On Being a Prophetic Church

This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on Sunday, July 22. It was based on the lessons for the day, Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Last week, I preached about two faithful prophets who spoke a word of truth to power and, as a result placed their lives in danger. I talked about how its hard to be that kind of Christian. Apparently, that sermon sparked quite a bit of conversation. So, I decided to use the theme and a few quotes from that sermon as the basis for our Theology on Tap conversation on Wednesday evening. I opened the conversation with this question, “What does it mean to be a prophetic church and what does that look like? When we had our time for questions at the end, someone asked, “Pastor, what is a prophetic church?” In that moment, I realized that I had mad an unfair assumption. I had been using insider language and needed to be very clear and simple. So, after talking about what it means to be a prophetic church, someone said, “Pastor, I think you have the topic for your next sermon. You need to tell us us what it means to be a prophetic church.”

This morning, our lessons gives us exactly the chance to consider that very question. What does it mean to be a prophetic church?

Jeremiah proclaims a word of judgment to the leaders of the ancient nation of Israel. Throughout Jeremiah’s lifetime, much of the ancient Middle East was in a constant state of warfare. The tiny nations of Israel and Judah often got caught in the machinations of the larger world superpowers. But they were not entirely victims. Jeremiah proclaimed that the nasty plight of Israel and Judah was God’s punishment for their unfaithfulness. In today’s reading, Jeremiah likens the rulers to shepherds who were supposed to care for ALL people as a good shepherd cares for ALL his sheep — to nourish them and to protect them. Here the judgment is placed on rulers who have misused their power and failed shepherd their people. Because the shepherds have failed to visit their flock with vigilance and care, thus ensuring their welfare, God will now visit these shepherds in judgment.

This is one piece of what it means to be a prophetic church. A prophetic church speaks the truth about what it sees going on in the world. A prophetic church stands up for and commits itself to the enactment of God’s vision for the world. God intends a world where all God’s creatures flourish, a world characterized by peace and justice and righteousness.

To speak the truth and stand up for what’s right is not where the prophetic church begins, however. The great Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann suggests that the first task of the prophetic church is to lament. That is, to grieve over the shattered vision of what God intends for the world. To lament the structures that were created good but have been coopted for evil. To get a stomach ache over the fact that so many people are not allowed to flourish and to live as God intends. In the gospel lesson, Mark tells us that Jesus had compassion on the crowds because they were stumbling through life as though they were sheep without a shepherd. The Greek word there, the one we translate “had compassion for,” literally means to have a stomach ache over. Jesus had a stomach ache over the plight of the people.

I spent two days this past week at a statewide conference on affordable housing. What I learned is that the challenges we face in Door County in providing decent affordable housing for our working people are not unique to our community. It’s nationwide crisis. I learned how many of the poor are spending over 50% of their income on housing that is often in horrible condition. Matthew Desmond’s powerful book, Evicted, tells the story of what it’s like to be poor and try to find a decent place to live. A prophetic church is heartbroken when it sees economic and social structures that chain the poor in cycles of need that they have little chance of escaping.

A prophetic church is realistic. Jeremiah rightly understood that the king was never going to be able to be that leader that the people so desperately needed. So, he placed his hope in a king that God would provide, a new David, one who would come without the flaws of the first David, one who would fully and perfectly care for his people and protect them from evil. Jeremiah’s hope is a reminder that our salvation and the salvation the world needs will never be realized by any earthly ruler. A prophetic church is starkly realistic about what we can expect from any ruler or any government or institution. We don’t look for more than is possible; we are realists; we understand that salvation is from God. The prophetic church looks to God and to the leader whom God would raise up. That leader is Christ, the One who came as the Good Shepherd. He’s the One Jeremiah was pointing to. He is the One who knows his sheep, the one who looked at the people who were like sheep without a shepherd, and in order to care for them and protect them, gave his life for them. See, if Jesus is Messiah — and we believe that he is — then God’s care, God’s shepherding does not come as we might expect.  It does not come through pursuing war and violence and force — even if the war and violence and force are waged by the good guys. God’s provision and God’s purposes will not be realized as armies and powerful nations defeat their worldly enemies in battle. It comes through God’s offering God’s self in vulnerability and weakness. The great 20th century rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “To the prophet. . .God does not reveal himself in abstract absoluteness, but in a personal, intimate relation to the world. He does not simply command and expect obedience; he is also moved and affected by what happens in the world. God is concerned about the world and shares its fate. Indeed, this is the essence of God’s moral nature: his willingness to be involved in the history of humanity.” We have seen this very miracle of divine love, that God is so wiling to be involved in the history of humanity that God has sent God’s son, “born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” The miracle of divine love comes to us and to the world through the Messiah’s crucifixion and resurrection. As the followers of the crucified one die to themselves and rise to new life, they in turn share that self-giving love with the world.

