The Church and Criminal Justice

a sermon on the ELCA Social Statement*

and Luke18:2-14; Hebrews13:1, 3; Psalm142;

 

These Bible readings help us enter the social statement or—better—to enter the whole situation of criminal justice.

We started with a widow pleading for justice, begging constantly for her case to be heard and to receive what she deserved, but the legal system ignored and disregard her.

While we likely see the widow as vulnerable, a lonely female at the mercy of perhaps a patriarchal structure, we should also be sure to notice that God’s identity is repeatedly defined through our Old Testament as the defender of widows. Widows are the poster children for God’s concern. Actually, I suppose orphans are the poster children; widows are the poster adults, for whom God is especially concerned. Repeatedly, “widows and orphans” define those who should not be denied justice and assistance. Refusing to help the widow and orphan is Old Testament shorthand for deserving of worst accursedness. That makes the unjust judge in Jesus’ story clearly despicable; he isn’t just ignoring a widow. He is ignoring God.

And that reinforces for us God’s intentions and redirects our attention. The subtitle to the ELCA’s social statement on the Church and Criminal Justice is “Hearing the Cries.” If we’re not hearing the cries, then we’re like the cursed unjust judge.

The second part from Jesus warns us again, against thinking we’re so proper and are doing the right thing in worship while shunning those who have done wrong, that we’re not sinners, thinking ourselves more preferable to God than others, including criminals.

Further on priding ourselves on not being like those, we had the stunning little Hebrews verse: “think of those in prison as though you were in prison with them.” We create a distance that causes difficulty in conceiving criminal justice. It can be hard to put a face on what is mostly an unknown reality for us do-gooder church-goers—or, maybe more specifically, us white folks.

I remember a time being sick to my stomach in court, I was so confused and terrified and had no idea how anything worked, what I needed to be doing. It was something I’d never had to deal with, but many in that full courtroom—many of them people of color, and people with much less education and less financial resources and even less English ability—were more at ease, because they’d had to become familiar with this brutal and rigid operation.

You may not have been in many situations of being arrested and the rest. Beyond that, this remains not our reality because it is so easy to remove from in front of us. Prisons are meant to keep people out of sight and out of mind. They’re left faceless and vague, disparaged as bad guys. Vulnerable people like the widow in the parable remain easy to ignore.

So as we’re “hearing the cries” in the words of the social statement, as those cries and our God call us to be aware and active, it seems helpful to wonder how we might put a face on this, to show us whom we must love, as we said in our words of confession.

In this congregation, you regularly have a couple possibilities. You are part of supporting the work of Madison Area Jail Ministry. With prayers and with every dollar you put in the offering plate, you are helping care for both inmates and the sheriff’s department staff in the Dane County Jail. In this work of more than 50 years, you might associate faces of previous chaplains, John Mix and Julia Weaver. You might now know Christa Fisher.

Your offering benevolences also contribute to Madison-area Urban Ministry, or MUM. For decades, MUM has focused on re-entry programs for those who have been imprisoned, to foster a transition into a society that often denies the tools and too much even directly inhibits the ability to re-adapt to life. Here at MCC, you might picture the face of Ken, our most regular Just Bakery vendor who has worked up to become kitchen manager. You might also have seen a new MUM program about urban gardening in the Cap Times*. With Ken, director Linda Ketcham, Nasra from last year’s women’s salad supper, and others, you are part of these relationships.

And you might have other faces you associate. One of my friends works at the prison up in Stillwater; I hear about the stresses of his job. In my role, I’ve gotten to visit inmates to talk on phones through plexiglass, some of them church members and some people who were looking for a connection and support.

For me, the clearest now is Department of Corrections #618778: Bruce Burnside, my first pastoral colleague and once bishop, arrested and given a 10-year prison sentence after he killed a pedestrian with his vehicle. I saw Bruce a couple weeks ago at Jackson Correctional Institution, on my way back from fishing. Though intimidated by all the guards and razor wire and getting buzzed through so many doors and being watched and questioned, it was good to see him. Even in his blue pajama inmate attire, he is still Bruce. His letter this week said the heat wave made the cell like a brick pizza oven, without the pizza.

I know it can be either easier to forgive or to condemn Bruce. You could say he should’ve known and behaved better. Or you could point to good things he did in his life and say that his crime was an anomaly, so he deserves leniency. Whether we’d think his particular situation is just or unjust, still it is the present reality. As always, it’s complex and sad and not something somebody should have to deal with alone. So I’m grateful he gets lots of visitors and cards and attention and is in prayers and on people’s minds.

But that makes me mention Lamont, Bruce’s cellmate. I think Bruce had said that sometimes Lamont would hear from his mother on his birthday, the only caring contact he had in an entire year. So Bruce’s step-daughter Janna started visiting. It began with seeing Lamont when she went to see Bruce. But Bruce told me Janna had been there the previous week and he didn’t even know it until after she was gone, having driven five hours just to visit Lamont. Janna is hearing the cries.

As important and useful as it can be to put a face on this issue and recognize the sound of a voice as you hear its cries, this social statement isn’t only about personal relationships and bonds. Neither is it the religious services we might give to perpetrators of crimes or victims or families or those who work in law enforcement, though the statement does offer care and concern for all those groups.

