Reflection for August 30, 2015

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 James 1:17-27 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Religion has been part of the human experience since our beginnings. Religious yearning is woven deeply into the human conscience. When archeologists and anthropologists research human origins and societies, religion plays a vital role in describing our most ancient and primitive behaviors. We seek, we yearn, we hope for the sacred: sensing the need for the good, the true, the beautiful, and the compassionate as we wonder about our place in the universe and the destiny of the world around us.

From ancient times, this religious impulse has had both an exterior and interior expression. Religion involves outward actions and inner reflection. And these readings today, all from different communities of faith in different centuries, hinge on this particular distinction. They all speak to the exterior and interior expressions of human longing.

Our oldest human impulse has been toward the exterior expression of religion: its practice, ritual, regulations, calendars, traditions, prohibitions, and rules. In human experience, rituals and regulations became important to promote the fertility of the fields, the stability of the community, and the victory of the tribe. Perhaps the oldest rituals and religious practices centered on prayers and sacrifices for rain and favorable weather. But soon, it became apparent that the rituals, regulations, and rules of religion also could support the wellbeing of society. It is best if we do not steal each other’s belongings nor do violence whenever we feel like it. We will be healthier if we eat certain foods and abstain from others.

As society became hierarchical, religious ritual and regulation were used to support those in power. Ancient religion also placed upon rulers the responsibility to care and provide for those less fortunate and the vulnerable.

Our oldest human calendars were religious in nature. Calendars marked religious festivals, days of fasting and feasting, the circuit of the sun and stars, as the seasons passed. Regulations regarding everything from sanitation to temple sacrifice, from the treatment of enemies to the best food to eat, from treating disease to marriage and family matters, from the coronation of a king to the treatment of the poor emerged in almost all societies and traditions, including the Hebrew and Christian traditions in these readings.

The first reading today is the prologue of a long list of external rituals, regulations, and ethical responsibilities for the people of Israel. This section of the book of Deuteronomy, with its massive set of statutes, laws, and ordinances is one of the best summaries of the external dimension of religion in the ancient world. And as the reading suggests, the practice of these rituals and rules will bring the blessings of God, the stability of the nation, and the well being of all.

Now in a Lutheran rush to condemn the external approach to religion, we may underestimate the importance of ritual, religious rule and regulations, and their role in our lives. Think about the importance of our Christmas rituals, our holidays with families and friends, and the traditions which mark our yearly calendars, daily and weekly lives. Think about how important law and regulation is for society. Note that Deuteronomy says that there is a place for regulation, religious and government regulation: not too much – don’t add to it: but don’t try to take it away or subtract from it either. And look at the importance James places on the ritual act of giving alms to those in need. Our outward expression of compassion, generosity, and regard for the needs of others is very important. Our faith has an important external side.

But since at least the fifth century, BCE, and probably before, religion has had not only an external side, devoted to rule, regulation and ritual pattern. As the human spirit finds its deeper expressions, it discovers the sacred to live not only in the world around us, but also in our own hearts, selves, and souls. There is an inner spiritual yearning, an interior side to the life of faith. It is about what we do, but it is also about how we feel, what we sense, the birth of joy and hope, often in the face of the despair that so easily rises in life’s overwhelming difficulties.

Isaiah, Eziekiel, Jeremiah and Jesus all speak to this interior dimension of religion. And here is the thing: when ritual becomes empty, and rules become the means of oppression, the interior side of the faith rises to the surface to call that into question.

Occasionally in our history, we say things like we are made right, that all is made right, not by the law, but by the gospel, not by compliance to ordinances but by faith. And if the interior faith does not challenge the exterior rituals and patterns, then religion becomes empty. We become controlled by those in power, or we succumb to superstitious repetition of ritual.

This is the point of the passage in Mark seven. The followers of Jesus are called to live a life not grounded in regulation but in liberty. The followers of Jesus should wash their hands. But if they do not, that is all right, too. What matters is faith in God, finding one’s way back to God. It is what is inside of us that matters in Mark.

But the exterior and the interior do not always conflict. Perhaps that sacred space where they come together is called prayer. When we pray, we often follow forms and patterns. We use the same words, often over and over. We pray at the same times of the day and the same days of the week.

And yet in prayer, we discover that our hearts are engaged in something more than the ritual. We begin talking with God, even listening in silence, hearing ourselves and the Holy One, as we sort out what needs to happen both in our hearts and in the world. The ritual of prayer opens the door to the deepest matters of the heart. And we worship God when in prayer we discover how important it is to care again for the widow and orphan.

