Born and Bred for Love

­­­­­sermon on John3:1-17; Romans4:1-5,13-17; Genesis12:1-4a
There’s so much in these readings that I thought of just opening it up by asking, “So what do you want to talk about?” Why did Nicodemus come and Jesus respond obtusely? There’s being born again and the Spirit blowing, the odd serpent in the wilderness reference and Abram with issues of blessing and historical geography, the protective Psalm and the immensely dense but immensely vital stuff from Romans, which in its regular version describes being reckoned as sin vs. reckoned to you as righteous justification. There is so much, so many ways we could go.

Instead let’s sing a kids’ song. Stand up so you can join in the actions: Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you, so let’s all praise the Lord: (with a right, and a left, right leg, left leg, and the tongue, turn around).* Okay, you can sit back down. In the full version, each action accumulates verse by verse, but the whole sermon time with this kids’ song.

When I was younger and first sang it at camps and retreats, I thought it was about Abraham Lincoln. I hadn’t heard of him having lots of children, so I figured maybe it meant freeing slaves, which also helped break down the too often rigidly racial categories implicit in genetic parent/child relationships. I also realized as a young person that the song was deficient in saying he had many sons but leaving out daughters, so I figured it could be fixed a bit with he “had many kids.”

Those expansions to the song are necessary, since the broad vision from our Bible readings today has Abraham as the ancestor of many, father of nations, whose descendants are more numerous than the stars overhead, in whom all families of the earth will be blessed. Meaning: a lot.

Our Genesis reading is the start of this saga. Even while clinging to this promise from God, Abraham will ponder how in the world he could become the ancestor of many when he and his wife Sarah have no offspring at all. He’ll sleep with Sarah’s servant as part of their conniving toward the promise. He’ll hand Sarah off to sleep with kings (a big risk for the certainty of his bloodline and exactly contradicting a chauvinistic purpose of the Bible’s laws against adultery). When Abraham is 100 years old and considers his flesh as good as dead, and Sarah is laughing incredulously, then they’ll have a son. And then a pair of warped grandsons, one a trickster and the other a buffoon. Then the dozen great-grandsons, each with various idiosyncratic scandals, leading on through the grumbling of 12 tribes of Israel, and the struggles of identity getting passed down through the generations.

Originally these identifications are about being born into the group—family, tribe, nation. And we should be honest: such delineations of our lineage are intentionally exclusive in drawing borders. We first think of connections to whom we’re related, our relatives, of shared DNA, like how for her birthday my grandma is getting a gift on to trace her (and my) family roots back to Ireland, Scotland, Germany and who knows what else. We expect ethnic origins have ongoing impact and stereotypes, that I’d have trademark Scottish thriftiness and like beer and that I’m skeptical of you Scandinavians. We draw these persisting identities, even as we sketch new boundaries to say I’m an American and I’m a Wisconsinite and I’m a Lutheran and I’m a Minnesota Twins fan and I’m a guy with a beard and these are my people.

Now, you might notice a couple of those involve self-selecting in or out. They aren’t the same kind of familial or tribal or ethnic or national identities, but are groups with more permeable boundaries. The offspring of Abraham and Sarah and getting tied into their family must be more that kind of merry mob. It can’t be just genetics. There must be room for adoption into this heritage, otherwise it wouldn’t be nearly so broad and most of us wouldn’t have a chance. If it were classified as a Jewish lineage or, more precisely, a Canaanite/ Palestinian/ Mediterranean/ Middle Eastern background, most of us would be excluded. From the start, they had to find ways to incorporate others, accommodate refugees, to “naturalize” the aliens (to use parallel terms still fraught with conundrums). So they extended status through distinguishing physical marks and by sharing peculiar practices. The men were circumcised, the defining characteristic of being an Abrahamic insider. They observed the sabbath and didn’t eat pork, a couple more distinctive traits.

