God’s Community of Support

sermon on 1st Kings 17 & for Reformation Sunday

 

Elijah is an Old Testament big wig.

When Jesus hangs out with the superstars of Hebrew Scriptures with a heavenly glimpse in the Transfiguration story, it’s Moses and Elijah, representing the categories of law and prophets.

It was feasible Elijah could show up since, instead of dying, a chariot of fire came to scoop him up by the Jordan River and carried him away. From that, our Old Testament ends with the expectation that Elijah will return, which is the famously waiting empty chair at Jewish Passover tables. Also from this, Jesus was asked if he’s Elijah, if he’s calling for Elijah’s help as he died on the cross, and he himself pointed to John the Baptist as the one filling this role of the ultimate prophet.

In a few amazing stories, Elijah called down fire from the sky and had major confrontations with nasty rulers and spoke with God and spoke for God and triumphed over 400 bad prophets in a duel.

But for all that large stuff of a big wig, in today’s reading, Elijah drops in for his first appearance and seems fairly small and around the fringes.

It helps to know that at the end of the previous chapter, King Ahab had just come to power. He was introduced twice by saying: “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him” (16:30, 33). Not a glowing endorsement, further accentuated in its dim appraisal by the pacifist activist priest Daniel Berrigan who wrote: “In the tally of royal delinquents, one, Ahab, shines for innovative spoliating wickedness.”* This king, following his forbidden marriage to a foreign wife, Jezebel (a name with demeaning derivation for a shamelessly morally unrestrained woman, as the dictionary would have it), Ahab worsened it by promoting cult worship while ridiculing and killing the good guys.

I mention that because this evil queen Jezebel was from Sidon, where our story spends most of its time today, with a widow. If we have one woman from Sidon who was not commendable, another was. One man of Israel failed to follow God while another listened.

Now, I don’t know exactly where you might find yourself in this story, and I’m reluctant to declare any role as yours. You might feel like the one proclaiming God in hostile territory, or akin to one offering what limited care you can. You might even feel like the lifeless son, or wicked rulers. I’m going to try not to assign roles or tell you what you should be doing, but (as usual) to point out what God is doing.

For that uncertainty, we’ll notice the start of the story, where God cares for Elijah without human support. God’s work without our hands. Ravens bring Elijah food. When Elijah does go to a human for assistance, the person is less willing and less able to help than nature was. Besides God’s non-human work in creation, we might take that, especially with this Reformation celebration of the church, as an observance that even we who are supposed to be offering care and embodying what God wants still may not be the most willing or helpful. We see where people of the church have not helped things to go right, where it’s better apart from us.

That is further highlighted by which human did become helpful here: one across the border, outside the realm of God’s people, not sharing Elijah’s religion, from the place of the evil queen.

This is exactly the offense Jesus is voicing in our Gospel window, that God’s preferential treatment and operation isn’t reserved for the religious insiders. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lifelong Lutheran or your perfect attendance awards in worship or how passionately you pray. God will be just as eagerly striving for the life of somebody on the other side of the border, speaking a different language, not sharing your WASP-y privileged presumptuous position. I don’t say that for a self-righteous immigration stance, but with the reminder that whenever we draw a line or barrier of righteousness, God will be working on the other side of that line.

This is important for us to see about God’s provision. Through this meager outsider, God provided and offered the sustenance to help the prophet’s life proceed. But it’s more than the physical relief effort. She also offered clarification about God. One commentator points out that “here a foreign woman is a sign to and of God’s people.” Once more: “a foreign woman [becomes] a sign to and of God’s people!”** To know who God is and who we are as God’s people, we may not be best served simply by looking at each other, in the obvious places of privilege, in insider mirrors.

Here we may see that benefit of being in this ecumenical partnership as the MCC. We may recognize that advantage in interfaith connections.