Here’s where we come to the final piece of what it means to be a prophetic church. A prophetic church is involved in the world, becomes the agents of God’s intentions and purposes for the world. The church, individual children of God who have died to themselves in their baptism, and have risen to new life in Christ, collectively become the agents for what God intends in the world. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians that in Christ Jesus, we who were once far off from God have been brought near by the blood of Christ. So, we become agents of reconciliation, repairers of the breach, bringing all things into their fullness in Christ Jesus. We become the ones who spread the compassion of Jesus in the dark corners of the world. Compassion is different than pity. When we pity people, we can keep them at arm’s length, never getting our hands dirty and our hearts broken. That’s not what Jesus did. They laid their sick at his feet and his touch healed them. Jesus’ compassion is not distant and it is not condescending; Jesus compassion identifies with the hurting, the burdened, the broken and gets down in the midst of them.  Now he calls us to come out of our places of comfort and distance and identify with, and show solidarity with, the hurting, the burdened, and the broken.

Mark offers two descriptions of those who gathered around Jesus, each as true today as it was  then. In all the comings and goings of our lives, our community and our nation, we are like sheep without a shepherd. Yet in all of it, our Shepherd is present and the crowds around us recognize God in Christ in us, with us, and among us. So, don’t be surprised, dear church, when they rush about and start to bring the sick and the needy to touch Jesus. And we, dear prophetic church, will be there as Christ touches them and heals them through us.

This Is Hard Stuff

This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on Sunday, July 15, 2018. It is based on the Revised Common Lectionary lessons for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, Amos 7:7-15, Ephesians 1:3-14, and Mark 6:14-29.

beheadingofjohn

I know what you’re thinking. How is he going to wrestle a sermon out of the beheading of John the Baptist?  I agree. This is hard stuff, these lessons. Give me a good text full of promises, the kind that brings peace and comfort. Give me a story about the way God loves us, a story full of that unconditional grace.  Give me something that I can walk away from feeling good.

Instead we get a prophet who is sent to speak harsh words of judgment to those in power and another that gets beheaded for answering the same call. This is hard stuff, these lessons.

The beloved John the Baptist is executed by beheading. King Herod, the powerful ruler of Judea, gets stuck in a complicated relationship with John, with his wife, and with his stepdaughter. Herod is at odds with his wife over John the Baptist and at odds with John the Baptist over his wife. When he throws a party, has a few too many, and loves the dancing of his stepdaughter a little too much, he makes a boast to the crowd.  “As payment for her fine dancing, I will give Herodias anything in my kingdom.” His boast brings more than he bargained for. Goaded on by her mother who was, of course, Herod’s wife, the fancy-dancing child, Herodias, asks for John’s head.

Or consider Amos, the farmer, the keeper of the fig trees, not a prophet by vocation, but called to speak to the halls of power. His word of judgment threatens the religious and political establishment of Israel. Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, reports to King Jereboam that Amos has conspired against him and prophesied his death. For being true to his calling to follow the Lord, Amos is branded a threat to homeland security.

What binds John and Amos together is their mutual commitment to doing what God asked of them without qualification, without reservation, without question. Even when it meant going against the cultural grain, against popular opinion, and even when it had to potential to bring them great harm.

