Vashentine Wednesday sermon

(14Feb18 – Ash Wed)

John 6:22-35, 49-54

 

We are now living into one of the most unusual gaps, what to me is among the most uncertain periods of the year. I don’t mean the season of Lent and how you’ll survive without whatever you might be giving up. It’s not the lead-up to Jesus’ crucifixion and whether we pretend the whole thing catches us by surprise year after year.

What I mean by strange times, of course, is the wait until you can see your ashes in a mirror. (Maybe I’m more vain than most this way?)

The Boundary Waters does some of the same thing to me. I wonder for the week how my scruffy facial hair grows in in patches, and what in God’s good earth is happening amid the unwashed unkempt mass of hair on top of my head, as well as what having no warm soapy water might be doing to my face.

But even that week canoeing in the wilderness and waiting to glimpse a mirror back in society is in some ways smaller than what we’re sharing right now, this gap of time with an uncertain dark smudge on your forehead and waiting to see how it looks on you.

Maybe there’s a chance you’d already forgotten that you had that sooty smear stuck above your gaze, but for me this always makes me feel self-conscious. Not quite as if the ashes are re-burning a mark on me, but just that I must be so conspicuous, and don’t know how I look to others, and can’t do anything about it.

My self-absorption extends after I’ve seen myself in the mirror, with the remaining question about whether to wash off the cross and try to scrub my face clean, or if I continue to wear it. And if others see me, is it a mark of my sinfulness? Or a bold witness to faith? How am I supposed to think about these ashes that have been imposed on my skin and on my life?

This Ash Wednesday deep black, shimmery shadow on our faces seems so penetratingly to provoke our intense self-inquiry and self-examination: What is it that others can see in us but we can’t directly see in ourselves without this opportunity to wait and reflect? Does it appear prejudiced or hypocritical? How dirty do we look to those around us, with the smears and blemishes of our imperfections? We figure we can frequently cover up those spots, but that the time of Lent lays them bare, as stark as the mark on our foreheads, to be followed by repentance, by that earnest desire to clean up our act and try to do better. That may be the intensity of how these ashes burden our brows.

Or, in a slightly more favorable light, maybe you approach Lent with the eagerness of a chance to recommit. Maybe that strong, deep cross on your forehead feels like devotion, like a badge that declares your spiritual practice, your disciplines. You may take up that cross even when it has an edge of shame and the world might scorn you for choosing this narrow path.

Or maybe in what feels like the largest and most ominous aspect of this, you feel the weight of those ashes for the sign of death, as if it’s already seeping out from inside you, that fatality cannot be kept at bay and this morbid mark is closing in on you. You are fragile and impermanent. And that terminal pressure means you’re left with an ever-more limited window of opportunity to accomplish what you need to, to be what you feel you should be, to become satisfied with what you see in the mirror.

But amid that intensity and weight, and before you get to feeling too glum, or pondering if you should feel gloomier for this day, I want to reorient us. Partly it comes from our Bible reading, and partly is emphasized by the coincidence of this Ash Wednesday with Valentine’s Day. On this V-ash-entine Wednesday (or whatever we might call it—I hadn’t come up with a great term yet), we have to consider love for this life.

So looking in the mirror for love, clearly none of us wants to be so self-centered and enamored of ourselves that we wind up like Narcissus in Greek mythology who was so captivated and enthralled by his own reflection that it forever immobilized him in selfish love. That’s not what we’d hope for as we gazed at our reflection, even if for now the view in the mirror might come with some discomfort or displeasure, even if the outlook of our reality can seem bleak.

But if it’s not only how favorably we view ourselves in the reflection, then it must be about how we’re seen by someone else, how we are perceived as beloved by another.

That’s a totally different perspective. One of the first things I notice is that others, those who love me, don’t see me the way I see myself. I’m apt to see the faults, the concerns, the errors, all of the ways I wish I were so much better. But being seen with loving eyes isn’t about how much I need to change. It’s loving me already. And even if it’s not exactly or always loving my blemishes or my brokenness, still, very clearly I am seen for who I am and still loved with celebration of my life.

And that’s certainly where we begin this season of Lent, with a reading from the Gospel of John. John over and over wants to remind you you are unconditionally loved. Much more clearly than the other gospels, for John love isn’t what you’re told to do but what you first receive. Here are just a couple highlights: for God so loved the world (3:16). Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end, to the ultimate (13:1). As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love (15:9).

And, most important for today: no one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for another (15:13).

So if you’re feeling that smudge on your forehead as a sign of death, that is not primarily your death, but a reminder of a death for you, of Jesus who laid down his life in love. If you’re waiting to see that ashen smear emblazoned on your skin, you may know that it’s there as a reminder and mark of love. Vashentine Wednesday isn’t only about the sweet and romantic love of reds and pinks. That on your head is very truly a Valentine from Jesus, the cross as the image of how he loves you completely, love in black. In giving life for you to take away your death is how God’s love is manifest.

