Church in Society

a sermon on the ELCA Social Statement, and John15:12-19 and Psalm146

 

We’ve got 12—almost 13—ELCA social statements, documents that are intended to help us reflect on complex issues and consider them from a Lutheran perspective.

These involve lots of work—the new one on Women and Justice is a decade-long process—but you may have hardly known they existed. Last week in adult ed, John Brugge the elder asked what happens to them and how members of congregations are supposed to know about them, so we’re going to touch on six in Advent services this summer, starting with this one that was the first adopted, back in 1991.

Since we can’t read the whole things in worship—nor would that really BE worship—I haven’t quite figured out how to help you encounter and engage in the reflection. We’ll hear a little snippet. I’ll preach what I can. And other parts of the service will try to hold the theme for us, too.

 

Uh-oh! “Church in society?” Here we go, mixing politics and religion.

Some may see this discussion as a failure to separate church and state, muddling divisive issues, almost as bad as confusing science and the Bible.

While I expect we’d argue against a theocracy—a society where my view of my god sets the rules for how you need to behave—still an oil-and-water separation of society and church can’t suffice, since it’s pretty easy to see such barricades as mistaken, that God absolutely and clearly must care not just about what happens in this room or your heart, but about life in this world.

We might start with your baptism. I suspect many of you were baptized as infants. That must indicate something about God’s concern for babies. And concern about babies then has to reflect on life in families. That relates to how children are raised, which must have impacts on making sure they have enough food to eat and growing minds through education. Further extensions of God’s concern mean parents need jobs, and need roads or internet to get to those jobs. Not just water for baptism, kids need clean water to drink and air to breathe.

Or, in that environmental direction, if we begin by saying that God created this world and everything in it (and everything outside it), then—unless God was sloppy or made it then forgot about it—we’d have to say that God cares about this planet and its creatures. So we have to believe that our life and place in this world is a matter of care for God, and how we live amid this world flows quite directly from our understanding of God.

I realize I’m arguing against the choir, so to speak, since you’re (in all likelihood) not flat-out opposed to mixing religion and politics or dispute the notion that church and society interact. I’m trying to convince you of something you already believe. But maybe it’s the question of how. God could’ve given us rule over creation to do whatever we want to it. Or if God’s concerned about education, it could mean churches should run the schools. Because these things don’t stand autonomously, with aspects of our existence in silos, it’s obvious church goes with you to the streets, and the happenings in the Capitol wend their way into worship. That can’t be stopped.

So to ask directly: how might church inform your behavior in society? What of here gets carried out the doors? [Answers of supporting each other, feeding the poor, welcoming the stranger, loving enemies…]

Gathering those thoughts from worship and the Bible, basically, you’ve just participated in the initial stages of an ELCA social statement. These are crafted and considered from what we believe and how that belief interacts with the world around us, what our understanding of God and Jesus calls us to practice and strive for more largely. It’s not about right answers to resolve everything. It’s not some hierarchy telling you you’ve gotta do such-and-so. It’s this very Lutheran process of asking together, “What does this mean?”

Social statements involve long periods of study and input from across the church; last summer at this time, we had discussions on faith and sexism as part of background for the Women and Justice statement, and we’ll encounter that draft in July. Eventually the writing needs to be approved by a two-thirds vote at a Churchwide Assembly, involving about a thousand voting members from across all parts of our denomination. At that point, it may guide policy decisions or implications in the church—from whom we are able to ordain to where retirement funds are invested to ways that our official lobbyists might interact with Congress or encourage us to advocate or simply on how it intersects with our lives.

