Reflection for July 27, 2014

I Kings 3:5-12, Romans 8:26-39, and Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52

Today we begin with the story of King Solomon whose reign is known as the golden age of ancient Israel. The complete account of Solomon is written by a later royal court historian and covers the first eleven chapters of I Kings.  The historian is writing with a sense of grandeur, and probably is stretching the truth about the wisdom of Solomon, the accomplishments of the king, and the importance of the kingdom. That is how it is with all systems of government and their court historians who in our own time reside within the media.
Still, it seems as if the court historian of Solomon has some actual recollections and records from the Bronze Age which are woven together in these eleven chapters. And it appears that for at least a brief time ancient Israel thrived on the world stage, expanding its sphere of influence. Whether it was a golden age or a brief bubble, Norman Gottwald (The Hebrew Bible: A Social Literary Introduction) and John Collins (Introduction to the Hebrew Bible) provide some insight into our current understandings of the Bronze Age reign of Solomon.
Solomon follows David as king of Israel. He comes to power after a bitter struggle with his brother Adonijah, and opens his reign with an iron fist. A ruthless suppression of opposition enables the development and expansion of a different political economy. The true wealth of the kingdom was agricultural surplus, which was supplemented by trade and tolls on caravans in transit, as well as shrewd commercial deals such as arms sales of horses and chariots.  Fortifications and standing armies of cavalry and chariots were financed.  Favorable weather, military might, and aggressive trading policies built a strong confederation.
The archeology of the period indicates that Jerusalem was probably a very small place at this time: too small for the awe inspiring buildings like the temple described in these chapters. And the scope of the city state’s influence seems exaggerated in this account. Still the archeology does indicate significant Bronze Age building in several sites including Jerusalem. Worship centers, palaces, central squares, markets, civic buildings, stables, and walls all were being built at this time. And the court historian indicates that building, especially of a temple and a large royal palace, were great accomplishments of Solomon.
Solomon’s time was marked with strong international diplomacy. This was accomplished through the accepted practice of polygamy and political marriage. Solomon took many wives to form international alliances. These women were from the surrounding peoples and as far away as Egypt, Arabia, and beyond Phoenicia toward Spain. They brought with them their own religious traditions and Solomon began to support these religions, probably as a diplomatic move and to keep everyone happy.
The combination of diplomacy, shrewdness, economic advantage, and military strength probably led to the legend of Solomon’s wisdom. And it may be the case that Solomon’s golden age did not involve an empire or military kingdom as much as a sphere of influence based on shrewdness and successful dealings.  People were attracted to the wealth, power, shrewdness, and insight of this crossroads kingdom of the Middle East.
In the time of Solomon one sees the marks of a Bronze Age renaissance. Bronze artists are brought in. There is a center for learning focused on the natural sciences. Precious raw materials for building and art were available. Architecture is important. Some writing may have occurred, perhaps the very first collections of sayings of wisdom or proverbs.
But all was not wonderful in the kingdom of Solomon. Two new ideas at first worked well, but became more problematic with the passing of time. First, the old tribal system founded on the twelve tribes coming together to form a confederation and then nation, is replaced by Solomon with administrative territories. This breaks down the power of the old tribal oligarchs, and creates a better system of taxation with more dependence on a central government. But it also bred discontent and weakened the bonds of ethnic loyalty upon which the nation was founded.
Second, conscripted forced labor is introduced to support the building projects.  At first only foreigners were used as slaves. But then Israelites were also conscripted for a month or two of forced labor each year.  Eventually the conscripted labor had its own administrative system and involved everyone except the elite.  Even the court historian seems to be somewhat ambivalent about this slave labor in a nation that was built on freedom from bondage to Egypt.
The court historian says that the real weakness of Solomon was worshipping the gods of his many wives. This he says leads to the fall of the kingdom. But as Solomon dies the loss of tribal allegiances and the growing dependence on slavery leads to a revolt led by a northern administrator of the slave system: Jeroboam. The civil war that ensues splits the kingdom in two: a north and a south.  And as the Bronze Age comes to a close, expanding Iron Age empires with better weapons begin to chew away and eventually overwhelm the once great kingdom.
Throughout this story you can sense the truth of the parables of Jesus this morning in the political and social arena. All great things really start small. Things happen one step at a time. The longest journey begins with one step. The smallest matters can change the course of history. Great nations start as something much less. It is the miracle of expansion and growth. And it is the miracle of decline and collapse, as interconnected matters, circumstances and forces propel us into greatness or oblivion, as little things start to loom large.
And what is true of economies and nations rising and falling as the small things become significant, is also true in our own lives. It’s the accumulation of the little things that grow into something greater over time.
And through it all there is this wisdom: that for each of us and for all of us it is a matter of one small step forward, one day at a time, one little action for the good, one tiny seed of hope, one small act of kindness or friendship that begins every great endeavor.  So today, think on the wisdom of Jesus and the nature of the kingdoms of this world and the inner chambers of your own heart. And remember that no matter how small we feel, it’s time to do one little thing for the good, live one good day at a time, offer a little bit of hope to leaven this life with joy. And then repeat. And repeat. And watch it grow.

