Hairs, Sparrows, Dads, and Death

a sermon on Matthew 10:24-39; Jeremiah 20:7-13; Romans 6:1-11

Among characteristics in a bio I occasionally use, I refer to myself as a mediocre birder.sparrow

That shapes my pondering of what to do about a nesting sparrow at my house. On the one hand, bird eggs are always amazing to find and see, and there’s a celebration of new life.

But then…they’re house sparrows, really an invasive species, and they’re aggressive. The photo shows some likely evidence of that. I’m wondering if this was actually a grosbeak nest and the sparrow drove out the bigger bird and maybe got rid of some of those bigger eggs and now has laid five of its own.

If I were more than a mediocre birder, I’d know and I’d probably clear out those eggs and try to sustain native species. But I haven’t convinced myself…yet.

This Bible reading worsens my internal debate. Jesus says not a sparrow will die without God knowing about it. “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he’s watching me.” It could sound like a threat, as if God is keeping track of sparrows (and their eggs), and knows who’s been up on a ladder disturbing them.

It’s my little moral dilemma, the better or worse of sparrow egg snatching (sparrow-cide?), complete with necessary theological turmoil.

But you probably don’t care. I mean, you may now want to ask how I could be so cruel. Or you may want to press me to help other birds. But, I’m nearly certain, this wasn’t your conundrum or cares coming into this.

You’ve got lots on your mind. But probably not sparrow ethics. Instead it may feel like the prophet Jeremiah, that “terror is all around” and you’re crying “violence and destruction” all day long. You may be weary, with it not just on your mind, but burning inside your bones. It’s thick these days, with stuff like coronavirus and all that goes with it. And stuff like racism and police reform and Juneteenth. And protests and rallies and politics. And the economy. And speaking out for the vulnerable. And the Supreme Court and DREAMers and LGBTQ folks. And your family’s concerns. And how to navigate summer break and distancing. And various grievances and grieving. And some life or lives you want back. And the agenda for the rest of the day. And, and, and… It’s lots, lots on your mind, lots to deal with, lots to cry out and stumble through.

Oh, and it’s Fathers’ Day.

It may be great. Or it may be a hard Fathers’ Day without hugs, or with the general strain of relationships, and pressure to observe it rightly, to be as you should in families. To complexify what it is or isn’t already, we happen to have a reading where Jesus talks about setting father against child and child against father. As you’re trying to figure out how properly to be and act and what to do, you’re confronted with the contradictory question of whether Jesus wants it all undone anyway.

If you’re doing religion right, is the point to get in arguments and pick fights? Are you supposed to be scorned and miserable? Is Jesus’ metaphorical sword to hack away at your relationships, or to die impaled on it yourself at the end?

No. Again, you don’t need to hear these as instructions from Jesus, but simply indicators of what may happen.

Even taking up a cross isn’t sending you out as a martyr on a suicide mission. Crucifixion was a punishment that couldn’t be given to citizens, reserved for the poor and outcast. Jesus may simply be talking about privilege and—as he humbly did—associating with those who could be crucified, identifying with the marginalized. You do know that view and seriously try to practice it.

That may be further commended since none of Jesus’ followers got killed with him. Either that means they weren’t listening and were doing it totally wrong, or that it wasn’t actually only about getting yourself killed.

And it sometimes strikes me that getting killed is the easy way out. If you wanted to go clash with police as an act of solidarity, you could probably die before too long. If you wanted solidarity with those with coronavirus, you’d wind up needing to be taken care of. If you wanted to go on constantly about politics with others while disregarding their positions, that’s a fairly self-righteous and minimally helpful way to get victimized like Jeremiah.

I know you take your responsibility seriously.

But to go back to fathers and children, what if it’s not that Jesus is instructing you to blow up those relationships, but offering a word for when that does happen? For when you’re feeling the burning in your guts. For when things aren’t going well and you don’t seem to make a lick of difference. For when you know people are hurting and you feel responsible to help. When the weight of the world is on your shoulders, or even just the weight of your family, which is still plenty. What if it’s not that Jesus is recommending you start a fight, but acknowledging that even if there are fights you can’t fix, still there’s something more. If you can’t overturn the oppressive powers and instead they scorn you or metaphorically crucify you, maybe it’s okay.

And not okay because you can always try again. Not okay because you tried and gave it your all. Not to vindicate you for having been so right all along.

In the end, it’s not bigger than whether or not I decide to smash those sparrow eggs, whether they die or live. Or, it is exactly bigger. Not one of those nasty sparrows would fall apart from God’s notice or care.

There’s nothing you do apart from God, nothing where you fail your responsibility, nothing that happens. Nothing will separate you from God’s care. I know it’s a big deal. I know you take it seriously, deadly seriously, because it’s all a matter of life and death. The virus. Racism. Elections. How you use your voice. How to make it through each day. But if your family relationships are right: great. If they fall apart: still fine.

This is why it’s so vital to have the unconditional proclamation: you are inextricably bound to Christ. You don’t seek a cross and crucifixion; you’ve already been crucified with Christ. And since you’ve been buried with him, you certainly will walk in newness of life, raised with him. The death you died in him can’t be lost, and much more surely neither can it be undone that you are raised to new life. Your shortcomings aren’t excused; they’re killed. But you live!

That assurance of love and life may free you to take some risks, to be more bold, to do what needs to be done, to take your responsibilities seriously.

Or maybe it just frees you to live, to be confident that it’s okay, to hear those wildest words “do not be afraid,” and to live in grace, that it’s not finally up to you, because ultimately you are valued no matter what, and you will live.

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God in Relationship

sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday 2020

(Genesis1, 2Corinthians13:11-13, Matthew28:16-20)

 

Let’s start with describing relationships.

You might pursue relationships. Maybe you thought, I want to be married and have children, or had ambition to move up the career ladder or to make a difference. Other relationships are just a result, like that you worked hard and happened to wind up promoted. A relationship might even be enforced. For example, a court could mandate a toddler needs a parent or guardian to preserve the necessities of life.

