Saturday, March 30, 2013

Holy Saturday

It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. 
- Luke 23:55-56

I grew up in an Episcopal household with Catholic roots, and our home life was liturgical.  Things had a purpose, and a season, and a rhythm to them.  We decorated the house on December 5th in preparation for St. Nicholas Day.  A toy nativity was put in my hands and I was encouraged to tell, and re-tell, and re-re-tell the story of Jesus.  Easter meant tatalluches, an Italian-family cookie recipe, and meat pie, but it also meant we'd be at church for four days:  Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday.

Holy Saturday.  Not Easter Vigil, as we do in the Lutheran church, but Holy Saturday.  We would re-read the story of the Crucifixion, and we would remember.

One year, my mother and I cleaned the house on Holy Saturday.  And in my young mind, it was connected to the story.  The women went home and prepared spices and ointments -- because what else could be done?  The Messiah was dead.  They had to find something to do, a way to keep their hands occupied, in the face of the crushing heaviness of their hearts.  And so did we.  In the face of Good Friday, we cleaned, because the grief was too much to sit with.

I know now that the women rested, on Saturday, because it was the Sabbath.  But I did not know this, as a child, and to me the right and proper thing to do was clean.

Sometimes all that can be done is to tie back my hair and take up a towel, to fill my hands with something more than tears.  To wash and dust and scrub and clean, in the desperate and impossible hope that something new might tomorrow come to fill the well-swept house.

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.
Luke 24:1-2

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Poetry: Spring melt

I can see where
the sidewalk ends
and mud begins.

A watery cavern weaves its way
through ice-crusted ground,
and grass blurs green beneath my feet.

Winter and Lent both took too long in hanging on.
But hope is worming up around storm drains and gutters
where small lakes form,
my sneakers' baptism.

And my heart so long heavy
has grown white and feathery wings.
She runs off down the sidewalk,
a kid in brand-new converse,
crashing through puddles in a streak of red.
I'm chasing her down,
the pounding of my feet echoing
in the cavern of my chest.

Spring peeks its head over the corner of a cave.
Something is coming,
made of ash and dust,
and mud,
and fresh-cut palms and grass.

Roll back the stone,
and see.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sermon for Palm Sunday (March 24, 2013): Words that change our world


Luke 19:28-40

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying,

‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

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Isaiah 42:1-4

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
   he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
   or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
   and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
   he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
   until he has established justice in the earth;
   and the coastlands wait for his teaching.


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Click here to listen along.

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Sermon

"After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem."

The tricky thing about the way we read the Scriptures in church is that we’re always starting in the middle of the story.  “After he had said this.”  Well, what’s this?  And who’s he ahead of?  And where’s he been before Jerusalem?

So here’s what Jesus has been up to, in the few chapters before today’s reading.

He’s been going from town to town, a wandering preacher and teacher and healer.

He’s told a story of a man attacked by robbers, left half dead on the side of the road, and how the religious leaders crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by.  But a Samaritan -- a racial and religious enemy of the Jews -- stops, and bandages his wounds, and loads him on his donkey and takes him to an inn.

Jesus has told parables of lost sheep and coins and sons.  He’s taught the disciples how to pray, how to call God Father, how to ask for the coming of the kingdom, how to depend on God for daily bread.

He’s eaten with sinners and Pharisees.  He's invited himself into the home of a dishonest tax collector named Zacchaeus, who then declared “Half of my possession I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone I will pay it back four times as much.”

Jesus has cast out demons, and given sight to the blind.  He’s raised a little girl from the dead just by taking her hand.  He’s healed a crippled woman, one who had been bent over for eighteen years.  He’s cleansed ten lepers just by his words.

And now Jesus is on his way into Jerusalem, riding on the back of a borrowed colt with cloaks strewn along the road, and the disciples shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Verse 37 says:  “The whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen.”

I was really struck by that:  deeds of power.  It’s actually just one word, in Greek:  δυνάμεων (doo-NA-men-on).  It literally means “powers.”  And there’s power all over the gospel of Luke.  When Jesus is touched by the bleeding woman, he feels power -- δύναμις -- go out from him.  He’s surrounded by crowds who want to touch him because power -- δύναμις -- goes out from him and heals them.  When he casts out demons the crowds marvel and say, “With authority and power -- δύναμις -- he commands unclean spirits.”

