Abundant Life

sermon on Psalm23; 1Peter2:19-25; Acts2:42-47; John10:1-10

Jesus gives a great purpose statement today: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Yet it makes us ask, what does he mean? What qualifies (or quantifies) as abundant life? Is it about longevity, as if the number of years is what makes life abundant? Do you imagine it’s having abundance in your life, of food on your table and square footage of your dwelling space and of possessions? Or is abundance in satisfaction, in enjoyment, in feeling accomplishment? Might the abundance of life come in relationships, in types of friends or delight in family? More, is it abundant through relationship with God?

We don’t need to guess at understanding what Jesus might mean by living abundantly, since each of our Bible readings today hits on considerations of abundant life, to give a sense of what Jesus wants for you.

Let’s start with the 23rd Psalm, since that is such a definitive statement of our faith and hope. We sang before, but join in if you know these words:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

We may hardly need say or reflect on more for a vision of abundant life than those beloved words. God abides as your Shepherd. Goodness chases after you so you lack or want for nothing. God guides you to calming waters and lush fields of peace and plenty. Even when life itself seems threatened in deadly dark valleys or by the presence of your enemies, you are comforted and safely kept in house of the Lord.

Still, as true and meaningful as those words are, we can’t stop there, because I don’t want you left thinking abundant life amid this faith of ours is just about you and Jesus, through your good times or troubles you endure or in some eternal heavenly home sense. As much as Jesus is your Good Shepherd and you are a sheep, you are a sheep of his fold and lamb of his own flock. You aren’t alone, but are among a gathering of sheep. And, as Jesus will go on to say later in chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, he has “other sheep that do not belong to this” group. It can’t be individualistic. We need to look broader and recognize more to understand what Jesus intends for abundant life.

To begin considering God amid our relationships, let’s take a fairly negative example. You may have been squirming in your seats during the reading from 1st Peter, and Joyce didn’t much seem to enjoy reading it or calling it “Word of God, Word of life.” You may have been protesting and arguing in your minds about unjust suffering. I concur that there’s much disagreeable there. This is the sort of passage the lectionary normally skips past without giving us a chance to confront it. In this case, what we didn’t hear makes it worse, since this lectionary skipped the first verse of the section, which began with addressing “slaves, accept the authority of your masters,” even if they’re too harsh. Yikes! Probably worse still, the next verse after our reading says, “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands.” Double yikes! This among verses that commend enduring abuse and beatings!

We must quickly declare how wrong this is, but we first have to pause with an odd caveat. The author of this letter is trying to make sense of what the resurrection means, including in the course of life’s difficulties, and in some way understands that suffering is not the opposite of abundant life. 1st Peter says our worst difficulties in relationships don’t necessarily cut us off from abundant life.

Using suffering in service of life by breaking oppression was the method of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Dr. King cited exactly this Bible passage, realizing that “unearned suffering [can be] redemptive. Suffering…has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.” He liked to say, “The tension is, at bottom, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory, it will be a victory not merely for [African Americans], but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice [he said] and not white persons who may be unjust.”* That’s a message of striving through intentional suffering on behalf of abundant life, that one side can’t win alone (as violence presumes). True victory for life needs to be shared by both sides. In Dr. King’s example of nonviolent resistance, it may make sense to commend that pain should be endured.

But we have to admit 1st Peter isn’t really talking about that. When this letter says that enduring unjust and unmerited suffering at work or in family relationships means you have God’s approval, that’s mostly wrong. God may be on the side of people suffering and hurting, but if the letter means that God approves of being abused, that is wrong and it is terrifyingly wrong. This passage has been used to perpetuate domestic violence. In another example, there have been some awful racist offences at St. Olaf College in recent days, and 1st Peter’s model would be that those students in positions of weakness should just put up with insults, humiliation, denigrations, or threats. That should not happen. That is not commendable. It’s not godly. That is not abundant life.

Almost every source I read this week declared the need to understand this writing in its ancient context, that slaves and wives and children were property controlled by the authority of a man, that that society was shaped and limited by their economy—a word literally meaning the household order. But that doesn’t make it okay. 1st Peter has some very faithful and wonderful things in it, but this is just plain wrong. It’s wrong about Jesus, wrong about society, wrong for us.