And no box of chocolates here, Jesus gives himself as bread. “I AM the bread of life, and the bread that I give you for your life and for the life of the world is my flesh.” That isn’t a mark of your rottenness or your death on your forehead. It is the mark of the one who dies to give you life, who nourishes your existence with his love, who even with this bread tonight offers himself to you, wholly, body and soul, and all.

When you go out from here, for this season, for all your days, if you look in the mirror and can see you are so loved, for any of your imperfect impermanence, then you look just exactly right.

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a wedding sermon

for the Wedding of Colleen and Roanna

 

This is a rather formal event for in some way being a formality. Neither does it quite fit the traditional definition of a shotgun wedding, though there’s some element of that pressure and being under the gun here.

Which is to say that I’ve been reflecting on why we’re here today, what we’re doing, what this is about.

In the most basic regard, that might actually be a question about location. See, we know that you need to have a lawful signature on a piece of paper stored in a government building. We know that the previous way you’d been registered and officially partnered together is going away and so you need this new-fangled thing: a marriage license. Although for the question of why, we might first think to answer about insurance and legality. But for the simple sake of that signature, this could well have happened downtown in an office room. That it’s here instead extends the why question also to involve “where.”

As I told you Roanna and Colleen, I’d identify the central part of a wedding usually as the exchange of vows, those promises of love for each other. And though that captures some of the insurance sense of things with the standard promise of “in sickness and in health,” still after seventeen years (or so?), it doesn’t really seem like you two would need to do that formal promising. You’ve already been practicing those commitments and dedications of giving yourselves to each other in love for a long time, so this would seem like something not so new and doesn’t seem like exchanging those words will really change your relationship.

I suppose I also have to concede that even though I define the vows as the central moment of a wedding day, there’s probably at least as much validity in the popular notion that weddings are about parties, about getting the family and friends closets to you and dearest around to celebrate. So there’s strength to that explanation for this day, since something like your love for each other is indeed deserves enjoyment and to be praised and enlivened with good music and your relationship is well worth toasting.

We could also do well to notice that festivities and celebrations were where Jesus hung out. Though we don’t often think of him as a party animal, that was sort of the reputation he had in his own time, that he wasn’t one to avoid a good time. Particularly, we could observe that the only story about him at a wedding wasn’t to lecture on how to love or what is right or wrong, but simply as the beverage service to make sure the wine kept flowing. That Jesus!

While we’re on that track, we could—and should!—say that a very worthwhile reason for this wedding is because this is exactly what God wants. God is pro-love. God is in favor of your love. God celebrates your love and nurtures and sustains your love and accentuates your love. God blesses your love for each other, Colleen and Roanna, and God enables your love with God’s own love. As your Bible readings declare and proclaim for us, when we think of love, we’re envisioning godliness and practicing what God’s will is for our lives. You two bear God’s presence for each other, and then also extend God’s goodwill to our lives and to the world. The rest of us depend on your love as sharing God’s love for us.

And though that’s the message I am most eager to announce to you today, I feel it also needs to be paired with another word. As a straight white male and an official of the institutional church, I want to apologize. We or I must confess that part of the circumstance for this wedding and this moment here, once more on the “why” of today, is that places like this and people at least sort of like me for far too long have warped and controlled church and society to say your love was not right. I’m so sorry for that and am also very grateful, because you still asked me to be here today, because you are rightly faithful and you recognize and you continue to show us—through 17 years, in this moment, and on into the future—that you are engaged in the godly work of love, that your love is not only for each other but also makes our lives better, and, yes, God encourages your love, celebrates your love, and God blesses your love.

So thank you, Roanna and Colleen, and congratulations. Now let’s get on with this formal stuff to the heart of the day so we can party.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Greta Karen Hammonds

June 24, 1939 + September 9, 2016greta

Exodus34:6-7a; Psalm23; 1Corinthians13:4-13

 

This is about love. It’s a gathering about love. It’s ultimately about the love of God in Christ Jesus, as we’ll say more later. But firstly you’re here for love because you loved Greta or because she loved you. Those may be bonds of family, or chosen ties of friendship, or relationships with some sort of care, that you received or gave or even simply observed. Through that, in some way, this isn’t general loveliness, but is the very specific love you connect with Greta.

Now, I’m at a disadvantage for only having met her once, and only knowing small bits from her sister Jean, so I’d like to hear maybe in a word or a sentence some of the ways you associate love with Greta. (Things mentioned:  family, she cried when I left home, marrying into a great family, she babysat my children, community table meals, the cat lady, potato salad.)

