Your sin is forgiven

sermon on Luke 7:36-50

 

This poor story.

It suffers bad imagination. Throughout history this woman gets made into a repentant prostitute.

Notice the only description (if it can be called that) is that she’s a sinner. It is plain old disgusting voyeuristic sexism to say that if this woman is a known sinner, she must be a prostitute. Most images of her make her into a temptress for men to gawk at.

We don’t know her sin. It could be that she was embezzling from her business. It could be that she had decided to go out with friends instead of making dinner and picking up her kids from piano lessons and taking them to basketball practice and chairing their cookie sales. It could be that she was an 80-year-old looking back at her life and just not feeling very faithful or close to God. We don’t know her sin.

But we do know it’s easy to get labeled as a sinner, portrayed as somebody who is lacking, who doesn’t have it all together, as somebody who is doing something wrong or even being something wrong.

It may even be that this woman gets identified by the men at that ancient dinner and still too often by our chauvinistic culture now as a sinner even without being guilty, being labeled as a perpetrator even while being a victim. Maybe there is a sexual element in this, but it could be that this this woman was pressured into it, was not a willing participant, had suffered doubly, in abuse and then from the perceptions of her, maybe even in herself.

We know that women and girls (and also vulnerable males) wind up in situations where afterward they’re told it’s their fault, that they asked for it, that they should put up with it, that it’s because of how they dressed or looked or reacted. Or just for being weaker. We may not call such person a sinner, but instead name her a slut or a floozie. Or we categorize her as a welfare queen, with a different set of imagined presumptions and prejudices. However it is, she becomes a woman of ill-repute, with a burden of shame, suffering a reputation—with or without cause, still suffering either way.

But Jesus won’t perpetuate those labels. Whoever this woman was, whatever she had done, however she had been treated, whatever had happened to her, Jesus won’t see her through the confining, restricted vision.

Even referring to the woman as a sinner at the end of the story means we are the ones in bondage to sin, who won’t let those bonds be released, who refuse the word of freedom and restoration of relationship. What’s more, if we simply presume this woman was alluring and sexually provocative, we’re like those Pharisees, still captive to our chauvinistic culture. Those religious insiders were failing to see a place for hurt and to welcome somebody who needed love and a fresh start. In not receiving people with needed care, we also make church an unsafe place, obstructing the way instead of clearing a path, precisely perpetuating the wrong, with a detriment for ourselves that means we won’t receive the love or find the wholeness we also need to be part of. “Do you see this woman?” is also a question for us.

To reiterate, the story said the woman was known in town as a sinner, but it doesn’t say what her sin was.

Again I say it’s likely as not that it matched your sin. In the workplace or family or doubting faithfulness sorts. In the lurid details you imagine of her or live through yourself. In things you count as big regrets that make you lose sleep or the ongoing pile of mistakes. We’ve recognized it could be the things that aren’t your fault at all but are shames dealt that someone else placed on you.

Or another variety is what you’re not willing to name as faults, seeing yourself pristinely while looking down your nose at others and casting wild aspersions. In these ways, you can find yourself in this story. You are the blameful shortsighted Pharisee, sure. You are also the woman, encumbered by sin, longing to be set free. What that is for you matters.

See, we notice church isn’t about our blanket presumptions, but is always the localized, direct particularities, for you. It can be true and important to proclaim that God loves everyone. Maybe for the Pharisee, that’s necessary, in order not to be restricted to a version exclusive for pious insiders. But there are also times you very directly need the word for yourself, not that God loves all, but: God loves you.

It’s well and good generally and generically to say we have a God of forgiveness. But that’s like a lesson to be learned. You may need the gift, the grace, the word that comes to release. Not that sins are forgiven, but that Jesus forgives you. Not that captives are released, but that he sets you free. Not that debts are remitted, but that he has cancelled your negative balance. Not just that all are welcome, but that Jesus has restored your place. Yes, you. Not that salvation is for all the earth, but that Jesus has come to save you.

This faith has a balance of the broad categories and very direct specificity. The Gospel says Jesus comes as a light for all nations, that all flesh may know the salvation of God. But that takes on flesh in each of us, as each encounters the light through our own eyes.

When we gather here, we live this story all over again. So it isn’t just an ancient example. It certainly isn’t a history lesson about what Jesus did one day. This story is for now, for us, for you, taking on flesh here. We gather mostly as religious insiders, Pharisees, those comfortable enough even to call this home. And Jesus has the hard work of trying to get through to us, to help us see our obstructive shortsightedness and still forgive sin to enable us to love, to call forth an appropriate response.

Still, you may arrive as the woman, weeping in repentance or weeping in joy, full of emotional devotion at the proclamation that your sin—whatever it is or was or continues to be, or even if it was no sin at all but only the reputation rottenly assigned to you—is forgiven. You are restored from shame. Your identity is not in the wrong, but as a child of God and valued member of the community. Always and no matter what. Jesus is here again to proclaim release to you. To send you on your way, filled with love that can spread out to the community around you.

That’s how this ends. Made well, the woman is told “go in peace.” That is to go with shalom, or wholeness, her proper full place in the community.* In Palestine’s Arabic greetings, this salaam is  a declaration from hello onward that things are right in the relationship. Here, finally at the end of the story, things are right, and the woman will be known rightly. That is how you are welcomed here, as beloved and right and part of this body. That is what God’s salvation, Jesus’ forgiveness, the Spirit filling you with love means, too, in yourself, with God, with others. You are set right. That is how you are sent from here. Go in peace. Salaam in all your relationships. Whole. Shalom.

* Jennifer English, “Which Woman? Reimagining the Woman Who Anoints Jesus,” Currents in Theology and Mission. 39:6, p437.
http://currentsjournal.org/index.php/currents/issue/viewFile/20/20

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Intended for Good?

a sermon on Genesis37&50

 

Bad stuff that turns out okay.

As we skip from the start to the conclusion of this story of Joseph and his brothers, we could be tempted to say that no matter what happens, it all works out in the end. In fact, I do frequently say something like that as a word of hope in a God of new life and resurrection. But with this narrative, let’s go tentatively and not leap to the conclusions.

As the story begins, we meet Joseph who is the 11th son of Jacob or Israel. From last week’s story of Abram waiting for God’s promise of a child, eventually Isaac, that son of laughter, was born. He and his wife Rebekah had twin sons, and Rebekah’s favorite was also favored by God. That was Jacob, a cheater and thief. He didn’t only struggle to steal from his older brother, but also from God. That wrestling for blessing late one night got him renamed Israel.

Obviously we know Israel as the nation bearing his name, a nation sometimes claiming to be right with God even as they continue wrestling with their brothers and sisters and neighbors. They took the name Israel since that became the identifier for the family of God’s people. We learned last week that God’s intention to bless all nations and peoples was through one specific person and family, Abram and his descendants. In today’s story, this Israel or Jacob has twelve sons and a daughter (from multiple mothers, and Joseph’s mother died in childbirth). Those 12 sons by next week will have grown and expanded into 12 tribes of Israel, 12 big extended family groups.

But before we worry about the family dynamics among hundreds of thousands of relatives, in today’s story we’ve got problem enough with just the close family, the brothers with each other and sons with their father.

Commentators like to point out that Joseph is a jerk. He’s a tattling younger sibling. He’s the favorite and he knows it and wants to rub it in. He dreams that his older brothers and even his father will bow down to him. And he tells them about it. He may have poor social skills or be a stereotypical younger child who can get away with too much.

Some older siblings would react by offering a hurts doughnut or a dutch rub or a wedgie, or would ditch the twerp and pedal away faster on bikes, leaving the whiner crying in the dust. Maybe since Joseph had gotten more on their nerves, or things were rougher in this family, the brothers decide to get rid of Joseph by killing him. Murder. Fratricide, like the first death in the Bible.

Again in the stereotypical way, the oldest sibling is the most responsible and concerned about parental response. Reuben tries to plan so he doesn’t have to answer to an angry father about why and how he let his littlest brother die.

A creative middle child has the entrepreneurial mindset to realize they can both be rid of him and make some cash on the side, so they sell him into slavery in Egypt, which I suppose we take as the less-worse of options, the lesser of two evils, maybe.

Joseph is sold to a high-ranking official, but that official’s wife tries to sexually assault Joseph. In what is much too rarely the Bible’s story (or any story), the vulnerable person escapes, and yet, as is more commonly the case, the victim is blamed nevertheless, and in Joseph’s case, it lands him in jail.

Eventually around more dreams, he is able to tell Pharaoh there is going to be a time of great harvests followed by a time of famine. So Pharaoh puts him in charge of all the crops and essentially all the Egyptians to sell them food when the hard times come.

These Egyptians aren’t isolationists. When disaster strikes and others also are starving, they are ready to help (again, at a cost). This includes Joseph’s brothers who come to ask for assistance. They have no idea their brother is alive, much less that he’s the second-in-command in Egypt, living with a new identity.