That it involves some complexity and isn’t directly black and white is pretty easy to acknowledge, especially with some of the paradoxical phrases showing the ambiguity in the little excerpt we heard: that we live in a time of now and not yet, both experiencing it but not experiencing it, already knowing what a Jesus-shaped life is like and the promise of resurrection, but still struggling for it. It acknowledged that we may be the communion of saints, but are simultaneously sinners. Being in the church doesn’t raise us above the broken mess, as is unfortunately so easy to observe, and being the church calls us actually to enter it more deeply. As Lutherans, that’s distinct; other Christians may believe they’re better than everybody else or able to be separate from the world’s problems or having all the answers, but not us. Again, we may be part of the new creation in eternal life, but marked by the cross. We celebrate God’s good creation while lamenting its bondage to sin and death.

This social statement, and our faith itself, are just thick with these both/and confusing statements. We pray for the peace of the whole world with restlessness and discontent. There’s the question of when to support systems or programs and when to confront them. That this is sinful as well as holy, human as well as divine, that the church is in the world but not from the world. And, in the words of Jesus from our Bible reading, our task is laying down our lives in love, even when—or even though—it may mean being hated.

Amid such difficulty, I’d commend to us the hard effort of holding it all in tension. My internship supervisor used to say in mock disgust, “oh, you’re one of those people who makes distinctions, aren’t you?” Yes, in the complexity of living as followers of Jesus in this world, we pursue making distinctions. This complexity doesn’t simply allow us to be anti-Trump or pro-life or anti-gun or pro-freedom. Any of those have to be weighed and tested by faith, by what we know of God in Jesus. Even under such a simple statement of identifying our core purpose (as the social statement does) that all of this is to support you in your “baptismal vocation to serve God and neighbor in daily life,” even to boil it down to loving your neighbor, still requires us to ponder what is loving.

Maybe a reasonable example of the ambivalence sits in front of us on this Memorial Day weekend. We might start with the easy celebration of the entrance to summer, the notion of a day of rest from work, the chance perhaps to gather for outdoor bratwurst. We can rightly see those as good, but must also demand we see more than a day of barbequed leisure.

And so we’d pay attention to what—or whom—Memorial Day is memorializing, on this 50th anniversary of it being set for this last Monday in May. The commemoration arose in the South during the Civil War and moved North, since between the two sides more than 600,000 soldiers had died, 1 out of every 50 people in the country, killed in fighting. It became a somber observance, a time for families to visit and decorate graves.

But whereas civil religion turns this into a patriotic holiday—or holy day—that declares all of those dead soldiers—plus all military veterans, and all in active combat under the United States flag—are heroes deserving adoration and worship, we must measure it differently. To the degree that they laid down their lives in love and in service, we may affirm their vocation. If they were striving somehow on the side of life, in protection, for justice, we may find value.

But to the degree that war is always about death and destruction and is no godly way to solve problems, even when we might give thanks for the lives of these men and women, we condemn what took them from life too soon and so violently. And in that way, rather than simply cladding ourselves in red, white, and blue, we as Christians can take Memorial Day as an occasion to recommit ourselves to the work of resolving disputes and reconciling enemies and celebrating diversity and not being bound by narrow nationalism.

I know that that, literally, is no picnic. It’s not so simple as saying, “let’s take a day off tomorrow and relax.” It’s not easy work for the light-of-heart. But to be marked by the cross means laying down our lives. To live with love means not accommodating to the facile but false devotions of culture, but resisting and struggling. It isn’t only the soldier, then, who sacrifices her life and risks it all, but is our calling and vocation as Christians.

That, finally, returns us to our gathering here. The social statement begins here, and lives our lives out from this assembly. This is where our identity is formed and renewed, where the truest and longest-lasting image of who we are is held. Once more, that isn’t accomplished by me lecturing you on what your duties are or trying to convince you of the way to live. It’s because you were given this identity in baptism. It’s because here Jesus encounters you, calls you his own, gives himself to you. We love, because he first loved us. As the social statement says, through worship, “the Church is gathered and shaped by the Holy Spirit to be a serving and liberating presence in the world…The gifts of the Spirit form and transform the people of God for discipleship in daily life.”