I’ve heard she was giving, that she was very generous in sharing what she had and not keeping it for herself. I’ve heard she always gave hearts each year as Christmas presents, a sure symbol of love. I’ve heard she took care of her mother at the end of her life. I’ve heard she cared for our country and fellow citizens in working the polls. So there are these things to recall, memories to cherish, stories for telling and reminding each other in these days (and that’s an important part of the reception and chance to share more of this after worship) and it’s also for understanding that they continue to shape you, as you embody this love of Greta in an ongoing way.

This is some of what we heard in 1st Corinthians and why we heard it. It’s most common as a wedding reading, but with Greta we can see it as a frame for all of life in our relationships. This is how things are supposed to work and what our connections ought to be like.

Of course, it can also seem sort of idealized, that we’re not always patient or kind and don’t always do the right thing and sometimes just can’t endure it. That is true for me, and I’m sure for you, and I know it was true for Greta, too, because it’s unfortunately just how we are, just true for all of us, as much as we try and as good as we may be.

But that’s also exactly why we heard the couple of brief Bible verses from Exodus, where there’s sort of a message that if it were easy and we didn’t have to keep struggling at it, then it wouldn’t really be love. These verses where God models and promises love, steadfast love, love that lasts through the generations, and God can do that precisely because love must be slow to anger and faithful in striving for forgiveness, this kind of love from God is exactly because we need it.

This is the point in the Bible story leading up to these verses. God makes this strong declaration and promise at a surprising moment in the story; it comes just after the people had made the golden calf, that premier example of idolatry and turning away from God, and Moses was furious at them, and all of this even as they were right at the foot of Mount Sinai where God was giving them the 10 Commandments. Even with that direct and present reminder, still they could blow it.

But that sure wasn’t the first time; it seemed all too natural for their history in this story. Before that golden calf, the people were complaining about wandering in the wilderness and grumbling about the miracle of manna that kept them nourished day after day. And before that, before the escape through the Red Sea and the plagues striking Pharaoh and all the wonders of God’s work to save them, of love as this ongoing salvation project, before that they were complaining even that they didn’t want to be freed from slavery.

Which is all to say that these weren’t easily loveable people. For all the blessings that surrounded them, they weren’t always appreciative. As God is promising and practicing steadfast love through their generations, we can’t help but notice they weren’t especially holy or nice or smart. And all too often they could be lousy, nasty, curmudgeonly boneheads. But through their best and their not-so-good, God promised to love them anyway, and kept at it, with enduring patience and more.

That’s true of love and Greta, as well, in all those things you named about her and so much more, for all the really remarkable care and tender affection, and also for when that fell short or fell apart for some reason. It’s true in your relationships with her, maybe in very small ways or maybe really dominant ways. It’s true in love that spreads throughout family and across the years.

And it’s especially still true of God’s love. See, we gather today because of love. We gather because love isn’t the same as understanding all the answers, not the same as everything working out just how we wish, not the same as everything going right. But we gather because of love. We gather to celebrate relationships and what has gone well, of life well lived and enjoyed. We also gather to lament the things that haven’t gone that way, most especially that you are separated from the love of Greta, and that there isn’t any good, clear reason of why that is, of why she died now, or why any of us need to face the loss and pain of death.

But this love isn’t an explanation or a solution. This love will lead Greta and you with her into light and life, but in the meantime it goes through the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death, because that’s what love does.

We gather because love endures. Just as we heard, it persists in promise to the thousandth generation. That means it’s for Greta and her siblings. It’s for her parents, back to old times in Stoughton, and beyond that back to Norway and wherever else. It’s back to the very beginning, and it’s also forward, to you six children of hers, and your families, and on to generations so distant yet to come.

And for all the interruptions and disruptions, for all the disappointments and desperations, for Greta and for yourself you may be faithfully confident that nothing now, nothing in your past, nothing yet to come will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. For that amazing promise, all that’s left is to say Amen.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Joyce Jeanette Anderson Joyce

October 8, 1936 + August 11, 2016

Isaiah 48:12-17; Psalm 23; Galatians 5:21-25; John 14:1-10

 

Near and not far off.

Known and not unknown.

Lo, I am with you.

And, you know where I am going.

These are theological terms, statements our scripture attributes to God. But these are also personal terms, identities we knew in Joyce.

We’ve heard loving descriptions of this mother and grandmother, with stories and characteristics you almost certainly recognize also for sister, aunt, and step-mother, friend and teacher. Again, with the stunning summary statement that “God is love,” in Joyce, we similarly knew deeply invested care.

She was devoted to you, to your wellbeing, which is another stunning statement because it’s true for all of you gathered today, and for so many more people, as well. She loved to learn what was happening in your life, caring in both joys and struggles, with an amazing memory to hold all those details. I know this, because I also experienced it. Joyce was one of those rare people where in these past weeks I could walk into her hospital room for a pastoral care visit, and walk out of the room feeling more like I’d been cared for, and also more in touch with others, like hearing the latest ins and outs of Jenny buying a new house.

