Called In, Led In, Filled In, too

a new hymn for the 2019 Confirmands of the Madison Christian Community

Called In, Led In, Filled In, too

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Seeing Stars

a sermon on Genesis15:1-6

Look to the Stars

As one facing childlessness, this reading of Abram feels burdensome to me. Why no child, God? God clarifies and repeats a promise. But, I have to ask, how does Abram encounter that promise and what actually is God’s promise today?

We’re beginning a second year of the Narrative Lectionary for Bible readings. Last week, we heard generally about earth and generic earthlings. Now the story takes a very different turn, from a broad statement of all creation and all humankind to this particular story, one person instead of the whole human family, one individual leading to universal benefit.

In a significant way, this is the start of our story, past the background stuff. (Though we might make the same point when we get into Exodus in a couple weeks. Or you probably even feel more that way when we get to Jesus and the New Testament in December.)

Still, for origins, you might know that the three great monotheistic religions trace back to Abram, whose relationship to God has been formative to Christians and Jews and Muslims, even as we emphasize and understand that differently. With over 4 billion combined adherents, over half of the world’s population, that is a big number.

But it feels hasty and unsatisfying to chalk that up as if God can hang up a “mission accomplished” banner after four millennia and say that the spiritual heirs of Abram have now spread out like the dust of the earth.

For one thing, it doesn’t address my own personal concern. Nor does it address Abram’s, which is the point of hearing and living again into this story.

To know the fuller narrative, Abram first appeared at the end of chapter 11. Barely has his family tree been named when we’re discovering it’s going to end up a stump. Four verses after he’s introduced, we’re told he’s unlikely to have any children, and not just because he’s already 75 years old.

But by the start of chapter 12, God is making promises to Abram, and keeps reiterating them, about the heritage for Abram’s offspring. Eight times in the following chapters, God voices reassurance of making good on this promise, even when everything seems directly to contradict it.

Now, for Abram the issue was different from how I consider it. For Abram and his time, a child meant life by offering necessary support in old age, that culture’s kind of social security. Descendants were also their version of eternal life—not that I personally would continue to exist, but that something of him would live on in future successors. This is also how God’s work would proceed, through the course of family generations and on in the Bible’s story.

But if the first problem was that this promise seems absurdly impossible, then a second problem is that it’s awfully gradual. We’re already three chapters along at today’s passage, and God is reiterating the promise a third time, and Abram is having to protest, to question, to raise his doubts: Hey God, you keep talking about this, but (in case you hadn’t noticed) I don’t have a lone child, much less plural like the sands of the beach. Right now my hired help is the closest thing I’ve got, and that doesn’t sound like what you keep yakking about.

This chapter reinforces that God will be responsible for making it happen, but it doesn’t move any closer to fulfillment. In the next chapter and eleven years later, Abram does have a child, but this won’t be the one who counts for the promise. It’s another thirteen years when Abram is 99 years old before Isaac is born, a name that means “he laughs.” It almost seems that the laughter wouldn’t be about joyful birth, but a disbelieving scoff that it actually happened, or even a sarcastic chuckle from God, smirking “see, I told you so.”

Abram continues mostly as the focus until he’s laid to rest in chapter 25, then remains the bedrock or roots or seed of this whole story. For the rest of the Bible, one of God’s main identifiers will be “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” the first three generations of this myriad.

So there’s the sweep, but still, for the particularity today: even as God repeats promises, Abram doubts. We shouldn’t picture a patiently persevering patriarch of the faith. It’s not that he can stifle his concerns and assume God will work it out in God’s good time. It’s not that he has the self-confidence and fortitude to take matters into his own hands.

Perhaps, hear this passage with resounding grinding disappointment. Hear it as one who can only see literal dead ends, who simply doesn’t believe it can be possible. Hear it in the peculiar phrase Paul uses for Abram much later in Scripture, that he could only “hope against hope” (Romans 4). Hear it as prayer with nowhere else to turn. And maybe it’s fitting that Abram ends up looking up at the night sky, because he’s sure stuck out in the dark.

These are horribly hard moments when even the littlest things seem like an impossibility, when anything is too much to hope. It’s not just Abram. It’s life’s immobilization. That no matter how hard I try, it won’t work out. Things just don’t go how you want. That we don’t know what to do, so why bother. That progress is preposterous.

