sermon for Ocean Sunday

(Job38:1-18; Psalm104:24-26; Ephesians1:3-10oceans; Luke5:1-11)
In spite of having been an official promoter for the Season of Creation for a number of years, this is my first time actually using it.

The Season of Creation was put together (by Norman Habel, whom Lindy Wilson met long ago up at Holden Village) to cover an apparent gap in the normal lectionary, that there was no explicit time to highlight and reflect on God as Creator and our place amid this vast sweep of creatures in creation. (At the end of the Season, we’ll attend to just how vast the sweep is, on Universe Sunday.) Even without that explicit opportunity, though, I hope I am among those clearly showing you we should be seeing Creator, creation, creatures, creative faithfulness most everywhere we turn. Still, I’m in favor of this Season of Creation…at least basically.

See, I’m also discovering it leaves a couple of conundrums. The first is that in the common lectionary and in our usual worship service, we don’t focus on themes or concepts or nouns in this way. The center of worship isn’t generically love or family or prison or health or morality or whatever. Those things may come up, but it’s through our overall lens: the norm of our focus is Jesus and God. So it’s a conundrum to call today “Ocean Sunday,” as if that’s our primary focus, rather than God.

The other conundrum or temptation is that, since creation isn’t typically highlighted, there’s a lot that could be crammed into these days. There is so much room for faithful reflection on oceans that we’d be flooded with or drowning in the possibilities (as even those metaphors might indicate).

Just as an example from other potential Bible passages, I remember hearing Jeff Wild talk about trees marking the Bible, with the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden at the beginning in Genesis 2, the tree of Jesus’ cross in the middle, and the tree for the healing of the nations at the end in Revelation 22. Well, we could say the same about oceans and God’s trajectory of salvation. The very start of Genesis 1 has the Spirit hovering over the face of the deep, the tehom in Hebrew, a primordial chaos from which God will call forth life, or maybe it’s even a play on the name Tiamat, a dead Babylonian god, with the biblical story as a counterpoint that our God doesn’t battle and destroy, but orderly creates life.

In the middle, instead of the tree of the cross, we might notice the Sea of Galilee, not only in today’s reading, but even more instead of the tree of death we might say the sea is life, as the resurrected Jesus meets his followers there to lead into the next part of the story (John 21).

And in Revelation 21, alongside a new heaven and a new earth is a change, that the “sea was no more.” Admittedly that’s a strange line for today, when we are called to notice faithfully the goodness and life in the oceans, the extravagant abundance of coral reefs as the richest biodiversity on the planet, the remarkable foreignness of bioluminescent creatures that somehow survive in the dark depths that would crush us with such severe water pressure, or the currents ebbing and flowing across the globe, responsive to the moon and rotation around the sun, and the amazing migrations and whale conversation along the leagues of those open expanses, or even the liquid breathing that is hydrologic cycles of evaporation and rain and clouds and temperature exchange that form hurricanes to stir up weather and nutrients and in some enormous way sustain patterns of life. Revelation can’t want to get rid of all of that when it says “the sea was no more,” right? The thrust of Revelation, rather, is symbolizing an end to the fearful primordial mess that didn’t want to cooperate with a God of blessing and life.

Indeed, in another way that 21st chapter of Revelation emphasizes some of the same main point as this Season of Creation, that faith isn’t about heaven that’s elsewhere or else-when, but is for the here and now. “The home of God is among mortals,” Revelation declares, as does the overall message of Scripture. God is with us. And not just us. This isn’t a God who cares exclusively or maybe even mostly about humans.

That points us—at long last—to an ocean reading we do have assigned today, from the book of Job. (Incidentally, in three years of Revised Common Lectionary readings, we hear from Job twice but will have three readings from Job in these four weeks of the Season of Creation.) At this point in the story, for 37 chapters Job had been puzzling out why life wasn’t going well, why he suffered, and his friends said God was punishing him.

But then God speaks, and maybe even seems a bit distracted, or at least clearly and certainly isn’t focused on punishing Job. God in some way says that life isn’t centered on us. And so life amid creation may seem confusingly chaotic to you, but it’s also much vaster, grander, and more complex than we can understand. That was true of what people knew back then, and in substantial ways it is true even of our scientific knowledge today. There’s still so much we can’t quite comprehend, of how our blood levels relate to the salt of the ocean, of how dolphins communicate with brains that exceed ours, or simply of how jellyfish came to be.

