Worship ~ 28 May

Audio Recording

From the book of Acts, the second chapter: 

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

And from Paul’s letter to the Roman church, the 8th chapter:

18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The word of God, the word of life……thanks be to God

Ruach Elohim, Spiritus Sanctus, Pneuma, Paraclete.

Today is the Holy Spirit’s day, sort of. God’s Spirit shows up many times in scripture and takes many forms – in Genesis it broods over the waters of creation, it comes as a whirlwind to Elijah, something like a dove at Jesus’ baptism. It is variously referred to as a wind, flame, breath, advocate – it quickens, fills, comes upon, comforts, hovers, burns, blows, enlightens, impregnates (once), speaks and gives speech.

The trinitarian formula of Christianity – one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit – grew out of years of discussion and argument and heresies in the centuries after Jesus’ death. But the component parts and hints are in scripture – especially in Paul’s writing and in the gospel of John. 

Church history is a disheartening class in seminary. We learn how human it all is, how political. I mention this because the way we have been taught to think about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit was decided, wrangled over in similar fashion to how congress works. Loud voices, extreme positions, black and white thinking, minutia and shades of meaning taking on life or death significance — we’d like to believe that the Holy Spirit could mind meld like Spock, or peacefully, wisely manipulate the outcome. Perhaps the outcome was pleasing to God even if the process was not. We can’t know. But the thing we do know is that somewhere along the line, the Greek belief that matter and spirit live in two different realms, and that matter or flesh, is evil, created a problem from which the church has never recovered.

In ancient Hebrew thought, this distinction did not exist. The Spirit of God brooded over creation, Wisdom was imagined as a woman, the dove-like Spirit fluttered onto Jesus in his baptism and shooed him off into the wilderness afterwards. The psalms and prophets give a wide variety of physical, bodily images for God and the Spirit. The Israelites’ first exposure to dualistic thinking was among the Persians in exile, followed by the influential Hellenistic philosophy and language of Alexander the Great’s realm. This dualism compounded in the Age of Reason and Industrialization of our modern world.

The problem I’m complaining about is twofold. 

One: We have taught ourselves not to perceive the nuance and subtlety of the spiritual world we live in, believing that it exists somewhere else.

And Two: We have assigned heaven to the spiritual world. Assigned God’s ultimate care and concern and presence to that place that exists somewhere else. It’s not real. It’s not here.

That way of thinking is a problem. It has resulted in devaluing bodies, in not being attuned to the urgings of God, and in trashing the earth. 

In my unqualified opinion, this topic is the primary insight of Grundtvig’s theology. The Inner Mission Pietists of his day felt that life in this world was a trial, a test, that suffering created character which qualified one for a joyous afterlife. Suffering was a sign that you were fit for heaven. Therefore, this world was a throwaway. 

The Grundtvigians argued that this world is all we know of God, all we can experience of love and joy, so we should try. We should pay attention to the beauty and splendor and richness of this created world and relationships – treat them with generosity and grace. Not praise God for the suffering, but praise God even in suffering and look for the things of God where we might find them – modeled in nature, specifically.

Sadly, at least in this country, the Pietists and Puritans won. Black and white thinking, predetermined salvation, separation of body and spirit… for some reason it’s easier to believe in a God of the straight and narrow, the list keeper of whether you’ve been naughty or nice. The natural world has suffered as a consequence, and our attention to the Holy Spirit’s grace and goodness in daily life has taken a backseat to focusing on eventual inclusion and exclusion in the kingdom that exists somewhere else. 

Paul wrote that the creation was subjected to futility, is waiting with eager longing for the redemption of humanity. Isn’t it just?

But, that very redemption began, we believe, with Jesus. So why assign it to eternity, to the ever-after? The Christian church was very late to take up the cause of our creaturely world. Earth Day should have had a religious impetus, because this earth is where God meets us, where God joined us, formed us and became us. What more proof do we need that this earth, this life, this place matters?

I had a conversation along these lines with a preacher from Nashville at the Festival of Homiletics, and, at one point, he scratched his head and said, “Oh! You’re a secularist!”, as though that explained everything. And he kind of grinned and gave me the patronizing look you’d give a small child who doesn’t quite understand. I’ve also been labeled a humanist. I guess I must be both of these things, but I don’t see why they are not compatible with the Christian faith. Earth is the setting for everything we can know of God.

In Acts, the Holy Spirit enflamed the disciples and filled them up to bursting. Not with church, but with love for Christ and for their neighbors. Paul kept finding that God’s Spirit had preceded him and his co-workers to the communities of faith he intended to evangelize and instruct. These are all clues that the Spirit of God is here, moving around, looking for volunteers.

I’ve been reading a book very slowly for at least a year. It’s called, On becoming an Alchemist – a guide for the modern magician, by Catherine MacCoun. One of her themes is cultivating the ability to perceive subtle bodies, spirits, essences, in the world around us. 

She writes this: “My first impression of God came from the Baltimore Catechism, a series of questions and answers that Catholic children used to have to recite from memory: 

Q: Why did God make me?

A: God made me to know him, love him, and serve him.

“I memorized that at the age of five and have yet to discover a more cogent answer. If God made us to know him, then the human organism must be some sort of God-knowing apparatus.” 

She talks about the in-between, perceiving the space between God and not-God and recognizing there is a presence that unites the two. This is the world of the Spirit.

I like that idea of the in-between. The Messianic age has begun, but not come. Paul and the gospel writers thought it was imminent, just around the corner. They were wrong about that. We are still living in the in-between, in the Age of the Spirit sent to guide and encourage us.

The first disciples and apostles were sent out to tell of Christ, to share the good news that gentiles had access to the God of Israel, could be grafted into the people of God as full siblings, our backgrounds different, our futures the same.

Perhaps this new age of the church is to bring the gospel to the earth itself, to ease her groaning, to work for the earth’s redemption, to recognize and claim our connections and mutual need as creatures, to pray for the Spirit’s intercession and peace between people for the sake of nature, bringing some form of balance to what feels like a return to chaos.

Christians have a long-standing tendency to think of salvation as something that only comes into play after death, with no immediate and present effect. Nothing could be further from the mind of scripture, which is fundamentally concerned with a new kind of life that can be experienced here and now, even though its telos, its completion, lies beyond our experience of this world. The horizon of God’s creative, redeeming work is broad and real. Redemption is the re-knitting of the very fabric of the world. Our own relationship with God will not be whole until we understand this, and understand our connection to the eagerly waiting rest of creation. To be reconciled with God is to be in communion with God in all things.

In these beautiful days of early summer with everything sparkling high and low – Paul is singing to the choir.

But he challenges us not only to see the trees clapping their hands and the gushing springs and the bright Whitsunday lilies, but to add the suffering of nature, the loss of habitat, the conflicted needs of water and resources to our prayers of confession and intercession, to see our part in the harm – and in the redemption.  It is not only some future divine salvation that the rest of creation longs for, but the here and now and very earthly renewal possible by human lives converted through the Spirit’s will – and our own will – to meaningful, authentic change. The world at large needs our conversion as much as we do.

