Mothers’ Day and Matters of Death & Life

sermon on Acts7:55-60; 1Pet2:2-10; John14:1-14

 

If your faith is going to get you killed, you might like to anticipate it and know why. That’s just one question of life’s trajectory as followers of Jesus in the surprise our first reading presents.

In Acts, we heard the very end of a story. Not even catch-as-catch-can to pick up in the middle of things, the lectionary drops it, leaving us with a shocked “what-the-heck-caused-that?!” No sooner had Stephen opened his mouth than the mob was dragging him out to stone him to death. It’s violent, and jaw-droppingly, abruptly so. You can’t even avert your attention, it hit so suddenly without the rest of the story.

As it happens, Stephen seemed ready for it, even if we weren’t. Our snippet gave practically no indication of what led to his tragic fate. From this ending, Stephen is identified as the first Christian martyr, usually meaning the first to be killed for following Jesus. Now, if one can evidently be brutally lynched not only for being Jesus but for following Jesus, we might want to back up to figure out why to anticipate that.

Last week, I mentioned how—in spite of their best intentions—the food pantry of the early Christian communists wasn’t running fairly. Chapter 6 of Acts described ethnic discrepancies that meant certain widows weren’t getting their share in the daily distribution. Without explaining too much dynamics, it’s as if German-heritage Lutherans like me neglected responsibility to Scandinavians for somehow considering them inferior or secondary. (Nevermind that—both in Acts and our own history—things continued to spread exponentially past those kind of restrictive confines, since the Holy Spirit always plans beyond the stubborn barriers we erect).

Besides the first problem of dumb injustices of ethnic boundaries, it also turned out that the core group of 11 (or 12) apostles who had been closest to Jesus said they were too busy to worry about the food pantry, saying they had to preach sermons so others needed to be found to staff the pantry.

That’s where Stephen came in, as the central one along with six others hired or commissioned to be deacons. It’s a word literally for “waiter,” for one who serves food. (We’ve continued to use the term for distinctions in church. Last summer at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly it was adopted as the term for official roles other than pastors. Pastors are responsible for Word and Sacrament, while deacons are those officially involved in Word and Service categories of ministry.)

Like that, Stephen is chosen with Philip and five others especially to serve food. But no sooner were they in the role than Stephen wound up a preacher anyway. This pattern is consistent in the book of Acts and is kind of funny. I mentioned in Bible discussion a couple weeks ago that, even though we know this book as “Acts of the Apostles,” it could better be called “Acts of the Holy Spirit,” since she’s constantly undoing the Acts the Apostles have done!

In this case, the apostles said they had to focus on sermons so somebody else should serve food. But Stephen got put on trial and needed to defend himself, and so the guy selected for food service wound up chosen by the Spirit to preach the longest sermon in the whole book of Acts. In the chapter after this, another deacon, Philip, ends up fulfilling Jesus’ words about being witnesses to the ends of the earth as he preaches to an Ethiopian eunuch.

So much for the apostles trying to stake out their turf or for Peter’s central place in charge of the church’s hierarchy! We constantly learn that the Holy Spirit isn’t too interested in the center, much less who thinks they’re in charge, but keeps pushing to edges of new beginnings.* Stephen’s sermon proclaimed that humans all too often reject as unpopular how God has chosen to act. As if to prove his point, they kill the messenger.

For the original question of what got Stephen killed, what prompted the unleashing of this aggression against him, a basic answer is that he was trying to take seriously what faith meant in following the God of Jesus.

Maybe more to the point for us, the model isn’t that you should be getting folks so ticked off they want to crush you. Though his words commending his spirit to God and responding to the hatred with a prayer for forgiveness echo the model in Jesus’ own crucifixion, Stephen’s faith isn’t just for the ending. Though we might wonder if we’d be ready to die faithfully, it’s also good to practice long before the end. Stephen is a martyr in the fuller biblical sense, not merely for getting killed, but as a witness, that commending your life into God’s care is the greatest power. The rejection and being driven out by people cannot rupture that relationship, since nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

This week I happened across an essay from Luther suggesting when frightened or attacked by anything—not just an angry gang—to resist by saying, “No, you’ll not have the last word!…If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine.”**

And yet, maybe we need to step back a bit. If you’re not awaiting a moment when a mob will seize you and drag you out of town, if testifying by confronting heresy isn’t really the epitome of what seems to matter about faith, if your main question isn’t really even whether God’s love is stronger than death, if it’s not so much about standing firm in the face of horrible fears for some ultimate ending, then you may instead have questions about getting to the middle of the story.