But maybe more important than the message that we’re in the same incomprehensible boat as Job is that in this speech God has delight for creation, for creatures God made, not as natural resources waiting to be used by humans, maybe not useful to humans in the least, and even on occasion harmful to us, but still a delight to God.

This comes out also in the snippet of Psalm we read, about God sporting and cavorting with Leviathan. That delighted, almost giddy appraisal takes up a whole chapter in Job 41, comprising the culmination  of God’s speech. What’s significant is that Leviathan was the sea monster, the most fearful part of that oceanic chaos, the thing that swallowed sailors and couldn’t be caught and ruled in destroying boats with tremendous terror. Now, we don’t need a fish finder searching for the Loch Ness monster in order for this faithful sentiment of these verses to be true. It means that God can see fearsome great white sharks as good, as well as giant squid that we’ve never even seen alive, much less plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs and weird enormous trilobites and chambered nautilus and millions of years of sea life that existed—or, better, were creatures—long before humans were anywhere in sight.

Maybe with that non-human emphasis, we’re ready for a change in tone amid this reflection. It’s a task of striking some sort of balance. God wasn’t saying Job was unimportant or that his suffering was trivial or meaningless to God. Similarly, it’s not that God doesn’t care about you to highlight the fact that God delights in lantern fish of the deep and oozy sea cucumbers and that God would mourn the overharvesting of blue tang because they look like “Finding Dory” and people want them in aquariums or cod for Friday fish fry.

But that overfishing becomes exactly a hard point with our Gospel reading. We may take this in all kinds of ways that would be contradictory to the overall point of this day. The reading has creatures of the deep, but it doesn’t seem to emphasize marine ecology. Instead, the people catch too many fish (apparently at Jesus’ instruction) and then leave behind their boats for what would seem to be claimed as the more important task of catching people. And it would be an obvious stretch to say that Jesus called them away from their boats in order to stop the overfishing of the Sea of Galilee and let the natural ecosystem restore. In spite of having a nice setting along the sea, this reading seems too human-centered.

Even worse is when we transform these natural details and the realities of life instead into spiritual metaphors, that when Jesus says to cast your nets in deep water that it’s about trying to be open to a deep and mysterious experience of faith. I’m sure loads of sermons have been preached that way on this text, but it has little to do with what Jesus says, and it sure doesn’t have much direct connection to lives of faith in this world. For some pious-sounding lesson, it becomes detached from life and interactions amid creation.

And if that’s a risk with the Gospel reading, it’s a direct impediment in the Ephesians stuff. It’s trying to open our eyes to the vastness of a cosmic Christ, to which we’ll return next month, but in the meantime it’s convoluted and dense and the whole thing in Greek is one long run-on sentence and it’s thick with technical theological jargon and—even though it wraps up by proclaiming that the ultimate goal of Jesus is to attend to and care for all things on earth—still it hardly touches down to the ground or dips its toes in the actual water of what this really means here and now.

That seems like an anti-climactic point to wind up this sermon, but I’m going to do it anyway, maybe as a caution: if we’re only encountering creation (in this case, the oceans) for how they’re useful to us, for resources or recreation, or—probably even worse—if we diminish their reality by making them an ancient symbol of chaos or a contemporary symbol of beach-side relaxation, if they become an idea instead of a reality, then we’ve taken away the mystery and the otherness that God intends and loves, and with which God intends us to be in relationship and loving for its own sake as well. Perhaps God’s retort to Job can stand for us today and in these weeks as well:  “Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?” Let’s keep diving into that challenge from our Creator.

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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.

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The Ins and Odds of Revelation

sermon for 4th Sun of Easter

Revelation5:11-4; John10:22-30; Psalm23; Acts9:36-43
Throughout this season of Easter, we’re hearing from Revelation, from start to finish—from the first chapter all the way to the very final words of our Bibles. Normally we would try to avoid it, thinking of this book as so foreign to our faith, yet in this part of our three-year cycle of lectionary readings, we are exposed to eight Sundays of Revelation. The Greek title, Apocalypse, is about, indeed, revealing or unveiling, about making something known. But our typical conception is that this is a strange and frightful book with mysterious interpretations, obscuring rather than revealing or clarifying our faith.

