#RiseForClimate speech

(Woodland Park, Monona, Wis.) 41413813_10155856821403785_3385218520341020672_n

I’m Nick Utphall, a board member of Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light (WIPL) and pastor at Advent Lutheran of Madison Christian Community way out on the west side (and in spite of the distance, still pedaled my bike here like so many of you today). But this used to be literally my old stomping grounds, as I brought kids from Vacation Bible School at St Stephens Lutheran Church – ELCA – Monona, WI just up the block into these woods to explore creation and be connected to what they could discover in God’s world, because we grow to save what we love, right?

I remember when this was re-opened to be an oak savanna instead of having clogged and invasive undergrowth. We further remember that the oak savanna was a symbiotic relationship in this area generations before anybody claiming to be Christian or with my sort of skin color or ancestry arrived in the area, that native peoples burned the undergrowth to continue spurring this sort of mutual beneficial ecological community.

We’re here today encountering the far opposite end of that spectrum: a mutually _detrimental_ ecological community. Or maybe we need to replace all those words. It’s not mutual, since we decided that humans are more important than any soils, waters, plants, or animals…and Americans more than other humanity…and those with huge financial interest and investments in fossil fuel corporations more than the rest of us. It’s not community then, because we’re not living in it together, but suffering the breakdown of all kinds of relationships and dependencies. And it’s certainly not ecological, because this is not the logic of caring for our common home.

All of that selfishly detrimental economic fracture can feel frustrating, that everything is unhitched and going wrong and that we have little direct capability to change it. After all, it barely matters a smidge that I pedaled here. Or that we attend to science as the real news. It may feel like we’re such a small group for what a huge global problem this is.

But I’m here to testify on behalf of the underdog and the importance of small actions and movements that do change the world.

We’re frustrated at our government. We’re upset that the President and his EPA administrators seem hellbent on rushing in the wrong direction. But I also confess I was frustrated at the previous President, who did too little while still encouraging worse behavior, bits of better conservation while expanding efforts everywhere we could drill or mine. Sure, that was better than now. It still wasn’t enough.

But I’m here to testify that we’re not waiting for any President. Today is about all of us overturning an old system, fighting for and fulfilling in places like Monona and Middleton and Madison the international Paris Climate Agreement. Here in Wisconsin, not only for ourselves but on behalf of the globe.

And I testify this personally because I’m a follower of Jesus. He is the historic epitome of grassroots revolution. It wasn’t from Caesar and the centers of power in the hegemony of the Roman Empire that change was going to come, that values of compassion would take a turn for the better, that life would win. It came from the poor peasants and outcasts in a backwater village by drawing people together, and courageously and sacrificially seeing what they knew the world should be, and who went on to subvert the ignorant control of the world’s allegedly most powerful empire. With it came the proclamation that God is on the side of life. God is on the side of relationships. God is on the side of shared wellbeing. With this vision, as we struggle and strive, as we Rise Up for Climate, Jobs, and Justice, the God known in Jesus is present with us to restore, to renew, and to recreate a mutually beneficial ecological community, across the earth, and right here in this place, now and for good. Thank you.

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For Peace in God’s World

a sermon on the ELCA Social Statement*, and Ephesians 2:13-19, Matthew 5:9,38-45; Psalm 85

It seems like the impetuses or causes to look at this Social Statement keep multiplying around us.

Just before I left for Guatemala, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton issued a letter quoting this nearly-quarter century old yet still-relevant statement, in part saying:

Citizens need to give careful attention to how we in the United States perceive our national interest…Sin’s power often makes itself felt in arrogant and self-righteous views of national identity, and in narrow, short-term, and absolute views of national interest…

In a time…when an idolatrous allegiance to one’s own community endangers our oneness, we must voice with clarity the powerful vision…to engage differences, not to ignore or fear them. The hope for earthly peace challenges people to strengthen their own particular communities in ways that promote respect and appreciation for people in other communities, for all share a common humanity.

Bishop Eaton was using the social statement in reference against the Supreme Court decision to uphold President Trump’s ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries. This is an example of how church interacts with our nation.

