Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, April 24, 2017

Out of the tomb, and off to Namibia...

Not that long ago, I spent a lot of time in the darkness of tombs. Much of my life was in a whole lot of limbo, like a seed waiting to find some new, fertile ground to thrive, but for a while not much happened. By the grace of God, and on the shoulders of many wonderful friends, family members, colleagues, and therapists, I made it to 2017.... where Resurrection has pretty much been smacking me in the face every. single. day.

After saying goodbye to a well-loved but part-time call with a great colleague, I had just moved to a new town, a new state, a  new apartment, and a new call. Things were busy, but going great! Lent was about to start, to add to the craziness of starting a new call.

Ash Wednesday morning, my world moved again.

I woke up.

I checked my email.

I nearly fell out of bed.

I JUMPED out of bed.

I may have yelled really loudly and scared my cats.

I was one of the top ten finalists in a preaching contest I had completely forgotten that I had entered. At the time, back in October, I was part time and figured there was no good excuse for me NOT to enter. Plus, I really wanted to see a woman preach at this event, and so I had better contribute my part.

Fast forward to the Monday of Holy Week. Much the same as Ash Wednesday:

I woke up, checked my email, and promptly went into shock. More crazy yelling.

Everyone is so thrilled, I'm thrilled, my congregation is thrilled, my family and friends are thrilled....


I'm leaving on an international trip to an African country that I had not planned for...

..in less than 2 weeks now.


To keep my sanity, and to chronicle the before, during, and after adventures and reflections, I'm going to share here, on my blog, which has sort of turned into mainly a sermon blog, which it should not be limited to anyway. So stay tuned for further hi-jinks in "Pastor Lydia Goes to Namibia"!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

"Joy to the world, the Lord has come.... back!!!!"

Easter Sunday 4-16-17

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our risen Lord and savior Jesus the Christ,  Amen.

Merry Christmas! ….  “Joy to the world, the Lord has come… Back!”

“Hark the Herald Angels sing! Glory to the resurrected king!”

“Oh come all ye faithful… to the empty tomb.

Well, I haven’t actually lost my marbles, though this week I probably came close, between Holy Week prep and my first ever Easter here, and also planning a surprise trip to Namibia! So, ya know, not all THAT much going on this week!

This is the most special day of the most special week of the Christian calendar. On Palm Sunday, just one week ago, Jesus entered Jerusalem in a festive parade. On Thursday, we gathered around the Lord’s table to remember the night that Jesus ate his last meal surrounded by his closes friends – friends who would later go on to deny, betray, and completely abandon him. And on the Friday that we call Good, we heard the rest of the story of Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, and death, as darkness fell inside a tomb sealed with a stone.

But today, “It’s beginning to look a lot like.. Easter!” Because, after all, today we remember how we received the Best. Gift. Ever.

When I went Luther Seminary in Minneapolis, I attended a downtown church that drew members from the white retired social justice involved crowd and those who were born in West Africa. One year, Easters fell really early, and as we sang our Alleluias, we saw snow starting to fall outside, in big fluffy, Christmas-card-worthy flakes. It seriously felt like Christmas morning, made me want to sing some “Joy to the World” rather than “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.”

After all, Christmas is the holiday that most of us say is our favorite. There aren’t too many “count downs” to Easter Sunday, unless you are a big church nerd like me. Though, we still try to make Easter into a cute holiday, like Christmas, and cover up talk of tombs and death by crucifixion with chocolate and bunnies. Babies are much easier to deal with than crosses anyway. And don’t get me started on CHOCOLATE Crosses. Bah Humbug!

So why not just skip Easter and celebrate another Christmas? If one Christmas is good, two are better! Right? All the same elements are already there: we have an angel who announces good news of great joy to some unsuspecting people – shepherds, women – both pretty far down on the social latter.  Mary the mother of Jesus is there too, as “the other Mary,” at least according to many scholars. The angel tells them to “fear not.” Then the women GO to SEE what the angel has told them. (go to Bethlehem) “Come and see the empty tomb…”  And Lo and behold – they find Jesus, just as the angel said. And you know what? SNOW is even mentioned today – the clothing of the angel is described as being as white as snow! “I’m dreaming of a white… Easter!”

Oh yes, I almost forgot. At both Christmas and Easter, someone is also trying to kill Jesus. You probably forgot about that part of the Christmas story. King Herod attempted to kill baby Jesus when he heard about him from the Wise Men, and Herod tried to put the kabosh on Jesus’ potential political career at its start. (kill motion) Try putting THAT on a Hallmark Christmas card.

