Easter 7 C: On Not Running from the Good Fight

The readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter are…

First Reading        Acts 16:16–34

Psalm                    Psalm 97

New Testament      Revelation 22:12–14, 16–17, 20–21

Gospel                   John 17:20–26

Last week we saw how the great theme of the Holy Spirit’s boundary busting is illustrated in Acts by the story of Paul breaking through the barrier of hostility between East and West—between Asia and Europe—and doing it with the boundary busting help of Lydia, who crossed that geographical barrier herself and who succeeded as a woman in a man’s world of big business.

This week, our story in Acts demonstrates how the Spirit breaks through the walls of hostility because people like the Apostle Paul refuse to run away from the good fight.

The first good fight for Paul is a tussle with a demon of two faces.

One face is the face of exploitation. Down by the riverside place of prayer there is a slave woman who was being cruelly used by her owners to make money.

She was a slave. She was property. She could be used in any way the owners desired.

Besides this she had a mental problem—but her problem could be used by her owners to enrich themselves. She acted strange, but her owners, instead of relieving her distress, convinced people she was possessed by the same kind of “python spirit” that was said to guard the great Oracle of Delphi in Greece. That’s where the rich and powerful and common folk alike flocked to get guidance for making tough decisions in life. “Save the trip to Delphi,” they would have told the credulent. Get your future and your fate told right here…for a price.”

Another dimension of her exploitation was that she was kept subservient by being called a girl. We can’t say whether this slave was young or old or middle aged. Actually, the form of the Greek word for “girl” that Acts uses here is only used for slave girls. It’s the same way whites in this country, whether we want to admit it or not, have called male blacks of any age “boy” to keep them in their place. Just like bell boys in hotels can be middle aged. Just like when you call for the “garçon” in a restaurant, you are calling him a “boy” no matter his age. You are demeaning—putting him in his place as your servant.

The second face of the demon is metaphysical. Are demons real? Are there spirits that have power over people? Did her owners believe this woman had supernatural powers? Did the customers? Did Paul? Did the author of Acts? In all practicality, things have power over us if we surrender to them. If we allow it. Superstitions work this way. Lady luck works this way. Following the idea of Martin Luther in the Catechism, whatever we give our fear, love, or trust–be it a real force, or a mere idea—has power over us.

So, down by the riverside, Paul had a good fight on his hands with both the demonic ways the slave owners used this woman, and with the ways people fear, love, or trust evil powers.

The woman followed Paul and his friends for days, crying out “These guys are slaves too—they are slaves of the Most High God. They proclaim a way of salvation.”

It annoyed Paul. Her outbursts drove people away and drowned out their message about life and salvation in Christ.

Now here is the breakthrough: Paul didn’t run away from the good fight. He didn’t strike out at this annoying woman. He didn’t hate. He didn’t attack the slave woman. He didn’t try to prove that the python spirit was fake. But he simply used the power of the name of Jesus. Speaking to the supernatural power he said, “I have a stronger power. I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And in that very hour it came out.

Now comes “Good Fight” number two: an even bigger and better fight.

You might say Paul was doing a good deed. You might say he was stopping this woman’s owners from exploiting her mental illness and ripping off their customers. You might say Paul was looking at her not as a slave-girl, but as a human being. You might say he was trying to love someone,

Do you remember what Martin Luther King preached in his last sermon? He had premonitions of his assassination, and he said, “At my funeral don’t mention my Nobel Peace Prize, or my hundreds of other awards. Say Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. Say Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.”

What did MLK get for trying to love somebody?

Well the Apostle Paul got more of a good fight—the kind that is all too familiar today. The owner of this slave woman didn’t like their “girl” being cured. They had made money from her illness. So they used the social media of the day—they went to the town square and started screaming out their ignorant vitriol. “These guys are Jews,” they said. “These guys are trouble makers. They are spouting the kind of religion Rome doesn’t allow,” either lying, or just plain ignorant of the fact that Judaism, though a convenient whipping boy for many, was not officially outlawed by Rome.

The good fight gets hotter when the crowds of people turn into a mob—whipped up into a frenzy by these sour slave owners who miss their profits.

Then the poison of the mob spills over into the official government. The mob pressures the magistrates, and the magistrates, ignoring the laws of due process, have Paul and his friends stripped and beaten mercilessly by the police. By the way, the Greek word for police here means “guys who beat people with rods,” and that’s just what they do. And that too is familiar in our day when the “thin blue line” that is supposed to serve and protect by enforcing the law and deescalating tense situations too often gets carried away by raw emotion and uses those billy clubs and flash grenades indiscriminately.

The good fight then continues when a zealous warden dumps Paul and Silas and company, beaten and bleeding from their wounds, into the deepest and darkest part of the prison, and doubles down by clamping their legs in stocks.

Still Paul and Silas don’t run away from the good fight. No, Paul they don’t hate the enemy. Instead, they sing their prayers in hymns, and heaven answers with a earthquake. Suddenly the chains and stocks give way, and not only Paul and Silas, but all the prisoners in that dungeon have doors open and nothing hindering their escape.

Amazingly they still do not run away.

They don’t slink away in fright.

Nor do they turn from the fight through passive-aggressive vengefulness. They do not leave the jailer to face almost certain death himself as punishment for allowing so many prisoners to flee.

They stay. They baptize. They teach about Jesus. And the jailer and his household, some of whom may have already been Christians, celebrate the jailer’s conversion with a big meal with a bunch of former jailbirds.

If you read on beyond today’s lesson you see one more way Paul doesn’t run away from the good fight. The morning after all this drama the magistrates try to sweep their own criminality under the rug. They realized the trouble they would be in once their superiors learned about their gross breach of the law by allowing a public beating of Roman citizens who had not been duly convicted of anything. So they sent word to the jailer, and the jailer said to Paul and the other prisoners, “You guys are free to go in peace.” But Paul says, “Oh no. We’re not going along with this whitewash of injustice.” And because they didn’t run away from the good fight they got their public apology from the magistrates.