Joseph doesn’t quite welcome them with open arms. He does help with some food, but also plays tricks on them and is conniving and demanding. We can’t quite tell if it’s just in jest or if he’s vindictive and resentful of how they treated him, whether or not that would be reasonable and fair.

Eventually he comes clean, reveals that he’s Joseph. He’s weeping. They rejoice. It’s all such a happy family reunion at that point, overcoming decades of separation and worse.

Still, the brothers are fearful. Fearful enough that their worry comes up twice. Once in chapter 45, and then again in the part we heard today, later on after their father has died. They’re still trying to fabricate lies for things to turn out better for them, not to address straight on what they’ve done wrong.

And we might wonder whether Joseph would hold them to account, if he would recount the litany of his sufferings, if he would use his newfound power, if the expectation would be retributive justice. But Joseph forgives them. Suddenly he releases them from responsibility or liability for what they did wrong.

It’s easy to have this enshrined by Scripture and stand on its own, but I want to hear it differently and tentatively by making it more generic. Here’s a retelling for our ears:

A younger sister was disregarded by older siblings, and they found a way for her to satisfy their appetites of bad habits requiring hard cash. Her fate of human trafficking was the same as so many hidden others, modern day slavery, abandoned in a foreign place where she didn’t even know the language.

Because of her youthful good looks, multiple times her boss tried to harass, touch, grope, even rape her.

Rather than finding justice, she was the one who wound up in prison, where others forgot about her and she was left under a too-long sentence. Still, on her eventual release, unlike many, she managed to reintegrate and even move up in society, but with a role that made awful demands on people while claiming to help them—extorting their money, extorting their lands, eventually extorting their very lives into the confinements she had escaped.

Even her own family, when they came looking for help, she extorted their kindness, their regard for each other, making a mockery of their identity and making them bow and grovel.

But! it all turned out in the end.

See, we have to wonder at the sudden end and shouldn’t rush to God’s resolution. After all, whether the version from Genesis, or the updated retelling bringing it into a reality we know more about, these may feel more like real life, at least theologically, than last week where the voice and promise of God was loud and clear. We shouldn’t skip to the ending, as we’re left wondering: how do we attribute an invisible silent God’s place?

In this whole saga we heard, God isn’t mentioned until things turn good. But Joseph even there only raises the backward question that the role of God is to punish but that he can’t. So through this whole thing, do we expect that God is absent or negligent in the harder times? Or why do we give God credit especially for the good? Maybe we hold this as Don Tubesing shared in preaching a couple weeks ago, that we can’t see it as it’s happening but can later look back and see the “thin silver thread” running through it all, even when everything seemed lost and gone. That’s also a task and a vision we can only accomplish ourselves. We can’t tell others what the meaning was, or how to relate their difficulties to God.

But still, if God doesn’t get mentioned at all until the end, we wonder through it all, from back at the start, did God give Joseph the dreams, even while offending his family? Or was it just his subconscious at work?

Did God design for all the horrendous details, just to put Joseph through it to lead eventually to something else? Was the rotten stuff warranted because it turned out better? Wouldn’t we flee promptly from a God who used any means to justify an ends?

Or did God just manage to take what was available and turn it nevertheless to good purposes? Using imperfect materials and dull tools and the lack of clear blueprint that so often exemplifies our lives, if we’re God’s instruments, God’s stuck with not the sharpest knives in the drawer. That feels the most obvious to me, that a good God continually strives ahead in spite of our sin and stubbornness and suffering.

Was the alleged happy ending that Joseph helped save people from starving? Or more narrowly that he forgave and was reunited with his family? Both could be God’s work, of feeding the hungry, and of reconciling relationships.

And what about that not really being the end, with the ongoing hard edges, that everything isn’t fixed and made right, that by the time we turn the page into Exodus, this pleasant family get together will have resulted in the enslavement of the Israelite descendants and killing of their children. That will further result in the harm of many Egyptians and their livestock, including deaths of all the firstborn. And we might have to say it eventually results in the injustices perpetrated by Israelis against Palestinians.

In many and various ways, Scripture does assert that God is working for the good, that indeed “goodness is stronger than evil” (ELW 721), that our fallible wills will not inevitably lead to destruction, that God leads to new creation through God’s promising ever-resilient and tenacious will, always finding a way forward.

Sometimes we glimpse or taste that ourselves, as we share in a moment of healing or a change of heart or happy surprise or experience the power of forgiveness for new beginnings, as grace leads us home.

Sometimes we have to say it’s more than we individually know, that the arc of the universe is long but it does bend toward justice, that we can see the Promised Land, even though we may not each get there. There is that kind of larger hope, hope for our children, hope for our nation, hope for humankind, hope for the planet.

And then there’s even something beyond that, that death can never prevail against the God of life, even though sometimes that means God’s good work is not accomplished in this life but must wait for resurrection.

When we’re faced with hardships like human trafficking and sexual assault and exploitation and extortion just to be able to afford not to starve, when we’re faced with fractured families that may be downright dangerous or may just be the usual kind of frustrating and doing all sorts of wrong to each other and mourning loss of family members, when the story may be a long, long way from finished, we’re left to ponder how God is involved, whether God works with us to make things right, or we work without God, or God works in spite of us. Given the bleakness of the story, I can’t but hope in the biggest possible God with the most potential, even if it is yet to come.

I also know that I can’t muster that hope on my own. That, as the twisty pondering questions of this sermon have indicated, if I’m left to myself, then I don’t know where to locate God. I don’t know what’s right. I don’t know whether to hope or fear, press ahead or retreat, ask forgiveness, praise, or lament. That is why I’m here in worship, with you. That is why I need gatherings like this, for reassurance.

In one small way of that, I’ll tell you that except for the next song, the rest were chosen by Sybil Klatt as hymn selector. You can tell mine is more dour. She had upbeat and trusting choices, confident in a God who is with us and seeks our good in spite of too  much evil and sorrow around us. Today, because I’d spent a week struggling with where God was in this reading and where God is in my life, in your lives when you need God, in our desperately needy world, this week I needed Sybil and her hymns to help reinforce my faith and hope. Thanks Sybil. Thanks all for hanging in there as this community sustaining promise and hope and pointing to God together.

 

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

 

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The King & You

sermon for Christ the King Sunday

(Luke23:33-43; Colossians1:11-20; Psalm46; Jeremiah23:1-6)
I’d like to begin introducing you to Alexa Rose, her parents Danielle and Ramon and their family, to get ready for her baptism and to orient us amid this Christ the King Sunday.

The odd connection is Alexa’s grandmother Robin used to work with a man who became a church music director with whom I later worked. Tracing that forward some number of years, past Danielle’s graduation party (which, if I recall, was one of Ramon’s first visits to Wisconsin), beyond that, I had the privilege of officiating at their wedding, fue la primera y la única vez que hablé español en una boda.

Later, when Alexa’s brother Leo was only a newborn, came the misfortune of presiding at the funeral of Danielle’s little brother DJ. He was a delightful young man, with great care and a huge smile and the enormous tragedy of an addiction from which he couldn’t escape in this life. A couple months after that, yearning for something positive, we celebrated Leo’s baptism and how blessing continues in our lives. Danielle’s father, Darrel, polished the baptismal font to sparkling. Yet to come, he and I have long talked about doing some icefishing together.

So there’s a lot there. In one respect, that’s the kind of stuff I’m honored to anticipate sharing with you, the big celebrations, and hopefully not too much tragedy, and all kinds of really regular moments and conversations and details.

Much larger and more important, though, than me as a pastor who happens to intersect with your life is the notion today that Christ is the King of this. As King or Lord, it means all of this falls within the realm of Christ, under the influence of his reign and his jurisdiction. He has claim that extends over and around all of these moments.

In Alexa Rose’s baptism is the declaration that nothing in her life will be separated from Christ or left outside of his blessing: her delights in her big brother and her smiles at her parents. Their efforts in so many ways to keep her secure—in providing a home and working long hours and throwing birthday parties and struggling against society when its racism or sexism or tribalism would threaten her wellbeing. Christ is in connections with grandparents and the guidance and care of her baptismal sponsors. All of this is held and nurtured by Christ.

And the promise continues far beyond what we know today, as she grows and meets new friends at school and discovers what her interests and passions and abilities are and as she begins making choices in her life (whether good or questionable, as all of us experience), on through years and decades.

We know this love and blessing of Christ was with Ramon and Danielle at their wedding, but we also confess with sure and certain hope that even death couldn’t separate DJ from love and life and blessing in Christ Jesus. Christ as King must be amid threatening politics just as surely as icefishing. Today we identify that for Alexa Rose, through the thick and thin of it, through the sorrows we’d so much like to spare her and the triumphs we wish heartily for her, all the way to her final breath.

