. Although last week’s passage had the perennial favorite verse John 3:16, still it’s confounding. One of our Lenten House Churches was noticing that Nicodemus not only didn’t get a clear answer; he didn’t even get to ask his question! Jesus instantly ran in some obscure direction with the conversation, and kept throwing him off by talking on a whole ‘nother level. The discussion has no conclusion, so we don’t have a sense of whether Nicodemus left even less satisfied than he started. And yet…it’s got John 3:16 and remains a favorite passage we return to over and over.

Today is a companion story with a bit different dynamics. If Nicodemus was an elite male insider with religious power stumbling toward Jesus by night, here at high noon an unnamed woman, a religious, ethnic, and cultural outcast, has a showdown with Jesus. Whereas the conversation continually got away from Nicodemus, this woman at least keeps pursuing the train of thought, even if she doesn’t arrive at the conclusion she expected.

Let’s wade into it. The reverse of with Nicodemus, here Jesus prompts the conversation. Coming to the well, he says to the woman, “give me a drink.” In what seems an unusual role of prejudice and oppression, she has to explain to him that his religious beliefs and rules wouldn’t allow that.

Jesus randomly veers to reply that she should’ve asked him for a drink. She responds logically to the ridiculous twist with one of my favorite lines in the Bible: “Sir, you have no bucket.” What could be more obvious? It quickly highlights how different it is than the Old Testament reading’s satisfying clarity. In Exodus, the people complained of thirst and were given water from the rock. In this story, the woman is told she should’ve known to ask for water and she rationally replies that this well has worked “well” (ha) for the hundreds of years since it was dug by Abraham’s grandson Jacob, so bucketless Jesus probably doesn’t have much more to offer.

But Jesus ups the ante. In southern Wisconsin-ese he essentially says, “I’m a perpetual bubbler.” The term “living water” just meant moving streams, flowing water, as opposed to standing water. Jesus says he’s got an artesian well, bubbling up, like a drinking fountain, always fresh and refreshing, and—even more—will quench thirst not just for the moment but forever. What he gives “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Now, let’s set aside this living water for living forever because the woman, still mostly on her original level, pursues the practical angle. She says, “give me this water” so I don’t have to keep schlepping out here and heaving and hauling buckets up out of this deep well. Makes sense.

But lest things become too sensible, Jesus suddenly asks about her husband. He somehow knows she’s been married five times and is currently shacked up with another guy (as our terminology might have said it). Still in our culture—much less back in her time—that would almost surely define this woman. That identity would be whispered everyplace she went. And—we should be ashamed to admit—the places she would go would probably not include church, where the whispering would’ve turned to outright scorn.

Now, I want to skip past how the woman changes the topic—with issues of whom we worship where—for a bit of background. It’s no coincidence this woman mentioned Jacob at the well. See, Jacob met his mate at a well. The local watering hole (so to speak) was a place of betrothals over and over in Old Testament stories. This is why the disciples find it strange that Jesus was chatting alone with a woman at a well: it looked to them like he was trying to pick her up.

We might agree that’s what he was trying to do, but in a much more tender and intimate (and spiritual) way than a date. For society defining a woman by whom she married, Jesus is re-placing her to give her stature outside of those confining condescending definitions. She leaves her water jar, and presumptions and —evidently refreshed with living water—becomes an evangelist, a good news bearer. She has something vital to say to the people of her city, and they listen to her. Rather realistically, it’s not that they celebrate her or put her on a pedestal, yet her role and voice is key for them.

Also fitting reality, it’s worth noting she doesn’t have it all figured out. Her message isn’t “I know the answer about God’s plan.” She’s still deliberating faith and still has doubts: it can’t be him, can it? Yet she’s confident enough to point to Jesus.

That sense of faithful “enough” is where I want to stop, about what is satisfactory (a word literally for making it enough). That seems crucial for faith, on whether you demand having all your wants satisfied, if you’ll accept nothing less than water from the rock, or if your expectations are fluid (for a play on words), if you can set aside disregard and disbelief of what a bucketless God must not be able to offer, and set aside your own water jugs and preconceived purposes, instead to find yourself filled with something surprising, inexplicable, and so delightful, reshaping your expectations, your identity, your place in community.