Reflection for July 20, 2014

Isaiah 44:6-8, Romans 8:12-25, Matthew 13:24-30

 

Many of us have gardens. In them we attempt to grow various vegetables. Some of us are better gardeners than others. Regardless of what we grow, and how well we do it; we all face weeds.  It’s as if there is some garden demon that passes over all our fields late at night sowing the seeds of weeds while we are asleep. We see the work of the garden demon, and know that weeds need to be pulled out, so that the vegetable plants have room and resources to grow. That’s a good thing. But sometimes the weeds and the plants are so intertwined, that to pull out the weed will take out the plant as well. And sometimes one can’t tell whether or not something is a weed.
There is, of course, a day of reckoning, a time of the harvest, usually in the autumn, when things will all bear fruit. We’ll keep the vegetables and throw away the weeds. So it is in this story of Jesus. But in the meanwhile, the meantime in which we spend our lives before that September morn where the mists collect along the edges of our memories on the way into that deep sleep of winter; the good and the bad are closely intertwined, and it is difficult to separate the two.
In one of his poems, Leonard Cohen, speaks about how the good and the bad are intertwined in the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac in Genesis chapter 22. Abraham senses that the Bronze Age tradition of child sacrifice prevalent in his culture calls for him to show his devotion to God and his faith in God by offering his child Isaac as a sacrifice.  He decides to do it, but then realizes that this religious good is actually a bad thing. God does not require such sacrifice. Leonard Cohen’s line is “thought I saw an eagle, might have been a vulture, I never could decide.”  It is so difficult to discern the vultures from the eagles. And actually in many ways the two birds are related to each other.
Perhaps nowhere is the intertwining of weeds and wheat more of an issue than in our community, public, and economic life. Capitalism is a good thing, generating opportunity and economic growth. And intertwined with it are the greed and inequities that cause us many problems.  We prize our democracy because we all vote however we want, and yet we’ve elected a government that in many ways does not work. We prize personal freedom and independence, but community life suffers as we lose our willingness to sacrifice our own freedom for the sake of others.  And any war, no matter how noble, no matter how just, no matter how limited, has consequences that echo through generations of suffering, as we learn the hard way about the social costs of violence.  We all want our criminals to pay for their crimes, but we also in Wisconsin are now putting far more young men in prison than in college.
The close intertwining of the good and the bad makes it difficult to sort through our own lives as well. Any relationship brings both weeds and wheat, inextricably intertwined in the bonds of intimacy.  Relationships especially can be marked with simultaneous joy and sorrow. And so it is with family life. Parents often know not only great pride and joy, but also deep anguish and pain.  And often the curse of death at the end of life seems to bring the joy of release from suffering. And it is difficult even then to know what is good and what is bad as we wonder about how long people should languish in nursing homes. It is this inability to know, to sort, to untangle, to separate, to discern that lies at the heart of this parable.  Eagles turn out to be vultures after all. And vultures sometimes bring a necessary good we do not want to admit.
The close intertwining of the good and the bad makes religion difficult as well. Wherever God is, the devil is lurking in the background. And wherever the devil has done his worst, there is the face of a compassionate Jesus. Organized religion brings the good of people working together to accomplish a broader purpose and also breeds the shadows of hierarchical authoritarianism.  The Bible can be the source of such deep wisdom. And in the wrong hands it can become a sword used to hurt, injure, and destroy.  These days it seems that God wants to change the church, asking it become something new. But it feels like we are just loosing something we loved.
So what is one to do with all these weeds and wheat? Is there a good by which we can sort things through and know what is right and live our lives by that light?  Preachers of past generations would say yes at this point of the sermon. But today we sense it is different. For we have come to sense that any absolutized good will have its own weeds. There probably is no one good by which we can assess all things.
But if we stand in the midst of this field, this wonderful lush landscape of God’s abiding live, gazing over the wheat and weeds as they grow, knowing that sometime there will be a harvest; we can recall from the stories that have shaped us that God calls us to be a people of a certain character. How that character plays out is not certain, and changes from person to person, nation to nation. But within the pages of the scripture and the creases of our hearts there is a character called for: a character marked by compassion and love, a desire to let go of hurtful ways, a longing to make amends, an awareness of the burdens of others, a desire to do what is best for the group, a willingness to let go of things that really do not matter, a realization that we can be very wrong in our opinions,  and a sense that we simply try to do what is right even as we realize that we may not be able to accomplish it.
Gradually, as the harvest nears that character grows in our hearts along with the weeds. Eventually, the time comes when we can sense clearly what is right and good. But in the meantime, this meantime before the autumn comes; we have this life, this character, as good and evil grow side by side in this field.

