Free from the Babysitter

sermon on Galatians 3:1-9,23-29

 

You’ll be shocked to hear that I was called a geek this week.

It partly related to pointing out June 25th will be the 489th anniversary of a definitive Lutheran statement, including that the church is “the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments administered.” In 1530, Lutherans had to present an accounting of their beliefs, and that bit has stood as our main definition of the church ever since.

Now, I don’t care if you are also ready to call me a geek. Mostly I care that you know what church is.

So I’ll begin by congratulating you: being here involves you in what it means to be the church, as you listen to preaching and receive sacraments, turning again to the waters of baptism and to be fed at the Lord’s table. Here you are connected to the crucified Jesus, as he his set forth in proclamation, and as we again proclaim the resurrection with new life breaking free and spreading: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

For one thing, this means we don’t define church as a building. So much for “here is the church, here is the steeple.” No, church isn’t a place you go; it’s people you’re with.

Another distinction is about all of us here, and far, far beyond. It’s not just an assembly of believers, but the assembly around the world, and across time. We all become the church. And that big, big group is very different than trying to define church as under a pope or a bishop or pastor. For us, leadership doesn’t define the church. In fact, the descriptions go on to say I’m not exactly a leader of this congregation, but a servant. I’m here simply because you need to hear preaching and receive sacraments. I’m at your beck and call for that. You ask for somebody to tell you about Jesus, so I do. I’m grateful you even pay me for doing it.

One other distinction seems more often to affect our sense of what church is: we want to think of church (or believe about ourselves) that it is about doing good and being good.

Not to single them out but illustrating our general notion, in Confirmation this week with students and mentors, thoughts were mainly that church is about being helpful or kind. It means All Are Welcome. Plus we’ve got a garden.

To be clear: I’m in favor of all of that. I hope those are feelings you have about Advent and the MCC and are stories you tell about us. But it’s pretty darn risky as a definition of church.

Similarly, for core identity of church, there’s a banner in the Covenant Room with nine statements labeling a version of what it might mean to “be the church,” things like protect the environment, care for the poor, fight racism, enjoy this life. Once again, I’m absolutely in favor of those. I hope that it’s not just great UCC PR, but fits us in the broader church, too. I want them to be what happens.

But I reiterate: that’s risky. It is risky because those may fail. I may get too comfortable in my white supremacy and ignore racism. Or if I leave a light switch on and hop on another plane and don’t protect the environment. Or if I don’t show much hospitality even though I’ve said All Are Welcome. Or if the garden gets flooded out. Or if I’m not very helpful or kind. Then that has undone what we’d claimed it meant to be the church.

We’d better pause to consider: if the church is about what we do, it’s at risk. And it rapidly becomes pointlessly redundant. Not only can I try protecting the environment apart from church and this group of people, but plenty of people who don’t come to church do it a lot better. So that had better not be our definition.

So instead of church being something we do, let’s realize it mainly happens to us. Instead of making our actions or attitudes the center of church, it is really about Jesus. It is what God is doing for us in Jesus, being in relationship, reaching out, renewing us. And then we’re aware that the main place church can happen and we receive faith is here in worship.

If it’s not about what we do, but about what God gives us in Jesus, we also understand the historic emphasis on his death and resurrection. It doesn’t neglect the life and ministry of Jesus, but is a prioritizing distinction. Again, if we thought church were mainly learning what Jesus did so we could try to go and do likewise, we’d be sorely disappointed, disenchanted, and misdirected. Death and resurrection isn’t something we can do. This is proclamation of a new reality.

This is what’s going on in Galatians. Faith vs. a category Paul names “works of the law.” We could substitute in “things we do,” all the shoulds and oughts, stuff supposed to make us feel right, but with false confidence on one hand and horrible accusation too often on the reverse.

For such instructions, as a kid “Be nice to your sister,” was an indicator insisting I wasn’t being very nice, and it still met a minimal response from me.

More largely, Paul asks why we are so thoughtlessly beguiled, seduced, or bewitched to think that’s how it should work, with rules to follow and imagining we can prove we’re doing it right. Here in 21st Century North America, it’s clearly because that’s the water we’re swimming in. You’re not only told to be nice to your little sister, but how to apply lotion to avoid wrinkles and keep cavities at bay, plus behaviors for allegedly avoiding cancer. There’s what kind of car will make you macho, or safe in bad weather. What is the right diet is followed by what is now the righter diet, and then what is really the right diet. Guilty feelings come for failing at being a better partner or parent or child or employee, with an abundance of ideas and suggestions for improving. There’s what you’re supposed to be in charge of to avoid getting arrested or needing an abortion. There’s how you are successful in life, with grades and resumes and five year plans. Not to mention phone plans.