As Spirit inspired children of God, we do not powerlessly accept whatever will come; we hope (as Paul says, a sure and certain hope) for the Spirit to draw us into the will of God and the work of God, to urge and to carry us and empower us and sustain us in that uphill work.

We long for nothing less than the fullness of life for all creation. And we hope not because only good things happen and it will all go according to our plan, but because goodness endures in the face of all that happens. Hope points us beyond our limitations to the God who creates and claims us, the Christ who saves and remains with us, and the Spirit who – in whatever form – doesn’t fail to move us. Now we begin.

Worship ~ 21 May

Audio Recording

Romans 6:1-14

1 What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 

4 Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 

11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. 

13 No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

A word of life  …   thanks be to God              

I have to say, I get lost in this. It becomes a wash of words. However, it’s a familiar wash of words – it’s a commonly used funeral passage – being baptized into Christ’s death, buried by baptism into death, we live a new life in Christ. The death Christ died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. That sounds familiar and kind of comforting. But, the thing I’ve noticed this time around – when it’s not for a funeral, is that Paul isn’t talking about the afterlife. Not ours, anyway. He’s talking about how we are to live now, on this side of Jesus’ resurrection. His point isn’t to assure us of a happy ending so much as it is to argue us into a changed life.

…present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.

That’s the line that found a landing for me— instruments of righteousness. What would you say is the difference between an instrument and a tool? I would have expected Paul to use the word tool.

Most of us are well acquainted with the tools in our possession – snow shovels have finally been replaced with garden spades. Rakes, manure forks, hoes, rototillers, trowels – these are the tools of the season. 

Or maybe your tools are whisks and blenders and wooden spoons and spatulas.

We have tool drawers and tool boxes and tool bags – I believe that Carl has more than one 3-story rolling tool cart. I have a tool box – but my brother was a dentist. He used instruments. So, what’s the difference? Is it the level of sophistication? Is it precision? 

I was looking around the house for instruments – aside from a piano with a warped sound board and a cello with a broken string. I found various probes – meat thermometers, soil testers for moisture and pH, an old calculator that says Texas Instruments. I still have the slide rule of my high school physics days, and a thermometer with the colored glass bubbles that rise in a tube. Maybe instruments have elegance, a note of mystery, imagination. 

Barometers and wind-up clocks are instruments loaded with imagination, and so are telescopes and microscopes and brass balances with their boxed sets of incremental weights. Even tuning forks – as simple as they appear to be, are finely calibrated, elegant instruments, not tools.

There are surgical instruments, of course, and odometers, pedometers, speedometers, altimeters … 

… and musical instruments of all kinds – well maybe not all kinds. I’ve heard Chris refer to electronic pianos as fancy toaster ovens – so perhaps some instruments leave too much to the imagination and become lowly tools plinking out a tune. But consider the intricacy and precision of the pipe organ…

Does a tool in the hand of an artist become an instrument, I wonder?, or is there some distinction in the nature of the implement itself? 

Paul says, “No longer present yourselves to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life… present yourselves to God as instruments of righteousness.”

Present yourself to God as an instrument ……. carefully crafted, finely tuned, exquisite, elegant, useful, imaginative, a precision instrument of grace…

Notice that Paul does not say, “Shape up and mold yourselves into this instrument! Work day and night to calibrate your spiritual gearbox to God’s acceptable, exacting specifications. Memorize the schematics, transform yourself from a lowly tool into an instrument of beauty and sophistication…”

Rather, Paul says, “Present yourselves to God as an instrument of righteousness.” Show up. Say, “Here I am, Lord. I am handiwork of the Most High, an instrument of your own design and your own choosing.” Already an instrument of righteousness because of Christ, the thrust of the sentence is to present yourself to God for the work at hand.

What work, then, is this instrument fit to do, I wonder.

In the prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi, we hear, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, let me sow pardon; where there is doubt, let me sow faith; where there is despair, let me sow hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, let me sow joy.

“Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.” 

This seems like a good beginning – a good way of envisioning the instrumentation of righteousness.  This chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans depicts the power we have in our everyday lives to live in ways that are faithful to God.

As an instrument of grace we allow ourselves to be taken up into the dynamic goodness and generosity of God. That is what resurrection life is about, after all … dynamic goodness and generosity, transformed ways of living. We lean into that – even when it runs counter to our daily reality. Daily life can seem like a tool of Sin and Death and Darkness.

We can’t change the suffering in Gaza or Sudan, Ukraine or Malawi, but we can care enough to offer aid through our church agencies already on the ground there. We can’t end the suffering and mistrust in forever ongoing, systemic racial and political tensions of this country – but we can teach our children to see beyond the color of skin or the clothing of culture. Perhaps we can’t fix the gun culture of this country, or end the opioid deaths, but we can listen to and support with prayer, and join with those voices in the wilderness working to solve problems of hunger and lack of clean water and medical equity, offering a life of dignity. We can stand with those who offer hope. 

We can’t, on our own, produce works of righteousness in the world around us. Often, we can’t synchronize them in our own homes — but instruments, with practice, create beauty and order and understanding. And so, without setting down our tools, we practice being instruments.

What we might, in time, accomplish through outer action first begins with our inner workings, our own mechanization, our orientation. “How can we continue living in Sin and Death as though we are still bound by them?” Paul asks. We have been set free. We can no longer be dominated by, or dialed into, the forces of darkness and death.  New life draws us out, gives us new vision like the gizmo on the cover of the bulletin. As instruments of righteousness we seek peace, we offer balm to old wounds. As Trekkies know, instruments allow us to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where Christ has gone before!

Just as being enslaved to sin is an embodied existence, so is being alive to God.

Members of the body of Christ offer living, holy and spiritual worship. We worship by practicing this embodied community in which the gifts of others are valued; in which the instruments of our lives are played or used or practiced on behalf of the body as a whole; in which we show up and say, “Here I am, Lord, what would you have me do? Use me, as an instrument of your peace.”

By opening ourselves to God’s goodness, we not only experience forgiveness and hope, but we begin a journey where that love produces love in us, and through us, for others.

As gadgets of grace we live into the world of what God has done in Christ so that every tool is re-calibrated, every string is tuned, every spring re-wound, every life renewed, every instrument put to its good and proper and valued work. Every one. Every gadget of grace encouraged in your unique capacities. Mary said her soul magnifies the Lord, prophets amplified the Word, Paul, with his fierce passions fortified the fledgling faith – each of us with our tools and skills and passions and perspectives has something to do, something to play, something to create that will reveal God’s loving kindness to us and for others. 

Grant us, O Lord, to be instruments of your righteousness, implements of your peace, gadgets of your love, contraptions and gizmos and widgets of your living word. Instruments for the world. 


Worship ~ 14 May

Audio Recording

Romans 5:1-11

1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 

3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 

8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.  Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.  

     But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

The word of life….thanks be to God

When someone begins a paragraph with, “Therefore…”  we know something has preceded this new thought. We might wonder what the ‘therefore’ is there for…

So, a brief summary of what we’ve missed. Up to this point in his letter to the Christian community in Rome, Paul has been talking about our human condition – that we all – Jews, Greeks, barbarians, gentiles, Romans, Danes – all are bound by Sin and Death with a capital S and a capital D – think cosmic forces, think Roman and Greek and Nordic mythology.   We are all subject to the power of Sin and Death and cannot free ourselves.    