 

Reflection for July 13, 2014

Isaiah 55:10-13, Romans 8:1-11 Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Today Jesus tells the parable of the sower of the seed, one of the more well known parables of Jesus. Matthew collects the stories of Jesus into speeches or sermons. This parable introduces the third speech of Jesus which involves all 53 verses of the chapter. The speech contains many parables. The main theme of the sermon is about why some people reject the faith. And that is the theme of this parable as well. The speech is given outside in the open air. There are no buildings large enough to hold the crowd. It is a beach event. Jesus gets into a boat and speaks from the boat anchored a few yards off shore, which probably amplifies his voice as it reflects against the embankments on the beach hillsides.
The parable of a sower sewing seeds with mixed results is often used in ancient literature by philosophers to describe how their teachings are received. Philo (Congre. 64-65) speaks of four types of listeners to the philosophers’ teachings. Plato (Phaedra. 61) has Socrates use the image of a farmer sewing seed in different types of soil. Seneca (Ep. 38.2) says: Words should be scattered like seed; no matter how small the seed may be, if it once has found good ground, it unfolds its strength and from a small thing spreads to its greatest growth. (Charles Talbert, Matthew, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament, Baker Academic, 2010.)
Aware of the teaching tradition behind this parable, Matthew uses this story to describe the ways in which the teachings of Jesus are received by listeners and followers, and to explain why the teachings flourish in the hearts of some and wither and die in the hearts of others. Essentially, the teachings of Jesus are sometimes eaten by the birds, or fall on hard ground and cannot take root, or are choked by the weeds. In all these cases, the teachings do not bear fruit. But sometimes the seed falls on good soil, is welcomed in the heart of the believer, bears fruit, and as Seneca says unfolds its strength and from a small thing spreads to its greatest growth.
The fullness of the teaching of Jesus. This is focus of this story: the fullness of gospel and three reasons why it may not bear fruit. Today, I would like to suggest three impediments to the fruitbearing of the teaching of Jesus, three things that limit the growth of God’s word in our lives. And these three impediments come from the three readings together.
First, the word of God and the story of God’s love and compassion bear the fruit of happiness, joy, or we might even say ecstasy. To live with God is to be filled with joy. To live in the spirit of God’s loving delight in all creation is to hold a happiness that is expressed in the second part of Isaiah this morning. Joy, ecstasy, and happiness echo through God’s grace, through all creation and into the interior of our hearts because God loves us. We are actually called by the gospel of Jesus Christ to be happy beyond measure, delighting in ourselves, each other, and all God has made. Wow. We are called to go out there and bear the fruit of happiness.
Now usually somehow on our way to that everlasting joy and happiness of the kingdom of God, we get waylaid by some assemblage of miseries. The seeds of ecstasy get gobbled up by a flock of woes so that non-Christians who are looking at us may actually see people who are grumpy rather than overjoyed to be alive. And we live in the grumpiest of times. It hardly seems that we are content with anything. We find ourselves upset, anxious, worried, troubled, fearful, apprehensive, disgruntled, uneasy, and dissatisfied. And as long as the emerging happiness of the compassion of God is choked off by all these weeds, we will never bear the fruit of ecstasy. It is a matter of focus. Yes, there is plenty to be miserable about. And yes, God loves you anyway, and will see you through this. Find your smile again.
The second challenge to the word bearing fruit is found in the second reading from Romans. The word of God and the story of God’s love and compassion bring forgiveness and an end to condemnation. The fruit of the spirit brings an end to condemnation. In Romans, in Christ, the fullness of the fruit means not only happiness, but also a freedom from condemnation. We are no longer condemned, but loved and accepted. And (this is important), we no longer need to condemn others, judge them, or put them down in any way. We can just accept people as they are because we have been fully and completely accepted by God as we are.  In the fullness of the fruit of the spirit there is no condemnation.
But the hardness of our hearts makes it difficult for us to live without at least a little condemnation. It can be difficult to fully feel good about oneself. And you know that Christians especially have the reputation for condemning others for not being good enough in some way or another. We just seem to not be able to let go of all of the faults we find with other people. That hardness of the soil of our hearts will keep us from bearing this fruit of the spirit.  Paul says in Romans: there is therefore now no condemnation. Let’s all quit complaining about our neighbors, and just enjoy them.
Third, the word of God and the story of God’s love and compassion bring not just ecstasy, and not just freedom from condemnation, but also a broader perspective: a transforming world view. To live in the spirit of God’s presence is to sense how small our point of view is and how broadly the love of God flows for all people and things, not only this day, month, or decade, but beyond all time. Notice that in Matthew the teachings of Jesus have moved out of a small Jewish synagogue into the great outdoors where the perspective is expanded. And note that Jesus is now using not only Jewish but also Greek and Roman traditions about seed parables in the telling of his stories so that a broader audience is engaged. We are called by the gospel of Jesus Christ to broaden our world view beyond measure, discovering in ourselves, each other, and all God has made the eternal and profound nature of things. Wow. We are called to go out there and sense the infinite.
Now usually somehow on our way into infinite kingdom of God, we get waylaid by some preoccupation with the immediate, the here and now, the agenda for the day, the schedule of things or what somebody feels is pressing.  All of these things may strangle our minds. The deep nature of the universe of God is gobbled up by these hungry things. It is a matter of focus. Yes, there is plenty to put into our agendas. There are many details to focus on in our busy rush into one insignificant thing after another. But God will love you anyway, long after all these days are over. Find your future again as you return the vast reservoirs of God’s love.
The cares of this world, the hardness of our hearts, the hungers demanding to be fed are all things that make it difficult to bear fruit. But today, remember your smile. We are called to be a happy. Today, let go of some condemnation, and love someone. Let’s build a reputation for acceptance. And today, let’s bask again in the vast compassion, love, forgiveness and joy God has in store for us and all creation. Let us be good soil. Let us bear fruit,
Norman Olson, born in 1932, growing up in the great depression when agriculture in America faced one of its greatest challenges, wrote this poem about the sower and the seed.