We might notice it’s an exceptional privilege to imagine we have capacity to address those things and many more, which we wouldn’t in another place or time. But it’s also an incredible burden, destined for disappointment, fraught with failure. Our self-doubt ironically signals the foolishness of such searching for self-confidence. What we try to do for reassurance leaves us all-the-more susceptible to despair.

It’s not entirely negative. There are good things to do; it was right to be told not to hit my sister.

But there’s something a little childish about being mesmerized into all of it.

That goes with the word “babysitter” in my re-translation of this Bible passage. The actual Greek word is “pedagogue,” which we associate with a teacher. But originally this person was on the way to school. It literally means “child-leader,” A pedagogue would walk a child to school, keeping them safe and out of trouble along the way. Kind of like daycare outings when children have to hold onto a rope in single file. That’s what Paul says the law is like. A babysitter along the way.

With that, maybe you have the sense why this isn’t ideal. You’ve got plenty that is vying for your attention, claiming to be the right rope to hold onto to get you safely across life’s streets and keep you from straying too far. You’ve got a whole herd of competing babysitters who want to watch over you and tell you how incapable you are.

You certainly don’t need the church to be one more version of that, to come here expecting that we are just another babysitter, another pedagogue, another set of rules to live by and to-do lists for a supposed happy, healthy, productive life. You don’t need it, and you’d have no reason to trust it in such a competitive marketplace anyway.

What’s more, that’s not how God is going to treat you. Sure, motivations and coercions and guidelines are helpful in their proper place. But God isn’t going to keep treating you like a toddler with a bad attention span.

Instead, God has freed you to live. You are clothed in Christ, trying on unlimited resurrected life. God puts the Holy Spirit into you through this worship service to go out, not just to follow rules or be confined into small roles. You have inherited the blessing. You receive the gift of faith, bestowing on you the inheritance from God. This is last will and testament language in the Bible reading. God’s estate has been conferred to you, not only as a steward for mid-level management, but as the full inheritor, the owner, the responsible adult.

Still more stunning, God is doing this, conferring this identity on you, regardless of who you are or have been or thought you were.

There is no insider to this blessing, as in that old category of neither Jew nor Greek; all are God’s people.

There is neither slave nor free, meaning your social status doesn’t confer it. Those were citizenship categories, of who had a voice in the nation. We could still say you aren’t entitled to more or less as citizen vs. undocumented immigrant or refugee. And if God is for it, who can be against?

Then, “there is not male and female.” I couldn’t find explanations, but I think maybe Paul switches terms from “neither/nor” to not male “and” female to highlight creation story language from Genesis, that “God created them male and female, in the image of God.” That was already a strong statement: all genders are created in the image of God and seen as very good. But maybe Paul is even more saying you’re not just living into the old gender-assigned roles. And in an old culture where only male children—only sons—could inherit the father’s property, Paul is negating that restriction. All of you inherit God’s blessing, God’s promise, this life in Jesus, this adulthood in faith.

The gift of these expansive redefining relationships given by God’s relationship with us is embodied in the Immigrant Creed that Sonja shared in the Facebook group this week, and which we’ll use as our statement of faith in just a moment. And notice again it’s about God and not about what we do.

This is what God is creating right here in this worship service. This is what God is doing in the church always, around the world, through all time, proclaiming an assurance, to free you not only from oughts and shoulds, but freeing you to live.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

NSRV (Nick’s Special Re-done Version) of Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

 
You thoughtless Galatians, who has beguiled you? Wasn’t the crucified Jesus Christ set forth in proclamation before your eyes? 2 I only want to know this from you: is it from works of the law you received the Spirit, or from faith preached? 3 Are you so unthinking, beginning with the Spirit but now ending with the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so much for nothing? (If indeed it was for nothing.) 5 So is the Spirit given to you and powerful works done among you because of works of the law, or faithful preaching?
 
6 Just as Abraham “had confidence in God, and it was considered to him as righteousness,” 7 you know the faithful are the children of Abraham. 8 The scripture foresaw that by faith God would set right the nations, and proclaimed the good news beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” 9 So the faithful are blessed with the faithfulness of Abraham.
 
23 Before faith came, we were being kept confined under the law, until faith was destined to be unveiled. 24 Thus the law was our babysitter until Christ came, when we would be set right from faith. 25 So faith came, and we are no longer under a babysitter: 26 you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 and all you baptized into Christ are dressed in Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And since you are of Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, inheriting what has been promised.

