The Power of Love

sermon on Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

Hate your family. Sell your possessions. Choose death. These aren’t easy words from Jesus. I adjusted the order of readings not to distract you from them, but to help us hear them in a frame of context. So we’re going to explore the little letter to Philemon. The bonus is, in spite of being only one chapter long, it has some of the most power of anything in our Bibles. We’ll break it apart as we go.

1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus…” Already a first break. Paul labels himself a prisoner, and not a prisoner of Roman imperial powers or a prisoner for Christ, but a prisoner of Jesus. With recurring themes of authority and power, Paul immediately begins by claiming a place of weakness, and that somehow our faith confines our options.

1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker…” Okay, two things on those titles for Philemon in the Greek original. First, it’s not actually “dear friend” but “beloved.” This letter is filled with love, five times in 25 verses, and three more times with our very heart or core emotions. The letter is about a community of mutual love, so this is an important reminder for Philemon right away, that he is loved and therefore may show love. For the term “co-worker,” (though I can’t keep interrupting for this) it’s fun that the actual Greek word for co-worker is “synergizer.” The Latin form would be “collaborator.” Maybe just some good connections to keep in mind amid this Labor Day weekend.

To Philemon and “2to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Two notes on this. First, this is a letter to Philemon, but it’s written to be read with the whole church, the congregation gathered together, at that time not in a church building, but in a home. And this was Philemon’s home; he hosted the church gathering, which tells us something about his financial and social station.

Next, also notice Paul’s greeting of grace and peace. It’s a liturgical kind of formula. As we gather in worship, we repeat these refrains of Scripture. They shape and set the tone for our gathering.

In typical letter-writing style, Paul continues from the address to thanksgiving: “4When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.” A really big detail with this section, which we can’t even hear in English. Suddenly the word “you” switches from plural to singular. With this thanksgiving, Paul switches from talking to the whole congregation instead only to addressing Philemon. In English, we can only hear this if we say “y’all” or “yous guys” for the plural.

In a way, that functions well for sermons. See, when I say, for example, “God loves you,” it may be that God loves all of you, but you can hear it specifically for you, yourself. On the other hand, you may not prefer it if I called you out and to task, saying you aren’t living as a follower of Jesus should. That’s exactly what this letter is going to go on to do, though, in addressing Philemon solely and specifically, even though that conversation will happen in the midst of the assembly. Still, for now, it’s also good to note that Paul isn’t laying down the law but is praising Philemon, for his “love for all the saints” and his “faith toward the Lord Jesus.” Even more, Paul thanks God for this love, since this love is produced by God.

The thanksgiving continues, “6I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” I want to pause with this verse because it really aligns the rest of the letter, yet it’s difficult; almost every Bible translation goes in a different direction with it or tweaks it their own way. Evangelical versions make the “sharing faith” to be telling others about Jesus. But even in this NRSV, it still tries saying Philemon is going to do something “for Jesus,” where really Paul’s perspective is that Jesus does things for us, and Philemon’s going to do this “because of Jesus.”

So let’s try a bit different wording. It’s got another active energy word in this line. Plus the “sharing” idea is koinonia in Greek, the word that gives us fellowship halls and communion tables. It’s about participating in the common good. So let’s rephrase it as, “how your faithful participation will be energized in knowing all the good among us from Christ.” That’s still not simple, I know, but it’s about Jesus motivating more and more of our actions in community. We’ll see when we finally get to the request of the letter what this faithful communion from Jesus is about and what it will mean for Philemon to recognize it in a new, broader way.

Paul concludes the opening thanksgiving and makes the transition to the request in this way: “7I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.” Here’s where the transition hits: “8For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Again, Paul downplays himself—I’m old, I’m constrained in this, I’m not trying to boss you around even if I had the authority and chutzpah to, but rather I appeal to the brotherly love you’re already used to sharing. He’s also making himself weak exactly in order to advocate on behalf of the weak, giving up his power to identify more fully with someone in need.