Describing relationships could be like somebody trying to guess by peering through your window right now, or sorting through old mail in your recycling bin, which might include trying to make some extra pieces fit, like the mail I keep getting for Nadifa Mohammed. Is there a Nadifa in my household? What’s my relationship to her?

Other relationships are ignored. The Genesis reading places us back into a locus of relationships. With domestic animals and plants we eat, but also with the creepy crawlies and birds and those fearsome sea monsters again from last week. (Being in relationship doesn’t necessarily mean we want to be in relationship.) We shouldn’t have missed our relationship with the sun, since life depends on it. But we also can no longer overlook our relationship with the dome of the sky, as we alter its composition and character in climate change.

For this expanse of relationships, one thing is clear: we’re all in ‘em. The self-made man of American myth (and the myth is almost always masculine, which should tell us something)? It’s a lie. From birth on, none of us is truly independent. Even if you live alone or work alone or are on a deserted island.

Which calls to mind 400-year-old words of John Donne:

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every [one] is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

[the land] is the less…

Any [one’s] death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in [hu]mankind,

And therefore never send to know

for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

That also rings true with Martin Luther King’s sentiment in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

His words have potency echoed in our days, as he continues about protests nearly 60 years ago responding to policing that enforced racial disparity and white power, saying “You deplore the demonstrations that are taking place. But I am sorry you did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects, and does not grapple with underlying causes.” (in A Testament of Hope, p290)

Now, I’m grateful that our Madison mayor and many business owners have been able to see causes this past week and see that we should be doing something to change the effects. With others who are waking up, I’m personally grateful to understand more, that George Floyd’s death diminishes me. We’re not unaffected. The bell tolls for all of us.

But I’m not here for feeling self-congratulatory from my easy place. I really want to get on with talking about God, because in the end that’s also what matters for our relationships.

So, God is sometimes perceived for being before everything, existing apart from all else, as the single, solo, highest authority—the quite literal monarchy. And we think independence at the top means power and will to dominate. I’ll just say it: that’s a bad notion.

Next on relationships, this day for the Holy Trinity is often approached as if it’s prescriptive doctrine, that councils of bishops got together 1700 years ago to decide and declare what God was going to be. That presumes the Trinity is a human invention.

We’d do better to recognize our theology as the gradual piecing together of going through God’s recycling bin of old mail, trying to figure it out from scraps and fragments, with occasional stray bits mixed in that throw us off.

We don’t actually have to start our wondering about God with Genesis or the Big Bang. We begin with Jesus. We wonder what it is about God he’s trying to help us know, with the biggest question of what dying on the cross means. Jesus talks about his Father and says he’ll send the Holy Spirit. What do we do with that? Such detective work to figure how the pieces fit for God and where we fit in, this project carried on for a few centuries after Jesus, and of course continues still.

Today’s readings give a couple scraps and fragments prompting this puzzling, as Jesus tells us to baptize and teach “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” And Paul, who would never have read the Gospel of Matthew, somehow still arrived at a similar sense in the final words of his letter referring to our Lord Jesus Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit.

We might begin to reflect that God has relationship even with Godself, that there is some sort of divine dance happening.

It does also mean relationship with us. We receive, partly in that we were created, that God loved us into existence, wanted relationship with you, blessed you to be. We receive a role and a commission in creation. We stand in relationship not just to the human community and the rest of creation, but in relationship with God, with Jesus who promises to be with you always.

In these readings of relationship with the Trinity, the core isn’t control or domination. Even when Jesus speaks of obedience and authority, it’s not how we typically use that as oppressive or dictatorial. Our relating with God and each other is “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit,” a foundational phrase, the greeting that sets out how we gather each week. Marily Crews noticed this week we can boil it down to grace, love, and communion. Relationship.

I really like that observation, which for me takes some unpacking. Grace is connected to the word “gift,” and we’ve already observed that we receive in this relationship from God. Jesus gives to us, gives himself. We could probably understand love as where giving and receiving come together. And communion, like our word “communal,” means sharing. Having received from Jesus, we also share. So Paul commends his congregation and commends us in receiving, loving, sharing.

Because it’s who God is, Paul expected the church to live with receiving, loving, sharing. We aren’t based on old relationships like master and slave (or boss and employee), man and woman, cultural insider vs. outsider, citizen vs. not, rich and poor, skilled and incompetent, able-bodied and unsuccessful, or any gradation that ranks relationship. We are reciprocal in love, receiving and sharing, joining the divine dance.

We know at good moments that that’s what happens at church. We can feel that grace, love, and communion embodied around us. It’s also hard, then, to be separated from each other, since we lose some of the ultimate godly goodness of these church relationships.

Even though we’re still learning this in the church, it’s amazing that we have managed to set these expectations for those outside the church, too. Maybe it means we’re conveying Jesus’ teaching to all peoples, as he commissioned us. We believe every voice should matter and every vote count. We want society to care for the sick and protect the vulnerable. We believe that children are beautiful and vital. We sometimes have trailed in understanding the value and validity of LGBTQ persons, but we’ve got really good grounding for seeing the image of God in those relationships, too.

And we expect that racial distinctions shouldn’t leave anybody out, much less inflict harm. Even as we’re still needing practice as church, we have these expectations for society. We believe the whole world should operate with receiving, loving, sharing. Power shouldn’t get its way in preserving privilege, as if that could even work.

We are not islands. We are woven into a single garment of mutuality. Sometimes we can stop the bell from tolling. And that shouldn’t need to be enforced. We want to recognize and delight in these relationships, just as God does. Because we trust God is so good, so kind, so unstoppably compassionate and inclusive, we go on receiving, loving, sharing.

Yesterday in my inbox I got the poem from President Obama’s first inauguration. Here are a few good lines to conclude, and to continue creation and relation:

Each day we go about our business,

I know there’s something better down the road.

We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Praise song for struggle,

praise song for the day.

What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

love that casts a widening pool of light,

love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

[Today] any thing can be made,

any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.*

 

* https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52141/praise-song-for-the-day

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Jesus Calling

a sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

 

At Bible study on Wednesday, the group noticed there are lots of dreams in Matthew. As if joining the party, I had a dream about today’s passage, which must have been lots on my subconscious.