As a counter-example, Paul’s writings were in the same ancient context but refused to endorse that economic or household order. He undid slave/master hierarchy to invite them to live as brothers (see Philemon). He saw marriages as a mutual relationship (see 1Cor7). In Paul’s understanding, “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” and none should be treated as patriarchal fathers, because we are all counted as offspring and heirs to inherit God’s promise (Gal3:28-29).

So 1st Peter can’t just say that we need to put up with oppressive and abusive relationships or forms of society, because Paul rightly recognized that what Jesus was doing and is still doing for the sake of abundant life is to reshape our relationships and to confront unjust authorities, whether they be in economy, family, religion, school, government, or anywhere. The example of Jesus is not that he passively submitted to being killed but that he chose to risk his life confronting injustice, and even that not as a suicide mission but with God’s further insistence on life over death. Like Jesus, it may be worth confronting powers for the sake of abundant life. And in that way, amid suffering, you may trust that God intends something other than your pain.

Let’s move from a difficult passage to one that seems more obvious in its abundance. The reading from Acts is the same chapter as the Pentecost story, with the Holy Spirit is creating faith in crowds of new followers of Jesus. This is portrayed as the very early infant church. Just as 1st Peter was trying to figure out, then, what it means to live as the church, to live after Easter, how to encounter continuity of life in this world even while believing it is forever changed by the resurrection, that’s what the community is working on in Acts, too, trying to figure out what this way of life means. In this short reading, there are a couple ways they encounter the abundance of life:  they study, they join in prayers, they eat meals together.

Oh, and they’re also communists. This is a way of seeing the abundance of life, that we have enough to share, that it can’t really be abundant if we imagine it needs to be hoarded, but is best when offered for all. Yet this idea of sharing everything in common, of selling possessions in order to distribute the proceeds as anyone had need has been rejected by plenty of folks, as it’s almost as harmful as passive suffering in 1st Peter. Yet even as we’re skeptical about difficulties of living communally, and even as that ancient community struggled with it—where some wanted to keep their own things and where within four chapters the food pantry wasn’t running fairly—still we do practice this. We practice it in our offerings, bringing what we have, to share life in so many ways for our community (like helping the homeless) and around the world (like funds for ELCA World Hunger and welcoming refugees). We should note this is what happens with our taxes. Those funds are for sharing a common good larger than what we could possess or accomplish on our own. That is a vision of abundant life.

Besides financially, in another aspect of being part of the flock and sharing in this community, I had the privilege of hearing celebrations from Mary Rowe this week, of delight in the care and support and generosity of this congregation as she is recovering from her knee surgery. Now, being cooped up at home, stuck on pain medications, and wondering when she’ll be back into normal routines may not sound exactly like abundant life, but as she shares the joys of this community, Mary recognizes it. This is the koinonia, the fellowship, the sharing, the communion that binds us together in this meal today, and that finds expression as our lives commune and become one with each other.

Finally for our discernment about finding abundant life are Jesus’ words. He offers a strange image: I AM the gate. It’s easier to picture Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who will rescue you from trouble and carry you on his shoulders. Or as the Shepherd of the sheep who leads us and guides us together as a flock. But here Jesus also says he’s a gate. That’s an odd idea.

First, it makes us wonder whether we’re trying to get in or out. Is he a gate that protects us from marauders and harm? Or is he the way out from being trapped up so we can find freedom in green pastures of plenty? He says both: “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Perhaps we need both sides of that. We see that church is not about being insiders who disparage outsiders. There’s nothing exclusive about those in the church as better or more blessed. We’re not here to hunker down and shut the world out. And yet we do come in through the gate for a message of salvation. We need a word unlike the bad news that surrounds us, we need the peace the world cannot give. We need the reassurance of resurrection, that life in Jesus wins, that those injustices and pains and fears of scarcity and all that threatens or breaks us apart do not and, in the end, cannot define, confine, or conquer us and our world.