When seed falls on good soil
Its born through quiet toil,
Where soil receives, the earth conceives,
The blade, the stem, the fruit, the leaves,
God soil, oh, mother earth,
The womb, where seed takes birth.

God’s Word in Christ is seed;
Good soil its urgent need;
For it must find in human kind
The fertile soil in heart and mind.
Good soil! A human field.
A hundred fold to yield.

Plow up the trodden way,
And clear the stone away”
Tear out the weed, and sow the seed,
Prepare our hearts your word to heed,
That we good soil may be.
Begin, O Lord with me.

(When Seed Falls on Good Soil,  LBW 236, Norman Olson, born 1932.)

 

 

 

Reflection for July 6, 2014

Zechariah 9:9-12, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 

     We spend a lot of time trying to decide what to do, often struggling with this or that in lives marked with consternation. Especially in changing and challenging times, there is a lot of internal wrestling with the issues and facts as we try to make decisions large and small. Sometimes we agonize over what shirt we should wear, or whether or not to mow the grass today or tomorrow or whether or not to watch television or if we should get on the computer or go to the store or which store we should go to. Our lives are filled with these decisions and we sometimes finding ourselves wondering about even the smallest things. What should we do?

     Sometimes we agonize over a large decision. Should I continue or end this relationship? Should I find a different job or stay where I am? Should I make a fuss about this or just chill out? Should I say something important that might hurt someone’s feelings? How should I spend the money I have? Or how do I live with less money than I need? What should I do to help someone through their grief or pain? Should I go to college and if so where? These larger decisions also come with internal struggle as we work on the matters at hand.