And in smaller perspective, it’s worth hearing on Reformation Sunday. I can be given to tout my German Lutheran heritage even over against you Scandinavians. I, too, can feel like a good chorale of “A Mighty Fortress” is the voice of our faith, but that it also can go the other direction in our mouths with good beer and some sauerkraut.

lutherans for reformationSo for myself as much as for you, the bulletin cover is a reminder not to be so confined in our sense of who a Lutheran is or what we look like or where we are. Such decolonizing Lutheranism is also why Christa Olson chose the Spanish setting of our liturgy for this service.

For seeing such places of God’s work, let’s add in the end of the story, moving from food for maintaining life to the interruption of life. Elijah met the widow as she was expecting death from starvation. That was averted, but death returned and took her sick son from her.

And then God’s work is still on behalf of life, returning breath into the son and returning him to his mother. This is small work, an isolated case, temporarily helping one family. Elijah will go on to stop the death-wielding forces of his government as he’ll struggle for life. The resuscitation of the boy, the restoration of family in a fringe location, is vital, but is a small hint, a symbol, a mere glimpse of something larger.

Once more, Father Berrigan signals well the ultimate, that this resurrection is “a prelude to a greater wonder, the miracle himself rises from death…And what do we make of that, we who celebrate each year this conquest of the ‘last enemy,’ denying a last word to the empery of death?” (p95)

That’s spot on, but not enough. I’d expand it: we don’t only celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on Easter each year, but each Sunday, maybe every day, with each moment that we face death large or small. We don’t only deny it the last word; we take its breath away, denying it any authority over us. Or, we don’t do it, but God does.

Not by some special power of prophet Elijah did the child have life breathed back into him. This is God’s work, always and constantly. Resurrection is on the loose in the world, spreading, expanding the realm of God across borders. We may see God working through nature and through those who don’t share our religion, but this is also what keeps us coming back. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” That Christ is risen isn’t only for Easter or at funerals, but in baptism, and on Monday, and at a ballot box, and on the news, and in cleaning your room, and for autumn leaves, and on and on.

One bit of that on this Reformation Sunday is to look back at history. We think of Martin Luther, maybe as another Elijah, another John the Baptist, another who pointed a way in the wilderness and named the sin that would try to contradict the Word of God that gives life. We may say that Luther breathed new life into a dying or decrepit church, one in bondage to the ways of the world that draw us from God. But it was not Luther’s breath, as he’d quickly remind us. The Holy Spirit did her breathing through him, taking whatever words she could use and filling them with godly inspiration and rejuvenation.

And that is what we continue to celebrate, that in all ways, whether enormously historical or fringe and fleeting, God’s Spirit is here, breathing new life into you and into our world, reforming us, renewing us, working that miracle in surprising places, like in the face of violently misguided government, in public schools, inside Lutheran churches, and outside the church, in a synagogue community, in food pantries and hospitals, and—maybe most surprising of all—in the obscurest and remotest of places like your life.

 

 

* The Kings and Their Gods: The Pathology of Power, p92

** Claudia Camp in Women’s Bible Commentary, p112

Advertisements
Standard

a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of George Philip Steinmetz, Jr.5bcb4eac8e636.image

April 21, 1931 + October 18, 2018

1Corinthians15, Matthew6

 

Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

Jesus speaks this as encouragement for generosity, for selfless almsgiving, for open-handedness that does clench a fist of entitlement but releases so abundantly and generously that it refuses to tally and ignores any kind of score-keeping record.

I know straight off there’s a risk in commending something that won’t keep score at the funeral of a guy who was a guard in the Badgers’ first trip to the Rose Bowl, maybe not least because George got to hold in his hand the astonishing amount of $1000 for tickets he scalped to actor Fred McMurray. And though the Badgers had the best stats of that whole season against USC, they got blanked 7-0.

Maybe that actually does promote not keeping score, that there was plenty to that experience and George’s identity as an athlete and growing as a young man that wasn’t about one final win.

But, again, it may seem even more strange to talk about a left hand not knowing what a right hand is doing for a heart surgeon, for a man who used to have dog heart valves stored in the garage where he had his office, for this doctor who extended care to thousands of open-heart patients, extended their lives, and extending the possibility of their loving relationships, while also extending that knowledge and research and training to subsequent generations of medical and surgical staff.