So I want to mention a few points in this 64-page document and highlight a couple aspects of how it considers we might respond to hearing the cries.

First, we can say that a Lutheran perspective is in favor of criminal justice. We aren’t anti-cop. We can’t say that every prison cell should be thrown open because God forgives. Lutherans see laws as a way to restrain evil, to provide safety, to foster life, and therefore as good gifts from God and a way that God operates in our world.

But we also recognize a “no” along with this “yes.” The criminal justice system as it currently stands may be reasonable and have plenty of dedicated workers and vital work. But all is not well. Most primarily, the social statement stresses that the system is too focused on punishment. That should not be the only aspect of criminal justice. Paying a debt to society or paying for a life taken away is only one metaphor, and certainly not the sole way to obtain justice and order and set things right. Restorative justice, alternatives to incarceration, practices of rehabilitation beg for our attention.

The social statement also enumerates many areas where, rather than offering solutions for society, this system perpetrates worse injustice. These include racial issues we’ve come to recognize somewhat more through the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which are also in the social statement on race (which we won’t get to take up this summer). There is mention of the death penalty, which also has its own social statement. There is drug policy. There is the criminalization of mental illness. There is disenfranchisement of 5.3 million citizens from voting, sometimes permanently.* There is the escalation of children getting tried as adults, and ending up in life without parole. And of children who are affected when their parents are taken away. The statement remarks on immigration detention, and we’re certainly hearing the cries more these days of those families separated at the border.

There is the crazy amount of money we waste on this, including for profiteering private prisons. In spite of that, the statement also asserts that economic benefits of reducing costs should not be our main motivating factor for change. Instead, it reminds us of our theological perspective, with a moral evaluation of what helps people, and the core belief that all people are created in the image of God and there is nothing that can change that central and eternal identity.

Finally the promise of faith is larger than anything inflicted on us, than any of our failures, than any fears of violence, than any of our suffering as victims, than any of our possible responses to set things right. Not just consolation, the statement reminds us, but empowerment, the promise in Christ of being reconciled to God, a time when every tear will be wiped away, and the promise that God will find a way to right all that has wronged us not only is hope for the future, but also gives us courage to cope with partial justice and to meet the challenges of a world harmed by crime.*

We hear the cries, and respond.

 

 

* http://elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Criminal-Justice

* http://host.madison.com/ct/news/local/govt-and-politics/urban-agriculture-as-a-life-saver-planting-program-for-formerly/article_52f63a2f-3a89-50c5-872c-125707684189.html

* https://www.aclu.org/files/pdfs/votingrights/wi_flyer.pdf

* see p21 for these

 

Social Statement excerpt:

One in 34 adults in the United States is under some form of correctional control and more citizens are
imprisoned as a percentage of the population than in any other country on earth. The U.S. spends 60 billion dollars every year for corrections alone. They who work in the criminal justice system often feel stressed to the breaking point. Concerned that so many cries—from victims, the incarcerated, their families, communities, those wrongly convicted, those who work in the system—have not been heard, the ELCA is prompted to speak and to act.

This statement devotes significant attention to reform and calls for a dramatic shift in public discussion about criminal justice. The dominant public view, underlying the current system, equates more punitive measures with more just ones. The limited success of massive incarceration in deterring crime has not affected the
prevalence of “lock ‛em all up” rhetoric in public debate.

Prevalent views such as “tough on crime” policies make it more difficult to see each person involved in the criminal justice system as a human being. These views effectively override the conviction that all people are created in the image of God and worthy of appropriate and compassionate responses.

The ELCA speaks in this statement from among and to its members, to those affected by crime in any way, and to those who work for the public good in various civil offices related to the criminal justice system.
Drawing from Holy Scripture, this church holds up a vision of God’s justice that is wondrously richer and deeper than human efforts and yet is a gauge against which justice in God’s world must always be assessed.

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“What does this babbler want to say?”

sermon on Acts 17:16-34

There’s something strange in this speech, but not how the crowd expects.

I do like the line “in whom we live and move and have our being.” There’s reasonable stuff on perceiving our Creator and connection to God, neighbor, and creation.

But it’s strange in its ambiguity, its lack of specificity. It seems to try to deal with a generic God, refusing to name anything more explicit. At our heart, however, we reside scandalously in a particularity. That’s ignored here, left indistinguishable, without Jesus.

Starting next week, we’ll hear from one of Paul’s letters and his actual words, and I hope you’ll notice it’s just thick with Jesus, through and through, absolutely grounded and inescapably reverberating with Jesus, in relationship, totally in love with you.

Even the story of Paul’s own conversion two weeks ago wasn’t just a transformational spiritual experience or cognitive comprehension of God. A voice immediately declared, “I’m Jesus, whom you’re persecuting.” That was clearly the focus, the main point and central identity, reshaping relationship.

That contrasts with today’s speech with only sidelong allusions and no direct mention of Jesus at all. Maybe when we hear about one who came back from the dead we think of Jesus, because we expect it in church after Easter. But if we’d never heard of Jesus, it’s tough to imagine this would offer much clarity.