So here at last is the ask: “10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” Actually the name Onesimus waits until the end in the original. Paul leads up by saying, “I’m appealing for my child whom I have begotten in chains: Onesimus.” He first loads on the emphasis of this one who is so dear, so vital, so close to him that he’ll call him his own heart, and only then advocates directly in revealing the identity of Onesimus.

Now, Onesimus sounds like a funny name to us, but it’s even weirder when you know this name is literally the Greek word for “useful.” See, Onesimus was a slave, and slaves didn’t get real names but instead were named for a task or quality, like usefulness to their masters. But Paul is going to use this useful name. He continues: “11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” This is where the request gets complicated. Historically, it’s presumed that Onesimus was a runaway slave and that somehow he had found or come to Paul. So what is Paul supposed to do with the runaway slave, particularly when he has called the master, Philemon, beloved and cherishes him as a co-worker?

Paul continues boldly, “12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” So Paul is encouraging a good deed from Philemon. Would it be to go easy on Onesimus? Though slavery in Greco-Roman culture wasn’t quite like on plantations in the American south, still a captured slave was legally required to be returned, and then might be punished or even killed. Paul has said he loves Onesimus as a child, as his heart, but is still going to send him back to be useful to Philemon. Will Paul asking for an uncoerced good deed convince Philemon not to do the worst against his slave? Are you sensing a risk for Onesimus?

Well, it’s going to get flipped upside-down. Paul declares, “15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. 17So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” Wow. Wow. First, the sidenote that Paul doesn’t say this was all part of God’s plan that Onesimus ran away or why this dangerous thing happened, but that they can make something good out of it.

And for that—again, with a “wow”—Paul isn’t just asking Philemon to go easy on Onesimus, not just to limit the legal punishment as his runaway slave is returned. No. Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother, or even as if Paul himself were coming. And that’s as a partner—again the koinonia word, but here even in a business partner sense. Philemon is asked not to see himself as a master with authority, but to see each other as equals in love. The one who was useless and maybe even met with ill-will instead would be useful as a chance to practice what we preach.

This is what the community of mutual love has to mean, in Paul’s view. This is what Jesus does to us and for us. This is the only way for us to understand each other, not only as equally loved in God’s eyes, but actually to love each other in that same way. Being part of a Christian community reorganizes all our relationships and our whole outlook on the world, sometimes with dramatic consequences or financial implications.

This is how we may be hearing some of what Jesus so shockingly declared in our Gospel reading. Our faith has results for how we view each other, how we treat our lives, for what we intend with our possessions. We can’t claim more for ourselves at others’ expense, so faith really costs us something. And when we’re desperate, this community should enter our weakness. It eliminates hierarchy, tending the need or also making us vulnerable in striving on behalf of each other, our heart, our sister and brother, our children, our very life. It was certainly a carefully considered cross to choose for Philemon. And this is the amazing trajectory in front of us when the love of Jesus is our guide.

This is an enormous and beautiful view of the extremely difficult thing that Jesus is working among us when we gather in this faithful communion, to be energized in participating in mutual love. It’s no mushy-gushy thing, as Paul himself realizes the ongoing effort and consequences in living on each other’s behalf. With the thorny question of what forgiveness does and doesn’t forget, Paul knows it may cost him, too, as he says, “18If [Onesimus] has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.”

That last seems like a bit of a back-handed zinger, so I’d like to consider how Paul addresses this. Since he’s talking to Philemon in front of the whole congregation, it could well seem like he’s guilt-tripping him. Even as he keeps saying that he’s not forcing Philemon to do the right thing, it could feel that he really is. There’s some of this that probably fits normally with preaching. If you’re like me, there are times you have some guilty feeling or personal awareness that you’ve not been doing what you should as a follower of Jesus or practicing what we preach, where you’re not all that loving. Then, indeed, it is a call rightfully insisting on a change of behavior.