I’m not surgeon, and can hardly hold my hand steady enough to brush my teeth, and certainly would not be invited to do the precision work that might involve sharp tools and careful cutting, but having gotten to watch the finesse and artistry of some surgery this week, it sure seems that it’s worthwhile to keep track of what both hands are doing and not to let one go off and do its own thing unnoticed. So, yet again, this little verse spoken by Jesus may seem like we shouldn’t apply it too closely to George.

In spite of those parts that don’t seem exactly to fit, or to go hand-in-hand or hand-in-glove with George’s life story and personality, still I’ll say that this saying from Jesus occurred to me first because of how I knew George. I’ve been his pastor for less than three years, so I didn’t know the vibrant and strong George in the ways you did. I knew him after he lost much of his memory. He still had photos of Joe displayed prominently. He knew and cherished that Suzie was right there near him. He and I could talk about his childhood, growing up on Fox Avenue, and I think about him every time I’m walking my dog past his childhood house. He recalled growing up at Luther Memorial.

But then we’d start to lose track. He’d ask again which congregation I was from, and if he’d been a member there. He could briefly recall the gardens on our grounds and being excited by those. And he always knew he was a part of the dear group of guys called GEMS, the Grumpy Elderly Men, and remembered that connection.

So I’m hesitant to mention George’s lost his memory. He had so much good and full, in his career, in his family, in enjoying travels, in all of life. He was strong of body and of mind. It could seem only to highlight sadness and emphasize the loss of this moment to mention the contrasting moment.

But I mention it because that’s what I knew of George, how I came to love him, and that will be the way I miss him.

And I mention it because with this faith we gather around today and with the God in whose name we are gathered, this isn’t only something to be ignored or avoided. We can confront the illnesses and losses of life, and even face this terrible moment of death itself. Even as today we are especially clinging to memories of the past, we recognize that the goodness of our hope is not only in how well we recall what has been.

So when Jesus talks about a right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, we can take that as applying to George’s loss of memory, and realize that it doesn’t separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We may not assert that dementia brings us closer to God, but I’d gladly and eagerly proclaim that God brings you closer in such moments, that when thoughts won’t stay in a head and when you don’t have the capabilities you used to and wish you still did, that God holds you yet more tightly in the promise.

In that way, I want to commend to us two more Bible passages that not only manage to deal with losing memory, but find in it the way forward, the way to new life, even the celebration of blessing.

The first is again from the Apostle Paul, in striving for his own forgetfulness. He wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:10-13).

Paul claims that in forgetting the things that he would’ve considered his previous accomplishments or successes in life or marks of superiority, then he recognizes the fullness of life offered as he is made God’s own. Jesus has also claimed George, not mindful of what he had or hadn’t done in life, not only celebrating his career or integrity, but simply for his own love, straining on toward the heavenly goal of resurrection.

With that view from Paul for George, one more word of God’s own loss of memory. Exactly contradicting any sense of an eternal record keeper who logs our every action for good or ill, the prophet Jeremiah recognizes that God, too, must forget and proclaims this Word of the Lord (which even includes some heart surgery, we might say): “This is the covenant that I will make, says the LORD: I will write it on their hearts. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-34).

We have a God who doesn’t—who in fact refuses—to keep track, to tally our sense of accomplishment, and who sets aside what we lament as deficit. God’s own left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing, in lavishing on us the gifts of life, deserved or undeserved, abundant and grace-filled, the blessings of 87 years, the love of family and two marriages, of deep friendships, the care of tending life all the way to last days, and promises even more to come in an eternal victory.

So whether we know it or not, the one thing this God will remember is to be with you always in love.

