sermon for Pride Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Heaven-ish Empire

sermon on Matthew4:12-23; 1Corinthians1:10-18

 

This Sunday marks the anniversary of Pastor Sonja and me starting here and preaching our first sermons at MCC. It makes me think back to those days a year ago, meeting you, figuring out how this wild system of two shared congregations functions, and details for an annual meeting a week away, and even what streets to take to get here.

This Gospel reading has a similar feel, right? So much happening at once. It’s the first glimpse of Jesus’ ministry (not that I’m trying to compare myself to him, I’m just talking hectic beginnings) with many details of him moving to a new home, he’s preaching, he’s meeting people, calling them to follow (and they have their own hectic new beginnings), Jesus is going around healing and teaching and curing. Bizzy!

But amid the details of this first glimpse of a public Jesus and what he’ll be up to until the end, one bit right away grabbed my attention this week. The passage starts: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested…” That detail feels peculiar. It seems to indicate that Jesus’ ministry didn’t come out of fulfilled preparation or special readiness. It didn’t say, “Now after Jesus had earned his Master of Divinity degree and was approved by the synod…” Nor does it attribute this to internal enthusiasm with some sort of spiritual motivation, that God nudged Jesus to use his gifts as who he was truly meant to be. He wasn’t looking for opportunity, as if perusing job listings and weighing his options until he decided to pack up shop and move down to the lakeshore instead of staying with the family carpentry business back in his hometown.

No, what really seems to have gotten the ball rolling on what Jesus would accomplish in a couple short years and what would try to be shut down and stifled as he was executed, and what continues as the movement that maybe your parents introduced you to when you were but an infant and that keeps bringing you here now, what started all of this huge and vital process, according to that first sentence from Matthew this morning, was a crisis, was that John got arrested.

Again, just to make sure we’re really getting it, that wouldn’t have been the obvious choice. If Jesus felt close to John and was impressed by him and even echoed some of John’s preaching, then this isn’t exactly when he should take up the mantle of a mentor, but would’ve been a good time to lay low and hide out and not make waves. Not only does Jesus start his work amid a moment of crisis, but clearly from John’s example, this is dangerous.

That is emphasized by the setting in the reading, though it doesn’t quite jump out at us. Matthew likes to quote from the Hebrew Bible and tell us that Jesus was fulfilling those writings. He does it 15 times, way more than any other writer. We need not take it as if prophets were predicting details about Jesus so much as Matthew saw the old story, God’s story resonates in the life of Jesus, and the ancient story has continuity in this new community.

At any rate, in this case the words from the Isaiah that Matthew uses describe Jesus’ setting as the land “on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Being under the shadow of death certainly must be a description for crisis and danger, so there’s that awareness with the start of Jesus’ ministry.

Still more, it describes Capernaum as “on the road by the sea” and as a region “of the Gentiles.” Those are doubly dangerous terms. The region of Gentiles indicates it’s far from the heart of the faith. This isn’t amid other Jewish believers near the temple in Jerusalem, but is out in the hinterlands, surrounded by non-believers.

Maybe worse, this so-called “road by the sea” means the Via Maris, an ancient highway that ran from Egypt to Damascus and far beyond. It was a route for international trade under the supervision of the Roman Empire. Those people who have sat in darkness far from the safe nightlight glow of their religious stronghold were instead under the watchful lurking eye of a foreign government’s military occupation. Capernaum was a highway wayside, where people were trying to eke out existence as a meager and maybe forlorn group of believers. These people are at all kinds of apparent loss—of their health, of their security, of control, of any sort of prestige and power. And Jesus himself is at a loss as John the Baptist has been imprisoned.

To reiterate once more: in that dark setting, Jesus began. Amid this shadow of loss, the light Jesus casts is counter to the empire. Again, it may not jump out in our translation, but he’s confrontational when he says that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Rather than picturing a palace in the clouds, we could more meaningfully title it something like “the heaven-ish empire.” This is the same when Jesus has us pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.” It’s about how God would have earth run, the shape of life under God’s authority instead of Caesar’s. It should leave no surprise from the get-go that darkness tries to overcome light and such talk and such actions are going to get Jesus crucified; he is boldly proclaiming this new empire in enemy territory, offering an alternative community directly in the face of reigning powers.