That news was overshadowing news of another vital issue, as a couple weeks ago we were finding outrage about how children were being treated at our nation’s border. The social statement applies to that, as well, calling our society and us ourselves to better behavior in loving our neighbors.

That news, in turn, surprised me as we came out from seclusion of the Boundary Waters since we’d gone in on the eve of the summit with North Korea and expected to come out hearing all about it. But even deliberations on nuclear disarmament seem to be forgotten. And that news, again!, obscured the ignoring diplomacy in order to reignite dispute with Iran. Such impetuses, begging our attention to look at this social statement continue to explode so rapidly around us.

Still, I selected this among the set we would look at this summer before those particular headlines, and for much more fundamental reasons.

First, Peace is exactly formative of who and what we are when we gather here. In the traditional and ancient liturgy, we begin with it in repetition: In peace, in Peace! let us pray to the Lord. Kyrie, eleison. It comes up over and over through the liturgy, to the final words that dismiss us into the world and commission us to bear out what we have practiced while together: go in peace. Go in peace.

Perhaps most noticeably and extensively, it is at the heart of the service, the crux of our gathering when we share the peace of Christ with each other. I should talk about it more, because it is such a key moment of what we do here. It’s so much more than a brief howdy. It recognizes that it’s not how well we’re doing in relationship with each other, but that we’re related in Christ, who reconciles us. It is especially important for me with those with whom I’ve had difficulty. If that makes you concerned for if I come to offer you peace, know that I figure we need it most deeply yet again with our closest neighbors, like family members.

But sharing peace also is the moment to see that familiarity is not what binds us. Nobody is a stranger or outsider, since it is Christ’s peace that brings us together. We need to keep practicing that and living into it, week after week.

Having that feeling from worship—so intimate and so expansive and so hugely different from what the world feeds us in hatreds and differences—makes this practice true for me. That sense goes back to my deepest and earliest connection to Christianity. I don’t say connection to God, since that’s inseparable and was established before I was born and was confirmed in my baptism at 3½ months old. But in middle school, I came to see the peacemaking as unique and valuable, that the earliest Christians refused to take up the sword of empire, and yet were the ones who remained in danger to offer nursing care. This nonviolence is far braver than the cheap bravado of threats. So I was a Boy Scout leading the pledge of allegiance over the loudspeaker in my school, but with a dedication to citizenship apart from the patronizing patriotism of militarization.

I was in 6th grade during the first Gulf War. Even though the social statement says we Lutherans support discernment about just wars, that war seemed wrong to me then. Later, I was on my internship when we protested by the thousands, then watched on TV Baghdad flashing horribly with shock and awe. It has continued ceaselessly for 15 years now. That’s a war longer than the whole time I’d been alive when I was coming to believe war is wrong.

This has remained at the core of my faith and was deepened in my understanding of the identity of Jesus. A friend and I started a seminary group called INViTE—Integrating Non-Violence into Theological Education. I wrote in my final seminary paper about how much more effective and cheaper (and, of course, faithful) it would be to take the ridiculous amounts we put into planes and missiles and nuclear devices—a project we name “national security” even though it is a spiral of escalating violence making us less safe—and invested instead in schools and hospitals and benefits for our foes, since what quicker way would there be to make enemies into friends?

To the ready claims that that’s naïve, the counter question is when sanctions and bombs and invasions actually achieve a truly positive result. And I would ask how in the world we could have faith in those destructive practices and still claim faith in the God of love we know in Jesus. We can’t fight terror without it becoming part of us. We can’t well make war while trusting in a God of peace. We can’t have ultimate loyalty to a flag and to God.

Even this morning, without weapons in our hands or camouflage on our backs, we are complicit. We’re complicit in sending others to do that work, often our young people who come home injured in body and mind. We’re complicit in funding with our taxes. We’re complicit in succumbing to idolatrous ideology. We’re captive to sin and cannot free ourselves, cannot liberate ourselves, are not independent.