The church pressed further, arguing that circumcision couldn’t serve as the brand, nor could it be flagged by national boundaries or religious practice. This needed to be a bigger group, explicitly available to foreigners, outsiders, those unlike “us,” and also very specifically in the early church that women needed to be able to be more centrally definitive. So most every old way of basing it—on patriarchal connections or genetic similarity or any physical characteristic—was gone. That stuff couldn’t count anymore as the basis for God’s family.

Yet it’s fascinating that the Romans reading emphatically connects us to Abraham and Sarah as “ancestors according to the flesh.” It doesn’t say spirit over flesh, but boldly recollects carnal connections. We can’t move it to some imagined higher purpose or purer potential. Indeed, even as it proclaims one big happy family, it rules out any sense of claiming especially pious qualities. It knows our usual motives are for reward, for payment, for what we earn or get out of the deal. It recognizes imperfections and family squabbles in saying the ungodly are included, as well.

In that, it deals with the difficult family conundrum of the will and inheritance, of who gets what and why. Yet rather than qualifications claiming “I should get more because he liked me best, I was the most responsible in caring for him, I’m most like him,” this chooses to spread the inheritance to all. It’s discouraging this is such a hard reading to muddle through (as legal documents tend to be) since at its core it’s plain astonishing. This language of a last will and testament is of God’s bequest to Abraham, and how that also is handed down to you, you who had no reason to be adopted into the family of that promise, who weren’t connected to the tribe, who didn’t bear the ethnic identity, who may not have even bothered to follow the rules or live up to the standards. So much for the northern European Protestant work ethic.

As God’s will and new testament is read, Holden Evening Prayer phrases it, “O Faithful One, you promised to Sarah and Abraham kindness forevermore.” The Word of promise became flesh in them, and it carries down to you. And no amount of legal bickering could dislodge you from your guaranteed inheritance. With Romans’ play on words, it isn’t based on your belief or trust, but that you’ve been written into God’s Charitable Trust. Quite simply, you and this enormous family of yours have been blessed with God’s goodness and entrusted with the earth itself, without so much as a wagging finger not to squander it. (Though we might notice amid our adoption as God’s children a couple chapters later on confiding that creation groans with eager longing for us actually to act like the children we’re revealed to be becoming.)

That moves us from language of death to birth and new life. For that we turn to the conversation portrayed in the Gospel. Nicodemus’ confusion has continued to cascade through the generations and made people think that spiritual rebirth disassociates us from these bodies. Yet when Jesus talks about the Spirit and about heavenly things, he isn’t pointing elsewhere, separated from the reality we know. Think with Jesus’ prayer, “your will be done on earth as in heaven:” this is about God’s way, God’s intents and purposes and about spreading them here and now. Jesus is striving to connect Nicodemus and all of us into that life. He wants it so dearly he moves deeper and more intimately than the language of adoption or inheritance and calls it a new birth. He declares that you are born not just into Abraham and Sarah’s family of promise and trust but into God’s own family. Simultaneously countering centuries of too much masculinity, these are delightfully rich images of a mother God, who carries you in her womb, who labors to bring you to life, who nurses and nurtures you in love.

This mothering God so loved the world that she gave her firstborn Son, the Son who was born into human flesh and had a human mother as well as this compassionate heavenly Mother, a Son who became flesh and dwelt among us—who, to bring the heaven-ish purposes to life among us, was sustained by an umbilical cord, entered this world through a birth canal, and nursed on breast milk, at the same time (again, in intimate maternal language from John 1:18) that he was held close to the bosom of God and was a Mama’s boy to the end. That is what Jesus is bringing to birth in you, as well. You are born of God and, in that, share the eternal life. In your flesh is the genetics of God. You are born and bred with the love of God, the blessing that extends beyond the confines of family, tribe, and nation to all the world and all creation.


* sort of like this


Romans.   Nick’s Redone Version

1What can we say was found by our human ancestor Abraham? 2If Abraham became good by what he did,   then he’d have reason for pride. But he doesn’t have that in God’s presence, 3since it says in the Bible, “Abraham trusted God, and that’s why he was counted as good.” 4You do things for what you earn; that’s  what counts. And it’s not thought of as charity but as what’s owed. 5But what counts in becoming good—even without doing anything!—is the trust of the one who can count even the ungodly as good.

