Narrative Lectionary: Genesis Overview

Since we’re reading the Narrative Lectionary in my faith community this year (an experiment), I think it’d be helpful to provide a little overview of the books of scripture we’ll be covering.  This is just a very brief overview.  Nothing too extensive here!

Genesis (the book not the band)

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The band not the book.

Major Players

Adam and Eve

Cain and Abel (and Seth…the forgotten one)

Noah

Abraham and Sarah (and Hagar)

Isaac and Rebekah (and Ishmael)

Jacob and Esau

Rachel and Leah

Joseph and his 11 brothers

Written by a number of authors and compiled over more than five centuries, completed while Israel was taken over by Babylon (587-538 B.C.E.) Talks about the common connections of the people who would be known as Israel. Note: Not written by Moses.

Seminal Scenes

-The Garden of Eden

-Cain kills Abel

-The flood

-God visiting Abraham as three travelers

-Sodom and Gamorrah (a misunderstood tale about hospitality)

-The binding of Isaac

-Isaac and Rebekah at a well (the place to pick up hotties in the Bible)

-Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright by dressing up like livestock

-Jacob and Leah and Rachel (and Zilpah and Bilhah) have 12 sons

-Joseph’s brothers try to kill him, he ends up in Egypt

-Egyptian famine and Joseph’s rise to power

-Joseph forgives his brothers

On How Transitions are Difficult but Often Sacred and How God is Irritating and We are to be Blessings

Genesis 12:1-9

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 Ie-new-day-a-new-blessing1 will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9 And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

On How Transitions are Difficult but Often Sacred and How God is Irritating and We are to be Blessings

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,

by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.

Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go,

but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This is all new. We’re in transition. You may not realize it, but we are. Or maybe you are in your own life. Autumn is full of transitions.

But the transition here is that we’re doing a different set of readings in church this year. You can read up a bit about it in the newsletter this month. We’re following the Narrative Lectionary along with a number of other Lutheran churches…and other denominations…around the country. It starts in Genesis and ends in the Epistles, or letters. It’s meant to give you an arch of Scripture. You’ll hear readings you might not always hear.

It’s a transition that is ripe for inviting you to bring a Bible to church with you on Sunday…which might be a whole different transition for you to imagine carrying around a Bible with you somewhere sometimes. Even for a pastor like me that seems really vulnerable, right? To stand at the bus stop with a Bible on your way to church.

Maybe the fact that that scares me a bit means I should do it. What is it about transitions that make them so difficult?

I don’t know, but here we are in Genesis and it seems like God is already starting to mess with people. God sometimes makes life difficult, and I mean that. God is always asking me to love people I’d rather not, help people I’d rather leave alone, all that sort of stuff. God is irritating like that. I don’t think God causes my troubles, I think God is my troubles, sometimes…

You know religion, by its very nature, is conservative. Get your mind out of the political; that’s not what I’m talking about here. Religion, by its very nature, attempts to conserve, to keep: keep reverence, keep tradition, keep mindfulness.

But at the very beginning of our sacred texts, here in Genesis, you already find God not being conservative, but rather being an agitator for change. God is irritating like that.

In fact, I wonder if religion is a response to an agitating, irritating God. As in, God is always doing something new, so religion was put in place to keep some sort of structure, right?

God “afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted” as the idiom goes. Well, send the cure, cause we’ve got the affliction…

And Abram is pretty comfortable in this Genesis reading. Here he gets afflicted. He’s got all the material wealth he can handle where he is: sheep, servants, land, wives, money. He’s successful by worldly standards.

And then he gets this pesky little note from God saying, “Go into the land that I will show you.” God is irritating.

Now, I want you to focus there for a second. Because this is really troubling to me…and I think it should be for you, too. God asks Abram to abandon everything he’s known: his family land, his home, all of it, and go into the great unknown that God doesn’t really discuss with him in any detail.

This is, I think, one of the most interesting aspects of this passage in Genesis. In these parts of Genesis God is very personal, talking directly to people: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abram.

And yet, for as personal as God is, the writers still emphasize that God is shrouded in mystery, not showing God’s full hand of cards. The Divine brain can’t be picked. You can’t always guess, you can’t always tell, exactly what God is up to.

I’m skeptical anytime I hear someone tell me that God is telling them to do one very specific thing. I’m skeptical of myself when I get that inclination, too.

Because right at the very beginning the ancient writers are making darn sure that we understand that God’s intentions, God’s very specific will, is clouded in mystery. And so anytime that we get a pull that we think is Divine in origin we need to go ahead and sit back and discern whether it is our ego talking, or God.

And if you can rightly tell the difference between the two with any certainty, if you can come up with a formula to do so, please give me a call or shoot me an email. Because that would be darn special.

This is why the Apostle Paul is clear to note that wisdom to humanity is foolishness to God, and God’s foolishness is true wisdom. Jesus was even more succinct when it came to God’s Divine brain, noting that the specifics “is not for (us) to know.”

So what do we do when we’re getting the feel, the pull, to move…but can’t see the end?

See, this is the thing: when it comes to transitions, we always get so focused on the specific “where.” And that preoccupation often stops us from taking up the challenge.

Our nature is to be conservative. To conserve. And so we want to see where we’re jumping before we go.

We want to know that the pain will really go away before we take the first step into therapy. We want to know that the marriage will work, we want to get a glimpse of our old age, before we take that jump. We want to see that the job will lead to more and better success, that the cross-country move will lead to happiness. We want to see the ending before we go any farther.

But what if the ending is, well, open? And what if it’s not about where we end up, anyway?

Why would Abram take the risk to do something new? Why would you?

Most do a cost/benefit analysis, right? What will I gain if I go forward with this transition?

And yet, that’s not the point of this story at all. Abram doesn’t gain in this…he doesn’t need to. Abram’s already as rich as you can get. God promises to bless Abram through this move, but what more could Abram need?

I think that if we only move forward with transitions in our own lives just because it will bless us, then we’re being short-sighted. Our lives are too complex to be single-issue people, especially if that issue is something as fleeting as being blessed with success and fortune.

No, Abram’s move has to be for something different. It is for something different, and on this point God isn’t mincing words. God lays it out plain.

Abram will be transitioning, will be moving, to be a blessing. Sure, he’ll be blessed…actually, he’s already blessed. That’s a given. But the focus here isn’t even really Abram so much as it is everyone else. The whole world.