Though I’ve only gotten to know her a bit in these past months, that feels representative of the care you knew from Joyce, whether for your whole life, or in a brief encounter. Five daughters knew the care and love of this mother, the one who could discipline you for wrecking the car as a child by making you help prepare potato salad for a family gathering. That’s a remarkable kind of love, as you know, and as your friends were occasionally jealous of. It’s the kind of care that persisted and was apparently unflappable even after your father’s death, and the care and love that expanded to more family when she met Eldon, and as you were choosing partners, and as grandkids arrived, and on and on. You got to know best this very present and invested love of Joyce.

Others experienced it from her in innumerable fleeting moments. This is that central identity of Joyce as a nurse and—maybe even more—as a nurse’s nurse. She not only tended to sickness but to the whole person. She didn’t just hand on knowledge as a teacher, but valued the whole shape of life for her students. Still around UW Hospital in these weeks were those who either had known Joyce through the years, or were getting to know her in this way still. Even those who had never met her received from her, perhaps most vividly in her efforts on behalf of hospice care. In precisely this moment of confronting death with comfort and dignity, she appreciated the full circle of receiving what she had helped offer to so many others.

For those of this Advent Lutheran and Madison Christian Community, I should pause to say how Joyce valued you, though you almost certainly still can say it better than I can. She identified herself here, and amid many groups, in worship or at breakfast. She cherished the prayer shawl in these weeks and was showing off the card fashioned by the quilters. And Joyce was still looking forward to more reading with book group, to the wide variety you’d choose, even if it weren’t what she would’ve picked herself.

That’s another mark of her personality: the teacher was always also a learner, eager for new connections, to explore new places and discover new things. That’s true in her travels near and far, right up to that last voyage to Alaska with Carol, when she got sick enough that they needed to come home, which led to more and more medical investigations and finally the experience of hospice and the end.

At this point, I should say something about God. After all, I’ve said lots about Joyce. More than I usually would say about a person in a funeral sermon. But that isn’t because you needed me to describe her or say nice things about her. Rather, I said so much about Joyce because I also wanted you to hear that about God, a God invested in you (as Joyce was), caring for you (as Joyce did), never out to punish but to redeem you, close to you and knowing you in all kinds of ways (as Joyce lived right until the end), always seeking more for you.

This has been the language of our Bible readings. The verses from Isaiah aren’t a typical funeral reading, but are chosen for the Joyce/God pairing. it described God as “first and last,” meaning present before our birth and through it all and beyond death. Isaiah declared God’s love for and investment in the people, with a persistent will on their behalf—on your behalf—that would not be subverted, in those times by armies or calamities, or in our midst today by sickness and death. Isaiah proclaims God to be near, not hidden off in secret. God is with you, calling to teach and guide. So as we knew that in Joyce, we know it in God.

David’s reading from Galatians gives it a clear explanation, that we were able to know these good things in Joyce because they were gifts from God, these fruits of the Spirit. The love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, and more that Joyce shared with us came not as something Joyce had to strive after, but arose in her so naturally and directly as the blessing from God.

The familiar words of Psalm 23 lead us to see this presence in various settings. Sometimes you knew Joyce in the moments of providing, in preparing a table, even as she did for funeral services like these, or in times of quiet reflection like book group and Bible study, or in nourishing meadows of teaching, or in dark valleys, like those who knew Joyce during medical care or from hospice. This says God, too, is amid all those times and places.

And, finally, Jesus explains this whole premise in the gospel reading: as you have seen me, you have seen God. In some way, we can claim and believe that line of Jesus for Joyce.

But we also know there are limits. For all of her travels and explorations and curiosity, there are places she couldn’t go, not only for completing the Alaska trip, but that she is not with you now. For all of her past care, she is no longer able to be that. You have amazing memories and plenty to share, and you can also go on to embody some of that care and compassion that Joyce had been, but she won’t be present to be that for you anymore, and so finally, we need this word of God that proclaims something more, that isn’t only accompanying you in times of dying, but that will go beyond death and bring you to new life. This is the promise of resurrection that we look to in Jesus, a promise for you to live into, and the promise for Joyce from a God who is known, who is near, who is with you, and who will bring you home with Joyce forever.

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Who is my neighbor?

sermon on Luke 10:25-37; Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Colossians 1:1-14

My favorite line in this so-called Good Samaritan story used to be the lawyer’s first question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

More on that another time, though, because this week, I’ve been bemused by the lawyer’s second question: “and who is my neighbor?” Maybe Ken Streit can advise if this is a lawyer-ly brain trying to chase down the loose ends and leave no stone of the law unturned. But it’s still foolish. If the question were unasked, if the lawyer would’ve left well enough alone, he could’ve gone off self-satisfied, thinking, “Well, the folks on my block like me pretty well. I get along fine with people at the office. Even my teenage daughter manages to put up with me.” Then that lawyer could’ve kept a nice, small vision of his responsibility and probably remained smugly self-assured.