It may also, then, seem unusual that these readings we hear don’t seem to have much of the curious imagery and mysterious messages we associate with Revelation. I paged through this week to find out what we’re skipping past, and here’s a partial list: We skip someone man-like with white hair and fiery eyes and bypass lukewarm Christians and various markings on foreheads. We went past an open door to heaven and “casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea” (from the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”) as well as the fiery lake burning with sulfur. There would have been the famous four horsemen and Armageddon the sun black as sackcloth and 100-pound hailstones and stars falling from the sky and a bottomless pit. There’s a talking eagle and carnivorous armor-wearing locusts that sting like scorpions. A pregnant woman wearing the sun contrasts with the whore of Babylon (sorry for the language). Plus Revelation has loads of sevens: seven trumpets, seven seals on a scroll, seven stars and seven lampstands, seven plagues, seven angels, and seven thunders, seven mountains and seven kings and also a lot of three-and-a-halfs, as half of seven and maybe implicitly imperfect. There’s a seven-headed dragon and a great battle and the beast is conquered by the blood of the Lamb (an important concept we’ll come back to). There’s “Glory, glory! Hallelujah” (of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”), and “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (of “Hallelujah Chorus”). There’s “Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes!  The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!” Okay, that last part I actually took from the movie “Ghostbusters.”

So if there’s all this other stuff—the creepy stuff and the strange and crazily unusual—we may wonder why our assigned Bible readings for this season ignore it. It’s even more noticeable given what we are picking up. For example, last week we heard the chorus of all creation singing “power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing,” and this week that choir’s anthem is “blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might.” There’s some variation, but not lots. They could’ve chosen a reading that showed some of the diversity of this peculiar book, that exposed us to something less repetitive and picked up the whacky wild weirdness of anything skipped.

So why skip it? Why bypass so much that seems to be the popularly intriguing or memorably fascinating parts?

One reason the Revised Common Lectionary may not choose those parts of Revelation is that they so often have been misread, misused. By skipping them, it is not only a protection for our beliefs, but also a protection for our neighbors on this planet who have been harmed by wrong readings of Revelation. Such wrong reading has most often tried to forecast, as if these images were predicting what might happen in the future.

That isn’t for just a few religious nuts who let their fundamentalism and literalism get the better of them. Rather, it has huge marketing sales, and shapes perceptions of all us Christians, and these problems even warp foreign policy of our nation. A theology invented just about 100 years ago not only came up with the rapture and naming antichrists, but still more outrageously claimed that humans can force the endtimes to begin through the political situation established in the Middle East, that Jesus will return when Israel has enough control, and when Jesus comes he’ll wipe out those Jewish people they’d formerly acted like they were helping. This Christian Zionism is convoluted and disgusting and is part of what makes our tax dollars contribute $10 million per day to Israeli military. To set some of this straight and not be deceived into strange misbelief is part of why I’m eager for you to experience the facts on the ground in the Holy Land with me this fall.

But I’ll say right now that Revelation was not written predicting what’s coming. It was written about the reality Christians were already facing. For them, it wasn’t just fantasy, imagination, and invention but real symbolism. They knew what this all meant because they knew their Bible and knew current events. They knew Babylon was the epitome of the Bible’s bad guys and knew seven hills meant Rome, the current imperial oppressor. It wasn’t language for us to decode or assign meaning that would only apply at some obscure point in history when the so-called stars aligned. It was sort of a graphic novel, a comic book portrayal of life as they already knew it, using classic creative imagery borrowed from the Bible, the Jewish Scriptures.

That isn’t exactly our circumstance. If I’m behind on the news or if I need to explain in a sermon why climate change is real and relevant, then we can’t do what Revelation was doing. The same if you don’t know the stories of Elijah and Elisha raising people from the dead to see the parallels in the Acts reading, or if you didn’t recognize that the “Ghostbusters” line wasn’t actually part of the Bible. Those realities for us change the playing field as we encounter Revelation.

What isn’t different, or may at least have remarkable parallels for us, is what those early Christians were going through. That they were using stories of faith, using the Bible to understand their circumstances is a valuable model for us. Faith isn’t locked up back in the past, nor waiting for some mysterious impending turning point, but is about God’s presence with you and assurances now.