That pairs with our Gospel reading. In fact, it’s almost directly what Thomas asks and another Philip reiterates, a question not so concerned about the final endpoint but about the meantime, the middle of the story. Thomas says it this way: “Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way to get there?” It’s tough to arrive at your destination if you don’t even know which roads to take.

But Jesus doesn’t reply with pointers to start those disciples down the right path of living a bit more faithfully. He doesn’t say, “Well, why don’t you try to be nicer to your family? Maybe you should gossip less? Or isn’t it about time you check the list of volunteer opportunities to see where your skills could be helpful?” He doesn’t ask what injustices you’re confronting and certainly doesn’t prompt, “So…how are you doing on your goals and five-year plan?”

In a way, we like those sorts of mileposts to measure progress, though. We might not feel so saintly as Stephen, but certainly must be doing better than the murderous mob. When things aren’t going the direction we’d want, we perversely even like those directional indicators for offering blame, even when it lands back on ourselves for straying from the straight and narrow, or failing to make the improvements we’d intended.

Instead of giving directions, though, Jesus says I AM the way. Now, that’s not as Jesus himself is directions or instructions or measurements of comparison. Neither is it that he is a means to your end, as if he’s the rocketship you climb aboard for a ride to heaven. No, Jesus is saying: don’t try to get elsewhere because I’m already with you.

That’s still not satisfactory for the disciples, though. This other Philip asks for something else: “Show us God and we’ll be satisfied.” Jesus says, that’s what I’ve been showing you this whole time, throughout the story! Don’t go looking for something different, waiting for more spiritual sensations, wandering off after shiny new and improved-ness, expecting you’ll get it all figured out, all mapped out. I bring God’s presence for you, Jesus says. And just after this he says, when I’m not here, you’ll have my Spirit. God always with you! That’s what you need! That’s it.

Yet that brings us even further back. If we aren’t confronting the ultimate end like Stephen, of needing to declare faithfully that our lives are in Jesus’ hands, and if like Thomas and Philip we’ve received the assurance that Jesus is with us even though we’re not sure where we’re headed or how to place our next steps, then that brings us all the way back to the first verse from 1st Peter: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation, tasting that the Lord is good.” Like newborn infants, you are nursed and nourished and nurtured and raised by this mothering God’s goodness. Commending your life into God’s care or committing to God’s pathways isn’t something you even need to do because you are carried already and always in God’s arms, sustained by God offering herself for you, from giving you birth, through life, beyond death, to new beginnings.

That’s tenderly wonderful good news, but it also comes with an ongoing awareness: you may wish it were so quick and simple as going down defiantly in a blaze of glory, with a heavenly vision as you’re confidently facing foul villains. But faith isn’t about Stephen’s ending. Even he witnessed that the Holy Spirit continued to abide with him. His life was already and always in Jesus’ hands. Neither, then, is this about changing your path, about needing to reorient your life. I find the term “followers of Jesus” generally helpful for us these days, but that isn’t trying to indicate that you’re following Jesus off elsewhere. He is with you.

Yet for this elusive assurance to be most effective, you probably need constant doses of it. If you’re longing for the pure, spiritual milk like newborn infants, a newborn nurses like eight or a dozen times per day, right? At best, you’re getting communion here and tasting that good gift from God once a week. Not that being away from here removes you from God’s maternal, eternal care or excludes you from God’s embrace. Far from saying that at all. But if you have to wait a week, you’re probably starving, longing, bawling and crying out, or just feeling so faithfully vulnerable, in desire for another feeding of this pure, spiritual milk to fill you with what you need to live, to satisfy your spirit, and revive your growth.

So, to continue to nurse and nurture you for the days ahead, here’s once again the assurance: you are a beloved child of God and nothing can separate you from that.  And why don’t you turn an become surprising preachers for each other. Make the sign of the cross on each other’s forehead with those words: you are a beloved child of God and nothing can separate you from that.

* See Justo Gonzalez Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit on these observations

** Luther’s Works, vol43, p128 “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”

 

I believe there are worthwhile reasons Jesus refers to God the Father. But today some of those reasons are offset by Mothers’ Day, which gives us good reason to hear this passage with its very Father-heavy language instead in a motherly way:

The holy gospel according to John.

Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said,] “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Mother’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Mother except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Mother also. From now on you do know her and have seen her.”

8Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Mother, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Mother. How can you say, ‘Show us the Mother’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Mother and the Mother is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Mother who dwells in me does her works. 11Believe me that I am in the Mother and the Mother is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Mother. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Mother may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

For the Word of God in scripture, for the Word of God within us, for the Word of God among us, thanks be to God.

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One Nation Under

sermon on Luke10:1-11,16-30; Ps66; Isa66:10-14

As can surprisingly often be the case, the coincidence of these lectionary readings fit well this weekend.

The prophet Isaiah speaks glowingly of the homeland, perhaps a natural reaction after years of being away, held captive in exile in Babylon. On this weekend when this country turns toward celebrating our heritage and the blessings of living in this nation, Isaiah’s delight is a strong and worthwhile reminder of others celebrating that as well. The words of the prophet glorify the capital city of Jerusalem, turning attention and devotion there, expecting that from the capital flows prosperity, wealth, comfort, and relief from needs.

While in these days few lavish such praise on capitals—whether for what happens down at the Square or for how things function in Washington, DC—still this weekend expects the same general acclaim for our nation. With calls to devotion to this country, we are still supposed to be living into the dream that America is a place—or even declared the place—of prosperity and wealth, of comfort and relief. We continue to abide with “city on a hill” identifications, and recognize that this remains a place of hope, of refuge, a place of asylum and also potential. Even if we’re not living into the fullness of that, even if we’re putting up walls that would keep out those seeking to share in what this country offers, even if the wealth is increasingly isolated among the few instead of shared and extended like the “overflowing stream” of Isaiah’s vision, still we have to admit that this is the typical conception of our country: a good place, a desirable place, of potential and hope.

The essential aspect for us to notice—both for the sake of these United States and within our Bible reading—is that the goodness is not inherent. Jerusalem is not a source of blessing in and of itself. We anticipate the good of America not because America is so good. The blessing always comes from God.

This is beautifully stated in Isaiah, in some of the most tender language in Scripture. These are nearly the concluding verses of the 2nd longest book in the Bible, and they speak with the warm embrace of this mothering God. The prophet invited his listeners to realize they were being nursed and comforted from the consoling breast and to drink with deep delight from the glorious bosom of Jerusalem. That’s already a reorientation from a notion of the mighty fatherland, of patriotism. This, instead, is “matriotism,” understanding the homeland as giving you life, as what nurses and raises, consoles and swaddles you.

Beyond that, it isn’t only the matriotism of what you receive from your country. That all comes from the maternity of God, for thus says the Lord (as Isaiah relates): “you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, dandled on her knee. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” Where the words of today’s psalm, Psalm 66, proclaim that God keeps watch on all the nations, that all the earth is blessed and may well respond in song and with joyful noise, Isaiah’s more intimate message won’t leave God as some beneficent presence on high, a kind yet distant ruler who cares for his subjects. No, Isaiah notices that all your nourishment is the milk of God, that when you lay your head to rest, wherever that may be, it is on Her consoling breast, that all your tears are not only heard by but cradled in the arms of God.

Such tender and gracious language almost makes the next words from Jesus a nasty surprise, a stumbling block. There seems little compassion or consolation in his words about the surrounding citizens, but instead warning and opposition for the children “like lambs in the midst of wolves.” How did those wolves come to inhabit the same country Isaiah saw as tender toddlers held by God the Mother?

Yet the harsh edge and the worry of Jesus’ words is not unknown to us, either, on this Independence Day weekend. As good as our nation can be, as fruitful and bountiful of a place to live, as a place of home and so much care and security, as embodying that image of a mothering God who strives with all her being to ensure that our needs are met and that we don’t suffer undue harm—as strongly as we know or wish that our United States will be that sort of presence for us and for others, still we also quickly recognize the other side, where we fail, where our culture is harmful rather than nurturing and caring. We realize our society has a long way to go in being a mother to all the children of this household.

And for that, the fiercest word of Jesus may actually speak the truest. When he says he “watched Satan fall like lightning,” it is about tearing down from the pedestals all the false gods, the corruption, the entrenched patriarchies, the powers that only want to claim power over and not power on behalf of. As much as a nation fails to be a mothering presence, as much governments neglect or abuse the authority of a God who delights and dandles and consoles and cares, as much as those with the strength to help the weak instead devour them, they abdicate their shepherding or motherly role, and oppose the will of God.

In that case, Jesus sends us out—even if we’d been part of the problem—sends you and me, to extend peace and proclaim the kingdom that stands against the kingdoms that have too long stood over the good of this world, have too long squashed and squelched and hoarded wellbeing. Jesus sends us to embody his message, his vision, his care to set the world right, to contradict and overcome the demons, this satan, those false gods and terrible authorities that fail to do what needs to be done.