Something I read this week noted this speech has long been a model for how we interact in interfaith settings, with other religions, or even for converting people. But, other risks aside, it’s tough to imagine what they’d be converting to, since this never seems to resolve or define. It remains somehow spiritual and not religious. Maybe that’s even part of its appeal.

Yet I can’t help but be wary of how it minimizes distinctions while manipulatively co-opting others’ beliefs. It shoots for a lowest common denominator, and fails to capture so much of what we identify in being created in the image of God, in sacrificial love, in proclaiming forgiveness instead of just rules for righteousness, in identifying with the least of these, of the God who abides with us through suffering and brings us through death. Those rather particular aspects for us get left out when we overgeneralize and we bypass Jesus.

I’m also concerned in the speech that the expertise isn’t with the ones who have been worshipping but in the religion-splaining one who says, “let me tell you what you’ve actually been doing.” This is the risk whenever we try to declare, “Well we pretty much all believe the same thing anyway.” Buddhists don’t need to hear they’re going to your heaven. Native Americans shouldn’t be told they have basically the same view of nature as you. There’s danger in how we treat the Old Testament/Hebrew scriptures for Jewish siblings who share them with us. I even have to confess some hesitancy about our African song liturgy, and that fine divide whether we’re being enriched by another’s experience and appreciating their identity, taking it seriously or just playing around to feel good about it.

That wariness pairs with the description in the reading of the Athenians, that they thought of themselves as cosmopolitan into wanting to be cutting edge and up-to-date and open-minded. If this applies to us, we run the risk of chasing flights of fancy, unmoored from any solid definition and lasting identity. Whether we’re talking about our taste in worship or our personal lives, we know we shouldn’t give in to fads and be distracted by the latest popular craze, so impulsive as to be unable to keep our attention on what is important and instead always wanting a change. If we define ourselves as too open, we may not hold to who we truly are.

A really helpful term for this set of dangers is “moralistic therapeutic deism.”* Somehow a trend develops that basically we end up with a disengaged God, with religion mainly for how we can feel good about ourselves. This little God is only involved for the sake of guidelines for our behavior—broad categories of “be nice to each other, respect differences, enjoy life”—and our practice becomes pursuit of our self-assured sense of success.

I’m actually hoping that sinks in a bit and strikes you. We too much suspect church is for learning how to be good people, that your investment here is supposed to pay off in increasing your happiness (and, if it doesn’t, then you’d be better off looking elsewhere), and that whatever is proclaimed here should affirm positions you already hold, your political loyalties or efforts in relationships. Church gets boiled down to a weekly pat on the back.

But that’s not our fundamental basis. Boiling this down, sorting through all the accumulated extras, coming back to our foundation and bedrock leaves us with Jesus. For us, that identity is rather specific and rather vital. We don’t operate by general metaphors of new birth emerging from the compost of old death. This isn’t love generally, not vague notions of benign warm spirituality.

We have the scandalous particularity of putting a name on all of this, on saying that when we look for explanations and engagements and hope, we are looking for God in the person of Jesus. It is his life, his death and resurrection, that bear the clearest witness for us. It is his teaching that guides us. It is his promise that sustains us. It is in him that we live and move and have our being, and simultaneously in us that Jesus lives and moves and has his being.

I want you to hear good news in that. I want you to be able to recognize that existence isn’t bound up in how you’re doing with some set of expectations. It’s not in morals or right worship or how well you’re doing at being happy. It’s not waiting for you to get it figured out and to sign on. If this is God, God must be big enough to be in whom we all exist. That means your existence is inseparable from God, from Jesus, from the one who wills life for you, whose work and dedication and passion in the universe is for your sustenance.

As the speech ended in Athens, some of the folks said they needed to keep pondering and hear more. Others scoffed and left. That’s still the case. This sermon might help some of you and others will simply walk away. You might claim that’s just fine, that everybody can discover their own answers and their own approaches to the divine. Or you might be troubled, knowing loved ones who aren’t plugged in to church, and you feel they’re missing out and wondering why the message didn’t work for them.

On either side, it invites us to evaluate why this is important. Do we look for church mainly as a social club? Or our outlet for doing good in the world? Is our practice here any different than another worshipping community, including next door in the Covenant Room? Why does this faith of ours matter? Why continue to deliberate over it and try to understand? How is being identified with Jesus important, vital, necessary for life?

With such questions and the speech’s language about judgment, I don’t want you to hear that as the verdict of whether you’ve done enough, understood enough, believed enough. Think about what it means to live in harmony with the universe, in accord with the one in whom we live and move and have our being, what it means to have a life shaped by and like Jesus, what it looks like to be invited to live with love, and our core definition as being loved.

There’s a different sort of good news in this identity. Whereas the Athenians, seemed to have a casual disengagement that could either take or leave it, that didn’t really seem to care if that was the shape of existence, for us finding ourselves with Jesus in this living, moving, breathing embodied relationship, it—maybe paradoxically—opens us to others, including to be conversant with new understandings.

