Some days [most days] all we have is the cross

We have three texts this week that talk about choice, which is enough to make a Lutheran theologian shudder as she begins to prepare a sermon. But here they are, so here we go. What’s more, these texts as we read them today, with the exception of the Gospel reading, make it sound as if the choice is an easy one, as if it were a no-brainer to choose God. As if choosing were my choice. All of these texts are probably at least a little familiar. Phrases like, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” the passage about donning the whole armor of God, and the sayings of Jesus about the flesh and blood, these are passages that have been picked up and used for various purposes throughout history. Sometimes they show up on throw pillows. Sometimes they show up as justification for war. All too often, they are treated tritely, without examination of their fuller meaning. I can’t promise that I will do them full justice, but I will attempt to wade in a little deeper. All the while knowing that many in our community are grieving an inexplicable loss; that many of us are wondering how depression and despair can appear to have the last word.

The first text, from the book of Joshua, brings us to Shechem, where all the tribes of Israel are gathered. It is important to know the history of Shechem. To know what Shechem means for Israel. This is the place where Abram first received the promise from God, the promise of the land and the nation. It is the place of the first sanctuary, the first altar to Yahweh, built in the land of promise. Later in Genesis, Jacob, Abram’s grandson, commands his household to put away their foreign gods, and to worship only Yahweh. And it is under the oak tree at Shechem that Jacob buries those idols. And now, as Israel begins to occupy the promised land, Shechem is a place of sanctuary, a city of refuge, a place of peace in the midst of a land, a world, of violence and revenge. So that the people of Israel are gathered here, of all places, is no accident. This is intentional, that Joshua should call them here, and present them with the choice: “choose this day whom you will serve, the gods of your ancestors (who are under your very feet), or the gods of this land, or the God who brought you out of Israel, out of the house of slavery.” It sounds like a simple choice, doesn’t it?

The Ephesians text presents its own kind of choice, and it is perhaps a muddier one, in its way. The books of Ephesians and Colossians are closely linked historically and theologically, to the point where some scholars believe they may both have been written by the same author, or at least in the same school. This text today points out one of those links. In Colossians, the writer uses the metaphor of clothing, saying in effect that your life is what you choose to put on, the way that you choose to present yourself outwardly to the world. I think this is a metaphor that we can understand, as we stand in front of our closets each morning, deciding how we want to look to the world today. In Colossians, the writer tells the people to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, stripping off the old self with its practices, clothing themselves with the new self, and above all with love. In other words, put more tritely perhaps, choose love. This Ephesians passage is not quite so simplistic. It is one of the reasons that Ephesians is so troubling to me, both theologically and historically. “Put on,” he says, “the whole armor of God” in order to “proclaim the gospel of peace.” It is, at best, an oxymoron, to use this language of war to deliver a message of peace. But let’s give our author the benefit of the doubt. Knowing, as we do from the past few weeks of reading this letter together, that this author is in the habit of undermining the Roman authorities by using their own language against them, perhaps this is another pointed reference to the Rome that would proclaim peace throughout its empire, but bring it at the point of a spear, and through the brutal execution of dissenters.

Perhaps that is why he calls us to clothe ourselves defensively. Except for the sword, all of the armor listed is defensive. What’s more, though in English the word “you” makes us think that this is addressed to each of us individually, in the Greek, this is an invitation to the entire community, “you” plural. Which means that we are not in this alone, not being forced to choose alone. The stuff about truth and righteousness, about shoes for proclaiming and the helmet of salvation, that’s all good stuff. But I think the most important piece of armor here is the shield of faith. Now, again, this has been spoken of as a choice. As if you need to pick up that shield for yourself, and simply believe! As if it were that easy. But let’s be clear. Faith is not some intellectual assent, some decision to say, “yes, I can! I believe!” At least not in the ancient world. That understanding of faith comes to us much more recently, as a result of the Enlightenment, and has only grown into the common definition in the past couple centuries. This shield of faith demonstrates that. The shield of a Roman foot soldier, which the author of Ephesians would have had in mind, was designed to interlock with those of his neighbor. It was designed to cover at least 1/3 of the soldier next to him, so that his own shield was not just his own shield, it was the shield of his neighbors. That is what we are called to choose. Not some intellectual assent to choose God, but to choose community. Because on those days when we cannot carry our own faith, the community will carry it for us. On those days when we cannot shield ourselves against the onslaught, our community will throw their shields up for us. Still, even community is not an easy choice, and not every community will throw their shields up for us. Sometimes we choose community, and still feel cut off, alone, unable to connect. There are times when no community could ever fill the void that we carry, and we can never feel worthy of any community. The choice is never just as simple as standing in front of the closet, choosing what we will wear today.

