Herded into Life

sermon on John 10:1-10; Psalm 23
Typically known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” this 4th Sunday of Easter in all three years of the lectionary includes old reliable Psalm 23 and has a part from John 10. In the part this year, Jesus doesn’t say he’s the Good Shepherd. He kind of describes shepherds generally and says he’s the gate. But we probably wouldn’t find it as appealing to celebrate this as “Good Gate Sunday.”

Even though this comes around every year, we’re probably encountering it differently right now, just as we’re holding our theological ponderings in a more precious way, and as we’re cherishing community in uniquely, and as we’re even keeping track of our toilet paper supply more closely, and as we’re valuing the resources of faith more intensely and dearly while they are held over and against the coronavirus.

Clearly the virus remains front and center for us. Perhaps you also hear it like I do, that when Jesus talks about what comes to steal life and kill and destroy, that may be foremost in our sense. COVID-19 is a thief and marauder and robber, robbing people of life and wellbeing, taking away what we should have. That feels clear in these days.

That thought propelled me into this reading, in reflecting on what steals life, and how Jesus gives life.

The original sense was of turning to the true life-giving God and away from false gods or idols, bad religious paths that take away life. Jesus’ words were probably an indictment of the leaders of his day, that those who ran things were doing it for selfish benefit, not for the good of others. When they should’ve been caring, they instead were looking to enrich themselves or to enhance their power. Clearly, we would not have to think hard to come up with leaders we would indict for failing to care for the people under them.

domatilliaTo move ahead a couple hundred years from the Gospel of John takes us to the first image that was bulletin cover. That is still early in church history, as one of the first extant artworks with a Christian theme.

One of the things people notice about that earliest artwork was that the Good Shepherd seemed to be how the early church chose to represent Jesus. He wasn’t portrayed on the cross; maybe that was still too present and terrifying of a reality. He wasn’t shown with a crown as a glorious ruler. He was with his sheep.

The next thing is that these were usually found in catacombs, underground burial chambers. This painting comes from an enormous set of tunnels more than seven miles long. This all tells us something important about death and about having life in the fullest for those early Christians.

Partly there’s a thought that they had the artwork in those subterranean crypts because that’s where they hung out. That’s where church was. They gathered there for worship. Though it seems not to have been the norm, perhaps they did it to be in seclusion, when being out in public was forbidden, or put them in danger. Again, for those bad leaders who imperiled life, the Roman Empire was against the church and sometimes would even kill people found to be practicing Christianity. In turn, the Christians were a nuisance to the dominant culture, refusing the ways of empire. Maybe we think about that, how our pursuit of life means we reject dominant modes, and maybe even try to subvert them. Our caring and sharing models something very different from the careless death-dealing powers.

The larger more likely reason that church gathered in the catacombs, among tombs, was because that embodied their fuller sense of life as the church. They were still the communion of saints, the gathered community, even with those who had died. In some very important way, death did not separate or dismember the church. Even through that, they expected still to be led to fullness of life. The Good Shepherd painted in those places would be the one whose voice they recognized, calling them out from death into life. Or calling them to rise, to get up. Even the word they gave these places, “cemeteries,” was the Greek word essentially for a bedroom, a place for sleeping, literally a resting place. Death didn’t and couldn’t destroy life.

Maybe we share that sense now, as we are in strange places for worship, that we are nevertheless inextricably bound together as community, and nothing can separate us, even as we are socially distant. As death threatens and looms around, you hear the voice of Jesus, your Good Shepherd, calling you to join this flock as he leads you out of the shadows of death and even now you find relief and this resting place, a life-giving moment, a pause for the promise spoken here that interrupts the power of death lurking around.

sallmanFrom the intensity of that understanding, of Jesus very fully bringing you from death into life, the next images may seem trite and kitschy or silly. One is by Warner Sallman, who did what’s said to be the most ever reproduced image of Jesus, the Head of Christ, with over a half billion versions floating around, instilling in us that Jesus didn’t have dark skin like he did in the catacombs but was this blue-eyed bearded pious Scandinavian. And of course his sheep are white.

