Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book Review: Resisting Structural Evil and Flight Behavior


To read Leah Schade's joint book review of:

Harnessing “The Butterfly Effect”:
A Joint Book Review of
Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation by Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda 
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver 


Monday, December 9, 2013

Green Shoots from Dead Stumps

Sermon – The Rev. Leah Schade
Advent 2, Dec. 8, 2013
Texts:  Isaiah 11:1–10, Matthew 3:1–12
Do you sometimes feel like you’re surrounded by nothing but dead stumps and cold ash leftover from the hot fires?
There are women in Afghanistan whose hands and lips and noses have been chopped off, burned off with acid because their actions were judged immoral.  There are children hobbling around on wooden legs because they’ve got nothing but a stump left from when they stepped on a leftover war bomb as they were playing in the field.
There are literal stumps all over our deforested globe, from the rainforests of South America, to the Appalachians in Pennsylvania  – millions of acres of what used to be beautiful, lush, green, thriving communities of plants and animals, now just clear-cut, burned out acres either mined for air-choking coal or being prepared for the monoculture of a single crop to feed a too-fast growing human  overpopulation.
Sometimes the axe cuts closer to home. The strong tree that used to be your job – bearing you good fruit, a steady paycheck, meaningful work, the feeling that you were making an important contribution to this world, providing you stability and friends, and something constructive to do with your time.  Now just a stump, cut down by the corporate axe, or maybe your own mistakes – and the branches that supported that good fruit are gone up in smoke.
The beautiful tree of a relationship you thought you could count on.  Maybe your mother or father, maybe a brother or sister, maybe a son or a daughter, maybe life partner or a dear friend.  That relationship used to bear good fruit.  Affection, nurturing, laughter, good advice, a shoulder to cry on, a good swift kick in the butt when you needed it, but most of all a steady, strong love that sheltered you like the branches of a tree in summertime.  And now, you look and there is just a stump.  Maybe the person betrayed you.  Maybe you said and did some hurtful things.  Or maybe the axe of death just came out of nowhere and chopped it down.  Now there is nothing but a stump. 
The Israelites knew something about dead stumps. 
Our reading from Isaiah was written at a time when the Israelites were in exile.  They watched foreign invaders come into their homeland, burn their city to the ground, take all the precious holy items from their temple, and then tear it down to rubble.  They watched soldiers kill their babies and rape their wives, sisters and daughters.  They watched their bravest men cut down, clear-cut to make way for the forcible removal of the few who survived the siege.  They watched their sons and daughters taken away, blown to the wind like ashes left from the fire. 
They watched their king, a descendant of David, dethroned and killed.  They watched their whole world fall apart, burn to the ground, and get chopped down by the blade of the axe.  Imagine the depression they must have felt, living in chains, far from home, laughed at by their captors, mocked, ridiculed, teased about their God who seemed like nothing but a dead stump. 
And then, like a voice crying out in the wilderness, comes a prophecy from Isaiah:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.
3His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth (NRSV)
Isaiah is saying to his fellow Israelites – do not lose heart!  There is one coming who will lift us up out of the ashes, who will restore hope to our people. 
There is a place in Huntington County, PA, where my father and I used to go hunting in the woods when I was a young girl.  One fall morning we walked down one of our favorite pathways, expecting to see the familiar greens, oranges, reds and yellows of autumn.  But instead we saw only black and greyness.  A fire had gone through the area just a few weeks before.  I was shocked and heart-broken to see the charred remains of leaves, young saplings, logs and undergrowth. I felt like I was standing in a burned out graveyard – with only stumps remaining like headstones memorializing the life that had been. “It’s gone,” I cried.  “Oh, it’s gone forever!”
“Not forever,” said my father.  “Look,” he said, pointing to a mass of blackened debris on the ground.  He got on his knees and I joined him.  Jutting up out of the darkness was a green clump of grass.  A little further on, we noticed shoots of a young sapling coming up out of the burned ground.
“It will take some time,” my father said.  “But just you wait.  When we come back here in the spring, things will be growing.  By next fall, you’ll see just how well a forest can recover from something like this.  In a few years, the new growth will have taken over and animals will be able to live here again.”
And he was right. I kept coming back every year and noticed how the color of charcoal receded and the colors of a living forest returned.  Though some of the trees forever bore the blackened scars of that fire, the forest restored itself to a verdant, life-giving, life-sustaining ecosystem.
It took a long time for the Israelites to see their recovery.  It would be a generation before they were allowed to return to their land, to their home.  And when they got back, they were devastated by what they saw.  But the words of Isaiah kept ringing in their ears, because he proclaimed the words of their God reassuring them that life would return to their people and to their land.
Their history constantly reassures them of the power of their God to heal and to restore and to make all things new. 
            Didn’t God restore the earth for Noah after human sinfulness brought on the devastating floodwaters?   
            Didn’t God strategically place Joseph in Egypt to feed his family in Egypt when a devastating drought fell on the land of the Israelites?
            Didn’t God drive back the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites could leave behind their lives of slavery and oppression?
            Didn’t God lead them through the desert places and send manna when there was no food and tell Moses to strike the rock when there was no water?
            Didn’t God take Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones and show him how his Spirit would gather the holy remnant together and join bone to bone, create muscle and connective tissue and skin and hair and restore the community again?
            Didn’t God do all this and more?  Then why are you cast down, O my soul?  And why are you disquieted within me?
            Why are you standing there looking at your burned out, cut down stumps and crying?  Why aren’t you looking for green shoots?  Why aren’t you hearing the words of your God – “This devastation is not forever.  Look – see even now, I am restoring something new in your life.  Just you wait, when you come back around to this next season, you will see a change.  By next year, you’ll see just how well you can recover from something like this.  In a few years, you’ll look back and though you will still be able to see the scars, you’ll see just what I am capable of restoring and healing and recreating in your life.”
            Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you depressed within me?  Why aren’t you going out to proclaim to the world the prophecy of Isaiah?:
6The wolf shall live with the lamb,  The Taliban shall live with the Afghan women and not harm them and shall treat them as equals worthy of respect.
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,  the soldier shall play with the child in the fields because there will be no more hidden bombs because war will be no more.
the calf and the lion and the fatling together, The ecologist and the corporate developer and the ecosystem together shall find a way to co-exist that honors all life and puts boundaries on human consumption and learns to live within a sustainable way of life.
and a little child shall lead them.  A little child born two thousand years ago in a little town of Bethlehem, a tiny green shoot coming out of the chopped off, burned out stump of his ancestor Jesse.  A little child named Jesus shall lead them.
7The cow and the bear shall graze, the evil powers that overcome relationships will recede and they will graze upon the things that sustain like honesty and respect and faith and mutual upbuilding.
 their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  Corporations will no longer feed on the flesh of consumers, on the flesh of their employees, hunting them like lions and devouring them until there is nothing left but bones.  Businesses will learn to see their work as service, to turn from their sinfulness and be led to value even the lowest employee with a sustainable wage.
8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.  People will no longer die of diseases caused by toxic chemicals spewed into the air or poured into the water.  Children across the globe will no longer die of dysentery because they will all have access to clean water and good medical care and healthy, nutritious food.
9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;  They will no longer cut off a mountain at its roots just to get to the coal buried deep inside.  They will no longer clearcut forests and uproot natural lands and build dams that flood whole communities just to make money from selling electricity.
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.  The earth is already full of the knowledge of the Lord and seeks to teach us how to live equitably, sustainably, peacefully.  The waters of the sea seek to teach us how to renew and restore, calling on the power of God to cleanse all the earth from toxic sin.
10On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;
See the risen Jesus standing outside the grave with his scarred hands and his pierced feet
And the angels calling from heaven, He is Risen – Look he stands! Like a green blade rises from the buried grain.  He stands like a green shoot coming up out of the dead stump.  He stands like hope shaking off the dirt and rubble and the burial clothes from her body and rising up once again. 
He stands!  And you stand because he lives in you and he breathes in you and he has baptized you and he has restored you and he has given hope to you and he is resurrecting you.  He stands!  And you stand!
The nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
People from all over are going to look at you standing and they’re going to say, why do you stand, when you should be collapsed on the ground, why do you stand, when your world is falling apart and your body is falling apart and the axe is lying at your roots and there’s nothing left of you but a sad old stump, why do you stand?
And you’re gonna say . . .  and you’re gonna say .  .
Because Jesus stands!  Because Jesus lives!  Because Jesus has restored all things!  Because Jesus is in me and Jesus stands!  And his dwelling  . . . his dwelling shall be . . .. his dwelling shall be glorious!!  He stands!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Advent Sermon – Paying Attention to What Really Matters

