The Church and Criminal Justice

a sermon on the ELCA Social Statement*

and Luke18:2-14; Hebrews13:1, 3; Psalm142;

 

These Bible readings help us enter the social statement or—better—to enter the whole situation of criminal justice.

We started with a widow pleading for justice, begging constantly for her case to be heard and to receive what she deserved, but the legal system ignored and disregard her.

While we likely see the widow as vulnerable, a lonely female at the mercy of perhaps a patriarchal structure, we should also be sure to notice that God’s identity is repeatedly defined through our Old Testament as the defender of widows. Widows are the poster children for God’s concern. Actually, I suppose orphans are the poster children; widows are the poster adults, for whom God is especially concerned. Repeatedly, “widows and orphans” define those who should not be denied justice and assistance. Refusing to help the widow and orphan is Old Testament shorthand for deserving of worst accursedness. That makes the unjust judge in Jesus’ story clearly despicable; he isn’t just ignoring a widow. He is ignoring God.

And that reinforces for us God’s intentions and redirects our attention. The subtitle to the ELCA’s social statement on the Church and Criminal Justice is “Hearing the Cries.” If we’re not hearing the cries, then we’re like the cursed unjust judge.

The second part from Jesus warns us again, against thinking we’re so proper and are doing the right thing in worship while shunning those who have done wrong, that we’re not sinners, thinking ourselves more preferable to God than others, including criminals.

Further on priding ourselves on not being like those, we had the stunning little Hebrews verse: “think of those in prison as though you were in prison with them.” We create a distance that causes difficulty in conceiving criminal justice. It can be hard to put a face on what is mostly an unknown reality for us do-gooder church-goers—or, maybe more specifically, us white folks.

I remember a time being sick to my stomach in court, I was so confused and terrified and had no idea how anything worked, what I needed to be doing. It was something I’d never had to deal with, but many in that full courtroom—many of them people of color, and people with much less education and less financial resources and even less English ability—were more at ease, because they’d had to become familiar with this brutal and rigid operation.

You may not have been in many situations of being arrested and the rest. Beyond that, this remains not our reality because it is so easy to remove from in front of us. Prisons are meant to keep people out of sight and out of mind. They’re left faceless and vague, disparaged as bad guys. Vulnerable people like the widow in the parable remain easy to ignore.

So as we’re “hearing the cries” in the words of the social statement, as those cries and our God call us to be aware and active, it seems helpful to wonder how we might put a face on this, to show us whom we must love, as we said in our words of confession.

In this congregation, you regularly have a couple possibilities. You are part of supporting the work of Madison Area Jail Ministry. With prayers and with every dollar you put in the offering plate, you are helping care for both inmates and the sheriff’s department staff in the Dane County Jail. In this work of more than 50 years, you might associate faces of previous chaplains, John Mix and Julia Weaver. You might now know Christa Fisher.

Your offering benevolences also contribute to Madison-area Urban Ministry, or MUM. For decades, MUM has focused on re-entry programs for those who have been imprisoned, to foster a transition into a society that often denies the tools and too much even directly inhibits the ability to re-adapt to life. Here at MCC, you might picture the face of Ken, our most regular Just Bakery vendor who has worked up to become kitchen manager. You might also have seen a new MUM program about urban gardening in the Cap Times*. With Ken, director Linda Ketcham, Nasra from last year’s women’s salad supper, and others, you are part of these relationships.

And you might have other faces you associate. One of my friends works at the prison up in Stillwater; I hear about the stresses of his job. In my role, I’ve gotten to visit inmates to talk on phones through plexiglass, some of them church members and some people who were looking for a connection and support.

For me, the clearest now is Department of Corrections #618778: Bruce Burnside, my first pastoral colleague and once bishop, arrested and given a 10-year prison sentence after he killed a pedestrian with his vehicle. I saw Bruce a couple weeks ago at Jackson Correctional Institution, on my way back from fishing. Though intimidated by all the guards and razor wire and getting buzzed through so many doors and being watched and questioned, it was good to see him. Even in his blue pajama inmate attire, he is still Bruce. His letter this week said the heat wave made the cell like a brick pizza oven, without the pizza.

I know it can be either easier to forgive or to condemn Bruce. You could say he should’ve known and behaved better. Or you could point to good things he did in his life and say that his crime was an anomaly, so he deserves leniency. Whether we’d think his particular situation is just or unjust, still it is the present reality. As always, it’s complex and sad and not something somebody should have to deal with alone. So I’m grateful he gets lots of visitors and cards and attention and is in prayers and on people’s minds.

But that makes me mention Lamont, Bruce’s cellmate. I think Bruce had said that sometimes Lamont would hear from his mother on his birthday, the only caring contact he had in an entire year. So Bruce’s step-daughter Janna started visiting. It began with seeing Lamont when she went to see Bruce. But Bruce told me Janna had been there the previous week and he didn’t even know it until after she was gone, having driven five hours just to visit Lamont. Janna is hearing the cries.