But it’s also amazing that Paul must admit he can’t force his Christian ethics on Philemon. He invites him to reflect on what we believe. But even more than that, Paul really seems to trust that this is God’s work. Just as in the thanksgiving—that God is to be thanked for the love Philemon had already shown—we can trust that God will work more of it. The God who can bring resurrection out from death and new life out from your way of the cross certainly will undo the chains of slavery and will work fresh beginnings in our relationships. Paul finishes that way in the last verses of the lectionary reading: “20Yes, brother, let me have this benefit [this “usefulness”!] from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”

He really does believe it. It takes seriously that faith must be active and ultimately true for our hard situations in life. It is going into the midst of conflict and even of death, but trusting that mutual love will continue and life in Jesus will come through. And Paul rightly knows that his own faith will be refreshed, his heart will be enlivened as Philemon acts in love. That’s true now, too, that it’s not only what we ourselves ought to do, but how we’re energized to love when we witness love, when we know somebody has done the right thing, when we have these glimpses of what God’s work can accomplish, that rejuvenates our heart.

The lectionary reading ended there, but since there are only a couple lines left in the letter and since it has some surprising follow-up celebration and ends with sharing blessings, including for you, you might as well hear it: “22One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. 23Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. 25The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” Amen

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One Nation Under

sermon on Luke10:1-11,16-30; Ps66; Isa66:10-14

As can surprisingly often be the case, the coincidence of these lectionary readings fit well this weekend.

The prophet Isaiah speaks glowingly of the homeland, perhaps a natural reaction after years of being away, held captive in exile in Babylon. On this weekend when this country turns toward celebrating our heritage and the blessings of living in this nation, Isaiah’s delight is a strong and worthwhile reminder of others celebrating that as well. The words of the prophet glorify the capital city of Jerusalem, turning attention and devotion there, expecting that from the capital flows prosperity, wealth, comfort, and relief from needs.

While in these days few lavish such praise on capitals—whether for what happens down at the Square or for how things function in Washington, DC—still this weekend expects the same general acclaim for our nation. With calls to devotion to this country, we are still supposed to be living into the dream that America is a place—or even declared the place—of prosperity and wealth, of comfort and relief. We continue to abide with “city on a hill” identifications, and recognize that this remains a place of hope, of refuge, a place of asylum and also potential. Even if we’re not living into the fullness of that, even if we’re putting up walls that would keep out those seeking to share in what this country offers, even if the wealth is increasingly isolated among the few instead of shared and extended like the “overflowing stream” of Isaiah’s vision, still we have to admit that this is the typical conception of our country: a good place, a desirable place, of potential and hope.

The essential aspect for us to notice—both for the sake of these United States and within our Bible reading—is that the goodness is not inherent. Jerusalem is not a source of blessing in and of itself. We anticipate the good of America not because America is so good. The blessing always comes from God.

This is beautifully stated in Isaiah, in some of the most tender language in Scripture. These are nearly the concluding verses of the 2nd longest book in the Bible, and they speak with the warm embrace of this mothering God. The prophet invited his listeners to realize they were being nursed and comforted from the consoling breast and to drink with deep delight from the glorious bosom of Jerusalem. That’s already a reorientation from a notion of the mighty fatherland, of patriotism. This, instead, is “matriotism,” understanding the homeland as giving you life, as what nurses and raises, consoles and swaddles you.

Beyond that, it isn’t only the matriotism of what you receive from your country. That all comes from the maternity of God, for thus says the Lord (as Isaiah relates): “you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, dandled on her knee. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” Where the words of today’s psalm, Psalm 66, proclaim that God keeps watch on all the nations, that all the earth is blessed and may well respond in song and with joyful noise, Isaiah’s more intimate message won’t leave God as some beneficent presence on high, a kind yet distant ruler who cares for his subjects. No, Isaiah notices that all your nourishment is the milk of God, that when you lay your head to rest, wherever that may be, it is on Her consoling breast, that all your tears are not only heard by but cradled in the arms of God.