Instead, trusting the message of life that is stronger than death, trusting in Jesus who submitted to death in order to burst through it and undo its powerful grip on us, proclaiming that that is our reality, too, that nothing can stifle this goodness, we go out through the gate of Jesus to his world. We go out to share that good news. We go out to confront the nastiness. We go out to share our life abundantly. We go out to enjoy the blessing that nothing will steal that from us, nothing will be able ultimately to destroy God’s goodness. Life in Jesus is for all for always. We go out, because through him, we recognize life more abundantly. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

* “An Experiment in Love” in Testament of Hope, p18

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The Power of Love

sermon on Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

Hate your family. Sell your possessions. Choose death. These aren’t easy words from Jesus. I adjusted the order of readings not to distract you from them, but to help us hear them in a frame of context. So we’re going to explore the little letter to Philemon. The bonus is, in spite of being only one chapter long, it has some of the most power of anything in our Bibles. We’ll break it apart as we go.

1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus…” Already a first break. Paul labels himself a prisoner, and not a prisoner of Roman imperial powers or a prisoner for Christ, but a prisoner of Jesus. With recurring themes of authority and power, Paul immediately begins by claiming a place of weakness, and that somehow our faith confines our options.

1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker…” Okay, two things on those titles for Philemon in the Greek original. First, it’s not actually “dear friend” but “beloved.” This letter is filled with love, five times in 25 verses, and three more times with our very heart or core emotions. The letter is about a community of mutual love, so this is an important reminder for Philemon right away, that he is loved and therefore may show love. For the term “co-worker,” (though I can’t keep interrupting for this) it’s fun that the actual Greek word for co-worker is “synergizer.” The Latin form would be “collaborator.” Maybe just some good connections to keep in mind amid this Labor Day weekend.

To Philemon and “2to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Two notes on this. First, this is a letter to Philemon, but it’s written to be read with the whole church, the congregation gathered together, at that time not in a church building, but in a home. And this was Philemon’s home; he hosted the church gathering, which tells us something about his financial and social station.

Next, also notice Paul’s greeting of grace and peace. It’s a liturgical kind of formula. As we gather in worship, we repeat these refrains of Scripture. They shape and set the tone for our gathering.

In typical letter-writing style, Paul continues from the address to thanksgiving: “4When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.” A really big detail with this section, which we can’t even hear in English. Suddenly the word “you” switches from plural to singular. With this thanksgiving, Paul switches from talking to the whole congregation instead only to addressing Philemon. In English, we can only hear this if we say “y’all” or “yous guys” for the plural.

In a way, that functions well for sermons. See, when I say, for example, “God loves you,” it may be that God loves all of you, but you can hear it specifically for you, yourself. On the other hand, you may not prefer it if I called you out and to task, saying you aren’t living as a follower of Jesus should. That’s exactly what this letter is going to go on to do, though, in addressing Philemon solely and specifically, even though that conversation will happen in the midst of the assembly. Still, for now, it’s also good to note that Paul isn’t laying down the law but is praising Philemon, for his “love for all the saints” and his “faith toward the Lord Jesus.” Even more, Paul thanks God for this love, since this love is produced by God.

The thanksgiving continues, “6I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” I want to pause with this verse because it really aligns the rest of the letter, yet it’s difficult; almost every Bible translation goes in a different direction with it or tweaks it their own way. Evangelical versions make the “sharing faith” to be telling others about Jesus. But even in this NRSV, it still tries saying Philemon is going to do something “for Jesus,” where really Paul’s perspective is that Jesus does things for us, and Philemon’s going to do this “because of Jesus.”

So let’s try a bit different wording. It’s got another active energy word in this line. Plus the “sharing” idea is koinonia in Greek, the word that gives us fellowship halls and communion tables. It’s about participating in the common good. So let’s rephrase it as, “how your faithful participation will be energized in knowing all the good among us from Christ.” That’s still not simple, I know, but it’s about Jesus motivating more and more of our actions in community. We’ll see when we finally get to the request of the letter what this faithful communion from Jesus is about and what it will mean for Philemon to recognize it in a new, broader way.