But he instead opened up a whole ‘nother can of worms. The question slipped out: “And who is my neighbor?” Why didn’t he just stay self-congratulatory, figuring he was doing fine? Later in the Gospel, a similar guy is praying (or sort of praying, but more gloating) that he’s much better than the sinners. He saw himself favorably compared against thieves, rogues, adulterers, and a nearby tax collector. But!—that story concludes, in its coup de grâce—all who exalt themselves will be humbled (18:14).

So did pride make this lawyer ask the “who is my neighbor” question? Or earnest desire? Could he not keep his mouth shut? The story says the reason is that he wanted to justify himself.

That is all too often the problem. In regards to God and the world around us, we have a burning desire to show we’ve got it figured out and are acting just how we’re supposed to…or at least on a bit better footing than others.

We keep trying at self-justification, even though in our hearts, we know and trust that this faith and God’s own self is about peace, forgiveness and grace, redemption and lives recreated and made whole, transforming sinners into saints. If you need that word of good news, please hang onto it, because in spite of salvation and unconditional love and all that Jesus came to reveal, giving freely, still with the lawyer we slip back in, unable to help ourselves in wanting to be proven right. We repeatedly dive headlong into the task of trying to justify ourselves.

So when we gather for church, we may accept a few challenges on a to-do list, but that really aims again to feel good about ourselves, to be reassured in our self-righteousness, so we can claim we’re doing okay, that at least we’re trying to be kind in our families, and striving to be the sort of citizens we should be, and not too nasty to those around us, so God must want to pat us on the back as much as we do.

In asking Jesus, the lawyer was presumably hoping for a nice, tidy legal category, that neighbors are those in a three-door vicinity, or they share your religion and values, or can relate to your socioeconomic status and past-times, that neighbors look like you and act like you. You know, something easy.

But Jesus blows the whole thing wide open. Not only do those in the story closest to the lawyer fail to recognize the beaten up half-dead guy who really could use some care. What’s worse, Jesus goes on to pick out a rotten Samaritan as exemplary, as the model. This is shocking. Samaritans were sort of a corrupt version of Jews. This lawyer would say Samaritans read their Bibles wrong and misplaced devotion and had gone astray in following religious practice. Yet Jesus commends him!

For much of our culture, the parallel today of a Good Samaritan might be to highlight a Good Muslim as the one doing it right, which would be so unexpected or even heretical for those who claim Muslims are infidels or prone to violence or somehow inferior. Or, to look at it from the other side (since we can’t be so self-righteous in justifying our worldview), it might be a conservative fundamentalist Christian who protests against Planned Parenthood or transgender bathroom rights. Since a “Good Samaritan” simply has become a synonym for a “do-gooder,” we can’t hear how Jesus’ example originally functioned instantly to undermine self-justification that demeaned the other.

After our self-assuredness is undercut, when we are stopped from claiming we’re so well on track, when blinders are removed to illustrate our privilege, when we have to re-evaluate what’s right, then we don’t list tasks to be completed, but see actual neighbors, as deserving or needing care, opening channels of compassion. Having identified love as the greatest commandment, as our supreme goal, Jesus brings us across the threshold from self-justification to obligation on behalf of our neighbors.

Which instantly becomes an enormous question, always determined by your own situations and contexts, of who your neighbor is. So I can’t enumerate or explain what needs to be done; instead, we can encounter examples of “who is my neighbor”:

I continue to be impressed at how well we offer care for each other in these two congregations. But maybe that reinforces this great opportunity to be outside, so we aren’t closed off in a sanctuary and can more directly see our neighborhood. This raised a question as we were preparing for this service: realizing that our music may be intrusive, we worried about offending or bothering the people we’re trying to reach out to. But we also wanted to share our joy and broadcast a welcome. On the third hand, we can’t presume that what these neighbors need is to be part of our worship service, though I continue to struggle with that.

Asking what our neighbors do need and how we may offer service also fits with being outside today. We can look to see reminders that neighbors are well-served by the summer Kids in the Garden program. There are those who receive from our food pantry gardens.

Our vision of neighbors is also broadened as we witness the restored health of prairie plants blooming and song sparrows calling and the buzz of insects. These aren’t just part of our surroundings, nor natural “resources” for our use, but are neighbors, sisters and brothers in creation.

That broad view asking about the wellbeing of others prior to our own utility can also raise questions about the source of our lunch or the labels inside our clothes. How do these help or harm the many producers, of farmers and garment workers and factory employees, and soil health and water supplies, and national politics? In each aspect of these decisions, the question of “who is my neighbor” invites us to be attentive to the benefits or repercussions, rather than simply passing by unaware or unconcerned.