Again, as he calls those first pairs of brothers, he’s transferring or relocating them out of the kingdom of Rome. In leaving behind their nets and boats and role as fishermen, Jesus is pulling them out of a job that was indentured labor for the imperial economy. These guys paid taxes in order to get out on the water, and then their catch mostly went to palaces of oppressive leaders. They weren’t enjoying Friday night fish fries of what they caught; rather, they were left with only boiled down glueyness of guts and otherwise unappealing parts of the fish. Jesus is inviting them to abandon that life of captivity for a risky new role of fishing for people.

The same vision of the heaven-ish empire’s new community is also embodied in the mention of healings. One theologian says the Gospel talks so much about sick people because “Roman imperial structures and practices were bad for people’s health. Some 70-90 percent of folks in Rome’s empire experienced varying degrees of poverty… [and] Such factors resulted in widespread diseases associated with poor nutrition (blindness; muscle weakness etc.) and a lack of immunity (diarrhea; cholera etc.)…[So] Jesus’ healings are acts that repair imperial damage and enact God’s life-giving empire in restoring people’s lives.”*

Though that could be close to raising questions of government and health care, our reading from 1st Corinthians portrays this new community in ways which might be still closer to our reality gathered here. Paul reiterates that we are people of the cross, baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Rather than the too-human distinctions of earthly power structures, this is our core identity now. Again, this transfers your allegiance from the old kingdom into the new community of equals, of mutual care, of shared responsibility. We don’t define ourselves against each other, but with each other, together.

Paul’s appeal is that in Jesus we should recognize no divisions among ourselves, but should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. In that congregation, it meant revising how they settled legal disputes and how they served meals and how they viewed the less talented among them. It reconfigured relationships between the wealthy and poor, the high class and the hungry, the wisely cultured and the vulnerably foolish, how they interacted in marital relationships and sexual ethics, and even how they understood the living and the dead.

I’m going to break there. That’s loads of ancient background, though I hope it helps you sense how vibrant and vital this gathering here is, critical (amid crisis), a matter of death and new life, confrontation with empires on each other’s behalf. It’s the spreading graciousness of the heaven-ish empire that is welcoming you, continuing to transfer you to a new community and to strengthen your resistance. In shorthand, this Godly way of meeting the darkness of crisis with the light of enlarged caring community is often known briefly as “love.”

I’m not going to spell out specifics of how to love or to do better at living into this central and critical identity we share in Christ, of how you’re enacting the ancient story, or go into political descriptions, or forecast what standing up against imperial forces means in our world now among crises and dangers we face in our own dark setting.

Instead, with just a brief glimpse of the struggle in more modern settings, I want to share another passage from Martin Luther King, in which he happens to use our Bible passage from this morning. Here you go: He begins in noting the “sad fact” that we resist participating in the beloved community because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of [enemies], and our proneness to adjust to injustice…[Yet, he says,] These are revolutionary times. All over the globe [people] are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” …America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of [love] will take precedence over the pursuit of [hate]. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brother [and sister]hood.**

And, with that reiteration of Jesus’ invitation and sharing Rev. King’s expectancy of new birth, finally the one other reflection I offer was shared with me that the darkness around us isn’t always the darkness of the tomb, but may be the darkness of the womb as we’re emerging into the light of new possibilities, new life, new relationships. I continue to be glad to be sharing that with you.

 

* https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3138 (Warren Carter)

** “A Time to Break Silence” in A Testament of Hope, p241-2

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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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Good Friday

(Luke 22&23)
Is this the will of God?

That seems to be today’s essential—if hard and to some degree unanswerable—question. We could well declare that this story does not go how we want it to, so it has to raise the issue of willpower, of whether Jesus wanted this to happen. Did he know he was going to get himself killed? It almost fits with the parental critique, that rhetorical question for playing in the street, “Do you want to get run over?!” Jesus must’ve known he was poking the bear, provoking an overpowering reaction. So was it a suicide mission? A pyrrhic victory? Losing the battle to win the war, to misappropriate violent language? We may count this a tragedy of an innocent victim, but others saw Jesus as a threat.