The gospel text is the only one that really seems honest about the difficulty of these choices. Jesus has been preaching for weeks about his flesh and blood, about eating it, about how eating it will bring eternal life, and it seems like that’s the choice before us. Believe in Jesus, eat his flesh and drink his blood, and then you will be rewarded. Don’t believe in Jesus, and you are as bad as Judas, like the ones who don’t believe and who betray Jesus. But, as the disciples say, “this teaching is difficult! Who can accept it?” And they have a point. This is difficult teaching – not just the part about eating flesh and drinking blood, though that has grizzly enough undertones. But the part about God walking around in the world. About God becoming human. About God hanging out with sinful and imperfect human beings. This teaching is difficult! Who can accept it? Who can believe that God would think enough of us, would care enough for us, to come into the world! Who can accept that God would love us enough, that God would choose us?

But that is the story that we receive from all three of these passages today, and from the whole of Scripture. We have a God who chooses us, and who chooses us even though God knows full well that we have a hard time choosing God. That even when we do choose God, our choices fail us, and we find ourselves being dragged down by the gods of our past.

The text in Joshua appears to end with the people saying “we will serve the Lord!” but the story actually goes on. After their declaration of faith, after their choice, Joshua warns them – you say you choose God, but don’t you know that the choice is not yours to make? because those gods that are under your feet, those gods that are buried under the oak tree, they will find a way to assert themselves, and your choices will all fail you.

Some days our choices seem simple, but other days, our choices fail us. Other days, the pain or the despair or the heartache are too much, and there is no choice that I can make that can fill that void; there is nothing that I can do that can make that pain go away. I could have everything that I am supposed to have – the spouse, the children, the house, the car, the job, the love and respect of everyone around me, and still the demons are howling at the door. We set ourselves up to imagine that there are things that we can do, choices that we can make, that will make the questions go away, things that we can achieve that will fill that hole of longing in our souls, solutions we can devise that will leave us satisfied and whole and well. And all the while, those other gods are there, beneath our feet, pulling us down, threatening to swallow us. We may not have the gods of ancient Syria and Babylon to contend with. But we have our own set of gods, vying for our attention. Those gods of wealth, power, belonging, the gods who woo us with guarantees of happiness, love, long life. We have our own set of demons tearing at us, telling us that nothing is good enough, and nothing ever could be. And they threaten to pull us down, to throw up walls between us and the world, to isolate us and cut us off, so that we live lives of boundaries instead of unity, lives of isolation instead of community, lives cut off from community and from God.

But the authors of Ephesians and John insist that our God is a God that tears down walls. This is a God who breaks down the boundaries, even the boundaries between heaven and earth. This is a God who chooses us, even when we cannot choose God, even when we are being drawn in by the promises of other gods. And most of all, this is a God who meets us where we are, who would brave the wrath of the world’s greatest powers, of empires, of rulers and authorities, and the cosmic powers of darkness and the spiritual forces of evil, who would even brave death and the grave, in order to show us the depth of God’s love for us. This is a God who meets us in our suffering, who meets us at the cross, where we live and die, where we grieve and suffer, where we wonder and wish. When the gods of our past, and the demons of our present, and the despair of our futures, threaten to overwhelm us, that is where God meets us.