That is our model for Independence Day. More than an occasion to barbeque and enjoy fireworks, and certainly not just the chance to assess our standing in the world, to assert our superpower, this is an opportunity to recall God’s mothering presence, watching out for you and for us, and watching over all the nations of the world, eager to hear the cries of the despairing. As we celebrate our blessings from this God, we also attune our ears to those cries. We rightly celebrate the good that comes from our country, and also amid other nations. And we rightly confront the wrongs, throwing ourselves into the project though we may be fiercely opposed or violently disregarded, yet nevertheless trusting that our God is on the side of the hurting and suffering, the weak and the longing, and that the kingdom of God comes near and is present even as we meet new challenges to serve as God’s children in ensuring care for all our sisters and brothers, in this country, in all nations, and throughout creation.

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Separate Unions

sermon on John17:20-26
I may be warped by competitive spirit of playing the card game Uno too much, but I’m apt to hear this reading as a challenge more than a blessing, which generally isn’t the best way to hear from Jesus.
 
On this 7th Sunday of the season of Easter, the last before Pentecost, the assigned Gospel reading is always from John 17, a chapter that is entirely Jesus praying. And the summary of his prayer, is Uno—one—unification—that we may be one as Jesus and his Father (as he prays) are one. (Today is among great times to pray “Mother” instead, though for different reasons.)
 
Anyway, as I said, I wind up tempted to hear that “oneness” as a challenge. Ostensibly about teamwork, this feels like competition, that it involves ranking and comparisons, with a starting place in trying to highlight marks of unity. That’s an easy temptation, since there are plenty of positives to highlight: for example, a week ago I was at our South-Central Synod of Wisconsin ELCA annual assembly, a great gathering of the 145 local ELCA congregations, to focus together on God’s mission and our work in the world. It was also a chance to feel part of the larger whole of our 3.7 million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. That could be a good mark of unity. Or, I suppose, it might conversely be identified as circling the wagons and hanging out with those of like mind. The basic fact that we’ve got a denomination could be an indicator of past divisions and schisms and ruptures.
 
Another apparent approach in highlighting positive examples of union would be right here as Madison Christian Community. We could claim we’ve got it figured out better than most. As you who have been through The Road Ahead process or any amount of history in this MCC know, we aren’t joined together with Community of Hope United Church of Christ because we’re the same or find it so darned easy to get along. No, we know there are differences and ongoing disagreements, maybe even about fairly fundamental distinctions, and yet we continue striving ahead. More, we continue celebrating ahead. As we share worship services the next two weeks, you may find some things aren’t the way that you’re used to doing it, but still find it important that we are sharing, that we’re joined, are continuing to come together to practice community. That could be a good mark to highlight.
 
For broader ecumenism, I would name the Wisconsin Council of Churches, with 18 member denominations all striving for a common ministry focused on church unity, peacemaking, and justice. Wider still, we might think of interfaith groups seeking religious harmony around intersections of Christianity.
 
Or, aside from official functions, there are the sorts of relationships in my family that maybe you’re also used to navigating—my Roman Catholic in-laws, my Episcopal father, my United Methodist grandma, my somewhat Buddhist New Age-y uncle, besides the agnostics and those who just don’t get around to much religion. So do we consider a positive mark of unity if we don’t have fistfights at family gatherings, or because we manage to live in a generally diverse society?
 
We have to ask that to understand what Jesus means or wants in us “being one.” Is his vision just that we don’t have too tough of a time not killing each other? Do we pat ourselves on the back because we’re not breathing threats and fear and hatred against others? Jesus must desire more than that we’re merely nice in church parking lots, or stop splitting churches apart over ethical conundrums, or are able to show up for community prayer vigils after a disaster. So is he seeking complete unanimity?
 
In that, we can’t help but notice the contrasts to our list of positives, the negative ways our efforts don’t go well. With so much brokenness and fracture, we’d have to feel we don’t quite measure up. So the ELCA has the most so-called “full communion” agreements between denominations. Yet we also witness that sharing communion is still divisive and complicated and hard to agree on. The other groups of Lutherans—who apparently should be our closest neighbors—are the ones with whom we have the hardest time. Or with Catholics, for all the decades of conversation and deliberation, maybe all the way back to the Reformation, still we can’t share enough officially to be able to come to the communion table together. In fact, just what happens with this bread and wine and how it can function and who is allowed have been among the fiercest and deepest of arguments between Christians throughout history. It’s a sad reality that this meal, this that we describe as communion—the very thing to bring us into union and make us one and unite us with the body of Christ—we can’t share this and so Jesus isn’t allowed to do his work. His efforts are somehow precluded or disabled.
 