 

 

from The Immigrant’s Creed

Jose Luis Casal, General Missioner, Tres Rios Presbytery, PCUSA


I believe in Almighty God, who guided the people in exile and in exodus,

the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, the God of immigrants.

I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean, born away from his home,

who fled his country with his parents when his life was in danger,

and suffered the oppression of a tyrant of a foreign power,

who was persecuted, tortured, and unjustly condemned to death.

But on the third day, this scorned Jesus rose from the dead,

to offer us citizenship in heaven.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,

who speaks all languages, lives in all countries, and reunites all races.

I believe that the church is the secure home for all who constitute it,

the diverse Communion of the Saints who have the same purpose.

I believe in the reconciliation, which identifies us

more than does language, nationality, [social status, or gender].

I believe that in the resurrection God unites us as one people

in which all are distinct and all are alike at the same time.

Beyond this world, I believe in Life Eternal

in which all will be citizens of God’s kingdom, which will never end. Amen

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Lynne Schultzwis167399-1_20170418

23 February 1968 + 17 April 2017

Psalm23; Romans8:31-39; John14:1-6

 

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

I bring, first, apologies: I had been eager to be with you for the visitation, but instead spent an hour driving the wrong way out of Madison for some reason.

From Madison, I also bring greetings from sisters and brothers of Advent Lutheran and Madison Christian Community, from many who have loved and prayed for Lynne, including my colleague, Pastor Sonja Ingebritsen.

Amid that congregation, I’ve been stunned recalling that it was just over a year ago that I met Lynne in the hospital, as her new pastor. Though I knew her less than most of you and journeyed through health struggles more briefly than you who had been part of the long, long haul, I’ve felt so connected to her. Some of that was her openness in sharing, including her knowledge, that she was proud to be her own advocate and could understand and explain these strange procedures she was having to face. Her gratitude for care and support—both from professionals and family and friends—also exemplified her personality.

Most notable, though, was almost certainly Lynne’s exuberance and great big laugh. In the ups and downs of illness, they were great moments of relief when her laugh returned. In places of sickness, she was the infectious one. An unfortunate upside was that nurses, doctors, and more also came to love Lynne and delight in her and could enjoy being in her room for those few minutes.

Though she was stuck in hospital rooms so often and focused on her healing, she wasn’t confined there. I got glimpses of Lynne’s vibrancy as she eagerly talked about connections with friends and what was going on in their lives, as well as current political frustrations and life on the other side of the world in Palestine and books she was reading and music and new ideas for spirituality groups and—boy!—did she like to talk about the garden at church and what was growing and how she wanted to be back getting her fingers dirty among friends.

That also leads to some of my larger point, not about church so specifically, but about what Lynne was yearning for and wanting and how that fit into the shape of her life, including right up to this moment now.

See, amid each setback that Lynne faced, or as she continued to strive forward with each medical possibility, in struggling to be well, Lynne thought about what the next steps would be. I came into the scene not too long before she got the LVAD heart pump, which was already far along in the discernment and decisions of the process. And from there it was dealing with bleeds and the thought of bypass to get her closer toward the transplant list and on and on. In all of this, Lynne realized what the next steps were, what it would take to proceed and get back to the life she wanted to have. Typically for somebody with Lynne’s upbeat personality, we’d label this sort of focus on future possibilities as “optimism.”

But I don’t want to use that term for Lynne, because optimism tends to be a cheeriness with rose-colored glasses that ignores harder details. That wouldn’t fit Lynne. What Lynne was was hopeful, which is also important to say for us here now.

The week after I met Lynne, I referenced her in my Good Friday sermon. She said her experiences gave her a deeper understanding of Holy Week, of Jesus on the cross, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That may seem the opposite of hopeful, but in Lynne it wasn’t. Even then, she was longing, knowing, and trusting that God’s presence should and would be with her. Indeed, the forsaken feeling of God abandoning her directly paired with God’s presence for her, with a sense of reassurance, that every word of prayer was heard and embraced and responded to by God. Her Good Friday feeling was at a cross-section with the joy and delight of Easter, that separation was not the end.

Hope means even amid our Good Friday moments we’re not separated from God. That’s why Lynne cherished receiving Jesus’ presence in communion at those times. It’s also in a song she shared not long ago, a gospel song by Iris Dement. It’s a lovely, gentle song about Jesus confronting illness and suffering and need. The refrain goes like this: “Well he reached down, he reached down. He got right there on the ground. He reached down, he reached down And he touched the pain.”