And so we are not alone. Not ever. Even when we despair and depression and the gods  and powers of this world block everything else from view; even when we cannot see the light of hope; even when we feel that there is no chance of new life. We are not alone. Because that place, that is the very place that God knows better than anyone. That is the very place that God has decided to assert God’s self. That is the very place that God has declared God’s self as victor. That is the cross. And there are days when the cross is all that we have. And on those days, when we cannot possibly choose to armor ourselves in the wholeness of God, when we cannot possibly decide to serve the Lord, when we cannot possibly make ourselves believe this difficult teaching, those are the days when God puts up the shield for us, and chooses us, and draws us forward, out of the grave, with the words of eternal life. Given and shed. For you.

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Analyzing the Signpost, Missing the Sign

I want to tell you a story about why Martin Luther rocks. It’s not because he stood up to Rome, though that was pretty cool. And it’s not because his writings have now been gathered on the internet to create a Martin Luther Insult Generator. [Seriously, you should google it. You click the “Insult me” button and it pulls up a real quote from Martin Luther. Examples include, “You roar as one possessed and full of devils.” “It is presumptuous for people who are as ignorant as you are not to take up the work of a herdsman.” and “I beg you put your glasses on your nose, or blow your nose a bit, to make your head lighter and the brain clearer.” The guy had a way with words.] That’s all good stuff, but my favorite story about Luther happened in October of 1529 in a town called Marburg. And it is directly related to today’s Gospel reading, which was a hotly contested topic in those days.

See, then, as now, people liked to nail things down, get to the underlying mechanics of a thing. It’s the same problem Jesus is having with this mob of people following him around the hillsides of Galilee. Jesus is trying to lay some good news on these people. Throughout chapter 6 of the Book of John, this passage that we have now been reading for 4 weeks, Jesus is telling them, “Look! God is here!” He feeds 5000 people with just 5 barley loaves and 2 fish, and there are 12 baskets of food left over when everyone has had their fill. He stills the sea and walks on water, and tells them the very name of God, “I am.” Over and over throughout this chapter, I Am. Verse 20 – “I Am. Do not be afraid.” Verse 35 – “I am the bread of life.” Verse 41 – “I Am the bread that came down from heaven.” In fact throughout the whole Book of John – “I Am the way, the truth, and the life,” “I Am the Light of the World,” “I Am the Good Shepherd,” – Jesus is telling them the name of God, throwing out his credentials, trying to get the people to see what is happening right in front of them – God is here! God is with us! Emmanuel! And every time Jesus shows them a sign, like turning water into wine, or feeding 5000, or walking on water, that sign points directly to this reality, the reality of God coming into the world, of God’s Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, of the Kingdom of God that is breaking into the world, so that walls are being torn down, and people are being healed, and captives are being released, and the sick are being healed, and the hungry are being fed, God is here!

And what do the religious authorities do? Instead of following the sign, and looking for what the sign points to, what do the religious authorities do? They dispute amongst themselves. [side note: when you are reading the book of John, and you read the phrase “the Jews,” it’s best to substitute the phrase “religious authorities.” This is not about Jewish versus Christian. It’s about what happens when God gets co-opted by an institution, any institution, whether it’s the church or the state or the cause du jour.] So, the religious authorities, in the face of the signs that point to God’s in-breaking Kingdom, to God’s very self walking around in the world, the religious authorities ignore all the signs, ignore what they point to, and spend their time disputing among themselves, complaining about Jesus, saying, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph? Don’t we know this kid’s parents?” and asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They never once look up and follow the sign to where it’s pointing. They’re too busy analyzing the sign post.

