Prison Earth Day

sermon on Acts 16:19-34 and on Earth Day

 

Earth Day and a prison Bible reading, with an edge of economic impact. It begs the question of how we assign the roles. Where are we in this story? And where is Earth?

I want to start with clarifying what I believe is not the answer, and hope to pry you free from this faulty faith. For too long, too many loud voices have asserted a view that metaphorically Earth would be the prison in this story, and God’s salvation would be to spring us free, unleash from this mortal coil, to escape the bonds of the flesh and soil, to make an eternal getaway and fly away to the sky. Over and over I’ll remind you: that is not Scripture’s story. We are not imprisoned on this planet or in our bodies or with this life.

Yes, there may be much we lament—maybe even feeling like too much—from natural disasters to a slow spring for greening growth, from wars and corruption to prison to cranky relationships, sore muscles to diseases, death or small blemishes.  We’d like to be free of those.

But God isn’t trying to get us away from here. God is trying to fulfill life here. On earth…as it is in heaven. It is GOOD, God sees over and over, daily in the creation story in the first chapter of our Bible. That goodness wasn’t because it was special paradise so different from now. It’s because God delights in what God has made, including this world, and including you.

God so loves this good world that God longed to be with you, couldn’t bear to be separate, and so came rushing into our arms as Jesus, to love us not only when things are in the cheery honeymoon of life, but through all the hurt and sorrow and difficulty.

And God was so in love, so in favor, so enamored of life on this Earth that God not only was born here, to live here, but raised from death as well. In this Easter season, we celebrate continuity of the new creation. After crucifixion, God certainly could’ve said, “Pfft! I’m outta here! To heck with that place!” (Or, being God, I suppose could’ve directly meant it in saying, “To Hell with them!”) Instead, the resurrection puts an exclamation point on God’s insistence for life in this world, in existence we already know, of Jesus’ commitment to how things go here in this place, not in some heaven lightyears away.

So if we’re looking for the location of our Bible story, the prison break cannot be understood as God liberating the select set of Christians or the humans or whoever from the jail Earth.

What if we reverse it, then? What if, instead of the Earth as the prison, it’s the Earth in prison?

There’s plenty I like about that notion (even while disliking what it means). First of all, that it upends the troublesome theology of the other. It refuses to see creation as bad and further recognizes the bondage that our ways place on Earth. We humans want everything under our control, or enslaved to secure our selfish benefit. We limit nature as resources for us to use. We seek to tame wilderness, or else to exterminate it.

This employs the wrong reading of the creation story in taking permission to be domineering, to dominate and subdue as brutal masters, to ignore wellbeing of all else while presuming we preserve our own isolated me-first advantage. That model is nothing we’d associate with Jesus as loving Lord, who willingly laid down his life for the good of others. It is not the character of our God, and is not what God would intend for us.

Yet our rampage is rampant. It’s plain in mountaintops removed and groundwater poisoned by fracking, in these ecosystems detained entirely under our control. It’s evident with polar bears and coral reefs and elephants captive to our whims and shortsightedness, with birds whose migration and mating is malfunctioning because our actions have managed to keep them from their natural rhythms. Birds may be mobile. But trees can’t run away. They are locked in place to face the emerald ash borers and pine bark beetles. It’s the white nose syndrome that means bats won’t be flying free from hibernation caves this spring.

As our children readily recognized for us, our persecuting power over the earth is clear in clearcutting forest, drying out evergreens into deserts, plowing up prairie, pumping out aquifers, changing the chemistry of our atmosphere, and every project where we constrain the livelihood of life and ridiculously refer to it as “development.” We might as well see each and every as expansions of the prison industrial complex for the incarceration of creation.

The condemning death sentence of such tendencies is summarized in a saying from a native American* woman that was on a poster I had in my bedroom growing up: “When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that you can’t eat money.”

If we’re following this parallel reading, if the Earth has been imprisoned by our human society and culture, maybe our role for a positive change could be associated with the jailer from the Bible story, as God’s Holy Spirit is converting us, calling us to new life, from the waters of our birth. Maybe we hope to be among those of a new perspective, who don’t extract and deplete the planet, don’t trap it under the threat of death, who don’t claim maximum security while minimizing actual life, but recognize that God’s salvation is to liberate, to free, to release from captivity to fears and diminished existence, not only for human benefit but on behalf of all life and we heed the call to serve as caretakers.

Maybe there’s still more. Maybe that possibility for us as jailers-turned-caretakers could lead us to a third consideration. Not that the Earth is bad and good people are stuck here. Not that humans are bad and Earth is stuck with us. What about the apparent notion that sin and abuse are bad and God is striving to liberate us and all creatures from what would inhibit life, to give us freedom to live together well?