Such tender and gracious language almost makes the next words from Jesus a nasty surprise, a stumbling block. There seems little compassion or consolation in his words about the surrounding citizens, but instead warning and opposition for the children “like lambs in the midst of wolves.” How did those wolves come to inhabit the same country Isaiah saw as tender toddlers held by God the Mother?

Yet the harsh edge and the worry of Jesus’ words is not unknown to us, either, on this Independence Day weekend. As good as our nation can be, as fruitful and bountiful of a place to live, as a place of home and so much care and security, as embodying that image of a mothering God who strives with all her being to ensure that our needs are met and that we don’t suffer undue harm—as strongly as we know or wish that our United States will be that sort of presence for us and for others, still we also quickly recognize the other side, where we fail, where our culture is harmful rather than nurturing and caring. We realize our society has a long way to go in being a mother to all the children of this household.

And for that, the fiercest word of Jesus may actually speak the truest. When he says he “watched Satan fall like lightning,” it is about tearing down from the pedestals all the false gods, the corruption, the entrenched patriarchies, the powers that only want to claim power over and not power on behalf of. As much as a nation fails to be a mothering presence, as much governments neglect or abuse the authority of a God who delights and dandles and consoles and cares, as much as those with the strength to help the weak instead devour them, they abdicate their shepherding or motherly role, and oppose the will of God.

In that case, Jesus sends us out—even if we’d been part of the problem—sends you and me, to extend peace and proclaim the kingdom that stands against the kingdoms that have too long stood over the good of this world, have too long squashed and squelched and hoarded wellbeing. Jesus sends us to embody his message, his vision, his care to set the world right, to contradict and overcome the demons, this satan, those false gods and terrible authorities that fail to do what needs to be done.

That is our model for Independence Day. More than an occasion to barbeque and enjoy fireworks, and certainly not just the chance to assess our standing in the world, to assert our superpower, this is an opportunity to recall God’s mothering presence, watching out for you and for us, and watching over all the nations of the world, eager to hear the cries of the despairing. As we celebrate our blessings from this God, we also attune our ears to those cries. We rightly celebrate the good that comes from our country, and also amid other nations. And we rightly confront the wrongs, throwing ourselves into the project though we may be fiercely opposed or violently disregarded, yet nevertheless trusting that our God is on the side of the hurting and suffering, the weak and the longing, and that the kingdom of God comes near and is present even as we meet new challenges to serve as God’s children in ensuring care for all our sisters and brothers, in this country, in all nations, and throughout creation.

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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.
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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!
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A Sermon about Sermons and the Word

2nd Sunday of Christmas — John 1:1-18
Six years ago, I was preaching on this Sunday, on these Bible readings, and started off with a Bob Dylan song. I only remember it because that was my last sermon before you sent me out on 10 weeks of sabbatical.

Recalling that, and being one week away from my last sermon before you send me out, I’ve been thinking of some of the sweep of my sermons and our lives together. As I’ve been here, serving as your pastor for 11 years and a bit, there are some things that you might’ve gotten used to hearing me talk about. Caring for God’s creation amid climate change, for example: pretty big themes. Love, likewise, widespread and fairly constant.

A more specific type of detail, you may recall I get a kick out of sharing the Greek word skubala, a word for waste, destined for the landfill or the sewer. It comes from Philippians by Paul, which you may also have realized I cherish and find important for our shared faith, because he emphasizes Christ’s devotion to you and how everything else by comparison is rightly called “crap” (also highlighting that I don’t shy away from us addressing coarse or difficult things).

Noticing that, you almost certainly also know that I talk lots…an awful lot…almost continually about Jesus. Maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to have a next pastor who doesn’t need to blather on so constantly with “Jesus this, Jesus that, Jesus is for you, Jesus loves you” all the time. I guess you could be praying about that.