From ancient times, lives of faith have had both an exterior and interior expression. Religion involves outward actions and inner reflection. So today we are called in our own time through our tradition and ritual to do the good and to reflect on God’s future.

 

Reflection for August 23, 2015

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69 

Praise be to God! We have made it through the sixth chapter of the gospel of John. For the last few weeks, the lectionary assigned readings from this chapter of John about Jesus as the bread of life. We have moved slowly, oh so slowly, like we do every third summer, through over sixty verses of this chapter in which Jesus is the bread of life which brings everlasting life through the flesh and blood of the one who abides in the Father who abides in us through the presence of the spirit who brings eternal life by means of the grace which comes from the one who sent Jesus since before the beginning of the world in light and life so that all might be saved according to the design of the Father whom we cannot see but in whose spirit we find blessing if we believe anyway as we eat the body or bread and drink the blood or wine which comes to us through whatever it is we believe in, even though we cannot see it, since we in our weakness are more focused on the flesh rather than the spirit. Whew! Praise be to God. As of this morning, we have made it through chapter six. Next week we return to Mark, the more concrete and straight forward seventh chapter, with a short teaching section and two miracles.

Actually our problem with John may not be so much John as us. We prize simple and straight forward thought and writing. John comes from a different time and place as he struggles with various controversies regarding the nature of Holy Communion.

For us, we might simply say that Jesus is the bread of life. We celebrate the real presence of Jesus in, with, and under the bread and wine. We are shaped by the sacred words that speak again of our need for forgiveness and our memories of Jesus. Through this Holy Communion we find ourselves united with God and each other. We are nourished to be the people of God this coming week.

And today we say goodbye to Ephesians. We have also been reading from this essay from Ephesus in Asia Minor for the last few weeks with its vision of God’s plan for all creation. These last few weeks we have been in the ethical section of Ephesians: how we should live our lives. In our readings several ethical teachings from the essay were omitted. We did not read about slaves being loyal to their masters, or children obeying their parents, or women being submissive to their husbands. All of that was there. But every aspect of first century life may not be that instructive for us as we try to be the church of compassion today. Next week our second readings begin a short series of readings from James, the book of the Bible Martin Luther liked least, but which is like the gospel of Mark far more concrete and practical.

And in the coming weeks, we will also have a variety of readings from Deuteronomy and from the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel for our first readings.

Speaking of first readings, today’s first reading is the conclusion of the book of Joshua. The book of Joshua is filled with a great deal of violence as the Israelites conquer the Promised Land. The violence reminds us of how much pain and suffering can be caused by war and ethnic hatred reinforced by religious extremism. I think each of us should occasionally read the book of Joshua to recall how easily human beings can resort to and then justify violence and hatred.

Actually, for me with my interest in ancient sociology and anthropology, Joshua 22 is interesting. In chapter 22 there is a split among the victorious tribes of Israel. Two and a half tribes go off to their prescribed territory. Once settled, they decide to build an altar. Now going off and building your own altar for your own sacrifices would mean the splintering of the confederation. And so, in the violent tradition of Joshua, the other tribes decide to go to war again over this.

But then there is an amazing turn of events. The tribes send representatives and hold a conference. They talk. The two and a half tribes explain that this is not an altar for sacrifice, but a memorial of stone to remember a great event and the sacrifices still conducted at the one temple. They representatives talk, and then instead of going to war over such a thing, they are content with peace. Verse 33 reads: And the Israelites blessed God, and spoke no more of making war against them. And in such a violent book, in such an age, and in our own violent times, these amazing words of peace are the words of hope for our human future, born out of conversation, negotiation, listening to one another, and being content with peace.

Joshua 24 is the story of the tribal confederation of Israel gathering at Shechem, at the most sacred site. After their battles have been won, as Joshua’s life draws to a close, the tribes gather to recommit themselves to the God of their ancestors. Although there are many things about Joshua that we may not like, this process of gathering, coming together, at a sacred site, after our battles have been won, to recommit ourselves to the faith that has sustained us – well, that is a very special thing.