As important and useful as it can be to put a face on this issue and recognize the sound of a voice as you hear its cries, this social statement isn’t only about personal relationships and bonds. Neither is it the religious services we might give to perpetrators of crimes or victims or families or those who work in law enforcement, though the statement does offer care and concern for all those groups.

So I want to mention a few points in this 64-page document and highlight a couple aspects of how it considers we might respond to hearing the cries.

First, we can say that a Lutheran perspective is in favor of criminal justice. We aren’t anti-cop. We can’t say that every prison cell should be thrown open because God forgives. Lutherans see laws as a way to restrain evil, to provide safety, to foster life, and therefore as good gifts from God and a way that God operates in our world.

But we also recognize a “no” along with this “yes.” The criminal justice system as it currently stands may be reasonable and have plenty of dedicated workers and vital work. But all is not well. Most primarily, the social statement stresses that the system is too focused on punishment. That should not be the only aspect of criminal justice. Paying a debt to society or paying for a life taken away is only one metaphor, and certainly not the sole way to obtain justice and order and set things right. Restorative justice, alternatives to incarceration, practices of rehabilitation beg for our attention.

The social statement also enumerates many areas where, rather than offering solutions for society, this system perpetrates worse injustice. These include racial issues we’ve come to recognize somewhat more through the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which are also in the social statement on race (which we won’t get to take up this summer). There is mention of the death penalty, which also has its own social statement. There is drug policy. There is the criminalization of mental illness. There is disenfranchisement of 5.3 million citizens from voting, sometimes permanently.* There is the escalation of children getting tried as adults, and ending up in life without parole. And of children who are affected when their parents are taken away. The statement remarks on immigration detention, and we’re certainly hearing the cries more these days of those families separated at the border.

There is the crazy amount of money we waste on this, including for profiteering private prisons. In spite of that, the statement also asserts that economic benefits of reducing costs should not be our main motivating factor for change. Instead, it reminds us of our theological perspective, with a moral evaluation of what helps people, and the core belief that all people are created in the image of God and there is nothing that can change that central and eternal identity.

Finally the promise of faith is larger than anything inflicted on us, than any of our failures, than any fears of violence, than any of our suffering as victims, than any of our possible responses to set things right. Not just consolation, the statement reminds us, but empowerment, the promise in Christ of being reconciled to God, a time when every tear will be wiped away, and the promise that God will find a way to right all that has wronged us not only is hope for the future, but also gives us courage to cope with partial justice and to meet the challenges of a world harmed by crime.*

We hear the cries, and respond.

 

 

* http://elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Criminal-Justice

* http://host.madison.com/ct/news/local/govt-and-politics/urban-agriculture-as-a-life-saver-planting-program-for-formerly/article_52f63a2f-3a89-50c5-872c-125707684189.html

* https://www.aclu.org/files/pdfs/votingrights/wi_flyer.pdf

* see p21 for these

 

Social Statement excerpt:

One in 34 adults in the United States is under some form of correctional control and more citizens are
imprisoned as a percentage of the population than in any other country on earth. The U.S. spends 60 billion dollars every year for corrections alone. They who work in the criminal justice system often feel stressed to the breaking point. Concerned that so many cries—from victims, the incarcerated, their families, communities, those wrongly convicted, those who work in the system—have not been heard, the ELCA is prompted to speak and to act.

This statement devotes significant attention to reform and calls for a dramatic shift in public discussion about criminal justice. The dominant public view, underlying the current system, equates more punitive measures with more just ones. The limited success of massive incarceration in deterring crime has not affected the
prevalence of “lock ‛em all up” rhetoric in public debate.

Prevalent views such as “tough on crime” policies make it more difficult to see each person involved in the criminal justice system as a human being. These views effectively override the conviction that all people are created in the image of God and worthy of appropriate and compassionate responses.

The ELCA speaks in this statement from among and to its members, to those affected by crime in any way, and to those who work for the public good in various civil offices related to the criminal justice system.
Drawing from Holy Scripture, this church holds up a vision of God’s justice that is wondrously richer and deeper than human efforts and yet is a gauge against which justice in God’s world must always be assessed.

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Is Jesus Divisive?

sermon on Luke12:49-56; Hebrews11:29-12:2
I’ve been practically giddy all week about this Bible reading.

Which I know sounds odd since this won’t rank among anybody’s favorites. But I relish the chance to struggle with Scripture, to wrestle with it until it releases a blessing for us.

In contrast, a month ago we heard the Good Samaritan, which is both so familiar and also almost self-explanatory. Be nice to each other, including some new people—it seems to say—or accept help from unexpected sources. You almost inherently can understand that, and barely would need a preacher.

