All Saints 2019

a sermon on Daniel 7; Luke 6:20-31

hans holbein

Woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497-1543)

These readings surprised me. When things are supposedly saintly, I expect them to be cleaner, cheerier, with pep and joy, like “when the saints go marching in.” I want to be in that number!

But the characteristic here is suffering. Jesus focuses on those who hunger, who weep, who receive hate. After that dour collection, he turns to declaring woe. Not much pep or joy. And that’s the pretty reading!

Daniel himself says his creepy visions worried and alarmed him. No kidding! Multiheaded beasts crawling out of the sea with wings getting torn off and beachside heart transplants and a mouthful of ribs, all before the final pyromania. It makes you wonder whether this freaky, gory reading was chosen more for Halloween than for All Saints Sunday. Oh when the saints go marching in, I don’t wanna be in that number! Leave me out of it!

That’s the surprise, the shock in these readings. We presume we’d want to strive for being a saint and actively pursue the parade. But these are a bit lackluster in their appeal. It sure doesn’t market very well: You, too, can be hungry and tearful and the least popular! If that’s not enough, act now to be threatened by terrifying beasts!

Jesus says, congrats! Good news! You can rejoice and leap for joy! And you’re practically unable not to leap up now clicking your heels with a big ol’ WHOOPEE! You can hardly wait to start loving enemies and turning the other cheek and facing persecutions. Sign me up! Where’s the line! I want to be in that number!

Now, I want to say directly and clearly that that is not commended to us in these readings or in faith. You are not to go on the hunt to seek out suffering. Don’t extrapolate. If you are being abused you should not just put up with it. If you’re oppressed you shouldn’t be patient. If your leaders are beastly you it’s not just to suffer through the chaos and violence. The message is NOT that such endurance will make you better. Yes, God wants you not to succumb, but to survive. But God is not telling those already hurting that they should be further humiliated or that pious quietude is the path ahead.

What is reinforced here, rather, is where we look for hope when things are bleak (which, after all, is when we look for hope). This flips our notion of sainthood on its haloed head. It’s not about achieving special spiritual status to move up the ranks of holy hierarchy. This isn’t primarily what you should choose to do, not for taking justice into your own hands. It’s certainly not about how good you are at suffering. The question is what will ultimately help. And the focus is on God’s will and Jesus’ work. That is where hope is.

So, again, I trust it’s apparent that when Jesus is saying “blessed are you who are hungry,” he’s not commending that you go on a diet. He’s not talking about fasting. As much as today we want our offerings to change lives, these words from Jesus aren’t really supporting emptying your cupboards for the food pantry. For people who are hungry and starving and lacking, Jesus says: you have a place in my kingdom. Even if you’re not receiving what any human should deserve, you have a place with God, in God’s household, as God’s children. You are not forgotten, not left out. That’s no small hope.

Luke particularly helps us know in Jesus this God of reversals, lifting up the lowly and casting the mighty from their thrones, God born to homeless refugees, who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, who includes the outsiders and speaks peace and won’t let death wreck our relationships.

So “blessed are you who weep” may resonate today, when you’ve been invited to bring grief and sorrows and confrontations with loss. Again, Jesus isn’t suggesting you chase after sadness in order to get blessed. But when that is your reality, when you’ve encountered death that would seem to swallow up life’s goodness, when depression traps you, tears overwhelm you, when you know this much much too well, Jesus assures you remarkably—practically impossibly—that laughter will be yours. Joy will come, especially when you’ve been too long denied it.

It’s a strong reassurance, a really good word of hope, even without any specificity of details: when will we laugh, and why, and how? I don’t think Jesus is so imprecise as to be vague. He’s not promoting a notion that things change and life goes on. He’s sure not saying, yeah you may be sad for now, but you’ll get over it and forget the bad stuff. You’ll move on. It’ll get better. Those are dismissive platitudes, not God’s hopeful promises.