The Rev. Leah D. Schade
Advent 1, Dec. 1, 2013
Matthew 24:36-44; Romans 13:11-14

View the video of this sermon here:

There they were – the faithful followers eagerly awaiting the coming of God’s Kingdom.  They stood gawking up at the sky with a calendar in one hand and a stop watch in the other.  They were giddy with an excitement that had spread far and wide.  Surely, the time was almost upon them – the end was almost here!

Am I talking about the disciples with Jesus?  No!  I’m talking about the followers of Harold Camping who had convinced thousands of people that May 21, 2011, would be the end of the world as we know it. 
Family Radio Network, the company that sponsored Camping, had a huge countdown clock on their website.  They spent millions of dollars advertising about the end-of-the-world.  No matter that the 89-year-old man had been wrong before in his 1994 end-times prediction.  This time he was sure he had gotten it right.  The hype was unbelievable.
And then the hour arrived - 6:00 on May 21st came and went.  No earthquakes rumbled across the planet.  No fire fell from the sky.  The planet kept on spinning as it has done for billions of years.  One of Camping’s devoted followers stood in the middle of New York’s Times Square, after having spent his own money to put up advertising about the end of the world, nearly speechless with confusion and disbelief.  “I can’t tell you what I feel right now . . . I don’t understand it.  I don’t know.  I don’t understand what happened.  Obviously I haven’t understood it correctly because we’re still here,” he said.[1]
Well, he’s in good company.  Because Jesus himself said he didn’t even know when the end of the world would occur.  “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”  Strange that even the Son of God did not claim to know the end of time, but Harold Camping, like so many apocalyptic fanatics before him, were so sure.

