One Nation Under

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For the Birds

Sermon for 14 June 15

Mark 4:26-34; Psalm 92:1-4,12-15; Ezekiel 17:22-24
[We think of Jesus’ parables as explanations, but the mustard shrub kingdom is more of a riddle or joke]
Jesus is using horticultural imagery, but if you’re thinking you need to dig out a botany textbook, you’ll miss his punchline that this is all for the birds.

That joke from Jesus came after you already had a heads up in the Psalm. Sure, it’s good news that you still bear fruit in old age (though that could include its own off-color humor). There’s also the line that you’re full of sap. Yup, you are sappy. The Bible tells me so.

If you think these plant puns are corny (that was another one—did you get it?), if they ex-“seed” your attention span, or if you’re wishing I would just “leaf” all this alone, well then your ears are getting warmed up to Jesus’ parable today. It’s meant to be tricky or subversive, a riddle to catch you off guard and make you do a double-take.

So to start back at the beginning, if you think that this agricultural tidbit from Jesus is about how you can grow your faith, or about doing some church-planting (do you notice these are our kinds of terminology?), if you think Jesus gives some instruction to follow, then you’re missing out.

Admittedly, that could be disappointing. In the first part of his parable, Jesus compares faith to the sprouting of a seed. And he says there’s a lot that remains mysterious about that. You can put the seed in good soil and give it water and fertilizer and harvest it when its ripe, but you can’t tell it what to do or even really know why it’s growing and producing.

So maybe if you’re trying to grow your faith and make your life more fruitful, we can say that it’s good to be planted in the right place (like here at church) and to be well-tended (maybe we take that as personal devotions like prayer and Bible reading, or as elements of worship, that you are watered with the forgiving splash of baptism this morning with Braxton James and given nourishment at this table).

But what really makes faith happen? What leads to growth? How do you actually come to believe any of this? Well, that’s a mystery. We can’t force it or prod it or cause it. It’s God’s hidden work going on and ongoing in your life, through day and night. Just like nature, it’s so natural you can try to dissect it but never simply explain this miracle.

If that first part on how faith is produced is frustrating, the second part of the parable may seem absolutely absurd. We could hear this as Jesus describing what his goals are, as his mission statement. In that, it’s opposite to our lofty ambitions. As a counter-example, picture commercials on TV. We’re used to ads telling us the company or the product is the best, the most effective, the most efficient, the fanciest, the prettiest, the newest, the glitziest, the toughest on the market.

Jesus skips that pile of baloney. Instead he goes for something small and obnoxious and problematic. He quite literally and essentially says that his kind of work is annoying, that it gets in the way. It undoes what you were trying to do.

Some of that notion comes through with the background of Ezekiel. Jesus is spoofing on that passage we heard. The prophet used the image of a mighty cedar tree, towering and resilient, an enormous trunk and beautiful bows stretching to the heavenly heights. This is a typical biblical image for kingdoms: strong, rigid, majestic. So as your sights are set on what is biggest and best, this grand tree, Jesus says that God’s kingdom (of course) must be exactly like…a shrub?! A weed. Even worse is the bad company. The mustard shrub invites sparrows to take up residence, birds that gobble up the growth of the good plants.

Or, to tweak Jesus’ imagery, recall instead having a taste of a really pungent mustard, brown with horseradish or the spicy mustard at a Chinese restaurant that makes your nose wrinkle and your head burn and your eyes water. Jesus is giving that sort of image of the kingdom of God.

The obvious problem is that we want it otherwise. We don’t want the dab of spicy mustard kind of kingdom. We want the kingdom to be a delectable cut of steak or a succulent strawberry, just exactly ripe, or to be some premier caviar. We want God to be so elite and exclusive and special as a Dom Pérignon champagne, but instead Jesus arrives with a gallon jug of wine that Ruth Circle buys exactly because it’s the cheapest stuff at the grocery store.

A passage in Isaiah that we hear on Good Friday highlights this absurd notion. It says, “Who has believed what we have heard? For he grew up like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; he was despised and we held him of no account.” (53:1-3)

This unappealing mustard shrub-y guy is the God of the cross, finding his way into the least expected and least desirable places of life. Jesus shows up in the smallest seeds, the littlest moments of your life and the worst places. He takes up residence and takes over. He begins to crowd out the other stuff that you thought was pretty and attractive. He begins if not to overpower at least to distract from all of that other baloney that claimed to be the best and biggest and brightest.

