Kissing Jesus

sermon for Pentecost 

(John20:19-23; Psalm104:24-34,35b; Acts2:1-21; 1Corinthians12:3b-13)
Perhaps you’ve noticed I occasionally get around to pairing titles with sermons. If you’ve noticed that, you may also be wondering about this one, perhaps whether it pairs with the ignominious category of Christian rock praise songs disparagingly referred to as “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs. They come with lyrics like: In the secret, in the quiet place…I want to touch you, I want to see your face, I want to know you more. With such over-the-top sentimentality, they are the type where if they didn’t mention Jesus by name, you’d think they were love songs about a boyfriend. Although I’m pretty sarcastic about things like that, and though on the flip side I wouldn’t want to disparage nuns who view their chastity as marriage to Jesus, still my title isn’t about poking fun. I’m not trying to commend that you should be so passionate you want to kiss Jesus.

Instead, I’m pointing to the kissing being done by Jesus. There are interpreters who understand this breath and giving of the Spirit in the Gospel of John as being a french kiss from Jesus.

But, having set that odd image in front of you, I’m going to leave it aside for a moment. From that extreme intimacy with a sense of giving the Holy Spirit as so personal it involves a kiss, I want to back up to the most generic view of how you’re given the Holy Spirit. It’s generic, but incredibly awesome in its abundance. That’s the view from our Psalm. In the Psalm God’s Spirit is the breath that gives you life, and life to all humans, and to all creatures. (You might be well-served by the play on words that in both the Hebrew of the Old Testament and Greek of the New Testament, the same word can mean either breath or Spirit.) This passage says God is giving each and every creature the Holy Spirit with each and every breath. Far from Pentecost being a one-time phenomenal event, this is supramundane. God is with you to sustain every respiration, over and over again literally in-spiring you, putting the Spirit into you, and into cattle, and birds, and sea monsters, and (we’d understand more fully than the Psalmist) even into trees of the field, which also breathe (with the Amazon rainforest being called the “lungs of the planet”), and soils and oceans also inhaling in vast global processes of trans-spiring, the Spirit moving through and across our world.

I first want to pause so we can hear how astonishing that is. If we understood God’s Spirit as the breath of life for our world, it seems impossible to arrive at a conclusion to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Climate change is in a strong theological way the earth losing its breath, being so winded it just can’t catch a breath, being exhausted (for a different play on words, with the fumes from our tailpipes and smokestacks). It is directly causing respiratory issues for the poor and ill, the elderly and children who continue being born. Now, if the earth can’t breathe, it means it is suffocating for God’s Spirit, gasping for it, but since we are choking off God’s intention, earth is unable to breathe in, to be renewed, to sustain life.

Having said how remarkable that is and what an enormously faithful perspective, that in the time I’ve uttered these sentences, God has been replacing God’s Spirit, God’s breath within you over and over and over, as exhilarating or inspiring as that thought is (and I truly am hoping you’re receiving it that way, as a gift more than you can appreciate), I also want to realize that that’s not enough. God works constantly to renew, to rejuvenate, to revitalize you by filling you with the Holy Spirit. But even though that happens day and night, constantly and by definition through your whole life, still that’s not enough.

Because mostly you’re not aware of it. You’re not exhilarated by it. You’re not sustained by this constant sustenance. You don’t observe it everywhere you go among people and in nature. And that’s why you’re here. Or at least part of the reason you’re here. The Psalm says that we praise God with all our breath, and maybe you’re here to praise for God’s lifegiving care. But I suspect you’re here also because you forget it, because you doubt if God cares, wonder about God’s presence, because you need reassurance.

That connects with the two readings about the followers of Jesus gathered together. They are there because they’re worshipping, yes, and because they need each other. And they need more than each other, they need an assurance of God’s striving for life, even through and beyond death.

So then that breath of God, a Holy Wind of the Spirit comes whipping into the room in another way, comes to refresh, to re-enliven them, comes so that their young people may dream dreams and their old people may again envision the future, comes to release them from captivity, from all that binds and confines them, to forgive so that they may share that blessing with others.

In the Gospel reading, it is a direct application of the Spirit so that they may have confidence. Now, the reading itself just says that Jesus breathed on them. But is this more than letting them sniff whether he remembered to brush his teeth on the way out of the tomb that morning?