Because relationship always means becoming something more, our faith shouldn’t be the same as it was last year or when we were younger. Far from the mindless rigidity of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” our trust and faith are honed with humility in relationship, in dialogue with other people, other religions and denominations, including in ongoing partnership here at the MCC. It involves engaging our time and place, of current struggles, of new insights from science. We have a unique and particular sense of existence, so we should and must pay attention to those new things, to be learning and continually re-evaluating.

Besides new questions, we remain with the old ones. A famous Roman Catholic statement on interfaith relations from 50 years ago said:

[People] expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir [our] hearts: What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Which is the road to true happiness? What…after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?**

With those questions, you may be asking—as the crowd has it in the New Revised Standard Version—“What does this babbler want to say?”

The proclamation of Paul and of Nick, the word of God is this: If those seem like big questions you might be coming down on the wrong side of or losing your grip on, if you’re discouraged or confused, or worried about others, then remember with the God “who made the world and everything in it,” that there is no way to stray, because you are held as a beloved child of God, in whom “you live and move and have your being.”

And this one made known to us as Jesus, who forgives sins, who judges not based on your merits or understanding or efforts, but based on his passion and love for you, sees you as eternally beloved and worth giving up his life for, this one who was crucified, died, and was buried, and raised from the dead for you. That is the basis of our hope, the center of our identity, the shape of all existence. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

* see Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p14

** Nostra Aetate, 1965 http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html

 

Here’s the reading, with the speech:
 
16While Paul was waiting in Athens, he was upset to see all the idols in the city. 17He went to the Jewish meeting place to speak to the Jews and to anyone who worshiped with them. Day after day he also spoke to everyone he met in the market. 18Some of them were Epicureans and some were Stoics, and they started arguing with him. People were asking, “What is this know-it-all trying to say?” Some even said, “Paul must be preaching about strange spirits! That’s what he means when he talks about Jesus and about people rising from death.”
 
19They brought Paul before a council called Mars Hill, and said, “Tell us what your new teaching is all about. 20We have heard you say some strange things, and we want to know what you mean.” 21More than anything else the people of Athens and the foreigners living there loved to hear and to talk about anything new.
 
22So Paul stood up in front of the council and said: “People of Athens, I see that you are very spiritual. 23As I was going through your city and looking at the things you worship, I found an altar with the words, ‘To an Unknown God.’ You worship this God, but you don’t really know who it is. So I want to tell you. 24This God made the world and everything in it and is Lord of heaven and earth, and this God doesn’t live in temples built by human hands. 25and doesn’t need help from anyone. No! God gives life, breath, and everything else to all people. 26From one person God made all peoples who live on earth, and decided the time and place for each. 27To seek God, each and every one of us may surely feel and discover that God is not far away, but near, 28for ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; just as some of your poets have said, ‘We are children of God.’
 
29“Since we are God’s children, we must not think that God is like an idol made out of gold or silver or stone. God isn’t like anything that humans have thought up and made. 30In the past, God forgave all this because people did not know what they were doing. But now God says that everyone everywhere must repent 31and God has set a day to judge the world’s people with fairness. And the chosen judge is a human. God has given trust in this to all of us by raising this one from death.”
 
32As soon as the people heard Paul say that a man had been raised from death, some of them started laughing. Others said, “We will hear you talk about this some other time.” 33When Paul left the council meeting, 34some of the people put their faith in the Lord and went with Paul. One of them was a council member named Dionysius. A woman named Damaris and several others also put their faith in the Lord.   (adapted Contemporary English Version)
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Isaiah: A Child is Born

sermon on Isaiah 9:1-7

 

“Unto us a child is born.” If I asked you who this is talking about, you would say…? The occasion of remembering this event, then,  is the holiday of…? That sounded like a resoundingly unanimous “Jesus” and “Christmas!”

It’s almost like that standard church joke that the answer to every question must be Jesus. I’d say I’m really into Jesus and can hardly stop talking about the guy, but this does create an interesting conundrum. In this section of Isaiah, there are three spots that reference a little child: in chapter 7, here in chapter 9, and again in chapter 11.

Chapter 7 is used about Jesus. That’s where we pick up the term Immanuel, which means “God-with-us,” and which we reiterate in our creed today. I believe that’s exactly what Jesus came to embody, the sense that God is with us from birth to death, to know your joys and laughter and feasting celebrations, and is with you in sickness and weeping and when you’re left out and suffering injustice. All that about Jesus is quickly summarized by that term Immanuel.

So that Isaiah passage on Immanuel is referenced in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew really likes citations of Old Testament passages. He especially gives us the sense that old writings are fulfilled in Jesus, though again and again we reiterate that these weren’t only waiting for Jesus to be true. He may be a special embodiment of these writings, but we’ll also notice the validity they have apart from him.

At any rate, Matthew picks up Isaiah 7:14 and says, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.’” Now, we’re not going to delve today into discussions of how “virgin” might be a mistranslation of what simply was “young woman,” and what that means about Mary and about the birth of Jesus.