Jesus obviously escaped death as a baby, but it looked like here it finally caught up to him. The Roman government, in partnership with the Judean leadership in power, thought they had finally gotten rid of this troublemaker. They even put his grave under surveillance, so that his followers could not steal the body and claim resurrection. But we just heard how about how that plan failed BIG TIME.

This is what Jesus had been saying his whole ministry. Over and over Jesus told his disciples, that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Mtt 16:21) That third day, that’s TODAY. But where are his disciples? We haven’t heard from them since Friday. The only people who showed up, the only people who believed the word of Jesus, were the WOMEN.

Dorothy Sayers wrote that women “were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross,” and I would add that they were first again to witness the resurrection. Women were the first preachers of the good news. The men, the soldiers at the tomb didn’t stand a chance. They came to “work” that morning expecting the cushy job of guarding a dead body. The women came to see a dead body, hoping and believing that they would be disappointed. Then boom. Resurrection happened.  Same event, totally different reactions.

Just imagine for a moment these big, tough men with weapons at the ready fainting dead away like proverbial Victorian ladies at the sight of ONE SINGLE MEASLY angel. One. Not even a heavenly host. Just one was all it took to pass out from fear. But for these women, they were not overcome by fear, because they already expected to see the impossible. For them, believing was seeing.

We’ve all been there. We’ve all be so overcome by fear of the darkness around us that we miss out where new life is happening. There is so much fear and so much TO FEAR in the world – racism, sexism, violence, war, bombing, homophobia, fear of our neighbors, of refugees, and strangers – so many things that would set us to shaking in our boots and fainting dead away in dismay.

But what if we looked at the darkness around us with resurrection eyes, like these women. Preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “...new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb.” What if we could hear through our fear, and see in the dark? What if believing is seeing? What if Easter is Christmas? What if Christmas is Easter?

At Christmas, we often call Jesus Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Remember that great Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Immanuel?” “And ransom captive Israel, who mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.” Well, Immanuel IS HERE and Immanuel has ransomed us, so that mourning and death and exile are no longer our reality.
Maybe Easter feels like Christmas because the two are bookends of the same story –which is the story of God birthing light out of darkness, life out of death, resurrection out of Good Friday. This story is also OUR story. Easter is the culmination, the completion, the last note in the final movement of the symphony, the nail in the coffin for death. Birth, death, resurrection – you can’t have Easter without Christmas, but without Easter, Christmas is more like a gift of a pair of socks rather than a BMW.

At Easter, Jesus give us the greatest gift of all – not chocolate crosses, but eternal life with God, made possible by Jesus defeating the REAL cross, it’s power of sin, death, and the grave. Jesus’ resurrection is OUR resurrection too, and THIS is why it is GOOD NEWS. Because this gift is FOR US. It is FOR YOU.

Last week I went with a friend to hear Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony #2. During the final movement, two soloists and a choir accompanied the orchestra, and sang these words, translated from German:  

O Sorrow, all-penetrating! I have been wrested away from you!
O Death, all-conquering! Now you are conquered!
I shall die, so as to live! What you have conquered Will bear you to God.
O believe, my heart, oh believe…
Tremble no more! Prepare yourself to live!

The disciples hid, and the soldiers fainted, but the women took a page out of the shepherds’ book and MADE HASTE, skedaddling out of that tome so fast that they crash headlong into the risen Jesus. 

Because Jesus lives, we live too. We live, not to hide away or be paralyzed by fear, but to boldly put one foot in front of the other, knowing that Jesus, Immanuel goes with us, and sometimes lets us crash head on into resurrection without realizing it. Immanual comes with us, so that we may live.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come back!”

Christ is Risen!
(He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!)

Thanks be to God! Amen. 

Good, not Great

Good Friday 2017
Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

For nearly every great person of history who is no longer alive today, remembering the time and place of their death is a vital part of telling their story. Especially if that person was cut down in the prime of their life while working for the cause of justice and reconciliation. What biography of Abraham Lincoln would be complete without mentioning the tragic night at Ford’s Theater? What account of Martin Luther King Jr would be worth its salt if did not include a chapter set on that hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee? And, though Malala is still alive, any future biography of hers will surely include her nearly successful assassination while fearlessly crusading for education for women in her native country of Pakistan.

But we can safely say that no other death in human history is as important as the death of a Palestinian Jewish peasant who lived in relative obscurity and died on a cross over twenty centuries ago. At the time, he was nothing more than another failed messiah, yet another victim of senseless violence in the name of the Empire of Rome. Here is a man who claimed to be a king, and look at what those in power did to him.