We need the God of love and forgiveness, I realized throughout our time in Guatemala. I was proud that some of the MCC’s faithful observance of Independence Day was in a Spanish-speaking country whose poverty is in no small part because genocide came with our European ancestors, and violence supported our U.S. fruit corporations a century ago, and whose government was overthrown by our alleged “intelligence” agencies, with dictators and generals trained at our military schools for abuses of a 36-year civil war, ending only in 1996**. I need to cling to the loving, forgiving God of peace in Jesus because I was in Guatemala to help build a house for a poor family, but my country is—and so I am—complicit and responsible for them being poor to begin with.

I know that’s not a very pretty face on this. We often think of peace and quiet, serenity, peace with calm beauty, peace as a personal internal state. But like those early Christians, we realize this is a challenge requiring God’s promise and possibility for our dedication, our fortitude, our faith.

In Guatemala, I was reading words of Archbishop Oscar Romero from nearby El Salvador, assassinated by U.S.-backed soldiers while saying the Words of Institution in worship. One passage said, “Peace is not the product of terror or fear. Peace is not the silence of cemeteries. Peace is not the silent result of violent oppression. Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism.”*** In that spirit of inclusive energetic generosity, when Jesus instructs us not to resist evil violently, not to retaliate with the same vengeful destruction, he instead invites us into courageous nonviolent resistance that is powerfully creative in love.

If you’ve struggled with or wondered about Jesus’ words about being bullied, the background likely would help that a Roman soldier could force you to carry his pack one mile, but your first step into a second mile put him at risk for breaking the rules and so reversed who was in charge, taking the initiative away from the oppressor. Your cloak, an outer garment (Luke 6:29), might be a poor person’s last collateral, and if the rich demanded to sue for that debt, Jesus suggests leaving your tunic—essentially your underwear—as well and marching out of court buck naked in protest, shaming them in your nudity. Again, turning the other cheek is the opposite of submitting as a victim of violence. You could only be hit with the right hand (since the left was the toilet hand and could not be used for any sort of interaction). A backhand slap to the right cheek showed dominance, keeping an inferior in a lower place. But by turning a left cheek, you could only be struck by a fist, a denial of being humiliated and insisting on being treated as equals, which defiantly changed either the social structure or else the desire for the powerful to risk losing their upper hand. ****

We recognize similar creative courageous challenges confronting the rule of empire with bodies taking up a cross throughout history. This spirit of dignity and life and even humor in the face of what would take it all away is godly practice. Such is the reconciliation to break down dividing walls of hostility between humanity. Such is a “world about to turn.” Such is the desire to share grace and love abundantly, refusing to call others enemies or aliens, but to share the victory. Such is the peacemaking action of the children of God. Such is the enlivening of the kingdom of God. To me, this is Jesus, and I hope you’ll be part of it.

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

** www.soaw.org/about-the-soawhinsec/soawhinsec-grads/notorious-grads/239-notorious-graduates-from-guatemala

*** The Violence of Love, p27

**** Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Walter Wink, ch.2

 

PRAYERS

In peace, in peace let us pray to the Lord.

 

Lord, have mercy. For the wellbeing of the church of God, we pray that in these gatherings and enlivened by the liturgy of your church, you would give us faith and courage to be your children, by your Holy Spirit to mold and equip us to live as peacemakers, to practice sharing together what you would have us become and being a sanctuary in time of desperation.

 

We realize that battlefields cannot be fruitful farm fields, that our killing corrupts not only humanity but causes destruction for your creation. Make us your creative agents who bring about life for all.

 

For the peace of the whole world, we pray for the good for Afghanistan and Iran, for Iraq and Syria, for Palestine and Israel, for the Koreas, for China, Guatemala and Mexico, for all refugees who flee from a bad life and hope for better, and most especially for our nation and for us as citizens here, that we can break down dividing walls and strive on behalf of all our neighbors and seek creative solutions to sustain wellbeing.

 

For our personal peace, for our relationships that require reconciliation, for the threats to our own dignity or the ways we are complicit in dehumanizing others, for all that would threaten us, including fear and irrational striving for security, for the peace of our souls—body, spirit, mind.

 

For peace at the last, not only that we would be able to go in peace from this weekly worship, but that you sustain us in the peace the world cannot give so we trust we are in your eternal embrace through this life and far beyond it.

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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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