Standard

Easter sermon

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

a new hymn, “The First,” for today

First (Easter2017)

Standard

a funeral sermon

IreneWith Thanksgiving for the Life of Irene Josephine Rasmussen

September 1, 1919 + July 13, 2016

Exodus 20:9-12; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 14:27-28

 

“How long?” is a familiar question amid the Bible’s Psalms, a repeated refrain, even a persistent demand. I’ll come back to the Psalm later, because it takes a different tone, but let’s stick with the phrase “How long,” as it’s been on my mind in these weeks and months for Irene and since her death.

“How long!” might well begin as an exclamation for Irene. Her nearly 97 years made her the second-oldest member of this congregation, and well above most any expectation for life.

That time stretches back to the kind of farm life that hardly exists anymore and a Norwegian identity that has mostly been melted and blended into American culture. “How long” was such a length for her that it involves the increasingly rare trait of being shaped by the Great Depression, with thrift and endeavoring after careful and wise living. Irene could remember when their large garden produced almost all of her family’s food and that she didn’t have store-bought clothes for years, but only those made by her mother. She could recall when her father traveled to have a job with the Works Progress Administration, and—maybe even more remarkable for its contrast to this current culture—the overwhelming sense of optimism that went with hearing a speech from FDR. It sure feels like it must be a long time ago for somebody to say they were inspired positively by a politician!

The “how long” isn’t only a distance in the past, though, but also a duration. We can certainly celebrate that Irene and Paul’s marriage lasted for 65 years, which likely didn’t feel too long at all. And we can celebrate all they enjoyed through the course of those years, especially in travels to camp: Maine, the Black Hills, Montreal for the Expo, and much more. A couple weeks on the road each summer, and almost a month of the year spent camping out. That’s a lot, a long time to be outside. On those voyages, following after “are we there yet,” “how long” may also have been a question from a son in the back seat.

Those camping trips inspired a couple of the hymns (How Great Thou Art and Beautiful Savior) and Bible passages we heard this morning. The Exodus reading is actually part of the 10 Commandments given to Moses while the people were camping in the wilderness at Mount Sinai. I like the part about honoring father and mother because it offers an encouragement, a blessing: “so that your days may be long in the land.” It’s such a good biblical phrase for the “how long” of life and enjoying the world.

And the previous commandment about honoring the sabbath with rest also seems to fit with the recreation of those camping trips with Irene, of pausing to enjoy the world around you, of breaking from regular routines of life, and observing nature and the glories of creation and life around you.

Similarly, the vision of Revelation isn’t a description of the heaven we are destined for, but is a grand assurance and broad insistence that in spite of all that goes wrong, we share the blessings of life with a multitude, humans from all times and places, and all creatures, on earth and in the skies and under the earth and in the seas, as it says. A beautiful notion of praise, I expect it is part of the worship that Irene found on camping trips.

It’s also a vision that fits this occasion, of being brought back together with those who have been through ordeals and suffering, of God’s ongoing striving for redemption and to wipe away tears, of the baptismal springs of resurrection to new life. Good words, carrying us into the “how long” of eternity that stretches out in front of Irene and awaits us.

But before we get there, we also need to pause with the Psalm’s sort of “how long,” asking “How long shall I have perplexity in my mind and grief in my heart, day after day?” (13:2) It’s not a cheery question, but that “how long” was more the sense that I knew in my brief months with Irene, and which she had been headed toward over the past several years.

Sometimes “how long” is a lament, a prayer to God, a question of yearning. That certainly must have been the case for Irene at the tragedies of death, for her son David, and grandson Jonathan, and when she lost her husband, and her siblings, and so many friends. That is certainly a hard down-side to longevity.

And we wondered the question for Irene, too. How long will dementia worsen? How long until she isn’t able to recognize me? How long before a worse fall? How long will she be able to last? How long will this life go on?

Asking those harder parts of “how long” isn’t to say the situation was desperate. “How long” also meant important time of care from Paul and Maria. Irene did remember family and longtime friends. She remembered her childhood. She delighted in the visits from her church circle and could relate very well. She eagerly welcomed me as her new pastor, often over and over again during our visits. She continued to be eager to receive communion.