I have been with you for a long time, and I have occasionally witnessed these gatherings. Perhaps the battle has been with a cancer or a recovery from a stroke or a family or financial crisis. And as that struggle has been long and hard, it has now become time for the family to gather, often toward the end of things, in a place that is sacred, perhaps a home, but sometimes a care facility, or a conference room, but someplace meaningful: where the bread of family life is broken and shared, where the memories of our people are spoken, and where we commit ourselves once more to what is important in life, where we choose to support and care for one another and to live lives not of obedience but of character molded and shaped by those who have gone before, and whose mysterious presence remains in the back rooms of our souls.

In our battles with the forces that threaten to undo us, every once in awhile, we will find ourselves gathering with family and friends. In our sacred mutual support, in our mutual words of affection, in our abiding in the face of struggle, in our choosing to let go and go on, in our holding onto each other; we boldly choose once more to mirror the compassion of Christ, while we construct our own lives as best we can for the sake of those who have gone before us and those yet to come.

Reflection for August 16, 2015

Proverbs 9:1-6, Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6:51-58

      Let’s look at Proverbs today. The book of Proverbs is a collection of wise sayings and wisdom material. There appear to be five different collections assembled into one book. A proverb is a short saying that contains a basic truth or wisdom. Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched. A penny saved is a penny earned. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Those are proverbs.

Some of the material in the book of proverbs is more like a poem than a proverb. Today’s reading falls more into this poetic category. Today’s reading from chapter nine is a poem about wisdom or wise ways.

The first nine chapters of Proverbs are one long poem. The poem calls people to choose between foolishness and wisdom. Foolishness is portrayed as a “strange woman,” whoever that is. And the truth, right, and good are portrayed as the Lady of Wisdom. As the long poem concludes in this chapter, this Lady of Wisdom is hosting a banquet to which all are invited. Living a life of wisdom, truth, fairness, and justice is seen as coming to a party, the banquet of living the good life.

A lot could be said here about many things. Does it always pay to do the right thing? And is that all there is to the faith, just a call to be good? And to be honest, can’t we have a little fun? Do we always have to do the right, the good, and the true? There are deep questions about the approach of the book of Proverbs.

But if we simply focus on the reading as it unfolds, we will gather at least one small piece of post-modern wisdom from prehistoric poetry. That wisdom is this: Human endeavor will always involve deep structure, advance planning, attention to the details, and inviting interesting people. Let me say that again: Human endeavor will always involve deep structure, advance planning, attention to the details, and inviting interesting people.

In the poem, the human endeavor is a banquet. Think of a wedding reception if you will. To pull off a big wedding requires some deep structure, then advance planning, then attention to the details and real work on the invitation list. The deep structures which undergird the wedding banquet are not the “seven pillars” in the reading, but the love of the couple, the support of the families, and the financial resources needed for the event. The advance planning involves the preparation of the food, work with the vendors and preliminary arrangements. The attention to details requires a lot of time the week of the wedding. As the reading says, the table must be set. And then there are the invitations. People need to be invited, just as in the reading, and sometimes the invitations are the most complicated matter.

   Human endeavor involves deep structure, advance planning, attention to the details, and inviting interesting people. What is true for the banquet of wisdom or a wedding is also true for most human endeavor. This past spring the radiator fell apart on the old car that Judy drove. So we needed a new automobile. Buying a car involves deep structures. What is our life like? What do we need? How are we doing financially? What would be the best for us and the environment? All those deep structural questions of life come into play. Then there is the advance planning: new or used, looking at cars on line and dealers and figuring out what kind of car would work for her. Then there is the detail of the deal, the rush of smaller decisions about everything from financing to warranties to trim level. And then there is the invitation question, the people question, who should one work with on this car thing. Who makes the car, who is the dealer, and who is the salesperson? Lots of people get involved in the process.

Human endeavor involves deep structure, advance planning, attention to the details, and inviting interesting people. Young people sometimes need to decide where to go to college. That can be more complicated than ever. It’s an endeavor that involves deep structure: what do you want to do with your life and how can we assemble the resources needed to make this happen. And there is advance planning: thinking about one’s work in high school, the various schools, visiting, and taking the time to sort through the endless possibilities. Then there is the honing in on one or two schools and a great deal of detail work figuring out everything from orientation to dorm rooms to paying for tuition to class schedules. And through it all there is a human side, an invitational dimension. Who will be your teachers and fellow students? Who will you come to know in this important part of your life?