13See, the promise of inheriting the world didn’t come to Abraham and his descendants through rules but through trusting goodness. 14If we became heirs through rules, trust would be emptied and the promise  nullified. 15Rules mean punishment, but if there are no rules then they can’t be broken. 16So our inheritance comes through trusting, accomplished by charity, and the promise is enacted for all the descendants, not only those who follow the rules but for all through the trust of Abraham, since he is the ancestor of all, 17just as the Bible says, “I’m making you the ancestor of many peoples” in the presence of the trustworthy God who enlivens the dead and calls things that aren’t to be.



Is Jesus Divisive?

sermon on Luke12:49-56; Hebrews11:29-12:2
I’ve been practically giddy all week about this Bible reading.

Which I know sounds odd since this won’t rank among anybody’s favorites. But I relish the chance to struggle with Scripture, to wrestle with it until it releases a blessing for us.

In contrast, a month ago we heard the Good Samaritan, which is both so familiar and also almost self-explanatory. Be nice to each other, including some new people—it seems to say—or accept help from unexpected sources. You almost inherently can understand that, and barely would need a preacher.

With this passage, however, you’re left with two choices. Either you can claim that the Bible and religion are filled with too much nastiness and try to ignore and reject the whole spiel, or else you can hear these hard words, face the confusing dilemma, and exclaim, “Aha! This is why we pay Pastor Nick the big bucks!” So now we’ll see if you’re getting your money’s worth.

That comes with the immediate disclaimer that I don’t have a definite answer or resolution for you, but do have several possibilities to try on.

First, we may hear these words from Jesus simply as descriptive: there are divisions on earth. We may even find that on occasion to be a good thing: night and day, the weekend, our atmosphere separating air from outer space.

Other times, we sense division not necessarily as beneficial, but still at least as reality. Across the globe, we don’t all speak the same language. We don’t have the same skills or interests. And while Jesus may be indicating the individual differences or denominational disparities or interfaith turmoil that religion has caused, of arguments and separations in our families on up, still, stepping back from emotion, we are at a point in history where we might be able to recognize that there are real reasons we wouldn’t all have the same understanding of God, that our unique circumstances and upbringings and lot in life play a role.

That’s a fundamental distinction already in Jesus’ words. He was part of the monotheistic Jewish faith, but where they’d said the only, the sole, the mono- connection with God was in the Temple, Jesus was relocating the divine, taking away the hierarchy that made some closer to God and pushed others out of the perimeter. Simply by proclaiming the undoing of a central authority and enacting radical welcome with unconditional grace, Jesus was causing division and disrupting the old system.

That may point us toward a next step of reflection. Beyond description, is this word from Jesus prescriptive? Does he seek to cause divisions?

I have to say, this is mainly what makes this passage uncomfortable for me. This version from Luke, where Jesus says he brings division, is a notch gentler than Matthew’s version, where he says he brings a sword. But still, when Jesus declares he has not come to bring peace on earth, that disappointment is the exact opposite of why I usually turn to Jesus and what I expect from him. Some of the first things that grabbed me about Christianity when I was in middle school were words like “blessed are the peacemakers,” “turn the other cheek,” and “love your enemies.” These shaped my passion for nonviolence and even pacifism, to be against war and militarism and the death penalty. But here, Jesus seems to reverse his core message of love and healing and life, and—indeed—peace!

But that very reversal is the cue that we need to struggle with these words. Certainly there are some who employ this sort of message to reinforce violence or oppression or division or use of force. But the fact that they have to turn repeatedly to this passage or to an apparently angry Jesus cleansing the Temple or a single line about swords at the Garden of Gethsemane says that these hard passages are the exception and not the rule of Jesus.