But in the meantime, for eight days more, you’re still stuck with me and my Jesus talk, today with this start of the Gospel of John. This is also among my favorite Bible passages; it says so much, and says it so well. That has to make us think about how we try to share our faith, how I preach to you, or how we put words to what we believe. This reading talks about testifying, to be witnesses, categories for which it sets a pretty darn high standard.

Think about it this way: if I’ve been testifying to you and trying to bear witness and tell you about Jesus for the last 136 months, it could seem fairly disappointing that I haven’t managed to accomplish very much that’s explicitly memorable, unless by explicit you mean teaching a Greek cuss word. Of sermons I recall, I mentioned that Bob Dylan one. In another, I talked about making pumpkin pie. There are highlights in pieces of Bible studies and trying to peel back confusing layers and dig in to texts. But mostly from this pulpit, nothing resilient or glamorous. So little so, in fact, that perhaps you’ve even been asked on a Monday, if not at brunch after worship, “so, what did Nick have to say in his sermon?” And you’d have to reply with a shrug, “I dunno.” Quite frankly, there are plenty of weeks that would be my own reply.

If we’re trying to explain this in the kindest way possible, you may compare it to the meals you eat, that you can’t necessarily recall what you’ve had for each meal this past week much less over the years, but that those have nonetheless sustained you, the food has inexplicably given you what you needed to survive. Maybe sermons are like that, vital but entirely transitory and fleeting, working through that inexplicable Holy Spirit.

I mentioned recently that I’ve never re-preached a sermon. Partly that may be because they’re not all that great to begin with. But it’s also that the words don’t apply the same way in new times, when our lives are in different places, when the world is not the same.

Along those lines, with one more pre-Jesus detour along the way, let’s stop past old Christmas cards. Acacia and I were cleaning some stacks on shelves in the basement this week, which included sorting old Christmas cards. Those are nice words to pull out, to find former greetings and old tidings of cheer from another time and place. Among them were family and friends in photos, including watching new family members be added and then those babies changing year by year. Wide-eyed infants became cute toddlers who then took on poses and personalities. The transformations come so fast. My youngest nephew is 10 weeks old today, and every time I’ve seen him he has looked immensely different.

I’m eager to be done talking about me and turn our attention instead to—you guessed it—Jesus. So if we’re marking time since Jesus’ birth, this is day 10. Even at a week and a half old, that baby Jesus would’ve been different than when he was born. We’re past the point where he was named and circumcised at 8 days old. His family was already experiencing changes. The shepherds and angel choirs were gone and they were going on with life. Some of the news of this baby, some understanding of him was maybe beginning to sink in.

And, even though we celebrate his birthday with a very specific remembrance each year, though we look back on it and re-live it, after that nativity, Jesus was never a newborn again. (Unless you try to work it on a technicality with Bible verses about him being the firstborn from the dead, or by claiming that he’s present in and with each and every newborn. But still, you know what I mean.) Jesus continued to grow and change. Last week, almost as an out-of-place disjunction, we heard of him as a tween, almost a teenager, complete with testing boundaries and the attitudes still expected from adolescents.

Since he’s growing and changing and aging, that also would have to mean one way or another that Jesus was going to die. It ended up being on a cross on account of you, but even if we imagined him dying of old age, that still is a remarkable thing when we have identified Jesus with and as God. It completely fouls up any traditional concept of God, of divinity, of a supreme supernatural Being. As eternal, God wouldn’t be constrained by time. Being infinite is a term trying to define that God shouldn’t be bound by or even located in space. If almighty or supernatural—literally as above nature—God shouldn’t be governed by laws of physics or biology. We like those images, like to imagine God as bigger than any of those laws or boundaries, transcending everything that continues to confine us.

But if Jesus is God, we can’t say that. He is in time. He is in a particular place. He either couldn’t or didn’t fly away, disobeying gravity, or stop death from draining away life. Jesus undoes so much of that classic notion of God and gives us something new, totally different. This is a God who changes.