That’s why we’re here. That’s what God is up to in these gatherings, making you into the kind of people who bear God’s creative and redeeming and liberating will to the world, as friends who bear the fruits of Jesus. That’s what God is doing. What’s left for us is the subsequent task of deliberating how exactly that takes on flesh in the world.

 

 

An excerpt from the ELCA social statement on The Church in Society:

Through faith in the Gospel the Church already takes part in the reign of God announced by and     embodied in Jesus. Yet, it still awaits the resurrection of the dead and the fulfillment of the whole   creation in God’s promised future. In this time of “now … not yet,” the Church lives in two ages—  the present age and the age to come. The Church is ‘in’ the world but not ‘from’ the world.

The Gospel does not take the Church out of the world but instead calls it to affirm and to enter more deeply into the world. Although in bondage to sin and death, the world is God’s good creation, where, because of love, God in Jesus Christ became flesh. The Church and the world have a common destiny in the reign of God. The Church acts for the sake of the world in hope and prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”

The Gospel does not allow the Church to accommodate to the ways of the world. The presence and promise of God’s reign makes the church restless and discontented with the world’s brokenness and violence. Acting for the sake of God’s world requires resisting and struggling against the evils of the world.

The Church is “a new creation … from God,” but it is still part of a fallen humanity, sharing fully     the brokenness of the world. It is a community of saints, a people righteous before God on account of Jesus’ self-giving love, and at the same time a community of sinners. Repentance, forgiveness, and renewal characterize the Church that lives under the cross with the hope of the coming in fullness of God’s reign.

 

The whole statement: http://elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Church-in-Society

 

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a sermon for River Sunday

Season of Creation

on Genesis8:21b–22, 9:8–17; Psalm29; Revelation22:1–5; John7:33-34,37-39a

A lot of thisriver Season of Creation seems to have been confronting where our perceptions don’t square with the world around us as God created it. I hope those have been worthwhile considerations, but they have meant less living with creation this season.

So today I want to begin by taking you to Otter Creek. Otter Creek was down the slope from my house outside of Eau Claire where I grew up. It gave a chance to explore the woods, from ice cracking under my booted feet to the musky musty skunk cabbage as the first green thing in those woods, and frog song to crunching fall leaves. Among memories along those waters were jumping down sandy ledges and too many stinging nettles, slowly finding cool liquid relief. The best memory is the first trout I caught, still my biggest brown. I can recall how my spinner moved through the eddying water of that bend’s pool and still feel the surprise of that smooth skin and soft belly in my hands, after having only held fish with rougher scales. But as a reminder encounters with nature are not all splendor, it was beside our Otter Creek swimming hole that I tried chewing tobacco for the first time.

Friends and I regularly talked about following the creek up to its source, a project we never really attempted, partly because it was slow progress with so many meanders, but also because, why would we need to find an origin when already every place we found ourselves had so much to engage and delight us?

Still, for tracing to origins, I also go back to my family’s first house a block from the Yellow River up in Spooner, and continue tracing those flowing waters here along the Yahara River chain of lakes. In between, some of my identity and existence emerged from the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. Like when I lived in Washington, also where the Wenatchee River began to flow together with the great Columbia, confluences are said to temper the weather and have lore of serving as native American gathering places. From that pre-history, and long after rafts of white pine lumber floated past, below dams that generate power for our lives, these still are places of new beginnings as that merging of rivers in Eau Claire, for example, has given rise to Phoenix Park, from industrial wasteland to become again a gathering place to exchange goods like vegetables and artwork, and a new music center to serve for education, enlightenment, and enjoyment, all flowing up and emerging from the rivers.

I can’t take you for a tour of Otter Creek or soak you into my history with these rivers, but I’m hoping these stories call to mind your places, the waters you have known and how amid your life “a river runs through it.” As Al Heggen said at the Capital Brewery Bible conversation Tuesday, describing his own affinity for the Upper Iowa River in Decorah, we each hold dear such places where our lives have flown together with the streams. Carrie McGinley spoke of the Mississippi starting so small and visiting the Great River museum in Dubuque and maybe to travel the length of it. See, our very selves are part of the confluence.