In such moments, I need to compliment Abram for voicing his grievance. I mostly end up wordless, with my head in my hands, tears in my eyes, staring out the window and unsure not only what I could do about it, but unsure of my very self. Abram at least can argue with God and not let a bland platitude pretend to be a promise. He won’t stand for God saying, Oh, Abe, Don’t worry. Everything’s gonna be alright. It’ll work out.

Abram’s objection meets God’s exact identity: God always keeps God’s promises. And so it is good to know those promises. God clarifies and repeats. And God clarifies and repeats. And clarifies and repeats. Because we need to keep hearing it, especially when it is incredible, unbelievable, too good to be true, more than we can hope.

Still, I can’t but wonder if God goes a little overboard this time, telling Abram to go out and count the stars. When Abram is concerned about having no children, this is a ridiculous reply, a depiction reinforcing how outlandish God’s promise is. I gave it a shot this week on a clear evening. From my house, even with city lights and trees in the way, I could count 68 stars, plus two planets and an airplane. Setting aside if the extra planets and plane might mean a couple pet dogs and an aardvark, 68 stars says 68 offspring promised to a guy who had none. Figuring that Abram didn’t have to deal with light pollution, around 4500 stars are visible to the naked eye in a night sky. Or we might take the 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. Or maybe God intended a full insight into the septillion or so stars in the universe. Clearly ludicrous to be transferable to God’s promise.

So does Abram take this as good news? Pretty much every commentary I read found encouragement for old Abe, that he had a nightly verification of what was in store. That’s optimistic analysis. From the shoes of a doubter, I wonder if he was feeling his nose rubbed in it. For 24 years, a nightly reinforcement that not only didn’t he have innumerable progeny, but had zilch. So is God sufficient? Abram seems assuaged by the end of the passage. How about you?

I admit this is a weird way to start this year of the Narrative Lectionary, and a weird way for the Bible’s story to get going. It certainly doesn’t mesh with instant gratification or our analytical minds looking for proofs and verification. We want results and we want them now. This isn’t satisfying. For all the confident reassurances, it doesn’t exactly feel very confidently reassuring. I admit that, while refusing to let God’s Word become a little pep talk so that you can go back out there from the sidelines and feel better. Maybe we do celebrate the eventuality of abundant goodness.

But for the most part, we have to recognize that all we’ve got is the promise. Faith. Trust. This is a desperate hope, a blind confidence, believing without seeing. This is a God who offers you the stars as reminder with diddly squat as factual evidence. This is a God in Jesus who says that his presence with you and everlasting life for you is in a bite of bread that’s gone long before you get back to your seat, much less feeling very tangible when you go back out to face fears and real doubts in these hard days. This is a God who continues to accept your concerns and frustrations and wonderings, who fully knows your struggles and sorrows and yet decides to work within those limitations and to reiterate goodness for you. God clarifies and repeats. Clarifies and repeats.

So what is this promise? Abram was supposed to go out and look at the stars and think about having children. But I can’t claim that applies from God to me. I can go out and look at the stars as a reminder that God keeps God’s promises. That ultimate promise is life. And God refuses to have that interrupted or disturbed by any circumstance, by your place in the generations, by foolishness or old age, by family trees or stumps, by lightyears of distance and continuums of spacetime, by apparent impossibilities, by our dim understandings, by doubts or disagreements, dead ends or even death, a promise of life that can’t be beaten by hurricane forces or rigid oppressions or sad endings, by the too-slow turn of history, or even by the too common Monday morning blues and frustrations of the week. That is the promise of life from God that Abram came to count on and is for me, for you to hear and hold and maybe deem right. And so again God clarifies and repeats.

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“I don’t know.”

Easter sermon on John 20:1-18

 

It’s kind of a strange story, so let’s see if we can figure this out:

I heard this morning there was a rabbit roaming around…with eggs. To carry a basket full of eggs, I presume it was some sort of gargantuan bigfoot bunny, which must walk upright, since it couldn’t go hippity-hoppity without spilling eggs. My understanding is that this rabbit was distributing the eggs in surprising locations. Now, I don’t think anybody claims the irregular rabbit laid the eggs, but I’m still not clear if the rabbit stole from our MCC coop, or contracted with magical chickens for specialty eggs in a rainbow of colors, or what. They must be unusual eggs, to come in stripy assortments of vibrant gem tones and pleasant pastels. And with unusual fillings, I think, too, not just plain ol’ yokes.

What do we say about that? Can we figure out how that all came together? Can we know what’s going on here?