And when Jesus comes out of the desert -- after forty days of fasting and temptation, after meeting the devil face to face -- he returns to Galilee ready to begin his ministry, ready to teach and preach, and he is filled with the power -- δύναμις -- of the Holy Spirit.

When the disciples sing their praises of all the powers they have seen, what my mind goes to is the miracles.  The exorcisms, the healings, the lepers cleansed, the woman straightened, the little girl raised from the dead.  But when I look at the whole of the gospel, and everything that Jesus has been up to before Palm Sunday morning, I just can’t help but think there’s something more to the deeds of power.

I don’t think deeds of power are limited to miracles.  I think Jesus’ deeds of power are just as much the stories he tells.

When Jesus picks up a mustard seed and says the kingdom of God starts that small, and can grow into a tree that becomes a home for every bird, that changes things.  That takes this overwhelming and powerful and mighty concept of God and makes it very, very small, makes it touchable, makes it something that can roll around in the palm of your hand.  And then that very, very small thing becomes something very, very big.  Suddenly the kingdom of God is both tiny and huge, both something we can grasp and something we can rest in.

When Jesus says that God is like a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to go find one lost one -- or that God is like a woman sweeping her house from top to bottom looking for one lost coin -- or that God is like a father watching for his prodigal son to finally, finally, finally come home -- those aren’t miracles.  But they are words that change things.  They open up for the disciples and the crowds and the Pharisees -- and for us -- the amazing and abundant love of God.  The sheer ridiculous extravagance of God’s mercy.

I don’t think deeds of power are limited to miracles.  I think deeds of power are just as much about the words Jesus speaks.

Because words change things.  Words change our reality.  There are words that go straight to the heart of who we are, and slice us wide open like a lightning bolt.  There are words that change our lives forever.

Like the first time your son or daughter looks at you and says “Mommy.  Daddy.”

Like the first time you hear, “I love you.”

Like someone who hurt you saying, “I’m sorry.”

Like someone saying, “I forgive you.”

Like the moment when someone you love -- someone who has been hurting, and struggling, and fighting -- finally says, “I need help.”  “I’m sick.”  “I’m an alcoholic.”  “I’m depressed.”  Maybe like the moment when that someone was you.  Like the words that finally bubble up from your heart and burst out your chest because you have been hurting for so long that you can’t hold them in any longer.

Like words that helped you let go of perfect and just be real and good and wonderful just where you were.  Words that call you out of fear, and make it possible for you to speak your truth.  Words that change reality because they change you.

I crowdsourced my sermon on Facebook and one of my dear friends from high school messaged me about a teacher we’d shared.  She said, “In high school I was painfully shy, and not very confident in myself. One day our teacher stopped me after class and said something like, ‘I see you. You're really smart, but you never participate in class discussions. Why not?’  And my friend said, ‘I don't think I really have anything to say.  What I say doesn't matter.’  And our teacher responded, ‘Yeah, but … nothing really matters. So you might as well speak up.’ ”

Words change our lives.  They change our reality, because they change the way we see the world.  And that’s a deed of power.

Like standing before God and each other and confessing, together, that we haven’t lived up to God’s hope for us.

Like hearing someone say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.”

Like someone holding up a hunk of bread and saying, “This -- this is the body of Christ.  And it’s given for you.”

These are words that change our lives forever.  Words change our world.  Words are powerful, and they are the deeds of power that change our lives.

But words of power create tension.

Jesus won’t do any miracles in Jerusalem this week.  Luke doesn’t tell stories of healings or multiplying loaves and fishes.  Instead, he teaches.  He speaks.  And every time he speaks, the tension rises.  Every time he tells a story, the religious leaders and teachers get more angry.  He debates them about authority, and taxes, and life after death, until finally they no longer dare to ask him another question.  They want to trap him in what he says, to lay hands on him, to kill him.  It’s Jesus’ words, not his miracles, that get him into trouble.  Words of power create tension.

Palm Sunday is an odd day, because we know the rest of the story.  The disciples think this is a sign of what’s to come -- of glory, and honor, and more deeds of power.  They think this is the start of an upswing in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, an upward trend that’s just going to continue.  He’s on a rise to power.  Some of the disciples and followers might have expected Jesus was on his way to becoming a political rebel.  There had been prophecies of a Messiah who would cleanse Jerusalem of their oppressors.  A militant leader, who would take up the sword.  The Jewish people would finally be free of the Romans, who burdened them with taxes and crushed their spirits.  They have been longing for someone to free them.