Now, there’s a lot about it that I would typically grumble against. So the third image portrays some of my standard sarcastic humor. Obviously the real version of that painting has Jesus cradling and gazing tenderly at a lamb. I found this version at a now-defunct brewpub, of Jesus with a velociraptor. I’m not sure exactly how to interpret that mix of paleontology and theology, except that it was maybe the ancestor of our MCC Chickens. velociraptorI do like that Jesus doesn’t hold out for only cradling the cute ones of us, but also scoops into his arms the ugly or mean or those facing the violent cataclysms of the exploding volcano in the background and maybe extinction-level events, through all of space and time. The Jesus who goes off in search of the one lost sheep to carry it home on his shoulders will track you down, no matter what.

Anyway, for the sweetsy Jesus, this week I was reflecting that he does have his place and I don’t need to put him down. If you need some comforting through hard days and just want something that feels pleasant and easy and serene, then you may find it in Jesus. Or, better, Jesus will find you for it.

To return to the beginning, though we recognize this week what steals life from us, what robs us, with our minds predominantly on disease, I don’t have as easy of a time saying what the life is Jesus is offering or how he is trying to encourage it. I don’t exactly know what to proclaim about having life to the fullest. I’m not willing only to have it be an after-life. It’s clearly not relegated to maximizing the number of days here, because then Jesus would only be about a long life; for example, by keeping the virus at bay. When Jesus is the gate, I guess it’s not about walling off the bad things and keeping you protected from any harm. I really like Mary Jane’s version of care and love for chickens, and I think that parallels Jesus, but I’m not sure how.

In conversation online for our weekly pastor’s Bible study, one person suggested we’re missing out on a lot of life right now, and that that’s disappointing. I’m holding onto that for our graduating seniors and our youth and for facing income loss and all the other diminishments I hear from you. Another pastor replied, however, that maybe the smaller and quieter version of things is actually helping us to see life better, or to know what’s important, to be mindful of what we value. Either side of that seems true, I guess! So life may or may not be the accumulation of stuff, or the accumulation of experiences, or the grounding of relationships, or healing for the length of days. The reading doesn’t really clarify. It just says life is the best with Jesus.

All I can finally do is to point you back to the old reliable words of the 23rd Psalm, to let those hold onto you and foster faith and be the voice finding you and leading you again beyond fears into life.

The Lord is your shepherd. That’s true even when you need or think you want something more.

Maybe you can find still waters to walk beside, or remember a favorite lake, and know some calm, like the calm of Jesus’ presence.

In all green pastures, the places of abundance in beauty and for nourishing your hungers, God is providing, to satisfy you.

Through dark valleys, the things that threaten, even in catacombs of death, you may rest securely, comforted.

And as it feels like you’re dwelling in your own house day after day without end, you are nevertheless in the family of God, a member of this household, to share blessings and to live forever.

Standard

Care for Creation Commentary — Easter 2A, 3A, 4A

Needing New Life:  reflects on Easter, Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, and coronavirus

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020)

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Psalm 16

1 Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31

 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020)

Acts 2:14a, 36–41

Psalm 116:1–4, 12–19

1 Peter 1:17–23

Luke 24:13–35

 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020)

Acts 2:42–47

Psalm 23

1 Peter 2:19–25

John 10:1–10

 

NOTE: This selection includes reflection for both the several Sundays of Easter (April 19 and 26 and May 2, 2020). The 2nd and 3rd Sundays have Earth Day as a mid-point between (Wednesday, April 22), but in this unusual year, it might be that reflections for Earth Day stretch later, also.
I had been looking forward to working on this commentary for months now. Back before almost everything changed, I was aiming toward it since before the start of 2020. I was feeling great excitement and some ownership about late April of this year.

 

It’s the 50th anniversary of Earth Day!

 

I’m a Wisconsin boy, where we like to lay some claim to John Muir and Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson. The last makes me feel a special stake in Earth Day, since it was when he was serving as one of our senators that Gaylord Nelson founded and initiated Earth Day. If you don’t know him, I’d like you to, and you can find a bit of the story at this website: http://nelsonearthday.net/nelson/. What started as a day for teach-ins has grown into what the organizing network has referred to as the world’s largest secular holiday, with over a billion participating annually (at least in a typical year).