There’s an explanation involving connections to the earth and natural cycles, that bunnies and eggs are about spring and fertility and reproduction and abundance and how life persists in nature around us, and therefore can also be celebrated by us.

Sure, I’m in favor of those things. It’s not wrong as an explanation. But it still misses the mark. It explains away the strangeness. I mean, this is a bunny in a bow tie benevolently bouncing along with wicker-ware brimming with brightly shellacked chocolate avian hatchables! That’s not normal!

Take that as my peculiar preface into cautioning against explaining away or writing off this strange Easter saga. We shouldn’t construe that Jesus rising from the dead means the indomitable spirit of life! that love conquers all!! that we shall overcome some day!!! that there are always fresh beginnings!!!! that those who die heroically standing up for what they believe in will never really perish from our memories!!!!!

Blah blah blah.

Again, there’s none of that that’s not true. And it may even find truth embodied in this story. But embodiment takes a body. It’s not just a metaphor. No arbitrary archetype.  Jesus isn’t just a symbol of humanity or a sign of love. Certainly there’s no hint in this Bible reading that it’s so easily and hollowly explained as the triumph of life or the revolutionary spirit any more than this is a story of Jesus popping out of his hole in the ground, rubbing his beady little eyes, glancing around, and declaring in his groundhoggiest grumble that the six more weeks of winter should be up and it’s time for spring. This day isn’t just a seasonal festival, that green things are alive and will return and grow after being dormant and dark through the winter, even though we’re mostly suckered into treating this as a benign holiday, showing up in nice bright cheery clothes to declare the doldrums of Lent behind us, gorge on jelly beans and ham, and look forward to summer.

That doesn’t allow the strangeness to stand. No, through and through this story is dealing with a specific particular, singular conundrum. So to give it credit, we should pay attention.

This account of Jesus’ death and resurrection is shocking and strange. If it were simply about a spirit of justice fighting against oppression, the story could’ve easily run that after Jesus was killed, his followers refused to back down and stormed the gates shouting “remember the Alamo!” and overthrew the authorities and set things right. Or at least that they went down in a blaze of glory. We know such stories. There are even examples from history around the time of Jesus.

But that’s not this strange story. Instead we’ve got Sunday morning and an empty tomb. Maybe to stick us with the strangeness and warn against claiming we’ve got it figured out, the first interpretation comes from Mary Magdalene saying, “We don’t know.” The body is gone and we don’t know where it got put. Right away, there’s something that we don’t understand, the re-entrenched mystery, the lack of clarity and resolution.

That “we don’t know where they’ve laid him” could lead to various speculations. We might transpose this to a Halloween setting and picture Dr. Frankenstein and Eye-gore scavenging as grave robbers. Or maybe like Mary oddly does, we guess a gardener was doing spring cleaning and tidying up by moving corpses around the cemetery?

Whatever it is, notice they’re on the lookout for a body. There’s no sense in here that Jesus is gone because his true self is now up in heaven, that his soul has floated away, that only his earthly remains…remain. No, that rather precisely misses the point. This isn’t our popular notion of death and loss and relocation. This is about a dead body, and eventually encountering a body back to life. Jesus was God in the flesh for us, and this still is in the flesh. The spiritual cannot be separated from that. It can’t get dug up from earth and dislodged from what we know. God is here and in this way. The gospel is insistent on that.

So, hearing the ridiculous report from Mary of this missing body, Peter and the other disciple go sprinting off to the graveyard, evidently needing to get there in a hurry because the dead guy is making a quick getaway and they need to catch up? I don’t know. They observe that—indeed—he’s gone, though the graveclothes are still there.

Then, in an odd verse without much clarification, it says that they “saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand that Jesus must rise from the dead.” And then they went home. I’m not sure what they were believing, if they didn’t understand what was happening to Jesus. Maybe they just finally believed what Mary told them, though her honesty is a miniscule detail to bother believing. Not much of godly faith there. The going home is also such a strange resolution. They didn’t put on their detective caps and exclaim, “We’ll get to the bottom of this.” They sort of seemed to shrug and go about life.

I worry about that for us: believing without understanding, we may sing Alleluias and then disregard the whole thing, shrug, finish spring break, and get on with what we were doing before.

Not Mary. She keeps trying to understand. And she keeps failing. She’s already begun her confession of faith, her creedal statement by saying that she doesn’t know. And twice more she repeats that, once to the angels, and once to incognito Jesus. Mary’s most faithful refrain is not knowing. “We do not know. I do not know. She did not know.” Three times here.