Amid these currents that flow with our past, to now, and time yet to come, we know it’s not always peace like a river. There can be turbulence. It seems like a long time ago that earlier this summer I was complaining of the trickles of water soaking into my basement and my CSA farmer worrying if plants would survive in fields inundated and saturated by rainfall. Much more clearly, we’re holding horrors from Houston as rivers poured down streets and people you know were trapped by rising floodwaters.

Those news reports and images create for us another understanding of confluence. Rivers not only flow along with the story of our lives. Not only human culture has been at the confluence of waters, from the development of agriculture by ancient Mesopotamians (whose identity is summarized in the name that means “between rivers”), or those native Americans wintering in intertribal peace, or how our cities have arisen from the life of waters. Besides those forms of confluence, we also notice confluence in meaning of the waters themselves. They are not unequivocally peaceful or universally beneficial. In waters and with rivers, the value or worth mixes and intermingles, swirling to engulf with surprising depths beside the wading stone-skipping calms. The good and the bad flow together.

In simple natural terms, for example, we have to observe that flooding can’t be equated only with the bad, damage or destruction. The Mississippi was used to spring thaws that swept waste from the backwaters and renewed habitats for a whole ecosystem of plants and animals. As we’ve installed dams, we think we’re minimizing negative outcomes of ebbs and flows in river level, but our manufactured environment has meant loss of diversity and wellbeing in the river’s wetlands.

Again, the Nile was a dwelling place for civilization precisely because it was prone to flood. When the rushing waters rose, they carried along and deposited fresh soil on the floodplain. Sure, water was up in the fields. But that was what brought life, brought the nutrients that allowed another season’s fertile farming.

Such paradoxes or confluences of good and bad come in the Bible, as witness to the flow of our lives. Psalm 137 laments that it’s impossible to sing faithful songs of joy by the rivers of Babylon while in enemy captivity. But the prophet Isaiah (ch2) expects nations will stream together, and down by the riverside we ain’t gonna study war no more. These opposites co-exist.

With today’s readings, as we require fearful storms to gain the beauty of the rainbow, the terrifying story of Noah and the flood annihilating almost the entire earth in some way exists so we can get the promise. As people who didn’t have to live through that flood and as that calamity recedes into the background, we’re met mostly by the message of abiding love, the assurance of providence, that the good God intends for our lives will continue. That, and not devastation, is the focus.

At least that’s the intention. It’s rawer and a harder word this week when we’ve witnessed more stormwaters and are left wondering where God’s presence or intention has been in Texas, if God has forgotten, if the promise was true.

Or maybe the terrifying conclusion is that we can combat God’s goodness and drown out the blessing God voiced in Genesis and intended to continue. Maybe Hurricane Harvey is less an Act of God than an Act of Humans: climate change warming the oceans multiplied its power, coastal development tore out shoreline buffers, and harm is even in the way we construct cities.

Similarly of our ruin, the waters that give us life and gave rise to our civilization we not only pollute, but slurp to parched, causing goodness to wither. My vacation travels followed part of the course of the Colorado River, in many ways the lifeblood of the southwest. But we suck those waters dry, straining out all the goodness of life. The river is diverted to the desert to grow iceberg lettuce in California, and to gaudy fountains of the Las Vegas strip, and to evaporate from Lake Mead piled up behind the Hoover Dam. This river carved us the Grand Canyon, yet now infamously goes for years without even reaching its mouth, every last drop taken by humans along the way.

This may be a repercussion of our lives, simply of our existence, or it may be due to a result of our sins. But saying that means we must fearfully confront whether we’ve overruled God’s goodness with our badness, the promise with our curse, the intention for life with our deadly mistakes.