 

It’s not just my Wisconsin roots and pride. Our possibilities in the church cheer, wave their arms, shout, sing, jump up and down for the propriety of being a voice in these teach-ins and not leaving it alone as a secular holiday, but recognizing it as an appropriate holy day.

 

Earth Day almost always falls during our liturgical season of Easter, as we celebrate the resurrected Jesus, who was born so that we could know God’s presence in our world and in our flesh, and who suffered the burdens and sorrows and pains of our world. This Jesus brings us to new life in Easter. That’s not disembodied life that only awaits its future consummation. It is the first fruits, the seed that rises as a green blade to bear fruit. In northern hemisphere where I live, this holy season arrives with the signs and symbols of spring, the flowers and the returned bird song. This is how we know the risen Jesus, and it is connected to creation and re-creation, to our Creator and this Earth.

 

So, yes!, we observe and celebrate Earth Day in the church! And marking 50 years gives us much to look back to and honor. In those 50 years, besides legal protections for the environment and better understanding of ecological impact, in the church we have come a long way toward what we should have always been, as stewards and siblings of creation. Our prayers, liturgies, songs, sermons, and broader congregational practices, as well as advocacy positions, are much improved during the course of this time.

 

And 50 years also gives us the chance to look ahead. We look to the 11 remaining years before it is too late to stop a 2° Celsius temperature rise for our planet. We know that this commitment needs to happen now. We know that it takes all of us, across the globe, of all religions, of each area of our lives, adapting and mitigating and caring. We know it is urgent.

 

But.

 

I had been looking forward to working on this commentary, then we began to live into a very different kind of new life, with safer at home and social distancing and death tolls and bad news and the coronavirus.

I would generally probably say that addressing climate change is the most important task for humanity. We could name some broader goal or task like “love,” but that would likely still include addressing climate change! The impending impacts are so catastrophic and our window of action is getting so short. As people created by God and placed in relationships with all the rest of creation, all the threatened creatures, from the most vulnerable human populations to species endangered of extinction and ecosystems moving toward collapse, there’s a lot at stake. It’s important. It’s important within church because of life all around us. If Earth Day is a holiday, we need to treat every day as an Earth Day holy day.

 

But in these weeks, I know for me it has taken a back seat. The emails and fundraising letters I’ve gotten from environmental organizations have gone almost entirely unopened. That kind of disregard I felt included writing this commentary, too. I couldn’t find place in my brain or schedule to put thoughts down, much less find expectation that you’d be interested in reading. Are your reflections for the end of April really going to have room for creation care and Earth Day? Or is that part of the set aside plans that has to be ignored for now?

 

In my congregation, we’re by no means having any sort of discussion in these weeks about burning our restored prairies. The tulip bulbs and seedling potatoes that Sunday Schoolers might’ve helped dig in later this month are nowhere to be seen. Our dreams of beginning to recognize the heritage of our property connected to Native Americans before us will have to wait. If we are going to celebrate Earth Day as a gathered community, it won’t be right now.

 

Even as we celebrate (and prayerfully mention in worship!) that the sun is warming and the rains refreshing and the trees are budding out and bluebird houses ready for nests, our congregation is not here to enjoy and participate directly. They are sheltered in place, for their own good and for the care of their neighbors.

 

Of course, there are glimmers of hope. In my neighborhood, as people are tired of being at home but unable to go much of anywhere else, the bike paths and city parks have been teeming with (appropriately distanced) people. It seems more than in a long time, people are recognizing the benefits and joys and relief of being outdoors. They are finding more attention for and meaning in those signs of spring and ways that life continues, that life flourishes, that life wins!

 

That has also been in an enlivened concern and charity toward neighbors, toward doing the best we can for each other and finding even simple ways (all that sidewalk chalk!) to assist or to make life livelier.

 

I continue to wonder about the reduction in C02 output as air travel has been reduced, especially international trips.

 

We’re seeing that a typically immobilized partisan Congress can move to address necessary relief, with responses that even a month ago would’ve seemed impossible to imagine.