I dreamed I parked by one of the Madison lakes and pulled a fishing pole out of the car. It’s not totally unusual that I’d have a fishing pole along. Somehow I ended up with a big spinner bait just sitting in the edge of the water and I hooked a nice little 12” bass (well, kind of a bass, though more silver in the dream).

If you fish, you know that sometimes a fish goes for the bait, then turns away from it but still gets hooked. This dream fish got hooked behind its gills. As I was going to remove it, the fish had turned into a person, with a great big hook stuck in their arm, so then I had to get the hook out of a human arm.

Though my dream envisioned it, that is not what Jesus meant when he talked about fishing for people. So if we’re trying to catch his meaning, we should probably throw out the line again.

I have to say, I was a bit grumpy at this reading at first. I’ve been telling you the past couple weeks that the season of Epiphany is about Jesus being made known to us, showing forth who God is, revealing the true God for us.

Picture1Well, as I first read this, it didn’t seem like it was revealing all that much about Jesus. Maybe the stuff from the prophet Isaiah, for Jesus living out in a rural crossroads of Galilee, pointing out that God could be found away from the centers of power, in unexpected places. But that’s not a very thrilling insight.

Further, the sense of calling seemed to be more about you than Jesus. I don’t think sermons should be all about you. I like sermons to be about Jesus. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a distinction. Sermons are both. But they should mainly be what Jesus is for you, what he’s doing for you, how God is loving you and giving you life and forgiving you and sustaining you and such. If it’s mainly a perspective of “here’s what you need to do” and maybe only includes Jesus “because he said so,” that’s not a sermon. It’s a lesson. It’s an instruction. If it’s said energetically it might be a pep talk. But if Jesus is mainly revealed as somebody who wants you to do things, that’s not very good, and he’s no savior, and you don’t need that news because you already have too much you think you should be doing or ways you should be different or whatever.

So if we’re not looking in this reading for what you need to do if you’re called by Jesus, not for an assignment you might not be living up to, and if this sense of fishing for people isn’t leading toward first aid in how to remove large fishing hooks from various body parts, then we return to the question: what does this say about Jesus?

As I was looking for what calling these disciples would show about Jesus, and therefore about God, it led me to think about who fishermen were in 1st Century Palestine, out in that rural crossroads around Galilee Lake.

Our perspective is skewed by living in Wisconsin, where fishing is boats finding quiet bays to spend some leisure outdoors time (or maybe solitary guys on ice). We might get a little closer if we think about fishermen as rough around the edges, smelling like worms, with slimy fish guts, people who maybe cuss in the boat, saturated in a couple beers.

Those Galilee fishermen weren’t out for the weekend getaway of recreation in nature. They weren’t trying to pull up a mess of perch for a Friday fish fry. On a list of occupations ranked socially in the Roman empire, fishermen ranked last. They were captive to the economic monopoly, as all fish were claimed under ownership of the empire.

So these fishermen couldn’t just catch some walleye to grill that evening. Rather, at least 40% of their catch was paid in taxes simply for the opportunity to try to catch fish (making it a really expensive fishing license). Most of the rest of the catch went to market, set to exploit the local fishers, often sold as processed salted pickled fish paste (sounds tasty, right?) to be shipped down that “road by the sea” that’s mentioned in our reading, making it maybe as far as Rome, far away from the hungry bellies that caught the fish in the first place.

It left the peasant fishermen and their families and village perhaps with the dregs of fish paste barrels, themselves as the remnant and dregs of their culture, eking out existence.

It’s this kind of person Jesus calls. Jesus wants to hang out with the peasants. The exploited. The struggling-to-get-by. Those far from power. The ones who have to work night and day just to survive because they’re so oppressed by the economy. This does tell us something about Jesus and about God.

More, the metaphor of fishing in the Bible can be about pulling something out from hidden places and bringing it into view, which was used about judgment and calls to justice. These folks fishing for people could be saying that God’s judgment will be in the peasants pulling the wealthy aristocracy, the comfortable oppressors, the full-bellied self-satisfied upper crust out to face justice, to reckon with God.

Setting aside the summer bass boats or those out this weekend with ice augurs and tip-ups, instead thinking about the God who in Jesus calls 1st Century fishermen, we might move it forward with a few examples.

One thought I had this week was while our Confirmation class was shopping for the Lussier food pantry. It’s good that we want to share, that we want to offer food to hungry bellies, that we teach that practice. But it is definitely odd and a change from Jesus’ time that we would think of church as the ones donating to the food pantry more than needing to use the food pantry, the poor people, working minimum wage jobs night and day maybe even serving us our food but still not able themselves to have enough. It’s not an exact parallel, but we should consider it for where Jesus is and what that means.

For observing Reconciling in Christ Sunday, I have also been thinking that the church has too often and still too much gotten this exactly wrong for LGBTQ folks. When society has been wronging and oppressing queer people, the church has jumped on the oppressive bandwagon. But Jesus is in the same boat with those exploited and struggling, so the church could have seen Jesus calling LGBTQ fishermen who, with the biblical metaphor, would then be pulling others out to be judged for exclusions and injustices and ignoring God’s blessing.

Again, for this gathering, there may be a typical sense that I as a pastor have answered God’s calling and am fishing for people. But then we get to the annual meeting and the proposed budget for 2020, and I admit that my salary and benefits are the single largest piece of MCC finances. While emphasizing that pastors are not overly-compensated either for the amount of education or for the amount of hours we put in, still my wages and place in life probably don’t make me exactly the category of the fishermen of Jesus who were eking out existence.

And yet, for being called by Jesus and being invited into the circle of those with whom God identifies, I also want to note this isn’t limited to one socioeconomic caste or to geographic displacement or to having earned enough bruises from unmerited suffering. If Jesus is calling out to those who are struggling to get by in life, it means he is identifying with and associating with you against all that would diminish and stifle your life, those forces that make you feel trapped and confined, that cause worry or even fear, that serve to enslave you and make you feel you can never live up to the standards.