That’s not just in these reflections, but also as we come to this table where Jesus has chosen to give you bread and wine and himself, and considers that the ultimate gift. Can you possibly be confident enough to be satisfied with that?

I don’t have a more satisfactory closing that what I heard in visiting with Helen and Andy Remington this week: “God may not always give you what you ask for in your prayers, but you’ll probably eventually find out God is giving you something even better.”

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Expectations & Fulfillments

sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent, (Malachi3:1-4; Luke1:68-79, 3:1-6)
Even though in church, the answer is always supposed to be Jesus, if we ask who the main character is for the season of Advent, we’d be hard-pressed not to answer John the Baptist. So today, it seems worthwhile to do a recap of his life, sort of a brief bio as refresher on this important character.

Starting at the start, in the Gospel of Luke his story actually kicks off the whole saga. Luke alone tells a version where John’s mother Elizabeth and Jesus’ mother Mary are relatives. We’ll hear more about them in two weeks. But the story began with an old couple who had been unable to have children. Now, that should resonate as a standard biblical theme, going all the way back to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). And, in the Bible, we come to expect that infertility of a barren couple will be met by a miracle from God and will come to bear fruit.

Sarah laughed at the thought of the promise, of her old body knowing pleasure. And that sort of hiccup along the way is typical. So in John’s story the first character we meet is an old guy serving in the temple when suddenly the angel Gabriel showed up and told him the good news that he could expect the birth of a son, to be named John. But this old priest named Zechariah had a hiccup, a moment of doubting the promise and wondering how it could be possible. “I’m an old man,” he said, “and my wife is getting on in years.” (Maybe from that kindly finesse we expect good things from Zechariah; after all, he had sense not to refer to his wife as “old.”)

Yet for that cautious doubt, Gabriel said that he’d be unable to talk until the baby was born. So Zechariah left the temple, suddenly speechless, and Gabriel went off to pay a visit to Mary.
Then about nine months later, along came a baby. Zechariah got a chalkboard and wrote that the baby’s name should be John, just as the angel instructed, and instantly his tongue was freed and he let loose the glorious song we sang as our Psalmody, a song of a Savior sent for rescue and deliverance. This father also set high expectations for his newborn baby, singing: “And you, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”

With those enormous expectations, it’s surprising how John responded and grew into—or maybe around—them. That’s probably true for us, as well. There are times expectations make us rise to meet a challenge, and also when you’ve instead felt a strong sense of failure, that you let down the expectations. Some of those may have chased after you from your birth. Some you may have evaded, others you may have been a surprise in how you responded and how it turned out.

So perhaps Zechariah thought John would follow in his footsteps to become a priest, serving in the temple, making offerings for sins. But instead, he wound up out in the wilderness. We’re told elsewhere that he dressed like a wild man and ate bugs (Mark 1:6). Not exactly the sort of thing that makes for a proud parent, one would suspect.

Except out there in the wilderness, he was doing something to prepare the way of the Lord. And he became an immensely popular attraction, for whatever that’s worth. We’ll get more on exactly what he said next week, the strange message that is labeled as “good news” even though his first words were to denounce everybody as “you brood of vipers.”

Among those who didn’t take his firm message of repentance all that kindly is the King, Herod. In demanding moral behavior from his ruler, John was met by corruption, by a crooked way not very interested in being made straight. And so he was put in prison and beheaded on an odd, spiteful technicality.

That could have meant the end of his story–from birth to death–but it stretches beyond that framework and timespan.

For starters, Christians have read that John the Baptist was already being foreshadowed in the Old Testament. We have words from the prophet Isaiah applied to him as the voice crying out in the wilderness, making paths straight for the Lord. And our reading from Malachi hints in his direction, too, as a messenger preparing for the Lord who is coming.