And that’s what they were still doing in 1529 in a town called Marburg, when they gathered to debate the nature of the Lord’s Supper. Now, in Medieval Europe, there was only one authority on all things. That was the religious authority (remember what I said a minute ago about religious authorities?). The Church, capital C, had the first and final word on what Jesus meant about, well, anything Jesus said, and probably a few things Jesus never said. Some things never change. And when it came to the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the celebration of the Mass, the Roman Church borrowed heavily from a guy named Aristotle, who was not a Christian and never heard of Christ, and claimed that when the priest said the Mass, the bread and the wine changed completely and became the actual body and blood of Christ, so that Christ was actually, physically present in what we eat and drink. And then there were a bunch of other guys, live John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, who were convinced that, since nothing could be in two places at once, and Jesus was definitely already in heaven, he couldn’t be in the bread and wine, too. They argued that the Lord’s Supper is a symbolic action, an act of remembrance. So, here are two religious authorities, the Roman Catholic, and the leaders of what becomes the Reformed movement, the forebears of the present day Presbyterians and UCC and most of mainstream American Protestantism. They are clearly on two different sides of this debate.

And then there’s Luther. In October of 1529, Luther agrees to meet with Zwingli in the city of Marburg, in what has come to be known as the Marburg Colloquy. During this conversation, Zwingli and Luther debate together about the sign post. They spend days hashing out a set of articles about doctrine, not just the Lord’s Supper but baptism, the role of the church in society, ordination, all kinds of things. They come up with 15 articles, and they agree on 14 of them. But the 15th, the one on the Lord’s Supper, they cannot agree on. Zwingli insists that it is only a symbolic act. And Luther cannot agree. They go around and around about it, and finally Luther, in as dramatic a moment as a theological debate can produce, Luther whips the table cloth off of the table, pulling books off, sending dishes flying, and reveals the words on the tabletop that he wrote there earlier, the words of Jesus, “This is my body.” That is the final word on the subject, as far as Luther is concerned. No further debate needed.

Because for Luther, and this is why I am a Lutheran, for Luther, we are missing the point when we stand around debating about the sign post. The point is not what the Lord’s Supper is. Maybe it is the body and blood of Christ. Maybe is isn’t. Jesus says it is, so we’ll run with that. Luther finally settles on the language of Christ “in, with, and under” the bread and the wine, as a way of saying, look, we just don’t know! Because at the end of the day, it’s a mystery, dagnabit! The point isn’t what it is! The point is what it does! And what it does, is to deliver Christ, the promises of Christ, the Christ who says, “I abide in you, and you in me.” The Christ who says, “I Am.” Christ our emmanuel, God with us. Because, Luther asserts, a drowning man does not spend time analyzing the life saver before he grabs it. A starving man does not spend time debating the quality and nature of the flour in the bread he has been given before he eats it. A begging man does not wish to discuss Marx’s theory about the means of production and the symbolic nature of currency. When someone gives him a dollar, he wants to use it, to receive the benefits of it, to cash it in for some very real needs.

And that is, in the end, why we come to this table. Not to debate the nature of what happens here. Not to prove to anyone that we understand how God is at work in this bread and this wine. Not to cut ourselves off, and lift ourselves up as the ones who got it right. We come to this table because we are drowning. We are drowning in a world of hatred and rivalry and greed. We come to this table because we are starving. We are starving for the reconciliation and redemption and connection that we receive here. We come to this table because we are beggars. We are sinners who are forever getting in the way of the saints around us, and we are saints who are constantly frustrated by the sinners getting in our way, and we are both of these things at the same time, and it is a lot to hold in one tiny little human body, and we need the walls to come down, so that we are not alone, we are not carrying the weight of it all ourselves, we are not responsible for the salvation of everything that we see and hear and feel, not even for the salvation of our very own selves. That is why we come to this table. For what this meal does.

And if you’re wondering how this connects with the sermon series on Ephesians, here it is: We come to this table, not for what the bread and the wine are, not to demonstrate our understanding of it. We come for what it does. And what it does is to make possible the life that the author of Ephesians describes. We are used to reading this list of things to do as if they are a prescription for how we must live in order to win God’s approval, in order to prove that we are Christians. It’s not. It is a description. A description of what it looks like when the body and blood of Christ, the bread and wine, the Lord’s Supper, does what it does. It draws us into the life of the Spirit. It tears down the walls between us, between Jews and Gentiles, between the foolish and the wise, between the drunkards and the upright, between the stupid things I’ve said, and the misunderstandings between us, and the hurts that I’ve received, and the things I wish I could take back, it tears down all those walls, and it joins us, unites us, draws us into community, in communion. It makes us into the Body of Christ.