As he called to fishermen in their workplaces beside the lake, he calls to you in daily life, in all the stresses and frustrations. He goes on to “proclaim the good news and cure every disease and sickness.” Jesus is out to stop what is bad. It is for those moments and in those reasons that God in Jesus comes to our world and wants to be known in your life, to pull out those hidden struggles to be judged by God as wrong, to set it right, to give you life. It is for this reason that he calls out your name.

 

Hymn: “You Have Come Down To the Lakeshore” (ELW 817)

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Re-Reformation 2019

 

a sermon (sort of) on Jeremiah31:31-34; Psalm46; Romans3:19-28; John8:31-36

 

These are risky readings, warping our view of Reformation Sunday.

The risk arises since, even at the ripe old age of nearly 536 years old, still Martin Luther is a raucous hilarious mic-dropping butt-kicking no-holds-barred headline-grabbing cultural-innovating brainiac wise-cracking ninja kung fu dynamo rockstar superhero…at least according to the psycho diehard metal head over-the-top Lutherans. Which may taint our view just a wee smidge.

With that, these readings, always assigned as lectionary readings for Reformation Sunday, don’t function like Bible readings normally would on a Sunday. They’re not here to speak for themselves, but are intended to point us back to Luther, back to 1517 and the years following, to the disputes of that time and the core theological argument.

…Still, I want to pause and note that it’s not the theological core of a few Reformers. I would reiterate and reinforce that, if anything, it’s recovering the biblical core, the center of the God we know in Jesus, the heart of this good news faith, the kernel of who we are in relation to God. This isn’t a Martin Luther deal. It’s not a Lutheran identity. It’s not just Protestants. This is Christian, but also proclaimed in our Old Testament, the Jewish scriptures.

One way I like to make this distinction is when I’m asked if the ELCA is the liberal or the conservative kind of Lutheran, compared to Missouri and Wisconsin Synods, I get a kick out of answering that we’re the conservative ones, because nothing will interfere with our total insistence that God loves you. We recognize this as the beating heart of our faith. The word “evangelical” in E.L.C.A. comes from the word for good news, and we strive foremost to maintain that good news. The indispensable component is absolutely grounded in and flowing from God’s love for us. That’s our core. That’s what matters.

So if absolutely anything gets in the way of that, those interruptions and interventions displace the vital central message. As soon as it becomes an implication that God loves you…except. Except if you’re divorced, except for your financial status, except you’re not very nice, except you’re not trying hard enough, except you’re not really repentant, except if life’s not going well, except if your faith isn’t very certain, except if you fit (or don’t fit) into society this way or that way or any way, except you’re, well…you. As soon as any exception starts to creep in, giving you lessons and telling you you need to be different somehow, and it infringes on the core message of God’s love for you, then we’ve lost our center. It makes you or culture or your worries or sin more powerful, more important than God.

So the ELCA—certainly not always, never exclusively, but with strong focus and intention—the ELCA conserves this message of God’s assessment of you in love as the primary declaration. We keep it when many others allow the good news to be overshadowed. At least on our good days, we recognize as most ultimate God’s passionate work for you. We don’t have a corner on that market. But it does mean other things shouldn’t become more imperative, like our sense of self or our pet projects or institutional preservation or social justice passions or views of the Other or past or plans or whatever. God loves you, beginning and end of story. Thesis statement. Main point. Anything else is a footnote.

For all those things that can mess it up, it’s ironic that it ends up being the focus on our history that’s problematic for us today, when we look to Luther and want to hold his superhero tradition so central, as if he’s an essential, banner aspect. Oops!

Back to the point about these Bible readings: they are intended to highlight the theological theme that Luther so clearly lifted up. But whereas we can find that theme reverberating under every Bible passage, these today are chosen not really to keep us centered in the message, but to remind us of Luther keeping us centered in the message.

So we have Psalm 46, which we sang just to remove any vague pretense; this Psalm was assigned for today because Luther’s paraphrase of it became a popular hymn. Sure, it’s a great Psalm, proclaiming that even when society is shaking and natural disasters storming, still we are held by God, “a refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Hopefully you got some of that as we sang. But maybe you mostly thought of Martin Luther.

The other readings do it, too. The end of the Romans reading is there as the direct language for the 16th Century framing of this. When the Evangelical Protesters were threatened with excommunication and possible death and had to give an accounting of their beliefs, this verse summarized the core, the doctrine on which the church stands or falls: justification by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

Of course, that’s awful church-speak and not very illuminating to hear. Even if it is our alleged core, “justification” isn’t a helpful term. In our re-translation, it came across as “correct,” that there’s nothing you can finally say is wrong with your life, since you’ve been set right or deemed correct with God. Whatever was wrong has been corrected, and this flows into your other relationships.

That perspective is also the point of the Jeremiah reading, that what sets us right and renews our relationships isn’t the law, isn’t finger-wagging of shouds and oughts, isn’t that you’re so brow-beaten into doing exactly what you’re supposed to and threatened with punishment if not. It’s not that you’ve finally learned your lesson and try hard enough to love your neighbor. It’s simply that God won’t give up, won’t let you fall away, and God’s love flowing into you flows also out from you. You’ve got a new heart, brought about and effected by God having an awful memory when it comes to sin, even though God excels at remembering the promises for you.

But this reading about right relationships gets corrupted and corroded into antagonisms, with a disparaging view claiming that the old covenant was Catholicism versus the Reformers’ new faith. Still worse is to claim that Christianity is the new covenant, superseding Judaism. We keep falling into the old traps, in service of what we should be rallying against.

The language of Jesus, then, is that you’ve been freed. Trying to climb out of sin is like trying to climb out of your skin. There’s no way you can wriggle or squirm or run fast enough to do get away. In fact, trying just sinks you further in. But you’re no longer enslaved. You’re freed. Not having to earn your keep, but given the gift of inheritance, life, freedom from God.

So they’re all great Bible readings that lead to some very central stuff for us. But the pointer gets skewed because we end up using them to point to Martin Luther, point back five centuries.

That’s not okay if today becomes a history lesson, a rearview mirror, a self-congratulatory party, a retrospective, if the story stops at Luther.