More still: was it a divine purpose? Did God plan on or intend this? We heard Jesus’ petition, “Not my will but yours be done,” a dangerous prayer. Isaiah’s poem of the Suffering Servant is also often paired with this day, in part declaring, “It was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain” (53:10).

Yet if we want to claim this was against the will of God, that God is anti-death, then we have to understand that means God didn’t get God’s way. Pontius Pilate got his way. Today, it would seem his will was more powerful than God’s. The Roman Empire and their violent version of peace, through oppression and extortion—or bread and circuses—were, at best, diversions distracting from the larger freedom and wellbeing of the reign of God. Or perhaps we place blame with the selfish religious authorities getting what they wanted, getting rid of the Messiah figure, the popular hero. In today’s terminology, yet another triumph for the 1%.

That also confronts with us these other passion stories (of Gandhi, Oscar Romero, MLK, Berta Cáceres, Stormi, Bree Newsome, and Larycia Hawkins). If it’s not God’s will for such modern saints to die, to be mocked, to be sacrificed, then what? We needs better than an inspiring educational moment of Jesus showing us to give it our all, to love with everything we’ve got, to stand up for what we believe in to the last. We can never fully say that a death is “worth it,” so Jesus and these others must be more than martyred for the cause. We need the arc of history to bend better. It’s not enough to say that God stands on our side and can be encouraged in following what we’ve discerned to be the will of God.

And what about undeserved death and senseless suffering that isn’t trying to unmask injustice? What about Brussels or Syria? What about mothers who mourn? What about the poem’s dead whales and native trees and emaciated people and all the bodies of this world? Or what about Lynne Schultz in the hospital this week, who said Holy Week has more meaning because of her struggles there, wondering if God had forsaken her. What does this will of God mean for those who have been hurting and excluded or facing death if this isn’t directly addressing the problem to redeem the situation? What about relationships that fall apart? What when we’re simply trying to live our lives how we think we ought and it doesn’t go right? Why are things this way? Why death? Why losses? Why victims? Why persistent injustice? Why not salvation? Why aren’t things better? Why do we still have so much hard work in front of us, so much to lament? Where is God in all of this? Is God silent?

If so, maybe this is the most foolish of times to open my mouth, that the time to speak is Sunday, when our lips are loosed for Alleluias and we get the come-from-behind victory. Yet today, God, too, weeps. God grieves. Too much does not go how God wants it to. Too much is sin. Too much is hatred. Too much interrupts God’s striving for justice, for wellbeing, for life. In addressing it, our God dies.

With all that, it is not just silence, but also a day of hard words, especially from Jesus:

“Father, forgive them”—as if fraudly, immoral incompetence were excusable and, in the end, redeemable.

“Don’t weep for me; weep for yourselves”—as if we’d prefer not even to try engaging these difficult times, would wish to avoid it all and just save ourselves.

And, finally, “your will be done”—a dangerous prayer, because the will of God may lead us to confront death and all its agents, and that will lead us out of death into life.

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Football, MLK, and What Matters

The Packers aren’t going to the Super Bowl. This adds to much writing about it, although from a less popular perspective—not to be contrary but out of concern. Among the many social media posts, my brother-in-law commented that he took out the loss on his punching bag in the garage instead of hitting his wife, my sister. It was an honest comment, one that was trying to be healthy in assessing the many positives of his life and declaring that the outcome of the football game didn’t lead to more negatives. But the note made me sick to my stomach. So did many other comments about the game.

It is, after all, a game. The point of games is that they should be fun and should probably build community or strengthen relationships, contributing to emotional health (if not physical fitness). It may be argued that the many voices of lamentation are some sort of commiseration—literally, of sharing misery, a collection of grief. Yet that strikes me as falling short of community with compassion or sympathy, words that are about sharing suffering.

Of course, I see most things through a theological lens. I can’t quite shake questions of god being where ultimate devotion and allegiance are placed, seeming to make of sports a pantheon of polytheisms. More importantly and directly, yesterday morning I preached about making distinctions on what is beneficial. I believe this is a question of caring for ourselves paired with loving and serving those around us. Is a team more important, for example, than family? What is worse than this loss?