This is hard stuff, these lessons. It’s hard to be that kind of Christian, to be that kind of church. It’s easier and safer just to accept the status quo, to look around and say, well, that’s just the way it is, and to excuse ourselves — the problems are too big, the power too great, and like they say, you can’t fight city hall.

Will Willimon is a contemporary theologian who has written a ton about the church in these days. He used to be the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University and then went on to serve as a bishop in the Methodist Church. As bishop he used to get around to visit a lot of congregations. He’d often ask folks what they thought the work of the church is and what they thought the work of the pastor is. Invariably, people would answer that the purpose of the church is directed at their own needs — to bring them comfort, to help them in their struggles, to let them know they’re loved and valuable.

That’s what we want. And knowing what some of you are going through, it seems perfectly logical to proclaim a word of comfort and leave it at that. It’s a whole lot easier than speaking out and taking action against all that rails against God’s justice and God’s righteousness, against God’s intentions. This is hard stuff, these lessons.

They’re hard, in part, because they challenge us against our own self-absorption and complacency.

Self-absorption is a cruel and sinful disease. The relative prosperity and prestige with which many of us are surrounded can be crippling to our relationship with God. In this beautiful room, we can begin to think that our ministry begins and ends here. In our lovely homes with their beautiful Door County address, we can begin to believe that it is we who have provided for ourselves. In the vast variety and abundance of this world, we can begin to believe that somehow it all belongs to us. And we can so easily forget that we are called to be a part of God’s people for the sake of God’s intentions and purposes.

Complacency is the disease of sleep-walking through life, of believing that nothing I could do would ever matter in the big picture. Complacency is to sing “Jesus love me, this I know” without ever getting to the part which asks, so where would he have me go.

That’s why we need a savior. Not a cheerleader or a pep-talk, but a savior. One who can free us from our bondage to self-absorption and complacency. John’s execution is a foreshadowing of the death that Jesus would face at the hands of the misguided powers of empire and church. His body would be nailed to a tree and placed into a tomb. In his body, he would carry our own self-absorption and bury it. His death and resurrection bring our own dying to self and rising to new life in God. God has come among us in Jesus; God has delivered us from the tyranny of the self and freed us to live for God and for others. What God has made us to be is described in poetic paeans of praise in the lesson from Ephesians. Listen:  God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing; God has made us holy and blameless; God has adopted us as God’s daughters and sons and provided us redemption, the forgiveness of our sins according to the richness of his grace.

In this grace, we have been predestined for works, so that our lives and our work are part of the purposes of the One who has called us. It’s his power, not ours, that enlivens our work as church. We are not just do-gooders; we are the body of Christ through whom God intends to work. Viewed apart from the eyes of faith, we have nothing to offer when speaking to power or facing the big problems of our community and our world. But wrapped in the death and resurrection of Christ, we offer ourselves for God’s use. We are called to be a threat to the worldly powers that perpetuate the status quo of injustices and oppression. Like Amos, we are amateur prophets, injecting tension into the status quo because we know the way thing are is not the way things should be. 

The great rabbi and philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that the office of the prophet in Israel was to remind the king that his sovereignty was limited, that over any pronouncements that the king might make, the pronouncements of the Lord and the justice of the Lord have the final say. When our sole focus is on our own need and our own place in the world, we lose sight of where are are placed in the greater creation and who has places us here. We already know we are cherished and will be cared for; from that vantage point, we keep our eyes peeled for the surprising ways God may be at work in the world.

Ordinary people like us do God’s work and enact God’s vision of the kingdom. In 1976, Millard and Linda Fuller worked with Clarence Jordan and began a project to build 42 homes for low income families outside Americus, Georgia. Since then Habitat for Humanity has built over one million homes, touching the lives of five million people. Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan Illinois was begun in 1882 when Pr. E.J. Homme opened an orphanage in Wittenberg, Wisconsin with a vision to take care of orphaned children. Today, LSS touches the lives of over 100,00 people through 263 programs at 188 sites in 115 communities throughout Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. A weeks ago, 30,000 ELCA youth and adults descended on Houston, a city ravaged last summer by Hurricane Harvey. High school students — teens — touched a city with the love of Christ.