But it can be okay, or better than okay, when it helps reinforce and resonate the core message of what God does for you, when you thank Luther on the way past, then continue to Jesus. It can be great when it gives you new life, when you are inspired and invigorated and ready to live. When you are comforted in knowing you are eternally loved. When security isn’t built on being the in-group but rests in Jesus.

See, this is still a word for today. Another of the ideas handed down to us is semper reformanda—always reforming. Reformation Sunday is because Jesus is still working on us, because this central message needs to be spoken and lived into our own time and place, into our lives, into every day and each moment.

So four quick examples of how we’re still and always reforming:cassock.jpg

  1. I’m reading a book recommended by Sarah Key called Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. (That’s us, folks.) Pastor Lenny Duncan talks about having a prison record but coming into a Lutheran congregation and being told he was welcome at the communion table, no strings attached. That’s grace, and it changed him. But he also says if that’s really the message, we’ve horribly excluded and put down African Americans, and for the sake of the message we need to fix it. He points out that too long has “white is holy and black equals sin” (67). It’s at his suggestion that I’m wearing this black cassock today, among the ways God’s working and this church is still and always reforming.
  2. This afternoon, the synod Reconciling in Christ team is celebrating 10 years of the ELCA vote to be more inclusive to LGBTQ people. It was a step, but we need more. Still there’s way, way, way too much from the church that makes people not feel okay, feel at risk, feel incorrect because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. God loves you and that’s what makes you correct, so we need to figure out how everybody gets to hear that message. We’re still and always reforming.
  3. 500 years ago, some of the focus straightened out our relationship with God. Now we’re straightening out our relationship with all the other creatures, not thinking humans are the only important ones or that only we are loved by God. We practice this at the MCC, sometimes referred to as an Eco-Reformation. With our Earthkeeping liturgy today, we have some reminder of the spread of this work, which invites us to be still and always reforming.
  4. God loves You. You’re the last example. I don’t know how you need that message today, what difference it makes, what other insidious demonic voices it might shut down that have called you wrong, how this good news might well up inside of you, what it will do with your heart and what exactly is the new life you’ll live. But that assurance is your core: you’re always being made new, always given a fresh start, set free as a beloved child of God, still and always reforming.
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sermon for Pride Sunday

on Psalm 82pride

I’m glad that this Psalm happened to show up today.

Let me set the stage for that:

A lectionary is a set of readings. This Psalm appointed for this day is listed in a set of readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s a three-year cycle with some origin in the ecumenical movement of the 1960’s, eventually giving rise to this version in 1994. It is used in lots of mainline Protestant churches, like some Lutheran and UCC, plus Episcopalian and Presbyterian, a few United Methodists and more. It’s also fairly close to the Catholic lectionary. So lots of us might be hearing a specific Bible reading on a certain day.

As we are amid a Psummer of Psalms, and as we prepared to celebrate Pride Sunday as the MCC, I was eager to discover what the Revised Common Lectionary had assigned for today. Would the passage fit? Would it be able to relate in any way? After all, if we randomly open the Bible and point at a page, we’re likely to end up without much spiritual insight. It could be an instruction about an ox or a verse about Egyptians or telling of destruction. Or lots of general praise for God’s goodness. So what would make us expect a coincidence of some Psalm having something to say on Pride Sunday?

This question is important because the most frequent way the church has looked for the Bible to say something about or to people who are LGBTQ has been to go through this big mixed book and pick out seven little verses that probably aren’t even talking about the same thing we are and then to begin issuing condemnations. We could just as well find lots in the Gospels where Jesus is close friends with other men, he even kisses them, and refers to Lazarus as the one whom he loved. We might as well claim gay Jesus as definitive instead of the condemnation passages. It would have at least as much to say to our current context. And there’s plenty where Jesus redefines gender roles and stereotypes and sees that divide as more fluid than fixed, and we could say he was an early proponent sympathetic to transgender issues.

Partly, then, a lectionary restricts me from picking and choosing to reinforce my view, skewing a message from God. Given today’s random Psalm, not chosen particularly for Pride Sunday, not cherry-picked as pro or con, it’s an interesting opportunity to ask what a broader overall biblical message might be.

With that question in mind, I was surprised and delighted that Psalm 82 really does seem to speak to today. To start, this Psalm declares God as a God of justice. That’s the criterion, and failing to do justice is judged as ungodly, as not-right. God doesn’t want us on the side of evil, and the good side is declared by God as being “fair to the poor and to orphans,” working to establish life for “the helpless and everyone in need” and offering deliverance to “the weak and homeless.”

For an easy point of contrast, the acting director of the federal department of Citizenship and Immigration Services rather notoriously decreed this week that the poem on the Statue of Liberty needed an adjustment, that it should say “Give me your tired, your poor…who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”

But God’s voice in the Psalm will not make such distinctions. It doesn’t tell to rescue the weak and homeless, orphaned unaccompanied minor as long as they have proper documentation and can prove their asylum case and jump through legal loopholes. It doesn’t say to help the helpless as long as they look like you and talk like you and share your religion. It restricts no timespan on assistance. It doesn’t ask one in need to prove their worth; it’s a given.

Our current national wrongdoing and injustice becomes still more apparent, since the last verse of the Psalm is directed as God’s judgment on the nations. God has explicitly judged that as misbehavior, as miscarriage of responsibility: those with authority have not done what they were called to do.

Another note on authority in this Psalm: Following much of the ancient world, this Psalm talks about a divine council, or literally a congregation of heavenly beings. As we think “waitasecond! the Bible is monotheistic!” other gods showing up probably throws us off. Some interpreters say these heavenly beings are more like angels. Others see it with a common early belief that each nation had a god. In this Psalm, the God of Hebrews stands at the center of their gathering with the most moral authority, pointing out that others had failed in their duty.

If you don’t like to picture our God like Zeus with a Greek pantheon, aren’t sure about a heavenly courtroom, and don’t like this notion of other gods or whatever, still you can picture any unseen forces that are beyond our control, ruling over us. There’s often something invisible to wondering where wickedness comes from.

And it’s always helpful to remember that a god is wherever we most put our trust. We continue to have other gods exerting their authority in our lives because we give allegiance to money or to laws, to national identity or in-groups, to popular culture and healthiness and to our own selves, claiming our own abilities and desires as the highest authority.