So I would argue—and will argue—that Jesus isn’t stoking fires of hatred and fanning the flames that make us burn against each other. This isn’t a sort of division that lets me see myself as good and other races or religions as bad, much less worth-less and able to be excluded or exterminated or deported. Those have been dangerous precedents in history and are dangerous in our midst today. Such divisions are accusingly satanic, not godly or from Jesus. That is not God’s mission or intention for our world, and it must be resisted.

But that very resistance begins to illuminate another side of these words from Jesus. It’s not general divisiveness he promotes, as if desiring any and all animosity. But there are specific faithful distinctions that we would foster, that Jesus would back, when he’s prompting change and upset against tranquil apathy at the status quo. Such “peace” he may well be against. Amid plenty of divisions, we should readily and boldly proclaim, “I’m not that sort of Christian. We are not that kind of people.” We want to declare proudly and vitally that we are anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-bullying and anti-oppression and anti-poverty. We are anti-terrorism but simultaneously anti-anti-Muslim and anti-anti-immigrant (if you can handle important uses of a double-negative) and anti-anti-gay. We know these divisions and know where we must stand for justice. Sure, we can work to heal the splits and repair the breach with other people, and that may be among our more vital tasks in these days, but that doesn’t permit us to ignore the divides or to pretend that compromise plain and simple is always the right thing.

That’s hard enough when we’d prefer not to have to keep struggling amid society. We don’t want to feel like a voice in the wilderness, crying out. We don’t want every election to feel like a doomsday scenario or for every click of news to be filled with despair. But beyond those larger fears and frustrations, we also know this more intimately. We know divisions in families, conversations that cause consternation, the topics that somehow are off the table for discussion. We know those family fractures that are fueled by even kind and faithful views.

Such values may arise from stuff that seems like a big deal, like arguing faith’s perspectives on health care. Or that your beliefs mean you’re called to love Iranians and Russians, and—yes—even terrorists, and all those with whom you disagree. That’s not a fun conversation. Or it may be more personal, like around parenting styles or medical decisions or financial choices. Or it may seem smaller, like that you’d choose to be here today, that you intentionally give away some of your income, that you do the silly thing of saying a prayer in times of need. We may not be persecuted or our lives at risk for what we believe, but among your family and friends and coworkers—besides the broader culture—clinging to your beliefs is still apt to cause divisions. Jesus may have been envisioning that result simply because of what matters to you.

It’s already a relief that Jesus recognizes and names the brokenness we’re bound to face. It’s good news that my family isn’t the only one God knows with some dysfunction. But beyond just naming the reality, we do need more. Clearly, this involves difficult decisions to weigh and really requires endurance and patience to persist. So we need support. We need this community. We need the great cloud of witnesses, those saints throughout history that our Hebrews reading held up for us. We need examples of those who have willingly or unwillingly suffered and were mocked and continued through blood and sweat and tears, and conquered somehow in death, even as the loss appeared to be overwhelmingly futile. It’s a stunning Bible passage, making us ask if it’s worth it, even while motivating us to carry on. We’re caught up in something we can’t quite explain and may not always like, yet know we must proceed.

And that brings us to a final part of the reflection. We should always remember that Jesus is up to something particular. With him, it is not just a description of everyday life, but a new way of seeing and interacting with the world, a new order, for new life. He begins by saying he’s bringing fire to earth and wished it were already kindled, and his stress while awaiting his baptism. These are lines about his death. He isn’t kindling a fire to start fights among others or to give us permission to take up the sword against those we don’t like. He’s inviting that division against himself, recognizing that he’s the one who’s going to get burned, the one who will be plunged into death. This makes the Bible passage about him.

But that also makes it about you, doesn’t it? See, you’ve been baptized into Christ as well. Your baptism joins you to the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of new life, but also joins you to his passion and death. Amid the communion of saints, you are brought into this Jesus way, this Jesus vision, this Jesus practice for encountering the world, and striving both against it and yet simultaneously on its behalf.