Again, it’s so nicely and enduringly said by this passage from the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and this Word speaks all things into being, history we can accept and believe. Yet what happens next is that this Word of God is so invested in creation that when it has gone astray, when it stops listening to the Word, God continues striving to call it back, to speak again of love, to offer new beginnings. The Word that dictated, that set a plan and order for the universe also responds when things don’t follow that, don’t go according to plan. The Word is responsive. Those verses are about living, and struggling. And becoming, one of the richest ideas of our faith for our world, that what we might be or will be, we aren’t yet.

This, of course, isn’t just an innovative idea from the Gospel of John. All through our Old Testaments is a God who continues responding to our errors, our shortfalls, our forgetfulness, our rebellion. This is a God who continues to try new things, new approaches. This God is described on occasion with the surprising possibility of “changing his mind.” For our old, standard notions of God, that’d be impossible. God would have already known the future, and planned the future, and ruled out any other realities. But the God of the Bible is open and responsive, and so God can change God’s mind and meet you in a new way.

So our message as Christians and the good news we have to share is not static. This news is always new. While our faith may have some strong messages or timeless truths, they don’t stand once and for all but remain always changing as they engage again with fresh relevance for each moment in your life. The angel’s song at Christmas that “unto you a child is born, a savior” is a message we keep repeating, but what he has come to save you from or save you for is as new as each original sin and every individual moment of suffering. The ethic of our faith, to love our neighbors as ourselves, is reiterated and even identified as the “golden rule.” But what exactly it means to love your neighbor can’t be codified in some ancient rulebook. It’s new with every fresh work week, has its own meaning as school resumes tomorrow, and requires constant figuring in our families. More, it is different in our world of discerning what it means to love terrorists or prisoners or new basketball coaches or oil executives, just as it was a different set of boundaries and barriers and difficulties with your last set of neighbors, and for the previous generation, and back when God was walking around in the flesh.

Tim used to envision for us this as a Monty Hall kind of God, who let you pick what’s behind door number three and let you make a deal. This morning, we can simply identify this God as one who lets you make decisions and poor choices and yet won’t give up on you no matter how much of a bonehead you are. God is with you anew in a new year, is with me as I embark on a new thing (whether or not that was a good decision), is most certainly with you even when I won’t be.

I’m grateful at least for this moment that this isn’t my final sermon for you, because I don’t have any mighty or enduring or timeless “last words of wisdom.” All I have is the foolish word that God’s Word, the eternal Logos, the Sophia from on high, has come into our world, has become flesh to dwell with you, has come to reconcile you and redeem you and forgive you and love you. I don’t fully have any idea what that means for tomorrow, or even for the rest of today, or really even know what it means for you right this instant. But that’s the Word we have to proclaim and share, the Word who abides with you and lives in you.

Hymn: Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295)

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of  Helen Vivian Otillia Cattell 6Sept21 + 5Aug14

Psalms 13 & 23; Hebrews 11:13-16, 12:1-2; John14:1-7

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

Well, this is another of those moments we knew would arrive and yet didn’t know when, and didn’t want to happen. It was just over 15 months ago that we gathered for a service for Ray, the man that Helen continued infamously to claim she slept with on their first night together, meaning on the trainride from Chicago. It was a marriage that caused some unexpected surprises for that city girl, as she had to live in the northwoods and discover the joys of an outhouse during winter. Though, we’d have to admit that she took to it all pretty well and adapted to life with Ray.

And some of what we’d say about him, we could also say about Helen. Which could begin with—boy—did she know how to give a person a hard time! She was also great at pretending to take offense when you tried to retort, until eventually she would call the truce and get you both out of trouble, saying, “I’ll be nice to you if you also behave.”

The fun-loving Helen had plenty of good days knitting and antiquing bowling and speaking Norwegian at you and playing cards (and she also enjoyed acting as if that were a shameful vice). Really, she enjoyed most anything as long as there was a good circle of laughter around it, and maybe some cookies and coffee.