Rather than just blowing toward them as a little symbolic gesture that God’s breath was in them, it has been suggested that Jesus may have kissed the disciples.* In ancient culture, a kiss meant sharing the spirit or breath of life. When you kiss someone goodbye, it is so that a portion of life, of spirit, of being remains shared with each other. Even if we don’t express it, we retain some of the sense. There on Easter evening after the resurrection, when Jesus was going away to ascend into heaven, as the readings tell us, through this kiss and sharing of his Spirit he would still be present with his followers, with his beloved even after he said goodbye. This is exactly how the Holy Spirit is described; we heard a Gospel reading from John 14(:18) two weeks ago where Jesus says he’s going away, but he’ll give you his Spirit to remain with you and in you.

It may be from this kiss of Jesus as he says “peace be with you” that the church also got into kissing. Four of Paul’s letters end with an instruction to “greet one another with the kiss of peace.” For 1200 years, the church was trying to figure out how to honor that without giving in to promiscuity and having too much smoochy-face in the worship service. I think that reaction probably overdid it. We could probably use more sense that we are supported in life, that we share life with each other, that we are cared for by God, by Jesus, and through the Spirit of Jesus, within this community. We need to be here for that reassurance, to be bound together, to breathe together, which, for our plays on words is literally the word “conspire”.

And since we’re being conspiratorial here together, since that’s what comes from having the Spirit of Jesus within and among us, that propels us on to the next thing. We come because we need that reassurance and blessing for life, but when we come here, we’re also sent. In Acts, the followers of Jesus are sent to share good news with those who didn’t even speak a language they knew. In the Gospel reading, those followers are hiding behind locked doors, but Jesus directly sends them. He won’t let them stay locked up in fear; and the forgiveness may explicitly be for those whom they fear! That’s what this blessing of peace and life lead to when you’re inspired by God.

I don’t often do direct applications in my sermons. That presumes a sermon can be resolved, while I believe God applies the Word to you as you need it, often in miraculously unexpected ways. But today may call for some direct application, so I want to conclude with a word about our sanctuary meeting. After worship today, the MCC will be discerning our readiness to serve as a sanctuary site for an undocumented immigrant at risk of deportation and separation from her or his family and tearing up the fabric of our community. This isn’t an easy conversation. It could be likely the person doesn’t speak the same language we do. With ambiguous and unknown outcomes, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, to be afraid, to keep closed up by ourselves behind these doors and not be opened to God’s mission of offering peace and life. But I am truly hoping we can catch our breath, can confront the risks, and can be on the side of blessing.

I haven’t mentioned our reading from 1st Corinthians yet. Mostly we use this as a passage about each of us as individuals having diverse gifts—that Sybil can play the piano and Jean can organize the garden and Brian can be our president and John can swing a hammer and children teach us. But we can also hear the gifts of our congregation within the larger body of Christ. In asking the question of sanctuary, we may well have gifts that other congregations, other groups of eager people don’t. We may be in a better place to say yes, with facilities that will serve well, and your daringly faithful young staff, and a congregation who is accustomed—when facing hard issues—to offer leadership to the wider church.

And when trepidation remains, when we need another dose of assurance, that is why we are here together, brought into community by this kissing Jesus, and we’re inspired filled with fresh breath, with new life of his resurrection, moment by moment, week after week, and on toward the promise of eternity. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

 

* Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, Stephen Benko, p82

 

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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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a newsletter article

 

Ahhh, it’s Ash Wednesday! That pleasant time of year for the smear of decay on your forehead and the ringing of mortality in your ears. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Nothing to lift your spirits like being morbid, right?

From that tone, you may expect I’m jesting (and laughing in the face of death was the original role for the carnival jesters).

I suppose there are optimistic ways to appraise life’s short span: a motivation to get to work, the awe of your place amid the sweep of generations, the recollection that all hope and life must come from God because you surely can’t muster it yourself.

On the realistic other hand, I expect we are not entirely predisposed against ashes. We likely have a big picture view that our elements continue to be recycled; you are what you eat, which grew from the ground, and you’ll return to the ground and become another creature’s life. There’s ecological wholeness in that!