With this passage, however, you’re left with two choices. Either you can claim that the Bible and religion are filled with too much nastiness and try to ignore and reject the whole spiel, or else you can hear these hard words, face the confusing dilemma, and exclaim, “Aha! This is why we pay Pastor Nick the big bucks!” So now we’ll see if you’re getting your money’s worth.

That comes with the immediate disclaimer that I don’t have a definite answer or resolution for you, but do have several possibilities to try on.

First, we may hear these words from Jesus simply as descriptive: there are divisions on earth. We may even find that on occasion to be a good thing: night and day, the weekend, our atmosphere separating air from outer space.

Other times, we sense division not necessarily as beneficial, but still at least as reality. Across the globe, we don’t all speak the same language. We don’t have the same skills or interests. And while Jesus may be indicating the individual differences or denominational disparities or interfaith turmoil that religion has caused, of arguments and separations in our families on up, still, stepping back from emotion, we are at a point in history where we might be able to recognize that there are real reasons we wouldn’t all have the same understanding of God, that our unique circumstances and upbringings and lot in life play a role.

That’s a fundamental distinction already in Jesus’ words. He was part of the monotheistic Jewish faith, but where they’d said the only, the sole, the mono- connection with God was in the Temple, Jesus was relocating the divine, taking away the hierarchy that made some closer to God and pushed others out of the perimeter. Simply by proclaiming the undoing of a central authority and enacting radical welcome with unconditional grace, Jesus was causing division and disrupting the old system.

That may point us toward a next step of reflection. Beyond description, is this word from Jesus prescriptive? Does he seek to cause divisions?

I have to say, this is mainly what makes this passage uncomfortable for me. This version from Luke, where Jesus says he brings division, is a notch gentler than Matthew’s version, where he says he brings a sword. But still, when Jesus declares he has not come to bring peace on earth, that disappointment is the exact opposite of why I usually turn to Jesus and what I expect from him. Some of the first things that grabbed me about Christianity when I was in middle school were words like “blessed are the peacemakers,” “turn the other cheek,” and “love your enemies.” These shaped my passion for nonviolence and even pacifism, to be against war and militarism and the death penalty. But here, Jesus seems to reverse his core message of love and healing and life, and—indeed—peace!

But that very reversal is the cue that we need to struggle with these words. Certainly there are some who employ this sort of message to reinforce violence or oppression or division or use of force. But the fact that they have to turn repeatedly to this passage or to an apparently angry Jesus cleansing the Temple or a single line about swords at the Garden of Gethsemane says that these hard passages are the exception and not the rule of Jesus.

So I would argue—and will argue—that Jesus isn’t stoking fires of hatred and fanning the flames that make us burn against each other. This isn’t a sort of division that lets me see myself as good and other races or religions as bad, much less worth-less and able to be excluded or exterminated or deported. Those have been dangerous precedents in history and are dangerous in our midst today. Such divisions are accusingly satanic, not godly or from Jesus. That is not God’s mission or intention for our world, and it must be resisted.

But that very resistance begins to illuminate another side of these words from Jesus. It’s not general divisiveness he promotes, as if desiring any and all animosity. But there are specific faithful distinctions that we would foster, that Jesus would back, when he’s prompting change and upset against tranquil apathy at the status quo. Such “peace” he may well be against. Amid plenty of divisions, we should readily and boldly proclaim, “I’m not that sort of Christian. We are not that kind of people.” We want to declare proudly and vitally that we are anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-bullying and anti-oppression and anti-poverty. We are anti-terrorism but simultaneously anti-anti-Muslim and anti-anti-immigrant (if you can handle important uses of a double-negative) and anti-anti-gay. We know these divisions and know where we must stand for justice. Sure, we can work to heal the splits and repair the breach with other people, and that may be among our more vital tasks in these days, but that doesn’t permit us to ignore the divides or to pretend that compromise plain and simple is always the right thing.

That’s hard enough when we’d prefer not to have to keep struggling amid society. We don’t want to feel like a voice in the wilderness, crying out. We don’t want every election to feel like a doomsday scenario or for every click of news to be filled with despair. But beyond those larger fears and frustrations, we also know this more intimately. We know divisions in families, conversations that cause consternation, the topics that somehow are off the table for discussion. We know those family fractures that are fueled by even kind and faithful views.

Such values may arise from stuff that seems like a big deal, like arguing faith’s perspectives on health care. Or that your beliefs mean you’re called to love Iranians and Russians, and—yes—even terrorists, and all those with whom you disagree. That’s not a fun conversation. Or it may be more personal, like around parenting styles or medical decisions or financial choices. Or it may seem smaller, like that you’d choose to be here today, that you intentionally give away some of your income, that you do the silly thing of saying a prayer in times of need. We may not be persecuted or our lives at risk for what we believe, but among your family and friends and coworkers—besides the broader culture—clinging to your beliefs is still apt to cause divisions. Jesus may have been envisioning that result simply because of what matters to you.