     Human endeavor involves deep structure, advance planning, attention to the details, and inviting interesting people. Now you may not be selecting a college, or planning a wedding, or facing the prospect of buying a car because your current one exploded, but the wisdom of Proverbs nine, the Lady of Wisdom, seems to hold for all our endeavors: recovery from illness or injury, financial planning, figuring out what we believe about God, discovering how we can build a community of fairness and trust here in Madison, beginning a new job, starting a new school year, opening a new mission initiative. The wise woman’s banquet reminds us to attend to the deeper structures, do some advance planning, get into the details, and invite interesting people.

This wisdom is probably true not only for the different projects of our lives but for life itself. As our lives unfold, they are undergirded by deep structures whose presence we may not lift up, but upon which we depend. As our lives unfold, the importance of planning becomes more apparent. As our lives unfold, we find delight in setting the table, attending to the changing details that give us joy. And as life unfolds we know how important it is to invite interesting people into our lives. Those around us matter much.

And this wisdom may not only describe life itself, but also describe the One who sustains that life. The wisdom provides deep insight into God. For God the creator sets in place those pillars, those deep structures that support us and all of life. And God helps us set in place our plans, and dreams and hope. This is what Ephesians calls our destiny. And then God delights with us as we set our daily tables as the sacred presence interplays with each day’s events. And God invites all to that banquet of which our Holy Communion is a foretaste of a joy to come.

This Lady of Wisdom may be wiser than we might think.

Reflection for August 9, 2016

1 Kings 19:4-8, Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2, John 6:35, 41-51

I.

     Last week we focused on our series of readings from Ephesians. Today’s reading toward the end of the book contains practical advice for shaping a good life. And the week before we spent time on John’s theme of bread: the miracle of the loaves and fish and Jesus as the bread of life in chapter 6. Today we conclude those readings from John 6 on the bread of life. So today let’s get into the Bronze Age stories of Elijah, the prophet in 2 Kings.

Elijah is known as a prophet mighty in word and deed who battled the prophets of Baal and fought what was a losing cause for the faith of YHWH. As popular opinion and political power shifted more and more to the worship of Baal, Elijah was pushed into exile. He had actually won the great confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt Carmel, but lost the war. Although he was a prophet of great power and eloquence, he was not able to keep the nation from sliding into the worship of the attractive Phoenician gods. YHWH was the god of the desert people, following their herds, hunting and gathering. Baal was the god of farming and fertility. And as people settled in villages and towns, and agriculture became more important, YHWH was less and less popular.

And so perhaps one of the greatest of all the prophets was forced into exile, forced to flee for his life, as his enemies began to seek to put him away permanently. At this point in the story he is a Bronze Age prophetic failure.

 II.

     Fleeing through the deserted wilderness, he pauses under a tree to catch his breath. He is despondent. He is overwhelmed by the turn of events. And he is suicidal. He wants to die. He might as well be dead, he thinks, just like his ancestors. His heart is filled with despair.

As contemporaries looking at this ancient reading, we might sense how Elijah is suffering from deep depression. We might sense how those who suffer great defeat and loss face overwhelming depression. Through our eyes, it appears that the great gifts of prophecy have come to someone who is mentally ill. In his depression he wants to end it all.

Actually in this passage you can sense that the depression may have been part of a bi-polar disorder, or manic depressive cycle. At the end of the passage he moves from depression to a superhuman capacity to go on and on and on for forty days, until in the next chapters he becomes depressed again by another turn of events.

Elijah, the great man of God, the champion for the right and good, is at times overcome by his mental state. And we should stop and think about that for a moment. Mental illness is difficult. It takes a toll on the individual and those around her or him. It can be so destructive in many ways. It can result in fractured lives and broken dreams. But Elijah reminds us that God is close to those who suffer, that those who are mentally ill are loved by God, cared for by God, and are capable of many great things in and through the struggles of life. In fact, in the Bronze Age there was a certain understanding that great prophets, great men and women of God, were, well, just a little bit crazy, out there, and edgy. Craziness was often seen as the divine presence as much as a curse.

In our own time depression, bi-polar disorders, personality issues, and addictions are all treated with counseling, therapy, group work, recovery programs, and medications. And if you are in need of those things, there is nothing here that would say that you should not continue to stay your course of treatment. Do what you can with the resources you have.

III.

     But Elijah lives in the Bronze Age. There is no medication for his fermenting zeal, no therapeutic process, no counselor, no small group he can join. Still his dis-ease is managed in a prehistoric way. And we have clues to how that management happens.