There’s also mystical science that reminds you that every atom of your existence was a result of fusion in stars and the gift of supernovae. So when Psalm 103 points out you are “but dust,” you can counter, “yeah, but I’m stardust!”

Again, we are people who particularly recognize the reality of new life surrounding us emerging from the ashes. Last week as we were teaching about the Holy Spirit in Confirmation and asking students to reflect on symbols of wind and fire for the Spirit, while they envisioned the wind as a gentle breeze, fire they saw as a sign of God’s anger. But then they looked out the window at our prairie that is purged and renewed and restored by burning.

Not that we should look for too reasonable of explanations for Ash Wednesday, though. It’s peculiar. We may consider we’re reusing last year’s palm fronds, but those lingering palms are an odd mark. Palm Sunday itself is such a disposable festival; the mood didn’t even last a week! Clinging all year to shriveling leaves from a trampled celebration isn’t sensible.

But maybe we need that awareness, as well. There are things we never understood and uncertainties we would just as soon get rid of. There are renovations we desperately long for. There are unusual rituals that contribute to our identity and lead us home. There are dead ends where our vision can’t foresee a new beginning, and that is the venue of God’s work.

In the water and the witness,

            in the breaking of the bread,

in the waiting arms of Jesus

            who is risen from the dead,

God has made a new beginning

            from the ashes of our past;

in the losing and the winning

            we hold fast.

                                                – We Are Baptized in Christ Jesus

                                                            John Ylvisaker (ELW #451)

 

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What’s to prevent you being part of this story?

5th Sunday of Easter (3May15) Acts8:26-40; 1John4:7-21 John15:1-8

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian official is lively and helpful, but with it, it may be helpful to do a little travelogue, a trip through the book of Acts with a view of the countryside and surroundings.

1

Acts is part 2 of the Gospel of Luke. They’re written by the same author and have similar themes and all. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus. Acts is the next part of the story. Although we call it the Acts of the Apostles and tend to focus on the human characters, the real story and main character in Acts is the Holy Spirit.

2

As the story picks up in the 1st chapter, Jesus is just about to exit the picture. (I love images of the Ascension, which show him exiting and only his feet sticking down.) Jesus is handing off the reins, saying that his followers will share the good news. They’ve been hiding out in Jerusalem since Good Friday and Easter, afraid to take a next step or say peep, but Jesus says that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem and on to the surrounding regions called Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. 3We’ll be coming back more to the “ends of the earth” later on.

For now, it’s interesting to note that Jesus has sent them, has commissioned them, has committed them to spread the news far and wide, so they whole-heartedly decide to hunker back down.

Instead of getting to work, they hold a committee meeting, with the sole purpose of selecting a new member of the committee.

4God forbid they’d share the work among the whole crowd of 120 men and women who were there together. No! They just want to fill one single spot vacated by Judas (who, it says in the story, had used the money he got for betraying Jesus to buy a field and tripped in the field and his guts burst out. Another version says he hanged himself. Thus this weird picture).

5At any rate, Judas isn’t amid the crowd of witnesses eager to talk about Jesus, so they want to fill his place and get their core group back to 12 members.

They have a nice hiring process, with a list of qualifications, a narrowed field of eligible applicants, a good prayer.

6Then, to top it off and make certain they’re doing it right, they cast lots, drawing a name out of the hat.

With all of that careful discernment and pious consideration for getting that 12th disciple into his role, the guy goes on never to be mentioned ever again. Because we turn the page.

7Chapter 1 ends, and chapter 2 of Acts tears off immediately in a new direction, letting us know it wasn’t about keeping an original team of 12.

8Instead, on Pentecost, here comes the Holy Spirit, to blow open those shut doors, and to open those shut mouths, and suddenly instead of 12, the ranks are filled with 3000 witnesses added in one day. That continues to expand exponentially, by leaps and bounds in the coming weeks.

But growth also has uncomfortable downsides.

9The crowds create new problems. See, in this early church as we heard a couple weeks ago, sharing was super important. That was a prime mark of what it meant to be a Christian, to give and receive as any had need. But that’s more difficult with big groups, as we’re also aware in society’s work of caring for those in need. It’s not so simple as sharing the bag of potato chips or tearing your sandwich in half.