Paul concludes the opening thanksgiving and makes the transition to the request in this way: “7I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.” Here’s where the transition hits: “8For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Again, Paul downplays himself—I’m old, I’m constrained in this, I’m not trying to boss you around even if I had the authority and chutzpah to, but rather I appeal to the brotherly love you’re already used to sharing. He’s also making himself weak exactly in order to advocate on behalf of the weak, giving up his power to identify more fully with someone in need.

So here at last is the ask: “10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” Actually the name Onesimus waits until the end in the original. Paul leads up by saying, “I’m appealing for my child whom I have begotten in chains: Onesimus.” He first loads on the emphasis of this one who is so dear, so vital, so close to him that he’ll call him his own heart, and only then advocates directly in revealing the identity of Onesimus.

Now, Onesimus sounds like a funny name to us, but it’s even weirder when you know this name is literally the Greek word for “useful.” See, Onesimus was a slave, and slaves didn’t get real names but instead were named for a task or quality, like usefulness to their masters. But Paul is going to use this useful name. He continues: “11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” This is where the request gets complicated. Historically, it’s presumed that Onesimus was a runaway slave and that somehow he had found or come to Paul. So what is Paul supposed to do with the runaway slave, particularly when he has called the master, Philemon, beloved and cherishes him as a co-worker?

Paul continues boldly, “12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” So Paul is encouraging a good deed from Philemon. Would it be to go easy on Onesimus? Though slavery in Greco-Roman culture wasn’t quite like on plantations in the American south, still a captured slave was legally required to be returned, and then might be punished or even killed. Paul has said he loves Onesimus as a child, as his heart, but is still going to send him back to be useful to Philemon. Will Paul asking for an uncoerced good deed convince Philemon not to do the worst against his slave? Are you sensing a risk for Onesimus?

Well, it’s going to get flipped upside-down. Paul declares, “15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” Wow. Wow. First, the sidenote that Paul doesn’t say this was all part of God’s plan that Onesimus ran away or why this dangerous thing happened, but that they can make something good out of it.

And for that—again, with a “wow”—Paul isn’t just asking Philemon to go easy on Onesimus, not just to limit the legal punishment as his runaway slave is returned. No. Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother, or even as if Paul himself were coming. And that’s as a partner—again the koinonia word, but here even in a business partner sense. Philemon is asked not to see himself as a master with authority, but to see each other as equals in love. The one who was useless and maybe even met with ill-will instead would be useful as a chance to practice what we preach.

This is what the community of mutual love has to mean, in Paul’s view. This is what Jesus does to us and for us. This is the only way for us to understand each other, not only as equally loved in God’s eyes, but actually to love each other in that same way. Being part of a Christian community reorganizes all our relationships and our whole outlook on the world, sometimes with dramatic consequences or financial implications.

This is how we may be hearing some of what Jesus so shockingly declared in our Gospel reading. Our faith has results for how we view each other, how we treat our lives, for what we intend with our possessions. We can’t claim more for ourselves at others’ expense, so faith really costs us something. And when we’re desperate, this community should enter our weakness. It eliminates hierarchy, tending the need or also making us vulnerable in striving on behalf of each other, our heart, our sister and brother, our children, our very life. It was certainly a carefully considered cross to choose for Philemon. And this is the amazing trajectory in front of us when the love of Jesus is our guide.

This is an enormous and beautiful view of the extremely difficult thing that Jesus is working among us when we gather in this faithful communion, to be energized in participating in mutual love. It’s no mushy-gushy thing, as Paul himself realizes the ongoing effort and consequences in living on each other’s behalf. With the thorny question of what forgiveness does and doesn’t forget, Paul knows it may cost him, too, as he says, “18If [Onesimus] has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.”

That last seems like a bit of a back-handed zinger, so I’d like to consider how Paul addresses this. Since he’s talking to Philemon in front of the whole congregation, it could well seem like he’s guilt-tripping him. Even as he keeps saying that he’s not forcing Philemon to do the right thing, it could feel that he really is. There’s some of this that probably fits normally with preaching. If you’re like me, there are times you have some guilty feeling or personal awareness that you’ve not been doing what you should as a follower of Jesus or practicing what we preach, where you’re not all that loving. Then, indeed, it is a call rightfully insisting on a change of behavior.