Our hint of this may be that in the Bible story the jailer’s life is bound to the inmates. God’s work wasn’t just to free Paul and Silas, but also to free the jailer. They, then, could share in new relationship—not of hierarchies of fear and oppression and inevitably leading to death on the one side or the other (either execution for the prisoners or suicide for the guard if they escaped), but a relationship of blessing and celebration and company of rejoicing—joy that spreads among the other prisoners and to the jailer’s family and on from there—a relationship of binding up wounds and healing and caring and striving for life.

This is God’s abundant Easter work for you, among us on this Earth Day, and—indeed—every day. It is striving to break you free from your individual prisons that confine you into thinking you’re not good enough, that your wrongs are inescapable, that your existence is worthless, that you’re too harmful for life around you, whether the broader planet or closer relationships. That captivity to sin from which you cannot free yourself keeps restricting you and holds you trapped in the negative. In forgiveness and holy inspiration full of creativity, right now Jesus is liberating you from that prison cell, undoing your lock and those chains that have stifled your wellbeing and sense of yourself.

And this is also how God is operating in systems that ensnare us. God is mutually working to free humans and the planet when systemic oppression often overlaps—that people with darker skin are apt to live closer to pollution, that lesser developed nations will suffer worse effects of climate change, that the little guys trying to do the right thing can’t fund fake corporate science reports, that those who have done less harm and can afford less opportunity to purchase the get-out-of-jail free card are caught, and that really such situations are no good for any of us, even those who think they’re winning.

From Pope Francis to secular organizations now recognize these systems are interconnected, that none of our projects stand alone. Environmental work is bound to racial justice,

which is tied to economic wellbeing,

which is part of the body of health care,

which interfaces with your body image,

which stands against capitalist propaganda,

and is united with sustainable agriculture,

which is part and parcel with the global peace movement,

which attends to school systems,

which confronts gun violence,

which is linked with immigration and refugee relations,

and relates to those actually physically in prison or trying to re-enter society,

which is amid your daily life,

which is of course constrained with politics,

which is wholly related to our religious practice,

which must be a congregation of every creature, from small to large, near on these grounds to original stars.

In the old image of a food chain, all creatures would suffer if any link were broken. Well, we now know that’s a web of creation more than simple chains, that my wellbeing is dependent on your wellbeing which is connected to Earth’s stability, that everything is hitched to everything else (as John Muir said) and we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality (as Martin Luther King put it, for a very different reason, but with a very similar end result).

And for the purposes of our Bible story on this Earth Day, Martin Luther said** that you have been set totally free and are obligated to no one, which also means you are totally captive and obligated to all. Your chains are gone, and that has served to reinforce your connection to everyone and everything else. The life-sucking bonds that imprisoned you have been released. Now you are free for the life-giving bonds that tie you to live faithfully and lovingly with God, your neighbor, and creation.

That is the good news of life this Easter season, breaking free from tomb and gloom, and resurrecting you with Jesus and with all that God so loves.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

* actually First Nations filmmaker, Alanis Obomsawin
https://quoteinvestigator.com/2011/10/20/last-tree-cut/

** “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” – see “Freedom of a Christian”

Advertisements
Standard

Easter sunrise sermon

John 20:1-18

 

Beginning in the graveyard, we confront the void of death.

Though we may we go for the memories—even calling ours here a “memorial” garden—still what we remember highlights what is lacking, the loss, people no longer with us.

As we began this morning, you may have been surrounded by names of those you had known and had loved. Or those markers of concluded lifespans may have called to mind other deaths, the absence and loss of people you are having to live without, the vacancy and emptiness it leaves, holes in your life that should rightly be filled by the presence of those you miss.

Early on Easter morning, that memorial garden is the right setting for us. It is where our story begins. I’ll say it again, because it contradicts normal understanding: our story does not end in a graveyard. We begin there.

This morning’s graveyard gathering did start in the usual way. A woman went to grieve, to mourn the worst as best she could, to deal with death, to confront loss and her sorrow. Mary Magdalene went to weep at the tomb of Jesus.

But instead of only looking back to recall the memories, instead of finding a hollower way forward without this dear one, instead of abysmal endings—instead Mary is confronted with presence, with a new hour of beginnings, with much more to come. Mary thought she would find nobody. But then—after she found no…body—then somebody found her. Jesus. Presence filled the location of lack. Death’s place had been displaced and transformed into life.

We might not have mistaken a memorial gardener this morning to be revealed as Jesus himself, but we did encounter that promise. Like Mary met by Jesus, we’re reminded those gravestones are not for weeping and wailing only but also stones that will cry out Alleluias, not only looking back but looking ahead, the transformation of joy, love coming again, rising to encounter Jesus amid the community of all the saints. That hope joins us in the joyful refrain:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In a variation of that same sense, we arrived into this space with an echo of an Easter evening encounter at Emmaus (Luke 24). Followers of Jesus were in lamentation, disappointed, not only doubt hounding them but despair as they walked away from Jerusalem, away from their hopes in Jesus, their longing apparently proven worthless.