     Eventually, for better or worse, life compels us along its way, and most of the matters at hand get resolved one way or another as we content ourselves with the decisions we’ve made. Sometimes we look back with regret or longing. Sometimes with hindsight we sense that we did the right thing.

     This reading from Romans is the musing of a person who is going through an agonizing inner struggle. What should he do? How should he live? And the difficulty of decision making is etched in these ancient Greek words from Romans. What he wishes he would do, he doesn’t. And that which he wishes to avoid, he ends up doing anyway. And it all happens with a great deal of resistance and turmoil. He is not accepting of himself. He’s struggling, trying to figure out how to live consistently and well. The precise details and issues of the struggle are not here, but what we have is the internal consternation of St. Paul preserved over the centuries.

     In contemporary life, we need to make many, many decisions, and we often like Paul agonize over the possibilities: wanting something that may be different from the reality we had hoped for, wishing it all were a little easier, and discovering that we may have sabotaged our own best intentions along the way. This inner struggle is with us constantly whether we face parenting children, finding quality care for grandma, choosing what to eat, or deciding to try something new.

     The outcome of all this struggle to decide is deep existential dis-ease. If we were French we would speak of our ennui. If we were Brazilian we would sense our soldaje If we were German existentialists we would speak of angst. Since we are Americans we would probably be more likely to say, “I’m upset and I really don’t know why.”

     Often no matter what we do, we do not feel right about something, someone or ourselves, and this is precisely the sense of this reading from Romans. Paul is not happy with these choices he makes. He is fussing with so much struggle and consternation. And notice that this struggle comes after he has become a Christian and after he has been filled with the grace of God in his life.  Being a Christian does not seem to relieve his consternation and inner struggle. If anything it compounds it. More aware of himself and his world, he has more to consider, more to weigh, more to worry over.  

     Sometimes not only individuals but also groups are filled with consternation. This is the case with the church out of which the third reading comes from Matthew. The consternation of the church of Matthew comes to the surface in this reading. Their anxiety is focused on the ways in which their church and beliefs are not generally well received by the society around them. No matter what they do, the culture around them rejects them. If they are celebrating, they are seen as frivolous. If they are serious, they are seen as glum. Nothing works. The community consternation focuses on “this generation” that seems to reject the faith.

     In some ways the American church of the twenty-first century faces a similarly challenging generation and has a very similar consternation.  Over the past twenty years Presbyterians have lost a third of their membership. Over the same period Lutherans have lost a fourth of our membership. There are now only half as many young people in Lutheran Sunday schools as there were twenty years ago. The fastest growing segment of American society is not some evangelical outfit or a mega-church but the non-churched. Church weddings are at an all time low. And it seems that no matter how conservative or liberal a church is, people are just not all that interested in religion anymore. This is the internal consternation, the inner struggle of the contemporary American church reflected the struggle of the church of Matthew. No matter what is tried, it does not seem to really work that well. The rejection is there and it is real. And as a community of faith we have a lot of angst about this.

     Are we going to die? Well yes, and no. Yes, if the current trends continue, the institutional church will go through a period of intense struggle. People are less and less invested in organized religion with each passing year. Church structures and organization will become smaller and smaller in the coming decade.

    But no, we will not die, we will simply change. And I’ve spoken about this many times. To experience resurrection in these coming days, we will find ourselves not only being a Sunday Assembly, but also an online community, a great cloud of witnesses, and a caring street community. In all of that we will stress our core mission to care for those in need. And we will celebrate and deepen our life together in this mission through worship and reflection. And at the same time we will think of ourselves as a new congregation planted in the trending Cap East neighborhood with an East Washington address in the center of what is becoming Willy Wash. We will be changed, in ways that will undoubtedly make us uncomfortable and cause us much internal consternation.

    But no, we will not die, for we shall all be changed. And this brings us to the most powerful aspects of the readings today, the closing of the reading from Matthew and the reading from the ancient Hebrew prophet, Zechariah.

     The last part of the Matthew reading speaks to what we need to do as individuals and communities when anxiety, fear, conflict, consternation and struggle mark us. How does Matthew’s Jesus say it: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

     It’s not that we will be free of fear, free of consternation. No that is part of life, and the better we live our lives the more we have to be concerned about. But notice the release of the fear, the struggle, the consternation, into the love and compassion of God. We can internally struggle as Paul does in Romans, to the point that we babble on and on and not make that much sense; and yet we can release all of that into the arms of our God of compassion. We can let go. We can exhale. We can release. We don’t have to save ourselves. We simple can meet Jesus again. And we will be ok.