If it’s not directly clear in those verses that God is one who gives joy and laughter and love and satisfied appetites and your proper place and undoes all evil, Daniel makes it clearer that God is our hope, as after four beastly kings then God sends one like a Son of Man, the right leader forever and forever and ever, which sounds like a long time.

A little background: this story of Daniel is set in about 553 BC but is describing the course of events in 167 BC. It’s historical fiction, like if you wrote a story about having a vision when Abraham Lincoln was president that alluded ahead to Donald Trump.

So in 553 BC, Daniel’s people were in captivity under the Babylonian Empire. After that came the Medes and the Persians, the first three beasts. By 167 BC, they had been suffering under the Greeks. The particular emperor in power was represented by that little horn with a big mouth, bragging and bragging. Calling him little was a put down, but the bragging came from him calling himself “God Manifest.” This story proclaims that his rotten rule would be overthrown, that God wouldn’t let that stand. God would set things right. This vision is for encouragement to live with hope in God.

We might relate to a little man with a big bragging mouth claiming to be much more than he is coming to power. We can flee a beast and move to Canada. We may want to imagine if enough of us fight back, we could take the beast down. We may try to take comfort that the next beast to come out of the chaotic sea may be a bit better. “Impeach the beast” has a fun ring, but it shouldn’t be our best hope.

I don’t use these political statements lightly. I use them on behalf of people who don’t just dislike or disagree with our president, but are suffering, whose families are being torn apart, whose farms are lost, whose housing is taken away, who are being threatened and killed. On their behalf, it is false hope to say that they should suffer patiently and wait for the next election. Our hope needs more.

When people are hungry, real hope isn’t finding five dollars to buy a fast food burger. Not being drug tested for food stamps would be some step. But an assurance that they will be filled, that the God of the universe is on their side, that is ultimate and is necessary.

For many of us, these are very hypothetical. We live secure as the rich and full and laughing, those who are spoken well of. It’s easy for us not to hope.

But when we face mortality, that may remain our clearest moment of needing hope. Our physical fitness regimens no longer pay out. Vitamins don’t revitalize. Doctors and insurance policies and medical miracles prove vain. I’m reluctant even to name the situations, because this is the suffering that we privileged people still do know, and don’t need our noses rubbed in it. I can talk of destruction and hunger and persecution and those words may pierce us less. For however terrible our suffering is, really it still happens to be small. But weeping and death we know.

We, too, know we need hope. I can’t fully articulate the hope for you. I am reluctant to remove it only to some endtimes heavenly banquet, though I’m also certainly against dismissing that ultimate hope of the resurrection to eternal life. Hope is bigger than my visions or my words.

But if I can’t say how or when, I can still say that our almost impossible hope comes from God, who came as a human one, the Son of Man, who takes your hand, to institute God’s kingdom among us, loving enemies, bringing reconciliation, the first fruits of life that endures forever and forever and ever. You want to be in that number. And you are. Congrats! Good news! Here’s the promise of Jesus: you will leap for joy. Can I get a big ol’ WHOOPEE?

 

 

from Daniel 7                                                           CEB, adapted

Daniel had a dream—a vision in his head as he lay on his bed. He wrote the dream down:

In the vision I had during the night I saw the four winds of heaven churning the great sea. Four giant beasts emerged from the sea, each different from the others. The first was like a lion but had wings of an eagle. Its wings were plucked and a human heart was given to it. Then I saw a second beast, like a bear. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told: “Get up! Devour much flesh!” I kept watching, and there was another beast, this one like a leopard. On its back it had four wings like bird wings. This beast had four heads. After this, as I continued to watch, I saw a fourth beast, terrifying and hideous, with extraordinary power and with massive iron teeth. As it ate and crushed, its feet smashed whatever was left over. It had ten horns. I was staring at the horns when, suddenly, another small horn came up between them with eyes like human eyes and a mouth that bragged and bragged.