Abram is meant to be a blessing to the world. He’s going to be a blessing more than get blessed. And I wonder, people of God, what it might look like if we started making transitions, started analyzing transitions, not based on whether or not we’ll be blessed, but on whether or not the transition will make us a better blessing for the world. That’s a scary thought.

It’s a scary thought because, if there’s one thing that we see in the person of Jesus, it’s that being a blessing for the world costs something. Because often the ways that we are most a blessing to this world include some sort of sacrifice on our part. Sacrifices of time, treasure, talent; offering our gifts up to God and our neighbor.

That, I think, is something we miss so often. We make a move personally, professionally, relationally to be blessed, when in reality we already are blessed. Being a blessing means giving of our own blessedness for the sake of the world.

I know, that might not be what you wanted to hear. Me neither. God is good at doing that: taking what I think is wisdom and showing it as foolishness…and then providing Divine wisdom that looks like foolishness but actually is life-giving. How did Jesus say it? “Whoever wants to gain their life must lose it, and whoever loses it for the sake of the Divine gains it.” Right.

This is exactly what I think Jesus was wrestling with in the Garden of Gethsemene, where the Gospel writer Luke notes that Jesus is so intently wrestling with the choices of the night, with the hard decision of if the way of the cross, the way of sacrifice for love, was going to be a blessing, that he sweats blood and water.

In depictions of that event most every artist has Jesus kneeling at a pile of stones, what looks like an altar. In this Genesis reading Abram builds a couple altars. Altars are erected at those places where you are wrestling the sacred transitions. Sacred transitions are always hard. This is why the transition of death never gets easier, no matter how many times I witness it. Sacred transitions are always hard.

It’s why I’ll often come here and kneel when I’m wrestling with something, too. Here, the place of sacred transition, the place where we honor that God is pulling us into the unknown.

Will a move, a transition, enable blessing for the world? That’s a great question for us to hold before any transition in our lives. A hard question.

It’s especially hard when we can’t see the ending…and I don’t ever think we can. So what is it that pulls Abram forward? Faith. We’re always looking for certainty, the sure bet.

If life is a horse race and you’re laying down your life-savings, you want the sure bet. But our faith tells us that the only sure bet in this life is that God loves us so much that God will stop at nothing to be with us. That’s the only sure bet. Everything else is over/under odds, and I’m terrible at betting. Good thing God’s fixed the ending.

Which means, then, that the step forward in transitions can’t be done on certainty; no such thing.

It must be done on faith. Certainty is the opposite of faith, which is why I don’t understand people who claim to have an “unwavering faith.” Faith is, by definition wavering, I think.

Stepping out in faith is always a risk. Always. The tortured Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote a whole book about it, Fear and Trembling, and ultimately concluded that he couldn’t make heads or tails out of how someone might step out in faith with so much uncertainty clouding the present, not just the future.

I resonate with that. I wonder if Abram did, too. Faith is not certainty.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best about faith: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

And, of course, being in transition doesn’t always mean moving, right? Sometimes the bravest thing is standing still, transitioning out of the “flight” mode your DNA pushes on you. Transitions don’t always mean a move; sometimes it means setting up your altar again after life has knocked it down and staying put.

This brings me round, of course, to thinking about us. You and me; here in this place. We’re having these cottage meetings to talk about mission and vision, to encourage all of us to invest more deeply in God’s call here in this awesome community of Luther Memorial. The amazing Great Conversation is starting with people exploring our faith community here. And sometimes we can get stuck on thinking too much about the specifics of where we want to go with our communal life, with our staffing, with our physical space. We want to see the end now.

But really, underneath all of that, the question that I’m continuing to meditate on is, “How can we best be a blessing to Chicago?” Not to ourselves. But to one another. To this whole city.

You know, Abram traveled from the oaks of Moreh to the Negeb. I’m wondering how we can be a blessing from the shores of Lake Michigan, to the oaks of Oak Park, and to the sidewalks of Naperville. Abram camped with Bethel on the West and Ai on the East to be a blessing there. He made an altar. I’m wondering how we can be a blessing with Bette on the West and Aiyana on the East of us here, at this altar. To this city. To one another.

We’re going to share our blessedness more intentionally with one another and with the city this year. It will be sacred and difficult and may even be a little irritating at times…God is like that…but worth the risk. Worth taking a step even if the stairway is dark. We’re going to be a blessing…even more of a blessing. God promises: a blessing. Amen.

OK, Let’s Do This…

Proverbs 29:18

People without a vision lose connection.

OK, Let’s Do This

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I have four words that I say before most major tasks.

Four words that I’ve often repeated before tackling an obstacle, tackling a test, tackling a life skill.

I even remember saying it subconsciously in the moments before Finn was born.

I repeat to myself this phrase, “OK, let’s do this.”

It’s not a mini-pep talk to myself as much as it is a focusing for me. I’m focusing on the task at hand. My heart, my mind, my attention is put here. Just here.

Today is, I think, a good day for us as a community of faith to think about similar words.

OK, let’s do this.

The Bible verse chosen for Rally Day, a day in the life of Luther Memorial that has been around since the Cubs last won the World Series, mind you…

…think about that for a second…

Proverbs 29:18. This is some weird Hebrew, by the way. There are so many translations of this little verse from this book. Proverbs is the book of the Bible that I would admit is most like a self-help book. You all know I’m kind of down on the self-help craze in this world, mostly because I think people often look at Jesus as some sort of self-help guru, and really he was a “help-others” guru.

But if there’s one book that I would concede is a sort of “self-help” book, a book about wisdom and being wise, it’s the book of Proverbs.

And this verse from proverbs, 29:18, has been translated in these different ways:

“People without a vision fail”

“People without a vision stumble”

“Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint.”

Lots of translations out there.

But in looking at the Hebrew here, the word that some translate as “fail” or “stumble” or even the clumsier “cast off restraint”…which is the latest translation…is the Hebrew phrase for when a horse becomes unbridled.

And as Deaconess Claire and I were wrestling with this Hebrew, we came to the conclusion that really the essence of the passage is that when vision is lacking, when clarity of purpose is lacking, people lose connection.

And if we’re talking about wisdom here, or wisdom phrases, I have to say the sentiment expressed there, that when I lose clarity of purpose I lose connection, rings really true.

I lose connection from myself, from my deepest longings. I lose connection from the people around me, my relationship with my partner, with my family, with the greater community.