Of course, that is not the message of our faith, though. We proclaim that evil will never have the last word, that even death is not final, that God will not give up on life. Holding this tension, we have that peculiar observation that waters are neither unambiguously good nor explicitly evil. That is the message of your baptismal waters, as well. Those are life-giving waters, by also bringing death. As Luther says in the Small Catechism, in baptism “the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned daily, and on the other hand daily a new person is to rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Drowning and new life, dying and rising, death and resurrection: two sides of the same coin. This is not merely the ending of what has been wrong in our lives and interactions with the world, but also the promise of a new creation. Neither can you have the new beginning without the end of the old. You can’t be cleansed and made fresh without being rid of old stains and rottenness. If you imagine you’d prefer not to die, then you won’t be met by new life. If you pretend you’re doing fine, then you can hardly imagine or begin to grasp—much less live into—the gracious goodness God is striving to bring about for you and for God’s earth by this way of living wet.

Our Revelation reading may be the Bible’s culminating picture in its final chapter, the river that flows out from God, nourishing the tree of life, without interruption bearing fruit to feed and heal. Again for paradox, even in this final image, we still need healing among nations, to reconcile relationships. But that opportunity is ceaseless. The flow of grace will not be stopped. The crystal clear and bright waters of the river contain no corruption, nothing wrong. Picture the Colorado, flowing and free.  Picture the Jordan River bringing life even into the Dead Sea. Picture a brook babbling and laughing with glee. Picture the green, stinky Yahara purged and joyful. Picture Otter Creek or your own streams, not only a memory but the locations of your future. Picture yourself, splashed clean and fresh, emerging from the water for new life and endless potential. Picture the confluence where your life mingles and flows with all of creation.

This is where God’s current is carrying us. All creation recognizes it. Already we know and expect it, we anticipate and believe it. We brim with God and all creation in this promise for life. Shall we gather at the river?

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Blessing and Privilege?

sermon on Matthew 5:1-12; 1st Corinthians 1:18-31

my modern beatitudes translation:

Seeing the crowds, Jesus went up the mountain and gathered his followers around him[1], and he opened his mouth teaching and saying to them,

“Privileged[2] are the dispirited[3], because they are part of heaven-ish empire[4].

“Privileged are the saddened, because they are to be encouraged.

“Privileged are the nonviolent[5], because they’ll[6] control this world.[7]

“Privileged are those hungering and thirsting for justice[8], because their appetites are to be quenched.

“Privileged are the helpers, because they’ll be helped[9].

“Privileged are those with clean hearts[10], because they’ll recognize God.

“Privileged are the peacemakers, because they are to be called son of God and daughter of God[11].

“Privileged are those hunted[12] for justice, because they are part of heaven-ish empire.

“You’re privileged when you’re insulted and hunted and they give ‘alternative facts’[13] about you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because that’s earning the heaven-ish wages[14], just as that’s how they hunted the prophets before you.”

 

sermon:

Blessings and blessedness seem notoriously difficult to identify or attribute, since blessing can be so easy to claim at one moment but offer so little explanation when lacking.

The Bible can contribute to such confusion. As a couple examples, Psalm 127 describes having children as a blessing from God. But does that mean those of us without children lack divine blessedness? Proverbs 3 talks about the wise as blessed, but that not only fails to account for us stuck as idiots; maybe more importantly, it seems to contrast with 1st Corinthians claiming our cross-obsessed foolishness. Psalm 137 is among the ugliest in the Bible; when held captive by the Babylonian Empire, it alleges that those are blessed who’d kill the enemies’ babies. It’s not only despicable, but the opposite of Jesus identifying peacemakers as blessed.