Of course, we all breathed a little sigh of relief on May 22.  I called a friend of mine that day and said jokingly, “Oh, I’m so disappointed to get hold of you.  I thought for sure you’d have been taken up in the rapture by now.”  And we had a good laugh.  But then then we soberly reflected on a deeper reality.  The world actually did come to an end for tens of thousands of people on May 21, 2011.  In fact, 70,000 people died that day.  That’s approximately how many people die every day on the earth.  Endings are a natural part of life.  What is distressing is how many of those deaths were due to human cruelty and systemic evil.  In fact, 7000 of the people who died on May 21 suffered from entirely preventable maladies such as malaria, water-borne illnesses, infections, and hunger – all in the poorest places on earth.  People in those areas don’t get hyped up about global cataclysmic catastrophes.  The end of the world has already swept through their villages, lives and bodies, with or without Harold Camping’s predictions.
The real sin is just how much money was spent on this end-times campaign for absolutely no reason.  “Family Radio spent millions on more than 5,000 billboards and 20 RVs plastered with the doomsday message.  In 2009, the nonprofit reported in IRS filings that it received $18.3 million in donations and had assets of more than $104 million, including $34 million in stocks or other publicly traded securities.”[2] 
I know their motivation was to save souls for Jesus.  But if you really want to save souls, you need to spend that money on saving their bodies first.  All those millions of dollars could have been invested in the things that Jesus does call us to do:  feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, and help all those who are most vulnerable. 

The other reality is that the end is coming.  Maybe not today.  Maybe not next week, or next month, or even in the next few years.  But and end is coming to the way of life as we know it.  The sun melting the polar ice caps because of the depleted ozone layer; hurricanes and climate changes are wreaking havoc on the earth.

  People are indeed scared, and with good reason.  Always the next terrorist attack looms on the grey horizon.  Always the random act of violence or the planned military attack of so-called enemy nations threatens our peaceful existence. 

But no matter how much we try to distract or protect ourselves from it  -- bad things are going to happen.  There was the flood of the typhoon in the Philippines and Hurricane Sandy before that and Hurricane Katrina before that, and many more catastrophic weather events to come. 
And at some point, the world as you know it is going to come to an end.  You will get the news from your doctor that will change your world. You will lose your job or retire. Your relationship with who you thought would be your life partner will end.  Your friend or family member will die.  You will die.  

Two women set out for work in the morning.  One comes home in the evening, one does not.  Two men are making supper, one collapses suddenly, one is still standing.

But there is a fine line between being prepared and being worried to the point of distraction.  It’s very easy to tip from having a healthy concern about the future, to reacting with fear about what might happen.  And our culture and the consumer machine around us feeds on this fear, reaping an incredible amount of wealth from our intangible feelings of worry and dread.

So what are we going to do with this?  How do we live with the reality of the end times in whatever form they come?  Well, look again at our Scripture from Luke and Acts.  Jesus instructs his disciples to “keep awake.”  The Greek word is “gregorio” and it means to keep watch, to pay attention, to wake up. 
How do we do that? 
Our Buddhist friends have a word for this.  It’s called “mindfulness.”  It means being in the moment, attending to your life, keeping your attention on the people and tasks before you.  It means putting aside those things that are trying to distract our brains from paying attention.

In our consumerist culture it is becoming increasingly harder to do this.  It saddened and angered me on Thanksgiving that the one day that has been respected as sacred time in our country has now been violated by stores opening as early as 6 p.m. for shopping.  Thanksgiving was the one interfaith Sabbath day in our pluralistic society – a day regarded as holy, set apart from the frenzy of acquiring more and more.  But a line was crossed this year, and not even that day is sacred anymore.  How are we supposed to pay attention to the things that really matter – family, friends, serving the community, and simply resting – when we are distracted by blaring announcements of “incredible store-wide savings”!  Not to mention all the workers who are forced to choose between their jobs and their families when the corporate demand for “more” violates their sacred time.
Christians, this is where our message becomes countercultural and will be regarded with hostility by many.  Our Scriptures are very clear that there are values that ground us to the love of God and hopeful expectation for the coming of Christ.  St. Paul reminds us to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, [to] live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not by giving in to extreme sensual pleasure or disregarding the sacredness of time and space, not in fighting or desiring what others have,” (Romans 14:12-13, paraphrase).

I invite you to live your life differently this Advent.  Instead of succumbing to the cultural and consumerist expectations of spending hundreds of dollars on presents, that you talk with your family and friends about giving the gift of “presence” instead.  Presence – meaning spending time together, talking, listening, walking, creating, doing something that does not require the exchange of money. 

It may feel awkward at first, and you may even feel like you’re letting people down or copping out.  But remember – it is not God who is telling you to put thousands of dollars on your credit card.  It is not Jesus who is demanding that you worship at the altar of the mall.  It is not the Holy Spirit who is guiding you to aisles and aisles of prettily-packaged goods all waiting to disappoint as soon as the wrapping is thrown away.

St. Paul says, “Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provisions for the flesh to gratify its desires.”

People like Harold Camping and advertising executives have a great deal of money to make from our feelings of inadequacy, our fears, and our insatiable desires for more.  Camping convinced his followers to give him their money to secure their place with God.  Our capitalist society convinces its followers to give their money and acquire so many material goods with the false hope of securing their future and keeping the end away.