Jesus frees us to love our enemies. But Jesus also empowers us with the Holy Spirit to never run away from good fights—fights where walls of hostility can be broken down. When we try to love the exploited and demand respect for all people, we can easily get our teeth kicked in for our troubles. Thank God we can stand our ground and fight.

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Easter 6 C: The Anti-Replacement Theory Gospel

The Lessons for the Sixth Sunday of Easter are

First Reading         Acts 16:9–15

Psalm                    Psalm 67

New Testament     Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5

Gospel                   John 14:23–29 or John 5:1–9

These are days when “white supremacy” and “replacement theory” are in the air.

Along with the burning emotions that come along with them.

And all this, indeed is dividing not only societies, but also God’s church. “Sure, God is love, but love for whom?” That’s the question.

If we start just with this single word, “replacement,” we will get a taste for how much the emotions are burning. Nobody wants to be replaced.

If you are the older child, you love your newborn brother or sister until it dawns on you that parents and neighbors aren’t pinching your cheek anymore. Baby brother or sister seems far cuter, and now gets the attention, and you are vaguely jealous.

If you are a divorced dad, you cringe when your kids start calling you wife’s new husband “daddy.”

And if you are a white guy, it’s all too easy to be moved to boiling resentment when you are told Mexican immigrants and Haitian refugees are coming to take your job and to cancel your vote.

The fuel that gets the emotions flaming up is “us—them” thinking: “It’s those other people out there who are set on replacing us! We are the legacy Americans. We are classic Americans. We are the true believers. ‘We’ are the ones who belong here, fought and died for freedom, and deserve to live in the suburbs and have jobs. ‘They’ are the ones who are bringing in replacements. Replacements are the ones moving in–the ones who look different—talk different—and are different.”

The issue for Christians isn’t whether or not Democrats might want more votes—of course, votes are red meat for both parties. The issue isn’t whether or not we should feel special closeness for to our own kind. The issue is what the gospel says about love of the other.

This week I had a wakeup call about how “us—them” thinking and replacement theory was not only causing madmen to shoot people in grocery stores, but how its tearing at God’s church. I had a strange and sudden urge to see what Google could tell me about a key moment in my college years when the President of  my old Lutheran Church–Missouri-Synod Concordia College in Ann Arbor fired a favorite Greek professor of mine because he spoke at an off-campus dance. You see, they thought dancing was the devil’s work back then.

Well, when I typed in “professor fired at Concordia, Ann Arbor.” I didn’t get that ancient history, but something very recent.

First I learned that a sociology professor was fired in 2016 because she wouldn’t apologize for scaring her students. You see, when I was there at Concordia, the students were all white—but now there are some blacks. And one or two asked the teacher what she thought of Colin Kaepernick kneeling at NFL football games to protest treatment of blacks by the police. She scared them by saying. “I’d kill him. He dishonored the flag and the country, so I’d kill him.”

Then I learned that there is another controversy and court case brewing. Just a couple months ago a professor of theology and a pastor at the school was suspended when he posted an article in a so-called Christian newspaper, harshly criticizing Concordia for stipulating, as they looked for a new university president, that they wanted to be a school that welcomed, honored, and respected people of all races. The professor objected virulently to this sentiment. He said this was replacement. He said that the school was replacing the good ole Lutheran and Christian religion with “woke-ism.” So, now the school is trying to cope with this professor and his views, and he is rallying the like-minded and suing the university.

The issue is, what does God think about all of this! Is diversity and anti-racism really on God’s agenda? Is it all a part of the Christian faith? Does God really want us to resist walls and build bridges? Did Jesus Christ die for us to go to heaven where such controversies are forbidden—for us to engage with the controversies and work to get along with each other?

The first thing I can say about that is what the Epistle of Ephesians, chapter 2 says with gusto:

The  classic “us against them” divide—you Jews and Gentiles, were aliens and strangers to each other. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.

And today and next week we will read two history lessons about the church that illustrate what God is thinking.

This week the lesson from Acts is all about crossing over from Asia to Europe—a very big deal.

In Luke’s Book of Acts he makes a big deal of boundary busting. The Spirit of God breaks up all the cozy little tribes that people have made for themselves.

Remember, on Pentecost, all the people from different tribes all over the world have gathered for a Jewish feast in Jerusalem, but when the Spirit’s fire dances on the heads of the disciples they speak Aramaic, but these foreingers all hear in their own languages.

Then the Greek speakers and Aramaic speakers quit squabbling over their welfare system when the deacons or servants are chosen and everybody gets fed.

Then the big breakthrough when the Spirit goes beyond the Jews of Jerusalem, and awakens the hearts also of Gentiles in Antioch, and even a castrated African cup-bearer from Ethiopia.

But here we are in the thick of the story, in chapter 16. Paul has spent all of his time up to this point in the Levant and the Roman province of Asia, and wants to continue—but the Holy Spirit blocks his way. Then Paul has a vision of a man across the big boundary line between Asia and Europe. From Macedonia, in the north part of the Greek peninsula, he calls out to Paul—“come over here and help us.”   Acts is showing us that this is a real BREAKTHROUGH!

Why is the war now in the Ukraine such a big deal? Because it’s a revival of this age-old, classic feud between East and West—between Asia and Europe.

Why was the Trojan war such a big deal to Homer? Because Troy’s prince Paris of Asia crossed over and stole the wife of a king in the Greek Europe.

Why were the Persian wars against Greece such a big deal to the History of Herodotus?  Because it was an affront against the gods and against nature for Cyrus and Xerxes to cross that line and for East to attack West.