But it’s also amazing that Paul must admit he can’t force his Christian ethics on Philemon. He invites him to reflect on what we believe. But even more than that, Paul really seems to trust that this is God’s work. Just as in the thanksgiving—that God is to be thanked for the love Philemon had already shown—we can trust that God will work more of it. The God who can bring resurrection out from death and new life out from your way of the cross certainly will undo the chains of slavery and will work fresh beginnings in our relationships. Paul finishes that way in the last verses of the lectionary reading: “20Yes, brother, let me have this benefit [this “usefulness”!] from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”

He really does believe it. It takes seriously that faith must be active and ultimately true for our hard situations in life. It is going into the midst of conflict and even of death, but trusting that mutual love will continue and life in Jesus will come through. And Paul rightly knows that his own faith will be refreshed, his heart will be enlivened as Philemon acts in love. That’s true now, too, that it’s not only what we ourselves ought to do, but how we’re energized to love when we witness love, when we know somebody has done the right thing, when we have these glimpses of what God’s work can accomplish, that rejuvenates our heart.

The lectionary reading ended there, but since there are only a couple lines left in the letter and since it has some surprising follow-up celebration and ends with sharing blessings, including for you, you might as well hear it: “22One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. 23Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. 25The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” Amen

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No Big Boss in the Sky

(Luke7:1-10; Galatians1:1-12)

Who’s the boss of you?

It’s a question first raised by sibling rivalry, of my little sister protesting, “you’re not the boss of me.” But it also grows up out of childhood, as you almost certainly have felt the weight of being bossed around. Occasionally we may get to be the boss, but feel it much harder when we’re the ones being bossed. Similarly, when you’re remanded into the custody of the authorities, that’s not a good thing.

This authoritarian pondering is prompted by the term “authority” in our readings, both in Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches and in our Gospel reading. It appears right away in Galatians, that Paul is an apostle not sent from human authority.

It’s more central and emphatic in the Gospel reading when the centurion contacts Jesus with a message, “I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers and slaves under me” who obey my orders. This man is a master of slaves and is a military commander in charge of 100 soldiers. He is accustomed to being obeyed. In fact, his words to Jesus on authority could almost be paraphrased in that boot camp cliché “If I tell you to jump, you say ‘how high?’”

Even as we’re remembering on this Memorial Day weekend those who have submitted to such strict military authorities and sacrificed themselves under an obligation to others, we’re also confronted with the question of whether Jesus is that type the centurion commander seems to expect as he puts Jesus in his same own position. Further, would we also expect that God is the big boss in the sky, Mr. High-and-Mighty, who’s in charge of where we go and what we do?

Though it’s a popular image, that’s not the good news of God or the Jesus presented to us in the Bible. Again, God’s authority is not as the one to boss you around, generally making you do what you don’t want to do.

I did some sleuthing this week on the word “authority” to reveal for us where this term, this idea does and does not apply. In his Gospel, Luke uses the word 15 times, and a fair amount of those are not very complimentary. It is for the rulers and authorities opposed to Jesus. It’s for King Herod’s jurisdiction. Those who arrest Jesus on the night he was betrayed he called “authorities of darkness” (22:53). The worst example is when the devil tempts Jesus by offering to give him his authority over all the kingdoms of the world.

(With that scary thought about Satan and kingdoms, it’s helpful and relevant to think of what Jesus discusses when he refers to his own kingdom or the kingdom of God. He doesn’t say, “My kingdom can beat up your kingdom” or even talk much about power and glory. Instead, his kingdom is compared to a tiny mustard seed and the invisible work of yeast and a wide open picnic. It’s like someone who has property and children stolen away, he says. And the kingdom is for the poor and for children. None of that sounds very bossy, does it?)

On the other hand, Luke does say that Jesus has authority, and even that he has authority “over.” His authority is in his teaching, in his word, and is the authority to forgive sins. He has authority over demons and diseases. His power is to heal. (The centurion must not mean this aspect, since Jesus’ authority over sickness is a different category, not equivalent with soldiers and slaves serving under their master.)