But—you may protest—it’s not all butterflies and picnics. There’s more traumatic stuff. After all, Jesus chose to spotlight somebody who had been robbed and injured. And this week in particular we’ve had too many examples of tragic pain and loss, beginning with two more shootings and the shape of the most horrible edge in racial disparities, where it takes protesting to reiterate even that their lives matter. But then in sorrowful reversals, a wretched retribution, and the cycle of violence, we also have had to witness the attacks on police. It is shocking and awful and discouraging.

But even the fact that we are seeing it means something in the context of this story, that it fills us with emotion, that we are moved with compassion. That is a start. We see that neither black lives nor police in uniform can in these days be equated with the robbers in the Bible story, where those were just non-characters of the set-up, (though perhaps in the larger vision we’d see them also in need of care and redemption and healing). The point of the Bible story isn’t in determining who the bad guys are. It is the question of recognizing neighbors in need, which in these days we can see both in police officers and in people of color faced with inequality. Jesus then asks us to see ourselves as neighbors who can help amid a desperate situation.

I’ll tell you that on Friday morning I almost scrapped my original sermon to focus entirely on this, and you may or may not believe that would’ve been the right thing to do. But I don’t believe preaching is just responding to current events, because, as important as this is, and as much as it’s part of a bigger and terribly complex problem, we’re also good at forgetting and moving on, only to be shocked and saddened by a next calamity. That makes us again into priests and Levites who pass-by rather than Good Samaritans. Neither is this Scripture text about one issue, no matter how important.

So I am continuing on, since we’re also aware of so many other worries we encounter. We can find neighbors in those who suffer oppression (and have too often been met with our apathy), like the LGBT community after last month’s shooting or the vulnerability of victims ensnared by human trafficking or families in bondage to poverty and the homeless we meet through The Road Home. It’s in disaster situations like after flooding in West Virginia. Almost certainly we should be motivated on behalf of refugees too easily tuned out as “not our problem” and ignored by those who officially should be helping, a precise modern parallel of the Bible story.

Speaking of modern examples, the setting of this Bible reading, this road from Jerusalem to Jericho, now has a wall running right down the middle of it. 30 foot tall concrete, cutting off this Palestinian route, a path used for centuries no longer accessible, allegedly for self-security of Israelis but in actuality severing families from each other and making life less livable. We can no longer pass by this apartheid wall without asking “who is my neighbor?”

And with the image of this same location, this same road, Martin Luther King called us to “develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness” * on a system-wide scale. Here are some of his words:

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values (he continues) will look with righteous indignation [at capitalist systems that] take profits out with no concern for the social betterment and [will] say: “This is not just.” [And] this business of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.**

In the end, we’re left with no excuse, no self-justification for failing in love and justice. It’s no relief that we’re not directly to blame nor because we didn’t notice the suffering. This journey with Jesus along life’s highway becomes all-encompassing. I realize seeing all this hurt and standing against hate is no small agenda, no easy task, no quick solution. But this is the can of worms that gets opened with the question, “who is my neighbor?” If we’re honest, it’s not a surprise. As described in the Deuteronomy reading, you couldn’t argue; you know in your heart what’s right. Love is not about your self-satisfaction to feel like you’ve done enough, but is an ever-expanding role. Though it’s never perfect, never complete, never fully attainable, the Colossians reading nevertheless invites you into this calling of such enormous terms to “lead a life worthy and pleasing to our God in every way, [to] multiply good works of every sort and grow in the knowledge of God.”

If you still think the lawyer’s question was right to be asked, the only remaining word is this: “Go and do likewise.”

 

Hymn: Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love (ELW #708)

* p284 in Testament of Hope

** p240-1 in Testament of Hope

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Maundy Meditation

(John13:1-17, 31b-25 )
There is so much to sort through in Holy Week: the confusing move from festival parade to betrayal, or going through death to new life as the darn-near inexplicable mystery of our faith. That—plus love!—is just plain lot to absorb, with so much central to us in this week.

It’s interesting to look at it by proportions: the Gospel of Luke has more than 5 of 24 chapters set in this week. For Matthew it’s 8 of 28. Nearly 40% of Mark’s story is told between Palm Sunday and Easter morning. The Gospel of John starts the story of Jesus “in the beginning,” at the birth of creation, and yet almost half the book takes place in one week, with about six chapters spent on this Maundy Thursday evening alone.

Now, we’ve tried to fit a lot for you into this evening: remembering that little children lead us. We’ve eaten together, the night of the Last Supper as an obvious time to share a meal. We told the Passover story, since Jesus was sharing that special meal and redefining it. But we also notice how that further increases the complexity; the Exodus meal provides the defining narrative of the Hebrew scriptures, but tonight becomes a background footnote for our gathering.

So how do we consider all of this? How do we fit it in? Can we begin to comprehend so much that is deep, complex, challenging, rewarding? Probably the most apparent answer is no, we don’t. We can’t. We could consider much more on freedom from slavery and ancient festivals and the practice of footwashing and political dynamics of Jesus’ arrest in the garden—which may or may not be more worthwhile than discussing menu options of communion bread or historical dilemmas of determining if we’re doing it right and who’s in. Overall there’s just lots to grasp.