But Acts is about the boundary busting of the Holy Spirit—not out of out-of-control pride, but for the sake of the world. The Word of God—the gospel of God’s grace pouring out for the whole world in Christ, will be stopped by no walls of hostility! No feuds, boundary lines, no misunderstandings, no clashes of civilizations.

Then one more boundary busting. When Paul gets to Philippi, his first foothold in Europe, the very first disciples he baptizes are Lydia and her family. Next week we will meet another—another woman—a slave—a woman possessed.

But isn’t Lydia interesting? A woman who herself is a boundary buster.

She has one home in Asia Minor—the city of Thyatira—and another in European Philippi.

And she is doing a very big business in a man’s world. She deals in the color purple, which is very expensive to make and so is the color of royalty from classical times through the middle ages.

Acts shows us that the work of the Holy Spirit is to break through the walls of hostility we build in our ignorance and our sin; and Lydia teams up with Paul and leads the way.

It is such a powerful source of sin and death in our world to be trapped behind the walls we build into our little tribes—when  we believe in all the good things: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and self control—when we dedicate ourselves to  life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – but for us alone—not them.  For the members of our group, not for those who are different. 

Death is at hand when we believe that whenever others reach out for these things, they are trying to replace us. Rhetoric gets enflamed with fear and hate—and shots are fired—and bombs are dropped.

For all of history all of us humans have been vulnerable to the fear that others are not there to help, but to replace us. We have the devil whispering in our ears, “There’s nothing in it for you if Black Lives Matter—if those other people are given equal opportunity—and if the boundaries are permeable. But Johns Gospel tells us in chapter 14, that as Jesus made his way to the cross, to give of his life for all, he said,  “I will be giving my peace to you, and I will send the Holy Spirit to you to teach and defend you. All this I give to you because, instead of seeing others as out to get you—you love them. If you love me, you will love them.”

Yes, love instead of hate always pays off for you and you and me. For all of us!

So Paul and Lydia and the church through the ages have known that Christ breaks down the dividing walls and, in place of a dying world, broken  up into little tribes, cowering in fear and stalking in anger, God gives us a New Creation, where there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female—but we are all one in Christ Jesus.

This is what is on God’s mind. The only replacement we have to fight now is the replacement of the God of love with the demons of suspicion and hate—the God of gathering with the idol of division. We must be on guard against those who unwittingly are overturning faith in Christ whose death breaks down the walls of hostility with empty religiosity woven of political propaganda and hateful ideas.

God will be on our side when we work to keep the church a family of all humankind.

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Easter 5 C: A Wrinkle in Time

The readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter are

First Reading Acts 11:1–18

Psalm Psalm 148

New Testament            Revelation 21:1–6

Gospel             John 13:31–35

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could transcend the limitations of time? If we could understand past, present and future alike? We would anticipate pandemics and prepare to save lives. We would know whether climate change is a real threat or just a conspiracy of the elites to ruin the economy. We would be able to see if a politician is true to her word or simply trying to garner votes and consolidate unlimited power.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do the impossible and see beyond the restrictions of time? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could look around within a Wrinkle in Time?

Madaleine L’Engle’s 1962 book by that name stirs the hearts of so-called “progressive” and “conservative” or “Evangelical” Christians alike. Three children are taken on time travel. That is, they go tessering through time, powered by a five-dimensional tesseract. There they find that the universe is enveloped in a struggle of good and evil, light and darkness; and that the earth is partially under the control of a dark cloud of evil, spread by the supreme IT which has managed to gained control of the minds of many.

We may well caution that Madaleine L’Engle’s book is simply fiction; but plenty of people have been moved by it as though it were non-fiction. Some love the overt feminism, with a bunch of heroines in charge. They love the approving references not only to Jesus, but to Buddha as well. They like the imaginative openness to the idea that revelatory truth may come through avenues outside of orthodox Christian Scripture and tradition. Of course, there are many others who see the book, and the Disney movie adaptations, as dangerous for the very same reasons.

But before the Wrinkle by L’Engle there is the Wrinkle in Time that we encounter throughout the Bible, if we read carefully. This wrinkle is a fold. It is where past and future meet in the eternal present. It is where God meets us most profoundly.

We catch several glimpses of this Wrinkle in this Sunday’s readings. Peter is caught up in this Wrinkle in the Book of Acts when he has a time- and religion-bending vision of a feast that God is preparing for him, and for a church that brings together both Jews and Gentiles. The resurrected Jesus commands, “Take and eat of decidedly un-kosher food because God is about to open the doors of the covenant to all people.” There is a great coincidence and collision of time when servants sent by Roman commander, Cornelius, and the Holy Spirit of God, both arrive “at that very moment,” and Peter suddenly remembers and understands what Jesus once said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit,” and so Peter suddenly realizes salvation comes through faith.

Psalm 148 is one of the great calls to worship of the Bible. And, again, because of a Wrinkle in Time, the psalmist is not embarrassed to send the call out to the whole of Creation, including animate and inanimate, wild and domesticated animals, “creeping things” and birds, people young and old—and, quite explicitly, the kings and all the rulers of the earth. Now, the prophets all pointed to a time when Creation would be healed of all the wounds we people have been inflicting—cleansed of human sins that cause fruitful Creation to wither. And the prophets foretold a time when enemy nations would be amazed at the ways God would redeem and renew his special people, Israel. They will then repent of their sins, and come streaming to Zion for wisdom and justice. But this Psalm says, by faith we live in a Wrinkle in Time. By hopeful faith we send out the invitation right now. Join us and the angels right now and praise the Lord!