It’s already a relief that Jesus recognizes and names the brokenness we’re bound to face. It’s good news that my family isn’t the only one God knows with some dysfunction. But beyond just naming the reality, we do need more. Clearly, this involves difficult decisions to weigh and really requires endurance and patience to persist. So we need support. We need this community. We need the great cloud of witnesses, those saints throughout history that our Hebrews reading held up for us. We need examples of those who have willingly or unwillingly suffered and were mocked and continued through blood and sweat and tears, and conquered somehow in death, even as the loss appeared to be overwhelmingly futile. It’s a stunning Bible passage, making us ask if it’s worth it, even while motivating us to carry on. We’re caught up in something we can’t quite explain and may not always like, yet know we must proceed.

And that brings us to a final part of the reflection. We should always remember that Jesus is up to something particular. With him, it is not just a description of everyday life, but a new way of seeing and interacting with the world, a new order, for new life. He begins by saying he’s bringing fire to earth and wished it were already kindled, and his stress while awaiting his baptism. These are lines about his death. He isn’t kindling a fire to start fights among others or to give us permission to take up the sword against those we don’t like. He’s inviting that division against himself, recognizing that he’s the one who’s going to get burned, the one who will be plunged into death. This makes the Bible passage about him.

But that also makes it about you, doesn’t it? See, you’ve been baptized into Christ as well. Your baptism joins you to the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of new life, but also joins you to his passion and death. Amid the communion of saints, you are brought into this Jesus way, this Jesus vision, this Jesus practice for encountering the world, and striving both against it and yet simultaneously on its behalf.

That means the fire is spreading. Jesus kindled it against himself, but also in you. It’s remarkable that the one other place these words for division and fire happen together is on Pentecost (Acts 2:3), when divided tongues of flame appeared on the followers of Jesus, filling them with diverse gifts and sending them across the world. Among those believers, this word for division also became a word for sharing—that they divided among themselves the cup of the new testament in Jesus’ blood at the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:17) and divided their possessions to distribute as any had need (Acts 2:45).

In this community of Jesus, then, we no longer recognize the world’s old, rotten divisions of haves and have-nots, of rich versus poor, of insiders and outsiders, winners and losers, successful or failure, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, the worthy and the unworthy. In this community of Jesus, those divisions are cast out because finally, this is where we anticipate reconciliation will have the last word, since neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come will be able to divide us or separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

 

Hymn: God of Tempest, God of Whirlwind (ELW #400)

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Seven Sermons for One Sunday (4th Sunday in Lent)

WELCOME & SERMON #1 (Luke 15:1-2)

Now for something completely different.

There’s so much in the parable of the Prodigal Son that we’re going to break it apart. Maybe when it comes around again in three years I’ll take it as a whole ball of wax. But today it seems worth living into the various aspects and attitudes. Plus, there’s the added benefit of being able to tell your family and friends, “I got to hear 7 sermons this week!” Who wouldn’t want to be able to claim that? *

This first piece we might take as a welcome to worship and an introduction to this experience. As you arrive here, you may identify with the sinners, having been beratedly told or having your own suspicious feeling that all is not right in your life. Or you may be more like the grumblers, who claim to have it all figured out in doing the right thing, in spite of everyone else.

Either way, what Jesus has to say today in this gathering is for you. Though we each have our own details and stories and abilities and short-comings, we also arrive in the same boat, turning again to the waters of baptism, expecting, needing a word of grace.

 

SERMON #2 (Luke 15:3, 11b-16)

It’s a nice Kyrie in ELW setting 8, isn’t it? Besides the catchy tune, it also helps expand our view. The typical versions still make reference to our relationships with God and with each other and for ourselves. Even that most simple phrase, “Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy” could capture all of our need. Yet this version intentionally expands our vision to our homes and justice issues, and work and play, and this gathering and the whole world, and all of it commended to God in prayer.

Briefly, I might jump in over my head on conversations on mercy. What we sang sure doesn’t seem like begging to an angry God who is apt to punish or going to withhold goodness. This isn’t mercy as relenting from meting out a harsh guilty verdict. Maybe the reverse, this mercy is apparent in its French origin, merci, reminding us of the gratitude for God having offered so much to us and continuing to strive for our wellbeing. It is not fearsome but a blessed thing to be at the mercy of God, mercy that matches other definitions of compassion for the unfortunate and seeking to alleviate distress. This points us to the beginning of Jesus’ parable. *

The younger son, figuring he was under his own power and at the mercy of nobody but himself, soon found out how much could go wrong—in squandering money and a catastrophic famine and lack of community support and even being stuck with the pigs, having to deal with what was both illegal and offensive to him.