But in any of those cases, when it has called astray from defending the poor and assisting the vulnerable and working to establish a system that is on their side, when we fall captive to self-interests or to dominant ideologies, when the powerful get their way while the hurting are abandoned, this Psalm declares God’s strong judgment against it, warning that the very foundations of the earth are at risk and God’s intention for creation is threatened with collapse. But God declares judgment that those false gods will fall. Whatever immortality they had, whatever seemed to be godlike power will die. In one of the terms of our time, God essentially says there’s no such thing as “too big to fail.” This is a strong call to justice.

With that, I want to return to the emphasis that this Psalm was assigned for this calendar date. Not quite the randomness of flipping to any page, but this is what the Bible happens to be saying to us today, the voice of God being spoken, and asking to be applied into our lives, our context, including for Pride Sunday.

I would also pause to highlight that this is a more primary voice of scripture and of God than if we went on the hunt for seven little snippets reinforcing someone’s homophobia. To imagine that that perspective speaks for God or is what the Bible has to say in relation to LGBTQ lives is a gross warping of this more prevalent message that calls for justice and says God sides with the oppressed and vulnerable.

To be clear, that is part of why as a congregation we join our voices to God’s voice on this Sunday. It’s why I—as a straight, white, American-born, cisgender male—offer my presence, knowing still much too often, people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer in whatever way are threatened in our nation, facing injustices of losing jobs and housing, maybe risk life itself, living with unequal treatment, unfair opportunity, unkind interactions, and unjust pressures. If we follow our God, if we recognize God as the central moral authority and the judge, who created and holds the fate of the world, then we are called to stand on the side of justice, against persecutions, and together with these siblings, to be part of the work of “delivering them from the powerful hands of heartless people.” That is the life our God intends for all of us to be living together. Anything less won’t suffice. We’re clearly not there yet. There’s work to do.

But there’s another part of this Pride Sunday that doesn’t directly fit into the Psalm, that I want to keep inviting us into. That is celebration. The Hebrews reading reminds us we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, that many of our ancestors in this faithful journey continue to encourage us, to lead us to persevere, as we follow Jesus the pioneer. In this long view, we’ll get there together. They aren’t left out, and neither will we be. We’ve come this far by faith, and our weary feet will come to the place for which our parents sighed (ELW 841).

And so we, with good reason both in looking back and looking forward today, gather in celebration. This year is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, which makes it also the 49th anniversary of the first pride events. In faithful memorial, we might mark as martyrs for the cause, sacrificing saints who gave us steps forward to guide us on in progress.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the MCC. And we celebrate that for half of that existence, our congregations have been officially welcoming, striving for justice, witnessing to the world, celebrating that the image of God is equally and uniquely in each of us, that none of us is removed from God’s blessing, God’s effort for life. Since 1995, we have been continuing to practice more and more how we can be authentically the people God created us to be and is calling us to be. In 1995 there were only five open and affirming UCC congregations in the state. In 1995, Advent preceded any other congregations in this synod by a decade in becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. We have been and continue to be witnesses to God’s goodness, in our lives and for the sake of the world. This is to be celebrated, and we can be proud. We join in living with pride.

 

Psalm 82               Contemporary English Version

When all of the other gods have come together,
the Lord God judges them and says:
“How long will you keep judging unfairly and defending evil people?
Be fair to the poor and to orphans.
Make it right for the helpless and everyone in need.
Rescue the weak and homeless,
deliver them from the powerful hands of heartless people.
“None of you know or understand a thing.
You live in darkness, while the foundations of the earth tremble.
I, the Most High God, say that all of you are gods
and also my own children, all of you.
But you will die, just like mortals, including powerful rulers.”
Do something, God! Judge the nations of the earth; they belong to you.

 

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This Sermon is PG-13 (Hopefully Not R)

sermon on Acts 8:26-39

This old story is curiously current.

That it can seem an archaic artifact, admittedly still doesn’t prevent me from squirming, and I’ll begin apologizing now if it is uncomfortable for you addressing a guy whose private parts have been chopped off. It precedes next week’s reading that also involves a question of what proper genitals are. Today the issue of circumcision is moot, though, for this person who’d been castrated. That severing may have served as part of an official role, to make this person be or become less disposed (to say the least) to put an heir on the throne or steal to support a family or to disrupt the harem, less likely even to be able to fit into society, and so maybe reliably loyal and dependent on a place in the palace.

Besides that unfashionable uncontemporary form of ensuring servitude, many other details in this story seem old. We don’t much think of palace rooms filled with gold, counted by court officials (though maybe we do picture security guards and vaults?). This week we were confronted with a queen and behaviors around royalty; still, unfortunately, we might not be prone to picture Ethiopia or anyplace in Africa as having celebrated queens.

Even the detail of the chariot probably places this in some fairy tale olden time. Much less that the occupant of that chariot was passing the travel time by reading scripture. Thank goodness we’ve got phones and playlists and podcasts and Minecraft now, so we don’t have to “waste” our time on trips by reading the Bible!

Yet this old story is also plenty present, curiously current. In the end, there’s the stunning line, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”

This exciting moment in the book of Acts is a new beginning in the sweep of the Christian story because it meant the good news was spreading, salvation from Jesus was reaching to all nations. Back in chapter 1, Jesus told the apostles they would share the good news in Jerusalem, to the surrounding area, and on to the ends of the earth. Well, at that time Ethiopia was what they knew as the end of the earth.

For more breaking boundaries, in this book called “the Acts of the Apostles,” Philip, the one conveying God’s blessing, was not technically an apostle, not chosen as an evangelist or a pastor or a preacher, but merely selected as a waiter on soup kitchen detail. Yet here he was suddenly driven by the Holy Spirit to spread the preaching and the splashing of baptism farther than it had ever gone. It wasn’t in his job description, but that silly, surprising Holy Spirit was ignoring the people’s presumptuous rules.