Then, in Revelation 21:3 there is this curious thing the visionary, John, hears when he first sees the New Heaven, the New Earth, and the New Jerusalem. He hears a loud voice from God’s throne saying the home of God is with mortal humans, both in the future and right now. Present and future overlap. God’s tabernacle, or living presence, bith IS and WILL BE among humans.

And John’s Gospel features this Wrinkle all over the place. In John 1:14 we are told about this same “tabernacling” of God—“And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.Then the Samaritan woman at the well is astounded that Jesus, a Jew, who worships in the Jerusalem Temple and who is bound by Moses’ law to avoid contact with Samaritans, is instead having a deep conversation with her. Jesus replies that God is bending time back on this woman and on all who encounter him: “…the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”  Then, as Jesus nears the cross, he tells his disciples they can’t follow him. A few verses later he explains that Peter and the disciples can’t follow him “now,” but they will follow afterward. Meanwhile they can live in  the Wrinkle in God’s Time when they live under the regime of the New Command to love one another as Jesus has loved them. They can’t follow, but they can follow.

Here is the greatest characteristic of the Wrinkle in Time. God is with us when we love. God tabernacles, dwells, pitches a tent with us, when we love. The whole of Creation and the whole of humanity will praise God and worship with us when we love. All because everyone will know that we are disciples of Christ when we have love for one another.

Time folds over on itself when we love. We walk with Sarah and Abraham, Moses and Miriam, Mary Magdalene and Peter, when  we love God and one another. We also walk with renewed creation and redeemed people of all sorts. And we walk with angels, and with the Lord.

But we also see into the future. We do not let any present threat, be it pandemic or political polarization, cause us to hate. We walk into every dimension of our future with our heads held high in hope, because “there is no fear in love, because perfect love casts out all fear (1 John 4.18).”

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Easter 4 C: Recognizing Care

The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter are:

First Reading        Acts 9:36–43

Psalm                    Psalm 23

New Testament      Revelation 7:9–17

Gospel                   John 10:22–30

Our psalm and Gospel readings focus on shepherding. Revelation on Christ the Lamb, whose self sacrifice gives him dominion and the power to gather countless people from every ethnicity into eternal life.

Being a shepherd who is presently in the thick of lambing, I choose to focus on John 10.

The entire Gospel of John is a drama of the ancient sort, with a prologue, oodles of irony, and several recognition scenes. This day’s Gospel is just such a “recognition.” During the Jewish feast of Tabernacles, the Jews pressed Jesus, “Who are you? Are you greater than our father, Abraham, and the prophets? Who do you claim to be? (8:25, 53)” Here again, at the feast of Hanukah,  they ask questions that may also be on our minds: ““How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

The phrase translated as “keep us in suspense” is actually seldom used in Greek literature with just that meaning. It reads literally, “take away our life.” It could mean, “Don’t keep annoying us,” or it could be another piece of irony: “You may be bringing life to some, but you are bringing death to us who reject you.”

Jesus replies, “I keep disclosing who I am, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my flock. My sheep hear my voice. I know them. They follow me. I give them eternal life.”

Life here on Heatherhope Farm, during lambing, is a living drama that illuminates and amplifies this exchange. And it is all about recognition of care.

The mother ewe lies on her side. She raises her head and curls her lips, and she groans in labor pains. After her travail of minutes or even hours, the lamb spills out in a sack of the waters and blood of life. The mother turns and hurriedly smells to see if this is indeed her lamb. Then she licks the sack from the lambs nose and mouth and body and carries on to clean and dry the lamb with her licking, chortling all the while.

Here is the first act of the drama of recognition. Mother knows lamb by the fragrance the two of them share. But lamb already is familiar with mother’s voice from her days inside the womb. Then, within minutes, the lamb shakes its head and begins to bleat, and mother learns that unique sound. Lamb finds the teat. Mother nourishes. From now on, all the days mother and lamb live together they will be bonded by the call and response of their voices. Mother cares, and lamb knows it through mother’s voice.

If Connie or I have picked up on the telltale signs of labor, and have been watching, we put on our OB gloves to keep our scent off the lamb, and simply pull off any umbilical sack that the ewe may have missed, to ensure the first, crucial inhalation of life. We will carry the lamb to the safety of the lambing pen and dip its umbilical cord in iodine to prevent infection. We pinch and strip the mother’s teats to make sure her flow of milk is adequate. But that’s all. Then we leave mom and lamb to do what they do best—to deepen their trust in each other. Within a very short time mother and lamb can be mixed in a large flock, or loosed on a large pasture, and they will call out and respond, find one another, certify by sniffing, and the caring goes on.

Still, each birth is unique. And there are those times when something interferes with the bonding and the work of nurturing. That is when the shepherd must go into action. And wouldn’t you know it, the very last lamb born this year has had just such a challenge. Mother seems attentive enough, but perhaps her flow of milk has been substandard. And the ewe lamb may have had birth trauma that has hampered its nursing instinct, or it may have become discouraged. But #309 is a tiny, weak lamb, who has been languishing. Connie and I tube fed the lamb by having it swallow one end of a long tube into its stomach and then using a large syringe to feed warm lamb milk replacer into it. We then tried it on a lamb nursing bottle, but she didn’t suck. Hours later another tubing and another try at the bottle. And repeat. Finally #309 started to nurse. A few ounces, then five, and now she is up to six ounces at a feeding—headed in the right direction. We don’t always have to intervene, but to save a lamb’s life, we must do our work.

And now, whenever Connie and I walk into the barn, #309 and her mother snap to attention. We greet them, “Hello mother. Hello little lambie.” Mother greets us at the gate and chortles. Weak little lamb wobbles to her feet and takes a few steps toward us. We are auxiliary care-takers—but they know the sound of our footsteps, and our voices. They know our smell. They know we care.

Before this lambing time mother ewe kept a nervous distance. We raise all our ewes that way so our Border Collies will not get confused when they gather sheep or drive them away.