That pairs well with an old hymn Lynne kept around on songsheets after a visit from Pastor Sonja. This one you might know to join in: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry ev’rything to God in prayer! Oh, what peace we often forfeit; oh, what needless pain we bear—all because we do not carry ev’rything to God in prayer.” That’s not wishy-washy optimism that things are turning out hunky-dory. It knows there are pains and panics, that we bear grief and our sin. But God reached down and Jesus bears it with us and for us.

So the word of hope isn’t that things get easier, but that God will bring us through it. That pairs with our Bible readings, that neither hardship nor distress nor death separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That is hope. As in the 23rd Psalm, God’s presence is with us in pleasant and refreshing times of abundant contentment, but also in valleys, when it’s so dark we can’t see a glimmer of light and feel so utterly alone. Even there, the Good Shepherd abides with you, bringing you through that to dwell in his house forever.

That word of being brought out of death to Easter life could certainly be sufficient today. You walked with Lynne deep in darkness through Holy Week last week, had to confront death you should not have had to, the cross, the suffering and loss in the story of Jesus and also in your reality with her. And beyond that, she leads you in hope into the promise of new life, of resurrection, of being reunited at a feast into the grand heavenly chorus.

But I want to conclude in offering one more scriptural metaphor that Lynne had been clinging to in these last months: that of wandering in the wilderness. Like when God’s people were led out of slavery in Egypt and spent 40 years unsure when—or maybe whether—they would arrive at the Promised Land, with delays and doubts and yet also constant miracles and the practice of caring community around them. That was Lynne’s metaphor. Again, this is not of optimism but of hope. As she was encouraging patience and persistence in the long journey for those around her, she began also to grow frustrated at how she wasn’t making steps forward, at least not in the way she’d originally been planning, for life to work out how she wanted. But she did expect to be led out of the wilderness and into God’s promise. It’s just that in recent months she became aware that that path might lead through death and into new life. That wilderness waiting is a terrible place to be, but now we gather together rejoicing in the promise for Lynne, clinging to it yet more dearly for ourselves. Even when our steps are unclear or troubled, we have hope in God’s love that there is a way to life: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

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a very little faith

sermon for 28 June 15 (Mark 5:21-43; 2Corinthians 8:7-15; Lamentations 3:22-33)
[Paul tries to encourage generosity, such a simple, benign detail it could get lost amid big stories of the destruction of Jerusalem and health calamities met with miracles. How do we attend to the day-to-day small stuff?]
We’re often told to “think big,” to “imagine a new world,” or to let our dreams soar. Instead today, let’s get small. Let’s for a moment stop dreaming so big and instead shrink our expectations. To say it more precisely, instead of painting in broad strokes, let’s do some fine-tuning of faith.

This idea is probably going to take some explanation. First of all, this is not to state that you cannot change the world but you can change yourself so do that instead. No. As Christians, we are indeed to be mindful and concerned about and working on changing the world, things like ending malaria and world hunger, like war, like billion dollar budgets and centuries old prejudices. And, biggest of all, that we need to reform our lifestyles which are changing the planet and threatening billions of people and the extinction of species. Yeah, this is huge stuff. But this is our territory, and it’s just plain not right to say you can shut off the news and shut out the world and be a happy little Christian on your own.

Neither, as we’ll see, is this getting small about lowering your expectations of God, of what God is capable of and is indeed up to in your life and for your sake. That all stays nearly unbelievably enormous.

Our task today may be to attend to the smaller, less dramatic stuff, too. As an example: we’ve been given terminology by the insurance industry that says natural disasters are “acts of God,” but in this week of Vacation Bible School, we also spent time exploring outdoors because Martin Luther reminded us that God was just as present in the “tiniest tree leaf.” If our eyes are focused only on huge catastrophes, what do we miss in the small scale of God’s presence?

Now, it’s true that the big stuff can open our awareness. Rather than the worst things driving us away from God, instead that may be when we most seek the connection. Sometimes faith finds you in the most frightful moments. In times of tragedy or facing death can be when we’re most likely to wonder where God is and what God means for us, to try to seek a blessing that speaks a strong word against the overwhelming tones of misfortune.

Our 1st reading did that in a massive way, facing the collapse of civilization.  But that scale seems to fit also with our Gospel reading, right? There are these two big, hard circumstances, the woman suffering in the crowd and the father of the sick little girl. It’s tough to say which person is more…well, the first word that comes to mind is desperate. But that’s not exactly it. See, the word “despair” means “without hope,” hopeless, but these two people somehow still do have hope. That’s why they’re seeking Jesus. Maybe this shows us what a fine line it is, between what we hope and where hope seems lost, that narrow cusp between the relief of good news that sustains our lives and the precipice of bad news that ends in sadness. But not needing to live by extremes is part of where we’re headed with all this, that God is not only last minute make-or-break worst-case-scenario deathbed conversion stuff.