And maybe that’s part of our answer to the question, that in some ways we don’t know “how long.” We don’t know what will last or what’s coming next. Besides good times, we have plenty of anxieties that surround and lurk after us. Yet this faith turns us continually back to God and repeated assurance of hope, inspiring us perhaps with patience, but also promising the peace that surpasses all understanding, such as the world cannot give.

So that is for you now, for the “how long” of these ongoing days without Irene and for the rest of life: the peculiar assurance that your hearts need not be troubled or afraid. Somehow, in spite of it all, your “how long” is held in the promise of God’s embrace, that Jesus is with you forever and always.

I want to conclude with a couple words about our next hymn (When Memory Fades, ELW 792). For “how long,” we could’ve sung Amazing Grace’s notion that “when we’ve been there 10,000 years…we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” Instead we’ll sing this hymn with its strong text, perhaps almost too strong. In that, there’s some yes and no of how these words do and don’t apply to Irene and for our gathering today. I’m hoping that you find value in them for what they do say, perhaps even in spite of the hard honesty of the laments of “how long.” But if it doesn’t exactly make you feel like the resurrection praise we heard about from all creation in the Revelation reading (and our opening and closing hymns are probably better for that), still this one is a great tune, and for Irene’s love of symphonic music, it’s worth singing with gusto.

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

You Need New Life

(sermon for 5June16)

Luke7:11-17

 

This reading is happening here today.

That may sound surprising, that I’d try to claim that a Bible story about a dead son coming to life is taking place in our midst today. I understand that surprise; it sounded surprising not just in the miracle itself, but even in another precedent, in a previous declaration of that statement, originally from Jesus. In Luke chapter 4, back in January, we heard Jesus reading from a Bible passage. He went on to declare, “Today this is fulfilled in your hearing.” And now I’m again making the same sort of proclamation.

Or in the verses right after this Gospel reading, John the Baptist sends some messengers to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one, or are we still waiting?” Jesus replied, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

And so for you, who arrive here today wondering what God is up to, if Jesus is active and involved, or if we’re all just waiting, waiting for something to happen, yearning for something different, as you arrive here with those questions and those outlooks, again comes the message: see and hear! The dead are raised!

But at that point, you may not only be surprised; you may be confused, or on the edge of breaking Jesus’ warning against being offended. You may be turning around a bit in your seat, trying to spot what’s going on, looking somewhat skeptically for the mark of death in our midst. You may wonder where this body is that is being brought back from the brink, back to life. Not spotting a coffin here, nor seeing anybody who looks extraordinarily listless or worse than sick and tired amid our community this morning, you may think about giving up on glimpsing the one in need of life. Or you may try to give it a go with your other senses, and try to catch a whiff, wrinkling your nose, sniffing if there’s a stench of death like at the tomb of Lazarus. Go ahead. Inhale deeply. Can you smell it?

Nope. All you’re going to smell is diapers. When I proclaim that this reading is happening here and now, that the dead are being given new life, that this is all fulfilled in our midst, you need look no further than Silas Patrick getting ready for his baptism. Or, more truly, he’s not getting ready and is pretty oblivious to what we’re saying or declaring that God is doing around him. But maybe even more so, that is the fulfillment of this reading.

See, there are some pretty nice parallels, aren’t there? There was a son in the Bible reading, and Silas is a son. Check. There was a mother in the Bible reading and Silas has two mothers. Check and check again! A bonus! In the Bible story was a large crowd, tagging along, and here you are! A crowd! Check! It says the crowd glorified God, which you’ve already been doing in song. Check!

Still, you may protest and notice that all the details aren’t exactly the same. I mean, probably foremost on your mind is that a dead son in the ancient culture of Palestine meant that the mothers’ sole source of support, her social security of the day, was gone, and her own life was placed at risk. Even if it wasn’t foremost on your mind, you likely don’t suspect that’s the case for Christa and Anna today.