And now Jesus is riding into Jerusalem, celebrated by the people, heralded with cloaks on the road and the shouts of children -- just before Passover.  Passover, the most important holiday of the Jewish people.  Passover, when so many people journeyed to Jerusalem that it quadrupled in population.  Passover, when the Jewish people celebrated God’s liberation of them from slavery and oppression.  Jesus is marching into the midst of a people who are telling the story of freedom -- people who are longing for someone to restore the nation of Israel.  They are whispering the words of Isaiah:  “Here is my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen in whom my soul delights.  I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”  It is, for the disciples, a glorious day.

But we know the rest of the story.  We know that the bottom is about to drop out of the world.  That this servant in whom God delights will soon be a man scorned.  And the praises sung today will turn to shouts of anger and to Jesus’ cries of pain.

On Good Friday, the world goes silent.  Even the stones do not cry out.  The only deed of power is Jesus’ willingness to die.

See, deeds of power change lives, but deeds of power create tension.  Words that change the world are also words that kill.  There is something that always dies when truth is spoken.

If we admit that we are hurting, the illusion that everything is OK dies.

If we admit we need forgiveness, the illusion that we are perfect dies.

If we admit, like my high school friend, that it doesn’t matter, than our fear and our anxiety and our lack of self confidence has to die.

If we admit that we love and we hurt and we need help, then our self-reliance has to die.

When we hear the truth, when we speak words of power, then our lives are changed.  And there is always tension in that.  And there is always something that dies.

And when Jesus finally admits who he is, he has to die too.  Not because he’s a political rebel who has to be silenced.  Not because he’s a religious troublemaker.  Because he came to give us words that free us, words that break us out of chains, words that stop whatever’s already killing us.  He came to love us into wholeness and hope.  He came to change our lives with deeds of power.  The world wasn’t ready for that kind of change.  The world says No to Jesus.

But we already know the end of the story.  The world says no.  But God?  God says yes.

When we cry out for a king, it’s not for military power to crush our enemies.  It’s not even, maybe, for miracles.  It’s for a word that changes our lives.  It’s for a king who gives us a kingdom small enough to hold in the palm of our hand.  It’s for wholeness, and salvation, and grace.  For someone to come and change us.

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.

Amen.

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Messiah

Someone's shouting from the desert.
Someone's shouting from the sea.
Someone's shouting from the mountain.
Someone's shouting from the valley.

Messiah, Come and be our King.
Messiah, Come and be our King.

Someone's shouting from the city:
I am young, I am cold.
Someone's shouting from the country:
I am lonely, I am old.

Messiah, Come and be our King.
Messiah, Come and be our King.

Someone's shouting I am broken.
Someone's shouting make me whole.
Someone's shouting come and change me.
Someone's shouting save my soul.

Messiah, Come and be our King.
Messiah, Come and be our King.

(Larry Olson, ©1989 Dakota Road Music)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Ecumenicals post 18: on the Eucharist

My submission to the Ecumenicals for a collection of posts on the Eucharist.


What is your view of the Eucharist/The Lord's Supper?  Given the differing views (transubstantiation / consubstantiation or sacramental union / symbolic presence) why do you hold to yours?

I belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which means that confessionally I believe in consubstantiation, or the “sacramental union” of bread / body and wine / blood.  What Luther believed and taught, and what the Lutheran church has confessed, is that Christ is fully present in the bread and wine.  The elements do not change physically or substantially (as in transubstantiation.)  But Christ has promised to be with us in the breaking of the bread.

I believe this.  And because I believe that Christ is fully present, I believe also this:  that anyone can receive, anyone can distribute, and anyone can consecrate.

The last point might seem the most heretical, but it’s actually the most confessionally sound!  Martin Luther affirmed early in his reform works that all baptized Christians are, through Christ, “priests and kings” (On the Freedom of A Christian).  This Lutheran belief in “universal priesthood” continues to the present day.  All baptized Christians are called to preach the Word, and all are capable of officiating the sacraments (baptism and communion).  Luther also cautioned (and we continue this, as well) that “for good order,” we should prefer that those who are called and ordained to the specific office of priesthood are the ones to offer the sacraments.  But any baptized Christian is capable of offering them “in an emergency.”