But their void, too, became filled. As Mary hadn’t, neither did they recognize Jesus. When this compassionate stranger took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them, in this ritual, Jesus was made known to them. With the realization of his presence in the meal, he vanished from sight. Still, they found themselves opened to hope and could glimpse the goodness continuing, possibility restored to live again.

So for us this morning, after meeting life in the garden of death, we came in here and were given communion, the breaking of the bread, the presence of Jesus made known among us, showing up in the void, invisibly manifest. Again, maybe just a taste of the fullness, Jesus disappearing before we even knew to recognize he was here, but with the awareness that this practice provides for us, sustains us somehow. That little morsel placing on our lips again the glad refrain:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Beyond that, markers and memorials abound, of life triumphant over death, of love that shall overcome, of Jesus entering our void and drear. He comes in cheery chimes, in the skill of Emily’s fingers, the later blare of brass, in exuberant song bursting from your own lungs, words stifled too long, abounding in Alleluias:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Maybe Jesus finds you through this Easter garden, the death of the cross flowered with bright fragrant new life, greened from roughness of death, our dark and longing Maundy Thursday confessions now only found amid beauty. Maybe all gardens in this season become a sacrament of the end not being blankness of death’s void but the warm touch that calls back to life again, a burnt prairie’s blackness to health, the surprise of sprouts, the budding beauty, seeming more with each moment of spring days to shout:20180401_074522

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

More subdued but one of my favorite symbols of life shared and spreading is this paschal candle. A 1600 year old chant about this Easter candle marks the miracle that its “brightness is not diminished even when its light is divided and borrowed” for baptismal candles and lit again at funerals, shining reminders that Easter isn’t Jesus only as resurrected Lord but as resurrecting Lord. He shared our death so we may share his life. There is real consequence for us, too, in proclaiming:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

You may be brought out of the void of meaninglessness and fear by passion that strives ahead. We use the term passion for fierce commitments, driving determination. More, the passion of Jesus that led to his death fills you also with his Spirit. So even when sadness and obstacles would stand in the way, in his resurrection Jesus inspires you for his loving purpose to live on.

To help our understandings of Jesus through this Holy Week, we have been hearing again from Martin Luther King. This week is the 50th anniversary of his assassination, a death because of his passion to stand up for humanity—against racism, poverty, war, and more. In his final words the night before he was shot, Martin Luther King happened to say:

I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. I may not get there with you. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any [one]. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.*

And that’s what we believe, too, as we share this work, this ministry, this vocation of living God’s will. We are part of the community of struggle, of passion for humanity. So even when it’s hard and we’d have reason to be fearful, still we may be confident that the Spirit of Jesus lives on with us, and with Martin Luther King, we also can say, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” We also can say:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Or in proliferating examples, maybe today in full feast tables you see Jesus showing up with the embodiment of life that contradicts the void of the graveyard. Or in smiling faces with candy-filled baskets. Or in the pause of a holiday. Or the rising sunshine’s warmth. Or in your heart that yearns and hopes and expects there must be something more.

In this new hour that has come to dawn, though there’s so much not yet clear early in the morning and early in our understanding, this risen Jesus in disappearing disguises is arriving to find you. Already there’s the reverberation of his promise, an abundance of his life taking on flesh in us, unstoppable hints of good news, already and with more to come:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

* April 3, 1968. “I See the Promised Land” in A Testament of Hope, p266.

Standard

Unclear Signs

sermon on John 2:1-11

 

This story gets me into trouble.

The first instance was when I was maybe in middle school, and with this Bible passage made my mom even more upset than she had been at me before. See, I had called her “woman.” She wasn’t too pleased about me referring to her that way. I pointed out that Jesus called his mom “woman,” saying “woman, what concern is that to me and you?” so she was discounting Jesus as my role model. That odd biblical trivia from a time in life when I wasn’t paying much attention surely is an indicator I’ve always been a smart… something. (A smart aleck.)

Now I have more reason to know Bible stories, and I find this one getting me into trouble for a different reason. See, this story of turning water into wine is the second most typical request or pseudo-expectation of what being a pastor might mean. With the odd presumption that I’m closer to Jesus (which I’m not), this turns to the playful suggestion that I also could liven up the party by conjuring some wine. If Jesus could suddenly make 180 gallons of primo wine out of stale water, well…I can’t. (If you’re wondering, in this sort of category the most typical request of pastors is to do something about the weather. I can’t do that, either.)