Before we started tubing and giving a bottle to #309 she startled and squirmed when we tried to catch and handle her.

But now they know our voice. They know that we are humans who care.

The Gospel of John is full of people who wonder who this Jesus might be. These Jews in chapter 10 never do understand. But the Samaritan woman at the well has a conversation in which she recognizes Jesus might just be the Messiah. Mary Magdalene is another woman who, at the empty tomb, just needs to hear Jesus’ voice call, “Mary,” and she answers, “Rabbouni.” And Thomas, despite all his doubts about Jesus’ Resurrection, hears Jesus call him to belief, and he replies, “My Lord and my God!”

What do these women and Tomas hear that opens their eyes? Majesty? Divinity? Life beyond death? I’m sure all of these things and more. But certainly they also recognize genuine, deep, eternal compassion.

Of all the bizarre behaviors I have witnessed during this global pandemic, the what saddens me the most is that so many people have turned against our precious caregivers. Nurses, doctors, public health administrators, teachers, pastors, governors, shop keepers, hospitality workers, flight attendants and others—all have been attacked for trying to keep people safe, healthy, and alive. These are people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to caring, and they have been attacked for it.

The question is, do we belong to the flock. Will Jesus bring us life or take it away? Will we never understand who Jesus is, or will we recognize him as Messiah by his caring?  And will we learn to thank God for the caring people in our lives, receive their help, and support them in every way we can?

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Easter 3C: Life, Not the Pandemic, Will Win

The Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter are:

First Reading        Acts 9:1–6 (7–20)

Psalm                    Psalm 30

New Testament      Revelation 5:11–14

Gospel                   John 21:1–19

I was 30 years old. My son was four. I was in my sixth year of  ministry. I was used to pushing myself by staying up late with the help of endless cups of coffee, and midnight exercise like shooting baskets or cross-country skiing. Often, when I pushed too far, I had intimations of endless dread. I would suddenly feel infinitely small and the darkness overwhelming.

One night of that year the intimation turned into an uninvited guest who would not depart. The dark cloud that enveloped me in my bed followed me throughout the day and into weeks and months. All the good humor and optimism that marked my character was swallowed up by existential anxiety. I kept up an act of cheerfulness to convince others and myself. But the shadow of deep doubt would not go away.

I that time, whenever I looked on my son, so full of life, all I could think of was him dead. All things gone. Only vast, eternal extinction.

I tried to pray and preach and prove my way out of the black hole. But it was only walking down the isle of the church during a festive worship service, singing “A Mighty Fortress,” that the dark veil was lifted off of me by the hands of God.

Several years later I took part in a special seminary seminar dedicated to the theme “Choosing to Die.” A panel of learned theologians made bold proclamations about the circumstances when it was meet, right and even salutary to take one’s own life. In our discussion the question was asked about whether and when a pastor should pray with those hospitalized with grave or terminal illness. One after another the pastors and theologians in the room laid out persuasive arguments about why a pastor should not impose with prayer—and especially with prayer about eternal life. It would be presumptuous, pompous, naive, and insensitive.

Finally, I raised my hand. “I once was dying inside, and it was next to impossible to find anyone, in my church or out, who would pray or talk to me about life after death. I needed someone. I would have given anything to hear a pastor, or a friend, affirm eternal life and pray with me about it.”

John Updike wrote about this Christian embarrassment about resurrection in his short story, “Pigeon Feathers.” He wrote that we can mention it loudly in the Creed in worship, but we can’t seem to talk about it in conversational tones.

And this embarrassment seems to spill over into theology and biblical interpretation. Many scholars stress that explicit belief in the resurrection does not appear in Hebrew Scriptures until its latest writing, the Book of Daniel. Yet here, in our much older Psalm for this Sunday, Psalm 30, we have these verses:

3O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,

restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

8To you, O Lord, I cried,

and to the Lord I made supplication:

9“What profit is there in my death,

if I go down to the Pit?

Will the dust praise you?

Will it tell of your faithfulness?

10Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!

O Lord, be my helper!”

11You have turned my mourning into dancing;

you have taken off my sackcloth

and clothed me with joy,

12so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.

O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

The Jewish biblical scholar, Jon Levenson, points out in his book, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, that there is a tension throughout the Hebrew Bible, in that human mortality is always portrayed as a “brute fact,” yet there is always also the concomitant belief that God has both a preference for, and the power to give, life to those he chooses.

Sure, the belief in God’s power and preference for life is not worked out in Technicolor detail until Daniel. But I love the logic about praise in this Psalm. Praise and prayers of thanks tether us to the transcendent God. And believers count on the power of that tether to withstand even the onslaught of death itself. It’s my job to keep up such a quality of conversation that the Lord won’t want it wasted.

My seminary Christian history professor, the late Carl Volz, and I agreed one day that “If you believe in God you can believe in anything. And if you believe in a gracious God you don’t have to believe in anything. God does the believing for you. You depend on God’s belief in you.”

I learned during my black hole days that my faith in God is not really mine. It is not a product of my personality or strength of character. God giveth and God can taketh away.

These pandemic days, when we wonder only whether the next virus or severe climate change will get us first, many of us are falling into depression and anxiety. But I, for one, am thrilled that I believe what Israel has always believed: Life will win out. God brought up my soul from Sheol, and I can thank God forever.

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Easter Lamb Triplets

Easter reminds us that Christ has defeated Death and gives us new life every moment.

An essential truth to remember these days of pandemic, war, and uncertainty.

Lambs born on Easter add an exclamation mark! And triplet lambs three exclamation marks!!!