So if you were thinking that God would come straighten out your life, to make everything just right and orderly, to really bless you with all kinds of great stuff, to fulfill your advertising wish list, to be the sort of mighty kingdom that makes all others bow and tremble, well thank God you don’t have that sort of God.

Instead your God provides a place for all the pests, for the troublemakers, for the sick and those seeking refuge, and all the bad company. A God, then, for you, who is with you in common life and not just waiting for exceptional, rare moments, insisting on perfection. A God who is not reserved, but is popping up all over the place to be found exactly where needed, a God in whom you can home to roost. This whole church thing, after all, is for the birds.

Hymn: Tree of Life and Awesome Mystery (ELW #334, 1-3 & Lent3)

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Traps and Captivation, of Empire and of God

Sermon for 19Oct14

Matthew 22:15-22; Isaiah 45:1-7

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Sneaky, evasive Jesus has a tendency to answer questions with a question, when opponents are trying to trap him, but also to make us think for ourselves. Today it’s not a question, but more of a riddle, and you have to say it just sounds better in the King James Version: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

They ask Jesus if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the empire. It’s a trap. If he says don’t pay, the Romans would arrest him for provoking rebellion. But if he says yes, pay, his people would be upset he’s encouraging the oppressive occupying powers. He can’t say yes and can’t say no. He’s trapped.

But sneaky Jesus flips the trap, catching them in their own snare. We’ll see more of that in a moment. First, though, we’ll try resolving the riddle. When Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give back to God what is God’s,” we’ve usually figured there are two separate categories, and Jesus leaves it to us to discern which goes in what box. So we start compartmentalizing, breaking it down, maybe first that ultimate devotion should go to God and not to our government or whatever.

Money comes in a second layer of the divisions, with less direct certainty. We have generally determined that it’s okay to pay taxes, that they don’t interfere too deeply with our faith. We may grumble, but also see them as worthwhile. In fact, we should recognize they may serve consistent with what we do in faith, for example in programs of social uplift and concern for the least—very clearly a biblical ethic. As an example, picture school lunches resolving hunger and caring for vulnerable children, a Jesus-y kind of project, which just so happens to be run well by government.

That’s an important reminder for us. When Jesus tells us to render to Caesar or to God, it’s not just a matter of two columns on a budget sheet, one or the other. Some of it we simply cannot divide. Jesus is not drawing a distinction between sacred and secular. It’s not a separation of church and state. God is not relegated only to the realm of what happens at a church or with a religious logo affixed to it.

Obviously, God’s work is immensely bigger than those small categories. Our Isaiah reading declares that God’s work was being accomplished by the Persian king Cyrus, even though he didn’t know God and didn’t know he was doing serving that role. It even names this foreign ruler as God’s Messiah. Wow! Similarly today, God is not waiting for faith-based organizations with faith-healers to treat Ebola patients in Liberia, but is certainly striving through health care workers regardless of religion. So just because it’s government doesn’t mean it’s opposed to God’s good work.

Of course, the reverse may be true, too. Tax dollars may also get used contradictory to our beliefs. It’s in the debates about how abortion services are or aren’t funded. It could be in a question of subsidies for fossil fuel companies. It is in centuries of Christian conscientious objection to paying the portion of federal taxes which funds violence and military and war, by some measures almost 50% of the total.

That points also to the sneaky Jesus reversing the trap to ensnare those malicious, conniving opponents. It begins when Jesus says, “Show me the coin that is used for the tax.” See, this tax was due from everybody under the empire and it had to be paid with Roman money. But notice Jesus doesn’t rifle through the loose change in his pockets to pull one out. He asks them for it, and they produce a denarius. And Jesus asks, “Whose image is on that, and whose title?”