And then, even as today we’re holding that very moment for a saint at the opposite end of life’s spectrum and saying goodbye to Eileen Bolstad and commending her out of what our care could accomplish, releasing her fully into the eternal care of Christ’s embrace, even in this moment of death we trust a promise of Paradise, that that last enemy will be overcome, and the love and life and blessing in Christ Jesus will continue.

So as we trust this for Alexa and for Eileen and as we are able to hold onto it for ourselves, let’s notice that in calling Christ the King, rather than it being a similarity to our typical rulers, we should hear a contrast. When we say Christ is King, we very particularly mean he’s not like other kings, those who rule and control and disregard our lives for their own benefit or whims. This title, exemplified by one being tortured and executed on a cross, clearly is not trying to claim Jesus is the mightiest or the bossiest. He’s not an authoritarian who always gets his way. He’s not in a posh palace separated from the realities of our life.

Embodied in his crucifixion, Christ’s kingship is precisely exemplary in patient endurance for reconciliation, is with suffering, knowing the realities of life, not separated from those mundane and difficult details of your existence. He is a King who can relate to you or, to say it stronger, is related to you, your brother. (That also has the implications that you are entitled to your inheritance as part of the royal family! That focus will have to wait for another day, but please don’t lose track of it!)

Another aspect of Christ being King also contradicts a common notion about faith and belief, and that’s in what makes him your king. Just as it wasn’t the ironic inscription on the cross that made him a king, neither was it by popular acclaim. It’s not that you invite him into your life. It isn’t the degree to which we attribute credit or how we pray or how we might try to claim favor. Jesus doesn’t need your confidence in order to be king. His work and his reign aren’t dependent on you or subservient to you like that. Though he’s a servant king, he’s not at your beck and call or waiting to do your bidding.

He—and he alone among all who would be called king—holds the role by divine right, in accomplishing God’s will. In the language of Colossians, this extraordinary passage that portrays for us the fullest widespread concept of a cosmic Christ—a king of the universe—the thrones and dominions and rulers and powers are subject to him not because they’re reporting for duty, but since his realm encompasses all.

So, in a huge distinction, while he doesn’t cause sin, he must in the end still be responsible for it. Tragedies and addictions aren’t attributed to him but neither are they outside of his realm. Even the worst corruption and decay and death, the nastiest and most virulent attitudes, the fiercest exclusionisms, the ugliest religious hatred, the most careless environmental destruction all fall within his redemption, are embraced by his healing love, are purged with the breath of resurrected life.

That’s for us, too. For Alexa at her baptism and Eileen at her dying and for your lives overcome with worry, yet bound in his kingdom, we have to confess it is vital he makes the promise good forever in baptism, because he’s not the king we’d choose. He isn’t the leader we’d like. He wouldn’t win elections or popularity contests.

Imagine and sense, if you can, some of the despair for the women disciples at the foot of the cross and those men who looked on from a distance. Imagine and sense their loss, their disappointment, their worry. It would be much more appealing to have a glorious and triumphal ruler, who shattered the cross, uprooted its deadliness, saved himself, then swung out with a force-field that brought his opponents to their knees and protected his chosen ones and helped us always to escape the worst scenarios.

That’s not Christ our King.

Our model is, yes, compassion and sacrifice and a long arc of justice. But the most important and most difficult word today of Christ as King is so countercultural you’ve likely hardly heard it in recent weeks: forgive. We may be surprised or even skeptical that it should be part of baptism for precious little Alexa Rose, but she’ll need it, and Christ will still be for her then. And as it sets her on the course for receiving forgiveness, it also prepares her to be forgiving.

This is the challenging reconciliation that is at the heart of Christ’s kingdom and stands so starkly in contradistinction to all other authorities and rampant blame. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” We are people striving to embody God’s justice for our world in these days, but our identity is not just in trying to do better, much less in feeling better about what we’re doing or more self-righteous. We are people challenged as we give our lives in sharing this prayer: Father, forgive. Forgive their selfishness. Forgive their prejudice. Forgive their violence, their greed. Forgive their hatred. Forgive their incompetence or ignorance, that they don’t know what they’re doing. Forgive their disruptiveness and destructions. Forgive their incivility and immorality. And me, too, forgive me.

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Setting things Rights

sermon for 3rd Sunday of Easter

John21:1-19; Revelation5:11-4; Acts9:1-20; Psalm30
The purpose of this reading—which I mentioned last week was a later postscript to the Gospel of John—could be seen as trying to set things right. Actually, the whole season of Easter could be seen as God’s ongoing effort to set things right, to overturn wrongs, to stop injustice through the ever-expanding kingdom of God, to overcome death with life. Last week, that setting right focused on making sure sins are forgiven and that those who doubt and are uncertain are still welcomed and given what they need.

So what exactly is being set right in this week’s reading? Depending on the perspective, one view of the purpose for this section being added is either setting right or else turning unfortunate. This view observes that John’s Gospel is quite different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and that John promotes sharing of love in close-bound relationships, laying down our lives for each other as a beloved community. It could be that John’s congregation or set of followers had some different understanding, then, than the others who followed the Matthew-Mark-Luke synoptic-style of believers. Notably, in John’s Gospel Peter is much less central. He is more simply among the disciples rather than being their spokesperson. So maybe instead of a community of equals, this addition to John’s Gospel reinforces the other vison of Peter’s leadership, helping John’s group to integrate with the larger church by accepting this figure as central, who would become bishop of Rome, a role eventually enshrined in the hierarchy of the pope.

If that leaves you questioning whether this passage is actually setting something right or was accepting a less-ideal turn of history, we’ll move on to something more favorable: the location of this reading. Last week, we ended still behind locked doors in Jerusalem, but this takes us back up north to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It’s not only a more pleasant, pastoral place of scenery, but also a return home. It is a logical subsequent step of the story, because we have to wonder what happened next.

And that parallels our own story. On Easter Sunday, amid fresh lilies and the joys of bottled up Alleluias and crowds in worship and brass and rich, sweet treats, amid the newness of the thrill, it seems almost anybody could believe. It seems not too good to be true, but just good. It seems—maybe most of all—like a pleasant diversion. Then Easter passed and Monday came and you went back to work and normal rhythms and then school resumed and homework and what happens in these busy spring weeks, what decisions need to be made, chores accomplished, details taken care of, and you couldn’t ignore the election forever, and now are thinking about what comes next.

While the disciples weren’t worried about presidential primaries and the state supreme court, those original followers of Jesus and witnesses to resurrection also soon must’ve fallen out of the radical newness, the exciting disruption of Easter, and returned to the rhythms of life. This reading is setting straight that vital matter, that we can’t keep the after-effects of Easter locked up, but need to, must encounter them at home and amid the flow of our lives if they are true and consequential.

So the disciples went home and have gotten on with life. Maybe we’d wish Easter would’ve made more of a difference for them, more impact, that life just plain couldn’t be the same afterward. But we know this is actually how it works. We want Jesus to have shown up and changed everything, for God to be so lively and present and amazing that each moment of our lives would be imbued with a radiant glow and holiness so pervasive that we’d all don haloes like in the paintings and share so much love, peace, goodwill it would overcome all our problems and all evil. It would be nice, but that’s just not how it goes, at least in my experience. Instead life kind of goes on. Work goes on. We get busy with living our days and occupying our time and trying to make sense of our world and to do something that feels worthwhile.

In that way, the disciples went fishing. Not a bad choice for spending some time. But it also was indicating the three-year pilgrimage with Jesus had come to an end. Although John didn’t tell the story of Jesus calling fishermen out of their boats to follow him, to “fish for people” as he says it in the other gospels, we can’t help but hear this story as the bookend to that. They’ve given up on catching people and gone back to their boats, back to their nets, back to their old life.

We might be disappointed in that, wanting them to be doing something more special or powerful, to be permanently changed by their close encounter with God and time with Jesus. But as they go fishing, they seem to have moved on…or moved back. Maybe they’re like the original college grads who have to move back into their parents’ basement, after transformative experiences, with other opportunities not panning out, returning to the family business and same old way of life.

But then Jesus shows up on the shore. What will that mean? Last week he sent them on a mission; will he criticize them for goofing off, rebuke them for so soon neglecting their calling? Will he tell them they should be doing something more important than fishing, lecture them to take more seriously God, resurrection, and Easter?

Well, actually, in this encounter, Jesus seems less concerned with any of that. There’s no proving himself with holes in his hands.  He doesn’t explain the Scriptures about suffering, dying, and rising.  He doesn’t seem motivated to share the peace or to breathe on them, giving them the Holy Spirit.  He doesn’t so much talk about forgiving sins or healing or teaching.  He doesn’t reiterate a call away from fishing boats to catch people or even—for that matter—mention God.