Instead, we’ll move on to Isaiah 11, the third of the passages referring to a child. This one isn’t directly connected to Jesus anyplace in our Bibles, even though it’s nice imagery. It includes what’s typically called the Peaceable Kingdom: the wolf shall live with the lamb, the cow and the bear shall graze, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and a little child shall lead them. I may be predisposed to like that one, since all the carnivores convert to become vegetarian, but it is also so beautiful as harmony among creation, that this vision of what God intends isn’t only about humans being nice to each other, much less something that happens up on a heavenly cloud, but involves all God’s creatures.

With one child passage, then, used for Jesus and one not, that brings us back to our own reading. This one is also directly applied by the Gospel of Matthew to Jesus, though probably not in the way you’d expect. It isn’t related to his birth. It has nothing to do with Jesus as the child who is born or naming him as the prince of peace.

The verse of our reading that is picked up actually just locates the start of Jesus’ ministry around the lake of Galilee, an explanation from Matthew for why something important would happen in a Podunk place, and it’s even phrased as if Jesus would go there just because he knew the Bible verse from Isaiah. Plus, it’s not so much that the verse is fulfilled from Jesus as that it is fulfilled for the people who happened to live around him, that they are the people who have sat in darkness and the region and shadow of death. They have been hurting and oppressed and left out, and the message is that God was mindful in saving them.

We’ll return to the importance of that, but let’s also pause with the sense of that “unto us a child is born” as a Christmas message in our minds and hearts and as a shape of our faith. That’s not a bad thing, by any means. It can be right and proper to perceive Jesus here. But it wasn’t what Isaiah intended. He wasn’t picturing Jesus, much less shepherds and oxen and a manger. Not that those don’t fit. That’s entirely correlated with the same God, and Jesus was an ideal (or the ideal?) embodiment of Isaiah’s words.

But Isaiah meant a different baby. It may have been Hezekiah, a future king and son of Ahaz. Maybe Isaiah was envisioning that Hezekiah would eventually be a good ruler and would bring different leadership to the nation. But it may just have been Isaiah was trying to turn faith away from military and human decisions and deficiencies and back to God, back to hope.

The war imagery in this reading is first about that. See, the Assyrian Empire were the baddest dudes around and the most ruthless conquerors of antiquity (Heschel, The Prophets p207). The newborn’s father, King Ahaz, was trying to strategize allegiances to avoid brutal defeat. But instead of the force of armed alliances, Isaiah says hope is in God. That is what will end the reign of terror, what will mean the burdensome yoke of submission and oppressive rod of intimidation will be broken, the stomping boots and bloody clothes destroyed and forgotten.

The shape of this hope is portrayed in the little phrase “as on the day of Midian,” referring to a story from the book of Judges (ch6-7). Midian had troops too many to count plundering the crops and impoverishing the people. The prophetic reminder then was that God is a God of liberation, from Exodus to that day and onward. Just as for Isaiah, that message restricts hope to the work of God, as thousands from the Israelite army were sent home and a small crew of 300 soldiers was all that remained, but they scared off the Midianites simply with trumpets and torches.

Isaiah ups the ante by not even having 300 soldiers left, but merely a baby. How will the Assyrian Empire, the most fearsome army ever, be overcome? Well, unto us a child is born! As the foremost author on the prophets, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, tells us:

A gulf was separating prophet and king in their thinking and understanding. What seemed to be a terror to Ahaz was a trifle in Isaiah’s eyes. The king, seeking to come to terms with the greatest power in the world, was ready to abandon religious principles in order to court the emperor’s favor. The prophet who saw history as the stage for God’s work, where kingdoms and empires rise for a time and vanish, perceived a design beyond the mists and shadows of the moment. (p83)

We, of course, proclaim something similar in the birth of Jesus. Just as those titles in Isaiah—wonderful counselor, mighty God, prince of peace—were titles stolen away from foreign rulers, so also when an angel announced “to you is born this day a savior,” it was stealing the title from Caesar Augustus in Rome, who called himself lord and savior and bringer of peace. But no longer could the domineering commander of the largest empire be the one seen to control the fate of the world. Our wellbeing, our hope comes from God alone.

That returns us to today. We’ve said the words of the prophets were first for their own time, secondly applied to Jesus, and, third, continue to be alive for us. We, too, are the people who have walked in darkness and dwelt in the shadow of death. We know tramping warriors and roaring F-16s and nuclear threats. We know the rod of oppressors’ yokes that are debts holding us captive. We know garments that are threadbare with hunger and torn from crawling through barbed wire seeking refuge and bloodied from lack of healthcare, and life is never right with much too much sadness. If you don’t know those things, if you’re not seeing them around you, if you identify with the empire, then you’re ignoring the reality of your siblings, and Isaiah won’t stand for that, either. Our lives, our hurting world, the marginalized and imprisoned and outcast, all nations, the vastness of creation needs release from the terrible oppressive might that would seem to be undefeatable.

We need the hope of God who comes not to destroy the destroyer and cause larger fear, but comes persistently, everlastingly, for peace and joy and love. A God who will be made known and change the world even in the finite fragility of a birth.