This is hard stuff, these lessons. They are a reminder and an encouragement that our lives are not our own. When I bless children at the communion table, I tell them, “You belong to Jesus.” Christ has made a claim on you for the sake of the world. We gather in this room to be sent out — as prophets, as the hands and feet of Jesus. No one is exempt. All are called. As the Lord said to Amos, so the Lord says to you, “Go.”

A Big, Beautiful World: A Review of Creation Care, by Douglas and Jonathan Moo

I care deeply about the care of creation. And I care that the church cares about the care of creation. While I believe in general, it has taken us too long to join the conversation, there are some theologians who are calling us to account. This review of Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World,  by Douglas Moo and Jonathan Moo first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books and is reprinted here with their permission.  

In the midst of the cacophony of strident voices in contemporary American politics and culture, one of the loudest strains of shouting back and forth across the fence is with regard to environmental issues, and particularly climate change and human causation. In the midst of the debate, what does the church have to say, and what must the church do? The father and son co-authors, Douglas and Jonathan Moo seek to answer those questions in their new book, Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World.

They begin from the premise that God has given us a big,  beautiful world to live in. As human creatures, we respond with wonder and praise. From that premise flows the notion that it is our responsibility to care for that creation. With regard to the calling to care for creation, the authors frame their discussion around these two specific questions:  1) What do we mean when we talk about the care of creation? and 2) Why is it important to talk about it?  The short answer is that Christians are called to care about creation because we worship the God who called creation into being. Then they go about grounding their apology for creation care in scripture. They seek “a strategy for biblical interpretation that is broad, integrate, and creative.” While acknowledging that both culture and science contribute to our understanding of and response to the call to care for creation, they spend little time on either and a great deal of time laying out scriptural support for creation care.

Our call to care for creation is rooted in the notion that we are always seeking to become who God created us to be. Our care for creation is an inescapable part of who God has created us to be. The human dominion over creation is subsumed under the reign of God, and that reign defines the priorities and purposes of creation care.

The authors spend a significant amount of time and ink relating creation care to Jesus’ new reign. They do so because this is really at the heart of their apology for the Christian call to creation care. “In Christ, we see the breaking in of God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom in which old enmities are abolished and peace is established between God and humanity, humanity and the earth, and human beings and each other.”  Here, the Moos unpack in some detail a number of New Testament passages which speak of new creation, suggesting that part of the new creation is that God will bring all things — the created order included — into an appropriate relationship with himself.

Consistent with their view of the goodness of creation and that God is in Christ reconciling all things to himself, they argue against a cataclysmic, disaster-induced ending the present order. Instead, the eschaton will bring a renewal and fulfillment of this creation; therefore, it is of critical importance that humans steward well this created order. “Creation is not just the stage on which the story of redemption takes place; creation is an actor in that story.”

After a long apology for the biblical mandate for care for creation, the final few chapters of the book move to how the church and individual Christians might contribute to that work. Of necessity is the Christian call to Christlike daily living, which includes appreciation and care for creation. Only in the penultimate chapter do the authors talk about the urgency of the human-induced crisis with regard to environmental degradation. In the face of this crisis, Christians must live faithful lives and form faithful communities that care about the earth. That faithfulness comes in being more aware of the natural work and to contemplate purposefully and engage actively with that world.

The authors write from within the Evangelical community, and the work is intended for that community. In both style and substance, the book is written for a community in which belief must be grounded in specific references to the Old and New Testament scriptures and in the detailed interpretation of those passage.  In seeking to engage that community — and it seems to me that a subtext of the work is to engage that community without causing offense or controversy — the authors don’t push hard and they don’t challenge. There is no attempt to sound an alarm, nor do they paint a dark picture of the consequences of failing to act. It’s a straightforward argument for Christians to take seriously the call to care for the created order. The book is part of The Biblical Theology for Life series published by Zondervan which is intended to bring “groundbreaking academic study of the Bible alongside contemporary contextualization and proclamation.” I would not characterize this work as anything groundbreaking in terms of academic study. (For groundbreaking academic study, I’d be more inclined to look to Larry Rasmussen’s Earth-Honoring Faith or Sallie McFague’s Blessed Are the Consumers.)