Similar to the observance that the ancient creeds spend a lot of time on controversial details and miss out on the main point of what Jesus was up to, you came here this evening not to debate and deliberate details, not to learn history or try to repeat the past.

You’re here tonight for love, to be loved and striving to love in return. You’re here because we always need practice at this, never have it resolved permanently or perfectly, because it is the hardest, most complex thing in the world, even if it can feel so natural.

In this way, it’s no surprise that attendance dwindled since Sunday—either contrasting the crowds for the palm parade with Jesus only having his close disciples around him on Thursday, or comparing our fun and vibrant protest service with this group tonight. It’s not about being entertained or getting caught up in the hysteria; you understand being commanded to love means taking community seriously, is about acting as a neighbor, a citizen of earth, about engaging your gifts, taking a risk, asking what’s best for others.

Recognizing that loving can be exhausting and frustrating and sometimes draining of life, you also gather here to be loved, with Jesus who gives himself to you whole-heartedly, with all his life and all he has. We may question if that can fit in one night, or one Holy Week, or even in one life. But sharing it at this service, absorbing it with a bite of bread is a start.

Hymn: Will You Let Me Be Your Servant (ELW 659)

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Mothering Rocks & Provocative Love

sermon for 4th Sunday after Epiphany

(Luke4:21-30; 1Corinthians13; Jeremiah1:4-10; Psalm71:1-6)
You may have heard of the Witness Protection Program, where somebody with information is secretly relocated in order not to be harmed by those they’re reporting on. Well, this Gospel reading from Luke might be identified as part of the Pastor Protection Program, where a pastor is relocated so they won’t be harmed.

This, after all, is shocking stuff. It’s never wise to compare ourselves to Jesus, but indulge me for a moment: In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus stood up in the worshipping community, read from the Bible, and began to give his first sermon. Similarly, last week Pastor Sonja and I gathered in our worshipping communities, stood up to offer a Bible reading, and preached first sermons.

Now, in these following verses, Luke tells us that Jesus enrages the congregation so fiercely that they’re about to hurl him off a cliff. Jesus manages to escape from the mob. But that might be where similarities break down; Jesus escaped, but your preachers might not be so miraculously favored. Thus, the Pastor Protection Program: the MCC pastors have been relocated for our security!

That’s obviously (or at least hopefully) tongue-in-cheek. We’re counting on goodwill persisting longer after our first sermons. But it does prompt the question as to just what Jesus could have said that would’ve driven his listeners so nuts. What from a sermon could be so outrageous as to make faithful people outraged? What in the world was Jesus talking about?

Well, love, of course. It’s because Jesus presses us on love, which has to be provocative. It begins well enough, with God’s love for you. We have beautiful words of that today. From before you were born, God has cherished you and held you. God has been bound to your existence and eager for the best for you. Whether you were raised in the church and baptized as a baby and have been here ever since, or if you were away for a while, or even if this is brand new and never had been part of your life, still God has been with you from the womb onward. Yes, you are most certainly loved. Always have been, always will be.

Our appointed Psalm at the opening phrased this lifelong trajectory, from birth and the cradling, tender, motherly arms, through youth. The Psalm then goes on to face difficulty, to talk about protection and about rescue and salvation and about experiencing shame and those who disagree with you. God is a refuge because we need it. God is a fortress because, at least occasionally through life, we need it.

Even that strange metaphor of God as a rock is because sometimes we need a rock, shelter to hide behind, or a small island to cling to when we can’t tread water anymore and the waves are sweeping over us. I counted 37 times in our Bibles where God is referred to as a “rock.” In other places that rockiness is a mark of permanence, standing against the weather. It’s also a reference of stability, a foundation, that when everything else erodes, you rest securely on bedrock. There are two other interesting passages for our direction today. Deuteronomy (32:18) mentions the “Rock who bore you, the God who gave you birth.” It’s hard to picture a less maternal or loving image than a hunk of stone, but evidently ancient people of faith saw it differently. More familiar for us, like our phrase of being a “chip off the old block,” the prophet Isaiah (51:1) reminds you to “look to the rock from which you were hewn.” In this case it reminds you of your likeness with God.

We’ll come back to being like God in a moment, after focusing on looking to God. But with that looking to God, to cling to that “rock” metaphor, any other reflections on how that is helpful as a strong, faithful image?

Okay, then looking to God, the main point of our Psalm. Remember, our faith doesn’t make God care for us. It’s not only when we believe that God will be mindful of us. But faith is about putting our trust in this God, understanding this refuge and place of security, about building on this foundational rock. Again, it’s not that God’s ignoring you in difficult times or that you had to pray harder. If you were away from church, if you doubted this belief or didn’t know about it, still God abides with you. There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more or love you less…but the benefit is to know that, to make use of it, to rely on it.

