Singing the Faith

sermon for 4th Sunday of Advent (Luke 1:39-55)

Having sung there with Mary (a setting of the Magnificat, ELW #251), we’re going to reflect on songs.

After all, this is a season of songs, on your lips, and perhaps even inspiring your heart to leap for joy. So today let’s consider a bit of why we sing.

First off, especially as we are doing it here, it is good to remember that we sing because it is enjoyable. Our choir had to put lots of hard work into preparing for The Messiah and Steadfast practices weekly, so it’s not always easy. It can be challenging, but rewarding and—yes, indeed—fun! Singing is just plain a good thing to do. This isn’t drudgery or dirges that we sing here, though we’ll come back to that and also to more on emotions.

The second immediate thing to note is that this task of trying to say words about our singing is mostly futile. Rather than diving into the deep end of “why” and trying to describe it, we’ll be best-served in the end by going ahead and doing the thing, letting loose our tongues and raising our voices. The reasons are too deep and multifaceted and overlapping to sort out, so spirit-filled we can’t rationalize it. Singing is like poetry, then. We probably notice the most frequent kind of poems are love poems, and the commonest songs are love songs. An essay on love just plain wouldn’t work, right? It can’t be explained or captured like that. That’s true of the spirit of our singing, as well.

Also indescribable is that songs are things of beauty. That can be simple elegance, like the chant we are using for this season, ancient melodies—one line of music that takes small, gentle steps. Other times, as we said, it’s not simple. There are huge, complex harmonies and melismas, of one word getting many notes. Listen to this bit with Rebecca and Tim from The Messiah (“Every valley shall be exalted”). Sure, it’d be quicker just to read those words, but it would lose the feeling and beauty. Communication isn’t just message, but medium. That song does exactly what it says: it exalts! Just imagine speaking that in monotone: shall be exalted.

That may also remind us that singing is natural. When we talk, our voice goes up in excitement or gets hushed in suspense. And singing is just sustained speaking. So if you can talk, you can sing! That’s a notion that my dad and probably any music instructor has had to combat: people claiming they can’t sing. Even for those of you thinking it right now, it’s just not true. Singing is so natural it doesn’t need to be taught—though, like any skill, you can learn to do it better.

With that, we might notice music as an art. We’re at a difficult point in history with arts, so used to having experts not only producing the art but also expert critics erecting further barriers by defining for us what is good art versus bad art. We get stuck with a sense, then, that it involves mastery, that singing should be done by a performer, partly because they’re very, very talented at it, but also because they can make money by doing it. Our songs have been capitalized.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t appreciate performances. We can enjoy being at concerts. We’d have to expect that the shepherds in their fields having the whole heavenly chorus show up for a late-night performance would’ve found it to be an enjoyable experience. The beauty and majesty of the angels’ song left them in awe.

But those shepherds were likely also tapping their toes along with it, swaying and dancing to the tune. Maybe they even “repeated the sounding joy” when they went to tell others, echoing it and explaining, “the angels’ song went kind of like this.” Whenever we sing “Gloria,” we’re imitating or resonating with (literally re-sounding) the angels’ song at Christmas. Maybe the shepherds were, then, the first tribute band.

Or maybe they made up a new song, putting it in their own voice and key. This is another mark of why singing is so much a part of us: it is creative, using creativity. That identity ties us to God the Creator, and it is part of living as creatures. We are not only created, but also creative. We weren’t made to be mechanistic robots. We were created to be co-creators, to join the innovations of life in this world. So we could say that God’s Word not only spoke us into existence (“let there be light”), but sang us into existence, and that we reverberate with that and continue in improvising with creativity. This might be how we understand the instruction repeated in the Psalms, to “sing a new song to the Lord.”

It becomes all the more amazing that creativity doesn’t lead to chaos. It is not that we each have our own songs competing and ratcheting up the volume to overpower other voices around us. Rather, singing becomes shared communally. It is, at heart, a social and not solo enterprise. Rebecca compared it to sharing candles on Christmas Eve, becoming more than the sum of parts.

We join in because we’re drawn in, like those toe-tapping shepherds. It moves us, emotionally but also quite literally, and more than we typically realize. In that sense of motion, songs change our energy, like the inspiration from pep bands or the rhythms of work songs. Others calm and sooth us, like lullabies. I was once at a workshop with Marty Haugen discussing how hard it is to sing when you’re tired. It’s exercise, using our whole bodies, which Rebecca calls marvelous wind instruments. There are muscles in our guts, and our expanding lungs, and our brains, and the flow of blood, eyes, ears, tongues.