At other tables, in contrast to Emily Tveite’s words about communal meals at the Lutheran Campus Ministry, I would say a frustrating example is at the Jesus Lunches. An event that is supposed to be about Jesus—and so should perhaps inherently have been about bringing people together—instead has served as a fierce mark of division, telling some students they don’t belong. As Sonja and I went to the gathering, I envisioned myself as part of Christianity that was about healing our separations and brokenness, bearing witness to how we should better be attending to each other. But my healing was thwarted, partially since I was standing on the same side of a barrier with the Freedom From Religion Foundation group offering pizza for an alternative “free thinkers’ lunch” and with signs that said “Any way you slice it, religion is divisive.” A lot of our hypocritical organized religious groups may have been accurately pegged by those signs, but not Jesus. Jesus was about crossing barriers and boundaries and being with those who had been excluded and harassed and offended. I find it tough to imagine Jesus actually wanting to be part of the lunch named after him, given the consequences for student wellbeing. In his words we hear today, Jesus acknowledges that his reputation and God’s is on the line in how the world perceives us.
 
With that notion of what he might reject or rebel against, we realize Jesus wasn’t and isn’t a bystander whining, “can’t we all just get along?!” Though we ought to be cautious on which side we place Jesus, we have to see there are vital dividing lines. In standing with the marginalized, Jesus stands against empire, against power, against economic bullies, even against religious institutions. In praying to his Father, Jesus prays and protests against patriarchy. So, still seeking to understand what kind of unity he’s fostering, it could be that he invites you in join his way, of what he stands for and against. But that still would leave plenty of challenge in this passage, where if you’re not with him, you’re against him and you’d better shape up. I suspect we’re not exactly eager to adopt a “his way or the highway” attitude about needing to agree with Jesus. It may leave us still further from realizing what kind of unity Jesus wants.
 
Our sisters and brothers in the Moravian denomination use the motto “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things,” charity. But even there, we could well be left arguing (even if arguing oh-so-charitably) on whether something is essential or not! Furthermore, having tried to list positives of joint agreement versus negatives of disintegration and dispute, that can’t be the end goal. It isn’t about tallying our points and credits. It can’t be that Jesus just wants us to play nice with each other and not pick too many inessential fights with our siblings in the back seat of the car as he and the heavenly Father continue driving down life’s highway.
 
By our official statements that have shaped Lutheran practice for just shy of half a millennium, we have said it isn’t any visible agreement that really matters. It’s not in looking or acting alike. It’s not about wearing matching worship vestments or using identical language or liking the same music or even really liking each other. What makes church, what unites us across divisions (we’ve said for 500 years) is that the gospel is preached, is that we hear Jesus as good news. We have that foundation of receiving Jesus, and gathered for that, it doesn’t matter how big the crowd is or when it happens or who is preaching or how they got ordained or by whom or their gender identity or sexual orientation or race or age or facial hair or grammar or creativity or any of that.
 
With that, we may notice that Jesus here isn’t trying to lecture or teach or instruct us on models of unity. In a verse Luther says should be “written in pure gold” (LW 69.101), Jesus is praying for us. That must change the perspective, that it can’t be about what we accomplish or how much accord we come to. That this is not just a competition or challenge also brings us, at last, to the good news. This prayer from Jesus promises unity not in those outward ways, but in love. The union that joins you is his love and God the Mother’s love. It isn’t in our behaviors that we are made one, but in being beloved. The blessing of his presence in you and among us is how we are united, is what makes us one. This is literally atonement, meaning this love is what makes us “at-one.”
 
Our unanimity, then, isn’t coerced or resolved. Rather, we begin and originate by very definition as unanimous; again, the word literally means “one Spirit,” animated in unison. Though we may continue striving in patience to bear with one another, the one Holy Spirit that binds Jesus to his Father also binds us to them and to each other and that Spirit continues to hold us. We may explore that and live into it. We may even more fully comprehend that we can never be separate, that amid this cosmic community, all life is bound together with every breath we receive and give back. In all this, we may struggle against the outward negatives and may hope for more of the positives to highlight this union. But we can’t create it and, by the love of God, we can’t undo it and so, at our center, we proclaim that life that won’t be stopped by wrongs, evils, or even death. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
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