Note that much attention paid to Elijah’s physical state. It’s hard to know if he is hallucinating, but in his depression the angel tells him to eat a little bit, drink a little bit, and sleep a little bit: over and over. Here is the ancient wisdom that a good daily rhythm, nutrition, and rest all help us in times of despair.

And someone is caring for Elijah. This angel. How important is that when we are at the bottom: to have someone who cares for us? How important it is for us to not shut that person out, but to let him or her into our inner self to help us with our routine and life. God sends an angel to Elijah. Actually, this angel almost sounds like a Jewish mother: here, eat something. Here, drink this, you’ll feel better. Now take a nap. Yes, in our day we may need medication, but we also still need people who care for us. Angels.

And the Bronze Age author is using the food and the water to remind us that to get through depression, one of the key issues is nourishment, the nourishment of the starving soul. We need to feed and quench our starving spirits when we are at the end of hope: finding first simple delight in something and then discovering beauty, until we come into joy again. Yes we may need to care for our bodies, our routines, and our medication, but we also need to feed the soul.

And the Bronze Age story teller indicates that an ancient wisdom regarding depression was to get moving again. Oh, that can be hard. When depressed, we just are frozen in place. But the angel moves Elijah along, one step at a time, until Elijah is on his way. We need to keep moving, to find our direction, to find our purpose and to start walking again.

We have only a small slice of the Elijah story in these verses. And Elijah’s depression will go on. But so does the wisdom. In later verses, God refines Elijah’s life purpose. And on the journey he discovers that he is not as alone as he thought. That there were others all along who were supporting his effort in the losing cause, and that eventually there will be a reckoning or rebalancing. YHWH will make a comeback. We are always less alone than we think, if only we let others in. And in later verses, Elijah works with the next generation, Elisha; and in that work with the young he finds a fulfillment that had escaped him.

The rhythm. The caring person. The nourishment, both physical and spiritual. Starting the journey again. Finding we are not alone. Realizing the importance of the next generation. Those are the ways in which God cared for this mentally ill man who we still remember today for his might words and deeds in the face of overwhelming odds. And as we all face our own demons and witness their destructive power in the lives of many, we find life and hope deeply embedded in these ancient Bronze Age verses about the champion of YHWH, the God of power, the God of Israel.

Craig Collin’s Reflection for Sunday, July 19, 2015

Pastor Ken spent the week with the youth of the ELCA in Detroit this week, and figured he’d be too busy to prepare a sermon. So, that’s how you got me today.

When I was about Caden’s age, I became friends with one of my classmates which grew into us being best friends.

My friend Andre was outgoing with a big personality, and a big afro to match – it was the 1970’s and that was the hairstyle for some of my African-American classmates at the time. Andre had that confidence and ability to talk to anyone about anything that my more introverted personality just didn’t possess, but somehow we became fast friends. We got to the point where started getting together away from school, visiting one another’s homes.

While all of this occurred right here in Madison, Wisconsin, his friendship took me into a neighborhood that I had never been in, and into a home somewhat different than my own but which culturally seemed very distant. Music at my house was Classical, Show Tunes, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, John Denver, and Janis Ian. At Andre’s house there was Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Chaka Kahn, The Temptations, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Al Green. There were wonderful African style wood carvings at Andre’s house, whereas any art and design we had at my home was more European or American. Our food was traditional fare such as hamburgers, hot dogs, steak, salads, and macaroni & cheese. At Andre’s house there were hot dogs, hamburgers, and mac & cheese as well, but I was also introduced to black eyed peas, collards, and grits; oh how I love grits. As I think you can imagine, my insulated upper middle class view of the world was expanded tremendously just by being Andre’s friend.

But even more important than my cultural awakening was the love and care that Andre’s family, especially his mother Margaret, provided to me. It didn’t take too long, with Andre and I spending large parts of many weekends together, before she unofficially adopted me into her family. Mind you, this is no slight to my family, it was not an either/or sort of a situation, but rather a both/and. I had both my parents and Margaret. I felt so comfortable at their house, and they with me, that when I was in their home and people would visit, or Margaret had a party, I would be introduced as her ‘white child’. How much joy that gave me and how much love I felt from her. I called her Mom because that is what she was to me, that’s the love and acceptance I felt. It also meant that I could be disciplined along with Andre when we got into trouble. I was part of the family. And their extended family accepted me as one of their own. This is where I learned that your family is not just those people you are related to by birth, or marriage, but it can be any group of people who truly love and support one another. Radical Acceptance as embodied by my second mother, Margaret.