 

Regularly people are pondering how this might change us going forward, what benefits we might be able to carry onward. Maybe that means positive opportunity to maintain environmentally practices or maybe it helps propel us forward with societal and cultural change.

 

And in the meantime, we remember that not everything has changed. This is still God’s world. God loves this world. God comes to be present in all the moments of life. Jesus cannot be put back in the tomb. The Spirit is on the loose, breathing life. We are still the church, gathered (even on screens or in prayers!) in love, gathered for the good of the world, gathered yearning for good news and peace that the world cannot give.

 

So what about these readings that are filled with Easter and God’s goodness for these days, which also happen to surround the 50th observance of Earth Day, which nevertheless are very different days and likely have a message filtered through the realities of COVID-19?

 

Here are a few thoughts:

 

2nd Sunday of Easter

The image of Jesus with holes in his hands and side is phenomenally powerful and perhaps worthwhile as we confront this present moment of human crisis and also the larger impending planetary catastrophe. (My favorite image of it is Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Thomas,” where it is both serene and yet remaining a little spooky, and where Jesus is directly in control.) We note that resurrection doesn’t simply undo the harm. It’s not a bright shiny Jesus who is suddenly perfect. Wounds linger. Even to call them scars is too much; that is about the body healing itself and sealing out. Here it is still a gash, but it is not harming or mortifying Jesus any more.

 

Already this is a far cry from a couple phrases in the other readings. Peter (Acts 2:26) quotes the Psalm for the day, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption” (Psalm 16:10). The 2nd reading tells you you have been given “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God” (1 Peter 1:4-5). Those are strong phrases, but not likely to resonate with our lives. We do experience corruption, in the aches that accumulate and the hurts that take longer to get past. We do and will perish. The news is thick with people perishing and having been defiled by the virus and disease.

 

We don’t pretend pristineness. We acknowledge defects and injuries. And for that, Jesus with holes in him is truer to our reality. There are problems and harms that we won’t just get over.
What is it to have a God who is part of those holes and hurts? A God who walks into our isolated homes and still says, “Peace,” who breathes fresh breath on us to inspire us for action and absolution?
Maybe, then, we also find God’s presence in the other wounds and injuries, and we proclaim and work for life, there, too. Though none are fully resurrection, images that occur with that to me:

The remediation of the old copper mine at Holden Village. (See http://www.holdenvillage.org/about-us/mine-remediation/.) It does not undo those gashes torn into the earth or the damage inflicted on the ecosystem. Forever those impacts will remain visible, but now they are doing less harm.

I think of planting human-made waste in order to provide structure on which coral reefs can grow. What in other instances could be garbage or polluted environment in this case fosters life and restoration. (See https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/artificial-reef.html.)

I wonder what we will value of our culture and society as we come through coronavirus; where has what is injuring us given new possibility and life?

 

None of these, again, are fully resurrection. But they remind us God is working for peace and on behalf of life in this wounded world that God so loves.

 

3rd Sunday of Easter

The first thing that strikes me is the 2nd reading. We may feel ourselves in a time of exile (1 Peter 1:17), exiled from our usual involvement in the world, displaced from our workplaces and schools, banished from our physical human interactions and our typical care for creation. Without overstating an apocalyptic moment, there is something of the end of an age currently (1 Peter 1:20). Maybe that includes how we’ve ignored public health funding. Certainly it’s made us feel less individually invincible and more connected. That makes genuine mutual love the only authentic response we can give (1 Peter 1:22). (Even while I’m typing this, hoping that the weeks don’t accelerate in resentments and riots.) As Christian congregations, we regularly proclaim a foundation and practice of love. Maybe that is imperishable seed, ever ready to be planted and blossom and fruit for the sake of the world (1 Peter 1:23). Can we observe that as the Easter life germinating in us (see John 12:24)?