That means the fire is spreading. Jesus kindled it against himself, but also in you. It’s remarkable that the one other place these words for division and fire happen together is on Pentecost (Acts 2:3), when divided tongues of flame appeared on the followers of Jesus, filling them with diverse gifts and sending them across the world. Among those believers, this word for division also became a word for sharing—that they divided among themselves the cup of the new testament in Jesus’ blood at the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:17) and divided their possessions to distribute as any had need (Acts 2:45).

In this community of Jesus, then, we no longer recognize the world’s old, rotten divisions of haves and have-nots, of rich versus poor, of insiders and outsiders, winners and losers, successful or failure, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, the worthy and the unworthy. In this community of Jesus, those divisions are cast out because finally, this is where we anticipate reconciliation will have the last word, since neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come will be able to divide us or separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.


Hymn: God of Tempest, God of Whirlwind (ELW #400)


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)


a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Dorothy Ann Georgeson

20 June 1937 + 19 June 2015

Psalm 139 & 23; 2Corinthians 4:13-5:1; John 10:1-5, 14-15, 27-29

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

Dorothy was a lady in the know. She knew things. She knew you. She knew me.

She was one of the first people I got to know at St. Stephen’s. That was in part because of a special devotion. Each Sunday morning, a little bit after 7:00, she and Barb Kepler would arrive for prayers to get the pastors ready and pray us into worship. It was a meaningful and grace-filled practice.

In more recent times, rather than coming to pray, Dorothy would instead be showing up early on Sundays to drop off bread, the same recipe we’re using as we join at this table in a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and share in the communion of the saints throughout all times and into eternity. She delivered her bread, declaring it was fresh-baked, that she wanted to wake up in the middle of the night to finish it just in time for worship.

I have to confess she made me nervous in doing it that way, worried she had forgotten or that something had gone wrong with the batch or she’d slept through it. But there was no trying to change her, because—as a lady in the know—she also knew what she wanted, and was good at making that known to others. That’s not to call her opinionated or stubborn, but we know she had a strong personality.

I’ll also continue to enjoy remembering, that Dorothy tended this table well. As part of Ruth Circle, the altar guild who organizes the sacristy and makes sure all runs smoothly for communion at each service, and Dorothy herself claimed some of the most special services on Christmas and Easter Eve, which was especially helpful since those slots didn’t have other eager volunteers.

She could also be counted on to share her expertise in the office, helping with projects or covering when the secretary was away. Those times present some of my fondest memories of Dorothy, as she would come into my office to chat. Even if she hadn’t been around church much lately, she knew all the latest news, and she even had a tendency to know some news that wasn’t news, gossip that at least I hadn’t heard about, which left me wondering if it just came from Dorothy’s mind.

There were other things that way, too. Tales that seemed pretty tall. One I recall frequently, trying to picture it. She was asking about one of my camping trips, and told of being a young girl hiking at Devils Lake when she came up on a rattlesnake on the path and stood perfectly still for a long time until it moved. The way she could tell stories made them seem too good to be true. I don’t know if they were or not. But it all seemed to be something Dorothy knew.

That grand, expansive sense of knowledge also went with talking about family. It started to seem like Dorothy was related to everybody! Plus, she almost gave the feeling that I was related, too, that I would know all about them and know their past and know what life was like now. She talked about her husband Rod to me that way, though I never met him. She, of course, talked about daughters and grandkids with deep, endeared affection, delighting in and clinging to you all so closely. She even talked about distant cousins with that kind of strong connection. Heck, she was willing to claim me, to be interested in me and invested in my life. And, I’d pretty well guarantee, that’s the case for each of you here today, too. She could claim to know me even more than she really knew me.

And the important thing about that today is that it’s not just true of Dorothy, but is also true for Dorothy. That kind of knowledge—to be known in the biblical sense—is deep and intimate. It speaks to these cherished relationships in family, and in the family of the church. It persists when you like what you know and when you don’t. This kind of love is something more than we can explain or understand. It just somehow is.

This is how the abundance of God’s promise works, how it finds us out and claims you. People somehow have a feeling a lot of the time that if God really knew them, then they wouldn’t fit in and God wouldn’t really like them. But this is God who knit you together, who watches over every moment of your life, who knows it all to the final detail and last hair of your head.