The longer I live, the more I am convinced that is the relationships we cultivate that matter.  Our relationships with our friends and family, our co-workers and people at church, and especially those who suffer who I don’t even get to see.  My relationships with them matter too.  I want to live my life paying attention to them, honoring them, treating them as bearers of Christ.  When I do that, I am much less afraid of the end.  I am filled with joy of the Holy Spirit!  I don’t care whether it’s Harold Camping or or my doctor or my next-door-neighbor who tells me that the world is coming to an end.  I’m going to say, help me pay attention, Lord.  Show me how I can praise you.  Show me how I can serve your people.  Show me how I can be filled with the Holy Spirit.  Show me how I can be ready for the coming of Christ.  Amen.

[1] McKinley, Jesse, “The only rapture was in the anticipation,” Philadelphia Inquirer; New York Times News Service, Sunday, May 22, 2011; A4.
[2] Ibid

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sermon: The Trickster Jesus Trips the Trap

The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, Ph.D.
Nov. 10, 2013
Luke 19:27-40

[View the recording of this sermon here:]

What a terrible conundrum the Sadducees have posed here.  If I were a person who had been widowed and remarried, this text would be very troubling for me.  They say we’re supposed to be reunited with our spouse in heaven, right?  But what if you have loved and married two people who tragically died before you? Who would you end up with in heaven?  How would you choose?  What a terrible conundrum the Sadducees have presented to us.  It seems to leave us with no way out.  In fact it may even plant the seed of a desperate notion – perhaps it would be better for there to be no heaven at all.  Perhaps it would be better if there was no resurrection.

This is exactly what the Sadducees want you to think.  They are trying to get you to doubt the resurrection.  Because they have a great deal at stake in convincing you that, a) the resurrection does not exist; and b) it makes no difference in this world, even if it does exist. 

But be careful – this is a trap!  
And like a clever animal in the woods, we must find out where the trap is, avoid the tempting bait, and trigger it to snap on itself without catching us in its deadly grip.  Jesus, being the clever Brer Rabbit that he is, the cunning trickster Bugs Bunny, is going to show us exactly what the Sadducees are up to. 

Chomping on his carrot and walking nonchalantly around this trap hidden in a pile of words, Jesus shows us that this riddle really isn’t about marriage at all.  The Sadducees have posed a puzzle that actually has nothing to do with marriage.  It has to do with protecting their own power, and trying to get rid of that meddling trickster rabbi.  Let me explain.
In Jesus’ time, and in some cultures today, women were viewed as property to be bought and sold.  Marriage for them is not the way we understand it.  For us, it’s a mutual relationship between two equal partners who choose each other.  In Jesus’ day men from each family made the decision about the fate of the women and bargained with each other over the bride price, the dowry.  Once the financial arrangements were made and the wedding ceremony complete, the wife became the property and responsibility of the husband.  But according to the law given by Moses, who tried to put some protections in place for the wife, if the man died and there were no sons able to take care of the woman, the brother of the deceased was obligated to take her into his home so that she would not be left on the street.  He had to marry her, and she was now the his responsibility.

In this twisted scenario posed to Jesus, however, the Sadducees present a situation where the second brother dies and she becomes the next brother’s wife. And he dies and she becomes the next brother’s wife, and so on down the line.  It’s like a bad joke on the Hollywood musical – “One Bride for Seven Brothers.”
Tell us Jesus, the Sadducees hiss, whose wife will she be in heaven?  Or rather, whose problem will she be in the afterlife?  You want people to believe in the resurrection?  You want people to believe in heaven?  Then try to solve this riddle, Jesus.

It’s like a tense courtroom drama, and everyone gathered around is on the edge of their seat to see if Jesus can answer the riddle.  Now why do you suppose these 1st Century lawyers are posing such a convoluted question to Jesus?  What could possibly be their motivation? 

All along the Gospel of Luke these lawyers have been after Jesus, challenging him, trying to trip him up and expose him as a fraud.  They really think they’ve got him now.  They think they’ve found the perfect way to get him to admit that the resurrection is neither real nor true.  Because if the resurrection is not true, then Jesus is a sham.  The trap is set, the jaws are ready to snap shut and shut up this rabbi for good.  Will Jesus take the bait?
But once again, the lawyers have made one fatal mistake.  They think that the realm of the resurrection, what we call heaven, is just going to be a continuation of what we have in this realm on earth.  They assume the relationships of power and the systems they have firmly established in this realm will carry over into the next.  They assume a continuation of a system where women are considered less than men, where the wealth of a nation is concentrated into the hands of a select few; where people of their nation, culture or religion are considered superior to everyone else, and thereby are permitted to do whatever they wish, no matter who it hurts. 

And why wouldn’t they want this arrangement to continue in heaven?  It’s one that benefits them.  They win, they have the power and money and authority to make all the decisions.  And they’ll do anything to keep this rabbi from messing with their cushy arrangement.

But once again, Jesus is too clever for the lawyers.  Jesus takes their riddle – their convoluted conundrum, their legal system that confuses everyone and tries to trap people with words and keep them in bondage – Jesus takes it all and flips it over, turns it inside out. Like the trickster turning the tables, Jesus cleverly avoids the trap and snaps it shut, empty of its prey.

He teaches them that in God’s realm:
women and men are equal, women will no longer be property traded among men;
the rich are emptied and the hungry are filled;
the ones who are laughing all the way to the bank while so many people cry in desperation will find the accounts empty and the poor finally having what is owed to them for their hard work and toil.

