Holy Moly Wholly

sermon on Isaiah6:1-8

“Here I am; send me!” It’s an obvious phrase on a day for making our pledges to contribute to God’s work in this place.

Our focus through this stewardship season has been on Jubilee. Jubilee jumped out as a 50-year debt release celebration pairing with the 50th anniversary for Hope. But not just 50 years. Even more, for proclamation of liberation.

At the MCC, we cherish liberty and justice for all, not with pompous flag-waving, but in a way that honestly seeks to respect all life and to do our part in making it better, rather than infringing on or confining it. That’s the mission we understand from God, and we want to be the kind of people joining in that.

You’ve been preparing to turn in pledges, thinking how you accentuate and assist that mission, to respond, “Here I am!” It’s in the hours you share of time and talents here. It is how you take this mission into the rest of life. And it is in offering your financial devotion.

Besides the great ongoing work here and the 15₡ of every dollar shared as mission support for the larger church and other places joining our liberating labors, I’d like you to know that a basic baseline for next year’s tentative budget involves an increase of 3%. That’s just to keep up with higher water bills and some landscaping and website updates and health care costs and cost of living for your staff, not even to raise in gratitude for their enormous part in carrying this mission.

I’d further like to remind you as you look at your forms that there’s a check box for learning about the Endowment, for estate planning in your will or other gifts. That kind of giving supported the Big Read by purchasing 100 copies of the book so everyone could join in “changing the way the church views racism.”

For one more, a stretch goal we hope to accomplish that will require a bigger growth in giving, I want to tell you about bathrooms. (I don’t usually get to talk about bathrooms in sermons.) We’re looking to redo the downstairs bathrooms, to make them into separate individual gender-neutral facilities.

I want to offer you a story about why. Recently someone was telling me how going to church has often been scary. One particular difficulty is not knowing which bathroom to use. Whether choosing a men’s room or women’s, this person might get strange looks or even comments about being in the wrong place. That’s not a comfortable conversation, I’d think, especially without knowing how to respond about gender identity. So this person’s Sunday morning solution for years has been to look down into a cereal bowl and realize the milk that has held the frosted mini wheats is the only amount of safe liquid to have that morning, including serving to swallow prescriptions. Certainly a cup of coffee would have to wait.

Avoiding coffee is far from the reality of how most of us need to prepare for church (and I lost track of how much I’ve had so far today). But I can hold that reality and use it in my own preparations for church. It was on my mind as Acacia and I stretched the increase of our financial pledge for 2019. It is part of how we can respond as community to have this be a place of proclaiming God’s liberation, a liberation that can be so simple as to mean that a person can come here and not need to be afraid of something so common and mundane as being able to go to the bathroom.

Now, it would be convenient if I could tell you that God is calling you to do this, calling you contribute as prophetic liberators, standing against oppressive and fearful culture, that God wants you to open your hearts and open your minds and open your wallets for this work, and that since you are faithful, you will respond, “Here I am! Send me!”

But, as usual, it’s not so convenient as that. A nice phrase is that God doesn’t call the equipped but equips the called. But this isn’t even really that.

Last week, Jonah was repeatedly told to go to Nineveh, an equivalent of being sent to Nazi Berlin to proclaim God’s love. But in this Bible passage, God doesn’t choose Isaiah. God doesn’t direct his mission. God doesn’t call him especially. There’s nothing that would say Isaiah was special or particularly qualified. He identifies himself as a sinner among sinners, one of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips.

The divine response is to purify him. That is what makes him ready. Then, though uncalled, he responds. This is apparently almost accidental, prophetic vocation and righteousness by association, by proximity, coincidence.

For this stewardship Sunday, I can’t tell you the right thing to do is to give more, that God is expecting it of you. All I can do is proclaim again the word of purity, touching your lips with the hot coal that may provoke your response, announcing to you that all your sins are forgiven and your guilt is removed.

