The Good, the Bad, and the Not-That-Simple: A Theory of Life Abundant

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Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Matthew 5:21-37

I’ve heard people in some Christian traditions say that the purpose of a sermon is to “take ‘em to the cross.” As a Lutheran, I’ve learned that we generally take ‘em to the table by going through the cross. So that’s where we’re going to end up. But first….

Okay. 

Let’s name the elephant in the room first, shall we? I do not think that getting divorced cuts you off from God or marks a person as somehow more sinful than the rest of us sinners. I know that you may have heard the opposite from pulpits before, and trust me, I know exactly what this Gospel lesson says. So if this passage affects you directly in any way, rest easy. You are safe here. I’ll explain the rest in a moment, but I had to get that out of the way first. Because trust me, I’m just fine with calling people sinners, but you better know that 1) I mean everybody and 2) I’m first in line.

I know what “the Bible says” on any number of issues. I also believe that the good Lord gave us brains and hearts for a reason, and we will be using them both today, as we always should when considering good and evil or just humanity in general. 

But if you’ll give me just a second, I want to kick off this little talk of ours by talking about one of my favorite subjects and yours: food. More specifically, how we think about food in our culture. Because believe it or not, I actually think that how we think about food has quite a lot to do with today’s scripture readings. Namely, in how we couch it in moral language and an overly simplistic, moralistic, good-vs-bad, all-or-nothing mentality that just isn’t healthy for anyone and doesn’t generally lead to good outcomes.

We’re into February, which hopefully means that we’re out of the woods when it comes to weight loss advertisements. Women in particular get inundated with things that tell us that we can get skinny. This is assuming of course that all women want to be skinny, which we do not. 

But of course, this phenomenon is not limited to women by any stretch. The men in the room here know that you all get body image messages too. Men’s magazines tell you all about how to get that six pack with supplements and diet plans. 

Typically, even the best results go like this — person of any gender goes on crash diet. Person may take supplements. Person labels pizza and chocolate and other sweets “bad.” Refuses to eat them. Gives in and eat French fries. Feel bad for being “bad.” Go back to eating “good” things. Tells everyone that the person can’t have the brownies, because the person is “being good.” Person loses a lot of weight, or not, and manages to keep it off, or not, depending on how long they can “be good.” 

Talking about our bodies and food is awkward and hard and rife with shame in large part because of the way we talk about food. We always talk about it in moral terms. Being “good.” Being “bad.” “Cheat day.” “Eating clean.” “Good foods.” “Bad foods.” 

So I’ve compiled this helpful guide: did you know you were getting nutritional advice at church today too? Just one of the many services we offer here at Our Savior’s.

Good foods are foods that contain calories. Foods that you want to eat. Foods that taste good. Foods that you are in the mood for. 

Bad foods: spoiled foods. Foods that you are allergic to. Foods that push people in front of busses or commit crimes. These are bad foods. 

In other words, if it doesn’t kill you, it’s not a “bad” food, and we need to drop the morality language and the all-or-nothing approach around food. It’s making Americans really, really sick, and it’s making us fall prey to all kinds of gimmicks that prey on our body image issues. Being healthy is about developing healthy habits, not about whether or not you have a brownie today at coffee hour. Food is not inherently “good” or “bad.” It’s about what gives you life and makes you feel and be healthy, not about what people who are trying to sell you things tell you.

Thank you for coming to my TED Talk. 

So just as food is made to nourish us and keep us alive and healthy, so is the Law. We have a lot of law in these texts today: the Old Testament lesson implores us to “choose life,” and the Gospel lesson gives us a whole list of behaviors that are off limits — right? So is God’s point in creating the law to label some behaviors “good” and some behaviors “bad”? 

We certainly think about language and behavior the way that we think about food. I know. If you actually know me, you’ll know that I’m the least offend-able person on the planet, yet the longer I’m in this role, the more I become frustrated with just how much people try to protect me, thinking I’m somehow deeply offended by “bad” things — whether bad language (which my own friends think is hilarious, by the way) or any mentions of sex or violence. It makes being in this role deeply weird sometimes, because in case you didn’t know, I’m just a person. But I’ve come to realize over the years that it’s because we think of everything the way we think of food — good and bad — and people think that God thinks that way too, and they think of me as a stand-in for God. 