But how this story most gets me into trouble is because I just don’t get it. If this is the first of Jesus’ signs, signs are supposed to indicate something, to point us in the right direction. But what exactly is this miraculous sign pointing to? It’s not clear.

For me, there’s at least a hint here that Jesus loved a party and the delights of life, that following Jesus isn’t about struggle and cross-bearing all the time, but is also about celebrating loving relationships and enjoying plenty of good drink and making merry. I figure his attitude is some of why we ourselves celebrate at weddings.

Or maybe more than permission for us to cut loose, it could signify that God is not a God of stinginess but of abundance. The finest abundance, not to keep cellared but breaking it out to share flagrantly. That metaphor seems like it could fit our Creator.

Or maybe it’s more direct than God providing our general festivities. At the end of the next chapter, in his last appearance, John the Baptist will refer to Jesus as the bridegroom. So is this miracle supposed to be a celebration of us being wedded to Jesus (as it has it some places in the Bible)? As I hold onto those possibilities, I’m not sure exactly what the sign means.

And if I consider those might be what this sign is indicating, for the kind of Christian who would frequently put a lot more stock in miracles than I do and who would be eager to accept each word of the Bible as factual accuracy, they may actually point away instead of following this direction. There are some of those literalist and fundamentalist sorts of believers who don’t approve of drinking and so would have to explain away this first sign or ignore something of what it might be indicating.

It’s not only piety that could shape an aversion to this or that our sense of propriety seemed to be (rather backwardly) of a higher standard than God’s interest. There are good reasons to object, obviously foremost including too many instances of alcohol abuse, where an abundance of wine would not be so positive a sign. We distort gifts of God’s goodness in our lives by overconsumption. This sign has that ambiguity, other problems complicating the clarity of its goodness.

But, to reorient, this isn’t probably best conceived as a sign to tell us what God thinks about drinking wine.  This is a sign pointing to God in Jesus.

So maybe we are meant to see God incarnate in Jesus since Jesus can do God’s work of making wine, which we could superstitiously take as the magic of turning grape juice into a fermented beverage. Or maybe more scientifically we appreciate the aspect of God bringing rainfall and growth of grapes. Or God’s work in the mystical edge of how people fall in love. And so on.

But even before trying to figure that out, I can’t help but notice that if this sign is supposed to be showcasing something about Jesus, it seems to do kind of a lousy job. It says this revealed his glory, or made it manifest. Good words for this Epiphany season—reveal and manifest. After his arrival at Christmas, this is a season about helping us understand who Jesus is.

Yet within the story, he’s not really revealed. All of it happens behind the scenes. The closest is a parenthetical comment that the servants knew where the winey water came from when the chief steward tasted it, who then went to congratulate or praise the bridegroom. Jesus gets no credit. So much for his glory. Nobody really seems to know this miracle could be attributed to him. It could’ve just as well been claimed by Wanda the Wondermaker, seated across from Jesus at the banquet table. Maybe Jesus needed to work on his magician’s showmanship and throw some big Voilas and TaDas with a swish of his cape or something.

The thing is, this notion of signs is a pretty big deal in John’s Gospel, but it never really resolves to be clear indicators, at least in the way we’d expect. Signs get mentioned 17 times through the story, but mainly seem to add to confusion rather than clarity in revealing the work of God in Jesus.

The multiplication of bread and fish to feed 5000 is one of the signs, but mostly it increased the people’s appetite for bread rather than making them hunger for Jesus. The healing of a man blind from birth is described as something never done before, but that sign created an argument over whether Jesus was a sinner. And the final and greatest sign of Jesus’ life was calling four-day dead Lazarus out of his tomb, but this resuscitation from death didn’t resolve that Jesus was the giver of life; rather it made the authorities determine to kill him. Against the whole purpose of the signs, and of the Gospel of John itself—that these were so you may believe in Jesus—the summary word at the end of his ministry was “Although he had performed many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him” (12:37).

The reverse troubling side to me is that while they had signs that didn’t make a difference, we want signs we don’t get. We may say that if we could see, we’d believe. We just ask for a sign from God, a clear indicator, something that can make us know and trust. So people would like it if I could change water to wine. Following that advancing pattern in the Gospel, being able to multiply bread and feed the hungry could provide great relief. We deeply long for cures to our illnesses and infirmities. Finally, in a question of proliferating signs already asked in the Gospel story itself (11:37): if Jesus could call Lazarus out of the tomb, how come Jesus isn’t still doing that now?

I suppose there’s an edge of being able to say that we know from the story that he did it, so we are able to believe in Jesus, that it’s not about changing all the water to wine or about resuscitating every last dead person. Or maybe we say that these are isolated indicators of God’s larger work, that God is striving to feed the hungry and will indeed raise us all from death into eternal life.