And, of course, there is the vibration of our vocal chords. It is remarkable that when we sing in unison, we are actually, physically united. It’s responsive, because we have to listen. But even more, we vibrate together. For all that is different and unique about us and each of our bodies, in that moment of singing not only are we joined in the same song and breathing the same air, but our vocal chords are in sync, bodies synchronized and united together.

This is good for us to pay attention to because we have a diminished sense of these connections, compared to the ancient and medieval world. Back then, it was seen that the whole universe vibrated with these eternal tones, the music of the spheres, as it was known. Planets and the sun were understood to cycle with a rhythm. That meant our lives were best lived in harmony (again, in the quite literal musical sense) with these larger natural patterns. So even mathematics, medicine, and astronomy were seen as musical endeavors.

That vast communal, joining power of song we also realize when we describe music as its own language. If we don’t know the words to a song, much less speak different languages, still we can relate and hum together. Our song can be a form of expression even when we don’t have words. Perhaps you find yourself humming absent-mindedly when you are content, for example.

But to stay with knowing the words, for a moment, that is a large influence for our singing together here at church. We like these songs, these old favorites. It’s not just the jingles for commercials that get lodged in our brains. Putting words to music helps us to memorize, truly to “know by heart.” We love the Christmas story better because we have these songs. It’s ongoing communication, to tell the story, proclaiming and receiving good news. Singing God’s message simultaneously makes us angels for each other, including from our Sunday School children in their program this morning! We even sing to remind ourselves. And the songs stick with us when memories fade otherwise. Kathy was visiting Nola Jacobson this week in the hospital and sang “Away in a Manger” to her. And though Nola couldn’t join in, still the song brought a smile to her face.

That’s another of the benefits: our voices combine with saints of generations before us, and likely generations to come. We carry songs with us, and also send them beyond us, through time and across distances, with sound waves of music remaining clear.

Maybe, again thinking of this as so natural, we recall whales can sing through thousands of miles of ocean depths. Birds communicate different messages by their song. Even bats, with voices too high for us to hear, know their place in the universe by singing.

That awareness from our fellow creatures reminds us of this enormous symphonic chorus our voices are part of, “as heaven and nature sing.” “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” recognizes it, too, saying “angel hosts, his praises sing; let no tongue on earth be silent, ev’ry voice in concert ring evermore and evermore.”

We’re getting close to the center here, that the purpose of our song may be for praise, and so indelibly linked to worship and lifting our spirits. We also offer prayer to God as our voices rise to heaven or beckon God to come into our midst (making it fitting our prayers are framed by “Come, Hope of unity, make us one body. Come, O Lord Jesus, reconcile all nations.”)

For expressing ourselves, our songs are filled with emotions, almost unmatched in intimacy yet also a shared form of expression. They celebrate happiness, joy, love. They may be indeed dirges, because it is honest and needed for us to lament and grieve, maybe at the same time expressing compassion and hope. This week, a homeless man was singing to me on the phone, with sadness and yearning in his voice, from Elvis’ song “If Every Day was Like Christmas.”

That brings us, at last, back to Mary’s song. In her words of dashing the proud and filling the hungry and lowly with good things, we may wonder: are these words of hope and longing, for what Christmas may be or what our world become? Is Mary predicting the future of what Jesus will accomplish and God continues striving for? Are these words, as we put them on our lips, serving to change us, to inspire our hearts and—by the voice of the Holy Spirit—to transform our lives? It’s an interesting word Mary chooses, not only that she proclaims but that her soul and her song “magnify” the Lord. Our songs, like magnifying glasses, have power, to accentuate, to envision, to see more clearly, power to expand and make greater God’s purposes in our lives and across our world.

You may have realized I don’t usually engage in reactionary hysteria to current events, but maybe today as a summary and contrast we could see why that is by holding all of this against our own mini terror event in the shooting yesterday at East Towne. Where that isolates us and makes us flee, God’s song draws us together and unites us. Whereas we inherently sense that is wrong, God’s song comes naturally. Whereas that causes anxiety, God’s song leads to joy. Whereas that is about danger and chaos, God’s song is about life, about hope, about changing us and this frustrating, trembling, miserable world. That’s the center of our attention. That’s why we sing.