Instead, Jesus essentially says, “I will make you fishers of fish.” He tells them where to cast their nets so they can catch the lunkers, 153 fish all at once. And then he wants to have breakfast.

That is extremely important to tell in this story and is another thing being set right here, that is: following Jesus is not always about a call to forsake your old life and journey to a new strange way of being. It may be that for some, but for many—including, apparently, for much of this group of disciples, Jesus called them exactly to where they were, a calling to fish for fish and eat some brunch. In your calling and vocations, too, in your lives of work and engaging with family and the regular stuff at home, in your volunteering and all, a calling from Jesus is not necessarily more spectacular or glamorous or pious or rigorous, but may well be the blessing in your tasks as you already face them, and your skills already in use. It’s the guidance of how to fish, so to speak, and sharing a meal, of his presence with you right where you are.

Peter may be the exception in this case. Jesus is repeating a call to him away from fishing, toward shepherding. With that is another occasion of setting things right, with the issue of love for God or Jesus. Do you love God? That’s hard when you can’t see God (as the letter of 1st John will explicitly remind us) (4:20). Peter may have loved Jesus, but he was running out of chances to show that devotion. Soon Jesus would be gone. What then? Well, Jesus sets it right by saying that your love, your devotion ought well be given to those who are there, to sisters and brothers you can see, to care for the lost and tend the hungry, meeting needs around you of those Jesus also loves. That’s a good role, a worthy responsibility.

And in that particular calling, Jesus was also setting something else right for Peter. This story is notably paired to reverse the events on the night of Jesus’ arrest, when Peter was huddled at another charcoal fire and three times denied even knowing Jesus. Here, Jesus gave Peter the opportunity to undo his denial, to reclaim the relationship.

Now, for some of you, that may be extraordinarily good news, that you have a God of second chances, and third chances, and in this case fourth chances, and probably a lot more beyond that. It may be an amazing amount of grace, that no matter how much you feel you’ve strayed or done wrong or neglected God and faith and how you ought to be living that there’s room for a fresh start.

That is, indeed, a central aspect of our faith, of repentance met by the embrace of forgiveness. We might even claim it’s the Spirit that does this work in us, of warming our hearts, of turning our minds, of returning our feet and rejuvenating our lives.

Yet I also have to confess that I have discomfort if it depends on devotion, on my sustained vigor, on being able to stay interested, on how long our attention spans are. One of the most disheartening phrases I hear is when somebody who has been away from church for a time exclaims, “I’m not going to miss a week!” Mostly they don’t even make it once. Or when they lose their goal of perfect attendance, then they feel like a failure and give up. Jesus may be ready to forgive 99 times, but what if I’ve only turned to repent 98 times? Even at three, Peter is aggravated, worn out on the process. How directly, how eagerly must we love for this to work out? Is it our responsibility to seize opportunities?

Sure, our God is able to restore Peter and set right his denial. Yes, our God is able to transform murderous terrifying Saul into missionary Paul, from persecutions into proclamation of life. Sorrow may last for the night but joy—indeed—come in the morning.

But we need a God who claims Peter during his denial, a God who embraces Saul even as he rebels, who puts up with Ananias refusing to heal, who doesn’t just overlook our failures but loves us all the way through them, who doesn’t give up on us when we ignore discipleship but will call us to fish for fish, who isn’t looking for us somewhere else but right where we are, at home over breakfast, who isn’t waiting for us to make amends or just encouraging us to mend our own brokenness, who is able to right our wrongs and to raise up our lives from the pit, bringing you also from death to new life, who is also there in sorrows and darkness and disappointment and death and redeeming it for us. We don’t need just a process for restoration and reconciliation, nothing that is so easily explained or apparently routine, but somehow we even more need the Revelation of a wild unbelievable newness of a slaughtered Lamb ruling as king, and angels and chickens and myriad thousands of unexpected tongues and every last creature singing in praise: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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Seven Sermons for One Sunday (4th Sunday in Lent)

WELCOME & SERMON #1 (Luke 15:1-2)

Now for something completely different.

There’s so much in the parable of the Prodigal Son that we’re going to break it apart. Maybe when it comes around again in three years I’ll take it as a whole ball of wax. But today it seems worth living into the various aspects and attitudes. Plus, there’s the added benefit of being able to tell your family and friends, “I got to hear 7 sermons this week!” Who wouldn’t want to be able to claim that? *

This first piece we might take as a welcome to worship and an introduction to this experience. As you arrive here, you may identify with the sinners, having been beratedly told or having your own suspicious feeling that all is not right in your life. Or you may be more like the grumblers, who claim to have it all figured out in doing the right thing, in spite of everyone else.

Either way, what Jesus has to say today in this gathering is for you. Though we each have our own details and stories and abilities and short-comings, we also arrive in the same boat, turning again to the waters of baptism, expecting, needing a word of grace.

 

SERMON #2 (Luke 15:3, 11b-16)

It’s a nice Kyrie in ELW setting 8, isn’t it? Besides the catchy tune, it also helps expand our view. The typical versions still make reference to our relationships with God and with each other and for ourselves. Even that most simple phrase, “Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy” could capture all of our need. Yet this version intentionally expands our vision to our homes and justice issues, and work and play, and this gathering and the whole world, and all of it commended to God in prayer.

Briefly, I might jump in over my head on conversations on mercy. What we sang sure doesn’t seem like begging to an angry God who is apt to punish or going to withhold goodness. This isn’t mercy as relenting from meting out a harsh guilty verdict. Maybe the reverse, this mercy is apparent in its French origin, merci, reminding us of the gratitude for God having offered so much to us and continuing to strive for our wellbeing. It is not fearsome but a blessed thing to be at the mercy of God, mercy that matches other definitions of compassion for the unfortunate and seeking to alleviate distress. This points us to the beginning of Jesus’ parable. *

The younger son, figuring he was under his own power and at the mercy of nobody but himself, soon found out how much could go wrong—in squandering money and a catastrophic famine and lack of community support and even being stuck with the pigs, having to deal with what was both illegal and offensive to him.

For that wandering son, please understand; Jesus does not claim that if you stay at home close to God nothing will go wrong. Just the reverse, hearing this part of the reading still in the gathering portion of our service and along with that Kyrie, we understand how much we’ve seen go wrong. So we come here again to keep asking for protection and relief and guidance and blessing, in all the moments of our lives and for so much need in our world. And in spite of everything else, we continue to expect good from God. For that, let us pray to the Lord.

 

SERMON #3 (Luke 15:17-20a)

* Depending on your perspective, you might find the son in this part of the parable to be conniving or humbly contrite or just desperate. Is he strategizing tactics to fill his belly? If so, we could observe desperation can drive either toward ingenuity or deceitful acts. Or does he simply recognize that life was better and could be again, even if to a limited degree? That’s not to be slighted. We might, for example, consider how those who have been incarcerated can be reintegrated into society. Things may never be how they once were, but they could be better.

We should also admit, though, that this son’s remorse and sorrow could well be honest. Whether or not the relationship with his father can be re-established, there is some sense of longing in this son, to make amends and, at the very least, to confess. That is worded well in Psalm 32 that we just read, that sometimes we need to speak it aloud, to open ourselves up and disclose the hardship, just because it makes us suffer too much to keep it bottled up inside.

In a grander way, it’s what we hear from 2nd Corinthians (5:16-21), stunningly emphatic on reconciliation. This is the next part in the yearning for restored and whole relationships. And the template here is that our human point of view doesn’t cut it. How we relate is not based on past hurts or on future potential. Trespasses cannot count against us, it says. We are called to see each other through the eyes of Jesus, or as the body of Christ, as a new creation, though we still sure look and feel like our old disappointing selves.

The reading says that for our sake, Jesus became sin so that we might become God’s righteousness. Within the story, that says Jesus took the place of that lost and forsaken son. He identified with him, though it’s hard for us to imagine Jesus as so offensive, as a desperate loser, a hungry philanderer, judged to be worthless. Yet in exchange for that shame—simply taking it away—Jesus offers a new beginning where it is all right and even that outcast lowlife is entrusted at the center of God’s operations as an ambassador, continuing to work for reconciliation.

 

CHILDREN’S MESSAGE/SERMON #4 (Luke 15:20b)

Well, kids, I saved what I think is the best part of this whole story for you, because this is what I hope for you from your parents and families, and from this congregation and me at church, and in all kinds of places in life. And, most importantly, this is also what God always promises for you. *

The son had done something wrong, but his dad didn’t wait for him to say he was sorry. The son didn’t have to do anything at all. His dad was just plain excited for him and loved him and wanted to give him a great big hug. God doesn’t love you only because you do good things. God isn’t proud of you only if you stop doing bad things. God loves you just because you exists and God is so excited to be around you and to hold onto you always.

At this part of the service with sermons, we’re often looking for words to explain God or to try to teach. But before any of our words, God rushes up to say, “I love you!”