So that raises the question: does God label some behaviors good and some always bad?

I would say yes, tentatively. The Law is created and formed around helping us to stay in community, have peace, and not to harm one another. Reconciliation is good. Loving partnerships are good. Community is good. Harming people is bad. 

And Jesus takes all of that a step further: don’t be proud of yourself for not killing that person who irritated you; go and make peace with them. Don’t be proud of yourself just because you didn’t cheat on your spouse; stop thinking of other human beings as sex objects. And don’t make an oath just so that people will believe you’re serious; become a trustworthy person whose “yes” means yes and whose “no” means no. And divorce? Divorce in Jesus’ day was a deathblow to women in particular. A woman who has been divorced would be cut off entirely in a society where she couldn’t work or hold property. And men could just decide to divorce his wife for no reason, issuing her a certificate of divorce on a whim and dealing her that deathblow rather easily. 

So is Jesus straight up calling divorce sinful? I don’t think so, and neither does the Lutheran tradition.

So my friend Joe says that Jesus didn’t die so that we would all behave ourselves. (1)

Jesus died and rose again because God is a God of life, against whom all the powers of oppression and sin are no match. Deuteronomy shows us rather than telling us that even the Law given in the first books of the Hebrew Bible is not a law of death but a law of life, as the people are implored to choose life by choosing the law. 

In the same way that divorce was a death blow to women in the first century, marriage can be a death blow to two people caught in a cycle of abuse, toxicity, neglect or any number of difficult factors. Many theologians throughout the centuries have interpreted the law of the God of life through this lens: “What will bring the abundant life that Jesus promises?” 

Labeling things “good” or “bad” may be simple enough for us to understand, but just like food, life is not simple. The ultimate purpose of food is to keep us alive. Foods are not “good” unless you think they are and they are not “bad” unless they make you throw up or stole your car. 

In the same way, what God wants for us in all our behaviors is abundant life. 

When we witness to a marriage, the presider says, “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” And in a perfect world, we would always be correct in our assessment that God has joined those two people together. In the kingdom of God, love lasts forever, and death is no more, and no one is objectified but everyone is looked at as human, and everyone’s “yes” is yes and their “no” means no, and all those who argue find peace and reconciliation quickly. This is life as it’s supposed to be. This is life as it’s intended to be: life abundant. That is what Jesus describes in this passage — the kingdom of God in all its fullness. 

Beloved, I do not need to tell you that we do not live on that side of the kingdom. We strive for it, and we look for it, and sometimes, we see flashes of it in our own lives and within these very walls. But truth be told, we fail all the time. We witness to marriages that were never meant to be, and we grieve. We hear of case after case of sexual abuse. We are surrounded day after day by death and lies. We live in a nation where reconciliation between the two sides seems far, far off. 

With my friend Joe, I do not believe that Jesus died on the cross so that we could behave. God is not as overly simplistic and petty as we are to blindly label things “good” vs. “bad. 

For goodness’ sake, we even do this with our food in the vain hope of looking good.

I believe that Christ rose again to show us that God is a God of new life and hope. And that a healthy person, rather than labeling things “good” or “bad,” looks for what most brings abundant life, whether in food or in actions. Whether in food or in life, an “all or nothing” approach only works if you’re talking about simple stuff, like whether you’re allergic to a food, or whether an action is truly harmful to yourself or someone else. 

Yes, if you always eat cake for dinner, you will harm yourself. But if you don’t eat a really tasting looking brownie that you really want during a celebration you’ve been waiting for, you may also be doing harm. 

Indeed, there’s a lot of Law in these texts today. And the law is helpful in telling us how to live in a better way, one that hopefully brings abundant life to ourselves and all we meet.