None of us is ever going to understand exactly what happens here and how. It’s a mystery. And that’s the nature of mystery. What matters is what it does. And what it does is, to unite us, to create the Body of Christ, even across the boundaries that we put in the way, even across denominations, and generations, and all of time and space, so that we are drawn into one Body, being filled with the Spirit, so that we can sing together in all kinds of voices, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord in our hearts, giving thanks and being the signs that point to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Taboo is Taboo

I was talking with a friend this week, who was concerned because a subject dear to his heart, something that he finds important enough that he talks about it, teaches about it, and shapes his life around it, and has for many, many years, this subject has become difficult to talk about. Somehow, this subject has become one that one cannot mention in polite company. Now, I’m purposefully not telling you who this is, or what the subject is, because I don’t think it matters. There are plenty of subjects and issues that have become taboo in our society. It used to be that we weren’t allowed to talk about religion, money, sex, or politics in polite society. But these days, where you stand on any number of topics has been banned from polite conversation. Whether it’s the big four, or whether it is your stance on how health care should be delivered, or on how the resources of the earth should be stewarded, or on what kind of schools we should have and how teachers should be compensated, all of these topics and many others have become unacceptable issues for polite, spirited conversation among friends with differing opinions. Of course, when any given subject is not considered polite conversation, that leaves it to be discussed only in the realm of what, impolite conversation. So, as it turns out, all of these topics, plus the old big four, all of them are being discussed, each and every day. But they are being discussed in forums such as Facebook and Twitter, by talking heads and pundits on TV programs, by people who do not know each other and who have very little to lose if they go ahead and yell at one another, if they assume the other person is an ignorant jerk, if they behave as if their mother were not watching. People assume they know everything about you because they know one opinion. Once they know how you feel about the economy, they think they know what you think about health care, about education, about the environment, and even about God. These topics get discussed, but they also get polarized, and opinions become bludgeons, and are used to shut others down, to cut them off, to categorize and dismiss them, to tear down relationships and build up walls.

If you want an example of how well this all works in running a family and a kingdom, you have to look no further than the story of David’s family. It’s funny that David would be considered the greatest king in the history of Israel, and yet be the exemplar not only of how to pull a kingdom together but also of how to break it apart. This story has it all, everything a Hollywood blockbuster could ask for. Sex, political intrigue, betrayal, war, murder, family discord, violence, vanity, stupidity, irony. You name it. It’s no wonder the story of Absalom appears so often in literature and art. In a nutshell: you may recall the story from last week. David either raped or seduced Bathsheba, got her pregnant, then had her husband killed to cover up what he had done. Then, when Nathan pointed out how awful it was, he repented, but was told that his house would live with the sword from then on. Well, today’s story is the upshot of that, but there’s far more to it than we hear. Absalom had a sister, Tamar, who was raped by their half-brother, Amnon. When their father, David, refused to punish the rapist, Absalom murdered Amnon in revenge. Absalom fled, and spent three years in exile before he was restored to David’s favor and returned to Jerusalem. But once he arrived there, he began to get carried away with himself. The people loved him, because he was the most handsome man in the land, and because he would kiss the people as equals rather than accept supplication from them. So, after a few years of building their support, he went ahead and declared himself king, slept with his father’s concubines, and raised a revolt at Hebron, the former capital. All of Judah and Israel, the two halves of the kingdom, flocked to his side, and David was forced to flee across the Jordan, leaving a few spies behind in Jerusalem. All of this comes to a climax in today’s story of the final battle of this war, the Battle of Ephraim Wood. David, forced into battle with his own son, instructs his generals to go easy on Absalom if they encounter him in the battle. Meanwhile, Absalom, who was apparently very vain about his appearance, and especially his hair, which he would only cut once a year when it got too heavy for his head, Absalom was riding his mule through the woods and (irony!) his hair got caught in the branches of a tree, and he was left hanging from the tree, unable to get down. David’s general Joab, perhaps thinking it would be best to go ahead and get rid of the rebel threat, went ahead and killed Absalom. When David heard the news, he wept and mourned the loss of his son, apparently not even caring about the overthrow of the rebellion, or that his general had disobeyed him to kill Absalom.