On the other hand, the authors have brought a scriptural proclamation to the matter of care for creation and have placed that care squarely into the context of the faithfulness of the church and her individual members. For an introduction to the Christian call to care for the environment, and for a carefully organized apology for the same, especially for those who might not be inclined to perceive the urgency and importance of the stewardship of creation, this might be just the book to read.

St. Matthias, Patron Saint of Ordinary People

Actually, I made it up that Matthias is patron saint of ordinary people. But he should be.

Today is the feast day for Matthias, Apostle. If you’ve never heard of him or taken note of him, there’s no shame.  You’re probably not alone. He was the one chosen to replace Judas after Jesus’ ascension. Coincidentally, yesterday in church, we read the few verses from Acts that tell the story of his election. If you want to call it that. There were only two candidates, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, aka Justus. The one qualification was that they had been a part of the larger band of those who followed Jesus from the beginning. Luke reports they both filled the bill. But there doesn’t seem to have been any search committee, any careful study of their curriculum vitae, no checking the references. There was no vote. They simply flipped a coin, or the first century equivalent. That’s it.

And then we never hear of either one of them again. We can speculate that both of them went on to serve in some capacity in the early church. Matthias now carried the authority of an apostle. But there is never any report in the canonical scriptures of where he went or what he did.

Not even the tradition agrees about Matthias. The Greeks say that Matthias did missionary work in Cappadocia and on the coasts of the Caspian Sea. Nicephorus records that he first preached the Gospel in Judea, then in what is modern day Georgia and was there stoned to death. Still another tradition has him in Ethiopia. I know enough about geography to know that both of those traditions are probably not true. Take your pick. What seems more clear is that Matthias was an ordinary guy who became an apostle, and went about doing his work faithfully. Ordinarily. Not even 15 minutes of fame. More like 5 verses of fame (Acts 1:21-26).

For a long time now, I’ve gotten to work with ordinary people in the church. Like the couple who shows up early every Sunday to make sure everything is set for the service, even if it’s not their job. More often than I’d care to admit, we have no ushers assigned, so they step in. Because someone needs to do the job. I hear frequently that she has offers to give someone else a ride to Green Bay to the doctor or shopping or whatever. That’s a 3 hour round trip. The church is ordinary people. She is church.

One of my colleagues got up yesterday and gave eloquent testimony, sharing the stories of the people who are struggling in our community. She challenged the rest of us to see them and to be the hands of Christ for them. She is kind and generous, passionate about serving others. She knows everyone in Door County, it seems. I think she is extraordinary. Yet, she is probably not known outside of northern Door County. I’d be surprised if anyone at the denominational headquarters has ever heard of her. There have been no articles written about her service. The church is ordinary people. She is church.

I’ve heard over and over at funerals the sentimental notion that our loved ones will be remembered forever. While I get it that we want our lives to count for something and for those we love not to have lived in vain, the truth is that very few of us will be remembered beyond a few decades after our deaths, if that long.

Yet, the work of the church, the work of the kingdom, could not be done without the countless ordinary followers of Jesus, thousands of whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. I think about you today as we celebrate Matthias. I give thanks for what I’ve learned from you and for the profound gift that our lives have been graciously intertwined.

You ordinary followers of Jesus, I honor you and celebrate you. Lift a glass to yourself. We could not be church without you.

Five Recommendations for Black History Month

As we continue to observe Black History month, here are 5 histories that have been the among the most compelling that I have read.

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson, tells the history of the mass migration of African Americans from the South to the Industrial North in the decades following the Civil War. While full of well-documented history, she structures that history around the stories of three different individuals who migrated at different times to different places. Those family stories bring the history to life and make for a compelling chronicle of the northern migration, both the opportunities and the pitfalls.