The prescribed New Testament Ephesians reading today speaks to this belonging, to this removal of the walls that separate us, to this support for one another, brought to all humanity through Christ.   From Ephesians 2: Christ came and preached peace to you outsiders and peace to us insiders. He treated us as equals, and so made us equals. Through him we both share the same Spirit and have equal access to the Father.

That’s plain enough, isn’t it? . . . This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building.

Paul, in this letter, characterizes faith and Christian community as the bringing together of different sets of people into a home, as a family, with acceptance of all; Radical Acceptance. No longer were there divisions, no longer were there walls or laws to separate people, but it was all removed through Christ Jesus and replaced by inclusion. We call a church a “House of God” because we recognize it as a community that God brings together, a family.

Jesus himself appeared to recognize that families come in different forms. From the gospel of Matthew chapter 12: Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”  Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Notice that Jesus never says that his mother and brothers are not his family, he just redefines another type of family that he has around him at the time. They are both his families. This is radical acceptance of others in Jesus’ time since the entire society was based upon the honor of your family. As we know from the Gospels, Jesus’ apostles and followers came from many parts of society including fishermen and tax collectors, craftsmen and even a few elite. A broad range for a family, which could affect his honor and therefore his place in society.

And from John 19 at the cross: Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that moment the disciple accepted her as his own mother.

Just as Jesus was willing to redefine his family, so apparently were the early Christians. Not only did they break through the Jewish/Gentile divide which Paul writes about in Ephesians, but as Pastor Ken has identified in previous sermons, the early Christians were care givers and adopted abandoned children. They redefined families, and they practiced their faith while meeting in their homes.

Here you all are with me… in this house… my family. Radical acceptance in action, together, joining one another and welcoming others into our family.

Here we are, together, and just like any family we have our problems. We are not perfect and neither is our family. All of us recognize that there are disagreements in families, or sometimes we have family members that leave for a while, but they are still in our hearts and minds. There is love in the family, there is hope, there is fun and support between members of a family. There is celebration and a meal, just as we will share together in a few minutes, and there is conversation, just like we experience during fellowship time following the service. I think of you as my family. In the group of people in front of me right now, I have aunts and uncles, I have brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews. And… I feel accepted, radically accepted, with all my faults.

I know some of you better than others, just like is true with my relatives by birth. In my time as part of this family, there has been a single matriarch in Erna Stevenson who makes me smile, even when things are hard for her, just like Margaret would do for me when I was a boy. I look for her face when Erna sings, as it reads joy into my heart. And I have other family members I am close with in this congregation whom I never would have encountered and/or befriended in my normal day to day life. It doesn’t matter our differences, we are all here together. Although this congregation has a German Lutheran heritage, our family also contains descendants from Norwegian Lutherans, the Ukraine, China, and even Liberia, to name just a few.

I’m not sure I would have even met the Wolobah’s, much less had the opportunity to be family with them and watch Esther grow. Without this house, I wouldn’t have been present to see Elizabeth become a strong woman, witness Sierra’s musical talent, know of Annika’s great smile and martial arts talents, heard the joyful noise of Kelsey’s singing, or gotten a chance to be a mentor for Micah and Chandler. I wouldn’t have enjoyed Ken’s poetry, witnessed the leadership of Alice Gould or Tom Rivers, the friendliness of Severson’s, the activism of the Blocks, or the rest of this family we call St John’s. I remember well, right before the first time I preached, as a concerned uncle, Don Cleven took me aside and told me to remember that everyone was rooting for me to succeed. I remember that conversation every time and am grateful.

I’m not sure I would have gone into management this last year without the examples and encouragement of my brothers Tim and Rob as we walk parallel but separate journeys. I am constantly in awe of the fortitude of people like Corrine who fight through disease and the complete inspiration and constant joy of Kevin. I wouldn’t have stayed in this congregation without it being a family to me, and if I mention all of you in this family… well, let’s just say I’ll need to ask for forgiveness for going on too long, violating the unwritten German Lutheran one hour worship rule.

Some of our family members have passed on that I became close to, including Russ Middlestadt and Andy Biba. That’s probably the first time they’ve been mentioned together by name because they were so vastly different, but they were my friends and part of my family. I miss those family members from St John’s who have passed. And likewise, I both miss and remember my second mother Margaret, who we lost years ago. I think of her often. We pray for our family members that have gone before us every week, part of our remembrance that they live on in God’s Kingdom.