The area of Judea and Galilee at the time of Jesus were already under the thumb of about a half a dozen successive empires by now. Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and now Romans, with a few minor empires scattered in between, with hardly a break. Oppression and subjugation were old hat to the Jewish people. They groaned from one generation to the next, longing for deliverance, looking for the day when the Messiah, the holy one, anointed by God, would take up the cause and forever send all empires packing.

And Jesus, at least for a while, seemed to be shaping up to be a pretty decent contender for the title of Messiah. He healed people of their illnesses, cast out demons, miraculously fed people, flouted all authority, whether governmental or religious. True, he also had some disturbing quirks like eating with sinners and hanging out with women and children and talking too much about the kingdom of God. But as long as he kicks out the Roman Empire, much can be forgiven.

And this week also started out so well –  On Palm Sunday, we heard how the people crowded around and showed their support in the “Jesus parade,” as Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem, the headquarters of power in the region, presumably to take it by storm and finally route the Roman oppression.

But that didn’t happen. Almost a week later, Jesus is hanging on a cross, not sitting on a throne. Almost a week later, there is no revolution, no overthrow of the oppressive government of Rome, no political victory. He is failure in the eyes of the Jewish leadership. A failure in the eyes of history, presumably doomed to obscurity, yet another failed king.

But Jesus didn’t come to be a great king of history. He wasn’t born to be prince over an earthly realm. He wasn’t born to be great. He was born be good. He was born, lived, and died to show that the goodness of God is for all people, not just the rich, not just the righteous, not just the powerful. And that is why we call today Good Friday. Jesus chose what was good for the entire world, even though it led to his death.

While Jesus was still in the garden, praying that this cup of suffering would be taken from him, Jesus still had a few options left open to him. He could have called on his disciples to fight for him – one would already chop off an ear, why not try to do more? Or he could sneak out of the garden and become a hermit. He could have called one those legions of angels to his aid and proven beyond a doubt who he really is. He could have struck an agreement with the religious authorities and worked to reform the religious institutions from the inside.

But Jesus did none of those things. He didn’t fight, or hide, or amaze, or bargain. He decided to obey God, even unto death. He decided to die. He decided to choose us.

Just a few weeks ago we heard about Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, where Jesus says the most famous line in all of scripture, the most quoted Bible verse ever: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Jesus was talking about this moment. He was talking about his death. He was talking about the cross. Here is that man, that moment, that cross.

The cross was not always one of them most recognized symbols of our faith. The Roman Empire used it as a symbol of intimidation, a deterrent, a sign that reads clear as day “This is what happens when you go up against the “powers that be.” You WILL LOSE.”

 On this Friday that is called Good, though, the symbol of an instrument of torture and humiliation and death is transformed. It becomes a symbol of life and repurposed as the sign by which God wants to be known in the world. It is transformed into a sign of a divine love that holds nothing back.

Today on the Friday we call Good, we remember that we worship this suffering God, and we follow this crucified man. Jesus shows us that God is willing to take on the worst the world has to offer, to experience it in a human body that can feel pain and can bleed and can die. Jesus is willing to take on the worst that WE have to offer – our selfishness, our fear, the broken mess we’ve made of our lives – to transform that too into something beautiful and precious and to be repurposed – chosen - as beloved children of God.

Even when the night has fallen, all hope seems lost, and it looks like the darkness will win in the Fridays of our lives - death cannot win, not forever. We cling to hope. We cling to the cross. And we wait for the light that shines in the darkness. We wait for the Sunday we know is coming. Amen.

Strawberry Jello and Jesus

Maundy Thursday 2017
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

Family, friends, and food just seem to go together. Here at Family of God, we live this like it is Gospel itself!! Between Dine and Donate, my installation celebration, the 55+ Group, Soup and Sandwich, you just can’t turn around in this church without bumping into a “food and fellowship” related ministry.

Food is how we take care of one another, and also how we celebrate. While both of my grandparents were alive, they would host every holiday many birthdays at their large house, with folding chairs and tables scattered everywhere, surrounding one huge table with leaves to make it huge. Food filled the kitchen, and no family gathering would be complete without Grandma’s strawberry Jell-o with bananas in it. And so, no plate would be complete without a helping. Now, strawberry Jello and bananas aren’t my favorite flavor combination, but eating this special desert was like eating with her, especially since there eventually came a time when strawberry jello with bananas was no longer on the menu.