The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist. Baptist writes a history of chattel slavery in the US from the perspective of economics and argues that the emergence of the US as a world economic power was only possible because of the tortuous institution of slavery. The expanding production of cotton in the 19th century brought prosperity not only to the owners of the land and production, but to northerners who invested in that production, not to mention others who benefited indirectly from the rippling effects of cotton production. Even the Industrial Revolution of 19th century England, centered in the milling of cotton and the production of clothing, would not have been possible without the whip-induced productivity of black slaves. “For what was done in the fields — specifically what was done to force enslaved people to create new ways to accelerate the pace of their own labor — shaped what was possible in the factory, the bank, the marketplace, and the halls of state. Invisible new financial wires bound the bodies of enslaved people to the dreams and desires of whose whose measuring eyes stared down women and men on the auction block and to those of investors around the world. Slavery rendered the United States powerful, its white citizens richer and more equal.” (p. 421)

Family Properties by Beryl Satter. Here you’ll find the well-documented history of the contract housing crisis in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960’s. Satter, who teaches history at Rutgers, does not, however, tell the story in the cold, distant tones of an historian. Her father was an attorney who represented many of the African Americans in their fights to keep their home. The dysfunction of the City of Chicago, is exposed, along with the realtors and property owners whose motive was money over people. Satter chronicles the breakdown of whole sections of the city. One of the chapters that I found particularly compelling was the one that told the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s visit to the Chicago. He attempted to import strategies that were successful in the South to Chicago and got buried by the Daley machine.

White Rage, by Carol Anderson. I first learned of Carol Anderson through a powerful op-ed she wrote in the Washington Post following the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. In this book, Anderson examines each historical era in the US since the Civil War and tells the story of how the white privileged, institutional structures of oppression have denied economic opportunity to our African-American citizens. She terms “white rage” that reaction of white people to the advancement of people of color and in that reaction, the inevitable move to derail their advancement. This book was compelling in laying out the ongoing systematic structures of oppression.

The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter. On its surface this seems like an odd choice for Black History month, but stay with me for a moment. Here, Painter documents the development of race theory as a real thing, and in particular the notion of American whiteness. Race is not based on biology, but on a sociological construct that is meant to privilege white people and oppress people of color. She provides numerous illustrations through history of how white people have constructed notions of race for a variety of social, economic, and political gains. Read this book for a full scale debunking of the myth of race and of the devastation that such myths have unleashed on those whose skin is not white.

What books of Black History would you recommend?

An Odd Day, an Odd Faith — a Sermon for Ash Wednesday When It Falls on Valentine’s Day

This is the text of the sermon preached on Ash Wednesday, February 14, at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in northern Door County, Wisconsin.

What an odd, odd day. Ash Wednesday is odd enough in itself, but when it falls on Valentine’s it’s even more odd. Many of my clergy friends have been making the most of this strange calendric convergence.  One posted on Facebook this imaginary conversation: “So, what are your Valentine’s Day plans?” “Oh, I have to work and remind everyone that they’re going to die.”  Another toyed with the idea of plastering the sign of the cross on her parishioner’s foreheads with melted chocolate. I, on the other hand, have been threatening to make an ashen heart on your foreheads.

While Valentine’s Day takes its name from two separate Christian martyrs who were both executed in the 3rd century A.D. by the Roman emperor Claudius II, the holiday has come to extol romantic love — it’s the day to send chocolates or roses to your true love, or to the one you hope will become your true love.

Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, seems to be the exact opposite. It’s not a party, but the definition of a non-party. The Old Testament lesson from Joel blows a trumpet to announce the darkness of sin and suffering. Joel urges the ancient people of God and us, all of us, from nursing infants to the most aged among us to come before God and pay attention to those things that are most important — our sin, our mortality, our need for divine forgiveness, and the accompanying assurance that God is merciful.

Ash Wednesday calls us to face the harsh and precious reality that each of us was molded by the hand of God out of the elements of creation and each of us will once again become those elements. Yet we don’t speak of this reality in a cold or clinical way like we might approach a cadaver in a morgue. We do so with a sense of wonder, and again, with a eye to the promises of God. The ashes we allow to be inscribed on our foreheads are understood as symbols of our frail mortality and certain death. The ashes point beyond themselves to a hidden life-giving power.