We’ll stop there. But having been speaking of songs, our Hymn of the Day is one of my favorite tunes in the hymnal, and this is the only Sunday in three years of lectionary Bible readings that the words really fit. Let’s sing!

Hymn: Unexpected and Mysterious (ELW #258)


a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Barbara Ann Allen

29 July 1935 + 26 November 2015

Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Psalm 23; Revelation 21:1-7


I don’t know much of what to say to start this sermon besides that life sometimes goes how we want it to, and sometimes it doesn’t. At least there seems to have been that mix for Barb, and for you around her.

For the part that goes right, we could hardly find better words than what Justin shared for us from the book of Proverbs. It even wove in words about thread that could make you think of the beautiful Christmas stockings she knit.

But so much more than that is just the concern for life shared that those words spoke and that Barb embodied. Beside those words in our own terminology, the phrase “high school sweethearts” seems like an epitome of things going right, of life being how it should be.

And lasting! What a gift not only that love from early on, but that was together for 60 years of marriage. Through the years, then, you can think of moves to each new place with your career, Bob, and her care to help in succeeding, and establishing a new home and getting settled and making everything right for another new setting in life. Proverbs says we should be certain to praise such a wife, and that is clearly one of the good parts today, in being able to recall and celebrate those parts of life well-lived.

And it wasn’t just as a wife, but also as a mother, and a dear friend, and as a grandmother who cared so much and could be such fun, riding the flume over and over, or traveling with the motorhome, or enjoying sunsets from the houseboat and even daily these last years from home, for that pause to appreciate. These are the things where we truly notice life is going how it should.

But that still leaves us with questions for the other times. Proverbs doesn’t address much of that. It just says “she does good all the days of her life.” But for Barb, those of us who are left behind can’t help but miss her and feel like we wanted more of those good days of her life. We wonder about how surgeries go and what should happen. We think of how our lives go on now without her. There doesn’t seem to be much explanation or clear-cut right answer for all of that.

And there are the things that are so much more complicated. Proverbs said to help the needy, and there’s a detail from Barb’s life: I’ll continue to picture her with the good she was part of in helping out at the Food Pantry. But it was a good that goes along with a bad, trying to alleviate hunger, but we’d have to confess that hunger shouldn’t need to be a problem in the first place.

Some multi-layered complexity goes also with this moment at the end of Barb’s life. Even when we aren’t ready to say good-bye, still she was accepting of the end, ready to be done struggling with too many bad diagnoses and too little energy. Yet her resolution isn’t always ours, as we’re ambushed by what happens in each other’s lives. So we don’t have larger explanations of why she went first, of what happened that she’s gone and we’re still here. And even for her, we have to know the ambivalence, that she really would have loved to be at Jenna’s graduation next month.

For all the right in life that goes how we want it to, and even being able to celebrate and enjoy and remember those many good times, still we can’t just ignore or forget about the other side. Today, at this gathering, we need to be able to address that, too, and need some sort of word for it.

That is where our faith comes in, including the reminders today from our other Bible readings. This life is not only for striving to be happy and helpful through however many days we have. As blessed as this existence God has given us can be, that is not the sum total of what we believe or understand.

The Revelation reading reminds us of what we can look forward to, that there is more to come, that for any of our uncertainties or resentments or sorrows now, for whatever we don’t understand and wish would be different, that in the end we will meet resolution, that God will come directly to be with us and so every tear will be wiped away, and mourning will be no more, and pain will be no more. And all of that because death will be no more.

That is the heart of our faith, the core of what Barb could trust, the promise of resurrection and life to come.

But even now, our faith points us toward something more. Just as God didn’t create us for the all-too-fleeting pleasures of this life only, neither are we just waiting for that eventual day of joy and being brought together again in a heavenly promise. Even for the hard days of life to come in these weeks, even for the sadness and crying and confusion that are part of this time of loss, even for these struggles of the last months for Barb of wearing out and not having doctors be able to do what they wished, for all these moments, this is also the core of our faith, a faith that we remember during this Christmas season identified in God who came to put on our flesh and be Immanuel, God-with-us. From heaven above, Jesus was born to enjoy family and to feast and to be part of this world. But he was also born to know our hurts and our brokenness and our yearnings.