We’ll come back to good news about the authority of Lord Jesus, but let’s look now to Paul, in Galatians and elsewhere. I’m a fan of Paul. I believe he mostly gets our faith right in a way we’ve hardly captured since. That’s usually a minority view. Often he’s disliked as anti-woman, anti-gay, pro-hierarchy, pro-establishment, self-serving. I’d argue against all that, in part based in this look at authority.

First, we could note that the Greek word for authority doesn’t even appear in our reading today. What it actually says in the original is, “Paul, an apostle not from humans or through humans but through Jesus and God the Father who raised him from the dead.”

At any rate, there are other times where Paul does talk about human authority. One perhaps overused passage from Romans is that we should “obey the governing authorities.” With Christians through history, we can discuss to what extent that’s a faithful concept versus when we might be obligated to resist government or question authority.

But also we should hear a stunning reversal of any notion that God endorses authorities. 1st Corinthians says the end is after Jesus “has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.” (Destroyed authority!) “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (15:24-26).

That view of wiping out the authorities and getting rid of them as the goal of God’s kingdom is in some essential way central to Paul’s theology and also his ecclesiology, his view of the church and what we should be up to under the model of God and the Spirit’s influence. Rather than a structure of authority, rather than bosses in charge, even rather than bishops and big wigs, Paul favors community. He’s not for an authority. He’s for the koinonia, the communal sharing, the give-and-take of this all, the mutual relationships. That, not isolated imperiousness, is what represents and proclaims God.

That’s probably some of how we should be hearing this start of his letter to the Galatian churches when he says it comes from Jesus and not from humans. That isn’t to claim a special spiritual vision that overrules any human perspective. In a way, it’s just the reverse. He’s saying that all of those human methods and manners are trying to rule over, are trying to be structures of new authorities, trying to keep you in place with guidelines to be obeyed. He’s even saying that religious institutions from humans are trying to do something Jesus didn’t show us and God doesn’t want from us. When religion insists that some are holy and some aren’t, that there are insiders and outsiders, that certain behavior qualifies you for definite rewards, that God loves some better than others, these pious-sounding authorities end up obscuring the good news and are—as the Bible and Luther used the term—anti-Christ.

This also gives insight to our Gospel reading. Against a perspective that the centurion commander and Jesus reciprocally recognize and compliment each other as fellow bosses, more appropriate and logical is to notice the phrase “I am not worthy.” On the one hand, in spite of being a powerful boss—a muckety-muck who had done good things, who was praised  by the locals for building the synagogue and well-established with community leaders—on the one hand, he doesn’t try to claim credit for that. He declares himself not worthy.

And on the other hand, Jesus is not blinded by this being a foreigner, or an unclean outsider, or even the occupying, oppressive enemy. Jesus does not claim those make the man unworthy, should not exclude him from blessing and community, do not cut him off from the work of God. That God’s work is not dependent on our self-evaluation or human standards of worth is exactly the heart of our faith, the faith Jesus is amazed at or admires in the centurion. You, too, may cling to and trust there is not anything you are and nothing you aren’t, of what you’ve done or failed to do that determines God’s presence with or work for you.

That brings us to one final piece to wrap up reflections on authority. I began by noticing the phrase “you’re not the boss of me” arises often among children. Well, one of my nephews tried it on his dad, who promptly replied, “actually, I am the boss because I’m the dad!” Thinking of parental care, this perspective from Jesus and through Paul reorients authorities for us, not to be authoritarian and bossy but to be in the role for guidance and compassion, a discipline that teaches and doesn’t just punish, a source of blessing striving to heal and to overcome death. This is why calling God Father or Mother fits much better than titles of Almighty or Ruler. And we should always remember when we call Jesus “Lord” it is simultaneously redefining the term as embodied in one who serves and loves and laid down his life for the sake of others.