I guess my final difficulty with signs is that I distrust them. That’s not where I want to hang my theological cap, since signs seem so much to be the opposite of what we’re up to here. Scripture says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Hope and faith don’t have clear revelation. They remain bound with doubt and uncertainty, as unsettling as that is.

It may rightly make us wonder how we can be so assured and convinced when we have no proof, no clear sign. With that surprising sense, I want to share words from Martin Luther King. He said:

In recent months I have also become more and more convinced of the reality of a personal God….In the past years the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category which I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. Perhaps the suffering, frustration, and agonizing moments which I have had to undergo occasionally as a result of my involvement in a difficult struggle have drawn me closer to God….In the midst of outer dangers I have felt and inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose.*

There’s surprise in that for me, because Dr. King’s sign pointed the opposite direction we’d expect. He doesn’t say that he can believe and trust God because the efforts for justice in the Civil Rights movement were advancing so well, much less because he was inexplicably saved from the assassin’s knife. It wasn’t in abundance or what we call blessing that he was convinced of God and confident in hope, but rather in suffering, frustration, and agonizing moments.

I wouldn’t try to commend struggles to you so that you could have a sign of God. But I suppose that with Dr. King there are many of us who admit that that can be the case, who know that when the going gets tough, that’s exactly when faith is such a strong and apparent resource.

Maybe that’s also why the Gospel of John doesn’t find Jesus manifest in glory as one whom everybody understands and likes, where it’s a party whenever he’s around, and who does just what we want and gives us everything we ask, but instead says that the clearest sign of God is as Jesus is lifted up on the cross. That is glory. That is our sign.

So might it be that we usually look the wrong direction? We figure the sign points to an end result. But maybe these stories aren’t that the sign is more wine, more bread, more health, longer life. Maybe it’s that through Jesus we’re also supposed to see God showing up in the lack, when we’re in tears and confronting death, amid the exclusions and disabilities of our bodies and of culture, when we’re hungering for more, and even amid the shame and social distress and hospitality failure of a spoiled party when the wine has run out. At those moments of despair, large and small, maybe we’re realizing God’s presence comes to those low and hurting and deadly places.

And further in that way, rather than a faith that goes hunting to discover God in each little glimmer or that tries to attribute the coincidences of fermenting yeast and healing of cells and averting of death, rather than that guesswork and chasing after our own imagined signs or their lack, I trust the God who is with us in sorrow and torment, who isn’t waiting to show up in odd phenomena, but who has promised to be found fully and infinitely present in a remarkably small tidbit of bread and non-abundant sip of wine, in the water of the font joining you to death and the hope of resurrection, and this Word of God—that was from the beginning—speaking to you even with the voice of a wisenheimer who was rude to his mother. That’s our revelation, the sign of this hidden God, as unspectacular and unclear as it may be, and those very regular and inglorious places are just where we need God to be found.

 

* in A Testament of Hope, p40

Standard

Amos: Justice Rolls Down

sermon on Amos 1:1-2, 5:14-15, 21-24
Can I suggest this image of justice and flowing waters must apply to the economic policies of President Reagan, even though it may first ring in your ears associated with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement?

Such observations occur for these six weeks of the Narrative Lectionary, that the words of prophets, the word of the Lord continues to speak, to have varied voice. That’s true, though we isolate some of these passages as applying only to one instance—whether the Civil Rights era for today or amid Handel’s Messiah and Christmas Eve services with next week’s reading from Isaiah. We take the impression that the words have a solitary application.

But that misses several layers of their importance. First, we must remain aware that the prophets weren’t just offering future forecasts, making predictions about a Messiah, as if their message had to wait for hundreds of years to make any sense at all, and now we only look back to verify that their prognostications about Jesus were correct.

The prophets were speaking a message from God, of God’s will and purpose, of God’s command and God’s blessing, primarily to the people of their own time, even if the significance became more timeless. Just as it wouldn’t make sense for me to give a sermon that wasn’t for you but was a time capsule communication for 500 years from now, the words of the prophets were meant and had meaning for their own time and place and people.

So Amos was speaking to his culture’s prosperity, but also injustice. His nation was expanding and profiting, but the benefits weren’t equally shared. People were taking bribes and spurning the courts, selling shoddy merchandise at rip-off prices. They built fancy houses with good landscaping. They lounged on beds of ivory, got dolled up in finery, and went all out enjoying feasts to gulp down bowls of wine with entertainment, but weren’t in the least grieved over distress around them. Amos observed these “fat cows” (as he called them) had too much ease, too much luxury, while others went hungry and poor.

And Amos declared God was against that.

That may seem second-nature to us, but Amos is an entirely new voice within biblical history. It hadn’t addressed God’s concern about economic injustice. Amos speaking of God’s displeasure and opposition for having too much at the neighbor’s expense, and that detrimentally affecting relationships with God—that was a new insistence.