This is what the 23rd Psalm holds all together for us almost as if summarizing: the God who walks along with us, is with us in times of plenty and peacefulness—the sunsets beside calm waters—and just as much accompanies us in the worries and the hardships of shadowy valleys and even going through dying and death. And beyond that, at the end, this God through our risen Lord Jesus will bring us again to our eternal home, to feast in unbroken celebration. In life, in death God abides with you.

Just as you knew the often private Barb through love, so God also is revealed in love that persists, endures, and brings new beginnings.


a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Judith Ann O’Leary

25 July 1942 + 14 November 2015

Psalm 23 & 139:1-18; Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; 2Corinthians5:1-10;  Romans8:31-35,37-39; John15:9-17

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

Well, this may have been a long time coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier for you, does it Tom, and Judy’s family, and you of the Sisterhood, and all the rest of you who found her so dear? On the one hand, we celebrate the amazing 24 years of life since her transplant. But we still can say that that’s not enough. We mark all the time in hospitals over the last years, and how cheerful she remained and with what strength she continued to fight (and live!), but that doesn’t prepare us for this moment, for when the struggle is ended and she is in peace, but when from our lives a bright and beautiful light has gone out.

So what do we say at this moment? How do we deal with the loss? What does God have to do with it? These are our questions, the words we try to supply for each other along with hugs and cards and all the compassion and support we muster in shared tears. The question is directly asked by one of our Bible readings: “What, then, are we to say about these things?”

Pat and Christine chose for us a very fitting Psalm to try to get answers from God’s perspective. It fits this moment, and also fits Judy herself. That 139th Psalm gives a perspective that God has been attending to us and caring for us and planning for us from before we were born, and when we first enter the world, and who made us to be what we are. Those are words for Judy, for God’s care and blessing for her that held her throughout life, from the start to the end. Those words also apply specially to Judy, who continued to see herself as the Neonatal Intensive Care nurse where she has so kind-heartedly served her vocation. The Psalm’s words go with her concern for all of those tiny, tiny babies on the NICU whom she helped to live, and—we’d have to expect—it is also for those who didn’t, when her best medical attention and wisdom and devotion was still not enough to make life last. Judy had perspective—probably better than most of us—of the intricate and precious value of life, the miracle of how are bodies are built, the frail blessing of our existence.

Yet that raises more questions for us of where God is when babies don’t survive, or have birth defects, or amid the pains of the NICU, and beyond. We believe God is present in the healing and the compassion, and holding us even through the tears. Nor even at the far end of life can we say that it was just Judy’s time and so God took her. The Psalm said that God knows all of our days, but we shouldn’t take that to mean God plans our loss or sorrow or random problems. Sometimes life continues against all odds, but we can’t predict when or how. We know that bad things happen, even to good people.

So our human perspective can only be that we face a whole lot of different things in life, good times and bad, sorrows and joys. As we have seen our first snow, we know we’re transitioning into a new season. Some of these things seem like cycles that come and go, while others seem like a trajectory, as we go from young to older, from health to infirmity, from birth to death. The same Judy who was worn out in a hospital bed was the one who used to get dressed up for dates and steal her parents’ car. Her glowing smile said it’s the same Judy, but with it we’d note how much life changes us through it all. “There’s a time for everything,” was the observation from Ecclesiastes.

Which may have some honesty, but it still isn’t all that satisfying as an answer, is it? It remains unpredictable on when changes will come, how long they’ll last, what we can expect. In these last months, we had to wonder with Judy on when she’d finally improve and get back to life, when she’d be able to overcome the falling and clots and infections. Or if the tiring process of dialysis was really worth it.

Amid that is where we turn to a larger hope. This is not just sad mortality. Even as the 2nd Corinthians reading reiterated that our bodies are fragile and groan and wear out—like clay jars, it says in another place—still we expect and trust that there is something more, beyond this earthly tent we wear now. We presume that it is not only for this temporary, broken life that God has made us and destined us. We trust that our Shepherd does prepare a place for us in his home, an eternal dwelling place that will not wear out. We cling to that promise today for Judy, the assurance of things hoped for and as yet unseen. We eagerly believe the heavenly promise in which she rests, the promise that awaits us, again with her. This is the best of good news.