 

Exile may actually be an easier sense of these days. The Psalm prompts the harder edge, for when “the cords of death entangled me; the anguish of the grave came upon me; I came to grief and sorrow” (Psalm 116:3). Perhaps more than any time in our contemporary human lives, these words resonate broadly for inescapable encounters with death. That grief and sorrow is real and should be held tenderly in our congregations, not brushed past with quick, cheap grace. And even as some of us might want to return to a larger issue of catastrophic climate change and tell others “how foolish they are and how slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25), perhaps we find ways to walk along and listen to each other. Those honest prayers and laments long to be heard by God. They need the God who has come to suffer with us. And they most truly need to be met by the Easter promise.

 

One way we receive the assurance of new life is in the gift of baptism. Perhaps the splash of fresh water can be a renewal and remembrance of baptism, that calls us close to God, a promise that is “for you, for your children, and for all who are far away” (Acts 2:39). The physical presence of water is a daily connection to God’s goodness. That makes it easy to recommend as a touchpoint for people who may not be by baptismal fonts in church buildings but should have access to a tap or hose at home! Keep your people splashing, with every wash of their hands remembering that they are held forever by God.

 

Even as we are grateful for the waters of baptism and for the clean water that allows us to wash away the virus, we may expand our attention and our mutual love to those who are far away. You may select local or global projects for education and support in connection to Earth Day; there are many resources on expanding access to water and on assisting with hygiene in these times. One recent example was from Lutheran World Relief for World Water Day, to assist families who are additionally facing worsened droughts in Yemen: https://donate.lwr.org/campaign/world-water-day-2020-coronavirus/c275465

 

4th Sunday of Easter

Some pastoral and rural peace may be just the ticket for these days. Let’s get out of the house and follow the Shepherd! These days, it doesn’t even require the frequent explications of ancient shepherding practices or the personality quirks of ovine taxonomy.

 

For those who may not be able to venture out and explore favorite open spaces and beloved scenery, for living without trips to parks and places of recreation and re-creation, perhaps the occasion invites reflecting on or finding pictures of very earthly real places connected to Psalm 23 (with a good basic Earth Day background that we won’t save what we don’t love). Here’s a starter walkthrough for a mental exploration with the Shepherd:

Verse 2a: Where are the green pastures for you in these days, the outdoor places of abundance and lush, vibrant life? Or where are the places you’ve valued but cannot make it actually to visit right now?

Verse 2b: Where are the still waters? What physical bodies of water have been part of offering you peace and contentment? How have you felt, and how can you access that now?

Verse 3: What pathways have been restorative of life? Where are the trails where you have found more of your identity? Who are the guides who have been with you outdoors?

Verse 4: Where have you walked alongside and amid death, perhaps especially in these days? Where has it been fearful and scary? What makes those places or aspects uneasy? And what has been a resource of faith?

(The remaining verses have less outdoor natural imagery, but may spur reflection on what has been spread on our tables to nourish and sustain us, with gratitude for those who have run the enemy gauntlet of coronavirus to deliver food down highways, through stores, in delivery vehicles. And while having to “dwell in a house forever” may sound more like punishment right now when many might be feeling stuck and isolated, perhaps their remains positive room for reflecting on where goodness and mercy or loving-kindness has surrounded and filled these days of life.)

 

Especially when disease lurks, threatening to steal and kill and destroy—along with all the other causes of diminishing God’s lavish loving goodness—this is the time to remember the Good Shepherd came that we may have life abundantly (John 10:10). And not just us, but sheep, and those who are in need (Acts 2:45), and all who are senselessly and unjustly suffering (1 Peter 2:19), the residents of green pastures, still waters, forest pathways, and dark valleys.

 

Not related to the readings but still for one set of thought for observing this 50th Earth Day as church community when we are apart, here is a starter list:

https://lutheransrestoringcreation.org/5-ways-to-celebrate-earth-day-as-a-church/

 

Happy Earth Day 50 and happy 50 days of Easter, for your life and abundant life to come!

Standard

A God Not Far Off

sermon on John9; 1Samuel16:1-13; Psalm23

 

I haven’t been out much this week. You probably haven’t either.

I was surprised on Monday to find I couldn’t get my bulk flour or oats or even coffee at the co-op, with those aisles covered up and sealed off. I was surprised at empty shelves around the store. I guess I was also surprised the fruit was still sitting out. Those surprises were seeing in person what we’ve heard on the news.