 

When you set up a system of secrecy and betrayal, the system begets more secrecy and betrayal. People suffer. Relationships suffer. These things are not self-contained. They spiral outward, and wind up affecting everyone. And this is the system that we inherit. Not because we want it. Not because we seek it. But because we are human, and our tendency is toward shame, toward secrecy, toward hushing up the things that make us uncomfortable.

Another friend was lamenting to me this week that, though she has decades of experience to share, her children and grandchildren would rather not hear about it, because they do not want to hear hard truths about themselves. More walls, less relationship. And it’s not exactly our fault. It’s just the way we are. There are so many things that drive us apart from one another, and we don’t even mean to do it. Words that we intend to compliment and edify are heard to scold and discourage. The worst moments of our lives, when we most need our community, wind up driving wedges between us. When people are sick, when families are experiencing divorce, when someone loses a job, these are the times when we most need our community, the times when crisis should drive us together. Yet the reality is that, instead of coming together, we find ourselves further apart. Disability, shame, embarrassment, guilt, pride, our desire to do for ourselves, or to not be a burden, our discomfort with other people’s pain, all of these things prevent us from reaching out to those we most need at the moment when we most need them. They become the things that we use to cut ourselves off, to categorize and dismiss ourselves, to tear down relationships and build up walls.

The author of Ephesians is having none of it. Put away falsehood, he says, speak the truth to one another. Stop living in secrecy, stop living in systems of taboo and quietism. We have somehow inherited the idea that being Christian means that we avoid the hard questions, the tough conversations, because we might get angry with one another, and being angry is a sin. But this letter puts that belief to the lie. Be angry, says our writer! Be angry! Go ahead, get righteously indignant if you must! Speak the truth as you see it! Stand up for yourself and others! The Bible is not a book of pollyannas, ignorant of the so-called negative emotions. It is a book of real people, dealing with real emotions, and that includes anger. Jesus got mad sometimes, Paul got mad sometimes, David got mad a lot – at Nathan, at the stingy rich man, at Amnon, at Absalom. Go ahead. Get angry! Whatever you do, don’t be silent.

But. And this is a big but. But. When you get angry, when you speak the truth as you see it, when you tell others what you really think, about the environment, about health care, about education, about money, sex, religion, or politics; when you speak the truth, when you tell others what you really feel, about their behavior, about the help you need, or the help you can give, about your divorce, about your ex, about your layoff, about your boss, about the candidates running for office…when you get angry, when you speak the truth, your truth, do it in love. Not for the sake of being right, or being smart, or being powerful. Rather, do it for the sake of the whole body. Do it to give grace to those who hear. Do it to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another. Do it to build up one another, to tear down walls.

Because this is the truth that is greater than all of them combined. This is the truth that the author of Ephesians tells the early Christians of Asia Minor, and he tells you and me, the truth that breaks down walls, that builds up relationships, that will not stand for categorizing people by their beliefs or their illnesses or their experience. This is the truth. You are a part of the body of Christ. You are members of one another. That has been sealed by your baptism, but it is not only for the baptized. You did not earn it by being baptized. It was earned for you by Christ, who gave himself for you and for the whole world, not because we have earned it, not because we have already figured out how to tear down the walls and build up ourselves and others, but precisely because we  have not got the first clue how to begin. It is the power of Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit, that gives us the ability to be imitators of God. I can’t do it on my own. You can’t do it on your own. But we can do it. We can live as the body, we can build one another up in love, we can speak the truth to one another, as imitators of God, and live in love, because Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