10In this case, some people missed out. The only criterion was supposed to be having need, but we also tag on other emotion-filled qualifiers, labeling some as lazy, not meeting the requirements, as cheating the system, abusing the safety net, squandering their resources on other things, as drug addicts, as being too different, not speaking the same language.

You’ll notice just as our society still holds obstructive prejudices, so also then, some of the widows weren’t getting their food. 11The central 12 disciples again enter the picture. Like any good leaders are apt to do when a problem is identified, they listen, carefully weigh possible solutions, and then pass the buck. They say, “don’t trouble us with this. We’ve got more important things to do. Take it up with somebody else.”

So the church chooses deacons, 7 faithful people to serve food, to run the pantry, to make sure everybody was getting what they needed. St. Stephen was the first and foremost in this faithful group. Philip, too. (A side note: it’s wonderful that we continue to embody Stephen’s example of sharing for the hungry. Thank you for your Mountain of Food support!)

12In the story, though, just as things again seemed to be settled and the central committee’s solutions were being implemented and all was proceeding according to plan, of course again at that point the Holy Spirit shows up for a change to new direction.

So the 12 apostles had said, “we’ll take care of the preaching, thank you very much.” The very next thing is that Stephen the waiter, Stephen the food guy, Stephen chosen strictly and solely to hand off things to the hungry, all of a sudden, in defending his faith, gives the longest sermon in the whole book of Acts. So much for the 12 being the only preachers.

13We might say Stephen preached a terribly effective sermon that touched an emotional nerve, because they kill him for it. They stone him to death. He is a martyr, the first, bearing witness to his faith and trusting life in the Lord Jesus even into death.

He wasn’t the only one. It says that after his death persecutions spread, so the Christians fled out from Jerusalem. Well, that also meant they were taking the message with them. Even through adversity, the Holy Spirit was still working. So Philip, another non-preacher food guy, winds up taking care of Jesus’ words from chapter 1, about being witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

14See, it says Philip goes to Samaria. Then he’s out on a road to Gaza, which is amid Judea.

15And finally is today’s reading about an Ethiopian official traveling home. He’s headed all the way back to the ends of the earth, the farthest country away from Jerusalem. And he’s going to take this news of Jesus with him.

Besides living far away, one other detail about this Ethiopian is essential, with a really amazing, beautiful outcome. It says he was a eunuch, meaning castrated or unable to have sex. It’s odd that it says he was worshipping in Jerusalem, because Jewish law explicitly forbid somebody with his condition from being in the temple.

16He was legally an outcast. When he asks, “What’s to prevent me from being part of the body of Christ?” the obvious answer, the correct answer should have been, “What prevents you is that your own body is broken and wrong.”

17And yet Philip goes ahead and preaches to him and then baptizes him, incorporating him into the good news of the resurrection and of the body of Christ.

Well, the story of Acts doesn’t stop there. The Holy Spirit has some more surprises up her sleeves, but it’s time for us to ask, “so what?”

Maybe we first can see ourselves in this story with the Ethiopian. We’re far from Jerusalem. We have no birthright to be blessed by God. We by all rights should be excluded from worship—we’re sinners and outcasts and all with our own kinds of brokenness and imperfections, either born that way or inflicted on us. Yet the good news of life in Jesus is for you, too. It will come and find you on your wilderness roads, amid confusions and any place the Holy Spirit has to seek you out. She finds you like six-month-old Evelyn Rose in her baptism this morning, who has done nothing to earn or understand this blessing. But what’s to prevent it? With the abundant life of Jesus and the ever-expanding mission of the Holy Spirit, nothing can prevent it. The good news is, indeed, for you.

And for all. That maybe makes us see ourselves with Philip, as unlikely witnesses to this abounding grace. God’s word still shows up on your lips, even if you don’t claim to be officially chosen for that sort of thing. It comes from baptismal sponsors and parents and grandparents and Mari Mitchell’s English essay this week including a reference to unconditional love and 1st Corinthians 13. It’s in cards the Swenson sisters send, and in all your own ways. It’s the “hymn of all creation,” as we sang in the canticle of praise and about our voices together in the opening hymn. Indeed, the reason we sing hymns is to put the sermon in your mouth. So this work of the Holy Spirit and proclamation of love is on the loose!