More personally unsettling was a gas station errand Wednesday evening sensing I was supposed to be nervous. I dashed inside before another customer could go in, and tried not to touch anything, using the PIN pad with my knuckle, intensely eager to wash my hands after.

That’s a strange, sickening feeling for me, this fearful avoidance of contact. It may not be unjustified for interacting with these days. But I don’t like it.

It struck me this being fretfully apart from the world is the opposite of God, who interacts with and makes use of and blesses our world, a full contact God. Our God is not separate from here. God is not an austere, blank, clean isolation chamber, those sterile all-white rooms without so much as a speck. Not holy or heavenly to make earth off-limits as too corrupt and besmudging God’s pure goodness. If that’s your view of God and heaven and what’s right, you need to be re-grounded.

Now, I know this contrasts with our recent instructions and practices. A backward love, we hear and know this a time for no-contact. But when you turn to church, it isn’t for repeating the crisis or lessons on safety. You get that plenty elsewhere. That’s not what you need to hear now. Especially right now as we don’t get to do it ourselves, we reiterate relational trust in our up-close-and-personal God. I believe we’re desperately needing the God who comes into our condition, even when it’s messed up.

This is a God who gets dirty. It’s a gorgeous gross image in the Gospel story today, of Jesus smearing spitty sloppy soil on a guy’s face. It echoes God the Creator in the beginning stooping down and scooping dirty hands to mold an earthling. Our God doesn’t have well-manicured fingernails, but has crud packed under there. Again, for saliva and God’s contagious goodness, God blew the breath of life into that earthling’s mouth and lungs.

This also appears in the mucky work in gardens that continues seasonably in these otherwise foreign days, the obscurely hopeful life-givings of a creative God who sticks seeds into the damp, clumpy soil to bring new life, to wait for spinach and peas to sprout, grow, produce.

In the Gospel story, Jesus stoops into the dirt, spits, mushes it around, gets his fingers goopy and muddy. He is creating from the mess, forming it, reforming it. God is hands-on with this world, involved and committed to all of this earthly, earthy, fleshy stuff. Miraculously, even filth and contamination, the worldly troubles, are taken as God’s problems…That’s not how I want to say that, though: there’s much we see negatively that God somehow still uses for the positive. Even the bad can become good.

A man was born blind in the story. That’s bad. The disciples want to look for fault, to examine sin. The authorities look for contagion by association, they want nothing to do with Jesus or the man. They’re trying to distance themselves. But Jesus isn’t assigning blame or trying to rationalize it. Instead he sees an opportunity to reach out. Not exempting or excluding blessing, Jesus takes this as a place of good, a place of God.

God, of course, is always involved in our world, in our lives, in our bodies. This God we know in Jesus is born into our bodies. This God in Jesus also goes on to die in our bodies. Nothing of our lives is separate from God. Not from messy beginnings, not through confusing and disrupted middles, not all the way to frightful or fragile finales. God is not just by peaceful waters but also guiding through deadly valleys. Wellness is not closer to godliness, nor is illness or disease apart from God.

There are strong, valid, vital reasons we are quarantining, with very very good intentions, to be helpful and caring. But in these isolating days and so much difficult uncertainty, through the fears that make us wary of the presence of other people, afraid to go into a gas station, that make us try to scrub-scrub-scrub off remnants of others, when it seems best, seems responsible, or is straight up the rule that we should or must avoid physical contact, it is more necessary than ever to say that God is not separate, not cut off from us, not held back through the bad or good, not apart from the realities of your life and what this world is facing. God is face-to-face, arm in arm, with every breath, fully embracing you and this world.

God who in Jesus got dirty and got bloody for this creative life-giving work certainly can’t keep his hands off of you and won’t let you go.

Except with medical workers, that level of contact is currently off-limits for us, even as we know it’s the right thing and miss it. I saw a post this week attributed to Pope Francis looking forward to “when we hug again, when all the shopping together will seem like party, we will go back to laughing together.” We recognize now is neither how our embodied lively touchy-feely God is, nor how we want to be.