Although Amos was addressing inequality in his own time, these words aren’t isolated to that period. We apply them in other ways, as well. So a central aspect and second layer of importance is in how we understand Jesus as the embodiment of God’s presence partly because he embodies the words of the prophets. From the emphasis of Amos, we recognize Jesus as living out God’s justice, striving for a religion that connects to the wellbeing of the poor, not simply paying lip service to relationships with God and with society. Jesus portrays that living rightly for the marginalized is inherent and vital in relating to God. In our Gospel window today, Jesus says he himself is the living, flowing water to quench the thirst of those who long for justice. Amos had no way of knowing about Jesus, but if he had lived three quarters of a millennium later, Amos would’ve seen Jesus personifying his message.

So the words of Amos were first spoken to his own time. But they are not left as ancient and dead words from 2700 years ago. We also find their fulfillment in Jesus. And the third layer of importance is in other situations and settings where these words keep resonating, as a living message, empowered by the Spirit of God.

So Martin Luther King could take this message, could tweak the wording, and could speak the voice of a long gone biblical sheep owner and dresser of sycamore trees, then to confront racism. This “mighty stream” Martin Luther King proclaimed became one of his favorite images, including in his “I Have a Dream” speech, where in part he said:

We can never be satisfied as long as African Americans are the victims of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We cannot be satisfied as long as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity. We cannot be satisfied as long as some cannot vote and others believe they have nothing for which to vote. No, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

There it is, Amos again talking through the most famous speech of the 20th Century, not with the old historical moment of ignorant luxury, but a new moment of voting rights and segregation and white supremacy, yet maintaining Amos’s impatience and dissatisfaction at how domineering injustices linger.

Moving to our time, and because Amos was part of shaping this awareness of and resistance to injustice, I want to share a few sentences of a modern instance about elites, echoing the old injustice, in a new book by Naomi Klein. She writes:

What matters is that not one of them appears to be worried about climate change. The early catastrophic events are playing out mostly in poor parts of the world, where the people are not white. And when disasters do strike…, there are growing numbers of ways for the wealthy to buy their relative safety…They will lose some beachfront property, sure, but nothing that can’t be replaced with a new mansion in the mountains…Almost every one of them is catastrophically unconcerned…In an age of ever-widening income inequality, a significant cohort of our elites are walling themselves off not just physically but also psychologically, mentally detaching themselves from the collective fate of the rest of humanity.*

That condemnation strikes me as a fairly exact parallel of Amos’s critique of those who lie on beds of ivory and neglect the poor at the edge of town. And that’s not only a rebuke from Naomi Klein and Amos, but from God. God is against this elitism that would wall ourselves off from the problems others are having at our expense. That is evil, says the Lord.

Now, all of that might make us question effect. Was God’s message received in Amos’s time? Was it effective in changing the attitudes or behavior of the rich people in oblivious leisure? We don’t know. Martin Luther King’s message still needs to be repeated for our white ears. Naomi Klein may not be speaking directly to the situation of us in this room as climate denying elites, but it’s a message that resonates in our lives anyway and at the very least needs to be spoken.

Finally, however, I’m also aware that in a few minutes we will be offering our pledges of how we use our time and our skills and our financial resources. Almost certainly, Amos’s message of economic justice is relevant and should affect our consideration for those decisions and dedications.

That realization that this matters for what we do brings me back around to President Reagan. For weeks now, I’ve been thinking about Amos’s vision of justice as ever-flowing waters, and Martin Luther King’s take on it as a mighty stream, which seems to contrast starkly with the term “trickle-down economics.” President Reagan claimed the top having more would drip down to everyone else. While things have gotten significantly better for those few, by some measures it has actually worsened for many and by all measures income equality is more disparate. The pool for the rich is growing, while the trickle to other 90% of us is drying up.**

Now, obviously that has much broader policy implications. It goes with the conversations about reforming the tax code. And the voice of Amos—indeed, the voice of God—should be part of that discussion, and it may be for us to offer that prophetic voice.

Instead of the slow trickle of justice, God calls us to open the floodgates, to un-dam the river, to gush with goodness. And though the implications can be much broader, still as we gather for worship, we have the chance to practice. We can practice speaking and hearing the truth. We practice envisioning new realities. We live into the justice God calls us to. And our pledges and offerings are a vital part of that. It is the practice of not holding back the floodgates, not keeping dammed up what we either consider our own or have failed to notice we retain at the expense of others who need more. Our worship is an opening for the outpouring of justice.

I confess I don’t suggest this devotional practice lightly, knowing that the largest chunk of what you give here goes to fund me. So I will say, thank you. And with that realization, know that I am swimming eagerly in these waters with you, responding to the invitation to let it flow abundantly and give freely, again increasing by an additional 6% what flows from my hands—or, better, through my hands—for God’s work. Thank you for hearing this prophetic message anew and letting it work on you today, because that is how God comes to quench your thirst also.

