This Sunday two years ago I stood in this pulpit the first time to preach my call sermon and I am really glad it was not three years ago because these would have been the lessons. They are full of challenge, but also good news. To get at that I’d like to start by telling you about our 21 year old. When Catherine was little she watched a lot of a show called Barney where a large purple dinosaur sang a syrupy song- “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family with a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, Won’t you say you love me too?” I think that perhaps that’s what we really want to hear on Sundays. Not today’s lessons.
Catherine could sing with Barney over and over. But she’d fall victim to what I call the “Barney Effect” which was whenever she needed to grow as a person- taking on a new chore or deepening responsibility, she’d whine and complain that we didn’t “love” her. We could see it was time for new growth but she just wanted to have everything stay peacefully, comfortably the same. Oddly enough, usually the much maligned new thing was actually something that would open up new life. I can remember it going all the way back to when she was learning to crawl and walk. That late great saint, her grandfather tried everything to get her to move, buying different toys, getting down on his hands and knees. He got to see her crawl but not walk before he died. But he persevered because he knew it was good for her even though she wasn’t buying it.
Today in lots of people I meet I hear the adult variation of that complaint “Can’t you just love me the way I am?” or “meet me where I am?” If the answer is no, what follows is what one person I know calls “catastrophizing.” Everything is blown out of proportion. Our desire for pleasant news and our fear of what we are sure is unpleasant are exaggerated. There are catastrophes for some, like we hear of in Hebrews, especially for people like our Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt this week. I watched with heartache and horror the images and stories of Christians attacked for their faith. Most of us only face catastrophes of our own emotions. We assume the worst, allow the race to seem too big, or the time to not seem right or act like no one is with us or has ever faced such times as a way to not act.
If Jesus spoke today, he’d probably compare our incessant focus upon the catastrophizing of the Weather Channel or even reality TV while avoiding the real world around us seeing it for what it is. Our gospel seems scary, even catastrophic. But Delmer Chilton says that when we read it, we usually assume that all the talk about fire and rain is Jesus’ referring to a dark omen of evil times. But that’s not necessarily the case. After all, many times rain is good news, and fire is the process the molds or shapes something beautiful and new.
Jesus says nothing about looking out for evil times; he merely suggests we should pay more attention to what God is up to than the clouds. And frankly, I’m not so sure we’re afraid God is coming to unleash some huge punishment. I think it’s that “good news” that makes us uncomfortable.
Jesus is not always “pleasant news.” And it’s often the duty of the church of “the good news” to speak about things that are neither gentle nor welcome. For us or others. It disturbs our priorities and comfort. That’s what all that family division stuff is getting at.
What Catherine meant when she said “you don’t love me” in those change moments was- if you loved me I wouldn’t have to change. In the midst of the uncertainty or even misery we want to be told that God is love and forgives us and nothing needs to change. But God’s love moves, and God means that all those things God says about widows, aliens, prisoners and marginalized people. And relationships that honor these things matter. Jesus’ message and mission are love, but that kind of love that can be jarring. While God loves us as we are, God also loves us too much to let us stay that way. And that’s disruptive.
Yet, the opposite of love isn’t hate, or anger. The opposite of love is not caring. Keeping things peaceful but distant. God’s love is noisy and nosy and involved. It won’t let us slip away unchallenged into failure. This message disturbed because it called upon people to get beyond roles and to get into relationships; real, messy, involved relationships; that kind of love is disruptive, breaking what isn’t working in order to create a new family, a new community of truth and love. God loves us enough to continue to refine and reshape and reform us to become more and more who God created us to be. People who more and more live out in flesh God’s love for the whole world. God will always seek to change and transform us from sinners into saints, out of love. For God’s sake and ours. And in this process sometimes we have to let go or move on. We do not wish to be told this but it’s true. And that’s what is scary. But at the same time it is joyful and life giving.
Perhaps this was most evident as our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America gathered this past week at our national assembly. Lutherans from all across the country gathered, and were visited by religious leaders from around God’s world under the theme “Always Being Made New.” And some important things happened. Our church elected a new bishop. The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod, is our first female presiding bishop. I am delighted that as someone who was once told that women do not do this, to see such a day, but that is not the most important thing. In the 1970's, the church approved women to become ordained pastors. For some it was joyful good news; for others they were perhaps sure it was a catastrophe in the making. But God’s reshaping over the last 40 years has now led something new but I believe life-giving that is more important. And Bishop Eaton is more importantly a strong evangelist, even inviting someone who interviewed her for the Huffington Post to church, and saying we should “welcome the gifts of those who come from different places-that is a conversation we need to have as a church.” Amen!
Our church also adopted a written statement about the Criminal Justice system in this country out of concern for the “massive levels of incarceration in the United States.” Pastor Fred Opalinski has been a part of this project that affirms positive aspects of the system, but speaks dissatisfaction with what is urgently in need of reform as building and running prisons has become corporate big business and we rank in the top 3 countries in the world in percentage of people under control of a criminal justice system -- one out of 31 adults and, for people of color, as high as one out of 11. Fundamental principles such as due process of law and the presumption of legal innocence are sound. Overly harsh sentencing and persistent inequalities based on race and class need to change. God is calling us to ministry and compassion- to hear the cries of those affected, and walk with all-victims, prisoners, parolees, law enforcement, and their families, welcoming and advocating and putting new lives together. It is challenging but God is calling us to something new.
We also voted to advocate adoption of comprehensive immigration reform legislation supporting an earned pathway to lawful permanent residency and eventual citizenship; to ensure humane and just enforcement of immigration laws; protect families from separation; provide resources and protections to refugees, U.S. citizens and migrant workers. To welcome and pray and educate about immigration. We must hold Scripture and the times together even when they challenge our views. God is calling.
We voted to undertake a five-year campaign, to increase this church’s capacity to renew and start new congregations, educate and develop leaders, bolster global mission efforts and expand the impact of relief and development work. Stepping forward boldly to reach more communities with the good news of Jesus Christ, training missionaries, pastors and lay leaders. Working to alleviate hunger and poverty. More money? More money? These are tough times. Life is already difficult. We cannot do more. Yes, we can.
If we say that the Word is a word for our lives, in faith we are called upon to trust Jesus to lead us in the midst of the unknown in all these times. And when in doubt to remember we are not the first or last to wonder about the future or even predict catastrophe but to persevere. Our new bishop said something else I think is helpful as we ponder how on earth we can be the church that lives into the places God is calling. She said that many people look for THE thing that is the FUTURE of the church. Many think the answer is youth.
Interestingly 1 in 8 voting delegates at the Assembly were under 25. Even more under 40. Good news! And initiatives we feel stretch us come in part from God’s voice in them. But Bishop Eaton said that while many believe youth are the future of the church they are not.“Jesus Christ is the future of the church.” That's how much God loves us. Yes, this is the disrupting and beautiful and loving truth for us all. God in Christ loves us yet is leading and perfecting. May God continue to enable us to see our world and meaningfully respond. May we look to Jesus on the way to the cross, becoming ever more the people God intends as we reach farther into God’s future. May it be so!
note- Delmer Chilton had some fine words at Two Bubbas and a Bible, aka Lectionary Lab