Following in the belief of a “universal priesthood,” Lutherans may allow any baptized Christian to distribute the consecrated sacraments.  Certain denominations and congregations take different definitions of “for good order,” here, and some have requirements as far as who may serve:  only adults, only the confirmed, only pastors or deacons, and so on.  The congregation I presently serve allows anyone to serve communion -- including children.  Last Sunday one of our beloved six-year-olds, Annie, served alongside her father.  I stopped singing the communion hymn to watch her wide eyes and careful hands, and to hear her joyous chirp of “Jesus’ blood, shed for you”.

Growing up in the Episcopal church, I knew at an early age that I wanted to become a priest -- to preach and to preside over communion.  But there were rules in my congregation (and perhaps in the whole denomination).  Only adults could serve, and only adults that had been to a weekend training and received certification.  By the time I was “of age,” I was off at college.

Six weeks into my life at Saint Olaf, I was attending the on-campus Lutheran service.  It was homecoming weekend and the chapel was packed.  A friend who served in the sacristy came and grabbed me during the Peace, explaining that they didn’t have enough servers and would I help?  I followed her, thinking perhaps I could help distributing empty cups.  Instead, the campus pastor (who was over six feet tall, thin as a rail, and had a beard and voice like a movie Moses) tried to put the plate of bread in my hands.

“I can’t serve,” I told him.  “I haven’t been trained.”

“Do you know what to say?” he asked.

“I … ‘The body of Christ, given for you.’”

He let go of the plate and I felt its full weight in my hands.  “There.  You’ve been trained.”

And I served communion that day.

You see, Luther’s argument that Christ is fully present in the bread and wine does not just have philosophical ramifications.  For me and for the churches I have served, it is a full embodiment of the Lutheran belief that the Lord’s Supper is a gift.  It is not the ordained priest, nor the right words spoken, or the proper training, that turns the bread and wine into body and blood.  It is only and totally Christ’s promise at the Last Supper, the promise that “This is my body; this is my blood.”  When we eat the bread and drink of the cup, we confess that Christ is present with us, in the eating and drinking, just as much as he was with the disciples on that Passover night.

God is the one who does the work in the Eucharist; we only receive.  It is Christ’s words, not ours, which bear the mystery of bread turned to body and wine to blood.  It is unimportant, then, who is serving, because it is Christ who truly serves.  This is (for me) the meaning of Christ’s full presence, the “sacramental union.”

My first point, that anyone can receive, is the one most likely to cause scandal.  This is not a consistent practice in the Lutheran church.  There are Lutheran denominations which limit communion only to those in that specific denomination, or members of that specific congregation.  There are ELCA churches that limit communion to the confirmed, or to those who have been through a First Communion class.  But the churches I have served in the past five years serve all.  Everyone who comes forward and puts out a hand receives communion.  Every toddler, who clings with one arm to Mom’s waist and with the other reaches for the bread, is fed.  All that is required is an open palm.

What we recognize and teach is that Christ is fully present, and that Christ was given for all.  Not only those of a certain age.  Not only those of a certain congregation or denomination.  Not even only those who are baptized.  Christ was given for the world.  If we believe that Jesus is fully present in the bread and wine, as a gift of grace from God for the work of salvation, then we have no power to limit it.  It is God’s work, not ours -- Christ’s body and blood.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Seminary newspaper article: "Not the Internship I Signed Up For"

This was published in the Concord, the seminary student newspaper, in March 2013, in an issue titled "At the Cross (Roads)."

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"Not the Internship I Signed Up For"

All my internship interviews had begun the same way:  "So, tell me about yourself."  By my fourth interview I walked into the room feeling solidly prepped on my mini-biography.  Then this five-foot-nothing mission start pastor leaned forward, her fingers pressed into a point, and asked, as her first question, "So.  What is the seed of hope that lies at the heart of Emmy?"

While I stammered through something resembling an answer, I thought, This woman is either crazy or brilliant.  Forty-five minutes later I knew the answer to that question, and I also knew where I wanted to be for internship.