God, meanwhile, longs for faithfulness and righteousness and goodness from us. God desires our trust and love above all things, love shown toward our neighbors as well as toward ourselves — and we want to, we try to, we mean to….. and then we are distracted by some irritating human, some personal foible, or by greed, or the allure of false loves (of which there are many) and we lose our focus and stumble off the path and wander around lost and fall back under the power of Sin and Death with a capital S and a capital D. And then pick ourselves up, shake off the dust and ashes, and try again.

We know this cycle – it is the storyline of the Old Testament; it is the storyline of human history; and it is the storyline of our lives. Paul himself describes it: 7:15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”    I bet we could compile a fantastic list of good intentions. See the bulletin cover.

But, also, according to Paul, something has changed. Something has broken into that tragic narrative, something has challenged the power of Sin and Death – some Righteousness with a capital R has come to our side and rescued us, ransomed us from the evil overlord, redeemed us for love and life. And that something is someone – Jesus Christ. Jesus’ faithfulness to God and God’s faithfulness to Jesus through resurrection from death broke the dismal monotony of our human predicament. The Risen One became the means by which we are set free. Through Jesus, we participate in God’s faithfulness and love, no longer subject to “the wrath of God,” (as Paul puts it), but inheritors, sons and daughters of God in good standing.    

Therefore, (finally we come back to it), therefore, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Peace with God, and full and free access to this amazing grace in which we stand. Fantastic!

Last week’s sermon was about the righteousness of God. This week’s is about the ‘Therefore‘.

Therefore, we have peace with God.

But, wait a minute. Paul wrote this to the Romans nearly 2000 years ago. In a letter to the Philippians he wrote:4:4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything,… 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  

In John’s gospel, Jesus says 14:27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, do not let them be afraid. My peace be with you.”  

Peace’ is used 92 times in the New Testament; the phrase, ‘peace with God’, 32 times – most of them in Paul’s letters. But, where is this peace? 

Maybe it’s just me. Are you feeling swaddled in the peace of God? If someone asks how you’re doing, do you say, “I’m good. Leaning back on the everlasting arms”?

I mean, that would be good, I just don’t think many of us feel that kind of spiritual calm. In fact, I think anxiety is taking a greater toll than we probably realize.

There’s so much that is not peace in our personal and communal lives, so much busyness, so many distractions and worries large and small. Three young police officers have been shot dead in our rural area in just a few weeks, mass shootings are reported every week in our nation; there is so much anger, so little regard for the sanctity of life, such existential dread layering in as the world turns. We’ve got too much to do and too much to think about before we can experience any peace with God. It sounds unattainable – although we might at least offer a prayer for it… a quick one.

Yesterday’s event at the hall, supporting Mom’s in Recovery, got me thinking about this in a bit of a different way. Jay said that addiction is a spiritual wound, and that when you stop using, the the wound gapes open with nothing big enough to fill it. Without the alcohol or drugs there’s a big empty. And then shame and self-denigration and panic and feeling lost in our own bodies and souls crowds in, and the desire to go back to drinking or using in order to stop the pain overwhelms our intentions and wills and pulls back us into the evil we do not want. Addiction isn’t a habit to break – it’s a broken spirit in need of a new self, in need of peace. It takes something as big as peace with God to bridge the wound, to draw the selvages together, and allow healing.

We don’t need to suffer from an addiction to understand that dynamic. Grief, loneliness, anxiety and depression, retirement, family trauma, chronic overwork – we can probably all find a wound in our lives that is too big for ‘staying calm and carrying on’. A wound in need of redemption, of rest, of nurture, of peace that passes understanding. 

I’m attending the Festival of Homiletics everyday this coming week in Minneapolis. The conference’s topic is ‘Preaching hope in a weary world’ – with speakers and famous preachers from all over the country and many denominations — so, it’s a problem recognized throughout the church. We’ll see what they come up with. 

But how about you? What does Peace with God look like, or feel like inside of you? Do you have an idea, some wisp of a feeling? Can you remember or imagine a time of deep comfort, of feeling like finally you are fitting the groove, of a big, contented, Ahhh?  I hope it won’t increase your anxiety, but ||: I’m going to give us about one minute of silence to try to let some image or memory of profound, deep, abiding peace float to the surface of your awareness. I’ll repeat that so those you who were elsewhere can catch up. Here we go:

What are you picturing, remembering? What images bring you to a truly happy place in your mind’s eye, in your past?

I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about Friendly Valley beach before, it’s where I take myself when I need calm, when I can’t sleep, when I need to picture peace. It’s a sandy reef in Lake Superior between Washburn and Bayfield where the water is so clear you can see the golden rippled sand glinting even when the water is too deep to touch it. The water is pale, the softest of blues, as it meets the horizon beyond the islands.   Even on a hot day, the temperature is just survivable, and so you need to acclimate until your blood has retreated to protect vital organs and then softly swush into the water and float, surrendering to the rush of sensations. Looking up into blue dome of the sky and tingling in the effervescence of cold water and cool skin and warm sunshine, every cell of your body is alive and gasping and wondering about this excitement…. and you float on the gentle rhythm of long-travelled waves… and feel the weight of your body dissipate, held aloft in the rising and falling buoyant communion of your own breath and this big water in a balance of body and spirit and trust. 

That’s the peace of God to me.

But… if one were to stay there floating in the deep blue peace of Friendly Valley Beach Bay… one would surely die. It is frigid. 

And so it is, I imagine, with the images you formed. We can’t live in them. The embrace must at some point end, the chocolate will be consumed, the nursing babe snuggled in your arms will cry and grow and leave home; the amazingly cozy bed will become less comfortable, the golden sun will set, dawn will come … the moment will pass. I would actually love to hear what you have come up with…. Would anyone be willing to share what peace with God feels like, seems like to you?

Peace with God is permanent, forever, theologically speaking – but our experience of it, our participation in it is spotty, temporal. Why do we find peace so oddly absent from our world, from our communities, and, not least, from ourselves?   If we know what it is and what it feels like, why is peace the scarcest of commodities? 

That is an honest question – I don’t know the answer. Perhaps because it’s too individualistic? Or too fleeting, too unsustainable. It is exhausting to care for all of the people in our realm as we would care for ourselves, to treat all persons with the honor and value they deserve rather than the value we want to assign them, to let God actually direct our lives into fullness and wholeness.

Perhaps also, because this conversation assumes that we love and value ourselves, that we can see ourselves honestly, the way we really are, and can still live with, and love that view. 

I would guess that it’s a rare person who can say they are truly at peace with themselves. Most of us prefer to see in a mirror dimly rather than face ourselves eye to eye, to be fully known.

Or perhaps it’s because we confuse God’s love for us with the absence of suffering. I bet none of the images that played in our minds involved times of suffering. And yet, in hindsight, many could point to a time of pain or loss or fear when we felt most convincingly the presence and peace of God, at peace with God.

Our troubles are not a contrary witness to God’s promises. That is the theology of the cross. Even the worst of times may lead us around again to hope. The message is not that Paul and his readers rejoice because they are suffering but rather that they rejoice even in the midst of their suffering. Suffering itself isn’t a cause for rejoicing; but neither is it the opposite of peace.