Of course the adrenaline was pumping strongly this Easter, April 17, 2022, when John had to leave early to travel an hour to St. Luke Lutheran Church, in Glen Ellyn, IL–the church he retired from a dozen years ago–to preach and preside at Easter Day festival worship. Just as he was ready to run out the door Connie spied a lone lamb in the feedlot. When she went into the barn, which is connected to the lot, she saw a mother with two lambs.

Who did the lone lamb belong to? It is a grave problem if you mismatch mothers and lambs. So, with phone calls back and forth to John on the highway, and with a little confirmation from our great friend, Chauncey, who sped over to help, Connie thought things through and saw that none of the remaining ewes in the feedlot had telltale bloody fluids on their rear legs. So the loner was a triplet!

Connie shut the barn door to the other ewes and brought the loner lamb into a lambing pen, and then convinced the mother to follow the other two into that same pen. Of course, the strong, plaintive bleating of the loner lamb helped convince mother.

Often times one of a set of triplets will languish because it’s not getting the milk and attention of the others. But this mother is exceptionally calm, attentive, and productive. So all three lambs, a week on, are doing wonderfully.

And wonderfully goes life in this world where Christ is changing everything!

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Easter 2 C: Peace in Action: Forgiving and Not Forgiving

The readings for the Second Sunday of Easter are:

First Reading         Acts 5:27–32

Psalm                    Psalm 118:14–29 or Psalm 150

New Testament     Revelation 1:4–8

Gospel                   John 20:19–31

The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus was right when he insisted that things are not—they are becoming. They are in a constant state of flux, the only constant is change, and, “No one ever steps in the same river twice.”

This is why we are always disappointed when we seek status quo “peace.” Wishing that things would go back to the “good ole days” before the pandemic, before the culture wars, and before the war of annihilation of Ukraine that Putin calls “liberation,” will definitely not make it so. That status quo never existed. Real life is always dynamic.

And so, Jesus is insistent, in John 14:27, that he does not give the peace the world gives. That peace is an illusion of golden age stasis—an illusion that peace is a warm and cozy cocoon of changelessness. True peace is in motion, and we must take our part in it or it will not be a reality in our lives.

Just so the Resurrection Life that Jesus bequeaths to the disciples is a living, ever moving thing. It is peace in action with several moving parts: the proof of wounds, the sending, the breathing, the Holy Spirit, the mission of forgiving and not forgiving.

Our world today is greatly in need of all of these moving parts.

One sign of the anemia of atheism and skepticism is the perennial scandal taken over the incarnation, and the truth of a suffering God. Jesus insists on cross and wounds as the core of all meaning. It is the thing all of us must actively focus on if we are to understand and accept the true God and the true nature of human existence. The hour of glory is the hour of the cross because it makes God real. It reveals to us a God who actually cares enough to be wounded and even die for the sake of compassion. Atheists consistently reject theism as belief in wishful thinking for a way around suffering. The divine Jesus insists we take suffering absolutely seriously and work though it by keeping our eyes on his cross. 

The peace the Risen One gives is a peace in action. As Jesus is divine love in action (for God so loved the world), just so is each believer who is sent along the path Jesus pioneered. We cannot be believers without mission and purpose. Any fight for the freedom of religion as a freedom to simply accept concepts of faith, to win arguments, or to stubbornly stay put in the past, is an exercise in futility.  

As in chapter 14 of John, the peace Jesus gives is empowered by the Holy Spirit, the advocate, the comforter, the teacher. We recognize spirit in ourselves when we are excited—when we are pleased to overcome our inertia and move in a different way. But it is the Holy Spirit that moves us to not only a higher dimension of value in our lives, but The Highest Value.

That highest dimension of value comes into focus when Jesus adds finally that our peace comes as we forgive and retain sin. That is, we forgive, and we pronounce some things as unforgiven:

Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

My first impulse, when reading this was to think peace-in-action is all about forgiveness. After all, I’m a compassionate Christian, aren’t I? And compassion is all about bringing love, not hate—acceptance, not judgment.

What’s more, I can’t help but be influenced by centuries of ethical relativism that has taught us that morality is a matter of taste; and if there are such things as objective values that are shared by the culture and community we happen to live in, those  values are absolutely relative. And recent events have proven the case of relativism. Whether vaccines are life saving or a threat to freedom depends entirely on your religion and politics. The same holds true now for the benefits of fostering social and emotional maturity in schools. Democrats are for it, and Republicans deadly opposed.

But thinking only in terms of forgiveness can well be an expression of relativism. We are relativists if we believe all must be forgiven, since the whole matter of the dignity of all people, and the value of promoting respect for that dignity, is ultimately just a matter of political and cultural identity.

But Jesus says the living peace that the Holy Spirit gives us is an active thing. We must be the people who forgive, but also refuse to forgive those who deny to others what values they cherish for themselves.

Here is where the wounds of Christ come back into the scene. Here is where the Holy Spirit comes back in, because she is the one who forces us to focus on the sacrificial giving of God—the cross and blood of Christ.

The ultimate value of knowing what we need to flourish, and sacrificially working to guarantee those things to others, is what cross and wounding is all about. These things are neither subjective nor relative. This is not a matter of taste or of political persuasion, or culture. It is a divine and ultimate absolute. So we know peace when we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit that confirms this value in us at the cross–when we forgive sins, but refuse to forgive the lack of respect and compassion for all.

Finally, I feel it is my responsibility, as a follower of Christ, to renounce and refuse to forgive the way so many Republican politicians are today trying to amass power for themselves by smearing Democrats. They have fallen under the spell of yet another power-at-any-price, satan of smear–this time, Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute. They are “bearing false witness” in hyper drive by calling all appeals to take responsibility to make amends for America’s history of racism racism itself. They are now digging their “false witness” hole deeper still by coming out against character formation in schools that emphasize cooperation, respect, and emotional self-awareness. They are committing slander on a grand scale when they label any teaching of  respect of all people “grooming.”  This cannot be forgiven as it is a denial of the absolute good Christ died for. Such respect is not relative to political persuasion. It is a universal value.