So I’m sad and disappointed in the passionate investment over the football game. It is misplaced priority, wasted emotion. It is fruitless hope and misperceived tragedy. Notice how much happiness people put at stake: even if life hasn’t seemed that great, if only the Packers would go to the Super Bowl that would make things good. How is life actually, really, honestly better if a team you like plays another game? In the meantime, I hear of many yelling throughout the game at their TV screens. What is that anger accomplishing?

With the observance of Martin Luther King day, reflecting on a dream that continues to be deferred, on what he called the “fierce urgency of now” and the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism,” what if we invested that passion instead into improving the lives of each other, of our society, of our planet?

Instead of this being a moment where somebody—anybody—wanted to abuse his spouse, what if we were to strive and celebrate that no spouse should be abused for any reason, that we stand with those who really are hurting, that games may be fun but ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬, that there is more to life? What if our loyalty and our knowledge and dedication were invested instead in helping each other, and we refused diversions or distraction from what is truly important?

If the question even arises in your mind whether life is less valuable or fulfilling after a sports loss, shut off the game.

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Pants, Fig Trees, & Beneficial Distinctions

Sermon for 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 18 Jan 15

John1:43-51 Psalm139:1-6,13-18 1Samuel3:1-11 1Corinthians6:12-20
Since a bunch of you asked about them, here’s my much ballyhooed pair of pants, the ones made famous by Tim’s sermon last week.

2015-01-18 12.31.50

The story is I crashed my bike riding to one of our Monona outreach events. They’d been a gift, were still pretty new and hadn’t gotten used up, so I patched ‘em. Mostly I dress nicer for work, but I did wear these for the “God’s Work. Our Hands” project on Homecoming Sunday since we were going to get dirty serving at Winnequah School. Nate McConnell saw the red patch during worship and was worried I was bleeding.

Today I wore them not just to showcase but to make a point, or to raise distinctions of what counts as a distraction versus being central to faith, a question of what’s appropriate and right and beneficial.

It comes up in part because of our Gospel reading, with one of my favorite Bible verses, because it seems so random and quirky (which, you probably know, appeals to me). The line is when Jesus tells Nathanael “I saw you under the fig tree.” Yet Nathanael reacts with a ridiculously astounded confession of faith: You saw me under the fig tree? Wow! You’re God almighty! It’s goofy. Almost no commentators in the history of Christianity give it any special value or meaning.

Sure, figs pop up on occasion in the Bible. In a different strange story, Jesus cursed a fig tree because, out of season, it had no snack for him. Adam and Eve made the first clothes by sewing together fig leaves. Through the Old Testament the sweet fruit of fig trees, along with grape vines, signaled an established home. Maybe that’s what this fig tree is doing located here in the Gospel of John, signaling that Nathanael was at home. Instead of being a fisherman out in his boat as we’ll hear with calling disciples from Mark next week, maybe Nathanael is a landlubber hanging around the farm. Or maybe he was lazy and taking a snooze in the shade. It could even be that it was someone else’s tree and he was stealing figs.

Probably the fig tree doesn’t really symbolize anything about Nathanael or his relationship with Jesus, remaining an obscure, trivial detail.

But that would be just fine, because the overall point is that Jesus is concerned about you, in all the obscure, silly, trivial, asinine moments and details of your life. Nathanael could’ve been in a boat. He could’ve been in school or in a jail or at a store. It just so happens that he was under a fig tree for whatever reason, and that’s where Jesus found him.

Which brings me back to my pants. I usually dress up more, and believe there’s still value in “Sunday best” clothes fitting God’s extreme goodness to us. I try to look nice during the week to respect and acknowledge that the Lord is with you (just as we declare in our greetings), making all the moments of your life important. Still the reverse side of it is needing to remember that God is with you even when we don’t look our best. Even in hospital gowns or shabby sweat pants, still the presence of God abides with you. Are you getting the feel for these distinctions?

To go beneath your clothing, our Psalm proclaims that your body is created by God with care and delight. There’s no regrettable part of you that so ultimately disappoints God, no blemish or infirmity that would make God stop loving you. God declares that you look marvelous. We could probably extend that to your clothes. You don’t need to be embarrassed of your clothes, or put extra weight onto them as if something fancier will make God like you better.