And God also trusts you to share that love with others. So go and give somebody a hug, maybe especially someone who doesn’t expect it.

 

 

SERMON #5 (Luke 15:21-24)

*Amazing Grace places these words on the son’s lips, from his experience: “I once was lost but now am found.” The father sees it more strongly still: “This son of mine was dead and is alive again.” It’s even more than recovery; this is a resurrection.

As we turn toward the peace and toward offering, we could see in this sense how we celebrate each other and how we offer our best gifts. Indeed, the amazing word of “grace” has its root in the Greek “charis.” Like “charismatic charity,” it is about gifts we eagerly give for each other. God continues to lavish goodness on you—calf and robe and ring, clothing and rich food and identity—strictly as a gift, in the old words of the catechism “out of pure fatherly goodness, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all.”

That, in turn, is what we also offer for the sake of each other. We share our gifts. We extend what has been offered to us. We practice being the new creations and ambassadors of reconciliation. We share peace. We offer love. We give away what has been given to us. Not because we need to, but because we can. And, God knows, we’re worth it!

 

SERMON #6 (Luke 15:25-30)

This sermon piece may seem like an interruption, and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be, exactly what happens with the older son at this point in the story. The celebrations are interrupted and questioned and resisted. *

As we turn toward this table and the supper where we gladly proclaim that “all are welcome,” we have to realize that the gracious and flagrant welcome has to offend, just as surely as a closed table bound by restrictions and rules would offend. As much as it is good news that you are welcome, you are invited, that this meal is for you, we have to realize there are some who wouldn’t want somebody like you here, somebody your age or level of understanding, or with your doubts or your theology, or your clothes or education, or your background from this week or from earlier in life, or just because you don’t seem to have done much to be very deserving.

And yet here is set a lavish feast, precisely and explicitly given “for you.” The richest meal and most amazing table you could possibly be invited to, not because the abundance of fancy feast, but because the nourishment here is God’s own blessing, the life of Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit for you and soon in you.

This meal may be served to people with whom you wouldn’t necessarily choose to relate. It may be served by hands that don’t seem qualified or worthy or preferable. The question from the parable is whether you’ll accept this great invitation, and if the joy you’re invited to share is worth it, or whether you’ll dig in your heels, wanting to besmirch or degrade others, and in pouting miss out.

The fatted calf has been killed. The Lamb of God has given himself for you and for all. All are welcome; are you coming?

 

BLESSING/SERMON #7 (Luke 15:31-32)

Here’s the end. * What strikes me this week is the great risk. Not that I’m still trying to preach in these last moments, but how risky this was for the father. In regaining one son who had been lost for dead, did he manage to lose the other one anyway? Did he anticipate that possibility? He also seems to be losing out on the hard worker in order welcome back the problem child, offending his honor student by honoring the delinquent.

It’s a whole story of risk. We tend to slander the young son for the risk he took in leaving and then overlook the risk he was weighing in coming home. There’s always a risk in the lavish party, the feast, in what we choose to celebrate and where we give our resources. The younger son we may call wasteful; the father we’d more likely term extravagant, or at least not stingy. That’s constantly true in his devotion; it’s risky. And the older son’s resistance to living that way, his refusal to join the celebration also has risks. His father has promised him everything, but will he so firmly turn away that he’ll give up on it all and become as lost as his brother had been?

That may be the parting question today. You’ve risked being here, giving up yourself to the mercy of God, coming to celebrate a banquet that welcomes offenders and the snooty and you and any who’ll enjoy it. As you prepare to go back into the week of encountering all kinds of Kyrie moments, of squandering and wrongs done and difficulties and longing so desperately for things to go right, it’s in the reconciliation and the love and peace that you have to offer, to risk, and to receive. It’s in putting God’s love first and foremost in our attitudes and relationships, in seeing faces as God’s good new creation, as celebrated just because that’s the kind of God we have.

Having been again reminded and attuned to that, having received again that assurance in worship, going now back into the world for which God risks God’s self so extravagantly and so desperately, you have eyes to see and a life to risk with it as well.

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The Darn Old Self and God’s Reconciliation

sermon on Ephesians2:11-22; Mark6:30-34;53-56

We’ll clean up the mess later, but let’s get ugly straightaway.
To get your brains going and emotions riled up we can start with adversaries, like Brewers vs. Cardinals, or Packers and Bears, or World Cup soccer against Japan, or Muhammad Ali taking down Joe Frazier. Big time opponents.

Or maybe instead of sports, you’re more of a historian, and your “us vs. them” is about jihadists or terrorists or nukes or goes back to Soviets or Nazis or the news illustrating that the South versus North still smolders from the Civil War and is just one of the sorts of violence and unrest we’re forced to face these days.

You may feel your blood pressure beginning to rise, but obviously it gets worse. Our Gospel reading says Jesus had compassion for the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. That’s biblical imagery, set against last week’s reading. We’d heard King Herod was selfish, abusive, egotistical, elitist, power-hungry. In our own partisan environment, you may have that same feeling of being a sheep without a shepherd, whether your aspersions are cast toward Governor Walker or President Obama. You may feel unrepresented and ignored, as if the guy is totally the opposite of you.

But it still gets worse than that, because your archnemesis isn’t the fan for another team. Your worst enemy isn’t the soldier at the other end of our country’s gunsights. The most threatening to your existence in day-to-day life aren’t rampagers or authoritarian tyrants. More likely, it’s somebody in your family you argue with, somebody down the hallway at work whose failings feel irredeemable, somebody across your property line who frustrates you, somebody in your own household who can make your blood boil and knows exactly how to push buttons. Or your own darn ol’ self, as we’ll say more about.

Now that I’ve aggravated your ulcers and made your brain fret, now that you’re aware of this hostility and the animosity that you harbor or that can even overwhelm your better intentions, now that you’ve got an image in your head, now hear again the words from Ephesians: “Christ Jesus has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.” He creates unity and peace, building you together as the household of God.

Let that sink in for a minute, and see whether you feel relieved or ticked off. See, this isn’t saying that Jesus thinks you should work on forgiveness, or that God’s will would be for you to reconcile with opponents, or some larger theological justification that in the cosmic sense your fights are awfully petty and small. No. This is already over and done with. Those biggest disagreements and deepest held angers and most terrible resentments, this says those are already gone. Christ has broken them down. He has already reconciled you. His forgiveness is already active. It’s not something waiting for you. It’s not dependent on you. It’s not even up to you. Your fight is over by his proclamation. How do you like them apples?

I suspect not all that well. Little enough that you may try to explain it away or offer a counter-argument, or simply dismiss it and claim that God’s work in Jesus isn’t that big or that helpful or that important. And I’d want to agree with you. I don’t like it, either. I’d just as soon keep God as a security blanket or personal bank account to draw on when needed. We’re not in the market for God to upset our whole worldview like this, making us share and even become something we wouldn’t choose.

Really, God should’ve known better. When we’re most wanting to dig in our heels, how can God just declare that the enmity is over and the brokenness restored, ex post facto? What about our stubborn resentments and all the ramifications? South Africa needed the Truth and Reconciliation commission to overcome the wrongs of apartheid. So what is this proclamation of Jesus supposed to mean for Palestinians and Israelis? We throw law breakers in prison. How would it work if sufferers were suddenly confronted with those trying to cling stubbornly to positions of oppressive power? Indeed, for one perspective of mine, I couldn’t hardly admit that all is square between the fossil fuel corporations and extincting polar bears, not to mention that I’m not justified in my occasions of grouchiness at Acacia.

Yet our faith proclaims that Jesus is resolving all of this! Just imagine what that means that the terrible dividing lines are eroding!

Clearly this is exactly where Jesus has his work cut out for him. We’ve been built, our brains are trained, in these divisions, to make it the world split into this binary structure. We’ve done the exercise of how dominant this dualistic thinking is.  I say black you say (white). Insiders vs. (outsiders). Male (female). Rich (poor). Happy (sad). Good (bad). So what Jesus is doing is re-forming you, renewing your mind, changing this entire structure of your brain, reconstructing your whole worldview.

In the Ephesians reading, this is about Jews versus non-Jews. You may feel that’s the small potatoes of an ancient religious dispute. But for our identity of dividing, this is the essential one, because one side had been given and held claim to God’s blessing. Yet the remarkable revelation is that being these ultimate insiders wasn’t an exclusive right. The wall or dividing line that kept out the outsiders was torn down. Your disagreements and divisions must indeed pale in this word that nobody is outside the realm and reach of God.

This is acted out, as well, in the Gospel reading, in Jesus’ compassion. For those people left out, neglected by King Herod as insignificant and punished by the Roman occupation and denied by all the systems, for them Jesus has compassion. In their need, in their longing, in their poverty, in their sickness. He brings them in to God’s household, to the family table.