Which also corrects and blows open today’s other slightly-too-restrictive Bible readings. In the community of 1st John, the focus seems to have been about looking out for others at church. But the Holy Spirit—who won’t let 12 disciples stay behind locked doors but presses thousands and now billions of us onward and outward to the ends of the earth—must surely be about broader love than just what happens in small church gatherings. This is a bigger family, without bounds or barriers. It’s God’s crazy care on the loose.

18So the Holy Spirit compelled us to speak at advocacy day this week, with the voice of hundreds of Christians and other faiths from our state calling for prison reform and supporting the social safety net and looking out for immigrants, speaking up on behalf of others, those in need in our family.

19We also recognize the expanded care of this family all the way on the other side of the world in the candlelight vigil Confirmation class participated in because of the earthquake in Nepal and in your support and offerings today to help with Lutheran Disaster Response.

20Maybe a notch harder, the Holy Spirit is also ahead of us in Baltimore. She is pressing us beyond our tired old divisions of race and class, obstructions of prejudice and of injustice to see things from a new perspective, to see our whole hurting world as held in the embrace of a rejected God who has holes pierced in his hands and shame on his brow. There’s nothing that will stop the work of this God who keeps chasing after you and spreading the life of Jesus everywhere.

We see this enormous family not only with sisters and brothers who look like us or live near us, not only those endeared to us or beneficial for us, not even only as humans but the whole family of creation, caring for all life. When we pollute and plunder against planetary wellbeing, nevertheless the Holy Spirit breaks in and asks, “What’s to prevent the blessing of waters and the sustenance of life? What’s to prevent the resurrection being made alive in you and shared with all the world? What’s to prevent it? What could possibly stop God’s work and Jesus’ life and this wild Holy Spirit? What could prevent it?” Nothing!

After all, she’s already out preparing the way ahead of you and Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song (ELW #403)

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Temptations and More

sermon for 1st Sunday in Lent        (Mark1:9-15; Genesis9:8-17)
We can start by whittling away at this Gospel reading.

We already heard vv9-11 on the Baptism of Our Lord festival in early January. A couple weeks later, we heard vv14 & 15 with the start of Jesus’ ministry and calling the first disciples. So of this Gospel reading, the only part we hadn’t heard recently was vv12 & 13. Somebody must have decided to stretch today’s story by adding on those other pieces, thinking we needed more context and content, or that you’d claim you hadn’t gotten your money’s worth at a Sunday service with only two verses of Gospel reading.

Now, the lectionary always has a story of the temptation of Jesus on the 1st Sunday in this season. At least in part that’s because our 40 days of Lent are somehow supposed to parallel the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. In years when we hear from Matthew or Luke, there’s actual content to the temptation story. Instead of Mark’s two verses, their versions go on for around a dozen verses, and also include plot and dialogue and action.

In Mark, we’re left with something like four characters with a single verb each. Let’s take a look at each of them in turn, since they have implications for you, too.

We might as well start with the Spirit, since she’s the big motivating factor in the reading. Verse 12 says, “the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness.” Now our translation says this Spirit had descended “like a dove on him” at his baptism, but it would be better to say the Spirit is taking up residence in him. That’s not just because it’d be weird to picture Jesus walking around with a bird on his head, but more because this is what spirits do in the Gospel: they inhabit and claim you, taking over your life. Quite literally, they possess you. We’ve heard that of unclean spirits in recent weeks, but this is the clean spirit, the Holy Spirit, and those others unholy spirits.

That all makes it even more interesting that the Holy Spirit did the same thing to Jesus that he does to unclean spirits: it drove him out or cast him out. Mostly this is a word used for what Jesus did to demons, including three times in the first chapter alone. This is one of the differences that makes Mark’s version of this story so lively. In Matthew and Luke, it blandly says the Spirit led Jesus. Here in Greek, the Spirit literally “threw him out,” ekballei, like “ball” and ek like exit.

Now we can’t say exactly why we needed such a tough word of the Spirit expelling Jesus, with such oomph either away from society or out toward temptation. But it is a strong reminder for us of God’s work. If you imagined that the Spirit is only a gentle guide to lead you quietly, this says she’s a much more demanding and powerful force.