And this very God is the one who claims you. We keep repeating and reiterating this promise so that you may have confidence in it. It was a promise for Dorothy in her baptism, one that called her by name as a beloved daughter forever, no matter what would come. It’s a promise that still goes with every bite offered at this table, of forgiveness, of being reincorporated into the family of God. It’s the love of Jesus that seeks out the outcast, that goes into dark corners, that leaves no one out, Jesus who dies with you so that even death cannot separate you from God, even that will not leave you alone, even there God knows what you’re going through.

And this being known by God is all that matters. There’s plenty we may not understand, things we may not know. We can’t explain how Jesus is with us now. We don’t know why Dorothy had that bleed on her brain. We don’t know what the last week of life was like for her, what was going on inside of her. We don’t know all that this will mean for your lives in the coming days and months without her. We don’t know when it is that we will get to be reunited with her.

But you may trust for certain that that day will come. Jesus was raised from the dead so that you may know you will be also. God’s love will be stopped at nothing—not sickness or brokenness, not forgetfulness or fights, not even death itself—nothing will ever make God forget you. God knows you intimately, and loves you, without condition. That’s how it was on the best days with Dorothy. And God wants you to know this blessed assurance, which means even now, Dorothy is in God’s eternal embrace, the arms of her Shepherd, bringing her home.


“Wives be Subject?” sermon for 22june14

Ephesians 5:21-6:9

We said these Pick-a-Verse drawings weren’t just for your favorites. And I’m suspecting this is nobody’s favorite, so it may well be Phil Kober’s effort to stump the preacher!

Last month, you heard me reference this passage as being among the things in the Bible we don’t like or find objectionable. I said that more than our contemporary culture, it was actually corrupting better, earlier Christian theology. This gives me a chance to unpack that with you.

The first thing to know in this description of household order is that we’re dealing with the economy. That’s a Greek word that is very helpful to know in its root form. The first part, “eco,” means house. So ecology is the logic of our house. An economy is the law of our house, or house-rule, how the household is organized or run.

In Greek economy, three basic relationships organized a household: husband/wife, father/son, master and slave. You see those weren’t very inclusive (for example daughters weren’t part of it). Also one person—one man—filled the role in each of those pairings. The one who made the rules and was in charge was the man, who was husband, father, and master. He was the center of the economy, and was also therefore the only one with a voice as citizen for society.

Next, notice that Christian faith actually undid that whole economy. We see it very well in Paul’s writings. For example, contrast Ephesians with a central verse in Galatians where Paul wrote, “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female” (Gal3:26, 28). You can hear it almost directly opposing the old household code, the Greek economy. It undoes male/female, undoes master/slave, and says you’re all children, that God is the only Father. Jesus taught the same way, talking about mothers, brothers and sisters (Mk3:35), but reserving the term Father for “our Father in heaven.” And even that subverts hierarchy or patriarchy, because God isn’t the authoritative master kind of father, but one of kindness and love.

Ephesians, however, was trying to reshape the earlier Christian beliefs, to return to the Greek version of family and household, with hierarchy of male domination back in the center.  So this passage tries to change both our view of culture and our view of God. They play off of each other.

Like the image of God and Father, this interplay also corrupts the image of body and members. In this body image, the head matters most, and everything else is less important. This separates God from us, and severs men from women. It says Christ is the head, controlling the church, and so men control women and the economy and society. A woman does not even have a “self” in this language; she only counts as part of the man.

That’s very different from how Paul used the metaphor of the body in 1Cor12. It was without hierarchy. He said that all together we are the body of Christ. If you cut off any of us, the body suffers. A little toe is as much a part of the body as a hand, an eye as an ear. Each has its role and is important. A single hair cannot fall away without counting as a loss (Mt10:30). Paul even says that our more shameful body parts we clothe with greater respect. That’s how we treat each other in the body of Christ. You are not discounted because of disability or weakness but may be all the more important for the rest of us.