For that wandering son, please understand; Jesus does not claim that if you stay at home close to God nothing will go wrong. Just the reverse, hearing this part of the reading still in the gathering portion of our service and along with that Kyrie, we understand how much we’ve seen go wrong. So we come here again to keep asking for protection and relief and guidance and blessing, in all the moments of our lives and for so much need in our world. And in spite of everything else, we continue to expect good from God. For that, let us pray to the Lord.

 

SERMON #3 (Luke 15:17-20a)

* Depending on your perspective, you might find the son in this part of the parable to be conniving or humbly contrite or just desperate. Is he strategizing tactics to fill his belly? If so, we could observe desperation can drive either toward ingenuity or deceitful acts. Or does he simply recognize that life was better and could be again, even if to a limited degree? That’s not to be slighted. We might, for example, consider how those who have been incarcerated can be reintegrated into society. Things may never be how they once were, but they could be better.

We should also admit, though, that this son’s remorse and sorrow could well be honest. Whether or not the relationship with his father can be re-established, there is some sense of longing in this son, to make amends and, at the very least, to confess. That is worded well in Psalm 32 that we just read, that sometimes we need to speak it aloud, to open ourselves up and disclose the hardship, just because it makes us suffer too much to keep it bottled up inside.

In a grander way, it’s what we hear from 2nd Corinthians (5:16-21), stunningly emphatic on reconciliation. This is the next part in the yearning for restored and whole relationships. And the template here is that our human point of view doesn’t cut it. How we relate is not based on past hurts or on future potential. Trespasses cannot count against us, it says. We are called to see each other through the eyes of Jesus, or as the body of Christ, as a new creation, though we still sure look and feel like our old disappointing selves.

The reading says that for our sake, Jesus became sin so that we might become God’s righteousness. Within the story, that says Jesus took the place of that lost and forsaken son. He identified with him, though it’s hard for us to imagine Jesus as so offensive, as a desperate loser, a hungry philanderer, judged to be worthless. Yet in exchange for that shame—simply taking it away—Jesus offers a new beginning where it is all right and even that outcast lowlife is entrusted at the center of God’s operations as an ambassador, continuing to work for reconciliation.

 

CHILDREN’S MESSAGE/SERMON #4 (Luke 15:20b)

Well, kids, I saved what I think is the best part of this whole story for you, because this is what I hope for you from your parents and families, and from this congregation and me at church, and in all kinds of places in life. And, most importantly, this is also what God always promises for you. *

The son had done something wrong, but his dad didn’t wait for him to say he was sorry. The son didn’t have to do anything at all. His dad was just plain excited for him and loved him and wanted to give him a great big hug. God doesn’t love you only because you do good things. God isn’t proud of you only if you stop doing bad things. God loves you just because you exists and God is so excited to be around you and to hold onto you always.

At this part of the service with sermons, we’re often looking for words to explain God or to try to teach. But before any of our words, God rushes up to say, “I love you!”

And God also trusts you to share that love with others. So go and give somebody a hug, maybe especially someone who doesn’t expect it.

 

 

SERMON #5 (Luke 15:21-24)

*Amazing Grace places these words on the son’s lips, from his experience: “I once was lost but now am found.” The father sees it more strongly still: “This son of mine was dead and is alive again.” It’s even more than recovery; this is a resurrection.

As we turn toward the peace and toward offering, we could see in this sense how we celebrate each other and how we offer our best gifts. Indeed, the amazing word of “grace” has its root in the Greek “charis.” Like “charismatic charity,” it is about gifts we eagerly give for each other. God continues to lavish goodness on you—calf and robe and ring, clothing and rich food and identity—strictly as a gift, in the old words of the catechism “out of pure fatherly goodness, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all.”

That, in turn, is what we also offer for the sake of each other. We share our gifts. We extend what has been offered to us. We practice being the new creations and ambassadors of reconciliation. We share peace. We offer love. We give away what has been given to us. Not because we need to, but because we can. And, God knows, we’re worth it!

 

SERMON #6 (Luke 15:25-30)

This sermon piece may seem like an interruption, and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be, exactly what happens with the older son at this point in the story. The celebrations are interrupted and questioned and resisted. *

As we turn toward this table and the supper where we gladly proclaim that “all are welcome,” we have to realize that the gracious and flagrant welcome has to offend, just as surely as a closed table bound by restrictions and rules would offend. As much as it is good news that you are welcome, you are invited, that this meal is for you, we have to realize there are some who wouldn’t want somebody like you here, somebody your age or level of understanding, or with your doubts or your theology, or your clothes or education, or your background from this week or from earlier in life, or just because you don’t seem to have done much to be very deserving.

And yet here is set a lavish feast, precisely and explicitly given “for you.” The richest meal and most amazing table you could possibly be invited to, not because the abundance of fancy feast, but because the nourishment here is God’s own blessing, the life of Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit for you and soon in you.