But that also begins to highlight some confusions. See Malachi wasn’t just predicting that John would show up before Jesus. It wasn’t simply a future forecast. Malachi was talking for his own time, about 500 years before Jesus and John. He was calling his own people to be ready for God’s arrival, for God’s work in their midst. Again, it’s confusing even whether Malachi is talking about himself or another prophet or some heavenly being. The name “Malachi,” as your bulletins indicate, in Hebrew means “my messenger.” And our word “angel” is also the Greek word for messenger. So are angels from heaven? Are they other humans we listen to? In one Psalm (104:4), even the wind and fire can be God’s messengers.

The next confusing part is how John and Jesus seem to get mixed up. Evidently John was popular and holy enough that he had to keep reiterating that he was not the Messiah, but was just preparing the way for one who was coming after (John 1:20-23). They even seem to get mixed up with each other; Jesus asked to be baptized by John and John wanted to refuse, to have Jesus baptize him instead (Matthew 3:13-14). And when Herod heard about what Jesus was doing, he thought that John, whom he beheaded, had been raised from the dead (Mark 6:16)!

That may not be what we’d expect or where we’d have confusion arise. You may even wonder why I mention it, why I started this sermon in trying to explain, nice and orderly, John’s biography, only to inject topsy-turvy puzzling into the whole thing.

But I do it for several reasons. First, this isn’t a sermon about John the Baptist. Sermons are for you. So this is a reminder that God’s work wasn’t only in some ancient time and place, not just an isolated event. Malachi spoke to his people, a word that we understand as having value still 500 years later, and a message that we continue reading in worship now because we believe it keeps applying and speaking to us. As we turn toward the baptismal font, we expect that Malachi’s image of refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap is active. We expect God is purging you of evil and cleansing you from sin. It’s not just ancient history, but is renewed and freshly powerful for you week-by-week.

The second reason is to realize that it is, indeed, confusing—but also chock full of blessing—that we get mixed up with Jesus and God. Perhaps most often we do it when bad things happen, wondering why God caused or let it happen to us. We identify our misbehavior or the ripples of sin in our world as being partly God’s fault. But it’s also in the good you do. Do you get credit for loving your neighbor? Does all love come from God? Do you do it naturally, almost by faithful instinct?

Tying this together perhaps attunes you to God’s preparations in your life, the ways God is trying to even out what is crooked and to level out your rough spots. This is vital for our expectations of this Advent season, for how God arrives, coming to work in our midst.

The realization that your life is mixed up with Jesus means you aren’t always waiting for someone else. Malachi wasn’t just predicting that John the Baptist would be helpful 500 years later. He was claiming that mantle of proclamation, letting those words of repentance and cleansing speak to himself and to his people. That message of self-examination continues for us. We’ll get more direct reflection on repentance with John the Baptist’s preaching next week, that it is about sacrifice, about changing your way of life, giving up what you think you’re entitled to so others can live better.

This calls to mind, I expect, the silly hoopla this week about thoughts and prayers and lip-service, that this is actually about what you enact, not just outrage or frustration at others; John could have just complained about that long list of rulers at the start of the Gospel reading. Rather, this is about you and how your life is changed.

Again, then, this is a reminder that we aren’t just waiting for some special moment in history, for the arrival of the next special guardian angel or next savior or superhero or next new whatever. It wasn’t when the stars were aligned just so that John the Baptist could be born, or when exactly the right leaders were in power for his message really to resonate. It was simply at his time and place.

We have a perspective that we need new John the Baptists to fit all kinds of circumstances—that another Martin Luther King will help address ongoing racism, that a woman in power will close the gender gap, that some political leader will solve the crisis of our lives. We’d said that Sandy Hook was supposed to be the moment for gun deaths, and we’ve been saying it through tragedy after tragedy since. We said the Holocaust meant never again, yet allow genocide and senseless death to continue escalating. I was reading an article from Bruce this week about waiting for another Yitzhak Rabin to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yet we aren’t waiting for the environmental hero to fix the climate crisis with some magic bullet (to use an unfortunately violent metaphor). Neither will somebody show up with ready-made solutions to the ways we struggle to get along with each other. This isn’t about some golden age dawning on the horizon.