And one of the things that the council has been discerning, and not just this council, but even in previous years is that as we as a community have grown, and have been growing, and continue to grow, it’s time for us to regain a little bit of clarity about what God is calling us to be and do here not just in this neighborhood, but in the city of Chicago.

Because here’s the thing: what God is doing through you individually, and through us as a community is important.

Dare I say life-changing.

Life changing for you, me, for the city.

Look, I know that’s a big claim, but think about this: when you proclaim that God’s greatest attribute is not divine judgment, is not divine providence, is not even divine justice, but self-giving love, that absolutely changes things.

Because there is a lot of religion out there that tends to lean in the direction of divine judgment. God is in the accounting business like Santa checking his list. Those who are bad sit over here in the hotseat. Those who are good sit over here.

Likewise there is a lot of self-help that leans in the direction of God’s providence. It sometimes parades around as Christianity, but it’s so questionable. “God has good things in store for you, just wait.” “Everything happens for a reason.” Or the one that The Sound of Music lamentably made popular, “When God closes a door, God opens a window.” The idea, of course, is that God’s focus is on you and you alone and that by hook or crook God’s blessing is waiting to be thrown upon you and that the bad times you have right now are preparation for the good times yet to come…and that has nothing to do with Jesus or the cross.

And there is a lot of society that leans in the direction of divine justice. If we can just eliminate the bad ones in society, make them pay for their crimes. If we repay vengeance with vengeance than order and peace will rule.

That thinking, by the way, is exactly the kind of thinking that led to Jesus being hung on a cross. Crucifixion was a way for the Roman government to deter criminal activity, to keep order. “Control through violence” was the cry of the Pax Romanus, the peace of Rome…

In all these ways life is seen in the either/or dichotomy. Either you’re good or you’re bad. Either you’re right or you’re wrong. Either God loves you or God does not. The premise there, of course, is that if you are good, then God will love you. If you are right…have the right thoughts, beliefs, tenets to mark off on your faith tally… then you are counted among the faithful.

Self-giving love, though, reorients all things. Everything. Self-giving love, the love seen through Jesus Christ, is one that is not an “if/then” proposition, but a “because/therefore” proposition.

As Father Richard Rohr, that desert monastic mystic wrote, “Jesus never said ‘you must be right, you must be correct,’ Jesus said, ‘Love your neighbors.’” That’s self-giving love.

I usually explain it like this. I do not buy flowers for my partner if she is nice to me. That equation looks like, “If you are nice, then I will buy you flowers.” The underlying thing there is something akin to the “If you do good, then you get good.” Or, “If you are good, then God will love you.”

But the God seen through Jesus is not an if/then operator. The God seen through Jesus is a “because/therefore” operator.

“Because you are my child, therefore I love you.” “Because you are my partner, therefore you get flowers.” “Because you are my child, therefore you are worth it, you are good, you are beloved.”

And man, if that’s not a message that needs to be heard again in this world, I don’t know what is.

And don’t think it’s a message devoid of response or responsibility. Good grief, no. The grace imparted upon that message is such a grace that no one can stand in front of it on two feet.

Perhaps you’ve experienced that kind of grace before. It’s the kind of grace that is akin to me sitting with my father at the ripe young age of 25. And we were sitting there and crunching some numbers. In a month I would be getting married, and I would be entering graduate seminary, and Rhonda would be entering graduate school, and we were looking at rent, insurance, car, food…all of it…and no matter how we calculated it, with loans and even a small part-time job that I was imagining I was going to be getting, ends were not being met.

We were about $100 short every time.

To which my father said, “Well, then we’ll just have to send you $100 dollars a month.”

“For how long?” I asked. “For as long as you need it,” he said.

And I cried. Because I knew that there was no way I was going to be able to pay that back. I knew that there was no way I could express how important it was to hear and see and feel the deep love that would give of itself so that I could live.

But I also knew this meant that my time couldn’t be in vain there. That I had a responsibility to use my time, my money, my talents wisely and well, not because he expected it, but because the grace given to me held me so tightly that I couldn’t live otherwise.

This is the because/therefore of the God shown through Jesus. Because we are God’s children, God’s beloved, therefore God will do anything to show us that love, to be with us, even to being on a cross.

Because we are God’s children in this world, therefore we share the love of God with our neighbors, with this city of Chicago, with the world.

Because you are beloved, therefore you tell the story of what God is doing in your life to others.

Oooh…that last part. Yeah; that’s admittedly tricky. For most of us faith is a private matter, and I get that. We don’t like to talk about it much…perhaps we don’t know what we could say.

I wrote a blog piece a few months ago about what I hoped my children would know about faith. And one of the things I wrote about was that I hoped my children would be able to say something about their faith to someone else, not because they think that they are correct and other people are incorrect, but because they are being held so tightly by the love of God that they can say something about it.

And, look, in this city we are in a sea of other faith communities, but that in no way means that the message of self-giving love that we proclaim through God here is told enough. In fact, I too often hear the other stories people parade around as God’s love. Stories of exclusion, stories of discrimination and judgment and “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

And the vision that those other stories creates actually does provide connection for people. We gather around the things that we dislike more than we gather around the things we like, did you know that? A study was done where it showed that people would rather hang out with the folks who disliked the same things they disliked, rather than find the things in common and gather around them.

And I see that everywhere, especially in places where people gather around their common dislike for wrong answers, or people they deem are wrong, or theology they deem is wrong.

But here…here we don’t all agree. Here we don’t all see eye to eye on everything. Here we don’t all have the same political affiliation, same background, same race. Here we don’t all come from the same part of Chicago, and some of us don’t even come from the same faith tradition. And in some respects those facts might tend to push us apart rather than unite us.

Some do that, right? Some decide that a faith community isn’t necessary for them. But, going to the wisdom of that poet full of existential angst, Christian Wiman, no…back to the wisdom of Jesus who gathered disciples together, “Solitude is an integral part of any vital spiritual life, but spiritual experience that is solely solitary inevitably leads to despair.”

This is why I remain confident that we are all, and must all be, united together in the because/therefore love of a God who does not long to drive wedges between people, but who longs to draw us all together. Out of solitary spiritual experiences into solidarity, into a communal spiritual experience that we know as the body of Christ in this world.

Like chicks under the wings of a mother hen, as the prophet Isaiah says. Like disciples from different parts of Galilee under a common mission.