This meal may be served to people with whom you wouldn’t necessarily choose to relate. It may be served by hands that don’t seem qualified or worthy or preferable. The question from the parable is whether you’ll accept this great invitation, and if the joy you’re invited to share is worth it, or whether you’ll dig in your heels, wanting to besmirch or degrade others, and in pouting miss out.

The fatted calf has been killed. The Lamb of God has given himself for you and for all. All are welcome; are you coming?

 

BLESSING/SERMON #7 (Luke 15:31-32)

Here’s the end. * What strikes me this week is the great risk. Not that I’m still trying to preach in these last moments, but how risky this was for the father. In regaining one son who had been lost for dead, did he manage to lose the other one anyway? Did he anticipate that possibility? He also seems to be losing out on the hard worker in order welcome back the problem child, offending his honor student by honoring the delinquent.

It’s a whole story of risk. We tend to slander the young son for the risk he took in leaving and then overlook the risk he was weighing in coming home. There’s always a risk in the lavish party, the feast, in what we choose to celebrate and where we give our resources. The younger son we may call wasteful; the father we’d more likely term extravagant, or at least not stingy. That’s constantly true in his devotion; it’s risky. And the older son’s resistance to living that way, his refusal to join the celebration also has risks. His father has promised him everything, but will he so firmly turn away that he’ll give up on it all and become as lost as his brother had been?

That may be the parting question today. You’ve risked being here, giving up yourself to the mercy of God, coming to celebrate a banquet that welcomes offenders and the snooty and you and any who’ll enjoy it. As you prepare to go back into the week of encountering all kinds of Kyrie moments, of squandering and wrongs done and difficulties and longing so desperately for things to go right, it’s in the reconciliation and the love and peace that you have to offer, to risk, and to receive. It’s in putting God’s love first and foremost in our attitudes and relationships, in seeing faces as God’s good new creation, as celebrated just because that’s the kind of God we have.

Having been again reminded and attuned to that, having received again that assurance in worship, going now back into the world for which God risks God’s self so extravagantly and so desperately, you have eyes to see and a life to risk with it as well.

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The Darn Old Self and God’s Reconciliation

sermon on Ephesians2:11-22; Mark6:30-34;53-56

We’ll clean up the mess later, but let’s get ugly straightaway.
To get your brains going and emotions riled up we can start with adversaries, like Brewers vs. Cardinals, or Packers and Bears, or World Cup soccer against Japan, or Muhammad Ali taking down Joe Frazier. Big time opponents.

Or maybe instead of sports, you’re more of a historian, and your “us vs. them” is about jihadists or terrorists or nukes or goes back to Soviets or Nazis or the news illustrating that the South versus North still smolders from the Civil War and is just one of the sorts of violence and unrest we’re forced to face these days.

You may feel your blood pressure beginning to rise, but obviously it gets worse. Our Gospel reading says Jesus had compassion for the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. That’s biblical imagery, set against last week’s reading. We’d heard King Herod was selfish, abusive, egotistical, elitist, power-hungry. In our own partisan environment, you may have that same feeling of being a sheep without a shepherd, whether your aspersions are cast toward Governor Walker or President Obama. You may feel unrepresented and ignored, as if the guy is totally the opposite of you.

But it still gets worse than that, because your archnemesis isn’t the fan for another team. Your worst enemy isn’t the soldier at the other end of our country’s gunsights. The most threatening to your existence in day-to-day life aren’t rampagers or authoritarian tyrants. More likely, it’s somebody in your family you argue with, somebody down the hallway at work whose failings feel irredeemable, somebody across your property line who frustrates you, somebody in your own household who can make your blood boil and knows exactly how to push buttons. Or your own darn ol’ self, as we’ll say more about.

Now that I’ve aggravated your ulcers and made your brain fret, now that you’re aware of this hostility and the animosity that you harbor or that can even overwhelm your better intentions, now that you’ve got an image in your head, now hear again the words from Ephesians: “Christ Jesus has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.” He creates unity and peace, building you together as the household of God.

Let that sink in for a minute, and see whether you feel relieved or ticked off. See, this isn’t saying that Jesus thinks you should work on forgiveness, or that God’s will would be for you to reconcile with opponents, or some larger theological justification that in the cosmic sense your fights are awfully petty and small. No. This is already over and done with. Those biggest disagreements and deepest held angers and most terrible resentments, this says those are already gone. Christ has broken them down. He has already reconciled you. His forgiveness is already active. It’s not something waiting for you. It’s not dependent on you. It’s not even up to you. Your fight is over by his proclamation. How do you like them apples?

I suspect not all that well. Little enough that you may try to explain it away or offer a counter-argument, or simply dismiss it and claim that God’s work in Jesus isn’t that big or that helpful or that important. And I’d want to agree with you. I don’t like it, either. I’d just as soon keep God as a security blanket or personal bank account to draw on when needed. We’re not in the market for God to upset our whole worldview like this, making us share and even become something we wouldn’t choose.