And we should certainly recognize for her that those joys of life continued even after her move up to the Heritage. The move provided company at meal times, some old friends, and some new faces to get to know and enjoy, a new sort of home.

Yet in some ways the time of the move also marks a turning point, as some of her memory issues got worse, and as she kept on insisting she’d prefer to be back home. She always continued recalling memories of all the kids who grew up on Midmoor, the close friendships, the many fond delights of the neighborhood.

And that’s a pretty defining trait of Helen, the way she continued to encounter memories and to negotiate with the past. In some ways, they were simply happy recollections. But in other regards those confrontations with the past caused Helen a theological conundrum.

First and foremost was her grief for Marty. She raised the question repeatedly in conversations with me for a decade, and I’m sure she was pondering it for the decade before that, as well. Occasionally, she was struggling with who God was. But more often, even as she would lament missing Marty and how it didn’t seem right, still she simply declared with a deep trust that it’s a mystery we can’t yet understand, how our God works.

A similar side note with contemplating God and loving her children, another really regular conversation with Helen was concern about you, Spence and Wade, and being part of church and being able to trust this God. I think it’s worth giving voice to this serious hope (and sometimes) worry of your mom’s, for you and for all of us in younger generations who haven’t yet found faith to be the resource or the assurance that she did.

Overall, with her faithful kind of trust, it seemed that Psalm 13 was fitting for today. It ends with very confident words, “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. The LORD, has dealt bountifully with me.” Such strong confidence, though, such deep faithfulness seems almost misplaced after the first two-thirds of the Psalm, that began with raising the insistent question, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?”

Both sides of that Psalm were Helen’s voice. She never doubted the goodness of the heavenly promise, but she most certainly questioned it. Her faithfulness wasn’t only blind acceptance, but an ongoing wrestling. She continued to feel lonely, not only because of Marty, but continually as she watched her close circle of friends die, as she was feeling like the only one left. She would ask why so many others had gone but she was still around, why her time hadn’t come yet. But then she’d answer her own question, in a way, by saying that it wasn’t up to her but up to God, and God knew the time and God was prepared and God would be ready.

That fits with our Gospel reading, words from Jesus of the blessing he has prepared for Helen and for you, “in my Father’s house.” There is still so much of this we can’t see, that even when we trust, it nevertheless remains mysterious. But here is the bold promise of Jesus: “I go to prepare a place for you, that you may be with me.” That promise of Jesus, that God was with her, kept Helen throughout her life, and continues to hold onto her in a new way, a new place now.

Being home with Jesus was and remains a good word for Helen. It was long at a house on Midmoor. It fit in a new home at Heritage. That home-making presence continues through valleys of the shadow of death. It fits her life among the saints of St. Stephen’s, a church family for 55 years, a place to call home, as the LORD prepares this table before you, as the communion of saints gathers around, as the heavenly feast is shared, as you dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

And with all of these details of our lives, all the races we run together, through the pains and the joys, amid our worst losses and all the amazing riches, it is a promise we will all arrive at together, the guarantee that we will all be remembered in God’s kingdom, with Helen, and with Ray, and with Marty, with all those who have gone before and all those yet to come, all welcomed home together forever.

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With Thanksgiving for the Life of Carmen M. Brandt  1Aug29+19June14

Psalms46, 71:1-8, John11:25

 

It is a privilege and honor to be with you for this gathering. I say that intentionally and wholeheartedly, because, as I also said, I didn’t get to know Carmen or his wife Edna, or really any of you his family and friends. This isn’t my typical church, leaving me a bit out of place, and so again I want to say I am honored for the opportunity to be here today with you, to serve you, to bring a word for you.