Here, in this place, is proclaimed a particular vision of the God we see through Jesus: a God of because/therefore love, self-giving love.

And that is a gift. A gift for you. For me. For the city of Chicago.

But we have to be better at sharing that gift. We have to up our investment, our time, our talent, our treasure, as we head into this year. Because this year is, I think, a year where we gain new clarity on how we’re being called to share this gift with this city, a city full of folks looking for divine judgment, banking on divine providence, praying for divine justice…

But in desperate need of the connecting vision that the self-giving love of God gives. A self-giving love, a because/therefore love that says, “Fear not, my child. Because you are mine, therefore you are OK, therefore you are loved, therefore you safe.”

If that’s what the city of Chicago needs, if that’s what we discern God is calling us to do here, if that can help us to narrow down our vision, to provide some clarity, to connect us all together as a growing faith community under the wings of God’s self-giving love.

Well, then, OK, let’s do this.

Amen.

On Hats, Mysteries, and That Thing We Call Resurrection

Memorial Service for Kim Tracy

1 Corinthians 15:51-58

51Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last 400116552217trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

On Hats, Mysteries, and That Thing we Call Resurrection

 

The first thing Kim ever said to me was, “Hello Pastor! My name is Kim. I’ve been at LMC for a long time. I have MS. It’s shitty.”

Literally, that was the first full sentence Kim ever said to me, at least if my memory put all the pieces together correctly. I knew immediately I would like her…and I did. I do. She was salty. Even in living with that “damned disease,” as she was wont to say, Kim exuded a resilience and saltiness that would make the best of sailors jealous of her stalwartness.

I never knew Kim before MS. I didn’t get to meet her father, whom she dearly loved. I’ve only recently heard stories about her strength in dealing with the death of her mother at a young age. I saw wedding pictures of her and Dan here, in this place, dressed in white and black, smiling and joyful.

Here we are, in black with Kim dressed in white, and while our smiles are bittersweet, while our hearts are heavy, that same sacredness is still here, even.

Kim had an adventurous spirit. I could tell that even when she was confined to a wheelchair. Most Sunday mornings, Dan would bring her forward for communion and more often than not she’d be decked out in Minnie Mouse ears. She loved hats. And if there’s ever a time to wear a celebration hat, it’s certainly at communion…so I always smiled both inside and out as she wore her ears.

She wore the hat of a wife.

Dan and Kim were travelers. They met in Australia, after all. Did you know that Dan and Kim were at the top of the World Trade Center a few days before it collapsed? There’s an iconic picture somewhere in Dan’s photo collection, now largely digital, of that view on the Friday before that fateful Tuesday. After many misadventures on that trip to New York City, Dan and Kim ended up on top of the world.

And then, a few days later as they were driving back from an excursion to upstate New York, they heard the news that the ground that they had been standing on just a few days ago was shaken to its core. Gone.

They’d have to drive that rental pick-up truck back to Chicago now…

And when Kim and Dan heard the news, the diagnosis, it was a similar feeling, I’m sure. The ground they were standing on shaken to its core. Gone.

No one knew then that the type of MS that Kim had coursing within her was the severe kind that less than 10% of people with Multiple Sclerosis have. It would test a body, a relationship, a faith…everything shaken to its core.

As a pastor I know that there are times when we see the “for better or for worse” of the marriage vows in practice. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that truly in Kim and Dan I have seen the care and love that takes shape when we keep those vows wholly.

Kim loved to wear the traveling hat, the hat of a wife, and she also loved to wear the hat of faith. We have archives here at the church that have Kim’s name all over them. She was an usher, a greeter, a faithful choir member, on the hospitality teams here…faithful every Sunday in worshiping her God and gathering with this community. Even when it was difficult for her to make it. Even when she could no longer walk. It’s one of the reasons we’re having communion today.

Here she was. As Paul wrote at the end of the 1 Corinthians passage we heard today, “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

She was steadfast and immovable, excelling in the ways of the Lord.

And she knew that. Even when it seemed like MS had taken victory over her body, her spirit, her spark, her life wouldn’t let it take victory over her. Indeed today I shout with the apostles, “Where O death is your victory?!”

Because I don’t see it here.

Here I don’t see death’s victory. Here I see the victory of love. The love to care for one another even the hardest times. The love to reach out toward God even when our arms will no longer move.

And the love of God reaching back even today…

But Kim also wore one final hat of sorts. No, not a hat, a mark on her brow. It’s a mark I made with oil about 10 times over the past 5 years. The mark of a cross with these words, “Remember Kim, that you are a child of God.”

And she wore that mark, a child of God, as well as any of us do: full of salty language, lots of love, and a resilience of spirit that was evidence to me of God’s passion moving within her.

At the church we have these old membership cards. It’s a way of keeping track of people, of counting, of accounting.

On here there’s a line for telling how a person was received into the congregation, by baptism, transfer, etc.

Well, when a person leaves the congregation for a while but comes back, we put in that line “Restoration.” As in, their membership is restored.

Well, today I crossed out “Restoration” and put on their “Resurrection.”

Resurrection, that greatest of all mysteries of the promise of God. Resurrection, that moment where we’re reunited with God, and for Kim, with mom Helen and dad Lee.

Resurrection, that final hat…a crown…that we wear for all of eternity. That last great adventure we all take.

Kim, you don’t live with this damned disease anymore. You live resurrected in the presence of God, and today we wear your life and your memory on our hearts. Like a favorite hat.

Amen.

Skandalon and The Two Halves of Life

Matthew 16:21-28

21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the LOGO_Scandal-colorelders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
27For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Skandalon and the Two Halves of Life

Your grace moves in us,

It scandalizes us.

Us who would rather use power

Us who would rather use might

Us who don’t understand the ways of God

So suffer your grace upon us, Lord

That we might see once more.

Amen.

Who is the dumbest-smart person you know? If there was an award for the dumbest-smart disciple, Peter would win it.

And we all know who that person in our class was in school. The dumbest-smart kid. Rhonda claims that I’m the dumbest smart person she knows. I claim the same about her, most days. In reality, we’re really just continually frustrated that we are not exactly like the other…

But it’s true; I see a lot of me in the person of Peter.

One breath he identifies that, despite how powerful Caesar is, Jesus is actually the one with true power.

And in the next breath he exposes for all to see that while he can identify who Jesus is, he still doesn’t know the ways of God.