Really, God should’ve known better. When we’re most wanting to dig in our heels, how can God just declare that the enmity is over and the brokenness restored, ex post facto? What about our stubborn resentments and all the ramifications? South Africa needed the Truth and Reconciliation commission to overcome the wrongs of apartheid. So what is this proclamation of Jesus supposed to mean for Palestinians and Israelis? We throw law breakers in prison. How would it work if sufferers were suddenly confronted with those trying to cling stubbornly to positions of oppressive power? Indeed, for one perspective of mine, I couldn’t hardly admit that all is square between the fossil fuel corporations and extincting polar bears, not to mention that I’m not justified in my occasions of grouchiness at Acacia.

Yet our faith proclaims that Jesus is resolving all of this! Just imagine what that means that the terrible dividing lines are eroding!

Clearly this is exactly where Jesus has his work cut out for him. We’ve been built, our brains are trained, in these divisions, to make it the world split into this binary structure. We’ve done the exercise of how dominant this dualistic thinking is.  I say black you say (white). Insiders vs. (outsiders). Male (female). Rich (poor). Happy (sad). Good (bad). So what Jesus is doing is re-forming you, renewing your mind, changing this entire structure of your brain, reconstructing your whole worldview.

In the Ephesians reading, this is about Jews versus non-Jews. You may feel that’s the small potatoes of an ancient religious dispute. But for our identity of dividing, this is the essential one, because one side had been given and held claim to God’s blessing. Yet the remarkable revelation is that being these ultimate insiders wasn’t an exclusive right. The wall or dividing line that kept out the outsiders was torn down. Your disagreements and divisions must indeed pale in this word that nobody is outside the realm and reach of God.

This is acted out, as well, in the Gospel reading, in Jesus’ compassion. For those people left out, neglected by King Herod as insignificant and punished by the Roman occupation and denied by all the systems, for them Jesus has compassion. In their need, in their longing, in their poverty, in their sickness. He brings them in to God’s household, to the family table.

And for you, you will not be excluded from God’s blessing, from Jesus’ compassion. There is no wrong that does not find forgiveness in him, no brokenness he will not restore. This is why, for small grievances or burning regrets, every week God is eager again to welcome you here with the announcement of forgiveness and you’re fed with the very stuff in this meal and nourished by it. This is also why death—that tries to cut you off from each other, from community—is the last enemy to be overcome, the last brokenness to be healed.

So is this just the rhythm of life, to need dose after dose of gracious forgiveness, week in and week out, until you die and God at last raises you to new life? Well…would that be such a bad thing?

You may also recognize that God continues this work in you. Even now you are being raised to new life. Your old self—the selfish, conniving, hateful one—is being put to death, strangled and having its existence cut out from under it, as that foundation of trying to compare and contrast yourself against others is eroded as worthless and pointless. Instead, we gather and practice a new way of being. As we share peace with each other, we try out what Jesus has already accomplished in ending the hostility, proclaiming peace to us who are near and have always been here and peace to those who have never felt incorporated into receiving blessing before. We share peace with those we love and with those who are estranged from us, who have angered or hurt us, who are far from our love. Even in handshakes and hugs and greetings, we find ourselves living together into the reality that Christ has already established.

Some days you may even understand what it means to be Christ’s ambassadors with this message of reconciliation (2Corinthians5:16-20).

As it says later in Ephesians, “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by your lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourself with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:22-24).

We can also compare that new creation with former delusions another way: stop thinking you’re able to go it alone, self-contained, individually-responsible, in competition, a lone wolf. You are a sheep, tended amid this flock, not so much by your pastor, but by the Good Shepherd. And with him, you may know your place is always secure.

Hymn: The Church’s One Foundation (ELW #654)

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a funeral sermon

For Daniel John Banda  22Apr1957 + 16Oct2014

Is25:6-9; Ps23; from Rom7-8; Mt5:4

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

Life doesn’t go how we want it to. That’s an obvious statement right now, certainly true in this tragic shock of Dan’s death, which we can only call untimely and unfortunate. It should not have happened. We can’t give any good reasons or explanations for why it did happen. And there’s really nothing we can do to change it.

This week, we’ve also been reminded that the end of life is not how we’d want it to be. This moment should not have come now, when Dan was happy and settling in to new rhythms of life in Platteville. It shouldn’t have come when Maren was so far away. It shouldn’t have come as a knock on Josh’s door, just as he was actually looking forward to a visit on parents’ weekend, activities planned, details worked out, even a shirt picked out for him. It is untimely and tragic.

It highlights the fracture of loss, taking one so vibrant away from us, and also it magnifies what was unresolved, the other moments in Dan’s life, for your shared lives with him, and for each of us. There’s plenty that doesn’t go how we want, how we wish it would, and we seem largely powerless to change it.