And at the end of the road, with all our failures, there is the Gospel which is for all of us: that Christ died and rose again not to correct our behaviors, but because God is a God of abundant life and desires life abundant for each one of us. 

So eat, and nourish your body. If cake at a party brings you abundant life, eat the cake. If vegetables make you feel healthy, chow down. 

And come to this table and eat, knowing that this food is good, and knowing that you are holy and whole not because you’ve acted right, but because God has declared you beloved. And that Gospel, at the end of the road, is all you need to know.

So let’s eat. Amen.

1. Many many thanks to Pastor Joseph Graumann Jr. of St. Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Mass, for this insight and this blog post: Modern Metanoia, The Law of Life, both of which helped me write this sermon.

Called to Be Salty & Lit

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Isaiah 58:1-9a
Matthew 5:13-20

Today, Jesus calls us to be salt & light. Or, as the kids say, salty & lit.

Both terms have seen a resurgence in recent years, but neither is new. “Salty,” which today means that someone is feeling sarcastic or angry, usually over something small, originally started as a term used by seafarers. Example: “The salty old sea captain.” Lit, meanwhile, began in the jazz community and was used to denote someone who was just intoxicated enough to play without inhibition, but not so drunk that they were falling over. Example: “He’s not getting tipsy; he’s just getting lit.” Today, “lit” means that something is fun, and may or may not include alcohol.

To switch gears a bit, you might’ve heard this quote before:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.” 

Well you guys, I learned something new this week. This quote is not, as it is sometimes said, Nelson Mandela, and it’s not Jesus. It’s motivational speaker and erstwhile presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. I know. I was surprised too. 

It’s been used on motivational posters and in movies for kids and self-help books for years. The crux, of course, is this: that we often feign insecurity because telling ourselves that we aren’t enough is easier than admitting that we can do great things. It’s an excellent message for kids in particular, but a good message for all of us. 

I’ve been thinking about it a lot this week as I’ve pored over what I might say about this, the rest of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew that we began reading last week with the famous beatitudes.

The other quote that’s been stuck in my head this week is from Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, riffing on the beatitudes that we spoke of last week. She says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.” 

Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it. 

These passages, really, are about identity. They’re about who we are, not what we do.

A city on a hill can’t be hidden. It doesn’t have to do anything but be itself and shine.  These days, a city might stop shining due to a power outage, but in Jesus’ day, cities didn’t go dark because they weren’t dependent on electricity. They always shone. If it didn’t have light at night, it wouldn’t be a populated city.

And if you light a lamp and put it under a basket, you’re dumb at best. The lamp will keep shining no matter what, and if it’s a candle, it might burn the house down.

And salt? Salt can only be salt. As has been pointed out countless times, it’s one of the most stable compounds we know. Fun fact: salt actually can’t lose its saltiness. You can do all kinds of things to it, from dissolving it in water to adding it to really bland things, but it’s going to stay salty. If you’ve got salt that appears to have lost its saltiness, chances are, it was white sand to begin with. 

What Jesus is talking about is being who we are, not about striving to be great. Of accepting that we are powerful, kind, and merciful beyond measure, because that is who God has made us to be. 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.”

Jesus has shown us the way, and it’s clicked. We get it. 

But I know, and you know, that we don’t always get it. We screw it up all the time. I know I do. If I haven’t disappointed you yet, give me time. I know the same is true for you, too. The same is true for us, as a church. We’re pretty great, and we try very hard, but we’ll still disappoint you if you give us time.

As if to put a fine point on this, Jesus goes to talking about the law right after he finishes talking about, as the kids say, being salty and lit — being who we are as people who follow Jesus, people who “get it.”

We Christians, especially we Lutherans, have this way of talking about “the law” as if it’s all to be left in the Old Testament where it belongs. Giving in to the heresy that there’s a god for each testament, we pretend that God became entirely different when Jesus was born, and that the law passed away entirely. 