Yes, of course, we proclaim that in Jesus. We proclaim that the heart of God, the soul of God, the very identity and image of God’s presence in our world was found in a manger, far from fortress might, homeless and surrounded by stink. That hope proved a different path for peace on earth, and even the threatening injustice that tried to execute and bury that hope could not prevail. Death lost its sting.

But we don’t only look back to Jesus. We continue to see that presence of Jesus and the with-us God now. This passage resonates not only for baby prince Hezekiah or newborn Jesus in a barn. With every birth, Isaiah’s message again and again is true. With the miracle of new life, with precious and tender beauty, within your own families, a child born is the hope that prevails beyond any catastrophe of violence. As the cliché reminds us, having a baby changes everything, including your worldview and sense of the future.

And that sacrament of God’s blessing for us in the vision of youth is with us this morning, as we are reminded the very children here in our midst are a sign of hope, surprising us by continuing to proclaim simply in their existence that death and violence are not what is important or definitive or ultimate, because our light and our exultation, liberation and unstoppable life itself come from God. That’s not just a Christmas message. That’s good news we need any day. So thank you, children, for proclaiming it for us today. Amen

 

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“…Clap Your Hands”

sermon on Acts17:22-31; John14:15-21

 

It strikes me that we’ve got an interesting pairing today. In our Gospel reading, Jesus says, “if you love me,” and talks about recognizing him. But that sits alongside the reading from Acts that’s about people worshiping some unknown God.

On the one hand, it would seem hard to love something you didn’t know. Like (in a somewhat smaller way) if you’d never tried rhubarb cobbler, could you say you’d recognize it, much less in any possible way that you loved it?

On the other hand, it also seems like if you do know you love something, it shapes things for you. If you love rhubarb cobbler, you’ll want to bake it. You’ll look forward to rhubarb season. You’ll want to share it with others. You’ll choose it over other desserts (or at least in addition to other desserts).

Along with knowing and loving and that shaping our actions, since we’re celebrating our children today and they’re leading us in worship, rather than a typical sermon, I figured we could do this more in the style of a children’s message. So I’ve got a song for you, and we can keep adding stanzas to it. You might know this tune, but we’ll do it with new words from Jesus:

If you love me and you know it, clap your hands.

If you love me and you know it, clap your hands.

If you love me and you know it, well, your faith will surely show it.

If you love me and you know it, clap your hands.

That verse, besides being close to the original song, might make us say that loving Jesus is a reason for celebration. We clap our hands and rejoice because this is good news. Knowing Jesus and loving Jesus is worth cheering. In fact, it’s not just us; the prophet Isaiah said that even the trees of the field clap their hands (55:12)!

If our hands are in on the action, let’s use another old verse to add our feet. After all, our faith clearly means we put a foot down. When things are unloving and against God’s good will, when meanness or injustice seems to be taking control, we have to stomp it out. So let’s sing:

If you love me and you know it, stomp your feet…

I’m going to ask for your suggestions in just a minute after a couple more I’ve got ready. How about this one: make a cross? A great Bible verse declares, “We love because God first loved us” (1John4:19) and the cross is our go-to place for witnessing that, that Jesus took on our sorrows and sufferings and confronted injustice and even was willing to die because of loving us. Our Gospel reading talks about Jesus going away into death. But the cross also marks that death does not win, that God’s love in resurrection wins. The cross says a lot about God’s love for us, and that prompts our love. So we can sing:

If you love me and you know it, make a cross…

The people in Athens in our reading from Acts weren’t recognizing or knowing who God was, but Paul pointed out the beautiful things about creation and told them God made the whole world around us. So it seems that some of loving God is paying attention to and taking delight in this wonderful world God made. For that, maybe we sing:

If you love me and you know it, look around…

What other verses should we add?

[suggestions included:

…show your heart…

…welcome all…

…make a friend…

…work for peace…

…come along…]

Our reading from Acts is pretty serious about learning and what we reflect on, which is a great message for the end of the Sunday School year, a year spent searching for God and finding that God is very near to us. So let’s sing about our pondering and thinking:

If you love me and you know it, use your brain…

That using your brain is tough to fit into a song. Maybe you’ll need to spend some more time in families or conversations or just remembering for yourself what you learned about God this year.

Almost to conclude, I want to go back to the stunning Gospel reading. It’s one of those that can seem like a tongue-twister but is saying something so astonishing: it says Jesus shows us God, and even when we don’t have Jesus with us, still the Holy Spirit is, and even if we feel like we can’t see the Holy Spirit, still she’s with you, and you are living with the life of Jesus which all leads to the remarkable thing that you can see God because you see each other. Wowee! For that, let’s sing:

If you love me and you know it, you’ll see God…

A closing verse to seal the deal and proclaim our confidence that it’s just as Jesus says:

If you love me and you know it, shout “Amen!”

If you love me and you know it, shout “Amen!”

If you love me and you know it, well, your faith will surely show it.

If you love me and you know it, shout “Amen!”