Maybe that’s because, secondly, you’re noticing another discrepancy, that this was an only son of the mother in the Bible reading, but we very definitely and truly have Freya here also, so you’ve probably started to think that that detail is not the same.

Oh, and…anything else? Ah, yes, right. Silas is demonstrably not dead. And if he’s already alive, how can I proclaim that he’s being raised to new life? Yet I will persist in saying that even here and now today, Jesus is still calling out, just exactly as he did in our Bible reading, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” He is calling this young man, Silas Patrick, to newness of life.

This is inevitably paired with another word from Jesus: “Do not weep.” Now, even if there hadn’t been a sense of sorrow and loss leading up to baptism this morning, there could’ve been. See, some of the old possibilities are taken away. If Silas is called to new life, to a Jesus life, to the commitment to “care for others and the world God made and to work for justice and peace” as we’ll state in the baptism service, well then he shouldn’t ever expect he can persist in selfishness or greed or immorality or judgmentalism or disregard or ignoring mystery or any sin. His life is no longer his own. He is called to love and generosity and justice and righteousness, to live rightly, to bear all those fruits of the Spirit we’ll hear about in a couple weeks.

Even more than that, this is the work of Jesus, to make us well, to give us life, to call us into a new way of living. It may seem more remarkable in the Bible story that he’s doing it with someone who had literally died—who had no pulse and no breath in him or any of that—but maybe we should reverse our thinking. Maybe that death is a blank canvas with an ease of a fresh start. Maybe it’s harder with a kicking, screaming, rambunctious baby. If baptism is both a dying and a rising, someone who’s already dead is already halfway there and won’t protest much. But you’ve already started down that path of being offended, arguing that Silas is alive just fine, thank you very much, and doesn’t need to be created anew because he’s adorably cute just as he is, and that, further, you yourself check out with vital statistics and so would be pleased to go about your business and keep giving it a shot with your old life and must not fully need this surprising word from Jesus.

And yet, here it comes, interrupting your thinking and disturbing your self-content and raising you to new life anyway. Young man, young woman, sisters, brothers, all of you gathered here today, Jesus invites, calls, demands, saying to you, Rise! This is the word of your baptism, a word with which the Spirit has been tenaciously marking you and filling you and daily renewing you ever since that little splash that originally went with the word. Resurrection was fulfilled for you, and it still is, day by day, to your dying day, but then, of course, even beyond that. Jesus, who left the tomb at Easter, who won’t let sleeping dogs lie, certainly won’t abandon you to death, not now when its rotten grasp is trying to claim you, not in a grave, not ever.

That is part of why we baptize Silas Patrick today, so that this promise from God may abide with him throughout his life, so that each morning when he rises from sleep, he may be reminded with you that it is also a call to rise to newness of life, to Jesus life, to God-filled and Spirit-held life.

That also points to the other important proclamation of this Bible reading reiterated here today for Silas. After the word of Jesus called the young man, the son, to rise, then it says “he gave him to his mother.” Jesus doesn’t call you out from death into life just to send you on your merry way, to do as you please, to enjoy the freedom, to gloat in the face of death.

Today, as he calls Silas to new life, he proceeds to give him to his mothers. Silas has life in order to live rightly as a son, perhaps the primary vocation he’s fulfilling these days (though he’s also a little brother and a grandson and a cousin, and also a witness to all of us, an embodied proclamation of Jesus’ word today). So through this word, Jesus the Creator again makes Silas a son, restoring him to his rightful place, sending him not just back into life, but back into relationships and community and to be a blessing for creation. In the concluding words of our hymn, this baptism and all the work of Jesus in our lives is to “make us whole,” to make us fully what we should be, not just as individuals, but all together, wholly.

 

Hymn: Crashing Waters at Creation (ELW #455)

Standard

We Need a Little Easter

sermon for Easter Day
(John20:1-19; 1Corinthians15:19-26; Acts10:34-43)

“Yes, we need a little Christmas, right this very minute—need a little Christmas now!”
Alleluias may be more appropriate tunes for the day, but it strikes me that this category of songs for Easter is missing. We don’t even note that “it’s beginning to look a lot like Easter, ev’rywhere I go.”
 