The resurrection, Jesus teaches them, is not about God’s blessing the rich and powerful in heaven.  It’s about God’s reversal of the status quo already happening on this earth, and the reign of the elite coming to an end.  The rich have stolen and hoarded God’s blessings on this earth, and God will not allow that to continue.
So who doesn’t want a resurrection?  The ones who like things the way they are.  And they don’t want YOU to believe in the resurrection either.  Because then YOU will challenge the way things are.  So far they’ve done a pretty good job in confusing people about heaven and making them think that the resurrection has no effect on this earth.  The philosopher Sören Kierkegaard once went through the streets of a city asking people if they believe in the resurrection.  Most of them said yes.  But then he asked them, what difference does the resurrection make in your life?  The majority answered . . . not much.  The most it did was to give them a vague hope that maybe they would live on a cloud somewhere and be free from pain and worry when they die. 

Not that this isn’t a comforting and pleasant thought.  But what Jesus is trying to show us is that the resurrection has implications right now.  Because Jesus was resurrected, is resurrected, it means that the way things are is already being changed.  The proclamation of Mary and John the Baptist and the prophets before them and all the prophets since are already having an effect in this realm. 

The mountains are being laid low, the valleys are being lifted up, the twisted and rocky paths are being made smooth;
The poor are claiming their rights as human beings; women are claiming their rights as full citizens; races are claiming their rights as children of God.

The Sadducees want desperately for this not to be true.  Read the Gospel of Luke when you get home – you’ll see that the only things they care about are the accumulation of wealth, the amassing of power, and their ability to make decisions that benefit themselves, no matter the costs to others.

Doesn’t this sound similar to the very situation we have today? 
Where women are still regarded as less than men in much of the world, and in this country earn 75 cents to a man’s dollar.
Where the wealth of nearly every nation is concentrated into the hands of a select few.
Where the people of one culture or religion or race or nation or corporation consider themselves superior to others and give themselves permission to do whatever they wish, often using the convoluted conundrum of the legal system to justify their claims and seize what they want.

The Sadducees of our time will do anything to confuse you, and keep you quiet so that they can continue to do as they please.  They are trying to convince you that Jesus’ resurrection is not real, and that it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans this side of the afterlife.

Don’t be fooled.  Jesus has already proven the Sadducees wrong, uncovered the fallacy of their assumptions and their logic, and revealed the trap for what it is. 

In fact, the Trickster Jesus has already tripped the trigger, and the trap has snapped shut.  But it wasn’t empty.  Jesus stepped into that trap himself, knowing full well what he was doing.  The Sadducees, together with the scribes and Pharisees and the Roman government and military - all the power-brokers of their day – thought they had Jesus right where they wanted him on the cross – the most deadly trap of all.  
They thought they had taken care of Jesus for the last time on that cross.  They thought they had gotten rid of that meddling “wascawy wabbi” for good!

But when the women go to the tomb expecting to find a corpse and anoint his body – the trap is empty for good.  
God – the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Jesus - is the God not of the dead, but of the living.  For in God, all of them are alive.

You, too, are alive!  You have been made alive through your baptism into Christ.  You don’t have to let yourself get caught up in ridiculous word-puzzles meant to make you doubt the significance of Jesus for your life and for our world.  And you don’t have to worry about who you will spend eternity with.  The resurrection is so much more than we can even imagine with our mortal minds.  You can be assured of Jesus’ promise that you will be like angels and that you are children of God, because you are children of the resurrection.  Amen.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Sermon: Beatitudes, Not Platitudes

“Beatitudes, Not Platitudes”
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, Ph.D.
Text:  Luke 6:20-28
Nov. 3, 2013

[The video from this sermon can be found at this link:]
These teachings from Jesus about blessedness are some of the most famous and well-loved.  But what I’ve noticed is how easy it is to handle them as trite clichés.  For every one of these beatitudes there are corresponding platitudes.  For example:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

To which some people respond – “Ah yes, money can’t buy happiness” and “The best things in life aren’t things.”  How easy it is to say to those in financial poverty:  “Don’t worry about being poor now, God is going to bless you in heaven!” 

Doesn’t quite cover the rent, does it?

The same with:  “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” 

How easy to say to those who suffer from malnutrition and food poverty:  “Just wait.  Your time is coming.  The trickle-down effect will find its way into your hungry mouths eventually.”

Doesn’t quite pay the grocery bill, does it?

And on this All Saints Sunday when we remember those who have passed into eternal life, our eyes filled with tears and our hearts choking with grief, we hear these words:  “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

In our culture that fears death and cannot tolerate deep mourning, this teaching is often reduced to:  “Oh, you’ll get over it.”

I don’t know about you, but I need something more.  I’m not content to just gloss over these words and skip out to brunch.  I need a deeper understanding of what Jesus’ teachings really mean for me, for our society, and for our church.  I would guess that you, too, are longing to know what Jesus’ teaching means for yourself, for our congregation, and, most importantly – for our future.

So let’s go a little deeper into this text to understand the words, to wrap our heads and hearts around Jesus’ profound teaching, and to listen carefully to what they are speaking to us across the centuries.
The poor.  The hungry.  The grieving.  Let’s take a moment with each of them.