I’m going to repeat that because I think that, if there’s an illness in the Christian world today, it is just this: so much of the Christian world purports to know who Jesus is, but doesn’t understand the ways of God.

Often times I fall into that camp, too. You do, too.

Last week we heard Peter identify that Jesus is the true savior, the true messiah of the people, not Caesar. And yet Peter still thinks that that means that Jesus has license to act like Caesar when it comes to working in the world.

If Jesus is powerful then Jesus is the one who can persecute, not the one who gets persecuted. If Jesus is powerful then Jesus is the one who commands people to get crucified, not the one who gets crucified. Brian McLaren, that pastor and author named heretical by some and brilliant by others, points this out masterfully in a lecture he gave a few years ago. Peter doesn’t understand what good a crucified Caesar is. What good is a crucified king?

Peter doesn’t understand the ways of God.

You know, the interesting thing about this whole exchange between Jesus and Peter, at least to me, is not that Peter doesn’t get it…look, if you’ve been part of a challenging faith for any amount of time you must at least admit that we’re really bad at getting the ways of God…it’s that Jesus affirms that Peter’s way of power is really tempting.

Jesus calls Peter a “stumbling block” here, at least that’s the translation in English. Which, to me, sounds like Jesus is calling Peter something like that pesky little squeaky toy that is always, ALWAYS, outside of Finn’s door late at night while I’m trying to grope my way to the bathroom in the dark. Stumbling block; something that makes you stumble.

This is why I hate the English translation of the scriptures sometimes. Because the Greek here is really interesting…it doesn’t sound anything like “stumbling block.”

The Greek here is skandalon. Skandalon is where we get the English word scandal. Skandalon: the bane of politicians and the bread and butter of the media. Skandalon: that thing we hope doesn’t invade our lives, but that we relish in the lives of our enemies.

…and if you didn’t subconsciously nod your head to the truthbomb that is that last statement, then I’m not sure you’re honest…

The thing about skandalon is that it implies that not only is something tempting, but that it is really tempting. So tempting, in fact, that we might act on it if given the chance…

This is why Jesus tells Peter to get behind him because if Peter starts to lead with his idea of power, it might be too tempting…

And it would probably work. Peter’s way of power would probably work. It would work for control and domination. It would be a way to save Jesus’ life. But in doing so Jesus would betray the deepest values of God: self-giving love and grace.

Just because something is effective does not mean it is good. Or worthwhile.

Those who save their lives through these means do so at the detriment of their true selves, the God within them, as that desert mystic Father Richard Rohr continually says. Those who lose their lives to that way of operating in the world receive their true nature again.

That New Mexican monastic Father Richard Rohr talks about life as having two halves. For the first half of life you’re living for yourself, your ego, making your way. For your second half of life you spend time unlearning all that you learned in your first half. If you haven’t checked out his book Falling Upward, it’s really worthwhile.

Fr. Rohr makes the bold claim that only by realizing that those first ways are false illusions do we see the true way of life, of walking with a God who is identified as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It’s bold not because Rohr came up with it, but because it follows exactly the way of the cross, the way of Jesus. The way of God.

Peter is a perfect example of that in action, right? He thought he knew Jesus, he could identify Jesus…he got the gold star last week. But he didn’t know the ways of God. He thought he knew the way to true life, he thought the true life was a life full of control and power, but he didn’t know that the way to true life actually is to give up your tight grasp on such control and power for the sake of God and other people.

Here’s the thing about Peter, and about you and me: Peter really couldn’t grasp the ways of God until he saw for himself the immeasurable grace and self-giving love of Jesus as shown on the cross and in the resurrection. Both of those events, the cross and resurrection, put Jesus’ life into perspective for Peter.

And brought Peter’s own life into perspective.

Peter, who denied Jesus, was still counted among the faithful by Jesus in grace. Peter who had tried to get Jesus to be the crucifier rather than the crucified was still accepted by Jesus in grace. Peter, who thought that the way to a full life was through power, was shown through the Christ that true power is the ability to give up power for the sake of the other.

But the scandal is still real. Power is always scandalous.

Tomorrow is Labor Day, where we lift up those who labor and say as a society, “Let’s all take a Monday off…” The intended result, though, is that Tuesday becomes the new Monday next week and we all try to stuff a full week of work into a partial week, right? But it seems especially important these days to rest this way because we’ve all, by and large, lost our weekends to the never-ending work week. Because working, we think, makes us powerful and successful and “ahead” in the world. So tempting in this world.

If you were blessed to see the Jackie Robinson West parade here in Chicago, on TV or in person, you heard one of the coaches speak and implore the children of the world to “Pick up a ball, a glove, a book, a paint brush, a science project, something — and put down the guns!”

So many hear that and say, “Yes! That makes so much sense.” But does it really? On many streets and in many neighborhoods a ball, glove, book, paint brush, and science project won’t make any money, doesn’t give any power. And until we lift up creativity as high as we lift up being powerful and making money in this world, it likely won’t make sense to many on the streets of Chicago.

I remember a young camper when I was a camp counselor. We ran a program where some of the youth from inner-city Harrisburg could come to camp and hike and canoe and kayak and get into nature for a while. And one kid, at the end of the week, said, “I don’t think that I can live this way when I get back home…it won’t work.” And he wasn’t talking about hiking and canoeing and kayaking in the inner-city. He was talking about loving his neighbor as himself.

The rules were different back home. The Caesar of the streets had different rules than the God shown through Jesus on the streets. And the Caesar of the trading floor has different rules than the God shown through Jesus on the trading floor. And the Caesar of the never-ending work week has different rules than God shown through scriptures, and through Jesus, of the week.

If you wonder about that last one, read Genesis 1:1-2:4 again…

But it’s all so tempting. It’s all so scandalous. The world is always so ready to take us back into throes of being hungry for power again.

Until we come back and hear this all again. Become mindful again. Become mindful of the God shown through Jesus who rejects the attempts to scandalize him in deference to the ways of God, the ways of self-giving love. Loss is actually gain.

So, here you go, here’s the big question: what is scandalizing you?

And I’m not talking about the tempting desire to drink too many Pumpkin Spice Lattes. We so often personalize and trivialize things to the point of absurdity. Denying yourself soda or a Pumpkin Spice Latte is not “your cross to bear.” That affects only you. Jesus’ cross had a communal dimension. That is, I think, scandal once again entering our lives: the scandal of thinking we’re the center of it all.