Later in his letter, Paul writes that ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God.’

“Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul isn’t spiritualizing this, making it about death. Suffering doesn’t separate us from God, because the glory of God is revealed in the cross

That’s an odd thing when you stop and sit with the words….

The suffering of the cross is the way God has chosen to be present to us in this world. Which is a good thing because there is nothing about life or love that is not suffering – suffering is the norm. Somehow we have developed this idealized image of a pain free life, insulated from the trials and temptations and tedium and rancor of real life. We are not perfect, the world is not perfect, the church is not perfect, so this is the way God has formed us – imperfectly, but growing, resilient, hopeful – characters – one and all. 

I read an article on developing resiliency, and it gave the example of growing a flat of seeds. If you start two flats of – tomatoes, let’s say, and put them both in good light, water them adequately, but turn an oscillating fan onto one flat and let the other grow in hothouse peace… The seedlings that were buffeted by the fan will be the stronger, stockier and better rooted plants. They will be the ones capable of bearing the weight of the fruit they produce. Something about the disturbance stimulates a different chemical to be released that strengthens the developing plant.

In humans, too, suffering can lead to resilience and resilience to character and character to hope and hope is good for us – even though suffering is not. I remember a conversation years ago, with Sami Rasouli at Barb and Mike’s. I might have remembered it wrong, but I believe Sami said that in Arabic, the word for suffering is the same word as for journey – that suffering is seen as a journey leading us to a new place and new reality, a new understanding of ourselves and God and the world – and that this suffering / journey word is one of the 99 beautiful names for God, for Allah. The one who suffers, the one who journeys, the one who loves and in love, suffers for us poor earthlings, stuck in the mud and longing for freedom, yearning for love… is God. That is a beautiful name.

The good news is that God doesn’t wait for us. Even before we had faith, while we were yet sinners, while we were still under the thumb of Sin and Death with a capital S and a capital D, God loved us and chose us as inheritors with Christ for all the good, for all the grace, for all the hope in glory.

May the peace of God be with you and abide with you, just as you imagined, now and always, Amen.

Worship ~ 7 May

Audio Recording

“Friends, Romans, and countrymen, lend me your ears”… We could have wished that the apostle Paul had William Shakespeare for a speechwriter. Instead, his letter to the Romans begins with a sentence employing eleven commas, a handful of parenthetical phases, and a colon. Although in Greek, it has no punctuation at all! Here we go:

Romans 1:1-17

 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,  which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures,  the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh  and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name,  including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.  For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers,  asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you.  For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you —  or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.  I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as I have among the rest of the Gentiles. 

I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish — hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you also who are in Rome.  For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

A word of God, the word of life….thanks be to God.

In case you got lost, this is the introduction of Paul’s letter to the community of Christians in Rome about 25 years after Jesus’ death. It is likely the last letter of record written by Paul. It follows two decades of teaching, preaching and writing letters to the early churches as they separated from their Jewish roots, gained non-Jewish members, and forged a unique self-understanding as followers of Jesus Christ, the Son of God — followers of The Way. 

Paul never made it to Rome – well, he did get there, but as a prisoner. A few years after this letter was written, history loses track of him and it is thought that Paul was killed in Rome after a lengthy imprisonment there. In this letter – although he is free, he identifies himself as a slave – a slave to Christ. As such, he is not bound to any other obligation, nor is he subject to the interests of patronage. As a slave to Christ he is free to speak under the authority of the One who claimed him on the road to Damascus. And through Christ, Paul connects the dots or weaves a web tying people together with each other and with God. 

So,  “descended from David according to the flesh,” as Paul says,  is a statement about Jesus’ humanity, but it’s also a description of his Jewish identity. Paul’s primary “targets” are Greek and Roman – not Jewish, but he can’t explain who Jesus is without naming him as a Jew. Jesus was a real, distinct, certain person. However, Jesus is also for “all the nations” – for ‘Greeks and barbarians’, as he writes here. God’s choice of Israel was always meant to have a ripple effect out into the neighborhood. The chosen people were chosen to be a model of life with God. We remember Abraham’s call in Genesis – he was blessed to be a blessing, or the Hebrew people’s covenant to be a light to the nations. In the Jewish man, Jesus of Nazareth, God is calling and claiming all people, whatever their nationality, regardless of their culture or creed.

But this human Jesus is also, somehow, the “Son of God.” It would take centuries for the formulations and creeds describing the church’s understanding of Jesus’ humanity and divinity to be worked out. But Jesus — as human, descended from David, and divine, declared Son of God, the messiah risen from the dead — manages to bridge the divide between death and life, between mortality and immortality, between sin and righteousness. All of this in faith through faith for faith. It’s the only way we can get there.

Paul is difficult to read.  He uses too many prepositions modifying the same noun – and too many big words – and too many comas. So sermons on Paul tend to create a congregation of zombies – glazed eyes, the living dead.

I probably don’t need help in boring you. Lectures on systematic theology appeal to a very thin slice. I do like quirky points and rough edges, though. And sometimes a line or two catches my imagination. Like this one,  

I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish — hence my eagerness to proclaim the gospel to you…”  First, is that meant to be a compliment, do you suppose? He’s putting the Romans in strange company.

Anyway, why is he a debtor to barbarians? The commentaries I read don’t play with this one at all. Maybe the barbarians helped him escape or hide out, or maybe they bought his tents, or served him Æbleskiver and medisterpølse. Maybe it was a common turn of phrase, but I have an idea. 

He writes:  “[the gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek... because in it, the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith.”

I think that somewhere along the line, in and among the barbarians, Paul realized that God was already in residence. I think he was indebted to them for that life changing insight. Paul was a Jew, a former Pharisee. And he came to realize that he wasn’t bringing the God of Israel to these gentiles, he was recognizing God already at work among them. I can only begin to imagine what a shock that must have been. It would be like discovering that æbleskiver are a Sri Lankan specialty. How can this be?

Paul also realized that neither wisdom nor foolishness were impediments to God’s salvation – that salvation, healing, redemption (meaning the gospel) is really out there for all people who are interested, attentive, or searching. Human righteousness comes after the presence of God, not as a prerequisite to it. The one who is righteous lives through faith, by faith, in faith, for faith – somehow faith is part of the picture, but God is the one who manages it – it’s God’s faithfulness to the human creature that shows itself in right-ordered living as a by-product. Faith, morality, the heart to seek forgiveness and return when we fall, all of that comes as the consequence, and based on God’s righteousness and faithfulness, not the person’s effort or desire or understanding or good deeds. And certainly, it’s not the church that bestows it. 

That last is an interesting point because for thousands of years the church has been heavily invested in claiming, mandating and managing righteousness, worthiness, and the means of grace. Righteousness and faith are their claimed realms of jurisdiction. But Paul wasn’t part of that church – he was a radical thinker, who, blinded by Christ to every other reality, truly believed in the freedom of God’s love, lavishly, outlandishly given. Not doled out or regulated.

Which, obviously, brings me back to the topic of Æbleskiver.

All I’ve ever done during the annual dinner is serve tables or wash dishes. But this year, I came down with a bad cold and no one wanted my help. I was told more than once to stay home, so I attended briefly and watched from home as an observer.