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Born and Bred for Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* sort of like this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7DiBZmz8CDE

 

Romans.   Nick’s Redone Version

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

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

 

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sermon for Animal Sunday

(Job39:1-12,126-30; Psalm104:14-23,31; 1Corinthians1:10-23; Luke12:5-6,22-31)
(http://www.letallcreationpraise.org/united-states-ecumenical/wisdom-series-canimals)
 
For a couple decades, Dave Rhoads, an emeritus professor from the Chicago seminary, has been among the most important inventors and instigators for this ecological edge in Lutheran churches. (He’s also a friend of Joyce Anderson’s from her church in Racine.)
Fitting this Animal Sunday, Dave tells of a dream where he was going to receive communion and found himself next to a snake, and then a person next in line, and then a raccoon with its paws extended, then a bird at communion eating bread crumbs.*
Perhaps that’s an image to keep in mind for this day, and is among the reasons we ourselves are receiving communion each Sunday of this season, even without bears and turtles lined up with us, still a reminder that we are in communion with all creation—not just with wheat and grape, but with pollinators and soil microbes and deer along the roadsides that lead to markets and grazing blackbirds and sunshine and rain and so much more.
But if you’re still feeling that we’re a mainly human contingent gathered in church this morning, then you may yet turn your faithful attention to the words we have from Psalm 104. This is no Isaian (65:25) “peaceable kingdom,” where the wolf lays down with the lamb and the lion eats straw like an ox. No, in Psalm 104 the lion still eats ox like a lion. Those young lions lurk and prowl at night to find their food, food given to them by God, just as the grass is given for cattle and grain for us. It may not be a utopian dream in Psalm 104, but it very much is a faithful “topian” vision. It’s not a “utopia” (literally meaning “no place” or “not a place”) but is firmly rooted in place, in the actual topography of our lives amid this world. With that, the Psalm sees God not only as some distant goal, but as fully engaged and caring about these different and disagreeing creatures here and now. So the lions still get to be carnivores. And humans get wine. (Though, for full disclosure we’re not the only ones who enjoy alcohol; cedar waxwings eat fruit that has hung on trees too long and fermented, until they can even get so tipsy they can’t quite fly on course. Though it’s not that birds need a DUI patrolling squad car—an absurd notion, but which we’ll reflect on more later.)
Anyway, just as we heard in another beautiful and expansive selection in Job that portrays members of creation far from humans, Psalm 104 also nicely attends to distinct habitats as blessing from God for biodiversity, the varieties of life. God grows trees for birds. God created night for nocturnal animals. From our Darwinian understanding of natural selection we may question which direction this actually proceeds, but nevertheless Psalm 104 is onto something in its attention to specific habitats with the thriving of species.
Among that, I especially have been enjoying what we read from verse 18, “the stony cliffs are a refuge for the badgers.” Instead of “badger,” other translations use the odd animal terms “coneys” or “hyrax.” So I sent a note this week to one of my Old Testament professors, Diane Jacobson, who worked on this translation for our hymnals. Since it relates to our own shared habitat, I asked her, “can the Wisconsin Badger fans amid my congregation claim blessing with the appearance of these badgers?” She replied that was, “remarkably insightful and clearly part of original authorial intent.” So there you have it, a special divine nod to Bucky.
Whether it’s as playful as that or not, I also love Diane’s translation in verse 22, where the night ends and the sun rises and, as she phrases it, the lions “lay themselves down” in their dens. It seems a poetic reflection of that old bedtime prayer, “now I lay me down to sleep.” Though we’re awake at different times and eat different things and rest in different places, still the echo in that verse ties our lives to the lives of lions, refusing to let them be too separate from us. We can see other animals as our siblings, as part of this vast family.
But that may confront us with the Gospel reading, which seems to play family favorites. Last week I’d said that our God doesn’t care “exclusively or maybe even mostly about humans.” This would seem to be yet another example of why I should read ahead to the next week’s lesson and actually pay attention to what Jesus says before I open my big mouth. Or maybe it’s an example of the interplay of Scripture, how it doesn’t all say the same exact thing, but does disagree or is in situational dialogue with itself. So last week’s readings portrayed God’s delight in cavorting with Leviathan the sea monster, though it was harmful to humans. But today Jesus promises that “you are of more value than many sparrows” or flowers of the field or ravens. One reading seems to say humans are just one among many, amid the mix of this grand family of creatures, and the other says you are most valuable.
So what would make Jesus say we are more highly valued by God than sparrows? We certainly can’t say you’re cuter than a tiger cub or more precious than pandas. It may be claimed that, just as we feel special kinship looking into the face of a chimpanzee, that we’re valued because we are more like God, though I’m particularly reluctant to make that argument. Indeed, as categories of creature or Creator, we’d have to confess we’re more like chinchillas or alligators or poinsettia plants or moon rocks than like God.
Instead, might the value be by body mass, that big creatures get more attention than little ones? That’s often our human tendency, to count and notice the plight of megafauna like elephants or polar bears or whales, but to be less invested in smaller creatures.
Or maybe lifespan gives us more value, where mayflies only last for a day, or rabbits breed three times per year and are mature at four months old, or why Jesus mentions sparrows, that typically live only to 4 years or so in the wild, just as Aldo Leopold noticed chickadee mortality rates were more than 50% after a single winter.
Or maybe another factor in our value and associated with our lifespan is our place in the food chain, that it takes a lot of mosquitoes to feed one bat, or rabbits to feed a hawk, that there are fewer snakes than mice and fewer mice than grasshoppers. Or in your case, that it takes a lot of salmon, who ate even more herring or crayfish, which had to eat scads of larvae or plankton.
To try on a completely different version, though, of why God would value us differently than lilies or sparrows, it might be because of what we’re capable of, or what our potential is. This is true in both negative and positive ways. To return to the absurd drunk flying cedar waxwings, they don’t need police to pull them over for imbibing too much fermented fruit because they won’t do much harm that way, whereas we need laws about drinking and driving because we are all too liable to harm others.
Or, in an apparently more benign perspective, what we cause in getting this bread and wine here today may be terribly destructive. That process may be destroying other life and interrupting cycles of well-being and altering the habitats that other animals depend on. Fields may be covered in pesticides and insecticides that help our grain and grapes to grow, but harm other life and, we’re learning, will even wreck the health of the soil. It’s still a fairly new thing to think of healthy dirt. More, our roads not only bear risk for the deer standing alongside them, but also carry vehicles that are polluting the air and changing the climate of the planet, even for those animals that live far, far away from direct human presence.
And there are those birds of the air that Jesus mentions. My life may be of more value than many sparrows (and our habits benefit house sparrows and crows and seagulls). But I wonder about trading the value of my life, what it would be not to count myself more than, for example, an extinct passenger pigeon. I wonder what I’d trade to be able to see flocks that block out the sun all day. Or to see an auk or 12 foot tall great moa of New Zealand or a Carolina parakeet that was exterminated for the benefit of making hats or an ivory-billed woodpecker that simply didn’t have enough old forests.
Or if I wouldn’t actually trade my life for a bird’s, what would I sacrifice? We figured out how to make do without DDT in order for bald eagles again to soar over our Wisconsin lakes and figured it may be okay that cranes cause crop damage. But what else of my life would I change or give up for the wellbeing of another creature?
That question may be the reason we hear the assigned reading from 1st Corinthians today. There’s nothing very natural or animal-ish in there, but maybe it is the guidance from Jesus that we as faithful humans have a spot in creation not only to cause harm but to ask what we may sacrifice for others (or for “otters”), following the way of the cross that doesn’t try to claim my own life is more valuable for being hoarded, but finds the worth in community of God’s blessing.
Perhaps that’s a perspective of our value, in assessing what can go wrong, and also in figuring how to do better. We’re valued because God strives so much to redeem you. Weighing whether comfort and convenience, our worries in life of what we eat or wear, that this is not worth the loss of life, I’m offering the last word to Aldo Leopold. From his speech at Wyalusing State Park, this is for “the funeral of a species,” on a monument to the passenger pigeon:
We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that [humans] are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us…a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures;…of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.…
These things, I say, should have come to us. I fear they have not come to many.
For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact [and this potential], rather than in [synthetic] nylon or [computers or nuclear] bombs, lies objective evidence of our superiority over the beasts.**
 