I felt almost immediately comfortable under Deb Stehlin's supervision at Light of the World.  It's a mission start community in Apple Valley, just barely five years old when I started in September.  Light of the World is a congregation built around radical relationship: a true welcome for everyone who walks in the door and a commitment to get to know each other, warts and all.  We want to know people for who they are.  As I fretted over this article, someone gently reminded me:  "Let go of perfect.  We want you to be real."

Deb told me when I came on that she saw in me the opportunity to be a leader and a partner.  I learned leadership from a pastor who fully embodies her belief in the importance of God's grace for us and our love for each other. I saw how bringing people into relationship with each other transformed lives and spoke the Gospel into broken hearts.  And then in early December we learned that Deb had been called to serve as the Director of Evangelical Mission for the Minneapolis Area Synod.  Her last Sunday was January 6th, 2013.

Suddenly the "leader" aspect of Deb's vision for me took on a whole new meaning.  I couldn't shadow her as she met with local pastors and national mission leaders.  I couldn't turn to her with questions about worship or pastoral care or church history.  I didn't have someone sitting next to me on Sundays, squeezing my elbow to say she was pleased with my sermon, offering me the Peace of Christ with a smile as wide as her arms.

This is not the internship I signed up for.

We have an interim pastor in place as of February -- Hollie Holt-Woehl, who brings her knowledge as pastoral care professor and experience as interim pastor at three previous congregations.  It is likely that, since I am a concurrent intern, I will still be with Light of the World when they call their next pastor.

I've spent many nights in prayer and worry.  But the message I've received is clear:  I am going to learn a lot more, and a lot that I needed to learn, under three supervisors than under one.  And while this is a lesson I'd much rather learn from a book, the leadership role Deb saw in me has come to better fruition now that I have to stand more on my own two feet.  The changes and pains of transition force me to know better who I am and who I'm called to be.  Where do I feel comfortable?  Where do I feel stretched?  When do I trust my gut, when do I listen to my heart, and when do I rely on my head?  None of this would have been impossible to learn under one supervisor.  But under three, it can be easier to learn what's true to me.  Continual change forces me to know where my real self gravitates.

This is not the internship I signed up for.  It's harder, and I feel more vulnerable and make more mistakes.  But Deb didn't just leave behind a pastor-sized hole.  She built a community that believes in loving each other where we're at.  She organized a church that surrounds its people -- and its intern -- with a God-sized abundance of grace.

Maybe that's another lesson I can't learn from a book:  that the church isn't just about the pastor.  That when I signed up for partnership and weird questions, I also signed up for radical relationship and meaningful community.  That I signed up to learn what it was like to be a leader, and a partner -- not just to the pastor or staff but to the whole congregation.  And maybe I signed up to learn, not how to be perfect, but how to be real.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Heresy, my working theology of the crucifixion, or both.

This is a response paper for my Lutheranism and Liberation class, on the chapters on modern critiques of the cross and epistemological questions in Vitor Westhelle's The Scandalous God.  As I posted on Twitter last night:  This is either entirely heretical, or my new revelation about how I can understand and live with the cross.  Or, quite possibly, both.

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My primary interest in taking this course stemmed from reading Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker’s Proverbs of Ashes for Feminist Theologies my first year.  The challenge they posed, of the crucifixion as “cosmic child abuse,” troubled me in the face of my understanding of Lutheran theology.  We have centered ourselves around this God revealed in suffering, this justification wrought through substitutionary atonement.  Is there any point for reconciliation between Lutheranism and liberation/feminist theologies on this point?

I felt that Westhelle gave a reasonable overview of the Enlightenment and Nietzschian critiques of the cross.  Hegel’s speculative theology and Marx’s resurrection as insurrection were valuable contributions to the conversation (although I am not certain I fully understood the Hegelian proposal).  I appreciated Westhelle’s shift to an epistemological frame over the more common moral or ontological questions about the cross, and the contributions from Prenter and Sobrino which followed.  Westhelle seemed to give a brief but workable sketch of the existing critiques and ideas about the appropriate questions to ask of the cross.