It’s like the gathering of the clans— red shirts streaming up the hill to the Hall from the church, or downhill from the north. It really is quite a sight. We must have one of the most intergenerational, labor intensive church dinners in the area. It wasn’t our best organized year, perhaps, but it was a terrific output of effort. And we have loyal guests who have been waiting for the return. Gloria comes from somewhere east of Dresser, Carleen calls me every year looking for this and the Cookie 

Walk, there were Minnesota license plates, of course, and Dave comes from California (to work!). I got calls from eight different groups wanting to be sure of the time, two asking if we are wheelchair accessible. There are people who come alone, those who come in tribal units; those who only want the sausage, or who eat 12 skivers; some who love fruit soup, some who are kind of appalled by the concept. We serve babes in arm, toddlers, teenagers, and their great-grandparents. We serve non-denominationally, a-politically, lavishly and repeatedly. We don’t dole them out in fair and equal and prudent portions (well, except the Pølse). We don’t care what people are wearing or driving or going home to. We don’t care if they grumble a bit about having to wait. We bring them plates and bowls and refills and more butter and a less sticky syrup pitcher and finish them off with the fluff of their choice.

And when all of that is done, and the Guests and Greeks and Barbarians have stopped coming through the door, we come from the four corners of the Hall and sit down to the same, much anticipated fare that we’ve served our guests. And it is delicious.

Righteousness isn’t about rules. Righteousness is about love. Righteousness is about generosity of spirit. Righteousness is God’s. And it is out of our realm — except that we can practice it. 

Righteousness is a plate of æbleskivers and medistepølse with refills at the ready until you are filled to the brim and bursting. Righteousness is a gift that we recognize – if we do at all – with the eyes of faith, because they are the eyes that teach us to anticipate and hope for it.

[The gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek... For in it the righteousness of God is revealed. God’s faithfulness to us is revealed in the gospel.

We can’t be good enough to merit salvation. We can’t force ourselves to believe. 

Our role then is……. to live. The church is how and where we practice looking for God by hearing about where and how God has shown up in people’s lives in the long distant past and today.  That was one of Claire Scriba’s questions – do you remember? “Where did you find God this week?” 

The church gives us an imagination for God, tunes our attention to a different frequency, gives us a community to work with. The church doesn’t save us.  That might seem to deflate Christianity, to take the specialness or power out of being religious… anyone can “just live” after all.  

Yes, exactly! Greeks, barbarians, Romans, Jews, wise, foolish, male, female, slave, free…Paul suddenly saw that it didn’t make any difference who we are, because what made the difference is who God is. God is righteous, God is faithful, God is merciful, God is creative, creating love……….so that we can just live and live justly, practicing the gospel. 

And communal, all out events like our Æbleskiver Dinner provide pretty good practice.

Thanks for yesterday.

Worship~ 23 April

Audio Recording

Acts 10

In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.

3One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.” 

7When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa.

9About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 

14But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

17Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were standing by the gate. 18They called out to ask whether Simon, who was called Peter, was staying there. 19While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Look, three men are searching for you. 20Now get up, go down, and go with them without hesitation; for I have sent them.” 

21So Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for your coming?” 22They answered, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23So Peter invited them in and gave them lodging.

The next day he got up and went with them to Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25On Peter’s arrival Cornelius met him, and falling at his feet, worshiped him. 26But Peter made him get up, saying, “Stand up; I am only a mortal.” 27And as he talked with him, he went in and found that many had assembled; 28and he said to them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.

34Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ — he is Lord of all. 37That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: 38how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. 39We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; 40but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, 41not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses…”

44While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.… Then Peter said, 47Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? 48So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

a word of the Lord…. Thanks be to God

I bet we can all identify with Peter and his dream. I don’t mean in the specifics, but in the weirdness of it. Right? Haven’t you tried to explain a dream to someone that seemed so reasonable in sleep, only to have all logical threads unravel as you try to put words to images? Peter was hungry and he fell asleep waiting for lunch — we’ve all been there — and in a vision sees a sheet being lowered from the sky by its corners, and as it settles on the ground and opens up, he sees that it is full of animals, turtles, lizards, bugs and birds flying around and crawling around and standing there looking at him. And, being a good Jew, he recognizes that none of them are kosher. It’s a picnic blanket and hamper, but there’s nothing he can eat. But then a voice says, “Get up, kill and eat!” Peter is repulsed. “My God, I couldn’t possibly. I’ve never… I could never!”  But the voice says, “Yes, you can. This is food, and it is for you. Do not look God’s gift horse in the mouth!” Or gift varmint.

Peter has always seemed a bit slow to catch on, and it is a dream after-all, so he says it again, “I would never eat anything that is unclean. Yuck! And I have to kill it and prepare it myself?” 

“It is for you!,” says the voice. “You do not get to decide what is unclean or profane. God don’t make no junk!”  After the third repetition, the sheet is gathered up by its corners and the whole menagerie is swept back into heaven. 

Peter, we are told, was greatly puzzled by this vision, and didn’t know what to make of it. 

Fortunately, for him and for us, the Holy Spirit was his dream guide and had been behind the scenes arranging a blind date with Cornelius. I don’t need to retell the story – it’s pretty clear what happens. 

I love the way it shows Peter gradually catching on, because this is a good description of how we come to a new perspective: always a bit behind the evidence.  Author Neil Gaiman, says, “You find out how the world works always by trial — and always by error.” 

As Peter discovers, the Holy Spirit preceded him to Cornelius’ house and household. They were God-fearing to start with – which was kind of a membership category in Judaism. It refers to goyim (non-Jews) who were devote people observing the Jewish religion, worshipping the God of Israel, but who couldn’t participate in everything Jewish — they aren’t circumcised, for example — so they’re on the margins. Cornelius was a spiritual searcher, open to the Spirit’s call and influence.

And with Cornelius’ help, devout Peter eventually realizes that his vision wasn’t about food, it was about people.  Purity laws defined God’s chosen people, set them apart from the Gentile world.  But God’s chosen people have always been emblematic of the whole – a precious subset of all God’s people for all God’s creation. The dream was about the power of God, the will of God, to reconcile the subset with the whole, to continue the mission begun in Creation of bringing all people into relationship with her loving Godself.

Now, even though we have heard this message — that Israel was to be a light to all the nations, that the God of Israel would redeem and save Jew and Gentile alike, that disciples are to be salt of the earth… and even though the book of Acts begins with Jesus’ instructions: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to all the ends of the earth”…  Even though we’ve got that, I wonder if we’ve got it right, or if we’re still struggling with Peter’s dream?

Just as there are really disgusting food delicacies peculiar to the world’s cultures – I did a very brief internet search and decided not to highlight what I found – are there also elements of the human culture we would not expect to meet at the eschatological picnic? I suspect there are. 

Peter had a really difficult time believing that Gentiles like this Roman centurion could/would receive the same Holy Spirit that he and his fellow disciples experienced at Pentecost. This episode occurs not long after Jesus was crucified by Roman soldiers. Peter was as repulsed by the intimate, vulnerable act of eating with this particular Italian Gentile as he was by the notion of eating snails and blood-sausage from the picnic sheet. He finally understands that God shows no such partiality, but it takes many chapters of conflict and disagreement in the book of Acts for the principal players of apostles to conclude that God had already made Gentiles and Greeks acceptable and that no additional requirements are needed for them to join the fellowship. 