If they were onto him at this point, there’d be a long, dumb pause: “uhhhhh…the emperor.” See, simply using this coin was forcing you to swear allegiance to the emperor, to Caesar. Right on its face, it gave him the title “son of god.” By using that coin, by having it to show off, the so-called religious authorities demonstrate their hypocrisy. They claim to be devoted to God. Daily in worship and prayer they would’ve proclaimed, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you in your heart” (Deuteronomy 6). Well, they might have had those words in their hearts, but in their pockets they were holding onto a second so-called god, his face engraved on the coin.

That shows the shape of the debate is not about politics so much as theological worldview. In telling them to render to Caesar, Jesus might mean “purge yourself of that filthy heretical coin.” In some regard, while bearing that image, it is dominating their lives, that is their lord, and so they aren’t bearing the image of the Lord their God. It highlights their bondage to their enemy, the occupying army, that we can’t escape the systems that ensnare our lives. Again, rather than a question of religion versus government, a larger issue here is two competing powers, for the empire’s kind of control or God’s kingdom in this world.

Even though our bills don’t call George Washington the son of god, this makes it hit home. If our dollars claim that “in God we trust,” how much do they really do that, and when do they render us captive to another force?

For us, we may figure it’s appropriate to begin trying to resolve the riddle by making this word from Jesus into a lesson on how you use money, especially as we prepare to share our financial pledges next Sunday, encouraging you to give more to church, that you should render more to God, return more of what you’ve been given. Yet what does that mean? Is it giving 2% of your income instead of 1%? Or giving 10% and reaching a tithe, can you think you’ve done enough?

After all, God has given you 100%.   It may be right and good to ask what you give at church, yet if we’re working with this passage that tells you to render to God what is God’s, how do you pay back 100% of all that you have and are? Putting tokens in the offering plate wouldn’t cut it. Maybe we return gratitude and praise, that if we’re given a beautiful autumn day, we remember constantly to thank God. Maybe we ask about our vocations, of how we’re using our time and skills to press toward the goals of Jesus. Yet as vital as those efforts are, they also reveal it’s not just the hypocritical opponents in the reading today who fall short in their loyalty and devotion. It’s all of us.

One more example: We hear about foreign Cyrus doing the work of God without even knowing it. The opposite comes on Good Friday, when Jesus has a conversation with the Governor Pontius Pilate, the representative of Caesar. The conversation emphasizes our point, that not just his property or palace, but even his position of power has come from God. If he’d rendered to God and not to Caesar, Pilate would’ve pursued very different path. Maybe he would’ve stopped the crucifixion of Jesus.

Yet even in that, God’s work was done. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we know the fullness of God’s compassion and God’s abundant and amazing forgiveness and the work of God for life that just will not stop.

I’m going to conclude by suggesting you are hypocrites, but you are faithful hypocrites. You are sinners, but you are simultaneously saints and sinners. You render to God, but you also render to Caesar and the corrupt powers of this world. Even more, you are rendered by those powers. They render you helpless or trapped, in bondage, captive to sin. You are stuck supporting systems you’d prefer not to, trapped by taxes you don’t want to pay, ensnared by a consumer lifestyle, captive to carbon emissions by which you cause climate change, to prejudices and racisms you may not even always realize exist. For your life and for the good of others, it is indeed a terribly important choice to struggle against those oppressive forces that are rendering you an agent of evil, or of Caesar, opposing God.

But also know you are rendered an agent of God. The God who has given you 100% of your blessings and sustains you through every breath will continue striving for you, and with you. God doesn’t wait for you to perfect yourself, won’t repay you for your actions, never renders evil for evil, but always will be the God of life. You don’t get more just when you’ve proven you can do the right thing. It’s not taken away from you when you do wrong. God in Christ receives when you’re at your most considerate and devoted and doing your best, but God in Christ will just as much pursue blessing when you’re malicious and miserable and selfish and broke and broken.

Even when you’ve squandered 100% and given it to exactly the wrong place, the God of our whole universe is still working with that total. You can’t take anything away from God. God recycles and recreates you from the ashes of your past, from dead ends and even rising out of death. This is the true power. You are entrapped by Jesus, held captive and kept tightly in God’s love. It doesn’t matter what’s in your wallet. When God looks at your face, all that shows is the image of Jesus.

Hymn: Take My Life, That I May Be (ELW #583)

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