I struggled a little with Westhelle’s presentation of Brock and of Parker on the crucifixion (66) in that little context was given for their rejection of the cross’ suffering as redemptive.  Although I felt Westhelle presented them as objectively as possible, to quote them entirely out of their experience (in which they consider themselves deeply rooted) seemed problematic.  How do you explain the horrors of “cosmic child abuse” when you neglect to state that these women had been abused, either as children or as wives?  How does one reject suffering as redemptive without first hearing the voices of parishioners, battered victims told by Christian leaders to stay with their abusive partners and to “bear their cross silently” as Christ had done?  I wondered what I would hear when I got to class on Wednesday, and if any of my classmates would have been horrified by Brock and Parker because they did not know their experiences.  I wondered if C. S. Song, Joanna Carlson Brown, and Max Horkheimer (all unknown names to me) had similar experiences that led them to their rejection of suffering as redemptive.

Westhelle’s epistemic key of the parrhesia was an interesting conclusion to the reading.  This “speaking of truth to power” is certainly a good summary of Jesus’ counter-cultural and -religious teachings and actions.  I appreciated the understanding of the crucifixion as a result of Jesus’ life, not a cosmic plan for self- or child-sacrifice.  It did seem to me like this understanding and application of parrhesia turned us back towards Enlightenment concepts of Christ’s “tragic death.”  There, the miracles and prophecies were proof of Jesus’ validity as a teacher; here, it is his suffering death that proves his worth.  If Jesus died because he “addressed his words to the suffering of the people” (89), that suggests to me that he was assassinated -- that his death was a result of his life.  Both theories appear to center on Jesus’ life as more important than the crucifixion.  This is not troubling to me personally, but I am struggling to reconcile it with a Lutheran way of thinking.  We are a cross-centered people.  We believe that justification was won for us through Christ’s death, do we not?  Is the crucifixion not part of God's plan for redemption?  Can this still be true if Christ’s death is understood as less a cosmic realignment of the balance of humanity’s righteousness, and more as the common human reaction (i.e. hatred and violence) to the presence of love among us?

I think it can.  I think a Lutheran theology of the cross is not necessarily dependent on a substitutionary atonement belief of Christ saving us from our own wretchedness by his spilt blood.  Our human willingness to crucify God, to destroy love and mercy and justice when it walks among us, is as condemning as the story of original sin (if not more so).  The cross reveals our collective guilt in our unwillingness to accept grace as true.  We fear that which would liberate others, and us.  But the resurrection is “proof” (for those who believe) that this grace is real.  We cannot destroy it or kill it.  We are almost powerless to reject it.  Here we return to ontological questions -- who am I in the face of the cross?  We are sinners, fearful and ashamed, terrified by God in our midst.  But God is here anyway.  We are then returned to moral questions about the cross -- what are we meant to do because of it?  Perhaps the resurrection is a sign that we are meant to accept that God’s mercy is greater than our hatred -- that life is finally greater than death.  The cross remains part of God's plan for redemption, but rather than as a balancing of the cosmic scales of righteousness as a clear conviction of humanity's brokenness -- tied up with a clear redemption of the message of grace.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sermon on Isaiah 55:1-11: Thirst, junk food, and why in the world God wants all of us

(To get the full effect, participate in the children's sermon... I handed out crackers, grapes, and gummy bears, and we talked about good food, junk food, and what kinds of food God wants to feed us.  So it's best if you're snacking on some Triscuits, seedless grapes, and gummy bears while you read.)

Isaiah 55:1-11 (The Message)

“All who are thirsty, come to the water!
Are you penniless?  Come anyway—buy and eat!
Come, buy your drinks, buy wine and milk.
    Buy without money—everything’s free!
Why do you spend your money on junk food,
    your hard-earned cash on cotton candy?
Listen to me, listen well: Eat only the best,
    fill yourself with only the finest.
Pay attention, come close now,
    listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words.
I’m making a lasting covenant commitment with you,
    the same that I made with David: sure, solid, enduring love.
I set him up as a witness to the nations,
    made him a prince and leader of the nations,
And now I’m doing it to you:
    You’ll summon nations you’ve never heard of,
and nations who’ve never heard of you
    will come running to you
Because of me, your God,
    because The Holy of Israel has honored you.”
Seek God while he’s here to be found,
    pray to him while he’s close at hand.
Let the wicked abandon their way of life
    and the evil their way of thinking.
Let them come back to God, who is merciful,
    come back to our God, who is lavish with forgiveness.
“I don’t think the way you think.
    The way you work isn’t the way I work.”
        God’s Decree.
“For as the sky soars high above earth,
    so the way I work surpasses the way you work,
    and the way I think is beyond the way you think.
Just as rain and snow descend from the skies
    and don’t go back until they’ve watered the earth,
Doing their work of making things grow and blossom,
    producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry,
So will the words that come out of my mouth
    not come back empty-handed.
They’ll do the work I sent them to do,
    they’ll complete the assignment I gave them."