The only other time the Holy Spirit comes up in the Gospel is in giving you the words you need. Just as Jesus won’t allow you to be occupied by the negative spirits, so this holy protector and advocate comes strongly to your defense. And she seizes hold of you to operate in you for God’s good purposes. So that’s the first of our four characters and their single verbs.

Since we’re talking about the holy versus the unholy, or God’s good work and what tries to interrupt that, let’s proceed to Satan. Verse 13 begins, Jesus “was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan.” Like the Spirit, Satan isn’t really a major character in the rest of Mark’s Gospel. In fact, the only other time Satan is identified is when Jesus rebuked him, saying “Get behind me, Satan.” But in that case, Jesus was talking to his closest disciple Peter, because Peter wanted to convince Jesus away from his mission, that he didn’t need to die on the cross. Satan is also symbolized as a bird that tries to pluck the seed of God’s Word away from us, so that our faith can’t cling to God’s promise, to grow in trust.

The word “tempted” is also rarely used in Mark’s Gospel. Each of three times is about Jesus being tested by the Pharisees, to try to get him to stumble in his teaching or to do a miracle. It’s worth noting that Jesus doing miracles on demand would be giving in to temptation. That’s because faith is about trust, and if Jesus is constantly on trial and proving himself there’s no room for trust. Just picture if you tested your loved ones every day, saying, “if you love me, prove it.” It would wreck the relationship.

Beyond that, we probably each have our own understandings of Satan or temptation, of what you recognize as evil or try to avoid for whatever reason. In Matthew and Luke, Satan tried to tempt Jesus in three different ways, which Martin Luther grouped into the headings of “the devil, the world, and your sinful self.” The sinful self are those internal, personal appetites or lusts. Maybe for you it’s candy or alcohol. Or related to sex or your looks or possessions. These may not be inherently bad, but get warped by our desires. The category of the world is pride, trying to prove yourself as better, wanting power or prestige over others.

The final, most insidious is the temptation to forsake God’s promise, to turn away from Jesus, to claim this way of suffering love is wrong. This is not doubt; doubt is trying to believe. No, this is despair, claiming you might as well stay in bed on Sunday because this doesn’t matter and there’s nothing special to be gained here. Or it is making your own categories of holiness to exclude others, of making God in your own image. Or maybe the opposite, of excluding a God who would love people like you. These are broad headings of how what we want gets corrupted and leads us away from God’s will for our lives, for our neighbors, and for the world.

For us, we know it’s a struggle we are constantly failing, which is why we need a forceful Holy Spirit, and also lots of forgiveness and grace. For Jesus, all it said was he was “tempted by Satan.” With that, we’ve managed to say a lot about just a couple words from Mark.

So let’s move on to the next cadre of characters: the wild beasts. This, again, is worth noticing as a detail specific to Mark. The wilderness isn’t just a venue for some sort of sudden death spiritual elimination round as Jesus and Satan duked it out. No, Mark says it was also a camping trip. Jesus was in communion with the other creatures.

I heard this talked about recently as if the wild animals were the next scariest thing after Satan. I don’t agree that that’s what’s going on here. It doesn’t say Jesus was fleeing from the wild beasts, but that he was with them. Neither do I expect this is a peaceable kingdom story quite yet, of the wolf and the lamb living together, hanging out with a harmless snake. It’s not a cartoon image. But it is important to notice that these creatures are part of the relationship with Jesus. They’re not left out.

Like in our 1st reading, with that beautiful ending of the flood. We could say so much about it. We picture Noah as the main character, but God is absolutely insistent that this blessing, this new covenant is for all creation. In fact, no less than five times God reiterates the promise, “I am establishing my covenant with you and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth…between me and you and every living creature…all flesh.” Maybe it’s redundant not because the animals needed to hear it but because we humans need the reminder of the covenant, and that it’s about God’s work here on this earth. Jesus was with the wild beasts; they aren’t separated from what he’s up to.

It isn’t an individual gift for you, but is establishing blessing for all creation. Perhaps as you gather to be served the blood of the covenant here in the Lord’s Supper, you can also remember this. You share in this broad communion.