God’s desire for this inclusion moves all the action in the story: the disciples balk and hesitate and can’t quite believe it even though they have to acknowledge it. It goes so against the grain. Those who encounter the disciples describe/accuse them of “turning the world upside down,” and they do – but the Holy Spirit turns the disciples’ own world topsy-turvy in the process.

We’re still reading this through the lens of the ancient world. What happens when we read it through the lens of the modern world?

We see in scripture that Jews, Gentiles, and Greeks were welcomed without leaving their cultural and ethnic diversity and distinctions behind. God is not creating a generic, homogeneous people but a true ecosystem. The message we discern from Acts is that God’s good news is open to all people. The Holy Spirit shows no partiality – people from anywhere, everywhere in the world are able to receive the Holy Spirit and be drawn into God’s mission.

And that’s the thing I wonder about. God’s mission, God’s impartiality in a diversified, pluralistic world. And the Christian’s role. 

We are so divided, so fractured by beliefs and values, perceived rights and fears. And this is true of any little subset one might happen to choose – Polk County, WI is pretty small, but rife with division.

We can barely live together as citizens, barely tolerate the ‘other’. I mean, once we get to know them, once we get to know the points of divergence between us. And if we’re talking about God’s mission for the world? If the apostles learned, with difficulty, that God chose Gentiles as they were, for what they were as though they were Jews, does that lesson enlarge for us into believing that God sees all people of good will, all beliefs, from all religious traditions as acceptable and chosen agents of God’s mission? I think it does, but many would absolutely disagree with me. 

What becomes of the Christian chosen-ness if all are included in God’s love and concern and redemption? Can this be possible? Don’t all need to become Christian to receive the salvation of Christ? 

Well, isn’t the point of Jesus’ resurrection the redemption of the whole? Once, and for all? 

If so, then what of the Gospel? What of the Holy Spirit? What’s the point of being Christian?

My favorite Martin Luther assertion is found in the explanation of the Apostle’s creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”

As was true for Peter and Cornelius, so it is that God’s Spirit does the work of calling and enlightening. We aren’t privy to know how others are called or through what words or visions they are enlightened. That is God’s work. I can’t imagine that only Christians or only Jews and Christians are worthy of God’s eternal presence and love. Our role or calling as Christians may simply be to acknowledge the grace and mercy of God toward all people without partiality, and in that way witness to our faith in the Good News of Jesus Christ for all the earth.


Worship ~ 16 April

Audio Recording

Matthew 28:16-20

16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus approached and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all people, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to keep all things that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you all the days until the completion of the age.

Each of the four gospels ends uniquely. Mark was the first to be written and doesn’t have any post-resurrection appearances. The women hear the good news that Jesus has risen and they run away trembling and in fear, saying nothing to anyone.   

Mark’s ending is perfect in that abruptness – leaving us to kind of gasp and employ our little gray cells in wondering what happened next. How did we get from there to here?  It’s the best proof of the living word that I can imagine. The witnesses said nothing, and yet…

Luke and John each have multiple endings and many satisfying visuals – walking the road to Emmaus and becoming known in breaking the bread; Jesus entering a locked room and letting Thomas poke his finger into the still visible wounds; or in John, cooking up a shore lunch of fresh fish and taking Peter aside for a chat, leaving us with lots of poignant dialog. 

But, it seems Matthew is a bit of a let down. There are just these few sentences and they’re kind of bland and churchy. It’s got no pizzaz, nothing for our imaginations to work with or relate to. He seems to be addressing questions of the community that Mark’s abrupt ending didn’t satisfy. Ending a sermon is the hardest part of writing one, so I can commiserate with him. Ending a gospel must be difficult.

So, we should look again. 

Jesus and the disciples are from Galilee, sending them there is not unexpected. Jerusalem wasn’t a safe place – their accents gave them away as Galileans and associated them with Jesus. Besides, why stay?  So they went home.  But, it wasn’t just to Galilee that they were sent. I hadn’t really thought about this before. You know the way we read things, skimming over words until we get to the main point? At least I do that. I assumed that the forlorn disciples went home in some state of fear and confusion, kept in touch, and, one night at the Capernaum Fish & Chips, the risen Jesus got a message to them, called them outside to a place apart, and commissioned them.

Well, I’m missing the significance of the one detail Matthew does give. It wasn’t just,  “Go home and I’ll find you.” He told them to go to a mountain. The mountain. 

Whether or not the Sermon on the Mount all came tumbling out in one sitting or is a compilation of many teachings, Jesus is frequently seen climbing mountains in his early ministry as he ‘disciples’ the men, and possibly some women, he called to follow him. The site now known as the Mount of Beatitudes is on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, between Capernaum and Gennesaret, on the southern slopes of the Korazim Plateau. 

It makes beautiful, poetic sense that they were called back to the mountain of their teaching, the mountain where Jesus gave the new Commandments. It makes this less of a disappointing ending.

They circled back to the mountain, to the beginning, to the place of presence and vision. These guys hadn’t seen anything. We need to remember that. They didn’t see or hear the angel, they didn’t see the newly opened, and yet inexplicably empty, tomb. They only heard of the experience from the women. Women were not regarded as competent witnesses in Jewish courts, so their testimony isn’t given as proof, so much as one more aspect of this story to take on faith.

The eleven go to the mountain, and Jesus does appear to them as he had promised. “And when they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” I do love that detail. Perhaps it was Thomas, but if so, he’s not alone. Some doubted what they were seeing. Some couldn’t get their minds to accept the two opposing realities of death and life standing there before them. Wounds presumably visible – not bleeding, not healing.  I imagine that all of them had an element of doubt – fear, awe, bewilderment – the mix of emotions and thoughts had to be overwhelming.

And Jesus approached and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” That was what the Tempter had offered. Remember? Satan took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus resisted, and according to the way of the world, he lost. Well… Not!

I don’t really know what it means to have ‘all authority’ – except the obvious, that God has claimed Jesus, has answered his lament from the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Not forsaken, not abandoned, not put off by the humiliation and shame and death of the cross. But claimed as child, as agent of redemption, as One with the One who has all authority to give.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all people, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to keep all things that I have commanded you.”

This is the churchy bit.  I like it better thinking of it as being told in the same place that the Beatitudes were taught. It’s all hypothetical, of course. We don’t have any way of knowing the ‘truth’ of any of this. But, the setting would help the disciples remember the teaching of Jesus. It would help them get over the death and betrayal; help ground their current amazement by placing the years of following him into a context, a focus. Because, it’s not just that they were to worship and believe. It’s not that we are to simply worship and believe. According to Matthew’s gospel, we are to do the will of God as interpreted in the life and ministry of Jesus, the Messiah, the Risen one. His path has been validated, his teaching vindicated.  I wish Jesus or Matthew would have added the words from communion, “Do this in remembrance of me.” 