Christ died for all, regardless of race, religion, gender identity, sexuality, or political party. Christ rose again and gives the Holy Spirit that we might be in mission, and so live in peace with this truth.

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Easter C: Easter’s “Already”

The readings for Easter Sunday are:

First Reading        Acts 10:34–43 or Isaiah 65:17–25

Psalm                    Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24

New Testament      1 Corinthians 15:19–26 or Acts 10:34–43

Gospel                   John 20:1–18 or Luke 24:1–12

Let us allow Luke to be our guide to celebrating Easter. We want to think Resurrection means something today, not just after we die. Luke shows the way.

Before we read the appointed Easter Gospel from Luke let us back up in his account to a few very special verses regarding the Kingdom or Rule of God.

A few chapters earlier Luke reports that Jesus said this: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

Before Jesus words that we remember as the Words of Institution of the Eucharist in chapter 22,  he makes this promise: “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”

In chapter 23, just a few verses before our Gospel reading, Luke tells us about one Joseph of Arimathea, who asks Pilate not to let the scavengers at the body of Jesus. He takes it, wraps it in linen, and places it in a new tomb. Why? Because “he was waiting expectantly for the Kingdom of God.”

Now, comes our Reading of the first twelve verses in Luke 24, where one very powerful verse asks, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The hope for the rule of God is not dead. It has arisen with Christ.

One reason Luke writes his Gospel is that in the 40 to 60 years after the crucifixion the Kingdom seemed to be nowhere to be seen. If Jesus was the Messiah, why was he killed? Why was Jerusalem now lying in ruins? Why was no Davidic King on the throne? Why were the Romans and death and taxes still the only things that were sure and certain?

Today, two millennia later, it still seems that way. And we need Luke more than ever. We don’t think in terms of Kingdom, but how can we say the world is better off for Christ? No day goes by that we don’t fret when someone points out that bad, bad things still are happening to good people. Tragedy seems to be the one constant, from the mothers and children fleeing the carnage in Ukraine to aunt Jane, who did so much for others all her life, and is now lying in her own soiled linens in an understaffed nursing home.

If Jesus were the messianic king, where is he now ruling? Where is the rule or the Kingdom of God?  We have all the proof we need that it certainly is not here yet!

Not yet!

But  Luke’s beautiful Gospel does indeed point us to the other side of things—to the “Already.”

We hear the message ring out: For many incredible things we don’t have to wait. We just open our eyes of faith. This is why “today” is one of Luke’s favorite words:

Today, the angels tell us: Today is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 

Today God’s promise of release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor—it all is coming true….Today.

Today we’ve see a paralyzed man walked – Today we see strange things.

Today. When Jesus comes to eat with Zacchaeus the hated tax collector, and Zacchaeus realizes he has cheated people to enrich himself, Jesus rejoices and says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

And to the penitent thief on the cross Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus says though the Kingdom of God is not easy to point out in conventional ways, it is already taking shape among us. And this Gospel helps us come alive to two very special ways this is so.

First, the Holy Spirit now is the dominant force in our lives. It opens our eyes and it empowers our hearts.

As Jesus himself is conceived by and anointed with the Spirit, so people like Zachariah, and Elizabeth and Mary are filled with the Spirit.

God gives the Holy Spirit to all who ask for it.

Jesus’ disciples are to be “clothed with power from on high.”

Jesus goes at length to explain that when you follow him there will be trouble and persecution. But it is in times like this that the Holy Spirit works through us to help us endure.

I heartily recommend that we talk to our loved ones and neighbors about the Holy Spirit. In today’s world we are being told a great deal of vacuous things as children and teens, like, “You can do anything if you put your mind to it and work hard at it.”  But then, when real life problems come up such as trouble in a marriage or a problem pregnancy, how often are we quickly advised to get a divorce or an abortion. “That’s life. You can’t fight it.”

But life doesn’t have to be that brutal. God is already ruling, and that means he gives the Spirit to us if we ask. Have we considered that with the Holy Spirit we may already have the Kingdom of God among us, and we might be empowered to do impossible things like salvage a marriage and make room for a new life? I believe that as Christians in a democratic republic we should not force our ethics on others; but we certainly should still believe and proclaim that the Holy Spirit empowers us to do what seems impossible.

I believe we see the greatest way the Kingdom of God is already among us in the Eucharist we celebrate in Christian worship.

Let’s not think the Lord’s Supper is just the end of our worship. Let’s see it as it is: the beginning of the Kingdom of God. It is where Jesus changes the way we set a table. The Great Banquet of God, that Jesus described in chapter 14 of Luke, is happening now and changing the world. We Christians don’t invite only those who can pay us back. We go out to the hedges and alleyways to invite those whom others shut their doors to. Well, as congregations and as individuals  we may not be perfect in doing this, but we should know enough not to have rules to exclude. We are compelled to say all are forgiven sinners. All are invited and welcome. And, after all, it is still Christ who is doing the gathering whether we are aware or not.

Jesus has told us the Kingdom, though hard to see, is among us now.

At the Last Supper Jesus adds a vow that he will eat Passover with us only in the Kingdom of God—but that Kingdom came quickly on the very first Easter Day, by way of Jesus’ Resurrection. It came with the two disciples at the dinner table on the road to Emmaus, and again when Jesus shares a fish dinner with the eleven later that same day.

Jesus continues to welcome tax collectors and sinners of all sorts. And, as he breaks bread with us, our eyes are open to who he is and to the way he is even now ruling our world.