The poor.  The word in Greek is ptochoi (p-toe-koy). It literally means “poor people.” Religion scholar Richard Swenson points out that the word contains a verb: “ptuo,” (p-tu-oh) which is Greek for “I am spitting.” The English cartoon sound, “ptooey,” comes directly from this verb.[1] In other words:  Blessed are the spat-upon.

Some of you may be familiar with the superstitious practice of spitting to ward off evil spirits or outcomes.  Swenson tells of a Jewish mother who, whenever she heard that misfortune had befallen someone, would ritually spit three times, acting automatically to protect her children and her world from the danger and evil that stalk us all.

In other words:  Blessed are the people who are made into warning signs of the possibility of catastrophic collapse, of abject failure, people who are weary of the phrase, “There but for the grace of God….”
What does it look like for a church to welcome the spat-upon?  If theirs is “the Kingdom of God,” what does that look like?

I’ll tell you what it looks like.  It looks like the passing of the peace in this church on a Sunday morning.  We have people in this church who for various reasons have felt spat-upon by the world.  Either because of their lack of income, or the mistakes they’ve made in the past, or because of their sexual orientation, or their race, or because of their age or health.  But in this space all of them are claiming their rightful place in the sanctuary of God’s house.  Welcoming the spat-upon sounds like their voices singing and making joyful noises unto the Lord.  It feels like hugs with people who are normally looked down on in our society.  It looks like relief and joy on their faces, knowing there is at least one place, one church, where they are welcomed, valued, and treated as a full-fledged member of the church of God. 

In other words, a Beatitude Church is a church that welcomes all people.  United in Christ is a Beatitude church!

How about the hungry?  The Greek word is peinao (pay-na-oh).  It’s not just feeling hungry because you skipped lunch.  This is the kind of hunger that causes suffering, and the kind of suffering that causes hunger.  It points to a deeply broken system that allows certain members of society to be so financially destitute that they cannot provide for their own basic needs – food, housing, clothing, and access to resources such as clean water and medical care. 

Jesus contrasts this with the word chortazo which means “to be filled.”  What does it look like for a church to bless and fill those who are in desperate need?  What does it look like to be a Chortazo Church?
It looks like the front of our narthex with baskets filled with items for local food pantries.  It looks like people taking grocery bags to be filled with Thanksgiving items to give to local families in need this holiday.  It looks like a crowd of people walking through the streets of Milton to raise awareness and funds for the hungry through the CROP Walk.  It looks like folks volunteering to help serve and make dessert items for the monthly meal at St. Andrew’s in Milton.  In other words, a Chortazo church is a church with lots of opportunities to bless and fill the ones who are hungry.  United in Christ is that congregation – a Chortazo church!

And that leaves us with the grieving.  Klaio (clie-oh) in Greek.  What do we do with loss?  How do we as a church handle sorrow?  You’re seeing it today.  We are lighting candles, reading the names of those who have died in the last year.  It’s these kinds of rituals that help us to remember the ones who made us who we are.  You can take a walk up through the cemetery after church today and remember the saints who founded this church, who looked at this field in the 1800s and saw a vision of ecclesia plantanda – the church planted. 

Not one of those original founders remains.  Every one of them was mourned as they passed into eternal life.  But the church held that grief, comforted those who mourn, honored those lives, and sustained the work of this congregation to this very day.  What does it sound like to have the weeping of those who are in deep sorrow transformed into gelao [hard “g” ge-lah-oh]:  laughter? 

It sounds like a gaggle of teens gathered for a youth lock-in in September, the smoke from their bonfire wafting over those grave stones in the distance.  It sounds like a baby’s cries or a 6-year-old forgetting to use his inside voice, interrupting the quietness of our worship service as if to say, Here I am!  I am a little saint of God that needs all the love and understanding of the grown-ups around me, even if I get on their nerves sometimes. Later this month it will look like our youth buying presents for children in need with money from the Rich Huff Fund. In a few weeks gelao will sound like children raising their voice in song for our Christmas pageant, and playing silly giggling games at the New Year’s lock-in.  Their laughter peals out across the centuries, greeting the sounds of the weeping of their ancestors as if to say:

“Take heart!  Your grief is not in vain.  Look at what your life has meant.  Look at what your faithful ministry has planted!  Those who go out weeping with their seeds will return rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves!”  We are the harvest!  United in Christ, we are the Gelao Church!

The poor, the hungry, the mourning – all of them are welcomed and transformed in the Beatitude Church.
And there is one other blessing we don’t want to forget:  “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

These two verses encompass all the previous verses we just discussed.  The poor, the hungry, the grieving: they have all experienced being excluded, reviled, defamed, and yes, even hated.  And yet, impossibly, Jesus proclaims that when you find yourself among those excluded and hated, you are to rejoice and leap for joy.  How can this be?  Is Jesus really so naïve?  How can he make such an imperative command to “Rejoice!”

The key is in the reason Jesus gives for the ability to rejoice – misthos, which means “reward.”  Jesus says, “For surely your reward is great in heaven.”  Sometimes that verse is translated, “Your reward will be great in heaven.”  But Jesus is not talking about pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by.  No, he’s talking about right now, right here, heaven is giving you - equipping you - with what you need. 

At this very moment: God is working on your heart and your mind, moving you through the process of grief so that you can metabolize the loss and find your way in the world.
At this very moment: God is working on your heart and mind, moving you to not only feed those who are hungry and provide for their immediate needs, but also to confront the very system that sets up these injustices in the first place.