For a few years before moving to Door County, Sheryl and I volunteered at the Nachusa Grasslands Nature Conservancy Prairie Preserve. It’s a project in western Illinois that now encompasses nearly 4000 acres and is being returned to its original state as a biologically diverse grasslands. Key to that restoration is the annual controlled burning in the spring of the year. Regular burning is a necessary step in the health and vitality of the prairie. The heat germinates certain seeds and clears the way for others to sprout and grow.

Here is the paradoxical truth of Ash Wednesday. The loving presence of God is hidden in the dust and ashes that dominate this day. Far deeper than the romantic love of Valentine’s Day and chocolates and roses, God comes to us with a love that rescues us from our violent ways with each other, from the limits of our mortality, and promises life that endures beyond our death.

See, the season of Lent that we begin today is going somewhere. Where? We’re headed to Easter, that grand celebration of death that gets turned into life. There’s this part of the communion liturgy we call the Proper Preface. It comes right after the opening sentences. You’ll recognize it because it begins, “It is indeed our duty and delight that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to you, almighty and merciful God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And then it goes on in poetic language to tie this eucharistic celebration to the themes of the church year. I kind of miss the old one for lent; they changed it in this new hymnal; the old one proclaimed that where death began, life will be restored and that the Evil One who by a tree once overcame will likewise by a tree be overcome. That infamous apple tree of the Garden of Eden will be superseded by a cross-shaped tree on a gruesome hill outside Jerusalem; there the possibility of life with God was born. Indeed, dear church, because we are so truthful today about our mortality, the promise of resurrection is all the more sweet.

This is an odd day, this Ash Wednesday, made all the more odd by the juxtaposition with Valentine’s Day. But then ours is an odd faith, a faith that began in the dust and ashes of a borrowed tomb, a grave, a place of death. That womb of dust and ash and death was the resting place of Christ who loved the world all the way to death on a cross.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  These are the words that will be spoken over you in a matter of minutes. Your life is fleeting. The clock is ticking. But the mark of the cross reminds you that there is so much more. Death gives way to the life that was promised at your baptism. Ashes are not forever. Endings always call up new beginnings. Now, even now, in the midst of dust and ashes on this day of love, it is a day of deep grace, the day of our salvation.

For That Time When the World’s a Hot Mess

I usually don’t post my sermons on this blog, but we had this thing happen in northern Door County on Saturday. Snow. Quite a bit of it. And by Sunday morning, not too many people had dug themselves out, so we had a pretty small attendance in church on Sunday. So, this is mostly for the benefit of Shepherd of the Bay folks who may have missed the Sunday service. Here it is: a sermon based on the first lesson for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Isaiah 40:21-3. And remember, this approximates, but does not duplicate what was preached. Sermons are for hearing, not so much for reading. 

It’s a hot mess out there. Every week we’re subjected to more drama in Washington, and it’s having consequences. I don’t that to be a partisan statement or a criticism of any one person or a particular party’s politics. It seems to me, there’s enough dysfunction to go around. Some days its exhausting, and some days its simply overwhelming. It’s a hot mess out there.

In the middle of a hot mess, it’s good for us to hear these words from Isaiah. We listen in on words from the prophet Isaiah who is speaking to the Israelites who are in exile. When we listen in, it has been a generation already since they were conquered by the Babylonians and had been forcibly moved from Jerusalem to Babylon. In this section of the book of Isiaiah, the prophet proclaims over and over again that the Judeans who have been living so far from home for so long are about to be released and allowed to return home. But this isn’t just the prophet whistling his pipe dreams. There is strong theological foundation for his proclamation. The prophet’s confidence is in the power and the gracious will of God.

First, a little set-up. I want to take you back to the first part of the chapter, the part we didn’t read this morning.  You would find the words that we read back in December as we were awaiting the birth of Jesus, “Comfort, comfort, my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her exile is over.” That’s a pretty good clue that the prophet intends these words we hear this morning as words of comfort and strength.