Again, we could look at the official garments for worship. Our white albs that we wear to lead worship are actually not supposed to be fancier garb (or pajamas as Jim Wiskowski suggested this morning). They’re supposed to be equalizers. They symbolize all of us being washed clean in baptism, that we’re all pure in Christ. On the other hand, in 11:00 worship, Tim and I don’t wear these white garments. Since these seem more formal, or specialized, we dress instead to look more familiar. Between these two sides, it’s tough to say that one is right and one is wrong. Neither is a petty choice. Both are trying to make a connection between faith and our lives.

One more similar example: Today I put on my red Chuck Taylors. That’s not to match the patch on my pants. To coordinate I would’ve actually preferred wearing green to go with the liturgical color for the day. I chose these because at one point a dozen years ago, I’d written on the bottom “Ephesians 6:15.” That verse says, “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever enables to proclaim the gospel of peace.” Clearly these shoes aren’t the only thing fitting for proclaiming peace in Jesus. But they can fit the bill, even here and now.

To take a bit different approach, let’s return to our 1st reading, of God speaking to a young child. We learn God may call us even when we don’t understand it. God may have something to say not only when we’re sitting in church alert and listening for it, but also in our sleep.

Yet that raises further distinctions. The reading doesn’t mean that the only place you can hear God’s voice is when you go to bed. It doesn’t mean that every dream you have is God trying to call you to a new way of life. It doesn’t mean you can only perceive God’s voice when you’re young before your hearing goes. Again, as the Psalm nicely says, God knows your sleeping and your rising up, watches you as you roam and as you rest, from before your birth until long after your death, God surrounds and holds you.

Martin Luther King covered similar ground in writing, “the worth of an individual does not lie in the measure of intellect, her racial origin, or his social position. In the ultimate and final Christian analysis, human worth lies in relatedness to God. An individual has value because he or she has value to God. Whenever this is recognized, ‘whiteness’ or ‘blackness’ pass away as determinants in a relationship and ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ are substituted.”*

It’s into the midst of this kind of difficult and vital question of society and ethics under God’s unconditional love that Paul tries to navigate in our 2nd reading. If God’s love will never let you go, if your clothes or your body type or your age or your personality don’t determine or prevent God’s blessing for you, then what? “All things are lawful for me,” Paul writes. Nothing can cut you off from God, won’t make God punish you. From the smallest harmful choice like junk food to even something so extreme as fornicating with a prostitute can’t take you away from Christ. As he says in another place, clean or messy is nothing, law-breaking or law-abiding is nothing, but that we are a new creation in Christ is everything! (Gal6:15)

So does that mean anything goes? Are holey cords—that is, corduroys with holes in them—really the holiest choice? Is it alright just to hang out under fig trees? Could Samuel just as well have gone back to sleep, preferring a bit more shut eye instead of having to pay attention to the word of the Lord? If Christ has freed you from the bonds of sin, should you really feel free to sin against other people, or your loved ones? Should you abuse yourself and creation?

Well technically you could.

Your identity is held in Christ. You are claimed as a beloved child of God and member of this family. You are fundamentally a citizen of his kingdom, a creature of his new creation. You are a Jesus person. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. That will be true no matter how you look or how you act. There’s no lightning bolt coming to expel you from this place.

But it’s also true that you’ll serve your neighbor and glorify God by not graffitying up or littering the temple with junk. The question for the day is not if you’re a better disciple than somebody else, if your behavior is more important or holier. It’s more a question of distinctions on what’s beneficial. What will most enable you and others to live into this new reality of God’s abundant grace. What inhibits and what encourages following that beautiful invitation from Jesus of coming to see?

Hymn: Baptized and Set Free (ELW #453)

* “The Ethical Demands for Integration,” in Testament of Hope, p122. Edited for inclusivity.

postscript:  It was with full irony that I talked about my trivial clothes after starting worship with this word of MLK’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail:
“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon blacks, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.
“So here we are moving toward the exit of the 20th century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading us to higher levels of justice.”

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