The Rob Bell video for last week’s adult forum featured a parent carrying an infant through a horrible rainstorm. Even as the child was terrified, the parent kept whispering “I love you. I’ll get you home.” The child didn’t know or anticipate that things would be okay. But it’s a whole other thing in the midst of storms to grow beyond childish ways, to trust that the arms of that loving Parent are always around you, that God’s love for you endures all things and never ends and is greatest of all.

That is the cherished language we have from this beloved 1st Corinthians passage. Yet that also begins to point us more directly into the outrage that encountered Jesus. See, it is the most amazing thing to be loved so unconditionally and completely, but it changes how you hear it when you have to share this love. So when you’re told that God’s love for you will never end, that’s good news. When you’re told that your love for a partner or family or whomever should be patient and not envious or irritable, that becomes another matter. It quickly turns from a relief to a challenge.

So 1st Corinthians 13, with all of its love language, is often considered the Bible reading for weddings. Maybe it was read at yours, or you’ve been to weddings that used it or seen cards with it. But if it’s setting a standard or goal for a relationship of trying to love rightly, Acacia could list numerous ways I’ve blown it just in the last 24 hours (though I’m hoping her love is patient and kind enough that she won’t so quickly point out my faults).

Yet as hard as that is, it has still far greater proportions. With Jesus, this cannot remain with those closest to us. It’s not restricted to spouses or partners or our children or family members, not just kindness for our kin. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors. The smart young lawyer before the parable of the Good Samaritan looked for a loophole, trying to ask what qualifies as a neighbor, maybe seeking the technicality of it only being a two-door radius. But Jesus’ definition in the parable is for anybody we might meet, anybody in need.

Again, he won’t let us off so lightly, because in the Sermon on the Mount he tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44). That’s pretty darn tough, but it gets still worse because on the night in which he was betrayed, after stooping into the role of a servant, to wash the feet of his followers, Jesus gives that new commandment that we should love just as he loved us (John 13:34). This is when love is provocative, a word literally meaning to “call forth.” It’s the direct incident in Jeremiah—he was called forth to share God’s love, even if reluctantly.

And that became exactly the problem in the Gospel reading today. See, I get to proclaim how much God loves you. But Jesus goes on to tell about outsiders, foreigners loved and favored by God, including a hungry widow and, coincidentally, a despised Syrian military leader. It’s not only for us who consider ourselves well-deserving or qualified insiders. Now, I’m going to set aside the conundrum of God’s miracles going to the apparently unworthy instead of in response to faithful prayers.

Instead, we’re going to continue just a minute more with this difficult but fruitful question of loving like Jesus. Especially in the lead up to Valentine’s Day, we’re surrounded so much with love as a sweet, mushy, romantic idea. But Jesus conversely pushes us toward love that’s offensive and provocative. This isn’t sentimental, affectionate love—as Martin Luther King reminded us, not always about liking the other—but is God’s kind of love that rejoices in the truth and is patiently enduring and seeks healing and wholeness.

So where might love be provocative, where might God be calling us forth? Some examples: our society in these days has labeled Muslims categorically as enemies and as offensive, so we may figure ways to cross that divide. Closer to home, with Iowa caucuses tomorrow, this political process is causing lots of angst and anger. Perhaps offensive love would seek how to remedy that. What about relationships where we choose sides, especially when there’s been a wrongdoer? How does enduring love help to make it right amid hurt? Or what are the lives we deem more valuable than others: by color or age or profession, “real” Americans versus immigrants, human over other creatures? Where have we placed these boundaries?

On a broad scale for us, I was reading this week about the UCC as a “church of firsts.”* It’s an amazing list to celebrate—African American, female, gay leaders and pastors, abolition and civil rights stances, civil disobedience and schools to make a better society—these are remarkable aspects of a solid foundational identity and also marks of what could be seen as the offensive love of Jesus.

Yet I was also reading a piece this week by the always-provocative Chris Hedges on the “suicide” of the mainline church,** saying we have “looked the other way while the poor and workingmen and -women were ruthlessly disempowered and impoverished. The church was as silent about the buildup of mass incarceration as once about lynching. It refused to confront and denounce the destructive force of corporate power. It…busied itself with charity, multiculturalism and gender-identity politics [and paid lip service to diversity] at the expense of justice, especially racial and economic justice. It retreated into a narcissistic ‘how-is-it-with-me’ spirituality.”

Those are heavy words. They might be arguable, but shouldn’t be ignored. I don’t want to say more, either to blunt them or to overwhelm you. So let’s conclude with a moment of reflection, either silent or aloud on those who are most offensive and hardest to love for you. Where is the love of Jesus provoking you?

* http://www.ucc.org/about-us_ucc-firsts

**http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_suicide_of_the_liberal_church_20160124

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