Along this ambiguous trend, we like to figure our wealth is a blessing, or a secure home or good job or caring friends, or any kind of victory as blessing. It spreads from there. A well-known social media meme over the past couple of years has even focused on this, as #blessed. No less than the New York Times has weighed in against what has turned from self-serving to just silly.* That author reported her friends’ internet claims that “God [had] recently blessed [them] with dazzling job promotions, coveted speaking gigs, the most wonderful fiancés ever, front row seats at Fashion Week…And, [not] limited to the little people, [God’s] been known to bless Kanye West and Kim Kardashian with exotic getaways and expensive bottles of Champagne.” In my own glimpse at Twitter this week, within a few minutes those who’d been #blessed included students signing to play football at various schools, a guy who happened to push save before his laptop died, one whose coworker bought her a burrito after she forgot her wallet, and—I’m not kidding—a student who found answers to cheat on a test. #Blessed. That seems unlikely to be the sort of blessing God would be doling out. More, if God were indeed busy with that baloney, it would have to be a colossal waste not only of time but of divinity itself.

Yet this is so fully embraced by our culture that it’s rare to diverge from this sense of blessing. It has become mostly a synonym for luck or being fortunate, though those happenstance, coincidental, rolling-the-dice types of terms seem less sacred or benevolent than claiming blessedness. While just as circumstantial, a claim to blessing manages to sound not only holier but more preferably likeable.

Again, the Bible isn’t immune to the odd use. Quite often in its pages the term gets translated for some reason as “happy.” Those of you who may still think of Twitter hashtags as pound signs may recall Robert Schuller’s book about these Beatitudes called “The Be (Happy) Attitudes.” But this is neither about your attitude nor about our usual feeling of happiness. Though Psalms would have it that “Happy are those who observe justice, happy those who avoid the way of the wicked, and happy who consider the poor,” is there really any reason to suspect that paying attention to the immense and increasing levels of poverty around us could make you happier? In that instance, I’d be more likely to bank on society’s claim that personal finances correlate with happiness.

But that’s not where Jesus comes down. Indeed, his blessings appear like reversals. If we didn’t know better, we could take them to be pitying, like a consolation prize, almost saying, “well, you didn’t get what you really wanted, but at least you’re blessed.” One of the times is a week after Easter when Thomas gets to put his fingers into the nail marks in Jesus’ hands. Jesus replies, “yeah, but blessed are those who haven’t seen but come to believe.” That always prompts me to want to respond, “thanks, Jesus, but if it’s all the same to you, I’d just as soon get to touch and see.”

Yet there’s plenty of biblical precedent for paradoxical blessedness. Psalms talk about those taking refuge in God as blessed (where we might ask if would be better to be secure and not need a refuge). Those whose transgressions are forgiven are blessed (again, we might imagine it’s better not to have done wrong in the first place). We’d be slow to echo the Psalms’ sentiment that people are blessed when they’ve been disciplined by God. 1st Peter calls those blessed who suffer for doing what is right, when we’d prefer to avoid suffering at all costs. Revelation talks a lot about blessing in the face of adversity, calling martyrs with blood on their robes blessed and even the dead are blessed. The probably foremost biblical etymologist notices that the Bible’s definitive use of blessing is as a “reversal of customary evaluations.”** So it’s not just a consolation prize, but truly upending our estimations.

It doesn’t take much to appeal to our worst instincts, so when we would cherish most the good life, the new car, the fancy house, the full belly, attractive looks, the smiling family, an applauded career, the ease of schedule, releasing of stress, beautiful surroundings, and the right answers for the tests, then almost all of the favorable comparisons we typically attribute as blessings are reversed in God’s appraisal and in these words from Jesus. Blessed are the poor? Blessed are those low in spirit, without much holiness, the un-happy!? Blessed are those who mourn? The meek? The hungry? Those yearning for and need justice? The soft-hearted? The ones who labor for reconciliation: the winners are those who don’t try to win? Or worse, the losers: the persecuted and reviled and lied about?