And we accept people into this family regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, financial status, illness, abilities, nationality, or political affiliation. Heck… we even have Chicago Bears fans in this family.

This is a family where we have committed to include others, to live out the Grace given to us through Christ, to Radical Acceptance. If you are a visitor today, I pray you feel welcome in our family.

I see the congregation as a redefined family, a family I care about and have at times had the opportunity to care for.

Jesus was concerned about his redefined family too. In this week’s reading from Mark 6, the apostles come back together after serving others separately as Jesus had directed them. Jesus tells them to take a retreat together, a respite, a vacation, reminding us that we need to take a break together sometimes from the work of the church and enjoy time together, as a family. But as they go, the crowds follow and Jesus has compassion for the greater family of people as he recognizes they are without a shepherd, without a leader, a matriarch or patriarch. And so he takes the crowd in as family and begins teaching. The verses missing in the middle of the reading from Mark today tell the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Again, there is a shared meal provided to the redefined family. Jesus does not turn people away but rather practices Radical Acceptance.

Earlier this week, Ronda, Caden, and I went to a movie together, a showing that a friend of ours arranged. The movie was called “Kindness is Contagious”. It is a documentary about altruism, giving, being nice, and of course kindness. A question asked repeatedly, to both experts and people on the street was “what is the nicest thing anyone ever did for you?”   Because of Margaret’s love, I recognize what the love of God looks like, that Jesus was sent to save all of us, to bring us into God’s family, to show us Radical Acceptance and Radical Forgiveness. I know of the love of a mother not my own by birth, who showed an 11 year old boy that, no matter our racial or socioeconomic differences, I was a part of the family, radically accepted as her own. It is clear to me how to answer that question “what’s the nicest thing anyone ever did for you”. And because of the example Margaret provided, I recognize this alternate family, right here, the acceptance and support that’s been given me as I’ve grown and learned who I am, encouraging me to serve others, supporting me. I hope and pray that you feel part of this family too.

Well, we’re almost at the point where the meal is served and where we share with one another, not just the peace, but the love and acceptance we have for one another. This week, I encourage you to think about the nicest thing anyone ever did for you. Just thinking about it will brighten your spirits. And maybe, take a moment or two to recognize the people in your lives that are like family to you and how you accept one another.

 

Reflection for August 2, 2015

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15, Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:24-35 

          At the risk of boring everyone to death, I’d like to work closely with the reading from Ephesians this morning. I’d like to do that because this particular passage contains the details one might use to consider who wrote Ephesians.

You know, often people ask, “well, where does this Bible stuff come from? Who wrote it? What were they thinking?” Here in this passage we can see some of the issues surrounding the question, “Who wrote Ephesians?”

Now you can see that the identity of the “author” is present right at the beginning of the passage. It is “the prisoner.” In other places this prisoner is identified as Paul, the great missionary to the Gentiles who founded churches throughout Asia Minor and Greece, including the city of Ephesus.

Now about five years ago, I began using the Paideia commentary series in my background preparation almost every week. I use this particular series because it is new. Remember that I first approached the Greek text fifty years ago. My hair is gray. At my age I need to attend the newest material, rather than rehash things I learned thirty or forty years ago. Then these commentaries are deeply focused on the text itself. I like that. Then the series is written mostly by conservative scholars. I want to listen to that conservative voice. I am quite capable of getting to the cutting edge of things all on my own, so it is good for me to hear that conservative perspective as I mull over the readings.

Charles Talbert, the conservative scholar who wrote the commentary on Ephesians and Colossians in 2007, says that Ephesians was written by Paul himself. That’s the conservative view. I respect that. But Talbert admits that if Paul wrote it, it would be very late in his career.

I disagree with Talbert about who wrote Ephesians. I don’t think it is a letter of Paul to the Ephesians. I believe it is an essay written in Ephesus expressing the congregation’s deep sense of God’s purpose. The letter is ascribed to Paul out of respect for the congregation’s founder. It’s not “to” the Ephesians, but “of” Ephesus, in my opinion. And why I feel that way is illustrated in this short passage.

First, Paul is down to earth and gritty. In his early writings, his language is spirited and often combative. He is pretty hardnosed in his prose. Now look at this passage from Ephesians. It is lofty and grand. It is so magnificent that it reads almost like a hymn. Paul is not a singer. He probably is one of those Lutherans who wonders why we must sing so much when we come to church. Music? Bah, humbug. Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work on the mission. And if you disagree with me, well you are wrong: that’s Paul. No this material has a poetic inclusive tone. Lots of majestic, flowing visionary language that has a mystic sense.