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We’re getting used to trilogies, aren’t we?  They’re how we write books and make movies now.  Star Wars.  The Godfather.  The Lord of the Rings.  The Hunger Games.  Even stories that weren’t originally trilogies are being written and made as them now:  Christopher Nolan made Batman Begins, then The Dark Knight, then The Dark Knight Rises.  Iron Man 3 will come out this year.  Both reboots of Spiderman, the one with Tobey Maguire and the new one with Andrew Garfield, are trilogies.  The Bond movies with Daniel Craig?  Three of them.  We’re telling stories in sets of three.

This isn’t new for us, as humans.  We’ve had trilogies as far back as we’ve had written literature.  Remember your high school English and the three Theban plays of Sophocles:  Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone.  There’s something about the structure of three that we like, the way things loop back, how certain themes get repeated, how the first part leans into the second and the second into the third, and the third wraps it up and solves questions from the first.

The book of Isaiah is a trilogy, set in Israel and Babylon.  This is the three-part story of a people in exile.  The Jewish people have lost the promised land; they forgot to trust God and to care for their neighbor.  They lose the protection of God.  They’re taken into Babylon in chains, away from their homes and the land they believed God gave them.  And they turn to the prophet Isaiah to try to understand what’s happened to them and what’s coming next.

The first part of Isaiah, chapters 1-39, are the words of judgment -- the long list of how Israel has wandered away from God and from their promises.  And then suddenly, in the first verse in chapter 40, everything changes.  God tells Isaiah:  “Comfort, o comfort my people.”  This is what we sing at Christmas:  “Comfort, comfort now my people.”  Suddenly there are words of comfort and peace.  There are promises of a coming servant.  God speaks over and over again of a radical, abundant, merciful love for Israel.  “Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.  I’ve called your name. You’re mine.”  Remember?  “Do not be afraid, I am with you.  I have called you each by name.”  In the second part of Isaiah God says “No matter what has happened, I still love you.  I still want you.  I still know you and call you and hope for you.  I will bring you back from captivity in Babylon.  I will save you.  I will free you.  The promises of God are still true.”

And chapter 56 is where Isaiah will move from words of comfort to words of hope.  God will reveal that this salvation and freedom and promise isn’t just for the people of Israel, but for the whole world.  The third part of Isaiah is where God will declare, “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.”

So today’s passage, chapter fifty-five, is leaning into that.  When God says, “Pay attention, come close now,” we’re in the last three minutes of the second movie.  We’re with Luke and Leia on the observation deck, planning to find and free Han Solo.  We’re with Frodo and Sam, on their own as they start their journey toward Mordor.  We’re with Katniss when she wakes up for the first time in District 13.  The end of the second part of a trilogy is always leaning forward, pulling us into the third.  There’s this feeling of incompleteness, this question of “But now what?”, this scrambled grab for the third book.

So when God speaks through Isaiah and says, “All who are thirsty, come!” we need to remember that it’s the last sentence of the second part of a trilogy.  It is less of a lovely offer and more of a wake-up call.  It’s that leaning in, that waiting, that not-quite-yet that pulls you into the final chapter.

* See what God says through Isaiah, in the middle of the first paragraph:  “Listen to me, listen well:  Eat only the best, fill yourself with only the finest.”  The beautiful thing is that in the original Hebrew, Isaiah says:  Fill your soul with rich things.  This cotton candy is not about what you’re feeding your stomach but about what you’re feeding your heart.  God looks at Israel’s life and says:  This is junk food.  You’re feeding yourself on jealousy, and anger, and blame, and fear.  You’re stuffing your soul with cheap carbohydrates.  You’re spending your money on air.