 

 

 

* No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, p180

** http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/jan/13/elizabeth-warren/warren-average-family-bottom-90-percent-made-more-/

Standard

Abundant Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard

Inauguration Vigil for Climate Change

Reflection for Vigil of First 100 Hours of a New Presidency on Climate Change

A lot depends on perspective in these days, and so depending on your perspective, you might find it either a fitting coincidence or grotesquely ironic that this week ending in inauguration began with the observance of Martin Luther King day.

Whether good or ill, I’ve been considering the Rev. King’s words and example amid this moment. There are, again, things both more and less helpful.

Less helpful to me feels that grand reassurance oft repeated by Rev. King, that the arc of the moral universe is long but that it bends toward justice. Overall, I have that hope in God’s blessing and promise. Yet we’re gathered in vigils around the country in these days particularly recognizing that we don’t have time for a long arc. We can’t wait for eventuality. The fate of so much wellbeing on our planet—on lives already as well as generations to come and the very shape of creation’s community as we know it—direly is demanding our concern.

On that note, Rev. King also impatiently resisted those who asked him to wait for more favorable conditions. He witnessed such revolutionary times where people all over the globe “are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression.” Almost 50 years ago he gave a famous speech explaining the challenge that resisting racism connected to resisting war. Or—in others of his famous phrases—that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and that we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

We see today a similar expanse of overlapping categories and the calling to a common cause. Climate change is about saving polar bears from extinction, but climate change is also about native communities in Alaska melting through the permafrost. And climate change is about refugees and low-lying cities that are already facing expensive emergencies, and climate change is about women’s rights as villagers have to walk farther and farther for water, and climate change is about rural lives, as agriculture in Wisconsin will be battling more and more pests, and climate change is about health care facing pandemics for the poor and elderly, and climate change is about recreation and tourism, and avoidably about the Department of Natural Resources and the Public Service Commission (and their websites) and climate change is about politics and is about the economy, both tied together in the shameless greed of fossil fuel companies trying to profit in the face of impending disaster. Climate change is about the fullness of who we are, which also means climate change is about religion, is about God, about the faith we practice, about our sin and our hope, is about the deepest of our beliefs and corest of our commitments.

I’ll conclude with words Rev. King delivered those 50 years ago which speak for us here, now, and invite our ongoing devotion:  We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. [he said]… Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons [and daughters] of God, and our brothers [and sisters] wait eagerly for our response. … [W]hatever the cost … and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must [act] in this crucial moment of human [and non-human!] history.

Standard

sermon on The Baptism of Our Lord

(Matthew3:13-17, Acts10:34-43)

 

The first thing for today is an explanation and apology. Epiphany is January 6, and this festival of the Baptism of Our Lord is usually the first Sunday after Epiphany, which was last Sunday, but we were celebrating our choral service. So when you have to explain to friends and classmates and coworkers tomorrow that your church is a little slow, I apologize for that. We’ll see if we can fix it by the end.

In spite of our slowness, this was worth not bypassing. Actually, Jesus says that right in the Gospel reading. John the Baptist wanted to skip past it, to avoid the baptism of Jesus, but Jesus says, “Nope. We need this.”

We may wonder what about the baptism of Jesus we need, or why this is worth paying attention to. We may ask, does it tell us something important about Jesus, or is it because it tells us something important about us?

To start reflecting on this occasion, it sure seems that the baptism of Jesus is not like ours. I mean, we had nine baptisms here this past year, most of them when we were gathered together for Sunday worship services. You were here and part of those experiences. So how would you describe them? Nice? Community-building? Good to see young families and cute babies?

Nobody said that at a single one of those baptisms the roof was torn off the building, a bright light shone in on the child or a dove came to rest on them. And the voices we heard didn’t come echoing with the thunder but were plain old regular human voices. So we might draw distinctions that the baptism of Jesus was extraordinary, was special, very different from our baptism.

With that, another line is often drawn that our baptism washes away sins, but Jesus didn’t have any sins to wash away. Matthew doesn’t seem concerned about making that theological point in this story. I mention it partly because we have a bad conception of sin, mostly viewing it as the nasty little secrets and bad habits and quirky peccadilloes and guilty pleasures, but that is really a weak definition of sin.

More than that, though, this account of the baptism of Jesus isn’t trying to tell us about what Jesus isn’t, but who Jesus is. That gets obscured by how our lectionary chooses pericopes, or little snippets, lifted out of the larger context. Here are the verses right before today’s reading: John the Baptist proclaimed “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but a more powerful one than I is coming after me; I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor and…burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (3:10-12)

Against all that fierceness, you could feel the tone shift as if our reading today began with a big but: but “then Jesus came.” John seems to have expected a tough guy, busting in, taking charge, tossing out the bums. But Jesus comes, not with the ax or burning chaff or in all his glory, but comes and asks to be baptized.

