At the center of our religion, love. What heals us, love. What heals our communities, love. Also, the stated motive of most religious people, regardless of actual outcomes, love. I agree with the Beatles: “All you need is love.”
Among the most familiar words of scripture, Psalm 23 wakes us up to God’s shepherding presence and provision in our lives. Our shepherd sets us down in green pastures, leads us beside still waters, restores our soul, sets our feet on a path that leads to life, walks with us even in valley of the shadow of death. The shepherd makes space for us at a table, a place of feasting and sharing, abundance and joy, even when we are surrounded by our enemies. And when we get up from the table, what it is that follows us is God’s goodness and mercy.
Of all the books in the Bible, the historical context and literary expectations of the book of Revelation are probably the least understood of all biblical books by the average Bible-reader. Revelation embodies the literary form of Apocalypse, a genre of 1st and 2nd century literature most closely mirrored in the 21st century genre of science fiction. In the world of science fiction, authors can freely critique or question or eliminate governments or institutions or cultural norms without fear of reprimand or marginalization. That is Revelation.
All during Lent, small groups gathered for Daily Lenten Prayer. In the sanctuary each Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at noon for 20 to 30 minutes, we shared prayer, scripture, poetry, conversation, and God’s peace. When conversing about the good news for that day, good news about God’s abundant grace or love, forgiveness or goodness, usually, one among us would say: “Really? Is that really true?” An understandable question when grace or love, forgiveness or goodness seem absent in the world.
Throughout the Lenten season, we gathered on Wednesdays around the theme Walking the Valley of the Shadow of Death, each week considering a different biblical perspective on death. Death as a natural process, death as blessing, death as enemy, death as a community grief, death as loss. One perspective I had failed to see in scripture was death as teacher, death as something that informs how we live our lives.
You might know already: I love foot washing. Because, through it, we love people. Because, through it, we care for people. Because we show our lack of fear of others when touching their feet. Because, in foot washing, we accept the grimiest part of people and thus accept people—as they are.
What keeps on surprising me about foot washing is that those who wash others’ feet don’t mind. We really don’t. We’re happy to kneel at the feet of our friends and community members. We are honored to do so. Not once have I heard or seen anyone laugh at or even comment upon someone else’s feet.
Jesus comes to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. While at table, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with nard, a costly perfume, and wipes his feet with her hair. Grumbling ensues because Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, believes Mary has wasted money on an extravagance while the small fortune—a year’s worth of wages—could have gone to provide necessary nourishment for the multitudes living in poverty. The gospel writer John gives us an insider’s view when he reports that Judas concerns himself less about “the poor” and more about ensuring wealth enough to steal from the common purse—for which Judas is responsible.
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells a story, a parable about two sons. One wildly extravagant and grateful. The other steady, reliable, and bitter. The father loves both sons, gives generously to both, shows extravagant grace to both. The father runs to greet his younger son and rejoices and throws a party after that son has wasted wealth and endured hunger and received no care from strangers. The father shares all he has with his older son, goes to find his bitter, envious son, and invites him to the party.
In today’s gospel, someone in the crowd following Jesus tells him about how Pilate murdered Galileans and mixed their blood with blood used for non-Jewish sacrifice. Jesus asks: Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Jesus then recalls how the tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen people beneath it. He asks: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No. The answer to both of these questions, no. Were these murdered people worse sinners than others? No. Were they killed because of their actions, because of their morals, because of their choices? No.
Phew! Thanks be to God! End of sermon.
I wrestled with the Bible this week. Each year on the first Sunday in Lent, we read the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and I have always had more questions than answers. Does God allow the devil to tempt us? Is this story calling us to resist temptation? Why would the Holy Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness? Is the devil affirming Jesus’ identity as Son of God, or is he questioning that identity? What exactly is the devil? This week, I added some questions because of a new, seemingly obvious insight: this story is about Jesus.
On Ash Wednesday, we confront ourselves.
We begin worship in silence. We cannot avoid the thoughts inside our heads.
We confess our sin, our most grievous sin. We cannot avoid the truth of our communal confession, that we are a broken people.
We receive ashes on our forehead and hear: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. We cannot avoid our mortality.
Probably for the last year, I’ve slowly been reading a book by public theologian Rob Bell entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Among many other helpful insights, he illustrates in the book how we as people of faith came to create religion, in particular the Christian religion on the heels of the Jewish religion. Please understand, he describes the creation of religion, not God. He describes the slow progression of designating some places, some objects, some people as sacred, set apart from the mundane and ordinary.
On the bookcase in my office is taped a piece of six year old scratch paper with a quote from Renee the second year she served as treasurer of Grace. “We can never adequately plan for how good God is to us,” she said. That January, our revenue exceeded our expenses for the first time in such a long time that no one could remember the last time we had balanced the books at Grace. I recall the moment I skimmed the year-end financials just sent to us by our then-bookkeeper Louise. As one of the fiscally responsible agents of Grace Lutheran Church, I honestly open financial statements with a certain amount of dread. But my expectations were dashed when, at the bottom of the page, the number appeared not in a parenthesis meaning in the red, in the negative, but right there by itself indicating we were in the black. I got up from my desk and rushed to asked Stephanie sitting at her desk in the outer office: Is this right? I think we balanced the budget! This is actually a miracle!
Contrary to popular understanding, prophets of the Old Testament tell the truth, not the future, the truth. And they tell the truth not just according to them but the truth according to God. Being a prophet is a hard job because, generally, people are not fond of the truth according to God. And for that reason, prophets of the Old Testament try to get out of the prophet gig.
Today, at the very start of his public ministry, Jesus declares his mission, declares his mission statement, if you will. And a very fitting mission statement it is from the 61st chapter of Isaiah: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, that is, the year of Jubilee.
We’ve probably all been there—anxious about how something for which we are responsible will turn out, anxious about being accepted, anxious about meeting the expectations of the people we love or the world at large. Whether we’re trying to succeed at our job, raise a child, be independent and make our own way in the world, take a test, be a good person, or even just throw a party, most of us know the feeling of apprehension, know the questioning: Will this be good enough? Am I good enough?
On Sunday, December 10, 1978, I was 3 weeks old. My parents brought me to the font of baptism at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in the tiny, tiny town of Noonan, North Dakota. My dad was the pastor who, in true Lutheran fashion, sprinkled just a bit of water upon my head and proclaimed me baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
And what surprises me, what delights me, what brings me hope tonight is that, even though every single person in the ancient story of Jesus’ birth and every single one of us is steeped in violence and injustice, fear and hatred, the angels proclaim: Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth, peace!
As we expectantly wait for Christmas, one persona dominates the church world, another persona our culture at large. These two prominent figures both speak of how we should act, what we should do—and the consequences if we do not. The persona of our culture at large? Who can we find everywhere at malls and on cards and sung about in songs during the month of December? Santa Claus.
How about the persona of the church world? Who is it who dominates our Advent stories? Right. John the Baptist.