* And instead, see what God wants to feed us with:  the covenant with David.  “I’m making a lasting covenant commitment with you, the same that I made with David: sure, solid, enduring love.”  It was a covenant of peace, and a promise that a son of David would always be king over Israel.  It sounds so lovely.  But remember that the people first hearing this have seen David’s sons and grandsons and great-grandsons tear the kingdom apart.  They were lousy leaders who forgot God and failed to take care of the people.  The Israelites are being reminded, right here, of a promise that looks broken.  This “sure, solid, enduring love” feels bitter, now, because it seems like that covenant is over.  They’ve been dragged off to Babylon in chains.  Everything around them suggests that God’s love is anything but sure.

* But God knows this.  So then God says:  “You’ll summon nations you’ve never heard of, and nations who’ve never heard of you will come running to you.”  God says:  You know that covenant?  The one that looks broken?  It’s still true.  And now it’s going to be even bigger.  I’m not just making promises to the people of Israel anymore.  Yes, Israel will be restored.  The Holy One will honor you.  But you’re going to be restored to be a light to the world.  Nations who’ve never heard of you, nations that you think are outside of God’s people, will come running.  The wicked and evil will get a second chance.  Because God is merciful.  Because God is lavish with forgiveness.

* Because God doesn’t think the way we think, with vengeance and grudges and who’s in or who’s out.  The covenant God made with Israel is being turned into this blessing for all nations because of the very nature of who God is.  “For as the sky soars high above earth, so the way I work surpasses the way you work.”  God’s way is far beyond and above our way.  God’s way is about mercy, and forgiveness, and second and third and fiftieth chances.  God has sent words, like rain and snow falling on dry earth, and those words are going to do the work they were sent to do.

And what are the words that God has sent?  “All who are thirsty, come.”  This isn’t a friendly invitation.  This is a radical change.  Last week we heard about Abraham and the covenant with God, that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars.  Now those stars are finding out they’re not the only lights in God’s galaxy.  God’s got an eye not just on the nation of Israel but on the whole world.  It no longer matters if you’re a descendant of Abraham.  It doesn’t matter if you live in Israel or Babylon or anywhere in between.  It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, or young or old, or even holy or wicked.  When God says “All who are thirsty” that means the only thing required to come to God is thirst.  Is hunger.  Is your soul longing for something more.  All that’s required is for you to say “What I’ve been feeding my heart is junk food and cotton candy.  I need something more.”

And here’s what I kept coming back to this week:  why?  Why everyone?  Why me and you and us?  And why the other nations, and why the evil and the wicked?

Surely the Israelites asked this too.  After all, they heard thirty-nine chapters of judgment in Isaiah before they got to the comfort and hope.  The whole point up until now is that we aren’t worthy of this.  We sin.  We make mistakes.  We hurt each other.  We forget to trust God.  We have nothing to offer; we’re penniless.  And the moment when we know that is the moment when God says “Come and buy without money -- everything’s free.”  What is that about?  Why is God so interested in bringing everyone to the table?  It’s not just bringing everyone to God -- it’s getting us all in one place.  We’re all drinking this milk and wine together.  It’s not an individual call.  God is hollering for every person, every family, every community to show up and eat, like a cosmic dinner bell.  Even though we know through thousands of years of human history that wherever two or three are gathered there’s bound to be a mess.

And God is willing to take that risk.  God wants everyone at the same table.

So here’s what I think:

God doesn’t just want us.  God wants us for each other.

God knows that we need each other.  That we need each other to laugh, and to hold on to, and to cry with.  That we need each other to keep each other honest, and hopeful, and kind.  We need each other so that every time we come together we remember that we’re a mess, that none of us are perfect, and every week we say, “Your sins are forgiven.”  Every week we say, “Peace be with you.”  Not just any peace but the kind that comes with knowing the end of the story.  Knowing that no matter where you are in the trilogy, the end is full of promise -- the promise that you are a beloved child of God.

And we come back for that promise over and over again.  We come to the table, penniless and without money, and find so much more than we could ever need.  We take wine and bread from each other to remember that God wants to feed us with so much more than junk food.  God wants to feed our souls.

Because God knows we are hungry.  But God knows that my thirst might be your thirst, and that if we both ask, we might find some living water.  God knows that maybe what I’m hungry for is what you’re hungry for, and if we come together we might build a table and a room and a community and a church that feeds each other.

And then all who are thirsty might come, and find something to feed their soul.

Amen.