Fortunately, that is also why you may be here. It’s not quite a smoke-filled temple, not quite the intimidation of majesty with a mere drape of a robe overflowing the space. You’re met only by a scruffy bespectacled pastor, not the terrifying angels flitting about. (Sidenote: biblical angels are more scary than pretty. These six-winged beasts called seraphim’s name means “burning.” It’s the same word for poisonous serpents. These are fiery sneaky snaky obscure angels.) For all the difference of trepidation in the story versus sacrilegious me, of a holy, holy, holy vision versus unadorned familiarity of the Blessing Room, you may still come for interaction with divine presence.

And encountering that presence, you may have Isaiah’s realization that you fall short, that you aren’t very holy, holy, holy, that you don’t do all that well, so there could be reasons to fear. Plus you’re stuck living in a culture breathing threats with lies and hatred. Being amid a people of unclean lips may even sadly be church culture of gossip in small circles, or meetings where we get worked up and fail to speak as kindly or hopefully as we should.

The reading is similarly situated amid a specific religious and political landscape, in Jerusalem at a transition of power, from King Uzziah. It’s not a time when things are going all that well. God’s people are a mess, rebelling against what God would want. The book of Isaiah begins, “Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who are utterly estranged!” (1:4) Not the best heart-warming description.

Facing such rotten times, there may be a reaction of wanting to hunker down, just to find a pleasant diversion, to try to forget about it all, certainly to hide from the danger, much less to be wary of divine parental discipline. But in those ancient hard times, when rulers could be no good and culture was corrupt, something inspired God’s prophets to step forward. God’s work needed to be done, was begging to be done. And some unusual suspects got swept up into it.

So like Isaiah, here you are, amid a surprising encounter with the divine, transforming you and your place in culture. As you look to our world, to what still needs to be improved, to the work to come, your lips are touched, are cleansed, unsealed—not so you can tout your own plans or accomplishments, not to turn to celebrating the victories of our side, but to proclaim God’s glory of liberation, from a God who fills creation, a God more mighty than we can possibly envision, but who abounds in steadfast love and loves to hang out with sinners and failures, in a vulgar culture and here in unholy hypocritical religious circles, and coming into your daily regular unspecial life.

So I can’t tell you that this God expects you to take another look at your pledge sheets, to reconsider, to leap up with a grand “Here I am” readiness to do more of your part. In fact, this God probably has reason to expect the opposite. But the work needs to be done, if nothing else so that everyone can safely and comfortably go to the bathroom. That’s part of God’s mission.

Even if you don’t have some eagerness or special thing to contribute, if you just happen to be in this holy place around this holy conversation, still God loves you and reaches out to forgive you and purify you. You are made holy, not because you deserve it, whether you ask for it or not, and even though you may not know what to do with it. Simply since here God’s word proclaims liberation.

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a funeral sermon

eileenWith Thanksgiving for the Life

of Eileen Grace Bolstad

20Nov1925+18Nov2016

John 11:23-28; 2nd Corinthians 9:6-15; Psalms23&42

 

For my part, about all I can say at a moment like this is I wish I would’ve had more chance to know Eileen, had known the fullness of her life and gotten to share more directly in her benefits to this congregation.

Instead, I mostly knew her lament that she wasn’t capable of those things anymore. Already that’s a strong indicator of her personality and her value to this congregation and our lives. To have a 90-year-old lamenting she’s no longer out digging in the garden really says something about her!

In spite of how vibrant I continued to find her, still she regularly apologized for her memory loss. That decline meant she couldn’t do what she wanted, couldn’t be involved how she’d like and care for others as she was used to or even tell stories of her beloved grandchildren as much as she wished.

While I missed out on part of this amazing woman in these last months of her long, beautiful life, I had glimpses of who Eileen had always been.