Next, the issue is unity in this reading. And unity was an important issue in the early church from its very beginning through the first few centuries. For Paul, the unity issue involves Jews and Gentiles coming together as Christians in the first congregations when they are founded. Almost always when he works on unity, Paul grounds unity in one phrase, we are united in Christ. Our faith in Christ Jesus is what binds us together. That’s it, nothing else.

Now how does this passage ground its unity? Actually, in a lot of things: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all, who is above all, through all and in all. This is a broader understanding of the foundation of unity. And notice that in Jesus Christ is not even on the list.

And what is more peculiar is that in the time of Paul there is no such thing as one baptism. There are many different baptisms, in the names of many different people, and performed with or without the spirit in many different ways. Baptism is not yet standardized. That’s one of the things the first Christians are still working on as the churches began. So maybe this passage comes later than Paul.

And then there is the difficult quotation that interrupts the flow and hardly makes sense: When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people. This is a quotation of Psalm 67 or 68. But the quotation really does not seem to fit in very well and is actually confusing to us. And further, it is not a direct quotation, but alters the psalm. In the psalm, the one who goes up and down does not give gifts but receives gifts.

I think the simplest explanation of the quotation, is that it is not a quotation of a psalm but a quotation of the first line of a hymn based on a psalm. A hymn that the readers would know well. You know how hymns are: they take the words and themes from the Bible and change them around to fit the song and its meaning. And often the quoted first line of a hymn may not contain the main topic of the hymn. (Hymn 284 in ELW ’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime is about Jesus the king of creation, Hymn 242 in ELW is Awake, Awake, and Greet the Morn is about the season of Advent.)

Let’s say that what is quoted here is a hymn they all knew about Jesus who descends and ascends and then gives gifts. Let’s say that there are four verses to the hymn about the different gifts we are given. One might be the physical gifts of food, clothing, and shelter. One might be the gift of unity. One might be the gift of diversity and talents needed to accomplish community life. And one might be the gift of life, eternal life for all things, all creation.

Referring to a hymn that everyone knows and sings about gifts makes some sense. And the author does not quote or recite the whole hymn, just the first line, which itself may not convey the entire hymn’s message about the gifts of Jesus that bring us together despite our differences.

Now if there is a hymn, then there is probably a liturgy, and if there is a liturgy there is probably a hymnal of some sort. The church in the time of Paul is too new to have well known hymns to refer to. In the time of Paul they are still getting things started.

So I think that this material probably is not written by Paul to the Ephesians but is an essay of the Ephesians about the way God brings the salvation of all creation, all things through the suffering of Jesus. The lofty language, the lack of Jesus as the basis of unity, the existence of one baptism rather than several forms, the overall poetic tone, the quotation of a the first line of a hymn, and the lack of something to argue over all point us to someone later than Paul writing this.

Now, you may ask why this all matters. I think it might be important for several reasons.

—-We get a picture of how the faith evolved or changed over the years in Ephesus. What Paul started evolved into a deeply philosophical vision over a longer period of time, perhaps fifty or more years. The rough edges of Paul’s pulling things together have been replaced with a sophisticated view of the Christ whose suffering reveals God’s plan to move all creatures through suffering into new life. We all mature, grow, and change in our faith as we mature. That is one of the blessings of growing older for people and for congregations.

—-We often underestimate the influence of music in the life of early Christians and in the early Christian mystical experience. Christians were singing much earlier than we may have first thought. Ephesus was the major Christian center in Asia Minor. The gospel of John, the letters of John, this book of Ephesians, and the book of Revelation all come from this ancient center. These are some of the most poetic resources of ancient Christianity which inspire many of the songs we sing today.

—-And finally, we sense how our relationship with the Word of God is more fluid than we might think. We sense that people digging into the text itself will have different opinions about what it says and how it came to be. We have ancient material before us and there are many different ways to approach it. It is often best for us to begin with the conservative understanding. But it is also good for us to explore and challenge those understandings we have been given.

So we evolve, we sing, and we explore. We evolve, we sing, we explore. Is not this a good message for our times. And for the Ephesians, they come to the view that God loves not only all people but all creation, that there is a unity, not forced, but based on our common God, and that there is diversity of gifts, opinions and visions, all needed for the harmony of the common good.