Similarly, then, besides the role of parents, there are many among this congregation who are bosses, or supervisors, or leaders in charge. And this faith shapes how we live into the roles. It isn’t about power over or acclaim or thinking yourself better than you ought. Instead, it is a role to serve, to do that Jesus work with his authority to forgive and teach, to overcome disease and evil, to struggle to the end against death. In this way, through your life and through Jesus, being handed over to the custody of the authorities finally may be good news!

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Searching for a Hidden God?

Sermon for 1st Sun. of Advent, Isaiah64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37; 1Cor1:3-9
My sister and I used to play hide-and-seek when we had babysitters. As the search started, the call was shouted, “ready or not, here I come!” Was that announcement good news, or not? If you hadn’t yet found a hiding place, it could mean you’d quickly get caught and lose. On the other hand, the seeking and finding was the point of the game.

That question might lead us into this Advent season, which announces expectations of God coming. Is that good news, or not?

There are, of course, plenty of times we’d prefer not to have an all-knowing, all-powerful heavenly being show up or be watching. Worse than a Santa who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice, and less preferable than the eavesdropping, email-scanning of a spying government, there is simply no escape from what we imagine to be the repercussions of God’s stern, judgmental view looking down from heaven. It isn’t even that we’d try to get away with being so bad. We just know we fail to live up to our own standards, so our imagined God would have to be frowning down at us, too.

Yet there are other times we indeed long for God to come, to come to our aid, to find us, to be with us. Our first Bible word from the prophet Isaiah starts our Advent with exactly that prayer: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” That’s probably pretty accurate for our expectations of God. On many occasions, it is fitting for our lips, or aching hearts, or hurting lives. Come down, God! O that you would tear open the heavens! Break apart the barriers that are keeping you at bay, that restrain you from helping me, that are giving my enemies a false sense of success! We’re ready! Please come!

This certainly was Isaiah’s setting. His people had been captive in Babylon, exiled in a foreign land. But at this late part in the book of Isaiah, the Persians had beaten the Babylonians and were preparing to let the Israelites return to Jerusalem, to the temple, to go home. Yet this generation was born in the foreign land and had never lived at home. Facing a change of political power and a move on the horizon caused reasonable anxiety.

So they looked up at the sky, yearning for a mighty deliverer to rush to their rescue. They wanted to feel not so helpless, wanted a strong indicator that God was on their side. Tear apart the heavens! Shake the mountains, God! Come like a raging fire that consumes the brush and branches blocking the way!

In longing, they even throw in the melancholy and always-suspect “used-ta.” You used-ta do awesome deeds! You used-ta lead in a pillar of cloud and fire. You used-ta drive back the Red Sea and swallow up Pharaoh’s army. You used-ta make the mountain smoke and shake with thunder when you talked to Moses. You used-ta show up and there was no doubt about it!

For us who can feel like our entire faith is used-tas, that really resonates. We, too, know the old Bible stories that evidently don’t happen anymore. All of the exciting stuff seems to be in the past. We’ve been sitting in the dark, scared and waiting for God to come and find us. Has God forgotten? Why can’t we get an answer? Why are things the way they are? If only we had a sign! If God would just show up in a big, apparent way to straighten out this whole mess. O that you weren’t shut up in heaven, God!

You’ve probably prayed this prayer—hoping, longing, pleading. Casting wishes toward God. Wanting God suddenly to appear, to come be with you. Your reasons for such yearning may be so personal, so fragile and scary and tender, that you can hardly dare to hope for them. Perhaps you dreamed of some supernatural phenomena. Or were you simply asking for a little something to go right, a change in life, to be better?  O that you would come from heaven and be present, God.

Now, if you’re stuck in the used-tas, then you can only figure that it doesn’t happen, that God frustrates you yet again, fails to show up when and where you need it, leaves you to your own devices and dark disappointments. With no shaking mountains or blacked out sun, that kind of expectations go unfulfilled yet again. If we’re waiting for the mighty arm of God and an angelic army to drop out of the sky, that quite plain and obviously hasn’t happened. It doesn’t happen.

So was Isaiah wrong? Was his prayer worthless? Will there be an hour of redemption, a day when God finally is ready to come help us? Or is it just foolish, our prayers whistling in the dark? In our seeking, does God continue hiding, refusing to be revealed?