And for you, you will not be excluded from God’s blessing, from Jesus’ compassion. There is no wrong that does not find forgiveness in him, no brokenness he will not restore. This is why, for small grievances or burning regrets, every week God is eager again to welcome you here with the announcement of forgiveness and you’re fed with the very stuff in this meal and nourished by it. This is also why death—that tries to cut you off from each other, from community—is the last enemy to be overcome, the last brokenness to be healed.

So is this just the rhythm of life, to need dose after dose of gracious forgiveness, week in and week out, until you die and God at last raises you to new life? Well…would that be such a bad thing?

You may also recognize that God continues this work in you. Even now you are being raised to new life. Your old self—the selfish, conniving, hateful one—is being put to death, strangled and having its existence cut out from under it, as that foundation of trying to compare and contrast yourself against others is eroded as worthless and pointless. Instead, we gather and practice a new way of being. As we share peace with each other, we try out what Jesus has already accomplished in ending the hostility, proclaiming peace to us who are near and have always been here and peace to those who have never felt incorporated into receiving blessing before. We share peace with those we love and with those who are estranged from us, who have angered or hurt us, who are far from our love. Even in handshakes and hugs and greetings, we find ourselves living together into the reality that Christ has already established.

Some days you may even understand what it means to be Christ’s ambassadors with this message of reconciliation (2Corinthians5:16-20).

As it says later in Ephesians, “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by your lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourself with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:22-24).

We can also compare that new creation with former delusions another way: stop thinking you’re able to go it alone, self-contained, individually-responsible, in competition, a lone wolf. You are a sheep, tended amid this flock, not so much by your pastor, but by the Good Shepherd. And with him, you may know your place is always secure.

Hymn: The Church’s One Foundation (ELW #654)

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Louis Don Nowicki

2 July 1957 + 1 July 2015

Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Acts 10:34-36, 39-43; John 14:1-6

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

“I go and prepare a place for you.” These words from Jesus are good words, good news for us and for Louis, at this time now for him, and for all of our lives held in God’s caring embrace.

Much as the disciples ask Jesus, “What is the way, and how can we know it?” we may well want to ask where our place is. In our lives, and for Louis, we can label some of those places that are ours, that we call our own, call “home.” For him it began on the farm up north, and it is near there that he’s going to return as at Wednesday’s graveside service we commit him to his final resting place.

We might also well say that the place for Louis was in a kitchen. For a family that loves food and has hardly finished one meal before you’re already talking about what might be part of the next, Louis was in the right place; his talents and skills were well-founded. Yet it wasn’t only about meeting the needs of hunger. Louis was not just sharing the nourishment of serving food but also the meticulous creativity and care of décor, from winning dishes displayed for school and on to his dedicated work for the charter train that carried celebrities and special guests to Super Bowls and all over the country. With his careful, artistic eye and attention to those details of meals, Louis could transform even something plain and regular into a beautiful dish, spectacular and extraordinary. Yes, Louis found a passion and a good place for himself in the kitchen.

And again, in thinking of his place, there was also the house in Greenfield, the place he called home with David, a relationship that was also his place for more than 25 years. To change our perspective a bit and think about the place of that type of relationship in our society, we’re only now coming around to the place where the rest of us should be. When Louis invited me in to his apartment to show me photos of his life, I delighted in it. But I could tell it was still a nervous thing for him, going out on a limb even to be able to talk about this partner whose death he was still grieving, still in deep pain over.

There are too many even yet in society who would want to put Louis in his place, to label sins and to cast stones. Well, I’d say those stones are being cast in the wrong direction. Rather than being the one needing forgiveness, Louis embodied a gentle and forgiving presence toward the sort of people who too long condemned him and made life more difficult, less than what is should fully have been, those who would have tried to exclude Louis.

And that’s a fitting place to turn again to our words from Jesus. He goes to prepare our place, and in his Father’s house there are many rooms. If we try to insist that you have to love the right person or act the right way or believe the right things in order to get into the house, we not only limit God’s work and welcome, but also push Jesus himself out the door, disabling him from being our gracious host by our partiality.

Jesus prepares the place for us, no matter who we are. And in this household there is much room, for everybody, not just those who are alike or who fit into each other’s company. The many rooms, we must believe, aren’t so that the Father will tuck us into to our own little individual compartment. It seems more likely that there are people in the Father’s house who are so different they couldn’t stand to be in the same room with each other, but nevertheless they are welcomed, with a place secured for them by Jesus.

So, with apologies for being part of church that has too long been a place of shaming and excluding, I’m eager and delighted to proclaim that these words from Jesus are meant for Louis, “Behold, I go and prepare a place for you.”

I also want you to hear how these words are meant for you. Particularly as his family, you’ve said that you could spend lots of time worrying for Louis, about how he never planned for rainy days when things would go wrong, about how you worked to care for him and put life back together for him.

When you told me, Ed, this terrible, shocking news that Louis had died, you were struggling with grief and questions of failure, that you had tried to help him, that you all had made it work for him to move here to Madison, that so many of you—including this church community—worked to help him have a good place here, to fit in, to find friends, to be active and healthy.

But that didn’t always seem to go well, as Louis continued to confront dark and sad days with a troubled soul. There were times he withdrew from everybody, so quiet, losing track of any delight in life. Through that, you continued to encourage him, to try to motivate him, to make things better, right up until now, when we can’t do any more to care for his wellbeing.

But for your frustrations and worries of failure, for preparations that fell through, for your wishing you could’ve done more, for the loss now in this time of separation and hurt, the word of Jesus is for you, too. Jesus prepares a place for Louis. As much as you tried to make life succeed for him here and elsewhere, ultimately it isn’t your care and concern but God’s embrace that holds onto him, especially now.

And the same as you walk through dark valleys and face death, as you feel attacked by so many hardships and concerns, in the places where life won’t go as it should. Your Lord finds you wherever you are, serves you, and fulfills every need. He has prepared this table before you and offers himself to you here. And he continues to make a place for you, to welcome you home. God’s forgiveness and unconditional love and eternally abundant life is not only more than you can manage, but more than you can imagine.

Thanks be to God.

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Judas, Easter life, and your place here

7th Sunday of Easter (17May15)

John17:6-19; Acts1:15-26; 1John5:9-13

Near the end of this Easter season of resurrection life and new beginnings, we drag back into the midst death and destruction and tragic endings.

Maybe it takes this long to be up for it. On Easter Sunday everything is bright, golden celebration (if not totally erasing death’s confusions). As the season progresses, dwelling deeper in newness of life, living into it, we can risk asking with Thomas about scars and lingering nail wounds, and how Jesus is made known in breaking the bread, and about those who aren’t part of this flock, and what we should be doing to stay connected to Jesus in the meantime.

With all of that, with seven weeks of Easter under our belts, we can finally muster the courage to be able to consider the worst, to look back to the night in which Jesus was betrayed, at last now to confront Judas and to ask who is excluded, left out, condemned, who doesn’t receive the good news of Easter.

After all, Judas comes up in two of our readings today. And, even though the lectionary for our 1st reading would’ve skipped the hardest verses, and the very point of the reading was to exclude him from the group of believers, still we need to understand the vital question of how he fits in.

In the gospel, Jesus refers to Judas as “the one destined to be lost.” A more direct translation would be as “the son of destruction” or might be paraphrased for us as “the biggest loser.” As the son of death, Judas there might be contrasted with Jesus the Son of God.

Yet for all of his infamy, the guy isn’t really a major character in the story. During Jesus’ life, Judas was just in the mix with the other 12 disciples. And after Good Friday he’s mostly not in the picture anymore.

But that disappearance presents a hard question for us as we gather here. While we may not place ourselves exactly in the same camp as Judas, at some point we have to ask: if he could blow it and get himself excluded or damned, eternally separated from God’s goodness, destined for destruction, well what would it take to lose our place? Just how much unlike Judas are we?

For that, we may ask what makes Judas so bad, what corrupted him. Maybe he betrayed Jesus because he wanted the 30 pieces of silver, he was greedy. Or it may be he didn’t agree with everything Jesus was doing. (Judas was critical of Jesus’ ministry once and it’s often assumed that he wanted Jesus to be a mighty military messiah.) Evaluating ourselves by those standards, we can indeed be greedy and make poor choices for really a trifling amount of gain. We also turn away from Jesus’ mission and want power and dig in our heels when things don’t go our way.

There’s one other description of why Judas betrayed Jesus: the devil made him do it. To me, that’s more terrifying because it’s so helpless. It isn’t about willpower or making wise decisions, but is entirely out of our control. We can fail hugely and suffer the consequences just because we get trapped in evil. We’re captive to sin. We’ll return to the question of how permanent that trap is, how much our wrongs imprison us or separate us from Jesus.

To continue with the story, though, Judas agrees to betray Jesus, and does it with a kiss. That alone could fill a sermon, on how our affection is warped and perverted to accomplish the opposite of love, how we can be two-faced, how when we get the closest is when we can do the most damage.