Disciples of the risen Christ are to teach what Jesus taught on that mountain. We are to circle back and keep the Sermon on the Mount in view. Christ didn’t command them to teach or preach the gospel, but to teach all people to observe, to practice, to live what he had taught them. God has established Jesus’ life as the authoritative interpretation of the will and way, the rule and realm of God. “Do this in remembrance of me.” It’s not about belief, you will notice. It’s not about faith. Some doubted and were commissioned just the same. It’s about practice. Teach people to behave in this way: where the poor are honored, where those who mourn are consoled, where the outcast are welcomed, where the hungry are fed, where enemies experience compassion, where neighbors are loved despite everything that separates and divides them. Do this in remembrance of me. Let your life exceed the righteousness of words that are easily spoken, but not followed with deeds. Be holy, perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect. Don’t think about it and admire the concept. Strive for that behavior. Of course, we will fail, but try, hold that as the standard. Keep circling back.

Do this, act in this way, behave toward others in this fashion — not so that you will be saved, or so that they will be saved —but because you already are, and because this is the way of the kingdom which has drawn near.

That’s the final word of Matthew’s gospel and an interesting difference between his and the others. “Remember, I am with you all the days — day by day by day — until the completion of the age.”

“I am with you.” In Luke, Acts and John, Jesus ascends to God, sending the Holy Spirit in his place. This doesn’t happen in Matthew. In Matthew, Jesus promises to stay and we circle back. 

“1:18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 

And that, my friends, is the Good News of God in Jesus Christ, our risen Lord. God promises to be with us, day by day, every day, until the end of our ages, and on until the end of time.

Thanks be to God

Worship ~ 2 April

Audio Recording

Matthew 21:1-17

  When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,  saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.  If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”  

This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,  “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, gentle, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;  they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.  A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”


 “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”  The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”  Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  He said to them, “It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” 

 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.  But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” 

 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.”

The gospel of our Lord….thanks be to God.

I couldn’t get Palms this year. I thought I had ordered them in February from Eco-Palms, as in other years, but at some point I realized that I hadn’t gotten the usual follow-up email telling me about the delivery date. When I checked up on it, they said they had had computer issues and lost orders during a week or two in February and that, while they were very sorry, they were sold out. Storms, flooding and shipping issues have been a problem for their suppliers this year. By then it was too late to get them through other sources, so we are palm-less this year. 

Which, naturally, got me thinking about the palms we do have, which lead me to create the bulletin cover. I would warn you that if you feel inclined to make green hand prints to remember that green is created from mixing yellow and blue together, and that blue pigment is difficult to remove. 

This lack of palms to wave has lead to thinking about palms as in hands and not as trees. One of my favorite scripture images comes from Isaiah 49:

14 But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’
And the prophet speaks for God saying: 15 “Can a woman forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
16 See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”

I have inscribed you on the palm of my hands. Tattooing is prohibited in Leviticus 28, as is cutting gashes for scarring, so that isn’t what God has done. My daughter used to write memos to herself in the palms of her hands so she wouldn’t forget – and that’s how I imagine God’s palms, full of names and memos so that She will not forget, like the rainbow is a sign so that God will not forget the promise made to Noah. I take some amount of comfort that God seems to need aides to memory, memos to self.

This line of thought leads me to Palm reading and life lines, that forever, people have felt our futures were visible, discoverable, written into the palms of our hands. Maybe that’s how we are inscribed… in God’s life lines, crossed and curving, intersecting.

We are instructed to hold out our hands in blessing. When we bless something it is with palms down or facing out, but to hold our hands open, palms up, is to plead, to beg, to receive a blessing. 

The people traveling to Jerusalem that day with Jesus were going for the Passover celebration. They were waving palms in festival celebration. We do that, too, in celebration – waving our palms at concerts or sporting events, or in church – although Lutherans tend not to do that. We tend not to do demonstrative actions in public. It’s not because of theology – it’s more a matter of temperament and reserve, but we are known for service. Lutheran World Service, World Hunger, Disaster Relief – these ‘hands’ of our church are very active in our country and in the world. Lutheran aid agencies are in Mississippi helping with tornado relief and in Poland helping with Ukrainian resettlement and aide. We’re still working in Malawi and Haiti.

“God’s work, our hands” has been a slogan of the ELCA (our national church body) for years, reflecting the quote of Teresa of Avila from the 1500’s,  “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

What does it mean to be palm-less on Palm Sunday? Well, we aren’t.

We are celebrating Baptism and First Communion this morning. If you listen to the baptismal pledge, you will hear our walking orders for the Christian life – to pray, to learn, to act. To offer our hands in help and in blessing. In communion, we open our hands to receive the gift of Christ’s presence, his very body given for us, placed in our palms.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and to his death. When he got to the temple, he upset the tables of moneychangers and merchants. I’ve read that, given the size of the temple and the temple market, it was likely a symbolic action of just a few tables, a local action and not clearing the whole market. That action seems to have grasped our visual attention, but it is what comes next that sealed his fate. “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.  When the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry.”  It wasn’t disrupting temple commerce, it was the power of his hands to heal, it was the power of God in his hands and words, it was the kids singing out Hosanna – hoshiannah – it means “save us.” It is both a word of praise and plea. That’s what made them so afraid that they had to stop him.

Entering Jerusalem – especially in this way, Jesus has cast his lot. Nothing is left now but to play it out. He has come to Jerusalem, the  site of the temple, the holy place of ancient Israel, the city of his ancestor King David, the city that stones the prophets. He has come during Passover when the blood of a lamb without blemish or fault is shed, an offering of sacrifice to mark the people of God.

Who is this poignant mix of savior and martyr? Who is this one hailed as messiah by children and happy crowds anticipating a celebration? Who is this, who, though clearly not a king, yet rides into the city like a king? Who is this whose devoted followers soon turn on him, as the disciples disperse, his friend denies, and the crowds accuse? Who is this who is tried by both religious and political elite and found, not guilty, but innocently threatening, an enemy to the establishment? Who is this who is dragged through the streets of Jerusalem and hauled to the execution grounds? Who is this who is hung on a cross abandoned and forsaken?

There is nothing about Jesus — his entry into Jerusalem and the temple, his biting critique of authority, his brutal and lonely death — nothing that would inspire those who saw him to feel anything but pity and uncertainty and dread. He comes in power but also in weakness, in vulnerability, in mercy not in judgment, in love not in vengeance. Nothing about him conforms to the expectations and experiences of a world that believes above all that bullies rule, that might makes right, or, at the very least, that might wins.

And yet, Christians have claimed ever since Jesus’ death that the fatal flaw in this logic of the world is that the way of the world, the cycle of power and influence and might, leads only to violence and death. There is no hope in the right of might, no possibility of redemption through violence. As Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This is Jesus, the One we confess did not die in order to make it possible for God to love us, but rather the one whose death demonstrates that God already does love us, and that God’s love is our only hope. 

This is Jesus, the one we claim each week as messiah and Lord, source of life and healing. 

This is Jesus, the paradigm of God’s action in the world, whose story comes to a climax this week in order that our story might begin anew and end with the promise of a new and different tomorrow.

Week after week, in song and word and prayer and acted out in our lives for others we follow this Jesus, the prophet of Nazareth, the gift and plea and sign, who is also Christ the Lord, the son of God…. 