No. Truly ask yourself the question: what is scandalous in your life right now? What is it that’s asking you to be a certain way in the world that is not the way of the cross?

Because every moment is that moment where we are between the two halves of life. One way of life tells us to conserve, to keep, to control, to be powerful. It is tempting. It has us as becoming the example for the world of success and power.

The second is seen in the person of a 160lb Jewish guy hanging on a cross who gave up his life so that the world might see that God will stop at nothing, nor letting anything stand in the way, not even death, to being with humanity. To show them there is a different way of living that doesn’t look like power, but looks like love. Self-giving love.

We are always at the point of scandal. The world tries to scandalize us by living one way. The other way is where we suffer God’s scandalizing grace upon ourselves to make us mindful that we can live differently in the world.

You know, I have to admit that God and I have some of the same frustrations with one another that Rhonda and I have. I just get frustrated that God is not like me. On a universal scale, I think this is why we so often confuse the ways of the world with the ways of God; why we think power and strength and success and all of that should be the hallmarks of God in the world.

But our ways are not God’s ways. Our wisdom is God’s foolishness. Those I want to exclude God includes. Those I want to ignore, God indulges. Those I want to write off God raises up as prophets. You get the idea…

And you know what’s the most scandalous thing about this whole Jesus thing?

Even though I’m continually mistaking who God is, even though I’m mindful only 10% of the time in this world, even though I confuse power and success for Godly ways of being, there’s room for me in God’s love.

If I don’t play by the world’s rules, there’s no place for me in the world. We see that all the time. And if you can’t recognize it, then you’re not paying attention.

But God’s grace is such that even when I screw it all up, even when I’m the satan, the stumbling block, the one who gives into the scandal of the world, God still has a dwelling place for me.

And that’s truly scandalous.

On Pools and Divine Promises You Can Trust: A Funeral Sermon

John 14:1-6

On Friday Brian texted me two pictures that had been found as they searched through boxes and albums of photos in preparation for first one intoday.  My generation just scrolls through Facebook–but this was old school.  Searching the mines of history for gems that were hidden, reflecting a life that was too short but well lived.

Anyway, the two photos were pictures of me and my younger brother.  More accurately, one was my senior prom picture (where I sported some great hair, btw) standing with my date who is now my wife.  The other one was of my younger brother Critter-everyone still calls him that-a Freshman football picture, I think.

Attached to the text were these touching words from Brian: “Why do we have these?”

Followed by a sarcastic “…wow”

Well, I know why Scott and Peggy had them.  Have them.  Because they love us.  Plain and simple.  And we love them.  We love Peg.  Plain and simple.

She was one of the many mothers that those of us growing up in the 80’s and early 90’s at Epiphany Lutheran Church were blessed to have.

I remember when we bought the house on Bancroft Street, the corner lot.  White with green shutters.  It needed some work, but it came with an enormous above-ground pool taking up 80% of the back yard.  A pool that desperately needed relining.

And I remember Scott and Peg and so many others coming over one summer to dump sand and smooth out sand into the pool basin, flatting it out by rolling large mason jars (that’s how you do it, right?) relining the whole thing.  Who needed contractors when you had a church, when you had the body of Christ, right?  Hours of work in the hot sun.  All for a pool that we could only use for 3.5 months of a Toledo year…

But then, all of a sudden, the Myers got a pool!  And then the Johnson’s next door to the Myers.  Which meant, of course, that we could now throw things at each other from one pool to another.

And the Hatcher’s had a pool.  And the Davoll’s. And the Schmidt’s. And the Yoder’s. And while the LaVoy’s never got a pool, they got a trampoline…which was cool, too.

And now it didn’t really matter whose home we hung out at, we could all swim (or jump)! Marco-Polo for everyone!

…for 3.5 months out of a Toledo year…

And it really didn’t matter whose house we were at because we all had one another’s parents, too.  24/7. 365.

And there was not a question in our minds that we were–are–their children.  Still. After all these years.

This is why these first words of Jesus in our John reading for today ring a little hallow for me at first hearing.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled, ” Jesus says.

I would be lying to you if I didn’t admit that my heart is a little troubled.  That my heart has been troubled since April.  That seeing Peg in between treatments when they’d come through Chicago was beautiful but also tragic and heart breaking.  It troubled me.  She was a mother to many of us.

I presided over the wedding of Steven and Sangeeta Driver last month.  It was the last time I saw Peggy. She was sitting int eh wheelchair that had become her necessary legs, and after the service I bent down to tell her that she looked nice.

I think she thought I was going in for a kiss on the cheek, and our heads turned just so and sure enough about the most scandelous thing Peggy Myers ever did occurred: she kissed a younger man.  On the lips.

And then she smiled-she must have seen the surprise on my face-and she patted my hand that was now on the armrest of her chair.  And that was enough for me to know that she did not want my heart to be troubled…even if it still was. She loved me and knew me.  Even as her memory faded, even as the way forward become more difficult and obscure, there was a presence of mind there that spoke words her mouth could no longer utter very well.

And what says something words can’t contain more than a kiss?

“Trust in God, Trust in me, ” Jesus says today.  Some translations use the word “believe” instead of “trust.”  But the ancient Greek there is better translated as “trust.” Like a pat on the hand. Do not be troubled. Trust. Like the kiss that was “hello,” “goodbye,” and “I love you” all in one.

Trust.

The unfortunate thing about John 14:1-6–about all of modern scripture, really–is that sometimes the chapters and verses that editors put in place to help us read better cuts up whole stories and makes them into mini-stories that lose cohesiveness. But John 13-14 is one whole big scene–we miss that sometimes.  it is John’s version of the Last Supper.  You know the one: Jesus washes the disciples feet and Peter lobbies for a whole sponge bath.  Jesus calls out Judas as a traitor as they’re sharing bread and dipping it in the same bowl…I always imagine Judas as double dipping.  Where Jesus foreshadows his death and tells the disciples that they can’t go where he is going yet, but soon will.  To which foolhardy Peter says, “I will die for you Jesus!

To which Jesus responds, “No…the word you’re looking for there is ‘deny’…”

It is after all of this confusing and crushing news, when the disciples have been emotionally beat up and confused and afraid about the future that Jesus says to them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust God. trust me. I go before you to prepare a place for you…”

And here we are emotionally beat up, confused about a death that was all too quick, afraid of what the future holds, mourning our friend before us.  Perhaps Jesus’ words are more timely than we know, disciples…

I remember a time when Peggy went to prepare a place for us kids, going before us.  Literally.