But even looking forward to that, we may still wonder about the present moment. Why did Judy linger in suffering so long, even with her positive attitude? What do we do now without her? For this, at last we turn to our Gospel reading, a word of love. This is what remains, what abides, what sustains us for now and forever. As Kathy reminded us, it’s a good word for Judy, in whom we knew so much love, as a partner, as a mother and grandmother, as a coworker and dear friend, as one you cherished each in your own ways, and who treasured you in return, holding onto you with that sparkle in her eyes.

This is also what we’re doing here today, continuing to practice love, trying to help each other. This is what Jesus has given us. He says that we may know his love holds onto us through life, will bring us through death, and will mean even more. And because you are held in his love, he has chosen you, appointed you, even commanded you, to share that blessing for each other, to love as he loved you, as you and Judy loved each other. In spite of tired, worn out, hurting bodies and uncertain lives, this love cannot be undone even by death.


a very little faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Football, MLK, and What Matters

The Packers aren’t going to the Super Bowl. This adds to much writing about it, although from a less popular perspective—not to be contrary but out of concern. Among the many social media posts, my brother-in-law commented that he took out the loss on his punching bag in the garage instead of hitting his wife, my sister. It was an honest comment, one that was trying to be healthy in assessing the many positives of his life and declaring that the outcome of the football game didn’t lead to more negatives. But the note made me sick to my stomach. So did many other comments about the game.

It is, after all, a game. The point of games is that they should be fun and should probably build community or strengthen relationships, contributing to emotional health (if not physical fitness). It may be argued that the many voices of lamentation are some sort of commiseration—literally, of sharing misery, a collection of grief. Yet that strikes me as falling short of community with compassion or sympathy, words that are about sharing suffering.

Of course, I see most things through a theological lens. I can’t quite shake questions of god being where ultimate devotion and allegiance are placed, seeming to make of sports a pantheon of polytheisms. More importantly and directly, yesterday morning I preached about making distinctions on what is beneficial. I believe this is a question of caring for ourselves paired with loving and serving those around us. Is a team more important, for example, than family? What is worse than this loss?

So I’m sad and disappointed in the passionate investment over the football game. It is misplaced priority, wasted emotion. It is fruitless hope and misperceived tragedy. Notice how much happiness people put at stake: even if life hasn’t seemed that great, if only the Packers would go to the Super Bowl that would make things good. How is life actually, really, honestly better if a team you like plays another game? In the meantime, I hear of many yelling throughout the game at their TV screens. What is that anger accomplishing?

With the observance of Martin Luther King day, reflecting on a dream that continues to be deferred, on what he called the “fierce urgency of now” and the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism,” what if we invested that passion instead into improving the lives of each other, of our society, of our planet?

Instead of this being a moment where somebody—anybody—wanted to abuse his spouse, what if we were to strive and celebrate that no spouse should be abused for any reason, that we stand with those who really are hurting, that games may be fun but ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬, that there is more to life? What if our loyalty and our knowledge and dedication were invested instead in helping each other, and we refused diversions or distraction from what is truly important?

If the question even arises in your mind whether life is less valuable or fulfilling after a sports loss, shut off the game.


Reflections on People’s Climate March for Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light webinar


Thank you.

I’m really excited for this chance to share with you, partly for the effort of trying to take you on sort of a virtual trip to the streets of New York for the People’s Climate March, but also it’s a great chance for me to re-live it.


You know how getting to tell stories after you’ve been on a trip takes your memory back to that locale and in some way makes your body actually feel like you’re back there…well, that’s how this feels for me now.

And it’s a great thing to re-live, to have the happenings of that exciting weekend freshened and reinvigorated in my mind.


That’s sort of our point of this webinar, to inspire you or to reinvigorate you, and to have that be motivation for our ever-ongoing work. We’re people who need occasional good news and refreshment and re-creation, so I’ll see what I can do.


If I’m trying to put you in my shoes and take you to the streets of New York, it’s only fair first to load you on the bus with me.  Sierra Club helped fund buses all over the country, and for us in the Madison area, that meant three Van Galder coaches. My wife Acacia and I loaded up on Saturday afternoon with about 150 others and hit the road. We stopped late in the evening in Indiana to brush our teeth, at a rest area in Pennsylvania in the middle of the night with the season’s first glimpse of Orion, and then arrived in the morning in New York. Overall, we were gone less than 48 hours, and all but 8 of those hours were on the bus. Yipe.