See, just as you don’t know me and don’t really know what to expect from me, that same perspective could be about God. Since we can’t see God, God could seem notoriously difficult or even impossible to pin down. We could wonder throughout life’s events what God is or isn’t up to. We may say we see God in a beautiful sunset, or picture a benevolent aura that surrounds us, or a miniature muscled swordsman riding as a guardian hood ornament as we speed down the road. But those may just be our imaginations, right?

When the storms hit, what does that do for our image of God? If God was in a sunset, is God also in the tornado? Our Bible readings today confront the hardest moments and situations head-on, as a city is under attack by a foreign army, and even into the very face of death. That is also what we’re doing as we gather here. We are looking at death, and somehow having to ask what it means. So, I’m grateful for the words of the eulogy, for the reflections of Carmen in you, his family, for photos and more, looking back at life with smiles of joys, the struggles overcome, all the twists and turns that 84 years of life brought.

But even as I can’t tell those stories, still there is something I can say. Staring at death, there’s the question of where God is. What does God have to say about this? For that, I am, again, privileged to proclaim to you it’s not an uncertainty or a hidden mystery. I may be unfamiliar with Carmen’s life and you may be unacquainted with me, but we do have a God of certainty, a God of promise. That enables me to stand in front of you at this moment. See, in spite of being incomprehensible in so many ways, our God nevertheless desires to be known to you, to be found by you, to be a blessing and resource for you.

Far from being odd or foreign, this is actually more of a homecoming. That makes it an especially appropriate symbol that you return here today, to this place where Carmen’s life began, that we’ll be committing him to the earth that nurtured him as he began his life. Even coming back here to Hope Lutheran marks a return to God’s promise as a resting place which is never strange or distant. We indeed know this God has held Carmen close throughout his life, and even now he is held dearly in our Lord’s strong arms.

God began offering assurance for Carmen in his baptism, a promise that he was a beloved child, a guarantee that God’s Spirit would remain with him throughout life and even beyond death. Nothing could finally separate him from that relationship. It’s the reminder that God’s love would celebrate with him in the best moments, and remain with him through the hardest of times. That enormous promise in baptism begins our lives and removes much of the mystery. You may always know that God is striving for life, is insistent on abiding with you, is present in blessing.

Because you know that identity of God, and because you know your own identity as baptized children in this God, it enables you to say things that would otherwise never be expected.

This is exactly what we hear in this service, as you did with these same words for Edna. Our Bible readings were doing this. With Psalm 71, we entrusted ourselves to God, who brought us through birth and youth. That word of trust continued in spite of surrounding injustice and enemies, in the words of the Palm, and reminds us that God is also our refuge. It’s being assured of blessing when signs may indicate otherwise.

In the words of Psalm 46, even though waters roar and mountains shake, even if nations collapse, still the Lord is with us, a very present help in trouble. Again, an assurance of blessing, though times be difficult.

With the verse from the Gospel of John, we heard the clearest revelation of God in Jesus. We know God’s promise for Carmen because of Jesus, who unveiled eternal life by nevertheless going through suffering and death, who weeps with us at the side of graves and yet will open those graves to a new day of blessing. This is the assurance of life, even though confronted by death.

These same surprising guarantees are in the hymns, which our voices proclaim to each other.   Our opening hymn that sang of peace was famously written on a ship near the place where the writer’s four children had drowned in a shipwreck. The writer also lost a child to scarlet fever and all of his real estate investments in the Chicago fire, yet he was able to give us those words, “it is well with my soul.” “Nearer my God to thee” we also associate with tragedy, calling to mind the sinking of the Titanic. Our other hymns bring it closer to home, that we trust this promise of life most especially and truly when our eyelids close in death.

This is the value of knowing who your God is, a God who abides with you in compassion and mercy for all of your days, whatever may come. It is a God who is not far off, but near. Not unknown, but revealed to you.

And it enables me to speak on behalf of Carmen, to offer proclamations of blessing, even though I never met him to declare that God’s favor rested on him, to proclaim that resurrection to eternal life now waits for him, and that you will be brought together with him again, through Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. Amen

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