That strikes me, for example, in recalling two other funerals earlier this year. I was impressed that Eileen was still among friends visiting and caring for Irene Rasmussen, and she also was always eager to hear how Ruth Olson was doing when I visited them at Oakwood. She was still filled with her characteristic care, which had been part of relationships amid the life of circle and quilting and giving rides and providing food through the years for services exactly like today.

I’ve also clung to Susan’s words claiming Eileen as both her gardening buddy and also her mentor or teacher. That parallel is richly descriptive, that Eileen’s teaching was never overbearing or anything, but was relational and joyful, as a buddy. In watching Susan interact with the Kids in the Garden this past summer, it felt like a glimpse or reflection of who Eileen also was in that role, cherishing the children as well as the soil and growth of plants. Kids in the Garden was somehow a best of both worlds—for Eileen’s delight in young people and for the work of the land.

Even though in some ways it was so long ago, there was a lot about Eileen that continued to be tied to the land, continued to be a farmer. Susan described it as paired commitments to faith and to the earth. In conversations, I heard Eileen talk about farming and agriculture, not only with the love of a spouse in appreciating her husband’s career, but also in who she was, in that farm up north and its hardworking roles and how that place drew them to return even in retirement. Moving to Madison to provide the opportunities for you children to grow up, as you’ve mentioned, was certainly a worthwhile decision, but even with that move Eileen remained rooted in the soil and identified with the farm.

That identity gave rise to a couple of the hymns and Bible readings for this service, plus the reflection that comes out from them. With farming imagery, we heard of sowing bountifully and gratefully reaping the harvest. We heard Jesus describe a grain of wheat buried in the soil, and how that symbolizes our lives.

Whether or not it was because of that farming background, Eileen embodied these metaphors extraordinarily. She sowed bountifully in life. She was not sparing in her relationships with you, never stingy or reluctant about her good works. She gave of herself, and just as the passage recognizes, this generosity has produced the fruit of abundant thanksgiving among us here. We, indeed, gather today to celebrate with gratitude our benefit from Eileen’s life. Even more, this isn’t just about Eileen, but recognizes that the very presence of God was also embodied for us in her bounty and grace and cheer.

With that faithful dedication, we can pivot from Eileen’s direct commitment to growth and soil and the earth to that paired commitment of hers to faith. We could note that the passage from 2nd Corinthians is often used in churches as we’re talking about financial commitments. While Eileen helps us understand the broader stewardship of our whole lives—that our giving is about our shared actions and attitudes and the fullness of how we encounter each other and the earth—still in the much narrower financial sense, I just want to mention that among the notes and plans that Eileen had written for the end of her life, Peter shared that she made special instruction that her pledge to this congregation should be paid completely for the year. Again, it’s only one mark of her broader life, but it shows her passion and concern and dedication for faith as it continues to be lived out in this place.

Also for this moment and bearing fruit even in death, the words from Jesus are the last time he speaks in public in the Gospel of John before his own death. He proclaims his own burial is like a seed that will rise to bear fruit, and also that his death somehow glorifies and praises God.

These are hard tensions to hold and describe for Eileen. She was so vibrant and spunky and so well embodied for us what life should be that we must be slow to apply the words of Jesus about hating life in this world, or at least we’d have to be cautious about what exactly he could mean in that, maybe that her love for life and losing of it was in giving herself to us, that unusual gain by giving away in generosity.

On the other hand, Eileen did reach the point of saying she’d had enough of this life. The memory loss was not how she wanted to live. Even more, in the past month as she struggled to recover from that small stroke, life was not the shape she knew or yearned for. Last week, after she’d fully realized that, death came quickly.

Yet even as she lost life, she glorified God. As hard as it is for us, there is gain in this moment, not only in recalling and celebrating the past fruitfulness of life well-lived, but more as we trust the goodness of her reunion at long last with Ingman, and even simply as we witness and are still being taught by her trust and faithfulness at the end.