That brings us to the last characters in the temptation story. It says, “the angels waited on him.” Just as with the others, it is surprising for angels to show up here. Angels are normally messengers, delivering God’s word. Here they are instead serving food. You might notice that means Jesus isn’t fasting for the 40 days in this version. It’s also the same word of what Peter’s mother-in-law was able to do after Jesus healed her; she was able to go back to making snacks. The word in Greek is a familiar one: the angels were deacons. It was the typical word for serving food.

That also makes us think more of this table where we are gathered into God’s covenant. Where we commune, are united in the promise. Where we’re left to trust in Jesus’ presence with us, though it seems dubious or ridiculous, so unmiraculous. (Plain bread?!) Where we get to step out of our typical roles and practice serving each other.

There at the end of the temptation story, Jesus goes back into his mission and ministry, to regular life. Mark managed to set that stage in only two verses. For our part, we’ve really expanded on it.

So here’s a briefer recap: You arrived here, compelled by the Spirit to come. You are filled with and empowered by—or, even more strongly, possessed by—the Holy Spirit. Second, here you honestly face your own temptations. Third, it’s about understanding your vast community of neighbors on earth, and, fourth, for practicing hospitality and peace and caring. Finally, you are thrown back into daily life in the world to continue that work of serving and strengthening, of resisting evil and joining good.

Hymn: Lord Jesus, Think on Me (ELW #599)

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Love, Knowledge, and Unclean Spirits

4th Sunday after Epiphany       1 Feb 15

Mark1:21-28 1Corinthians8:1-13
I like books. But I’m also kind of sick and twisted and particularly like theology books. It’s so disgusting that, when I get a quiet Friday off, I even read theology in my freetime. Pretty gross. That passion made a friend once call me theologically arrogant.

She meant it as a compliment, but it comes back to haunt me with this 1st Corinthians reading that says “knowledge puffs up,” saying my puffy arrogance could be destructive and counter to what builds up. It’s evidently dangerous territory. The story from Mark teases it out more horrifyingly. There the smartest guy in the room is labeled as having an “unclean spirit.”

Now, I’m going to ask you to work with this. Stories of exorcisms and demon possessions just seem weird to us. We picture horror movies, or an ancient culture disconnected from our experiences. But rather than quickly writing it off as so foreign, let’s slow down and enter the story.

In this Bible reading, one wisenheimer knows a lot about Jesus, saying, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” In fact, he identifies Jesus better than anybody else has in Mark’s Gospel. Next, notice that this happens at a weekend worship service, with other worshippers who are there to learn about God and to praise God. So rather than picturing an ancient horror flick, a better parallel would be to look around at this place here today.

Which makes us need to ask: if the Holy One of God walked in right now, wouldn’t that be, like…a good thing? Isn’t that sort of the whole reason we’re here? And wouldn’t we be happy for a smarty-pants to be able to help identify the Holy One of God?

But, somehow the opposite, this man expects Jesus is destructive, and so Jesus rebukes him, actually tells him to shut up. I’d suggest the man in the story recognizes what Jesus is about and doesn’t want to be part of it. We could say that what he claims to know is in opposition to Jesus. And being against the Holy Spirit’s work means he’s working with an unclean spirit.

Further, there’s plenty still today that Jesus could want to muzzle. If Jesus is Lord of your life and of the cosmos, think of all the things he would want to get rid of or destroy, the obstructions and confusions to his mission that he’d remove. Rather than something shockingly demonic and terrifying or one bad apple, perceiving an unclean spirit this way is more insidious because we can all get trapped in the thoughts of our brains, leading us away from Jesus and his Spirit’s guidance.

So what is the work of the Holy Spirit? To return to 1st Corinthians, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” An unclean spirit is content in self-satisfaction, whereas the constructive work of love is in building community, in supporting each other, in reinforcing the weaker elements, in bridging differences, repairing divides. While knowledge too often can be just hot air, love makes an edifice, is literally edifying. I hope you’re hearing these many helpful building-block and construction images. With that, it’s worth remembering that the church is not this physical structure; the church is the connected group of us, the living stones formed around the solid foundation of Christ our cornerstone, united in efforts of refuge and sheltering, of reinforcement and support.