Amid not having a clue what was going on, while having so little figured out, while not understanding Easter much at all…and while admitting that, declaring it, confessing it through grief and tears and the conflict of doubt and hope, that’s when Jesus shows up to greet Mary, to comfort her, to stay in relationship with her, to redirect her faith, to lead her again into life.

And also with you.

What do we say about that? Can we figure out how that all came together? Can we know what’s going on here?

For us on this Easter I’d really like to be able to explain it all. It would be nice to understand clearly and believe without a doubt. It’d be satisfying to have a grip on the facts. Helpful to explicate it in terms of implications for cellular biology and the conservation of elements.

I’d like to identify how it is that Jesus disappeared from the graveyard but reappears in this bread, and then trace how from this bread he takes on flesh in you. I’d like to help you see that in a mirror.

In your flesh, I’d like to resolve what it means that death has been undone, and even more to clarify why death still seems so persistent, though it has already and finally lost. I’d like to illustrate and realize your imaginations of innovative beginnings and fresh starts and endless joy of life that is wholly new.

I’d like to invigorate and encourage you forward into life with this invincible insurgent Spirit that won’t be stopped or stooped in fear by the B.S. that the authorities keep trying to swamp you in.

I’d like to offer instructions on how you tap into this undying love and inspirational life, for when your days do seem blah and it’s hard to go on with your routines, and you’re confused and you just shrug and weep. I’d like to predict how this makes you a better person and forecast the process of reconciliation that it must entail, the peace you’ll receive.

I’d like to tell you how you’ll see Jesus, what it will sound like when he calls your name, when you’ll see dead loved ones again, how it keeps spreading and will finally culminate on earth, and evidently across the cosmos. I’d like to know.

To lead you again into life, I’d like to assure you that the fragrance of flowers and the warmth of sun and the trill of songbirds already understand the good news and embody it along with and ahead of you.

I believe and trust this all intensely. But most truly I don’t understand. Like Mary, my faithful refrain is: “I don’t know.” It’s strange and I can’t explain. All I can do for now—with great joy, full of hope, in comfort and compassion, continuing with the vaguest notion that it is the best good news ever—is to proclaim:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

a new hymn:  Alleluia?

Alleluia Easter18

 

 

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Thoughts in Solitude conf17 w poem

a new hymn

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Easter sermon

­­­­­(Matthew 28:1-10; Colossians 3:1-4)

 

I wanted to talk about that earthquake. It seemed exciting and supernatural and very particular to Matthew’s version of Easter. It has creation responding to the news of this day, making an earthquake somehow unlikely good news. It paired with an even more obscure tremor from Good Friday, when the splitting of rocks broke open tombs for dead saints to come out and wander around Jerusalem. Look it up! In this case, though, the earthquake tumbling away the stone wasn’t to let the dead out but breaking for witnesses to enter; Jesus is already gone from his grave, loose, alive and in life. Even for the metaphorical edge of this earthshaking news, of the risen Jesus altering the very ground we stand on, I wanted to talk about the earthquake.

But then I noticed another shaking, in verse 4: “for fear…the guards shook and became like dead men.” I must’ve always skimmed past that verse, but now it called out for attention. On this day when we’re gathered with Alleluias around a dead man who’s not dead anymore, I’m struck by those guards who, though quite plainly alive, are described as dead in the face of this event. It’s a stunning Easter reversal: those who seemed to have the power and armed might became impotent, and the one whom those guards killed—the executed corpse—is alive and free and able even to overcome death. Apparently without any violent struggle, death has lost its sting amid this shocking good news.

But those guards sure don’t consider it good news. And they had compelling reason not to. In the last words of Good Friday, the Gospel says the authorities conspired to have those guards make the tomb as secure as they could. At the very least, the stone tumbling aside takes them off guard duty; if they were hired as tough security bouncers, to be night watchmen, then this seems cancel their contract. I picture the JBM patrol that monitors our property at night with their flashlights and camouflage pants and mildly militarized SUVs. What if we shut off the motion detectors and alarm system, gave up on locks, and said the building was wide open for anybody who might need to use it, indeed, was a place of sanctuary? While from one perspective, it is liberation from fear, from another, having the tomb broken open places the livelihood and paychecks of those guards at risk.