It’s with this God still operating in our lives, turning our bads to goods, that I relate to a couple roles in our Old Testament reading. The first is the young person, David, so unexpected to be chosen by God that he didn’t even bother coming to the special gathering, the church service for commissioning and ordaining. Out alone, he felt far from the action. But God went out to claim him. It was totally unknown then, but he went on to become the greatest leader in his nation’s history, in spite of a whole muddy trough of his faults and failures.

In these days, when we long for answers and clarifications of what is going to happen and when, maybe in the anointing of young David there’s also a sense that in unexpected ways, far from feeling like you’re an important part of the action, without any idea of the ending, God is working. There aren’t qualifications that mean readiness and ability, nor details that render God incapable. God keeps bringing us to what God is working for.

IMG_1472

leftover ashes, olive oil, fresh mud

I hope you’ll get the chance during this service or at another moment to participate in the prayers and blessing for marking with oil. It’s a dual sign. On one hand, oil was the primary medicinal component in ancient times, applied for healing and relief and cleansing. But also, with the Hebrew word Messiah and the Greek word Christ, anointing was a sign of being chosen for God’s work, like young David. This anointing is a reminder God is both working healing in you and for the world.

The other meaningful role I notice in our Old Testament reading was that it started with an old person in fear. Samuel felt the risk. He’s scared, and with good reason, that it would cost him his life. But God offered the assurance it will be okay, promised to be with him.

Our version from the story Bible had God saying, “I’ll help you,” but in the biblical text God says “get going and I’ll show you what to do.” I don’t like the verb “help” for God. God isn’t a “helper.” God is the primary actor. God may work with our assistance or God may work through our lack of willingness. Again, the God who is not separate from disease, who doesn’t see a disabled person as worse off but as better, this God isn’t just along for the ride to give a boost and a little help.

I don’t know why God doesn’t say it clearer, but somehow we discover through days like this that God is showing us what to do, like for old Samuel. We don’t know beforehand, we worry maybe the whole time, but God is showing us.

In this week really not going how any of us wanted or expected, even the alternative plan didn’t go how I aspired. I have felt in these days that you could use spiritual care and need a pastor. So I thought that this week I would get the chance to call some of you, to hear how you’re doing, and maybe to say a prayer.

Well, that plan fizzled. Instead I was endlessly futzing with reconfiguring things to make them function a bit. It was tedious and frustrating, but then somehow that was part of the way ahead God was showing. In this thing that I didn’t expect and was worried wasn’t going well or being what was needed, people still began to reconnect with online gatherings, to delight at seeing faces, to share in some grief, and some strategizing and coping, and also to notice the good. Maybe as you’ve also come to see, it was more blessing than I would’ve anticipated. It’s not my muddled efforts, but how God is working in this moment. You are receiving from God now through a livestream as dispersed but connected community. I wouldn’t’ve chosen it but somehow (I guess) it was a way God was showing us what to do. Or even if it wasn’t, God is still bringing about the good and sustaining life.

That’s also to say that we’re not just here for a list of ideas on how we can feel helpful and in the action.

These days may not go how we want or what we would plan. They may fill us with fear. We may have very little sense of direction, for ourselves or how this will turn out. We may not be sure of our role. It may be so very unnatural. What we do may not seem important or helpful, much less very godly and loving, and we will function with faults and failings.

But our God is always striving for life, for the good of our bodies, for the good of our world. God knows the way ahead and will show you, through the fears, and guide you into life. You may have glimpses and hopes of that now, or you may feel like you can’t see it at all and are desperately down. But in either place, God is with you, in the mud and muck and very physical reality of your life. God comes to assure it will be okay. More than that, it will be good.

 

bulletin, including prayer and blessing for anointing:
https://www.dropbox.com/s/6fiyj7lpnr9vzsj/A03%2022%20creation%20covid.pdf?dl=0

Standard

Abundant Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard

a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Joyce Jeanette Anderson Joyce

October 8, 1936 + August 11, 2016

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

 

Near and not far off.

Known and not unknown.

Lo, I am with you.

And, you know where I am going.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standard