Instead of waving palm branches, may we offer our palms in thanksgiving and praise and hope and help for a world that needs the Christ in us to show. 

Worship ~ 26 March

Audio Recording

Matthew 25:14-30

Jesus continues to teach his disciples in parables saying,

  “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;  but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  

As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’  Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.  

The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’  But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’  And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.  

Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.’  But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’  

Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

The gospel of the Lord……….thanks be to God.

You may notice that I’ve surrounded this scripture and sermon with Advent hymns. That’s because Lent is Advent in a minor key. Both are seasons of waiting and preparation. Lent prepares us for Easter by accompanying us through Jesus’ death, as Advent prepares us for the coming of Christ accompanying us through the long pause. Matthew didn’t think it would take this long. He and the other New Testament writers thought the return of the risen Christ would be imminent. And so the warning for constant vigilance and preparedness made a bit more sense.

Since the beginning of Lent we’ve been reading parables — but none of the narrative in between. So, unless you’ve noticed the chapters flying by from week to week, you might not realize where we are. The plot to kill Jesus, the last supper, and all that follows is just around the corner. The location of today’s parable in Matthew’s account is important.

It comes in the midst of sayings and teachings through which Jesus makes predictions about his death, condemns the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites and blind guides, foretells the destruction of the temple and the coming persecution of his disciples, and casts the entire discussion in terms of God’s judgment and the eschatological end of all things. 

The setting is important because, although the opening line remains, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” these later parables go on to relate stories that don’t sound anything like the kingdom of heaven. 

The kingdom of heaven is like a fisherman who casts his nets into the sea bringing in fish of every kind. The fish are sorted. The good are kept, the bad thrown away. “So it will be at the end of the age,” says Jesus. “Angels will come to sort the righteous from the evil throwing the evil into the furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 

In teaching the parable of the wicked slave, Jesus warns of dire consequences if we don’t forgive endlessly and from our heart. Fig trees wither at his word. More than once someone is bound and thrown, wailing and gnashing their teeth, into the utter darkness. Doors are shut in the faces of 5 little maids by the bridegroom who claims not to know them. Servants are commended for underhanded business deals, while the one with just a little has even that taken from him. In the last parable Jesus tells, sheep are separated from goats – and it doesn’t end well for the goats.

Matthew’s Jesus tell harsh parables, and there’s no softening them.   

In the parable we hear today, those deemed unfaithful, unwise, or ill-prepared end up with what seems to be a growing number of people wandering around wailing and gnashing their teeth in the dark.

Is this what the kingdom of heaven is like? 

We know that Matthew was in a bad spot, historically, where urgency, decisiveness, and commitment were called for. That is not our place in history. But still ….. but don’t we, on occasion, need to hear this kind of jarring message to shake loose the spiritual cobwebs? to warn us of the danger of lolly-gagging through life? Do you ever need a wakeup call to remind you how fragile life can be, how fleeting, how fraught with uncertainty? Do you ever need a reminder to be mindful and careful, to live with an eye to the future and not fritter away the time and talents and treasures you’re given? I suspect distraction and complacency are the spiritual ills of our time. How do we live well in the in-between?

“Sisters, don’t grow weary, Brothers, don’t grow weary, Children, don’t grow weary,

     for the time is drawing nigh.

Darker midnight lies before us, Lo, the morning soon is breaking,  Christian, journey soon be over,

for the time is drawing nigh. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning, for the time is drawing 


These are the words of a spiritual sung by African Americans suffering slavery. It served both as an expression of spiritual encouragement and as a way to communicate plans for escape. The chorus is not about Christ’s return, but on what to do during the delay…don’t grow weary, don’t give up hope, be ready for the day of freedom.

I appreciate that spin on the parable. Because our attention is not to be distracted by the five foolish maids and perhaps feeling sorry for them, but rather our eyes are to be on the wise ones – those whose reserve and resilience holds them through the night, whose focus is on accompanying the bridegroom, on bearing light.

If today’s parable, in fact, seems to be contrary to much of what we think Jesus teaches and does, it’s because parables tell something (but not everything) about the kingdom of God and our self-perceptions. Jesus was not shutting the door of heaven in the face of five innocent little maids longing to get in whose only fault was poor planning or being rushed and forgetful as they hurried out the door to meet the bridegroom.

Jesus was telling parables— cryptic little stories on a slant. He urges his followers to stay alert! Stay the course! Remember what I have told you and taught you and shown you. “For the days are surely coming,” says the Lord, ‘when I will not be with you, when you will be challenged, when you will hear contradictory and confusing messages – and it is your job to stay faithful, to keep your lamps trimmed, and carry a little something extra in your flasks to give you courage!’ For the challenges of following Jesus are very real. We have forgotten to expect his return. Matthew’s audiences were on the edge of their seats.

Next week, Jesus enters Jerusalem, has a last supper with his disciples. Chapter 26 sees Jesus taking the disciples to the garden of Gethsemane to watch with him and pray. “Peter, James, John, stay awake with me. Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.” But they can’t do it, they can’t stay awake.  He comes three times and each time finds them asleep, their lamps burned out.

Chapter 26 ends with Peter sitting outside Pilate’s palace where Jesus is being “interviewed” and a servant girl approaches Peter and says, “You were with him, Jesus, that Galilean.” And three times Peter closes the door saying, “I do not know him.…”

So. That’s what the kingdom of earth is like – we can’t stay awake and watchful and mindful or in tune with the Holy One. Not for any length of time, anyway. When we are challenged or put on the spot or lost in grief or anger or arrogance or busy-ness we are quite likely to say, “I do not know you” and close the door on our fears and on the risks of loving God and our neighbor as ourselves. 

But, it’s Lent and late March, and we also hear these parables of judgment with something of the farmer eyeing snow-covered fields. We hear them knowing that the ground is waiting for sunshine and seed. Jesus tells the parables before chapter 26, before his crucifixion, before Easter, before Pentecost – the day when his disciples were transformed from fishermen and disciples, into fishermen with a story to tell and the courage to tell it.

We remember that the door to the tomb was closed, but it didn’t stay that way. We remember that the door to the upper room was closed, locked, and barred, but Jesus came to the disciples anyway: Came to them and said, “Peace be with you, my peace I give to you.”

Could we ever be ready for this coming? The disciples never were. These parables, like all parables, are intended to alter lives, to twist the expected ending, to cause us to shake our heads clear and say, “What? What just happened?”  

What has happened is God – and those inscrutable ways of the divine in earthly form. The God who requires our participation in her grand scheme.

What are we to do in the meantime? How are we to live? Loving kindness, doing justice, walking humbly with God and our fellow creatures is always a good place to start. Living with expectation instead of boredom or laissez-faire.

Parables don’t explain the kingdom of heaven, but they do reveal it – like spring fields…waiting, receptive, rocky, thawing, awakening to the warming sun. Today’s parable encourages – or admonishes – us to be like that, too. Wake up, stay awake, watch for and celebrate signs of God’s self-revelation, take yourself out of the center of the story and imagine it some other way, and, when the time does come, enter the wedding feast with joy. The night and its darkness will be past, the doors thrown open. Enter, then, into holy joy.