After we had moved to North Carolina–rural North Carolina–Scott, Peg, Brian, Erin, and the LaVoy family all came down one Easter to visit.

Now, I don’t know what you’ve heard about rural North Carolina, but don’t buy the hype: there’s not a lot to do down there.

So we made our own fun.  And that day “our own fun” happened to be rolling things down the steep embankment of our quarter acre lot backyard.

If you started up at the driveway and curved around the house to the back yard, you could really get some good momentum.  And Critter, my little brother, had just gotten a new bike that would be perfect for this.  The only question was: is it safe?

Standing at 5’1 and 1/2 inches (that half inch was important) Peg was the median height of all of us kids. (Side-note: I’d have to think that Peg would smile and appreciate this math reference as a math teacher).

So we loaded onto Peg all the safety equipment we had in our garage: knee pads, elbow pads, helmet, and I even think she inexplicably wore wrist guards.

Starting up at the drive-way, Peggy raced won the hill, banking around the house like an Olympic luge expert–she was always really athletic–and as we all saw the incredible momentum she was gaining I think we all collectively let out an, “O sugar!” (her favorite curse word) as it became clear that this object now in motion was going to stay in motion…

Until it hit our barbed wire fence at the bottom of the lot, that is.

So, now faced with the choice of a barbed-wire sandwich or bailing off of the bike, Peg trusted her safety gear and bailed off of the bike, sliding to a stop at the bottom of the hill, splayed out on the ground.

We applauded. She was fine.  Her test was successful.

It was determined that this activity was safe to do as long as we propped an old mattress along the barbed-wire fence and promised to bail out before hitting it…

In the first pool that Peggy ever went in, long before the pools in our backyards, she was dunked with water, buried with Christ in baptism and rose with Christ to a new life.  A life of walking with Christ that she took seriously and practiced daily.

In that Divine dunking, in that holy game of Marco-Polo where God calls us by name and we respond with “Alleluia,” a promise was given to Peggy.  A story was told.

The story was of Jesus, born of Mary, crucified, died, and buried, descending into hell, who on the third day rose again.

And as Peggy descended into those waters, a frail baby who couldn’t even form a word, God gave her a promise she–and all of us–can trust.  St. Paul said it best, “If we have been baptized into a death like his, surely we will be raised in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5)

And to ensure it, Jesus went before us, trampling death under foot.  And because of that we know that Jesus’ way is the way of self-giving love.  Because of that we know that if we want to know the truth of what God thinks about us, we need only look at Jesus who went to hell and back so that we would know God’s great love for us.  Because of that we know that a life truly lived is one where we hold to the promise that whether we live or we die we are with God.  And therefore we are safe; no knee guards, helmets, or other pads necessary. For neither death nor life nor things above or below–anything–can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

And with that–hearing that–it makes it a little easier to not let my heart be troubled.  Just a little.

Because I trust that as frail Peggy went into the hell that is cancer, dipped into the waters of death.  When she could no longer utter any words as cancer had ripped her words from her lungs, God was there to hold her, receive her, and breathe the living word, Jesus, back into her in a resurrected life.  Like his.

In God’s presence there are many dwellings.  One for you, me, Peter, Thomas, and yes, Peggy.

You know, this whole John 14 scene happens as the disciples are seated with Jesus surrounded by bread and wine.

And look here: a table spread with wine and bread.  Remember jesus’ words that as often as we do this we are united again with Christ.  And our theology tells us that here, too, at this table we are united once again with all the saints who have gone before us, including mom, including Peggy.

Scott, Erin, Brian, Wes, Ellie, Addie, Laylie: trust that promise, too.  Trust God that here at this table we eat with Christ and all who’ve died in Christ.  Here you eat again with mom.  Hold that in your hearts.

You know, one of the memories I hold dearest is tat just about every Easter our two families would eat Easter brunch together.  The Holiday Inn French Quarter.  Do you remember that?

We’d eat and then go and hunt Easter eggs at the Myers’ house as grandma and grandpa Myers and grandma and grandpa Foust played intense card games in the garage.  5 eggs were hidden that had money in them, one for each kid.  And if you wanted to see that stern side of Peggy, just try to keep two money eggs.  All 5’1 and 1/2 inches of righteous indignation would come down on you…

But I find it beautiful that here today, we share another Easter meal together, Peg included.  Imperfect us invited to an Easter table of perfected grace.  We disciples who sometimes betray one another and deny one another and have a hard time trusting the promises of God, we here, now, share this Easter meal of grace as we lift up our sister Peg, celebrating the family of Christ that we all are.

And even though we are emotionally beat up and confused about the future and afraid we hear Jesus’ words ring loud and clear through this meal, “Do not let your hearts be troubled…”

And so with Peg and all the saints, we now do something different with our hearts: we lift them up to the Lord to give thanks to the Lord our God.

Thanks for the love of Peggy, thanks for the love of one another, and thanks for age-old promises of Divine love that can still be trusted.

Amen.

Haunting Questions and Places of Power Who Don’t Stand a Chance

Matthew 16:13-20resurrection

13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Haunting Questions and Places of Power Who Don’t Stand a Chance

Lord,

we are sometimes confronted with haunting questions;

sometimes they are from you.

Give us the courage to answer

But first, give us the peace to pause and reflect.

Amen.

What is the most haunting question you’ve ever been asked? It’s that question that makes your hair stand up, that begs an answer…but doesn’t have one. At least not a satisfactory one.

Most often the haunting question in my life is one simple word: “Why?” These last few weeks have been saturated with this word, with this question.

Why was an unarmed black man shot dead in the street after apparently surrendering?

Why did a comedic genius fail to see the beauty and laughter in his own existence?

Why is my friend and colleague burying his mother tomorrow after she was just diagnosed in April at the young age of 60? Why was there not more time? Why was there no cure?

Why?

See, the way that we answer the “why” questions of tragedy really does have something to do with the question that Jesus asks the disciples today in this text before us.

“Who do you say that I am?” he asks them after a little bit of back and forth. But he doesn’t just ask them this question. He asks them this question in a really strange place: Caesarea-Philippi. Caesarea-Philippi is about 35 miles north of Galilee, and basically was like a mini Rome for the region. It was the seat of Roman power in this occupied territory.