This list has a bad set of roles, with some pretty undesirable circumstances that Jesus lays out for us in his first sermon. And he’s not saying these are worthwhile eventually, that it seems rotten now but pays off in the long run. He’s observing the reality of what it’s like to be his follower and to live into this spreading heaven-ish empire. Each could begin, “You’ll know you’re following Jesus if…”

These blessings sure aren’t demonstrable happiness, but result from the trust and conviction of faith, or more from your inescapable connection to God’s redeeming and saving work. You are brought in to experience this firsthand, unexpectedly making it (as I translated the term) a “privilege.” The best thing about blessing from God is that it doesn’t just validate your stature or what you already thought of yourself, but God’s blessing arrives amid difficulty and disappointment, when you need it, when all seems lost and you’re wondering why you should keep trying to be true in doing what is right.

With this, we could refer to it either as mere coincidence or as a “blessing” that the lectionary gives us the intensely unflinching reading from 1st Corinthians, proclaiming our center in Christ crucified, a scandal and moronic (in the original Greek). “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”

We need this word right now. Your blessing is the result of following a crucified criminal, of being incorporated into this crucified and resurrected body of his that persistently takes on flesh as the church in the world, striving for his purposes, of thus being chosen by God, and that means you are blessed, if you can believe all that.

 

 

 

* https://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/04/fashion/blessed-becomes-popular-word-hashtag-social-media.html?_r=1

** Kittel, vol4, p368

[1] skipping sit to teach, for modern context

[2] see Kittel v4p365, trying for familiar modern term

[3] depressed? down-hearted? not-very-spiritual?

[4] term from last week’s sermon

[5] see www.GirardianLectionary.net

[6] “are to/they’ll” emphasizing future passive

[7] heir à responsibility, share of, take possession of; ghn as land, nation, earth (non-heaven)

[8] more familiar than “righteousness”

[9] trying for paired terms around elehmon (gracious/graced)

[10] Psalm 51 :10

[11] baptismal calling

[12] more active of “sought/chased” and more familiar than “persecuted/oppressed”

[13] term currently in news from Trump, for “falsely say bad stuff”

[14] not heavenly reversal, but active suffering for acting godly

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a funeral sermon

With thanksgiving for the life of Patricia Josephine Bredeson

13 Oct 1923 + 5 Dec 2014

Hebrews 13; Psalm 23; John 14:1-6

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It struck me, Pam and Sue, when we were visiting the other day how you kept describing two different sides to your mother, two different experiences.

Now, a lot of how we would describe ourselves is that way: when we were younger and immature versus when we grew up, or workplace demeanor versus when we’re having fun. There’s also the Jekyll and Hyde kinds of distinctions, that we can be so saintly one minute and turn to be obnoxious, terrible sinners the next. Those are true and important and even fit with our theology and view of God’s work.

But it’s not that sort of two sides that you talked about with your mother, not those two types of sides to Pat’s personality. In fact, she seemed to dwell more constantly on the kind and gracious side, as I’ll say more about. To start, though, I want to repeat for others how you talked about how this same mother for two different daughters, exaggerating a bit to make a helpful point. Again, it’s not that she was nice to one and harsh to the other, that she spoiled one while neglecting the other. That may be true for others, but not for Pat. That would still be important for our views of God, but I believe she is even more appropriate as an example for us of God’s love.

And so I enjoyed hearing how you, Sue and Pam, each perceived your mother’s care. For the rest of you, Sue talked about her mother teaching her to be a young lady, to dress right and wear make-up, to be prepared and look your best, to be well-behaved and polite and say thank you. And she understood Pam was different, perhaps the more social side. That ended up meaning more time with friends and fewer rules and plenty of enjoyment.

I’ve been reflecting on how both sides of that are fitting for our faith as we live with paradoxes or dichotomies. We would say that God indeed has high expectations for us. We gather to worship in our Sunday best, looking good and behaving as we ought, whether that is phrased in Ten Commandments or in a summary like “love your neighbor as yourself” or “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” We expect that it’s good and right for us to return thankfulness to God, always to be grateful for what we’ve been given. We figure there is a pattern or plan for the good God wants us to accomplish in life. That is the Sue-side of relationship with Pat, and relationship with God.