If you can forgive this overlap of seasons, particularly so soon after you weren’t quite done with snowfall for the season, we might reflect that while Christmas can be summarized in the synecdoche of an evergreen wreath or a wrapped gift or a HoHoHo, somehow such aren’t so apparent for Easter. It is tougher to picture the embodiment of Easter, and I mean that quite literally with the body—an infant, a baby at Christmas we can wrap our minds—and arms!—around (even if that baby also contains the concept of God’s incarnation). But the body of Easter… well, that’s not so easy. Even the locale is less concrete, not so simple to visualize or represent. For Christmas, it was a manger, a feed trough. Here at Easter, we have an absence instead, looking through the open door, a stone rolled away, a place where something should’ve been but wasn’t. Emptied, a kenosis.
 
So it’s harder to say that it’s beginning to look a lot like Easter, because this isn’t so quickly captured. This festival of resurrection can’t truly be equated in a crocus poking out of the frost or the returned robin singing exuberantly, if off-key. Even in the extravagance of our lives, fed on the joys of hams and the richness of many jelly beans Sulia’s been eating and spirit-filled glasses of wine, it all becomes too regular to account for the peculiarity, the irregularity of Easter.
 
Yet we try to hold it with metaphors. We feast today, to acknowledge that everything else is fast by comparison, is lacking. We sing Alleluia again today to contrast with the dirge not just of Lent but of life. And against the stench of death, or maybe just the unremarkable odors that fail typically to excite our nostrils, that’s why we have the almost overwhelming sweetness of lilies today.
20160327_120840_resized
It’s also trying to be represented by this paschal candle. In ancient words, used by the church for 1500 years or so, the Easter proclamation exults: “the light of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ [is] reflected in the burning of this candle. We sing the glories of this pillar of fire,” continues the old song unrestrainedly, “the brightness of which is not diminished, even when its light it divided and borrowed”—all good notions of risen life in Jesus, and then this: “for it is fed by the melting wax which the bees, your servants, have made for the substance of this candle.” I’d place that among the most remarkably faithful language in the history of Christianity.
 
Still, as a symbol for Easter, that’s a lot of praise for a candle, something I recycled from old candles in a beat up pot on my stove, making a sticky mess of my kitchen, and which is burning imperfectly and making more sticky mess here now. But if the paschal candle is too highly praised, would Easter be better envisaged in a laser, or the innovation of LED bulbs, or the kilowatt candlepowers of a Batman searchlight, or—indeed—by the rising sun?
 
Again, we often look for analogies or glimpses. We use the surprise of the green blade rising from buried grain. Besides the turning of seasons and sprouting of new life from plants and barren trees starting to bud, we also look to all kinds of new beginnings and fresh starts in our lives. We attribute guesses of God’s work and the hints of blessing when sorrows pass, or serendipity smiles on us, or when illnesses give way to restored health. Or for this community’s still-recent beginning, you’ve got new pastors. I’m pleased for this fresh moment together and all that it will mean for us. But changing pastors is a pretty pale imitation of resurrection. I’m a different face, not a risen Lord (as if I even need to say it).
 
So I’m in favor of the analogies. I like all these things. I celebrate and delight in them and rejoice. But the cycle of seasons or the restoration of health is not what we have here today. This isn’t an example of rejuvenation or resuscitation. This doesn’t ask for our old logic, for rationalizing and explaining. This isn’t a rebirth or reincarnation or for our spiritual awakening. This isn’t looking for signs of life amid death. Indeed, Mary doesn’t stroll around the gardens spying for what’s germinating to infer signs of what remains and endures, as if that would assuage her weeping enough. She is looking, searching, begging after one thing only: Jesus. We probably shouldn’t dumb down this extraordinary proclamation with ordinary yet false equivalencies. The strange, peculiar, unusual message I proclaim to you today and which we share isn’t of those categories or symbolisms. This is not continuity, but radical disruption, life from the dead, resurrection. We share the weirdest Word: Alleluia! Christ is risen!
 