We heard Psalm 42 today because I happened to read that for Eileen this past week. As I started to read, that was the last moment I saw clarity and dedication in her eyes. She stopped in some of her agitation, she focused and listened, trusting the goodness that the Psalm proclaimed. These words were her words, and by her witness are also for you:

My soul thirsts for the living God.

Why are you so full of heaviness,

O my soul,

and why are you disquieted within me?

Put your trust in God;

for I will yet give thanks

to the one who is my help and my God.

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The Good Shepherd, Sheep, and a Sty

4th Sunday of Easter (John10:11-18; Psalm23; 1John3:16-24)
Two images for this sermon and this Good Shepherd Sunday. First, John Muir began seeking to protect Yosemite first because it was being over-grazed by sheep, eating the place bare. Second, at the Leadership Retreat a week ago, while Tim was teaching, a small voice came from the back of the room: “Big Tim! Big Tim! I just used the potty!” (Three-year-old Ned Redmann)

Let’s clear this up straightaway: We are the sheep. And that means you are not the Shepherd.

That’s a reminder because we tend to picture ourselves as take-charge folks, as independent thinkers, as self-made men (and, indeed, this is too often the dominant, domineering, sexist, so-called “manly” way of thinking and self-made women somehow don’t even get a category). We imagine we know best in looking out for our own interest or think we are generally pretty caring and kind.

But when Jesus says, “I AM the good shepherd,” it means that you are not. We are at best bad shepherds. That gets reiterated all too frequently through scripture, where shepherding was the symbol of rulers, and those rulers tended to be bad shepherds, neglecting the flocks in their care. We’d quickly admit, biblical precedent is right and it’s not just an ancient problem to have self-interested leaders lacking concern for their constituents.

Opposed to bad shepherds, then, we might presume it’s good to be a sheep, at least being fluffy and cute. But the more defining characteristic of sheep is that they go astray following their appetites. Sheep continue grazing, face in the ground, and end up getting lost while they’ve been focused only on filling their bellies. The prophet Ezekiel uses this imagery to accuse us of butting each other out of the way and muddying the waters with our feet, damaging it for those who come after us. We trample and foul it up for others, he says. (see Ezekiel 34) We’re greedy.

This is where we are really sheepish, not to use that term for being shy but for being self-absorbed and ravenous and inattentive to our surroundings. It’s bad enough that we’re making a mess, or to use a good crass version, we’re defecating where we eat; we pollute the place that supplies our wellbeing. The larger systemic ecological problem is that our selfishness also causes harm to the poor people of the planet and to other life trying to survive and future generations of our families and any other creature. We sheep are messing up the place and making it unlivable.

While we’re hanging around these thoughts of the tail-end of a sheep and noticing just how much this all stinks, this is a perfect time to re-examine a word that, I think, gets misinterpreted or elevated to sound more special than it should. The word is “stewardship.” It seems to me that we picture being a steward as something holy, church-y, trying to act like God, which we mistake to mean being important and in charge.

Yet this word begins with a very specific context, and that’s where the meaning of our faith also dwells. See, the word “steward” comes from the Old English “sty-warden,” meaning one who kept the sty, spending their time cleaning up after sheep and pigs and all the livestock filth. So a steward isn’t a big boss or nice maître d’. Stewards cared for crap, and hung out amid the stink, knee deep in it.

So your holy and pious vocation, the noblest calling from God, isn’t to elevate you above the mess, but to get a shovel and get to work. Though you may notice that my main expertise only involves a pooper scooper, that I haven’t done a whole lot of barn work, I’m going to continue speaking authoritatively on “duty.” With that, I can tell you that Martin Luther looked at your lowly life and identified it as a highly important role, stamped with more divine approval than being a clergyperson dressed in fancy robes.

This amazing job? Doing diapers. Luther wrote that, if we were trying to be rational, we’d turn up our nose and say, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my spouse, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery life involves?” But, he continued, Christian faith “looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as [if] with the costliest gold and jewels.”* That’s a different image of a filled diaper—to regard it as if covered in gold and jewels! We can also apply that to other stinky situations of your life, where you’re up to your neck in it, things that aren’t glamorous but sure are held dear and important to God.