That’s the first important thing we learn here about Jesus. Asking what it tells us, while you could take it that Jesus needed to repent or was just a wimp, it’s better and more likely that his means and ends weren’t John’s. So he could be modeling what it’s like to turn from our own ways and toward God’s way. Or showing us that God’s grace is never earned but always received as a gift. Maybe he goes through with it so we can hear about the Spirit resting on him and the voice calling him the Beloved Son. Maybe it’s about the importance of baptism.

That raises the next question, of whether the baptism of Jesus is like our baptisms or is completely different. By the simple fact that there aren’t these miraculous phenomena at our baptisms, does that mean we’re left with something second rate?

I’d argue wholeheartedly against that. I firmly believe some of the point in this story about Jesus is so we can understand the same thing in our baptisms. Even though you couldn’t see the Spirit descending on you, and even though it sounded like my voice, or like some pastor’s voice, or whoever did it, still by means of your baptism, with that splash of water, God was declaring: I choose you. You are my son. You are my daughter. I love you. I’m pleased with you. That message of claiming you always and delighting in you no matter what is exactly the purpose and reason for baptism.

Your baptism expressly connects you to Jesus. Within our baptismal liturgy, that’s proclaimed in words of prayer saying, “At the river your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Holy Spirit. By the baptism of Jesus’ death and resurrection you set us free from the power of sin and death and raise us up to live in you.” That’s why the paschal candle is rekindled today, as a reminder that your baptismal candles share that flame, a symbol of Jesus’ death and resurrected presence. As we remember our baptisms in a minute, we renew the covenant connection with newness of life in Jesus.

That points to another aspect of reflection for this day. There have been times when we associated baptism with going to heaven, through the promise of eternal life. That was vital yesterday at the memorial service for John Goltermann, for example. It can be the central promise for baptism in newborn intensive care units.

But mostly, when we gather in church and when we need to think about our baptisms, it isn’t because we’re worried about going to heaven. It isn’t only about death and resurrection like rising from the grave, but is dying to an old way of living and newness of life we’re living into already.

We have some of that perspective from Martin Luther. Today you have in bulletins the first bit of his Small Catechism, and it will be most of the way through this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation before we get to the section on baptism, but for a preview, Luther reminds us that baptism means a daily dying and rising. It’s not only amid tragedy or after we’ve drawn our last breath, but is about how we’re rising to live each and every day. It’s not just an eventuality, but is actually changing you here and now.

This is similar to a discussion with Confirmation students and their families and mentors this week, that it’s foolish to think of Confirmation as happening once and for all, that in the spring of 8th grade you’re able to say, Yep, I agree with this faith and am interested in participating in it. Rather, every single day we could be Confirmed, could gather here at church and say to each other, here’s what I believe today and where I’m left wondering, here’s what I find important, here’s how I expect God is working in me and in this world. That every-day-Confirmation would be essentially the remembrance of baptism, the daily dying and rising, the repentance of trying to orient our lives on what God is calling us toward and working in us.

The ongoing reality of living as beloved by God and embodying that for daily existence was also the case for Jesus; if it would’ve only been about his death, about his ending on the cross and the promise of new life from the tomb, then Jesus could’ve been baptized near the very end of the Gospel. Instead he does it right away, so we know this promise and the presence of the Holy Spirit with him in all of his life, in all that he does, with the power to go “about doing good and [struggling against] the devil,” as we heard Acts describe his ministry. Again paralleling our lives, most of us were baptized as infants, not as an insurance against something bad, but as assurance that God’s blessing is with us in all that happens to us, throughout our lives and beyond, giving us power to keep doing what’s right.

I began with an apology that you’d have to say your congregation is a little slow, but also wanted to redeem that slowness. For your existence this week, you may need the promise of God’s presence and some hope for life. This week, as we face new beginnings which may be accompanied by worries and challenging tasks and so many possibilities of striving to embody God’s goodness in our world, here to conclude are words of encouragement and blessing from Martin Luther King Jr.:quote-our-only-hope-today-lies-in-our-ability-to-recapture-the-revolutionary-spirit-and-go-martin-luther-king-55-75-20

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to [hu]mankind as a whole … This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all [hu]mankind.

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. … We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. …

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons [and daughters] of God, and our brothers [and sisters] wait eagerly for our response.*

That’s what your baptism is for. Amen

 

 

* from “A Time to Break Silence” in A Testament of Hope, p242-244

* from “A Time to Break Silence” in A Testament of Hope, p242-244

Standard