The poet John Updike was a Lutheran who described his faith as “angst besmogged.” With us in that way, here is part of his “Seven Stanzas at Easter”:
“Let us not mock God with metaphor, / analogy, sidestepping, transcendence; / making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the / faded credulity of earlier ages: let us walk through the door./ The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,/ not a stone in a story, / but the vast rock of materiality (Just as Natalie said)…
Let us not seek to make [Easter] less monstrous, / for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty, / lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are / embarrassed by the miracle
No mere parable, but an embarrassing miracle.”
 
With a Word so oddly enormous, it seems we would almost prefer to give in to slight dashes of spiritual leaven, trying to catch only a breath of new life rather than this filling of dead lungs, as if a hint of hope would be somehow more real than the strangeness of a stranger poking around the garden, out from his tomb, up to get his fingers dirty tending to the mess of our lives.
 
We do need a little Easter, right this very minute. We need this God on the loose, invading our imaginations and staking out our sufferings, not kept at bay by our senses of propriety and what’s sensible. We need not a hatchling spring chicken, but the full-fledged miracle of the dove’s peace, olive branch in its beak telling us the storm is over. Even when we pretend we just want to verify our proof—that they have moved the body, in Mary’s questioning, and when we locate it we’ll be able to put our finger on the answer—instead of our pretense, the angelic proclamation shows up, the intangible good news of “don’t hold on to me,” the weeping-be-gone of Jesus himself, real and somehow in the flesh.
We need a little Easter, since bad news is inescapable and troubles linger and lurk even in the readings of this good news and new life day. Besides Mary’s tears of loss, when Peter proclaims that “truly, God shows no partiality,” it is a noteworthy statement exactly because we know partiality all-too-terribly, among people as well as nations. Also in the reading are doubts, “most of all to be pitied.” We’re confronted by “the last enemy,” trying to confine us in our graves.
 
We need a little Easter now, and then we need more and more. We need a whole new creation worth of the stuff: for fragile lives that wait on the tenuous edge of intensive care. For those we love and those we depend on yet can never be sufficient. For insatiable longings. For maddening politicians who don’t seem to understand reality as it actually exists (is resurrection of the dead really so far-fetched compared to what they’re peddling?). For terrorists and attacks, shocking for still being shocking, where it infests and diseases us with each photo, with every last flash of news, with all our worries. We need new life. With a changing climate, leaving everything we thought we knew questionable and at risk. We need a new creation, can manage with nothing less. For this, we need Easter. We need not the diversion for a bit of joy and spring beauty and brunch. We need not just a hunkered-down gathering of loved ones or the distraction of basketball scores and celebrity gossip. Self-assurance and self-security won’t do. Mild surprises collapse. The kindly sense that we’re trying to help and throwing a bone of charity don’t cut it. The knick-knacks of relief just leave hungry dogs. And old men still don’t understand and young women go on weeping…
 
Until…
 
Until this. This inexplicable mystery. This proclamation of newness. Death has been undone. This is why so many of our shared stories are the blind seeing and deaf ears unstopped and troubled sinners forgiven and outcasts welcomed and doubting hearts grasping to believe. This isn’t incremental adjustment or surgical improvement. Our faith doesn’t take baby steps. This is God’s yes over all that would say no, a reverberating, echoing, surprising yes that won’t be stifled or shut up.
 
Life not only bursts the bonds of the tomb but bursts into our own hearts and ruptures the oldness of our lives. Again, Peter’s proclamation, through the power of this living Word, becomes the shape of our existence: God has anointed you “with the Holy Spirit and with power;” [he declares again, “to go] about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil!” The good news charges ahead, taking on flesh in us. Let loose your “Alleluias!” and proclaim that none of those fears and terrors, no weeping or abandonment, no divisions and injustices, not even death itself will have the last word. We are living in Christ Jesus and will not be stopped. Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Standard