Yet all that sitting and trying to sleep on the bus wasn’t the hardest part for me. What was most difficult was getting through the Lincoln Tunnel that morning and into lower Manhattan and trying to get to our dropoff point.


It felt like it was taking forever, the city was so crowded. There were a bunch of good faith gatherings and worship services that morning, and I’d hoped to be part of that stuff, but traffic was just too thick and progress too slow. That would become a mark for the day, as we would discover.

Our dropoff, see, was at the back of the staging area. The plan was that it would go by bloc, or by shared interests or involvement. Many from our buses were connected to the Madison efforts against the Enbridge tar sands oil pipeline that is scheduled to ramp up through Wisconsin. (This slide shows the hovering pipeline octopus from our bus.)


By now we’ve all heard the number 400,000, but originally we had no idea to expect anything like that. The organizers were sort of talking around 100,000, maybe hoping 150. There were more than 1500 organizations, though, connected and involved (including some other groups, I’m sure, that you each participate in), so with that spread, there was no real way to survey everybody and get good estimates on who was going to be there.

I just want to show you a little bit of the planned map.


The whole length along Central Park West was just to get people ready.


That’s a mile-and-a-half of staging, and Acacia and I started trying to make our way forward through it, since the interfaith groups were all gathering together way up at the front of the march, up at 59th Street by Columbus Circle.

Well, I’ll tell you now that we never made it. It took us almost two hours to make it that far, the crowds were so thick.

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So I’d intended to represent Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light along with the other states’ IPL groups, and the Lutheran advocacy group, and so on. But instead I got to represent Wisconsin IPL amid the vegans and socialists and students and wind energy advocates and people for indigenous human rights and Citizens Climate Lobby and brass bands and bicyclists and Seattle Raging Grannies and those calling for military reform and health advocates and clever signs and amazing art and kids and on and on and on.

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That diversity was the most surprising and really the most exciting thing. I would’ve loved to have been among the religious sect and our focus of shared passion, but instead it was so amazingly hopeful to have the broad perspective. I mean, we interfaith folks have our own access point for this work, and it is probably among the most intimate and heartfelt of connections, to find this as a spiritual imperative and a connection to creatures and our shared Creator, with the vast communities of our congregations in prayer and inspiring each other.

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But seeing all the ways others were also already addressing climate change was amazing. Instead of the meager and infrequent actions that our government musters, and even though we were there in New York to bolster the work of the United Nations as they were preparing to meet and have another round of conversations on international agreements, that has for too long failed to make much progress, really even with Obama’s China announcement today. But out on the streets were thousands and thousands of people who were excited about this work, who shared a pause of silence that day and shared cheering, who learned from each other and gave hope to each other, who were ready to make a difference and were already making a difference.

Picture19Which seems like almost a perfect segue into the next part of this webinar, except that I also want to tell you about the conclusion—or the non-conclusion—of the march. Along the way, it seemed appropriate to go past Trump Tower and get to show off how wrong and foolish deniers like him are. It also seemed meaningful to march past the memorial to Teddy Roosevelt at the Museum of Natural History with an inscription to “a great leader…in love and conservation of nature and of the best in life and in [humankind].”


But besides what we marched past was also what we didn’t get to march to. Altogether, from that far-back starting point to the destination would’ve been just under 4 miles. Not counting that distance of the staging area, the official route for the march was about 2.5 miles. Well, we only made it about half that distance.

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One of my last photos shows a view just before entering Times Square. And at that point we were stuck. My phone buzzed with a text message from the march organizers, saying that the police were asking us to disperse. They had no place left to put us. The front of the march had reached the end, and there were so many of us we couldn’t even fit through the streets of New York. There was nowhere left for us to go.


That seems like a good metaphor and also a beautiful vision for our work together. We haven’t reached our destination, we’re still on our way, and have a long way ahead of us in taking care of this earth and mitigating the worst of climate change. That’s the metaphor. The vision and my last words of hope and inspiration is in the idea that there are so many of us connected and abundantly engaged that we entirely overwhelm the system.