You might argue that Ephesians tried to compromise with Greek culture so Christianity had a foot in the door, to put it back in with a softer edge at least. Maybe it’s trying to make men a bit gentler and more respectful, to encourage us to be loving.

But if so, it’s been a pretty terrible compromise. After all, what lives out from this passage is not that respect or grace should rule. Instead this reading continues to burden us by emphasizing inferiority: to be subject, to obey, to keep suffering. There’s still much too much of telling people to suffer patiently, instructing that the Christian thing to do is to put up with abuse.

Yet that is not the only voice of the Bible. As even our Psalm realizes, those who are oppressed and made to suffer and insulted will end up not loving, but praying for the death of their enemies. When Jesus teaches us to love our enemies and to take up our cross, it is not grudging, forced submission but redemptive suffering with choice and willpower.

Even further, the example of Jesus, revealing God for us, undoes any view of hierarchy. God is not the highest and biggest authoritarian to whom we are simply obedient and passive.   In Jesus, we meet God as servant, not as master. He is a brother. He is a lover. He welcomes the outsiders. He shares compassion, suffering with us. This one won’t operate at our expense, but is God with us, alongside us, collaborating—working with us to achieve God’s good ends.

If we’re still trying to redeem Ephesians, maybe an indirect benefit of this passage is in raising the question of how our faith fits into society, or what needs to change. Our households are not the same shape as those of Greek culture. In the past century and half we have at last begun to get past slavery, and in recent decades our marital relationships have taken a different view. Though the process in this country began with only the male head of a household, our democracy now opens up room for more active participants. Imagine how different the past two millennia could have looked if we went with the vision of equality and collaboration and compassion instead of the blueprint of domineering, controlling men.

So if Ephesians should not be the faithful shape of our relationships or homes, then what would we say today about Christian economy? How should our understanding of God in Christ shape our relationships? For starters, if our general household code, our economic order, is to love your neighbor as yourself, it negates the ranked structure set up in Ephesians. When marriage relationships are about trying to love and support and care for each other mutually, that’s a very different pattern. The next hymn we’ll sing is a wedding hymn, and you can notice how different the terminology is than what we heard in Ephesians, how it is broadened, how the relationship is meant to reflect the kingdom or household of God. More, if we’re not worried about who’s the boss, about a male to be in charge of the female, but simply about shared mutual love, then that also can quickly change much of the recent concern about same-gendered relationships.

Continuing along those lines, if our ethic is love, of mutual service and concern, we also quickly realize that the economy isn’t limited by Greek patterns, within the walls of our household. How we organize our relationships and behaviors stretches all around us. This begins to fit more closely with how we would typically use the term “economy.” It becomes a system of international relationships as globalized trade means we have to attend to the neighbors of our household that now includes far on the other side of the planet.

If the shape of our relationships should be that loving mutuality, then we can’t disregard others or use them only to our advantage. We cannot dominate them, as if we are the masters who control the economy, control the household with slave labor for our benefit. Instead, we have to be asking ourselves how our purchases, for example, either help or hinder or even potentially harm those who produce them, whether farm laborers in California or African miners or factory workers in Bangladesh or the store employees here.

On this refugee Sunday, we are called to recognize the big family of our household, that we cannot consign people as “other” or stranger or foreigner, much less “illegal aliens,” but all are equally brothers and sisters.

Again, as we’re realizing what a big household this is, that brings us to the even larger picture of economy, tied back to ecology, our whole earth household. We are not masters to subdue the earth, abusing and expending it, treating it as if it’s only there as a resource for us. In Christian economy, in God’s household, where we serve each other in love, we have to ask what creatures, what other life, what environments and habitats, we are damaging, what we need to treat with more kindness and respect, where our behavior and decisions and desires are selfish and out of line.

Those are obviously huge questions. So you may not have liked the economic outlook of Ephesians, with its word about wives being subject to husbands. But this is an even grander task. If it seems impractical, we’d better start practicing, following the rule of love when you live in God’s household.

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