We are like Peter, in Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, chapter 10. Bad blood between Jews and Romans was boiling more and more after Jesus’ death. But Jesus was already changing things among believers of all religions and races. God had a Roman Centurion named Cornelius send slaves to Simon Peter’s house to invite him to dinner. Of course Peter, a good Jew, would rather die than break the Law of Moses by eating with an impure Gentile. But while the slaves were on their way Peter got hungry. While his meal was cooking, he fell into a trance and saw a sheet full of non-Kosher foods, and a voice said, “Get up Peter, kill and eat.”

Peter protested, “I could never eat anything profane and unclean.”

The resurrected Jesus then answered him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

If you ever say to yourself, “Jesus changed nothing. Everyone is corrupt. The world is still the same old dirty place,” please remember this:  If you are looking for the change—look around. “The Kingdom is among you.”

All you need to do is ask and you will receive the Holy Spirit to see things anew and act anew. 

And please remember what it means when we gather at the table for the Lord’s Supper. This is the beginning of the Kingdom. As we or anyone else around this world walks up to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we are NOT CORRUPT.

Yes, there is the “not yet.” There is corruption in this world as it is. Even the disciples are still corrupted by their culture’s low estimation of women as they consider the women’s report of the Resurrection “an idle tale.” But in Holy Communion we have the beginnings of the world as it should be. By the Spirit we believe no one who comes to this meal is unclean or profane. All are welcome because God has made us all clean.  

Jesus is even now gathering us into God’s Kingdom.

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Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday C: Called Out of the Crowd

The readings for the Liturgy of the Palms:

Psalm                    Psalm 118:1–2, 19–29

Gospel                   Luke 19:28–40

The readings for the Liturgy of the Passion:

Old Testament      Isaiah 50:4–9a

Psalm                    Psalm 31:9–16

New Testament     Philippians 2:5–11

Gospel                   Luke 22:14–23:56 or Luke 23:1–49

We rehearse this day a two-thousand year-old drama.

But we are not an audience. This is not a theatre. This is our Christian worship, and we are called by God’s Spirit to stop being onlookers, and to take our part in this drama of life and salvation.

We thought we knew all the characters of this play: Jesus, Judas, Pilate, the Priests.

But there is a major character we would prefer not to notice. And in fact we do so easily on other days of the church year.

But Palm and Passion Sunday we can turn our heads no longer. We are drawn in. We are forced to notice the CROWD!

All through the Gospel story The Crowd is there:

As the curtain rises The Crowd is there with John the Baptist, fleeing from God’s wrath like a brood of vipers, asking “What should we do? How do we truly repent?”

The Crowd eagerly listens to Jesus teaching. They won’t leave him alone. His own mother and brothers come to Jesus, but they can’t reach him because of The Crowd.

The Crowd presses in on him so tightly that Jesus is forced to step into a boat and teach from off shore.

The Crowd is amazed and excited about the way Jesus heals and drives out demons.

Everyone in The Crowd wants also to be cured of their many diseases. Everyone tries to touch Jesus because power flows from him.

The Crowd is hungry. The Crowd is like sheep without a shepherd. But Jesus feeds them and sustains both body and soul.

A large Crowd of despised tax collectors joins him at table, and they too are accepted and fed.

When Jesus raises from the dead a widow’s son and a synagogue official’s daughter, The Crowd swells to the thousands—so many are they that they trample each other in their frenzy.

So fixed are we on Jesus, disciples, and the Pharisees and priests, that we hardly notice The Crowd – until Palm and Passion Sunday.

Today we not only notice The Crowd, but we become The Crowd. And it is so bewildering and painful.

This Sunday, we, The Crowd, as Jesus enters our Holy City, wave palm branches and praise God joyfully with a loud voice, for all the deeds of power we have seen Jesus do. We hail him as Messiah King who has come to us in the name of the Lord.

But what happens on Friday? We come to arrest him in the Garden. We hear Pilate declare him innocent, but we insist, “He stirs up the people. Away with him. Crucify, crucify him. Don’t bother us with facts, just kill him.”

It is painful and bewildering because we, The Crowd acts so fickle; but also because being part of The Crowd seemed so safe. We don’t have to think that much in a crowd. We just go along to get along. And we don’t have take responsibility—we are just doing what everybody else is doing. Who can blame us for that?

Ah, but this is what the Sunday of the Passion is all about. It is telling us Crowd Thinking is dangerous. It is warning us that hiding behind anonymity and ignorance has consequences.

We read the Passion this year in Luke’s Gospel. But in Luke’s second volume—the Book of Acts, Peter, the Apostle, speaks to us when he speaks to the very Crowd who cried “Crucify him.”

 “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers…” But ignorance is no excuse. You must accept your responsibility.  “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” (Acts 3)

From his cross Jesus calls us out of our hiding place in The Crowd. Jesus calls us out of our intentional ignorance. Jesus calls us to repent and accept God’s forgiveness. 

Amen.

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Living on God’s Timeline

It’s that time of year on Heatherhope Farm. We eagerly await and methodically make preparations for the arrival of newborn lambs beginning in a couple of weeks.

Of course, to mark time, we also anxiously consult our human contrivances. The calendar says it’s April 2 and well into springtime. The weather app says the average temperatures for this day of the year should fall between 34 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit. But snow is falling. So, what’s up with that?

Yet, if we look carefully beneath those snow covered spruce trees, we see the green blade rising. And when we inspect our ewes, we can see they are bulging. So, God’s time doesn’t always match with ours; and God’s time is always the right time.

Also, our human contrivances of news media and social media afford us ample proof that this is the age of strife and death. But, as a favorite hymn of mine says, “I believe that Christ is changing everything.”

I choose to rely on the green wheat in our fields beneath the snow, the pecking of the robins, the growth of lambs in our ewes, and of grandchildren on their way in our daughters’ wombs, and, most of all, the victory of the love of God over Enemy Death.

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