A couple chapters later the central apostle Peter will baptize a Roman centurion, meaning that the Holy Spirit had clearly chosen to include a non-Jew into this saving movement of Jesus. Though this story today stretches to the ends of the earth, it might seem like some in-crowd. We notice that this Ethiopian eunuch was familiar with Jewish practice and with the Bible.

But to be sure we’re hearing why that was still hugely shocking, we can’t say that the eunuch was actually Jewish, because the scriptures kept this sort of person at least at arm’s length. Having been in Jerusalem, the eunuch still certainly would not have been permitted to pray in the temple while there.

Again, apologies if this causes uncomfortable conversation on your family chariot rides home, but here’s an exemplary verse from Torah, the teachings of Moses, the definitional law for Jewish religion. Ready? “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD” (Deut.23:1). I don’t share that just for impropriety so we’re all uncomfortable, but because that verse highlights what is going on in today’s reading.

Now, I don’t know if the chariot had a “eunuch on board” bumpersticker or something, but the story tells all the private details. So when the eunuch asked, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” the only response is: you are clearly… definitely…. legally… unquestionably restricted, in fact strictly forbidden from being included in the assembly of the LORD. That’s the right answer. For the Bible tells me so. You are prevented. Period. You’re out.

And yet Philip—not an apostle, not a pastor, not one who was supposed to preach, much less be baptizing—is nevertheless compelled by the Holy Spirit to go on with the baptism. What’s to prevent you? What in the holy name of God Almighty? What for Christ’s sake could get in the way of your baptism? Boundaries? The rules? The Bible itself? Aw, let’s do it! Incorporating one from the ends of the earth into the community of Christ. Breaking down what clearly classified an outsider.

Wow. This is amazingly good stuff, so let’s be clear we’re recognizing it for a second with an Alleluia! Christ is risen! (It’s the clearest boundary-breaking good news message, which is why I like saying it so much.)

That was shocking stuff then, but we’d better not hear it as an old, old story, but still curiously current here and now.

For simple starters, the Ethiopian was black. That’s also part of the point. We admit we shouldn’t picture Jesus as white. Jesus wasn’t some blondish-haired blue-eyed northern European-looking dude, am I right? We have to acknowledge that when God chose to become incarnate, to be born into our world and appear in our lives and our skin, God chose brown Palestinian, Arabic skin and eyes and hair.

But the story still has what we would identify as a racial divide. This is a black-skinned person, very intentionally included into the church. The Holy Spirit isn’t into identifying skin colors as barriers to blessing.

That racial inclusion is plenty difficult for us to live into, but maybe what sounds even more extraordinary is that this is a story about a person of ambiguous gender incorporated into the church, directly claimed and received by the Holy Spirit herself. This Ethiopian eunuch is without that body part that would most clearly identify a man, but is also not a woman. It breaks apart the gender binary.

Again that’s curiously current, as our society is struggling unfortunately even on whether, but also with good intentions on how to incorporate people who have nontraditional gender identities or expressions. Here at the MCC, we’re trying to figure out what to do with pronouns on our nametags and how to restructure our bathrooms. We keep trying to live into it, but there’s no question that the Holy Spirit will bring us into the body of Christ no matter our body type and will extend salvation beyond—and as more important than—our old stale categories.

God is intent on chasing down these lost sheep, especially when religious people have been the ones who scattered them and refused to flock together. Our story is that this is who God is. Already three chapters after that passage the eunuch was reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed the word of the Lord saying, “To the eunuchs I will give an everlasting name that shall not be cut off, and foreigners I will make joyful in my house of prayer for all peoples” (from Isaiah 56:4-7). This promise of God is especially made known in Jesus, who joined the lost and injured sheep to extend salvation to all. This God’s story continues as the Spirit sent Philip scampering after a chariot in the middle of the desert midday sun to catch a eunuch. And this story of a God in Jesus chasing along remains curiously current.

In the terms of this story, you may be a Philip, an unappointed apostle, finding yourself in unusual settings and circumstances, proclaiming good news. Playing catch-up to the God who breaks down barriers, you may get a part in extending an unexpected word of grace.

Or you may identify more with the eunuch, one who didn’t expect to be incorporated, whose corporeal reality, whose very body and life kept you excluded, or who was on the outs for some nonsensical reason. You may have some inner yearning to understand this God and be surprised that God yearns for you, too.

Or you may be, admittedly, a combination. Our faith is shaped and guided along not just by insiders, not even just by unofficial insiders like Philip. Some of us who have been the insiders are being taught about Jesus and salvation and what it means to share in the body of Christ by those who had been on the outside, had been excluded, by people we were even told were wrong, weren’t allowed, who surprise even us as embodiments of grace. We can give thanks we are taught God’s love in a richer way by companions who identify as LGBTQ+, by people of a different skin color, by people whose bodies are different, differently abled, or disabled, by people from elsewhere on the planet, by those who aren’t as studied or learned as us, even by situations that may give us discomfort.

With this kind of God, there are always surprises, even about being in it all together, finding a place for everyone. What will prevent it? Nothing. Not even death itself. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

 

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sermon for Pride Sunday

on Psalm139:1,13-18; Luke10:25-37

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It strikes me that this story—even more than most—prompts us to locate ourselves, to see our place amid the it and which character we feel like.

We take the point that we should strive to be the Good Samaritan and so reflect on experiences saying, “Yeah, I did pretty well. I stopped and was helpful in such-and-such situations.” Or we may disappointedly recollect when we passed by and didn’t help, seeing ourselves more like the deficient religious officials.

As we gather here for Pride Sunday, we may be prepared to assign the role of the beaten-up, hurting, injured person to the community of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersexual, and identifying in other ways as queer. We may think this parable sets out a fairly simple process, then, of reflecting on the degree to which we can count ourselves as allies vs. where we’ve been slow to relieve oppression and injustice, when we should’ve done more.

I won’t say that that’s a bad question, but I think it also oversimplifies this amazing story from Jesus. If we boil it all down to a message of “I should help more,” it isn’t very alive as a story, it doesn’t breathe much, doesn’t call to us. Continually looking for how we can be self-justifying experts (like the man who questioned Jesus) or wanting to be the hero ends up eclipsing other meanings. (I had to get “eclipse” in here somehow.)