At this very moment:  God is working on your heart and mind, moving you to not only embrace the ones who are spat upon and avoided in this world, but to stand with them in solidarity to say, “This is a beloved Child of God who has much to teach us about what it means to come into God’s presence with gladness.”

At this very moment: God is equipping this church to reach out to the hated, the despised, the lonely, the grieving, the hungry, the poor, the shamed, and the shunned.  In this very place, God is creating and equipping the Beatitude Church.  Brothers and sisters of United in Christ – you are the Beatitude Church.

Blessed are you!  Blessed are you for your witness of Jesus’ love in this world.  Blessed are you for the church universal.  And blessed are you for the Kingdom of God!  Right here, right now, at this very moment! Amen!

[1] [Swenson, Richard, “Commentary on Luke 6:20-31”;]

Friday, November 1, 2013

Video: Sermon for Reformation Sunday: You Don't Need a Ladder to Get to God

This sermon was preached at United in Christ Lutheran Church on Reformation Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013.  The video can be watched on Youtube by clicking on the following link:

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Sermon: Wrestling with God

Sermon -- The Rev. Dr. Leah D. Schade, PhD
Oct. 20, 2013
“Wrestling with God”
Genesis 32:20-32

This passage from Genesis about Jacob wrestling with the mysterious stranger at the river is one of my favorite stories from the bible. I think the reason that it’s always resonated with me is because my maiden name is Jacobs, so I always felt an affinity for the character of Jacob in the bible. And this passage about the mysterious wrestling match has always been important for me because there have been times in my life when I’ve felt like I’ve been wrestling with myself, or my past, or even God.

I liked this passage so much, in fact, that I actually wrote paper on it for my Old Testament class in seminary. In my research for the paper, I examined the original Hebrew text and found some interesting things about word-plays used in the passage. But before I get into that, let me give you the backstory leading up to this event.

If you’ll recall, Jacob is a man of cunning and trickery. From the moment he emerges from the womb, grabbing the heel of his twin brother, Esau, he always seeks to gain the upper hand in life through underhanded means.
 He went after his brother’s birthright and the blessing from his father that should have been for his older brother, both times using dirty tricks. Then he has to flee from his home to escape the murderous anger of Esau.

He finds himself alone in the desert and dreams of a ladder or stairway to heaven with angels going up and down upon it. And in the dream, God promises to be with him no matter what and eventually bring him back to his homeland.

Jacob goes onto the country of his Uncle Laban where he marries his daughters, Leah and Rachel. [See the connection here? Leah married Jacob -- Leah Jacobs. My parents were pretty clever. And my daughter’s name is Rachel. See we keep it in the family!] Jacob eventually acquires great wealth while working for his uncle. And then he feels the call from God to return to his home country. And Jacob is still up to his old tricks when preparing to meet Esau. He divided his entourage in two to protect at least half his property from his brother, whom he fears might seek revenge. Then he sent “gifts” of flocks ahead as a buffer between him and Esau.

So up until his wrestling match at the river Jabbok, Jacob’s methods of avoiding direct confrontation and outsmarting his opponents have been successful, garnering him women, children, and material wealth. But here is what Jacob is about to find out: The very God who enabled Jacob to achieve such success requires more. During that fateful night alone beside the river, Jacob finally faces the darkest parts of his personality, the fears about his past, and confronts the future that God has destined for him.

Now here’s where the interesting word-plays come into the scene. There are three of them. Let’s start with the words Jabbok/Jacob. Jabbok is the name of the river he is about to cross. And the Hebrew verb y’baq, means “to wrestle”. And both are twists on the name, “Jacob.” Jabbok is the river that is considered to border the frontier to the land promised Jacob and his ancestors -- the land of Canaan. So the setting is crucial to the upcoming event.

It is significant that Jacob deliberately sends his family and possessions across the river. It signifies that Jacob is separate from “the tangible evidence of [his] blessing, “ (Weis, p. 106). He is isolated from his identity which puts him in a state of vulnerability. It parallels his situation at Bethel, but this time he is choosing to be alone. He’s not running away, he’s going back. And he chooses to go alone. This shows that he is willing to face his destiny without any help or protection.

Now there is actually some debate among scholars about just who it is that Jacob wrestles. 
Some scholars say it is just a river demon. Some say it’s an angel sent by God to test Jacob. There is even the possibility that Jacob is actually wrestling with himself, which plays off of the twins theme between him and Esau. There is certainly deliberate ambiguity in the text. Jacob was certainly feeling some guilt and fear about his past. The two figures are of equal strength. And the blow to the hollow of his thigh is a dirty trick - one that Jacob himself might use. This theory has some interesting implications as well. The nation of Israel has a history of wrestling with itself, as well as with outsiders. The tribes often fought among themselves, to which Jacob’s internal battle may allude.

But of all the possibilities as to who the stranger might be, I find that of God to be most interesting, and most consistent with future Biblical interpretation of the text. But why would God want to attack Jacob and wrestle with him? Why would God oppose Jacob coming back home, back to the land promised to him? Well, if we look carefully, we find that the attack of God is actually the encounter that Jacob himself sought. And it became the gift of grace that Jacob so desperately needed.