As I was watching, the Ancient of Days took her seat.
Her clothes were white like snow; her hair was like a lamb’s wool.
Her throne was made of flame; its wheels were blazing fire.
Ten thousand times ten thousand stood ready to serve her!

 I kept watching. I watched from the moment the horn started bragging until the beast was killed and its body was destroyed, handed over to be burned with fire. The dominion of the beasts was brought to an end.

As I continued to watch this night vision,

I suddenly saw one like a human being, like a Son of Man,

coming with the heavenly clouds.
His authority is everlasting—it will never pass away!—

his kingdom is indestructible.

Now this caused me, Daniel, to worry and the visions of my head alarmed me. So I went to one of the attendants who was standing ready nearby. I asked for the truth about all this. The attendant spoke and explained to me the meaning of these things. “These four giant beasts are four kings that will rise up from the earth, but the holy ones of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess the kingdom forever and forever and ever.”

 

SCRIPTURE ACCLAMATION             Alleluia! Jesus is Risen               ELW 377, refrain

 

 

Luke 6:20-31                                         NRSV

Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

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The King & You

sermon for Christ the King Sunday

(Luke23:33-43; Colossians1:11-20; Psalm46; Jeremiah23:1-6)
I’d like to begin introducing you to Alexa Rose, her parents Danielle and Ramon and their family, to get ready for her baptism and to orient us amid this Christ the King Sunday.

The odd connection is Alexa’s grandmother Robin used to work with a man who became a church music director with whom I later worked. Tracing that forward some number of years, past Danielle’s graduation party (which, if I recall, was one of Ramon’s first visits to Wisconsin), beyond that, I had the privilege of officiating at their wedding, fue la primera y la única vez que hablé español en una boda.

Later, when Alexa’s brother Leo was only a newborn, came the misfortune of presiding at the funeral of Danielle’s little brother DJ. He was a delightful young man, with great care and a huge smile and the enormous tragedy of an addiction from which he couldn’t escape in this life. A couple months after that, yearning for something positive, we celebrated Leo’s baptism and how blessing continues in our lives. Danielle’s father, Darrel, polished the baptismal font to sparkling. Yet to come, he and I have long talked about doing some icefishing together.

So there’s a lot there. In one respect, that’s the kind of stuff I’m honored to anticipate sharing with you, the big celebrations, and hopefully not too much tragedy, and all kinds of really regular moments and conversations and details.

Much larger and more important, though, than me as a pastor who happens to intersect with your life is the notion today that Christ is the King of this. As King or Lord, it means all of this falls within the realm of Christ, under the influence of his reign and his jurisdiction. He has claim that extends over and around all of these moments.

In Alexa Rose’s baptism is the declaration that nothing in her life will be separated from Christ or left outside of his blessing: her delights in her big brother and her smiles at her parents. Their efforts in so many ways to keep her secure—in providing a home and working long hours and throwing birthday parties and struggling against society when its racism or sexism or tribalism would threaten her wellbeing. Christ is in connections with grandparents and the guidance and care of her baptismal sponsors. All of this is held and nurtured by Christ.

And the promise continues far beyond what we know today, as she grows and meets new friends at school and discovers what her interests and passions and abilities are and as she begins making choices in her life (whether good or questionable, as all of us experience), on through years and decades.

We know this love and blessing of Christ was with Ramon and Danielle at their wedding, but we also confess with sure and certain hope that even death couldn’t separate DJ from love and life and blessing in Christ Jesus. Christ as King must be amid threatening politics just as surely as icefishing. Today we identify that for Alexa Rose, through the thick and thin of it, through the sorrows we’d so much like to spare her and the triumphs we wish heartily for her, all the way to her final breath.

And then, even as today we’re holding that very moment for a saint at the opposite end of life’s spectrum and saying goodbye to Eileen Bolstad and commending her out of what our care could accomplish, releasing her fully into the eternal care of Christ’s embrace, even in this moment of death we trust a promise of Paradise, that that last enemy will be overcome, and the love and life and blessing in Christ Jesus will continue.