** found in A Sand County Almanac
 
(PRAYERS)
Rejoicing with all creation, let us pray for the church, the world, and all those in need.
God of all creation, with all creation we join in praise. And as Francis of Assisi preached your word to the birds, we pray you open our ears to hear other creatures preaching you to us. We also give thanks for these favorite animals in our household or larger family of earth now (PAUSE) Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We pray today as one among many, as one species surrounded by millions. So we think of those who are close, like the chickens and chickadees, crows, raccoons, and coyotes, and those farther away and more foreign to us, in jungles and deserts, on mountains and in the depths of seas. In all of this, we ask your blessing on these creatures and sustenance in their habitats. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
We give thanks for political movements that care for creation, for 100 years of the National Park Service, for the Endangered Species Act, the Department of Natural Resources, for nations working together on climate change, for organizations that motivate us to take up this challenge. Expand our hearts and strengthen us for sacrificial love. Lord, in your mercy,
hear our prayer.
We pray for the health of creatures who are at risk, for snow leopards and orcas, rhinocersoses and manatees, for karner blue butterflies and kirtland’s warbler, for those suffering from too much rain–for farmers, those with flooded homes, and creatures around there. For all these places of concern, for animals as well as the people we worry about and which we name now, silent or aloud (PAUSE). Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Celebrating the beauty of creation’s habitats, we also celebrate the beauty of these quilts that surround us today. We praise you for the blessing of hardworking and deeply caring hands that have made them, and pray for all the places around this world where people will receive them from Lutheran World Relief. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
In the promise that you chose us and, in the fullness of time, will gather all things on earth into your embrace, bring us with all creation around your throne in eternal praise. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Gather all these prayers and whatever else you see we need as we join together with these concluding words:
Jesus Christ, teach us to empathize with Earth. Make our spirits sensitive to the cries of creation, for justice from the land, the seas, and the skies. Jesus Christ, make our faith sensitive to the longing groans of the Spirit in creation. Jesus Christ, make our hearts sensitive to the songs of our kin, celebrations from the sea, the forest, and the air. Christ, teach us to care. Amen
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Is Jesus Divisive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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