The part we did read this morning is a section dominated by rhetorical questions. You know rhetorical questions, right? The kind my mother used to ask when she was irritated with me.. “Jimmy, do you think that trash is to take itself out?” “Jimmy, do you think that bed is going to make itself?” “Jimmy, do you think someone else is going to do your homework for you?” Rhetorical questions make assertions by assuming answers and they lay foundations for the responses that follow. When someone asks a rhetorical question, they’re not really asking a question; they’re making a statement. You’re supposed to know the answer to the question.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?” What the exiled Israelites should have known but have apparently forgotten is that the one who sits above the circle of the earth — namely, Yahweh, the God of Israel, their God, the God of the covenant — is also the one who brings down princes and rulers. In other words Yahweh, the God of Israel, their God, the God of the covenant, is ruler over history. God is the one who is in charge, even when it looks like the world is a hot mess. And believe me, when the Judeans were in Babylon under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, they were not feeling like Yahweh was in control. Their world was a hot mess.

There’s more. “To whom will you compare me? Who is my equal?” And of course, the answer is that there is no equal. And if you want some evidence, the look around you, the prophet says. Look at the heavens, the stars, and sun and moon. Look at the extraordinary moonrise last Wednesday evening, the convergence of the blue moon and the supermoon. Look at the extraordinary diversity and beauty of the flora and fauna of Door County. Look at the intersection of land and water where we live. And know that the one who has created it all knows the name of each star, of each plant, of each animal. Don’t you think the one who knows each star cares more deeply and lovingly for each of you? (That’s a rhetorical question and you’re supposed to know the answer!)

The third section of today’s reading begins with an actual question — not a rhetorical question, but an actual question that communicates Israel’s sense that they have been abandoned by God. The have believed that God is absent from their lives and from the hot mess in the world. Again, it seems to me that the notion that God was absent from their lives was a perfectly logical for the exiled people of God. So, the people ask, is God unaware of what’s going on? Why is God ignoring the cause of the righteous? Why does it seem like evil is winning and there are so few voices for justice and righteousness anymore? 

Here’s where the voice of God sounds most powerful and most gracious as the prophet repeats the rhetorical questions from the very beginning of our reading. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” And in what follows, the assertions move from the cosmic to the personal. Listen, dear people of God. The assertions move from the cosmic to the personal. God, our God, is the everlasting God, the creator of the whole earth who never tires and whose understanding is beyond human comprehension. That same one gives power to the faint, to those who are weary and fearful. God gives strength to the powerless, to the ones who look at the hot mess and think there’s nothing that can be done and that there’s no hope. Listen:  “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” 

What images of comfort and strength and hope! Think of the image of an eagle soaring, gliding effortlessly on the breezes. The promise of walking back home from Babylon to Jerusalem and never growing tired. Of moving on and on and on through whatever the journey brings, full of confidence and strength and hope. That’s the image of the journey of faith for those who wait for the Lord. To wait for the Lord is to have confidence, faith, trust. To wait for the Lord is to commit yourself to God in hopeful expectation. To wait for the Lord is to know that despite what you see going on around you, the God who has redeemed you, the God who went to the cross to give you life, the God who has called you his own in the waters of baptism, the God who every week calls you to this table to receive strength and nourishment for the journey, that God, our God is in charge. To wait for the Lord is to acknowledge that we don’t see what’s going on in the mind of God, nor are we fully aware of God’s plan for the princes and rulers and nations of this world. To wait for the Lord is to confess again that we walk by faith and not by sight. The one who calls you to freedom is the God who created all things, who calls out the stars, whose strength knows no limits, and who gives that strength to the faint and the powerless, to us. God gives those who wait for God the power to fly. 

I guess that’s why this weekly gathering is so important to me. It’s easy to get bogged down in whatever is going on around us. Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned about the burdens that many of you are facing, that go beyond the hot mess of our national life. So, we come. We hear the Word and we sing; we pray. We remind each other that God is faithful and that God is in charge. We remember our baptism, our new life that springs from Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we come to the table for this taste of manna, bread for the journey, nourishment for whatever we face. Have you not known? the prophet asks. Have you not heard? Of course we have.