Revelation, at its heart, is a message of encouragement, about persevering, about hope that endures. It becomes almost a refrain repeated over and over in the book. There is a long litany of all the terrible stuff, but then suddenly hope returns, reassurance is voiced, good news triumphs. A professor at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, Barbara Rossing, phrases it that “just when we’re expecting more destruction” then comes a “salvation interlude.”* That can be too true and too relatable for our lives, that you expect catastrophe after catastrophe, calamity after calamity, the other shoe dropping, and more bad news, when you can’t catch a break, and things continue to go wrong, and doubts really haunt, and the temptation is to give up. You know those moments? If so, you need a salvation interlude!

We should note that, in the original meaning, this wasn’t only the worst things that could happen, not just being thrown to the lions in the gladiator pits or persecutions threatening genocide or the capital-M martyrdom of dying for faith. Professor Rossing also points out that the word we have here as “the great ordeal” (in older versions “the great tribulation”) that word (thlipseos) isn’t about state oppression but applies more to “social, economic, and religious marginalization.” This is about choosing to live in a way that doesn’t make reasonable sense to society, because of your convictions hazarding to confront prevalent wrongs. One example would be that understanding God as Creator could lead to hurting your pocket book by divesting from fossil fuels. Even though it would cost you, it is believing the cost is worse by not doing it. Still at this point in history, that faithful decision would result in being marginalized socially, economically, and maybe even, unfortunately, religiously. Would you choose that? Are you ready for that uphill struggle? Are you able to persist in doing what you believe is right? Can you continue on when you’re frustrated and exhausted?

We’re at this intense point in the season of Easter. You can feel the move deeper and deeper into it. We go from the surprise proclamation of resurrection on to the second week where Easter means a commissioning for us and where we also, with Thomas, ask what it means if it seems too hard to believe and we just can’t quite grasp it for ourselves yet. Then last week was the moment of asking what Easter means for our regular daily lives, what this has to do with our jobs and school and distractions and meals and being at home. And now, on this 4th Sunday of Easter, there’s the still harder question of what good news could mean when we’re facing too much bad news, what this new beginning of Easter means when we’re stuck in too much that’s old and rotten and harmful.

Matching the trajectory of the 23rd Psalm, with Shepherding gifts we’ve been sustained in green pastures and led beside still waters and along right pathways. But then we get to the darkness, to valleys of the shadow of death. Yet the Psalm declares, “I fear no evil, for thou art with me.” That’s the message we’ve been hearing in these passages from Revelation, too.

And that may be the central reason the lectionary skips the gruesome and awful scenes, that whole long list we went through before. Those passages aren’t interesting or entertaining but are about your reality. And your life already has too much nastiness and violence and sadness. You don’t come to church for caricatures of corrupt leaders and images of intolerant injustice, don’t come to be entertained by bad news. You come needing a salvation interlude, needing God. You need Jesus, you come here in need of relief, for hope, for good news, for a way to endure, for encouragement to continue striving for justice.

This is where you gather with that band of saints, “the great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” to know that you are joined in the hymn of all creation, to be reminded that you are not alone in your sufferings or struggles to do right, to be assured that you will come through the great ordeal, that God will wipe out hunger and wipe away your tears, that power and might don’t belong to those who oppress and manipulate and threaten, but belong to God and the Lamb, forever.

The most amazing, the wildest image in Revelation that appears over and over is of this Lamb who was slain, slaughtered yet alive. The portrayal in this last book of the Bible, then, is not of a bullying God coming to conquer and wipeout the infidels with a battle sword in a violent bloodbath. Just the opposite, here nonviolence triumphs, a victory not in murdering but in dying and rising. This features death and resurrection, the one who was killed as alive, of the one who was despised as adored on the throne, of the Lamb of God who has become the Shepherd, of Jesus. Today the vision is those who wash in the blood of the Lamb, a vision that your sufferings are the sufferings of Jesus. In your suffering, he suffers. Yet those are not the end. The story continues that he will bring you also to newness of life. This is all so that you may hold onto and trust that, as Jesus himself says, “I give them life, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

This is how we continue to proclaim: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

* https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1694

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