And then there is the Pam-side, where those all-important expectations and guidelines are not all-important but fall to second place. As much as we ought to strive to live well in relationship with each other and in respect to God, still there is grace and forgiveness. When we fall short and when we fail and when things just turn out differently, that is not the end of the relationship. That is obviously true of a mother’s love, and is even more abundantly true of God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus, whether sinfulness or our lack of love or our forgetfulness or even death.

That also calls to mind another set of those dichotomies or paradoxes, the odd opposites of pairs, as we reflect on Pat’s life and this moment now.

I got to know Pat as always beautifully and immaculately dressed. Her dressed in lovely outfits. Her make-up accented a bright and cheery face, which also was the external sign of a gracious internal demeanor that embodied a stunning hostess. She was always ready to smile and to greet and filled with compliments. So remarkably hospitable, she had an amazing welcome and was always pleased to help. I chose the Hebrews Bible reading because that grace and love and diligent good work and cheerful greeting and blessing and hospitality all seem to have been lived out in Pat. Still as I walk around this space on Sundays in sharing the peace and greeting others, I feel her place in that section near the back, that there’s some of her warmth still there.

Yet it was also there that I first noticed the confusion setting in. Her eyes didn’t have quite the same sparkle as she was beginning to confront the disease of dementia. And in these past years, that had changed some of who Pat was and how you knew her. From being one who could organize a household and planned meals and was a great wife and who could enjoy travels with her sister and would be out and about socializing or meeting new people or shopping, from the vibrancy of life, something indeed was lost. Even in the sign of her always-perfect hairdo something disappeared.

And, as much as we would try to stay positive, we would still very truly and honestly count those as losses in life, not just as transitions but declines. An Old Testament passage that became a well-known song says that there is time for every season, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to seek and a time to lose, a time to laugh and to weep, to dance and mourn. In each of those pairings, we would say there is very definitely one good side and one bad side.

And, indeed, as we gather here today, it is with reasonable lamentation, sorry at losing a mother and grandmother, a friend. There has been sorrow for years, as Pat’s sister Margaret died 20 years ago, and her husband a dozen years ago, as she moved toward death herself in the loss of memory and of mobility.

Yet, in faith, we live with the paradoxes, the dichotomies, the odd opposites that are paired together. Even as we mourn and weep, still we rejoice in a long life well-lived. And even in the face of death, we proclaim we expect something more. In spite of our illness and forgetfulness we are never forgotten. Even when beset by the bad, we trust in God’s goodness. In the midst of a cold, dark season, we enjoy warm, beloved gatherings and bright lights. Even when we fear the end of life, we turn to the birth of a baby, the promise of God with us, an infant who was cradled in his mother’s arms and in his embrace we are guaranteed to remain for eternity. Even at this season, when things are supposed to be happy and we’re supposed to be together, and gifts given, not life taken away, where this could seem like the worst time for death and loss, still we expect it’s good to be in this beautiful place, with the promise of new life in Jesus.

And that’s true even as we face all those opposites of being lady-like versus wild or a tomboy, of high expectations or abundant forgiveness, of great ability or disability, of memory or forgetfulness, of weeping versus laughter, of health versus sickness, of death versus life, we trust it is not just that there is a good side and a bad side, a dark side and a light side. In the promise of Jesus, for Pat and for you, we have one whose embrace holds all together, that nothing can separate you from that love. Even when hospitality fails and love seems to have reached its limit and Pat could no longer welcome people into her home or into her life, still there is the larger welcome, the assurance that Jesus has a place prepared for her and for you, to welcome you into his Father’s household forever, to prepare a table before you. Wherever you are, from birth to death and beyond, through thick and thin, good or bad, in all circumstances of life and for life to come, God is with you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

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