This is the age. This is the time. This is the place. This is always the confusing miracle of Advent. We are preparing for Jesus’ arrival in a birth that happened 2000 years ago while simultaneously expecting his arrival in the 2nd Coming, but not as if we’re twiddling our thumbs in the meantime. The paradox is that, even as we recall and even as we wait, still Jesus arrives to be with you now, speaking to you, assuring you of forgiveness and grace, of his compassion for you and from you, of love that continues to be embodied with you, of his presence at this table, filling you with his flesh and blood so that all flesh may see salvation.

You have knowledge of salvation, because your sins are forgiven. You have a savior who works constantly to rescue and deliver our hurting, fractured world. And, though it’s not the full or only story, we must believe that Zechariah’s song of hope and full of expectation finds fulfillment in your life.

Speaking of ancient words continuing to have new use and meaning, our Hymn of the Day is the first hymn I wrote here, way back in 2004.

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Waiting on Good Friday

(a sermon for Easter people)

John18:1-19:42

Before we get too overwhelmed by the depressing, deadly seriousness of this, can I pause and ask: Doesn’t that point of the story seem like an annoying commercial break? They put Jesus there…for now. You can probably picture it, in part because of bad made-for-TV adaptations of the Bible, when we’d find more drama and more value in sticking to the book version. But there’s also the feeling because this break toys with our emotions, like producers and advertisers on television do. It’s not an ending, but leaves you in suspense for what comes next.

That’s in spite of this point in the story of Jesus being presented with so much tragic finality. He’s expired, dead, buried. And yet we can hardly help but hear it as a cliffhanger. As the big stone slams shut, sealing closed that new tomb, we can envision the camera angle panning backward. We know there’s something more to come, even before the screen goes black and switches to ads for cell phones and shampoo and all those other things that try to claim our interest.

Yet unlike the televised word from the sponsors, within the Gospel reading, we don’t have the benefit of distractions to fill the pause. Yes, I said commercials can be beneficial, for passing the time, even for making us believe that other things are more important. Instead, in this reading we’re left with no pleasant disruptions or musical intermissions. Just a long hard pause. From this whole huge reading today, the last words we hear are “the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” The next verse would resume “Early on the first day of the week.” So the crucifixion, the death, the burial of Jesus take place before sunset on Friday. It’s not until early Sunday morning (“while it was still dark”) that the time out is finally over and we get back to the story, to wrap it all up with the dramatic conclusion. That’s a terrible, miserable wait, if we were on the edge of our seats, holding our breath for how it would be resolved.

Now, we have seen this movie before. We know what’s coming. We may really like the ending, even if it’s not a surprise. But we don’t get to skip to the end. We have to suffer through the long wait, albeit with all kinds of nice distractions of real-life channel surfing to divert our attention instead to spring weather and yard work and family gatherings and fish fries and spring break vacations and, of course, a basketball game.

I’m not arguing against those other points of life. We believe the God-given-ness in daily details are exactly the reason why Jesus lived and died among us and for us. So it’s not that we should be sitting here quietly in the sanctuary waiting for Easter finally to dawn. Neither should we pretend amnesia. We do indeed wait to celebrate the resurrection, but it’s not like we don’t know that that’s coming. As important as Good Friday is, and central as the cross is for our symbols and the shape of our faith, still if Sunday hadn’t come then we wouldn’t be gathered on this Friday. This dark day can only be called Good in the light of what’s coming. The filled tomb is worth our attention because it will be emptied. We don’t need to ignore those outcomes today, or to act as if we don’t know what comes after the commercial break.

Yet here in this moment, we are confronted with the pause, with a moment for reflection. We might even say it forces us to ponder this part of the story, to face it and accept it. We can’t just quickly skip on to the resolution of a happy ending. We are Easter people always stuck on Good Friday. We believe and trust that we’ll be part of what’s coming, but we don’t have it yet. We’re still waiting.

In the meantime, in these last verses are two characters, one as a guide for us, the other as a model of what not to do. The first is Joseph of Arimathea, who takes the body of Jesus down from the cross. In that, we might notice that he obeys the law. He goes to Pilate and asks for permission. It’s an interesting detail, and an ongoing struggle for us. Pilate, after all, was the one in charge who executed Jesus. We mark him in infamy each time we say in the Creed that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” He himself said he had power to release Jesus, but didn’t do that. And yet Joseph of Arimathea obeys him.