    But this sense of hope even in struggle is best expressed in the Hebrew Bible this morning in Zechariah. For to a people dominated by foreign powers, exiled into slavery, and destroyed by war; the prophet declares that donkeys will overcome war horses. What a strange thing to say. How could a group of militia mounted on donkeys ever overcome the mighty power of Babylonian war horses and chariots? This is ironic humor. And when Zechariah first spoke, people probably laughed. And in that laughter, in that sense of how the humble and simple and unexpected bring new possibilities previously overlooked, in the ironies of life (and our lives are filled with them); we sense hope coming back, even in the face of death. For the truth first comes with the ability to laugh. And Zechariah does speak a literal truth. The donkeys of the emerging agricultural economies of South West Asia in the Iron Age, will have a much greater impact on the lives of people than any engine of war. As iron is used for plows and those plows are powered by donkeys, a new way for humans to live and prosper is born, even as people are drawn together again from distant places back to the villages around the fields.

     The birth of a new way to live. And then Zechariah continues his poem on emerging hope and freedom. We sense ourselves being released from the prisons of our own fears. And we sense how it is time to work on this prison thing however it manifests itself in our own hearts or in this country of ours. For this day we say freedom rings. And there is no place where freedom rings more ironically than in a criminal justice system that needs our compassionate attention.

     You know, we are all dying. That is the foundation of all this internal uneasiness we live with, our own sense of limitation. And you know, we are all rising, because of this one named Jesus, who once met the forces of evil, mounted on, of all things, a donkey, and who still is that source of our ironic laughter even in the fac

Reflection for July 6, 2014
Zechariah 9:9-12, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

We spend a lot of time trying to decide what to do, often struggling with this or that in lives marked with consternation. Especially in changing and challenging times, there is a lot of internal wrestling with the issues and facts as we try to make decisions large and small. Sometimes we agonize over what shirt we should wear, or whether or not to mow the grass today or tomorrow or whether or not to watch television or if we should get on the computer or go to the store or which store we should go to. Our lives are filled with these decisions and we sometimes finding ourselves wondering about even the smallest things. What should we do?
Sometimes we agonize over a large decision. Should I continue or end this relationship? Should I find a different job or stay where I am? Should I make a fuss about this or just chill out? Should I say something important that might hurt someone’s feelings? How should I spend the money I have? Or how do I live with less money than I need? What should I do to help someone through their grief or pain? Should I go to college and if so where? These larger decisions also come with internal struggle as we work on the matters at hand.
Eventually, for better or worse, life compels us along its way, and most of the matters at hand get resolved one way or another as we content ourselves to the decisions we’ve made. Sometimes we look back with regret or longing. Sometimes with hindsight we sense that we did the right thing.
This reading from Romans is the musing of a person who is going through an agonizing inner struggle. What should he do? How should he live? And the difficulty of decision making is etched in these ancient Greek words from Romans. What he wishes he would do, he doesn’t. And that which he wishes to avoid, he ends up doing anyway. And it all happens with a great deal of resistance and turmoil. He is not accepting of himself. He’s struggling, trying to figure out how to live consistently and well. The precise details and issues of the struggle are not here, but what we have is the internal consternation of St. Paul preserved over the centuries.
In contemporary life, we need to make many, many decisions, and we often like Paul agonize over the possibilities wanting something that may be different from the reality we had hoped for, wishing it all were a little easier, and discovering that we may have sabotaged our own best intentions. This inner struggle is with us constantly whether we face parenting children, finding quality care for grandma, choosing what to eat, or deciding to try something new.
The outcome of all this struggle to decide is deep existential dis-ease. If we were French we would speak of our ennui. If we were Brazilian we would sense our soldaje. If we were German existentialists we would speak of angst. Since we are Americans we would probably be more likely to say, ‘I’m upset and I really don’t know why.”
Often no matter what we do, we do not feel right about something, someone or ourselves, and this is precisely the sense of this reading from Romans. Paul is not happy with these choices he makes. He is fussing with so much struggle and consternation. And notice that this struggle comes after he has become a Christian and after he has been filled with the grace of God in his life. Being a Christian does not seem to relieve his consternation and inner struggle. If anything it compounds it. More aware of himself and his world, he has more to consider, more to weigh, more to worry over.