So we shift uncomfortably when Jesus says these words: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Even if we had gotten our heads around the fact that salt is always salty and that light is always lit, these words of Jesus are bound to make us feel inadequate. The scribes and the Pharisees were obsessed with the law, and is Jesus telling us that we have to follow it better? And does this mean we have to give up bacon-wrapped shrimp?! 

Apologies to Marianne Williamson, but maybe our true power lies in when we acknowledge where and when we are inadequate. In my experience, the smartest people are the ones that know they don’t know everything, and the strongest ones are the ones who know when to ask for help. And the most faithful people, the ones who truly “get it,” to borrow again from Nadia Bolz-Weber, are the ones who know they’re not perfect by a long shot.

Because the Gospel isn’t a story about our goodness; it’s a story about God’s goodness. This whole faith thing is really about God reaching into history and saying “I got you.” God did it in the Hebrew Bible plenty of times, and here in our Christian story, we believe that God did it most significantly though the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

The Law — the one that told people how to not hurt each other and how to stay healthy and how to treat other people well — is fulfilled, we Christians say, in the person of Jesus. That we can stop striving and trying to be perfect and instead lean into Jesus. And the more you let Jesus’ righteousness and God’s pure love be enough, the more you find yourself changed. The more you find that you are enough. 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.” 

Being loved changes everything. It’s not about striving. It’s about accepting who you are and whose you are. You are not powerful beyond measure. Far from it. Neither am I. If our current world, or all of history, has taught us anything, it should be that we are all fairly powerless in the grand scheme of things. 

We are not powerful beyond measure. We are loved beyond measure. It is Christ who fulfills the law, not us. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that makes us righteous, not our own stumbling, imperfect goodness. 

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” 

It is not until later in the story, when Christ dies and rises, when he steps in and says, “Don’t worry. I got you.” 

The Gospel is a story about God, not a story about us and our righteousness.

With that burden taken from us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are free to be who we are: salty and lit. Salt can’t lose its saltiness. A city on a hill can’t be hidden. And if you put a lamp under a basket you could burn the house down.

Yesterday, we hosted over 50 people from all over the New England synod who were here to take part in the Forward Leadership campaign. You all came together to cook, clean up, and participate in the program itself, not so that God will love you, but because you know that God already does. You were kind and gracious and hospitable hosts because that is who you are. You know that you are loved beyond measure, and that changes everything.

So be who you are: God’s beloved. Be salty. Be lit. 

Not so that God will love you, but because God already does. 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.”

Merciful is who we are. We were born to be weird, to stand out, to do the right thing when it is the hardest thing. To have mercy when we really don’t want to. To work hard and to be gracious hosts and to keep trying.

Not so that God will love us, but because God already does.

We are not powerful beyond measure; we are loved beyond measure. And that, not our good works, changes everything about us and makes us who we are: salty & lit. Amen.

Saved by the Impossible

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Micah 6:1-8
1 Corinthians 1:18-21
Matthew 5:1-12

These texts are among the most familiar to us in all the Bible.

And so, by the authority of no one, I declare today cross-stitch Sunday. 

You’ve got a few greatest hits — Micah 6:8, which you can find conveniently on the wall of our narthex as a favorite guiding scripture of ours, and the beatitudes, all while Paul speaks eloquently about how illogically wonderful this whole death and resurrection thing is. 

It’s rare, I think, to find passages in the Bible like this — the kind that are nice without being saccharine, that make simple statements of faith without making faith too simple to be real. It’s a little like finding a family movie that’s nice without being an over the top fairy tale. In order to achieve this, you need a little bittersweetness thrown in, I think.

One movie that does this well is Finding Neverland, a movie about the life of Scottish writer J. M. Barrie, who is best known for, naturally, writing about Peter Pan. Finding Neverland, of course, tells the story of how Peter Pan came to be. 

In the movie, Barrie befriends a widow, Sylvia, and her four boys, George, Jack, Michael, and, of course, Peter, who is a particularly troubled boy. The then-failing writer becomes an excellent playmate and father figure to the boys. The movie doesn’t have a storybook ending, but is instead both incredibly sweet and incredibly real. Despite being bittersweet, the movie is also at times hilarious, giving us lines such as Michael asking “Mummy, can we have Uncle Jim for dinner?” with Sylvia responding, “Have him over for dinner, dear, we’re not cannibals.” 