So we Christians who say that Christ is King, that Jesus is Lord, that we have no God but God and not Caesar, not the rulers and powers of our age, we who expect that our citizenship is in heaven and seek to dwell in the kingdom of God, we’ve got this ongoing struggle of how to respond when governments and authorities and society don’t live up to our standards, when they may be corrupt and do the wrong thing.

If we’re picturing this like a modern movie, it’s easy to imagine that when the hero gets killed—when the villain takes out the good guy—it could create an insurrection, a rebellion, an uprising, that all his followers would seize that moment of martyrdom, trying to avenge their fallen leader—what we might call “pulling a Peter.” Yet with the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, doesn’t pick a fight with the bad guys. Surrounded by wrong, he tries to do right. That may guide how we react and interact, in advocacy, or in trying to make bad situations better.

The other character and example for us may be more about our relationship with God in Jesus. Nicodemus first showed up on a Sunday in mid-March. As we were reminded today, he had come to Jesus by night. He was a leader of the Pharisees, a consummate religious insider, but he was in the dark, still questioning, wondering what Jesus was up to, trying to figure out how Jesus was making God’s presence known.

He’s still unenlightened with Jesus’ death. He’s trying to do the right thing and show extraordinary devotion, but he’s got it confused. He’s treating Jesus like a king, but like a dead king. This funeral ceremony that Nicodemus has planned is more lavish than the re-burial of King Richard III, who had to linger half a millennium for the honor. Nicodemus shows up with all kinds of embalming spices and a hundred pounds of ointments. He’s going to bury Jesus, and—by God—it’s going to be in style. It’s ridiculously elaborate.

But it’s also ridiculous because it shows Nicodemus absolutely doesn’t get it. The fool is squandering devotion on the past, while entirely failing to recognize what is yet to come. For him, this is the sad fanfare of the closing credits and not a commercial break before the real excitement resumes.

If we think that’s all she wrote for God’s story of blessing in Jesus, then we’ve got another think coming. We’ve underestimated God’s insistence on righting our wrongs, on persisting through our failures, on loving us beyond hatred, on renovating our brokenness, on showering grace on the tragedies of our sinfulness. We fail even to see that our sinfulness isn’t so much in being evil like Pontius Pilate instead of obedient like Joseph of Arimathea. The rotten core of our sin is that we don’t expect more from God. We misbelieve. We try to spray some air freshener in a tomb and perfume on the dead guy and say, “Oh, doesn’t he look so natural and peaceful.”

Jesus won’t put up with that, though, won’t lay in a casket, dressed up by an undertaker. And he sure won’t just rest in peace. So we’d better reset our expectations and keep our eyes peeled for more to come from him and for us.

There’s a phrase that fits well for this moment, for this long tragic pause, with uncertainty of what comes next and how to deal with it. I learned it at Dan Banda’s funeral last autumn. His mantra was, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried. But somehow it wasn’t goodbye, not the end. It was tragic and wrong, but the story wasn’t over. There’s more to come.

That seems easy enough to gloss past heading toward Easter morning with this old story. But even more, we should be expecting more of God right now. Because this is Jesus’ story, it is also ours. This message is hardest for us, in moments like for Dan Banda’s son. Josh was in college in upper Michigan when he was told his dad had died suddenly. It’s hard enough to see his own story continuing well after that terrible break. It’s a time when we’d content ourselves with looking back, with getting on with distractions of life. It is a miserable interruption.

Yet that pause is even more unsettling and breathtaking since the move with Jesus from Good Friday toward Easter means that sickness, separation, death, despair, resentment, injustice, the shattering of hopes—these may be terrible fractures and fearsome pauses, but still they are only commas. God in Jesus has more to come.

Waiting with that vision is how this time may be called Good.

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Stop Dis-membering the Body

Sermon for 7Sept14        

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

Welcome home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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