Sometimes not only individuals but also groups are filled with consternation. This is the case with the church out of which the third reading comes from Matthew. The consternation of the church of Matthew comes to the surface in this reading. Their anxiety is focused on the ways in which their church and beliefs are not generally well received by the society around them. No matter what they do, the culture around them rejects them. If they are celebrating, they are seen as frivolous. If they are serious, they are seen as glum. Nothing works. The community consternation focuses on “this generation” that seems to reject the faith.
In some ways the American church of the twenty-first century faces a similarly challenging generation and has a very similar consternation. Over the past twenty years Presbyterians have lost a third of their membership. Over the same period Lutherans have lost a fourth of our membership. There are now only half as many young people in Lutheran Sunday schools as there were twenty years ago. The fastest growing segment of American society is not some evangelical outfit or a mega-church but the non-churched. Church weddings are at an all time low. And it seems that no matter how conservative or liberal a church is, people are just not all that interested in religion anymore. This is the internal consternation, the inner struggle of the contemporary American church reflected the struggle of the church of Matthew. No matter what is tried, it does not seem to really work that well. The rejection is there and it is real. And as a community of faith we have a lot of angst about this.
Are we going to die? Well yes, and no. Yes, if the current trends continue, the institutional church will go through a period of intense struggle. People are less and less invested in organized religion with each passing year. Church structures and organization will become smaller and smaller in the coming decade.
But no, we will not die, we will simply change. And I’ve spoken about this many times. To experience resurrection in these coming days, we will find ourselves not only being a Sunday Assembly, but also an online community, a great cloud of witnesses, and a caring street community. In all of that we will stress our core mission to care for those in need. And we will celebrate and deepen our life together in this mission through worship and reflection. And at the same time we will think of ourselves as new congregation planted in the trending Cap East neighborhood with an East Washington address in the center of what is becoming Willy Wash. We will be changed, in ways that will undoubtedly make us uncomfortable and cause us much internal consternation.
But no, we will not die, for we shall all be changed. And this brings us to the most powerful aspects of the readings today, the closing of the reading from Matthew and the reading from the ancient Hebrew prophet, Zechariah.
The last part of the Matthew reading speaks to what we need to do as individuals and communities when anxiety, fear, conflict, consternation and struggle mark us. How does Matthew’s Jesus say it: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
It’s not that we will be free of fear, free of consternation. No that is part of life, and the better we live our lives the more we have to be concerned about. But notice the release of the fear, the struggle, the consternation, into the love and compassion of God. We can internally struggle as Paul is in Romans, to the point that we babble on and on and not make that much sense; and yet we can release all of that into the arms of our God of compassion. We can let go. We can exhale. We can release. We don’t have to save ourselves. We simple can meet Jesus again. And we will be ok.
But this sense of hope even in struggle is best expressed in the Hebrew Bible this morning in Zechariah. For to a people dominated by foreign powers, exiled into slavery, and destroyed by war, the prophet declares that donkeys will overcome war horses.   What a strange thing to say. How could a group of militia mounted on donkeys every overcome the mighty power of Babylonian war horses and chariots? This is ironic humor. And when Zechariah first spoke, people probably laughed. And in that laughter, in that sense of how the humble and simple and unexpected bring new possibilities previously overlooked, in the ironies of life (and our lives are filled with them); we sense hope coming back, even in the face of death. For Zechariah speaks a truth. The donkeys of the emerging agricultural economies of South West Asia in the Iron Age, we have a much greater impact on people than any war. As iron is used for plows and those plows are powered by donkeys, a new way to live is born as people are drawn together in villages around the fields.
The birth of a new way to live. And then Zechariah continues his poem on emerging hope and freedom. We sense ourselves being released from the prisons of our own fears. And we sense how it is time to work on this prison thing however it manifests itself in the country of ours. For this day we say freedom rings. And there is no place where freedom rings more ironically than in a criminal justice system that needs our compassionate attention.
You know, we are all dying. That is the foundation of all this internal uneasiness we live with, our own sense of limitation. And you know, we are all rising, because of this one named Jesus, who once met the forces of evil, mounted on a donkey, and who still is that source of our ironic laughter even in the face of death.