After that kiss, Judas mostly disappears. When Jesus is handed over to Pontius Pilate in Matthew’s Gospel, Judas repents and tries to return the silver. Of course, they don’t want to take it back. So Matthew says Judas goes and hangs himself.

Acts instead has this peculiar story of Judas using the money to buy a field and tripping and having his guts burst out. The ugly scene portrays a sense that our problems are visited back on us, with a further notion that the curse spreads, to those around us and even infects the land. That’s probably both fair and nasty.

That there are these two different stories of Judas’ death I believe means the Bible writers were trying to deal with this hard subject in all of its disappointing awkwardness, trying to come up with explanations: Would his friends and fellow followers of Jesus have ever been able to welcome Judas back after he handed over to death their teacher and our Lord? If he wasn’t part of the community any more, what would’ve become of him? Would he have found a different leader to follow? Would he have lived out his days lonely and sorrowful? Did he suffer more directly for the wrongs he perpetrated?

Christian history has inflated this to ghastly proportions, degrading Judas to be the worst person who ever lived, worthy of punishment only secondary to the devil. In Dante’s Inferno, Judas is in the lowest pit of hell, suffering the fate of being eternally clawed at and gnawed at by the devil’s sharp teeth, stuck headfirst in one slobbering, painful mouth of the grand demon. That image is literally being trapped in sin forever, without escape and no end in sight.

Not only does that raise bleak prospects for considering our own sins and failings and associations with evil. It’s also a pretty miserable destiny for one who, we’d have to admit, brought to completion the story of salvation. After all, without Judas, would Jesus have been arrested? And without that, then no crucifixion, and no resurrection! Without Judas doing wrong, Jesus cannot overcome wrong. Without the sin, would there be forgiveness?

That’s not to praise Judas, but to recognize first that he isn’t simply excluded from our story. He’s not like Voldemort as he-who-must-not-be-named in Harry Potter. He’s not like Haman, the villain in the book of Esther, whose name is shouted over and drowned out whenever that book is read in Jewish assemblies. Even if the Bible writers tried to write him off, Judas remains part of our story, and in that way part of our community. Even if we’re not ready to confront it, still Judas shows up weekly as part of our gathering in the reminder of the words “On the night in which he was betrayed…” a meal which, after all, was given to Judas and is given to us precisely for the forgiveness of sins.

That also reminds us God can work wonderful things out of our worst actions. Certainly we label current events that hopeful way: that sin or tragedy may yet be turned to something good, that a benefit may even come through death.

Much more, though, here you know your existence is centered by a God in Jesus who brings new life out of death, who confronts sin with forgiveness, who reciprocates to the kiss of betrayal with a kiss of peace. To all that would threaten to exclude you from community and dismember you from this body, Christ Jesus re-members you into being here.

So this isn’t just a hypothetical question for Judas, of whether God could possibly forgive him or if he irreparably destroyed his place among the church crowd. No, this is a word for you. A word of forgiveness, of restoration, of remembering, of bringing you into new life, even if it means restoring ruptured pieces from the old life.

That association with Judas is important for us, vital for us to recognize. See, we often picture ourselves as the do-gooders, as those trying to do the right thing, as so helpful. Flip through our hymnal and the words pile up about how we feed the hungry or care for the distressed, about how we bring light to dark places.

But this is even more important for the other side. This is a word for when you know you’ve done wrong, when you’re the one needing help, when you’re not good enough, when you’re in the dark (which, after all, is at too many points in life and at its end). It’s for when you can’t be or aren’t part of this assembly, when you’re excluded from church. It’s a word for when you’re lonely and feeling abandoned and in danger, when things just won’t go right, when you’re in what sure feels like hell and that damned Satan is gnawing on you.

Here is this vitally essential word for you once again: there is no curse, no wrong that can separate you from the love of God, from the blessing and life of Jesus our Lord. Our faith proclaims that Jesus has toppled the gates of hell. In these very words I proclaim to you, he has freed you from the shackles of your sin and throws away the key. He fills your dead lungs with the Spirit of new life.

In one fun mark of the reversal that you yourself will proclaim, instead of guts bursting out as a sign of punishment, notice that in our hymn we’ll be singing that is “shouts of holy joy [that] outburst.” That’s the only way for it to be. After all, Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done (ELW #366)

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A Forgetful God’s Memory

 Sermon for 5th Sunday in Lent
Jeremiah31:31-34; John12:20-33; Psalm51:1-12

When I used the phrase “heart of the matter” in my last sermon, Pastor Tim decided to share a song with that name by Don Henley. Today I’m provoking it directly: a lyric from the Eagles’ song “Hotel California” says, “Some dance to remember, some dance to forget.” That points us toward both forgetfulness and memory and illustrates the balance, the narrow divide between what we want to call to mind and what we’d just as soon leave behind.

This reflection is prompted by peculiar words at the end of our Jeremiah reading, where the LORD says, “I will remember their sin no more.” Last week Tim highlighted for us the perhaps surprising notion that God can change God’s mind, that God doesn’t have the future written in stone or fully predicted. This is a notch stranger still: not only does God not see into the future, but the LORD also has a bad memory and will forget the past!

The name of the LORD may even hint at this. See, whenever our Bible has the LORD in capital letters, it is a replacement for Yahweh, the name introduced to Moses at the burning bush. Yahweh means something like “I AM” or “I will be who I will be.” I like to think it indicates that existence, all of being is grounded in God.

If this is who God is, present tense existing “I AM,” if God doesn’t dwell on the past, that means your own past doesn’t need to define you. And the future is not predetermined. You may take those as good news, words of freedom and encouragement. Your God is the LORD of what will be, and so you also are not stuck in stasis, not left to the status quo, but always becoming, leaving the past behind, living in the now, moving toward a new future.

Yet with matters of memory, we can’t claim amnesia. Life isn’t simply a blank slate or carpe diem and what you can make of each day. God also explained to Moses, “I am the God of your ancestors, of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” It isn’t only a fresh start. History is important. Our heritage and genealogy give shape to our present, whether we like it or not. In eulogizing departed saints, we should also memorialize them as sinners. For us, too, there are things we’d prefer to forget—traumas and tragedies we’ve lived through or major blunders and bloopers we’ve committed. “My sin is ever before me,” the Psalm said. Those often continue to shape us, even when we don’t want them to.

Plus, memory is incredibly persistent. As Acacia’s mom, Judy, has been unresponsive in critical care, we heard multiple stories of patients waking up from a coma to recall conversations that happened around them.
While it may be preferable to forget all about the terrible struggle with illness this week, we’ve simultaneously been confronted with wishing for more memories, both in the past and to come. I’ve been trying to recollect conversations with Judy, gardening advice, how she gloated when she beat me in dominoes. Some of what we remember is not as clear as we’d wish.

Amid complexities of forgetfulness and memory that mirror the complexities of life is when we turn to find our foundation in God, a relationship that is built on trusting the validity of a promise. This is the point in repeating as a blessing that God will remember the covenant made with you, with your ancestors, with all people of faith, with all creation. This is also the heart of the sacrament of baptism—it is a guarantee of God’s unconditional love, an assurance that you’ll never be expelled from God’s presence or condemned by your failings. Ultimately, it isn’t dependent on your behaviors or how tightly you adhere to God’s ways. Much stronger, God’s utter insistence on the promise is what enables our faith, our trusting and confidence.

The promise of God’s memory is essential when your memory fails, when you don’t or can’t keep up your end of the bargain. But the just-as-essential parallel is the promise of God’s forgetfulness when your memory is too strong, when you simply can’t forget. This is the amazing thing in God’s promise: that God both promises to remember and promises to forget.

The first part of that—that God remembers the promise even when you don’t—in regular daily existence may be a matter of negligence, where you didn’t measure up to the standards of faith, where you fall short as a disciple of Jesus, where life is too scattered. But God’s memory is not only a resource for when you’re distracted from church and don’t give God the devotion you should. It fundamentally shapes our baptisms. Courtney Reagan and Hazel Lydia will have no recollection of the words spoken with water today. Nevertheless, it isn’t their capabilities or mental capacity, but God’s promise that is the essential thing in the sacrament.

In another way, this also pairs importantly with our Gathering Hymn, “When Memory Fades.” As a congregation, we are walking through dementia and memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease in many ways. Too many. In our midst, we share the difficulties with Lorraine Johnson and Edward, with Roger Kinson and Nancy, with Gene Hanson and Jo. Through many degrees, from the early onset testing for Lee Johnson and Janice to the greater struggles of Jane Dohler and Dave. Many more affected relationships ripple beyond this assembly. Amid worries and sadness, however, remains God’s abiding word. It is an absolutely vital promise that even when memory fades, when the brokenness of confusion cannot be overcome, when the loss becomes too great, God will not let you slip away but will insist on the covenant. God will remember! Always!