But we neglect this, forgetting to focus on the structure of relationships and to strive for mutual good. We make faith so individualized, or place it in heaven and ignore what happens here and now. So when the Holy One of God shows up in our midst and God-in-the-flesh comes up for a handshake as we exchange the peace, it’s a wakeup call. We have to pay attention to each other. Our lives and relationships matter. This is about love, and whatever obstructs love is wrong.

For an illustration of that I’d like to tell you about Marcus Borg. This past week, theology-type folks have been grieving the death of this popular teacher. A marquee name in the church, Marcus Borg was among the founders of the Jesus Seminar, a project intending as accurately as possible to uncover the “historical Jesus,” meaning not later reflections about him, but who was the guy who wandered around Palestine and said enough inflammatory things that he got killed. In some ways, this important and helpful project tries to hone in on what Jesus was really about, since knowing his engagement with culture helps us engage our own.

But along with keeping track of quotations of Jesus, Marcus Borg and his colleagues also wanted to revise or look again at some stuff like the resurrection, finding a metaphorical meaning “truer” than a literal, factual, traditional kind of meaning.

You’ve probably noticed that resurrection is kind of a big deal for us. So for the last couple of decades, this scholarship has caused a couple problematic or destructive side effects in the church. On one hand was a reaction from those who embraced Marcus Borg’s teaching so much that they looked down their noses at anybody who would still be silly enough to put creed or hope in an empty tomb. Supposing themselves to be more tolerant and realistic and cosmopolitan, at the same time they offend the honest faith of those right next to them. Like the Bible story’s smartest guy who had the unclean spirit, this side became a class of Christian elitists, puffed up with pride, claiming to know better, but too often distracting from the heart of what our faith is about and what Jesus tries to do among us.

The reverse side is those who have dug in their heels to ignore any new teaching at all. If the studies messed with their vision of God, then they wanted to stick to old Sunday School lessons and call it good. I’d say that’s not a great basis for understanding Jesus. Refusing to learn about each other prevents us from growing in relationships. So ignorance can be as obnoxiously obstructive as knowledge. Reactions puffed up in anger can selfishly resist or deny knowledge, like flat-earthers stubbornly sticking heads in the sand, putting on blinders to avoid seeing larger truths around them.

As Marcus Borg was pointing to Jesus and trying to identify him, those have been two negative byproducts. Between those entrenched sides, however, it’s interesting that he himself was insistent on engaging dialogue. He wrote books in conversation with traditional scholars. He accepted all questions at his lectures. He tried not to shame or exclude. In that way, even if Marcus Borg didn’t believe the same things about Jesus that I do, he still wanted us to be Jesus people, confronting injustice and supporting each other, inspired by God. Even when his opponents and his adherents both missed the boat, Marcus Borg was still trying to be a person of love.

That fits these readings today. If you’re puffed up in anger or puffed up thinking you know better, that divisive spirit works against what Jesus is about. If you are striving to learn from Jesus and grow in him, if you are connected into this community with the purposes of being inspired in love, then you’re probably on the right page. That is the Holy Spirit working in you, and among us, for the sake of God’s world.

Almost to conclude, then, here’s another dose of encouragement that captures this spirit on learning to love better from Martin Luther King. In one of his last sermons, he said: “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”*

That gets close to the heart of why we gather here and what the Spirit of Jesus is up to. But we need to say one thing more. We’ve said our faith isn’t about how much you know (or don’t know). But neither is it only about how loving you are, as if you can keep track with checkmarks on a list. The intersection of the two may be in knowing how much you are loved by God. That is what matters and is the central reason we gather here.

Life can be a mess and we can mess up and our world can seem to be totally falling apart. The more we know the less we like what we learn, and no answer may seem right or satisfying. So the point of theology and the point of gathering here together is again and again to be able to know love, to trust through all of it that you are held in Jesus’ love. As much as the demonic powers of the world or of your selfish brain, as much as the distractions and obstructions threaten to block it, what you need to know is that Jesus clears that all away and has claimed you in love forever.

All that’s left after that is to figure out what that means.

Hymn: Although I Speak with Angel’s Tongue (ELW #644)

* “The Drum Major Instinct,” Testament of Hope, pp265-66

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