With One Voice

For the last two years, I have spent a few days in the month of May at a Benedictine Monastery in Atchison, KS. The sisters of Mount St. Scholastica have hosted a group of first call Lutheran pastors from the Central States Synod for several years as we gather for continuing education, fellowship, and spiritual renewal. Set on a hilltop above the Missouri River, the sisters have run schools for all ages for the past 150 years. The main church building, and the older of the residences, are beautiful brick buildings, with incredible detailed hardwood floors, stained glass, and murals everywhere. Hospitality is one of the main tenets of the Rule of St. Benedict, and the sisters offer a wonderful example of it, providing our group with the full use of their grounds, housing, food, their kind and encouraging spiritual direction, and a welcome to all of their worship services, including the celebration of the Mass and the Lord’s Supper. They were even kind enough to make space for Elinor to join me on my first trip out there, when Elinor still needed to be with me all the time.

One of my favorite parts of our time at Mt. St. Scholastica is always evening vespers. Each evening at 5:30, before supper, the sisters gather in their chapel. It is set up with two facing sets of raised pews, stair stepped so that each row is higher than the one in front. The ornately carved wood seats give each person their own little cubby, with a spot for your worship books, and a few little hidey compartments. You can tell that some of the sisters there have sat in the same seat morning, noon, and night for the last 60 years, and I kind of wonder what they keep in those little cubbies. Sitting there, you feel somehow enthroned, surrounded by others who are similarly enthroned, comfortably cozy, with beautiful modernist stained glass saints and angels shining down on you in Latin.

Before worship, the sisters always send us an emissary to explain the service to us. The entire service is sung in plainsong chant. That means that the organist gives us a tone and then we sing an entire psalm following that tone, alternating back and forth across the chapel, first the East side, then the West. When that psalm is finished, we have a moment or two of silence, then begin the next psalm. We usually sing 4 or 5 psalms, then hear the readings for the day. Then a few more chanted pieces, including the Magnificat from the second chapter of Luke, where Mary sings the praises of God.

“Oh, boy!” we Lutherans think. “We can do this! We can absolutely handle a service of all singing. If there’s anything we Lutherans can do, it’s to sing!”

And then they tell us the clincher. When we sing, when we chant the psalms, we are doing it with one voice. We each try to sing as softly as possible, striving to listen rather than to be heard. We are working to sing with once voice, so that our prayers rise up to God together, as one prayer.

And our Lutheran hearts sink, as we wonder what the heck that means. We have a hymnal called With One Voice, but almost every hymn in there has a full arrangement that encourages us to sing in 4-part harmony, and we are used to showing off our Lutheran prowess in hymnody. So we go ahead into the chapel and we sing along with the sisters, and we think we’ve done a spanky good job, won’t our hosts be so impressed! And then the sister comes to us after the service and says, “Look. You guys are great singers. But you’re not getting the point. We are singing with one voice. Softly. To hear, not to be heard. Try again tomorrow.”

Clearly, the Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica have been studying their Ephesians. And when we come to worship with them, they are begging us, in the words of this letter, to worship in a way that is worthy of the calling to which we have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

And that’s the tricky part, isn’t it? Here is this Book of Ephesians, these 6 chapters that lay out a theology and an ecclesiology (that’s a fancy word for church theory) for the Christian community. It sounds so very nice. Live together, play nice, take care of each other. The author even talks about the gifts that we’ve been given to live this out – some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers – this is not an exhaustive list. We’ve all been equipped for the work of ministry. We’ve all been given gifts that will help us build up the body of Christ, to work toward the unity of the faith.