How does this grace come to Jacob? It comes in the form of a new name. And that leads us to the second word play. God gives Jacob the new name, Israel. The Hebrew word is yisre’eli, which has several meanings:
“May God contend.” “May God rule.” “Persevere.”

This name is appropriate on so many levels. Jacob persevered with humans and prevailed. He persevered with God and received a blessing. Even with that excruciating injury, he would not let go without wrestling a blessing from God. And this name has significance for the Jewish people, for history has shown that just as their forefather persevered with humans and with God, the Chosen People will do the same.

And that brings us to the third word play, which is on the name Jacob gives that place by the river -- Penuel. The Hebrew root is panim, meaning “face”. This works on several levels. First, Jacob is coming face-to-face with his brother Esau. Second, he is coming face-to-face with the sins of his past. Third, and most importantly, he is coming face-to-face with God.

Remember when Jacob demands a blessing from the stranger, he asks Jacob’s name. This is not a chance question. It was intended to remind Jacob of another time when Isaac, his father, asked his name. And Jacob, the deceiver, answered, “Esau.” Now, before God he admits who he really is, all his sins, all his arrogance, all his deception. And it shows that he is repenting, making a decision to turn away from his deceptive ways. (Homgren, p. 9).

And, Jacob is showing a different side of himself to God. So God responds by giving Jacob a blessing - not one stolen from his older brother. But a genuine blessing. And yet, this blessing does not come without pain. Jacob sustains an injury to his groin which will have long-lasting effects. Remember, Jacob struck others where they were most vulnerable. Now God has struck him in his most vulnerable spot.

From now on, he will walk with a limp, signifying that he can no longer stride with arrogance, but must take his steps with humility. It also means that he can father no more children, indicating that his ability to accumulate wealth is coming to an end. And it is a visible reminder to all who see him that he is a man who finally submitted to God.

As is often the case after an epiphany, the change is not fully realized right away. Remnants of the person’s old ways remain. Jacob is still not completely mature. He tries to appease his brother with gifts and flattery, and lies about his reason for not going to Seir with Esau to cover up his intention for returning to Canaan. Only in the ensuing years will Jacob grow into his new maturity as a man of God.

Now there are several lessons we can draw from this story. And depending on where you are in your life, where you are in your faith journey, you may find one lesson resonates more for you than another. So I’m going to lay them out for you and you see which one speaks to you at this stage of your life.

Hope comes in the morning. 
There will be many times when we face “demons” or mysterious forces whom we cannot see or identify. Fighting in the dark against an unknown adversary is a common experience of humanity. Yet time and again, we somehow survive the battles and look back in awe at the blessing that came out of it. Remember, “At the very hour when Jacob might have been most discouraged about himself and his situation, a new day dawned,” (IB, p. 728). Which leads us to another lesson we can learn:

Blessing can emerge from pain.
Many people endure deep pain, suffer physical, mental and spiritual woundedness, and bear the scars of life’s “wrestling matches.” And sometimes there is a tendency to misdrect the anger, pain and negative feelings. But it is actually God whom you should confront when you suffer. Only God can truly handle our grief and transform it into something useful and meaningful. Jacob was willing to learn what God might do with a man who is lame. To learn that may be the last and greatest lesson for many a human soul.” (IB, p. 729.) Whatever your pain is, wherever your wound lies, wrestle with God about it and don’t let go until you get a blessing out of it.

And finally . . .
Don’t be afraid to come to Penuel, “face-to-face.”

What is it, or who is it, that you have been avoiding? As we see from Jacob’s history, using questionable means to attain what we want and avoiding direct confrontation with someone or with God can mean not only risking what you already have, but can stunt your spiritual growth. This applies not just to individuals, but to communities as well. Especially as a church, we can be encouraged by this text to grapple with our human differences and seriously wrestle with the world in which we live. Because when we do this we will be spiritually alive and find ourselves encountering God. (Weis, p. 109.)

This story can even be seen as foreshadowing the struggle Jesus faced at the moment of his demise. Like Jacob, Jesus was separated from his companions and alone when he was attacked by the Romans and Jewish religious leaders. Who knows what demons Jesus may have faced when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he hung on the cross, when he hovered on the precipice of death itself. But on the third morning, he, too, rose from the struggle triumphantly. And like Jacob, he had the wounds to show for it.

Coming to Penuel means coming face-to-face with yourself --- being honest with yourself, others, and God. There was honesty in Jacob’s struggle -- which is what God was looking for. This direct honesty is what God wants from us, too. If you want to receive a blessing, you must be honest - especially with God! Short cuts and tricks are not the way to receive God’s grace. And evading the consequences of our sin will only make the inevitable more painful. God cannot be conquered - to think otherwise is a sin of extreme hubris, or pride. Yet we are not to run away from meeting God face-to-face - this is a sin of cowardice.

Wrestling with God requires that you be vulnerable and honest. Yes, it may injure you. It will certainly humble you. But it will also transform you, change you. And you will receive the blessing that you need. Do not be afraid to come to Penuel. Because that is where you will encounter the grace of God. Amen.

Holmgren, Frederick C; “Holding Your Own Against God”; Interpretation, Vol. 44, January, 1990
Weis, Richard D.; “Lessons on Wrestling with the Unseen”; Reformed Review, Vol. 42, Winter 1988