So another way to read parables from Jesus is to ask where he is or God is in that narrative. For example, when a story includes a rich landowner, we have often presumed that was a stand-in for God. In this one? Would we presume that Jesus himself could be the Good Samaritan?

Well, one of my favorite authors, Robert Capon—a favorite for tweaking our understanding to have to reconsider the story afresh—says: “The defining character—the one to whom the other three respond by being non-neighbor or neighbor—is the [one] who fell among thieves. The actual Christ-figure in the story, therefore, is yet another loser, yet another down-and-outer who, by just lying there in his lostness and proximity to death…is in fact the closest thing to Jesus in the parable.” Have you heard it that way before? Capon insists that this means our usual title for the parable is “egregiously misnamed” and continues “that Good Samaritan Hospitals have been likewise misnamed. It is the suffering, dying patients in such institutions who look most like Jesus…, not the doctors with their authoritarian stethoscopes around their necks. [And] it would have been much less misleading to have named them Man-Who-Fell-Among-Thieves Hospitals.”* Maybe you can sense why I like Robert Capon’s playful challenges and reconsiderations. For a Jesus of compassion who is identified with the cross, a man of suffering and acquainted with sorrow, he almost must be seen as the victim in this parable.

But with that degree of probing, we also need to ask again who the Samaritan character is. While generally we church professionals like to complain about biblical literacy and grouse how little “people nowadays” know of the Bible, in this case it might be the opposite: It’s a bit unfortunate that this is such a familiar story, since “Good Samaritan” has merely become synonymous with “do-gooder.” Yet the point in Jesus telling this is that the Samaritan should’ve been the least likely person to help. As opposed to our era of too much sexual abuse where clergy are immediately suspect, for the original hearers, it would’ve been presumed that the religious officials were the good guys. In the updated version, they would be cast as more like a firefighter and a nurse.

In that way, I remember hearing a version of this parable maybe a decade ago (though I couldn’t find it again now) that had a Robert Capon-esque twist. The Samaritan unlikely to stop to help in that version was portrayed as a rich businessperson in the back of a big black limousine, behind dark sunglasses. What really made me go searching for it this week was more specifically that that loaded limo-rider had been pictured as none other than Donald Trump. Again, this was before Trump as president and so much of what we know now. But in the last week, when he hasn’t done well even to speak kind words for the hurting, it may be even more shocking and unimaginable that Donald Trump could be bothered to aid the victim.

Yet that’s a representation of what Jesus’ story is depicting! The least likely one. The one you were sure would’ve wanted nothing to do with you. The one who, from any of our prejudices or presumptions or preconceptions, certainly would’ve passed right on by. But he stopped, inconvenienced himself, set his own interests and ambitions and profitability aside: he cared.

In still starker terms, the Bible conversation at Capital Brewery on Tuesday suggested a parallel that it’s as if an African American were injured in Charlottesville, and the person who came to help were wearing a swastika. The instant response to that offer of aid wouldn’t be gratitude but would be “get away from me.”

So, beginning to come back around with different conceptions in trying to recast this story to fit with Pride Sunday, we might have to say that the LGBTQ+ person is not the one injured. Instead most of us in the broader straight community might have to recognize ourselves as needing assistance, needing help, with the surprising (but I hope not offensive) shock that the gay or lesbian or otherly-gendered person is the one to offer aid. Extra surprising, because not only are we injured, lacking in goodness and righteousness, we are also the robbers who have caused the damage in the first place.

See, as we keep turning this story around, I believe today it’s not the most helpful so quickly to presume the LGBTQ+ community is the victim needing us straight folk to work up our do-gooder muster and come to the rescue. Instead maybe we should see the injury that we’ve caused, but also that we are in need of healing. Even though it should go without saying at this point, we’ll reiterate anyway: a non-conforming gender identity or non-heterosexual orientation is not the problem. That is not what needs healing or fixing or redemption. Instead, the queer community in our country, in this congregation, in many relationships has for so long born the load in giving with patient endurance and tireless persistence to bring the rest of us along as they offer us the vision that justice is worth struggling for, to redeem us from hatred, to help us value—each of us—our God-given identity, to help us see that our inherent worth isn’t because we match some societal standard but comes always and simply as a gift and blessing from God who knew us and held us from the time we were formed in the womb.

With that, I want to call your attention to one last parallel in the story. Just as we ask which character we are, let’s ask where the story itself is now, where we are on the road. Martin Luther King cleverly used to talk about the “Jericho Road Improvement Association” and said that acting as good Samaritans is only an initial act but “One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that [people] will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”**

On this Pride Sunday we pause to lament that it is not safe passage still for too many people—not safe passage into bathrooms or locker rooms, into public places and places of employment, recruiters’ offices and doctors’ offices, courtrooms and nightclubs, in encountering the words of the president and the words of family. And obviously way too many churches are the Jericho Road when for every possible reason they should have been sanctuaries, places of safety, refuge, support, good news, and love. That is what God intends and people need, but we have robbed that.

The actual Jericho road in Palestine is still a scary and intense place. Now closed off by a so-called security fence that’s also known as the apartheid wall, this ancient highway descends from Jerusalem up in the mountains, winding down to the lowest place on the face of the planet, 800 feet below sea level. From the air conditioned comfort of our bus, the travel group last fall experienced the modern version of this steep and rocky road, twisting sharply through sparse desert, bleak with parching heat. It was not easy to travel, this forlorn, precipitous, treacherous route.

Today, in our humid August weather, we also have the opportunity to travel figuratively what has been a dangerous road. We as a congregation march in the Madison Pride Parade maybe not to show how good we are, maybe not bearing much direct risk, but also to show we need healing, as the surprising Samaritans to confess that we Christians have far too long caused the problem and made the road harmful and fearsome. We march realizing that the Jericho Road needs improvement for all life’s travelers. We go down that road as witnesses expecting to encounter suffering and difficulty.  And that is why we will certainly find our longing and hurting Jesus today on the walk, and with him the amazements of healing, of reconciliation, and of overwhelming joy.

* Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, p212

** in “A Time to Break Silence,” A Testament of Hope, pp 284, 241

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