Yet, with an amazing paradox, God will also forget. God will not hold iniquity against you. No sin, no failure, no shortcoming will separate you from God’s blessing. It’s not even that God overlooks your character flaws or that God grades on a curve to count your benefits more strongly than your faults. No. God simply has a terribly lousy memory when it comes to keeping score. God will forget.

And God forgets because God remembers. In the Jeremiah reading, though the people forgot to follow God’s law and had gotten so estranged that they had become almost foreigners, still God remembers them, holds them dear, promises to care for them and guide them. Your relationship with God is so important that God will keep the covenant and forget your sin.

With that, we may also, then, begin to explore how this same pairing of memory and forgetting can take place in our lives. Certainly it’s obvious as we gather here and turn again to the renewed covenant of the Lord’s Supper that we are called to “Do this for the remembrance of” Jesus. We ask that he remember us in his kingdom, but also that we live into his kingdom. If we are members of the body of Christ, rather than being dis-membered, in this gathering we are re-membered into the body, into the life of Christ, into the life he still lives through and among us.

Yet there must also be an element of not remembering for us to be in communion. We gather starting with the confession of sin. We don’t do it to dwell in feelings of guilt or shame, but to find release from what haunts us. Neither is it repressing or ignoring, but is holding sin to proper account. We confess to God and each other, to those who hold us accountable. We remember in order to name the wrongs as wrong, to capture them and no longer let them define our meaning, since our true identity is as children of God, in Christ. The lens for examining our past is the cross and resurrection of Jesus. He is how we see the future. Living into what that means, we can acknowledge our suffering as victims and complicity in hurt, but then we also practice setting it aside.

Maybe in some way we forgive and forget. I know that’s among the most disliked phrases, that we’d prefer to claim “I’ll forgive, but I’ll never forget.” But such an attitude either means a grudge yearning for revenge or else it means that the wrong has not been released, that it still has power over you, a control that then is attempting to usurp your relationship with God, to cut you off from life in Christ and with each other.

Maybe the phrase of burying the hatchet can be instructive for us, since from a buried hatchet one expects reconciliation to blossom and come to fruition. It fits with the saying from Jesus, that a seed must be buried in order to bear fruit. There is a surprise in burying the past, in forgetting it. Each spring, bulbs emerge and plants start to sprout that I had forgotten were there, maybe that even arrived by accident, transplanted by a squirrel or something. New life comes where there was no reasonable expectation for it to be.

The same is true not only for burying those old injuries and trespasses, but even more centrally for you yourself. You have been buried with Christ by baptism into death so that you may rise to walk in newness of life. Remember: that is your future.

Hymn: Remember and Rejoice (ELW #454)

with a hearty endorsement of Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory

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Ashes and New Life

sermon for Ash Wednesday        (from Matthew 6 & Joel 2)

I like Ash Wednesday. Maybe like you, I find it moving, though—also perhaps like you—I don’t really understand it.

For starters there’s even the simple question of whether or not you’re supposed to keep wearing the ashes after worship. I mean, Jesus warns about practicing our piety before others on the street corners. That would seem to say that if you’re headed to the store after worship or back to work, then maybe you shouldn’t be a show-off with your ashy forehead, acting dismal and disfigured and unwashed. But on the other hand, clearly we must be putting it on, wearing that black stain for a definite reason, right? So if we’re immediately wiping it off, then why bother being marked in the first place?

That’s even more difficult to answer when we realize the external isn’t what we’re focusing on, but the internal. The prophet Joel said that it isn’t our clothing we tear to lament, but rend our hearts. Not so much our appearance but our attitude, “with weeping and with mourning” he says.

That goes with the confession of sins, which raises more conflicting questions, since this strong repentance can seem like we’re dwelling on our faults. It can seem depressing, or maybe even masochistic. In our society, you don’t admit any weakness or shortcoming. We’re trained to put on a strong face and act as if everything is okay and be tough enough to pull ourselves up as individuals. When my sister was doing job interviews, there was always a question “what’s your biggest fault?” She joked about responding with back-handed self-congratulatory compliments, “I’m a perfectionist” or “I spend too much time at work.”

And yet, counter-culturally, we gather here confessing our actual sins, owning up to what we’ve done wrong, acknowledging brokenness. So is this just about being pessimists or losers? Are we trying to feel ashamed, to rub in a sense of unworthiness or guilt?

Probably it is better labeled as sincerity that peels back our masks and false pretensions, that won’t permit our claims to self-righteousness, to labeling ourselves as alright and calling others the problem. It may be a healthier way of seeing the world and interacting with others not to claim a place of privilege as so wholly self-sufficient, but to recognize our need, that we require assistance from others. Then we’ll see how it is met as a gift, as the sharing of community, whether in church or as a creature on earth.

And if we’re following Jesus’ instructions and guidance, to live lives of concern for others, to be generous and caring, then we need that re-orientation, that motivation. We’d have to acknowledge we could always do better at it, and that it is indeed worth trying.

That’s a positive explanation, a good way of talking about what we do in confession. Even more so, the word of forgiveness, of an entirely fresh start where you are not liable for the wrongs you’ve committed, is just about the most stunning word you can receive. More miraculous is that it comes not because you’ve earned it through restitution or retribution but only because God declares it, speaks that word to you.

Yet that positive, gracious side again doesn’t quite seem to fit with your smudge of ashes. If confession of sins is not to be depressing or dismal or disappointed, can we say something similar about that black cross that will be a stain on your forehead? Can it possibly be good news? As Tim and I are besmirching you, young and old alike, we’ll proclaim that reminder, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” That’s the dark heart of my struggles with this day. It feels mostly morbid, like an insistence on or fascination with death. I love you so much that it’s heart-wrenching to say to the youngest of you, and is miserably sad in other, older instances.

But we should admit remarkable miracle even in those words. It isn’t only about finitude, the too-sudden endings of death. Certainly it has nothing to do with you being worthless; after all, you are God’s good creation. And that God formed you from the dust is worth considering, in part since our food is from the soil and cultivated land is what gives us culture. We are indeed humans formed from the humus, we are earthlings, part of this vast system of relationships God established.

Still more, that you are dust is so much more than an earthling. The elements of your body were formed in the fusion of stars that have exploded, gone supernova, over the 13.8 billion years of this universe. You are stardust, and you yourself are the fruition that would not be possible without that vast history. That’s a stunning reminder.

The other side of it may feel somewhat less romantic, that you also return to dust. And yet it is a truth that our death sustains future life. Our excrement is tomorrow’s fertility. Our waste is recycled and becomes a recreation of God in fresh beginnings. As dead dinosaurs facilitate your lifestyle with fossil fuels, you’ll also find your way into God-knows-what kind of future. Perhaps that’s symbolized as last year’s Palm Sunday celebration returns today, the ashes of our past becoming a blessing for this moment.

But that also points toward something more. This isn’t only about death being an opportunity for other life or about the conservation of matter or ongoing usefulness of what had seemed exhausted and dead. As the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton said, “It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity.”* See, this day and the ashes also tie in with Jesus. Maybe that should be obvious, since we’re gathered in church. Yet those marks on your forehead make us need to ponder what we believe and why.

The odd puzzle in this part, the ongoing question it seems to raise is the triangle of our relationships with death and with Jesus. You return to the earth, but your future is not just in having your atoms recycled. In faith, we trust that your death is not the end, that our wrongs or sins or spiritless separation of death do not have the final word. Jesus is the final Word. We’re people who confess in the creed that we believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” But then why bother to be reminded today about death? Why dwell on that, if that’s not where our hope lies or our remains remain?

In our funeral services, the graveside committal says, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our sister and we commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Then right after that we pray to God, “Strengthen us in our weakness, calm our troubled spirits, and dispel our doubts and fears. In Christ’s rising from the dead, you conquered death and opened the gates to everlasting life.”

Just as when in a cemetery we are saying those temporary but still-too-long farewells to loved ones, encounters with death and mortality remain hard and sad. It’s still a problem. It’s not right and not okay, even if it’s not really final. We always need hope renewed and calm for our troubled spirits, not just at a graveside or deathbed, but even in the midst of a bleak, cold winter night.

So the cross on your head: is that a visible reminder that you’ve been claimed by Christ? That God is with you not just for afterlife, but even now in your dirtiness and difficult decisions? Is it the mark of death that can only be cleaned and washed away in the waters of baptism, where you were marked with an invisible cross for eternal life? Is that black smudge in the shape of Jesus’ cross not marking your death so much as that in his death he defeated death, that in him death dies?

What’s this all about, and why is it important for you, not only now but in these weeks until Easter, and long beyond?

Hymn: Ashes and New Life

Ashes and New Life

* In Lent Sourcebook I, pg18

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