So as we trust this for Alexa and for Eileen and as we are able to hold onto it for ourselves, let’s notice that in calling Christ the King, rather than it being a similarity to our typical rulers, we should hear a contrast. When we say Christ is King, we very particularly mean he’s not like other kings, those who rule and control and disregard our lives for their own benefit or whims. This title, exemplified by one being tortured and executed on a cross, clearly is not trying to claim Jesus is the mightiest or the bossiest. He’s not an authoritarian who always gets his way. He’s not in a posh palace separated from the realities of our life.

Embodied in his crucifixion, Christ’s kingship is precisely exemplary in patient endurance for reconciliation, is with suffering, knowing the realities of life, not separated from those mundane and difficult details of your existence. He is a King who can relate to you or, to say it stronger, is related to you, your brother. (That also has the implications that you are entitled to your inheritance as part of the royal family! That focus will have to wait for another day, but please don’t lose track of it!)

Another aspect of Christ being King also contradicts a common notion about faith and belief, and that’s in what makes him your king. Just as it wasn’t the ironic inscription on the cross that made him a king, neither was it by popular acclaim. It’s not that you invite him into your life. It isn’t the degree to which we attribute credit or how we pray or how we might try to claim favor. Jesus doesn’t need your confidence in order to be king. His work and his reign aren’t dependent on you or subservient to you like that. Though he’s a servant king, he’s not at your beck and call or waiting to do your bidding.

He—and he alone among all who would be called king—holds the role by divine right, in accomplishing God’s will. In the language of Colossians, this extraordinary passage that portrays for us the fullest widespread concept of a cosmic Christ—a king of the universe—the thrones and dominions and rulers and powers are subject to him not because they’re reporting for duty, but since his realm encompasses all.

So, in a huge distinction, while he doesn’t cause sin, he must in the end still be responsible for it. Tragedies and addictions aren’t attributed to him but neither are they outside of his realm. Even the worst corruption and decay and death, the nastiest and most virulent attitudes, the fiercest exclusionisms, the ugliest religious hatred, the most careless environmental destruction all fall within his redemption, are embraced by his healing love, are purged with the breath of resurrected life.

That’s for us, too. For Alexa at her baptism and Eileen at her dying and for your lives overcome with worry, yet bound in his kingdom, we have to confess it is vital he makes the promise good forever in baptism, because he’s not the king we’d choose. He isn’t the leader we’d like. He wouldn’t win elections or popularity contests.

Imagine and sense, if you can, some of the despair for the women disciples at the foot of the cross and those men who looked on from a distance. Imagine and sense their loss, their disappointment, their worry. It would be much more appealing to have a glorious and triumphal ruler, who shattered the cross, uprooted its deadliness, saved himself, then swung out with a force-field that brought his opponents to their knees and protected his chosen ones and helped us always to escape the worst scenarios.

That’s not Christ our King.

Our model is, yes, compassion and sacrifice and a long arc of justice. But the most important and most difficult word today of Christ as King is so countercultural you’ve likely hardly heard it in recent weeks: forgive. We may be surprised or even skeptical that it should be part of baptism for precious little Alexa Rose, but she’ll need it, and Christ will still be for her then. And as it sets her on the course for receiving forgiveness, it also prepares her to be forgiving.

This is the challenging reconciliation that is at the heart of Christ’s kingdom and stands so starkly in contradistinction to all other authorities and rampant blame. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” We are people striving to embody God’s justice for our world in these days, but our identity is not just in trying to do better, much less in feeling better about what we’re doing or more self-righteous. We are people challenged as we give our lives in sharing this prayer: Father, forgive. Forgive their selfishness. Forgive their prejudice. Forgive their violence, their greed. Forgive their hatred. Forgive their incompetence or ignorance, that they don’t know what they’re doing. Forgive their disruptiveness and destructions. Forgive their incivility and immorality. And me, too, forgive me.

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