In spite of this prevalence of poop, we shouldn’t presume that stewardship is perpetually serving on that literal clean-up committee. The sty where you serve is found in all kinds of nitty-gritty details of life. So mostly we think of stewardship related to finances, those tedious kitchen table-type talks of sorting out where money should go and what you can or can’t buy.

But, again, this isn’t just about how extravagant of a vacation you can afford this summer. With stewardship, we recognize that the calling from God isn’t only about how you satisfy yourself but also how you care for others, how you invest yourself in spreading wellbeing; not just making your own mess but attending to others’. Again, it may not seem all that rational. You may think that if you’ve worked hard for your income you should be able to play hard and make your own choices and not have to sacrifice. You may think you’ve earned it, that you deserve a reward, that you’re entitled to a treat or a new purchase or some luxury time.

But that brings us back around to the appetites of sheep, right?, and imagining yourself to be a better shepherd in charge and in control, and back again to ecology.

The glimpse I hope you’re getting is that God isn’t a God to lord it over you. God is not the highest and mightiest, the most in control, fancy and luxurious, with the biggest palace up in heaven, most removed from the struggles and vulgar stink of everyday life. Our God is the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who gives himself and lays down his life for you. Jesus your Lord is sty-warden, hanging out here amid what’s disgusting and insignificant and despised in our world and of your life, simply out of devotion to you, for love. So Jesus wasn’t looking out for numero uno, or if he was it was because he didn’t count himself first. He wasn’t pushing others aside to try to get ahead. He didn’t sacrifice the well-being of others to make a place for himself, but offered himself to make a place for you.

This is the model of our faith, the shape of our lives. In our gospel reading Jesus proclaims, “I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep” because he cares for and knows them. Our 2nd reading took that word of good news and invited you to live into it saying: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

That “ought,” though, is tricky there. The struggle I have in putting these words together, and I think the Bible writers faced the same struggle, is that it can sound harsh or difficult. Telling you to love and to lay down your life, you may feel like arguing that you can’t be forced to love, that you shouldn’t have to make sacrifices. Just as Luther realized, you can’t approach this by reasoning through it, or you’ll just turn up your nose. We show our sheepishness is much too inherent.

But what Jesus the Good Shepherd is doing is changing sheep into shepherds. In his care and devotion to you, he is converting you from being self-serving sheep to expand your awareness that you may know others in the flock. In laying down his life for you, he is giving you his life, making you to be a good shepherd like him.

So while parents may grumble and be worn out by changing diapers in the middle of the night, they also don’t need to be forced into caring. Even the disliked and disagreeable tasks are transformed by love. And the love of Jesus is transforming you from being a hungry sheep only looking at your own appetite and taking whatever you can instead to lay down your life, to realize that life’s fulfillment is not found in having more than others but in what you share, what you can offer. This comes so naturally (at times) in our families, this love and willingness to offer ourselves.

But these days present an urgency of tending to our larger family, for the care of the earth around us. During this week of Earth Day, we again pause to recognize that we have been takers, thinking that we had every right and no problems in claiming bigger houses and new cars and countless electronic gizmos and a country with the largest military and unnecessary plastic objects and whatever we wanted for lunch.

In a time of ecological crisis, led by the Good Shepherd, we are called and invited to love, to lay down our lives, to see what we can do without, so we don’t foul up life for others but promote our shared wellbeing. It is in asking what we can sacrifice, and, if we really care, it may be in laying our lives on the line.

When that seems too frightening, too unpleasant, too unreasonable, then turn again to the Lamb of God who fills you with all joy and peace in believing, the God of life who lays down his life for you, and takes it up again, that you may enjoy his blessing and live with his life and abide among his flock forever.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us (ELW #789)

* Luther’s Works, vol45, pg39

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