At one point, Barrie is attempting to get the troubled boy Peter to act more like the child he is, and to make believe with him. He grabs a stick and declares it a royal scepter. Peter says, skeptically, “That scepter is just an old hunk of wood.” Barrie responds quickly, “Yes, well, we dream on a budget here, don’t we?” 

The whole movie, really, is about dreaming on a budget, of making the best you can out of the circumstances, about realizing the fullness of life with all its good things and all of its bad things and daring to dream anyway — and even fly. About believing in the illogical and being saved by it. 

So even though on its face it seems to be cross-stitch Sunday, these passages aren’t as simple in context, or when you really think about them, as they seem when stitched on a pillow. 

If the beginning of the Micah passage sounded sort of but not really familiar to you, it might be because you’ve attended a Good Friday service here in the past few years. We use the beginning of this passage for the traditional “solemn reproaches,” where, after we read the account of Jesus’ death, God asks, over and over, “Oh church, O my people, what have I done to you, and how have I offended you?” Then God recounts God’s good deeds towards us, always followed by, “But you…” Most notably these days, with the perennial antisemitism in our culture, “O my people, O my church, I grafted you into the tree of my chosen Israel, and you turned on them with insults, violence, and mass murder.” 

We take the form of the solemn reproaches every Good Friday from this passage, right above the passage that’s so easily cross-stitched on a pillow, the one on our wall that reminds us the simplicity and beauty of a life lived with God: “what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” 

It’s really kind of bittersweet, really. God asks “What have I done to you?” right before reminding us, gently, all that God requires: to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly. 

Then, in the Gospel reading, we are told all about who’s blessed. That’s really nice — unless you’ve been someone who is mourning. Or poor in spirit. Or someone who’s had to be merciful when you’d really like to get revenge on someone who’s done you wrong. And in the words of Monty Python, “Oh, the meek! I’m really glad they get something; they have a heck of a time.” 

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you.” 

Apologies to Forrest Gump, but life isn’t really that much like a box of chocolates. It’s more like a vending machine that spits out both Snickers and live hand grenades. 

At some point we will all be poor in spirit. Or mourning. Or reviled and hated. 

At some point, we’ll all feel like life has handed us a live hand grenade, and that even God is yelling at us, like at the beginning of that Micah passage. 

But then God hands us the other part. 

“Don’t you remember that all you have to do is to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly?” 

Blessed are you. 

Blessed are you. 

Blessed are you.

I like the way Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “After all, it was Jesus who had all the powers of the universe at his disposal but who did not consider his equality with God and something to be exploited, but instead came to us in the most vulnerable of ways – as a powerless, flesh and blood newborn. As though to say, you my hate your body, but I am blessing all human flesh. You may admire strength and might, but I am blessing all human weakness. You may seek power, but I am blessing all human vulnerability. This Jesus whom we follow cried at the tomb of his friend, and turned the other cheek and forgave those who hung him on a cross. Jesus was God’s Beatitude – God’s blessing to the weak in a world that only admires the strong.”

Our lives contain multitudes: bittersweet moments, happy moments, and times when life smacks us upside the head. And Christ became flesh and walks alongside us through it all. 

And as Paul points out, this death and resurrection thing kinda makes no sense to most people, really, and that’s okay. Because when I hold up the bread and I say it’s God, the rest of the world may say “That’s not God, that’s bread.” 

But we dream on a budget here, don’t we?

We believe the impossible, ultimately find that it is realer than we imaged, and we’re ultimately saved by it. 

Because faith, really, not unlike the world of Finding Neverland, is about dreaming on a budget, of making the best you can out of the circumstances, about realizing the fullness of life with all its new life and death and resurrection and feeling fear and uncertainty and daring to dream anyway. About believing in the illogical and ultimately being saved by it.

Amen.