Let’s reverse the question:  what if God is not the problem? What if God is faithful, but our hopes and expectations are misdirected? It’s not that you’re waiting for something that won’t happen, but that you’re ignoring what does happen, seeking in the wrong sort of places.

There’s a story to start the book of Acts of Jesus ascending into heaven. The disciples are grouped standing around on the ground slack-jawed staring at the clouds, getting kinks in their necks, trying to spot some distant, disappearing speck. It finally takes an angel to show up and say, “hey, what do you bozos think you’re trying to see? Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Well, today I’m your angel, your messenger, with good news that you can stop craning your necks, trying to read signs in the stars. That is not where you’ll spot God, so stop bothering with it.

This Lord of yours is not one for pyrotechnics or loudspeakers, much less trying to communicate through natural disasters.  Instead, he comes as a thief in the night; and what thief in the night loudly announces herself? It is quiet and subtle and surprising. He comes like a leaf slowly unfurling itself on a fig tree.  He comes as the gift that preserves you through the night and rises as each new dawn. Even as your days pass and wither like a dried up leaf, still his breath fills you with life, for today and forever. This one like a careful potter formed you from the dust of the earth and still continues to shape you for his good purposes. His work is so constantly with you that you can’t even begin to be alert to it all, to stay so constantly vigilant. The best you can do is occasionally recognize it.

Still more than that, this is of course the God you know in Jesus.  He doesn’t drop out of the skies, tearing open the heavens. After nine months of waiting, God arrived from a womb, through a birth canal. With that, we have to break apart an old notion:  Advent is about Jesus coming, and we’ve often said that means once at Christmas, and when he will return again. That has ended up sucking us into some impression that two different Jesuses come, that Jesus was humble and meek the first time he came to earth, but when he comes back he’ll be taking numbers and knocking heads, that last time he was killed and next time he’ll be the killer, that last time was the Lamb of God, but next will be the bloodthirsty lion.

That may fit some of our yearning, but that isn’t the most faithful portrayal of God in Scripture. Even Revelation says Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He’s not playing a cosmic millennial game of good cop/bad cop. Rather, he arrived as a baby in a manger, cradled and nursed by his mother, wrapped to stay warm and snug, no room in the inn for the poor family, left out in the cold and surrounded by livestock and lowlifes. Our hope and expectation is in that same Jesus, in his returning to be with us, and also his presence among us still.

This news is earth-shaking and heaven-shattering, but not how we usually envision with action movie melodrama. That birth has changed the course of nations and enlightened history, but not by overwhelming, insistent miracles. It is amazing and revolutionary that God comes to dwell with us, but it’s in a quiet and humble way. All barriers are broken down, but not by violent might. He conquers death for us, but by going through it. It is almost unbelievable that God sees your iniquity but doesn’t let you get swept away by them or just abandon you to keep suffering the repercussions. Here he comes, not because you’re ready but because you need it.

Today, Jesus says his words will not pass away. It’s not that they are so loud they reverberate and echo in sound waves across the rolling spheres. It’s that this song still needs to be sung, because we need to hear this good news, and simply because his promise remains good forever. His word is good and stands firm, even though it comes in the confusing voice of your preacher. It searches you out and finds you. Again and again he shows up to say, your iniquity is forgiven. I’m not keeping score. I’m not waiting to pounce. I’m here for you, sharing all the gifts you need. Still his presence is with you, sneaking into your life, stolen away inside crusty homemade bread and too-sweet cheap wine of communion.

One final word to assist your searching and know where he may be found. Our 1st Corinthians reading says you were called into the fellowship of Jesus. That’s koinonia, like our Koinonia Place. It does mean fellowship or sharing, like cookies and coffee. It is also community and communion, like this supper. It is uniting together, becoming one with each other.  And so it means Jesus gives you all he has, that you share in everything of God’s, even as he takes all that is yours. You lack nothing, even as you wait and yearn and hope for something more. All that he has he gives to you, still giving even his life.

Hymn: As the Dark Awaits the Dawn (ELW #261)

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