The problem is, in amongst all those people who are trying so hard, sits someone like King David. Really, if that’s what we’re given to work with, it seems fairly hopeless. Last week, we talked money, so this week we’ll talk sex. Next week, politics, if we’re lucky. The trifecta. This week’s Old Testament story is part two of last week’s, in which David either seduced or raped Bathsheba, got her pregnant, and then had her husband killed in battle in order to cover up what he had done. This week, the prophet Nathan, kind of the head prophet in David’s passel of prophets, pulls a pretty good trick on David. Nathan tells David the story of a man who has all he needs, but when it comes time, he steals the beloved lamb of a poor man to prepare a feast for a guest. And David is enraged by the story. Not because he sees his own guilty conscience revealed in the story, but because he genuinely cannot believe the nerve of this rich man in stealing the beloved lamb of another. It’s only after Nathan delivers the punchline, “You are the man!” than David realizes the depth of his own wickedness. So, not only is David guilty of a heinous abuse of his power, but he’s also clueless enough to not realize it until Nathan points it out.

And this is the man that Samuel described as a man after God’s own heart; God’s own anointed; the greatest king in the history of Israel.

So what kind of honks me off is that the author of Ephesians is sort of blithely telling us to bear one another in love, and David is sort of the best and the worst of us, and if I’m sitting in a pew thinkng about trying to build one another up, trying to achieve some sort of unity, and I look across the aisle, and there sits another sinner, and their sins seem so much more annoying than my own. And that’s the problem with community, Christian or not. It’s all the other people. All the other sinners. When we are joined and knit together into the Body of Christ, these are the people that we are joined and knit together with. People like David. People like Peter and the other disciples, who just never seem to get a clue. People like Judas. As much as I would love to picture the Body of Christ as consisting of just Jesus and me, forgiven and redeemed and sinless from here on out, that is not what we are promised. What we are promised is a community, a gathering of sinners, drawn together into this one Body, joined and knit together by every ligament. What we are promised is that we will be equipped – equipped by the work of apostles and prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. In other words, we will be equipped by the work of those who speak God’s word to us, by those who deliver to us the love letter that God has written, by those who speak the truth in love.

And that is the calling to which we are called. It is not to be tolerant, though that is a virtue. It is not to turn the story of David’s shambles of a life into a morality tale by which we can judge others, though God knows that there are people who abuse power and who could stand to have a morality tale preached to them. It is instead to be the Body that we have been called to be. To be apostles and prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers – all of us, not just me, not just a select few, but all of us, to be those who deliver the love letter to the world, who speak the truth in love.

It is a hard job. It is a job that few would like to have – to be the one to tell the story to David, and to point out the truth to him, “You are the man!” And then, to stand by him, to remain knit together with him, joined with him by the very truth that we have just spoken, to hear his confession, to receive his grief and shame and to hold it, to hear the words of Psalm 51, “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me,” and to acknowledge that boldly, not dismissing it, not diminishing it, but holding it. Yes. Yes, you are a sinner. And then, against all reason, against all sense, against everything that we have ever thought right, to continue to stand by him, to continue to stand by one another, acknowledging our own sins alongside theirs, acknowledging our own need for mercy and compassion and grace, alongside theirs. Bearing one another in love.

But that is not what knits us together. It is not that we are sinners, standing alongside one another. It is that we are redeemed. Bought, each of us, for the same price, by the same act, by the God who so loved each of us, fully knowing each of us, as God knew David, to be as much a sinner as it is possible to be. And knowing that, God went ahead and came into the world, became human, and revealed the depth of God’s love by living and dying for us. And naming each one of us as fully a saint as a sinner, God overthrew the power of death, the power of sin, the lasting power of shame and guilt and scandal, and, according to David’s prayer, created in us a clean heart, put a new and right Spirit in each of us, so that we are now equipped to grow up into the Body of Christ. We are now equipped to speak with one voice. We are now equipped to lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

It is not easy. We will fail. We will backslide. We will wish we had different companions in the Body. We will wonder why God would see fit to call this particular motley group of sinners to such a high calling. And yet, we are called. And we are equipped. By the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we are called and equipped to sing with one voice. To speak the truth together in love. To be joined and knit together by the grace of God.