Thank you.



a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of  Elaine Faye Braley

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Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; verses from Luke 13

I’d like to begin this sermon or reflection by looking back to just about six weeks ago. Back in the middle of August, there was a fairly urgent call to head up to the hospital. See, Elaine and David had been out to eat fish fry, which was nothing unusual, but then things took a terrible surprise turn, and all of a sudden she was in the hospital on the ventilator, or what we often call life support. And I got there at the time of the decision to take her off life support, to stop filling her lungs with artificial breaths. We could only guess that her lungs weren’t going to respond on their own.

So I was there for prayers. In some traditions, it would be called “last rites.” For us Lutherans, it’s a chance to say good-byes and to remember that Elaine was at that moment, had always been, and will continue to be in God’s care. See, there’s nothing we can do to add to blessing, because there’s nothing that can take us out of God’s embrace in the first place. Even today, when we commend her into God’s care, it is really just a reminder that for all of our love and concern and best efforts to be with her and to help her, she’s been in God’s hands the whole time and will rest there safely and securely and will never be separated from that love or that eternal party. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

See, Elaine had another surprise. As we concluded those prayers for the dying, we were expecting that that was about it for Elaine. But several days later, she was still around. So I got to go out for a visit at the Hospice center, and I walked through the door of her room and my jaw actually did drop open. I was speechless. So much for the commendation of the dying. Instead, Elaine was sitting up in her chair, had been able to feed herself lunch. And as all the others of you who got to visit with her would probably say, she was back to her old self. She was laughing and making jokes and sharing memories and making introductions to be sure everybody was familiar with each other and able to relate, and she was insisting to me that we need to take care of Travis and remarking how proud she was of what an amazing young man this grandson of hers was growing to be.

And all of that sounds just like her old self, right? That enjoyment of the company and getting to be social, I think even some talk of cards and of tasty food, and most especially that delight in family and concern that insists they are well cared for.

If we’re looking for a glimpse of God in Elaine’s life, I’d say we see God’s love reflected in her, like the Bible reading of extravagant welcome and Jesus as the mother hen, wanting to gather the little ones under his wing, keeping them safe and sound. With Elaine, it was in the delight in relationships, in persisting with compassion even through difficult circumstances, which showed in her career with the hard lives of those out at Central Wisconsin Center or maybe shows even more in almost 64 years of marriage, of dedicated, persistent love through thick and thin, for better or for worse, right David?

But if we’re looking for glimpses and reflections of God in Elaine’s life, or our lives, or our world, there are places where that runs out and we’re left with only questions and with mystery. In the month since that amazing recovery, there were further downs, and more ups, and ultimately going back to Hospice for the end. We’d certainly like to attribute the healings and recoveries and wonderful moments together this last month as God’s blessings. But does that mean the sadder times and being here today, again having to confront death, mean that God’s blessing fails for some reason? No matter what, in this moment of loss and sorrow, we have to miss all the old days of snowmobiling and screaming at the disappointments of the Brewers and all.

There are indeed hard questions we can’t know answers to. We can keep asking, “Why?” Even in prayers of lament and of weeping, it’s a good question. It may be our brokenness too often gets in the way. It may be life is fragile. Even our love, as much as we strive and struggle to keep at it, is incomplete and imperfect.

But we gather here this evening, not just to lament and grieve together, but also because this is not the end. We expect something more. Rather than the good having been all in the past, we trust the best is yet to come. And we need constant reminders of that hope. “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again,” we heard in the Bible reading, “even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” In the cross of Jesus, we see that things don’t always make sense, that suffering and death may appear to prevail. But there is a third day, on the third day he rose again. There is resurrection. There is more.

With that, as a concluding note, it’s amazing to look at these photos, a small sample of Elaine’s total collection, with her camera always with her. I notice a theme in them, seeing all the food. In backyard picnics and over anniversary cakes and probably some birthday cakes with that crazy Mickey Mouse birthday song, and outings with friends and with family, at restaurants, from Culvers to supper clubs and more, right up to that last fish fry. Those seem to be a lot of really good memories and meals to cherish. But even there, we expect something more. So to conclude, I want to point out the theme of banquets that also ran through our Bible readings. Maybe for now we literally get a small taste of what’s to come in the heavenly party, the eternal feast, when our lungs will be filled with new breath, with the very Spirit of God, in eternal life.

It’s something we can’t fully understand. But we hope and believe and trust that God’s got it figured out in Jesus, for Elaine and for you, for now and forever. Amen