So Jesus goes to the place of power, drags the disciples to the place of oppression for these people, and asks them in that setting, “What do you say about me?”

Perhaps you’re not getting it. Perhaps you’re not seeing the irony.

See, Jesus goes to Ferguson, Missouri, to the place of conflict and asks in light of all that has happened there, “What do you say about me?”

See, Jesus goes to depths of depression, to the place of the suicide as the police are coming and documentation is being put together and the media swarms outside, and asks, “What do you say about me?”

See, Jesus goes to the hospice bed, to the place of cancer, to the place where a husband kneels at the bedside and son and daughter hold one another in embrace as life slips through the fingers of time and asks, “What do you say about me?”

And Peter’s answer is one to note: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Now, when you’re standing in the capital city of Caesarea-Philippi, and you’re looking around at the various temples and statues of this city, a city that had previously been named for the Greek god Pan, but who now under Roman rule had been named after the ruler himself, Caesar Augustus, you’ll notice that inscriptions and monikers call Caesar certain things.

They call Caesar “lord.” They call Caesar “savior.” They name Caesar the “Son of God” for the great works that Caesar does through power and might.

So all around the disciples were messages, subliminal and overt, that said that Caesar was the savior of the people, had all the answers, was the one with power. Caesar brought peace to the Roman world. They called him the “Prince of Peace” for it. But it was peace through violence…

Jesus hauls the disciples 35 miles out of the way, to the seat of Roman power in the area, and asks them, “What about me?” And Peter, for as dimwitted and backwards as he usually is makes the bold claim that, in the place where it seems like power is in the hands of the most powerful thing in the world, Caesar, he names Jesus as that which holds true power.

He names Jesus with the names usually ascribed to the halls of power, usually ascribed to Caesar.

See, we miss that all the time. We’re so used to people flippantly saying “Jesus is Lord” without realizing that, in the ancient days, that phrase was treasonous. Politically scandalous. The ultimate protest chant.   We’re so used to calling Jesus the “Prince of Peace,” but it was first said as a snub at political peace that comes through violence. Today we’ve turned it into a bumper sticker, unfortunately…and of course we don’t know any instance of so-called “peace” by violence today…

And as we all know here on the other side of the Jesus-story, Jesus’ Lordship, Jesus’ power comes not through conquering or improving, like Caesar and all the other people vying for power in this world, not through success or a positive attitude about suffering, but through self-giving love. Through what we in Jesus circles call kenosis, or “self-emptying” love.

God emptied God’s self into Jesus. Jesus emptied himself for humanity on the cross to show that God will do anything to be with humanity. The Holy Spirit is emptied into us by a God who continues to move in this world.

And so, on the streets of Ferguson, will hatred and violence win out? Will the systems of racism and privilege and people talking over one another rule the day? Where will we place our hope? Who do we say that Jesus is?

When faced with the illness of depression, what will we say? Do we blame the victim? Do we buy into the media tendency make a spectacle of the tragedy, or do we stand with Jesus at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and weep and pray for resurrection?

When faced with the hospice bed, with tragedy, what will we say? Will we say that God is testing the faithful, as I’ve heard some say? Will we say that “everything happens for a reason,” as we watch our loved ones fade away knowing in our deepest hearts that any reason for this tragedy couldn’t come from God unless God is a heartless jerk. Will we say “it must be part of God’s plan?”

Is it part of God’s plan that a unarmed black man was killed in Ferguson?

Is it part of God’s plan that an actor of amazing talent would fall ill to depression and take his own life?

If we say “no” to that, then how can we in good conscious say that somehow cancerous growths that overtake a body, a body that God has called “good,” a child of God washed in the waters of baptism, is somehow part of “God’s plan”?

See, how we answer the “why” questions at the place where death or violence seem to be in power says a lot about who we actually think Jesus is…

Because the God shown through Jesus is the God of resurrection. And resurrection does not look like power in this world. Power in this world looks like success and answers and positive thinking and sweeping problems under a rug so that we don’t actually have to deal with anything. See, that’s what’s so tricky about power: it claims that it changes things, but really works for the status quo.

The moments preceding resurrection, though, always look like death, powerlessness. The moments preceding resurrection are moments of death and powerlessness.

And at the threshold of death, where it seems like violence, and depression, and cancer will win the day, we as a faith community, we as a church, don’t put our hope in easy answers or in the power of clichés or in the power of the systems. Instead we put our hope in Jesus who is called the Christ.

We put our hope in the God who doesn’t make sense out of senselessness, doesn’t answer the “why” questions with some cliché or moralism. Those seem wise to the world, but that’s foolishness to God.

God’s wisdom says to the world, “I refuse to make sense out of senselessness. Instead, I make resurrection.” And that, brothers and sisters, is what Hades, what death, what tragedy, what injustice cannot prevail against: resurrection. As Herod said when he heard that Jesus raised Lazarus, “If he can do that, then there is nothing that can stop him.”

No power can stop the one who can breathe life into anything, not even death.

And resurrection is infinitely more powerful in a world where we have a whole lot of supposed answers coming at us that don’t look anything like Gospel resurrection.

And I think this task of going to the places of power and answering the question of who we think Jesus, who we think the God shown through Jesus is, is the primary task of us here at Luther Memorial Church.

Because there are a whole lot of voices here in Chicago, here in the United States, here in the world laying claim to who Jesus is, and often I don’t recognize that Jesus.

That Jesus looks like one with a whole bunch of answers, but without a hint of self-giving love.

And I think we at Luther have a unique voice in this conversation, a voice that can stand at the places where it seems like politics, death, and illness have power and invoke the name of the Christ, invoke the name of the one we follow on this journey of life, invoke the name of resurrection.

This Fall we’re going to be talking intentionally about this, about who we collectively say the God seen through Jesus is here in Chicago, and I know it’s going to be fruitful. It’s going to be transformative for us and for this city.

That is my prayer.

Because there are haunting questions in this world, and people are chomping at the bit to provide answers to them, answers they say come from God, answers of cliché, answers that don’t testify to God’s self-emptying power, but testify to a power that looks like the powers of this world. Answers give power, or so we think. Those who provide answers are powerful in this world…

But in response to that, God instead gives self-emptying love that leads to resurrection.

And in the face of resurrection, all answers that ring hallow with experience, all supposed powers of this world that promise us one thing but give another don’t stand a chance.

Amen.

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