A month ago Dan wrote to me with that type of thought, reflecting that he’d worn out several mirrors looking for the cracks, as he said, in his thoughts and actions, feeling he couldn’t really understand a bunch of the “whys” in life, that it just remained a mystery.

One of our verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans captures this sort of sentiment, seeming so true to our realities: “I do not do the good I want, but what I do not want is what I do.” In some of the most central roles in his life, that has to summarize Dan’s reaction. He tried to be a good spouse and partner. He really, really wanted to be a good dad. In his mind he always wanted to be a father first and foremost. But those relationships nevertheless had difficulty. They didn’t always go the way he wanted, or the way you wanted.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot Dan did very well, that did go how he wanted. His passions and creativity and his inquisitiveness could be inspiring to be around. His teaching was an especially energizing and enlivening spot for him, the recent time in Platteville being one of the strong examples of it. In that letter last month, after excitement for Josh, Dan told of how very happy he was, being busy with the diverse course load. He was back in his element.

And, of course, in his filmmaking he was extraordinary and so talented. Yet notably there, too, he tended to find themes and topics that were not easy, talking to veterans or entering war zones, places of disputes and conflicts, prejudices, oppressions, and inequalities. That again shows how life so often is not what it should be.

There are some who view all this with a negative summary. For that they may be called pessimists, or realists. They see struggle and disappointments and tragedies, and summarize it with something like, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” It could even square with our verse from Romans; if I try to do the right thing, but somehow just can never get it right, that’s a pretty dismal outlook overall.

Yet that is not the theme of our faith, finally, and that is not the refrain Dan voiced. Much truer and more faithful is Dan’s motto, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” It’s one he used a lot. It’s a phrase I heard from him at low moments. He used it to describe places like Mexico and the Congo and our fear of the other that would break apart human relationships on large scales.

And, indeed, it could be used in Romans to describe our place. As much as we fail and fall short, as much as things won’t go right and with sudden finality of death, still that’s not it, it’s not over, not the end, no period. That is not all. It’s among the most amazing transitions possible, from Romans 7 looking at our bleak brokenness, going on to say that it’s not just us, that all creation groans in travail, and yet turning in Romans 8 to a breathtaking word hope. It says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” It points toward the promise of life through the love of Jesus. And nothing can ever separate us from that. This is the core of our faith, then, that even at the lowest point, we cling to hope of something better. Even in the face of death, we hold the expectation of more, of resurrection, of new life in Jesus.

That’s what can give us confidence to keep working on relationships that seem to be at dead ends. It’s what allows us to confront places of deep despair, whether in the news of our world or in our own existence. Even now, the bad is merely a comma.

The Isaiah reading that Maren selected for us was written during a time of terrible oppression by a foreign army. Yet it allowed God’s people not to yearn for or gloat in their own triumphalism, but to hope for reconciliation with those enemies, when all would be brought to celebrate together at a rich banquet, when shrouds and graves and weeping and death would be no more. It’s in Jesus’ words of blessing from the Sermon on the Mount, that even in the midst of our sorrow you are blessed, for you will be comforted.

It’s always in the assurance that no matter how far we’ve gone astray, how badly we’ve blown it, how brutal a rupture death is, how much we live in the frustrating struggles of Romans 7, still there is Romans 8 to come. Nothing can separate you, there is no way you can be taken from, you will always be kept in the arms of God’s mercy, in the heart of this Father, in the love of Jesus our Lord, for this life and more to come.

That’s a promise Dan cherished through the commas of his life, and it persists for him now. It remains a promise for you, too. And for Christ’s sake it will be forever. Period.

Romans 7 & 8

7:15 I do not understand my own actions. 17b I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 8:2 [and] the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

PRAYERS OF INTERCESSION

Let us pray.

God of all creation, we praise you for the vastness of your blessings, for friends and colleagues that stretch across the globe and through different languages, for arts and all knowledge, for the tenacity of love and the gift of memories. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

As we gather this evening in shared grief and loss, give us grace to know that you hold onto us still through tragedy and sorrow. We pray for the healing of brokenness in our relationships and across the globe. Continue your work of reconciliation and peace in our lives. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

Give courage and faith to all who mourn, and a sure and certain hope in your loving care, that, casting all their sorrow on you, they may have strength for the days ahead, remembering especially Josh and Maren. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

Grant to us who walk as yet by faith, that, where this world groans in grief and pain, your Holy Spirit may lead us to bear witness to your light and life. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

Amid things that end too soon, sustain us in the promise of a grand banquet to come, with cups overflowing at the table of your eternal feast. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

Help us in the midst of things we cannot understand, to believe and trust in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

God of all grace, we give you thanks because by his death our Savior Jesus Christ destroyed the power of death and by his resurrection he opened the kingdom of heaven to all. Make us certain that because he lives we shall live also, and that neither death nor life, nor things present nor things to come, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

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