More, they risk not only being fired from their jobs, but might have feared worse, since their bosses were such a ruthless and nasty sort. In punishing retribution, it wouldn’t have been unprecedented for them to get tossed in jail, a reversal from being guards to captives. Or maybe such fears already held them captive and the unstoppable Jesus somehow liberates them from that.

At any rate, whether they were trying to keep others out or keep Jesus in, neither the authorities nor those guards could do anything to stop God’s spread of life, couldn’t keep this good news shut up. As Jesus breaks loose, their remaining options are confined and they are as bad as dead in comparison.

There’s probing parallel here for us, that Jesus and his resurrection put at risk some of our old ways of life, some of the roles in which we’re used to functioning, and some of the structures of our relationships. That should likely be a bit nerve-wracking for you this morning, too. Easter isn’t simply a holiday to give you some leisure and luxury. There are good and vital reasons to feast on eggs and chocolates and spread big tables and enjoy the delights of life, from music to company to wine to the spring sunshine. Such joys have basis in also having to confront that things are not the same as they used to be, and if you’re pretending that life should or even can go on as it would have otherwise, then those guards who shook like dead men must have a better understanding of Easter than you do.

But that’s another striking edge of the story. It’s astonishing to picture those guards as eyewitnesses to the resurrection. They have a firsthand view and should have been able to recognize God’s reversal of death for life, but there’s something of it they still don’t get. Even though they see it, they don’t believe. It doesn’t create faith in them. Unlike the women disciples, they aren’t rushing on to proclaim the good news and spread the word.

We might want to write that off as them being bad guys and that’s why they weren’t on Jesus’ side, but that’s too hasty. It requires a finer distinction. After all, from start to finish the story of Jesus is about forgiving sinners and befriending the bad dudes and loving enemies. There are insiders who fall away and outsiders who are brought in. Dualistic thinking in categories of good vs. bad can’t actually fit into the story.

So it wouldn’t be a foregone conclusion for those guards to be dead in the face of resurrected life. A reverse example was portrayed in the previous chapter, where one of their leaders, a centurion, reacted to the death of Jesus on the cross by saying “Truly this man was God’s Son!” If he could come to that conclusion by witnessing only death, then certainly these guys should have theoretically been able to arrive there in witnessing new life.

So why didn’t it turn out that way for them? Maybe they were stuck in the rut of all-too-human reasons. The mundane stuff. Supporting families. Forced to, by pressure—either from peers and what seemed acceptable or the fear of the powers-that-be (or maybe better from the view of Easter’s reversal, “the powers-that-were”). The verses after this reading say the authorities offered bribes for those guards not to tell what they had seen. Maybe they were compelled by sad reasons of trading their dignity and integrity for a payoff. Whether with good intentions or not, regular existence can interfere.

Maybe it’s simpler and more human even than that. Beyond awesome jaw-dropping amazement, this is just dang unbelievable. That has implications for us, too. We expect that the forces of death are the strong, fierce ones, that we win by launching missiles and fighting back. But here it is a no-megaton bomb with the power of love and peace. That death is not the end can stop us in our tracks as confounding. A victory for life can be incomprehensibly miraculous to us.

Though we might even yearn to trust that possibility, we also recognize that in spite of being part of church and hearing the same message as others, there are times it doesn’t seem to stick, just as somehow it didn’t work for those guards witnessing firsthand. You may be trying to believe, wishing to hear it as good news, but for some reason you can’t. It’s a confounding and frustrating feeling, that “the Holy Spirit creates faith when and where she chooses” in the explanation of Lutheran theology (which manages not really to explain anything) (Augsburg Confession V).

But. If you happen to be here this morning feeling like you’re left out, like the wind of the Holy Spirit blew right past you, like you so desperately want some good news and new life to live into, are longing for a change, crave other possibilities than what currently exists, to be rejuvenated and energized, to have the rotten stuff taken away, not to be trapped by so much bad news and death, if you need the Easter reversal—if you can relate to these guards who were afraid and incapacitated and didn’t seem to have any way out of it and were as good as dead, then you should know that the Holy Spirit’s work is always to bring new life out from death, to call us from our stinking tombs, to break barriers, to breathe new life into dried-up bones and worn-out bodies.

And if with these guards that feels like you, you should know that this Easter morning is especially for you, just as your own stunning reversal is proclaimed in Colossians: You have died, and you have been raised with Christ. Even as that is often much too hidden, too mysterious, so unknown, you may trust that your life is secure and free with Christ. Since you are dead, you are given new life. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

a new hymn, “The First,” for today

First (Easter2017)

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