At any rate, the two characters in the Gospel reading are both hoping in Jesus. More than the miracle, the focus is that Jesus is amid regular life, so probably best would be for us to notice that these are ordinary people, that there’s no special claim to blessing, nothing to make it earned. Yet we don’t let it stand as regular life; we have a bad tendency to label people by their brokenness. So, in the story one problem is chronic, with physical and social suffering that has persisted for twelve long years. The other is dramatic and acute, a new illness for a young daughter, a crisis moment, needing critical care.

We notice that Jesus responds, that he offers blessing and good news in the face of both of those tragedies. He overcomes suffering.  And this is just what we expect or anticipate or, again, hope for in our lives. When we’re at dead ends or facing death is when we’re accustomed to turning to God, seeking out Jesus, when we expect there might be a word for us at church.

And most definitely you should hear that that is true. The God who brought you into existence, who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead, will be at your side in every time of suffering or moment of dread, will never leave you, will never stop loving you, will finally breathe into you the breath of new life that will sustain you forever. That is the promise that holds you, the reality we are all heading toward. In those biggest and worst moments, certainly that word from Jesus has value: “Do not be afraid, only believe.” Life in God has the last word. The exuberant, powerful vitality of the Holy Spirit will always win out.

But the question for today, for our expectations and honing our focus, is what else this means. What about when you haven’t been suffering for twelve years, or when your daughter is not at the point of death? What if the woman approached Jesus because she’d been ill for only six years instead? Or if she occasionally got migraines? Or if she had chronic bad breath? Or if her skin was the wrong color, or her sexual identity was unusual? What if she generally felt unlikeable and awkward in social settings? And what if the father came begging at Jesus’ feet because his daughter hurt her leg, or had a runny nose, or because she wasn’t very good at reading, or because she was scared to get in the swimming pool? Or what if he was concerned about his nephew, or a coworker’s grandkid, or somebody else he’d heard about?

The point is, Jesus isn’t only waiting for the most horrible thing to strike closest to your heart, weighing whether you’ve suffered enough for a miracle. Jesus is not dallying off in heaven through catastrophes and disasters, figuring he’ll take care of you later on and that will redeem the rest of this mess. Instead you may know and trust Jesus is with you through every moment, nearer and striving on your behalf more continuously than the respiration and pulse of your body.

Church, then, is not just another commentator to explain the latest gory terror or civil unrest or personal misfortune. Church is where we’re assured that all is indeed held together in God.

And that has meaning for all the non-crisis times of your life; for nice summer days, for the blah of a work-week, for little frustrations, for all the details of life on this planet, not only at the hospital but also the grocery store. It’s not that everything is petty compared to the immense extremes. We need faith for the small, regular moments, as well, since the whole identity of God in Jesus is that the regular is not petty; ordinary life is important, is blessed, is held in God’s embrace. He came to know simple birth and poverty and lakes and hunger and celebrations and friends and strangers, for a sick woman and a common daughter today, for all the crowds. This is what the life of Jesus was, being there in our very regular moments, with the miracle that life should go on.

This is where Paul hones our focus, refines our attention, directs the living of our faith. This faith is not only for going to heaven when you die. It is also for all the days that you live. So Paul reminds us that for genuine love, Jesus embodied generosity, giving everything for your sake. Held forever in his gracious generosity, filled with his abundantly loving life, this shapes what you’re capable of, what you can do, what fruit you will bear, what is so vitally important. For the Corinthians, it meant the ability to contribute more generously and abundantly to the offering collected to support poor people far away whom they’d never met. That blessing flowed naturally from their connection to Jesus.

For you, I’d expect it would reorient your days, that you have life to share and yourself to give away. It enables you to be patient and diligent, not only briefly relieved or else morose as you’re caught up in the sensationalism of the moment’s news story, not only dawdling after some grand miracle hypothetically to erase the problems, but seeing the kingdom of God breaking into our world and your lives in myriad ways, amid times of excitement and enjoyment, of forgiveness and compassion, of creativity and beauty, of encouragement and trust.

Yes, it is most certainly true that Jesus is your savior in the worst times. But he’s also there for you tomorrow, and also for your children, and for your neighbor, and your dog, and people you’ve never met, and the tiniest tree leaf. This is the lavish abundance of our God whose giving knows no ending.

Hymn: God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending (ELW #678)

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