What are some of your favorite food memories? Perhaps it is the smell of Grandma baking homemade bread, or the taste of fresh marina sauce at your favorite restaurant as you celebrated a birthday or milestone, a Champaign toast at a wedding. And then there are the special food traditions that become staples in our lives for family get-togethers and holidays, like my Grandma’s strawberry and banana jello. Like turkey on Thanksgiving. Mom’s sugar cookies at Christmas. Honey ham and Aunt Marge’s cheesy potatoes at Easter. Ice cream birthday cake from Dairy Queen.

Food makes us remember. The Jewish people used the Passover meal to remember that God had led them from slavery in Egypt to freedom, that God had guided them through years of wandering in the dessert, and eventually gave them to a home to call their own. Each item in the Passover meal jogs their memories of God’s saving acts and faithful presence in the past, to remind them that God will continue to be faithful, no matter what the future year holds.

This is the reason why strawberry Jell-O is actually more than just strawberry Jell-O. And bread is more than just bread and wine is more than just wine Like common Jell-O, here is nothing inherently special about bread and wine. Just walk down the bread aisle at ACME or GIANT sometime. There may be more varieties NOW than were available to Jesus, but really, bread still is just bread and wine is still just wine, no matter where you are. Like a package of Jell-O, neither are hard to find. They are common, familiar, everyday things, nowhere near on par with extraordinary.

And yet, God chooses the ordinary over the extraordinary, the common over the rare, the everyday and familiar over the exceptional - every time. God has a habit of taking what is ordinary in the eyes of the world and making it into something holy, special, set apart for a sacred reason.

Jesus embodied this during his lifetime, and that’s what got him into trouble. Jesus was always hanging out and eating with all the “wrong” kinds of people: lepers, Roman centurions, the demon-possessed, women at wells, children, foreigners, the blind, and the lame – all people who were on the outside of power and status. Jesus chose to be with them, just ordinary folks, rather than to hang out in the halls of power and influence. And in doing this, he showed that God was for THEM too.

But there were those in power in Jesus’ time who could not abide the thought that God welcoming everybody, that God would use ordinary people and ordinary things for God’s holy and sacred purposes. Jesus’ message of God’s extraordinary love for ordinary people threatened the established and excepted order. Therefore, naturally, Jesus and all that he stood for must be destroyed. And they would do so by any means necessary, even if it meant using one from his own inner circle, Judas, to betray him.

But that didn’t stop Jesus, not even for a second. Jesus came to show the world that God’s extreme love does extend to everyone, that God’s extreme welcome brings everyone to the table. Just look around at the people who are Jesus’ closest friends, the people he chose to spend his last meal with: common working men who didn’t always understand him, political zealots and hot-heads, those who would later desert him, one who would later deny him, and one would hand him over to death. And yet, there they all are, sitting around the table with Jesus, sharing a meal together.

And I ask you this night, to look around, to see who is gathered around this table. As Lutheran Pastor and writer Nadia Boltz-Weber (in her book Pastrix) often says about her own congregation: “I am unclear about what all these people have in common.” It just doesn’t seem to make any sense. Except, of course, that we know that it is Jesus who has brought us all here to this table of welcome: young and old, rich and poor, children and parents, liars and deniers and betrayers, imperfect people all. All brought to this meal because of Jesus. All are welcome at God’s table.

That night that Jesus shared his last meal with his closest friends, as they sat down to break bread as they had always done, they were expecting this night to be like all the others. They did not know that with them Jesus was making a memory – one that will be passed on, remembered throughout the ages, remembered again tonight.

That night, Jesus took ordinary bread and ordinary wine and gave it to ordinary people, and something extraordinary happened.

Jesus makes a promise with us with eating and drinking, an activity that unites all of humanity to meet a most human need – our need for sustenance, our need for life. We may eat to live and keep our bodies alive and healthy, but through Jesus’ broken body and blood poured we are given life in God’s Kingdom, where Jesus is giving us a place.

Jesus promised to be present with us in the sharing of bread and wine. And this he does boldly, while sin and betrayal and fear are sitting right there with him at the table. Jesus breaks a loaf of bread and shares it with his friends, just hours before his body is to be broken on the cross. Jesus then shares a cup of wine, just hours before his blood pours forth from his wounds, caused by flogging and splinters and nails.

We don’t have to understand it. In fact, most days we won’t be able to wrap our minds around it. But we remember it, believe it, trust it, and grasp it tightly and do not let go. We reach out our hands and receive it – the body of Christ, broken for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you.

You and me, who are sometimes Peter and sometimes Judas, and sometimes the rest of the disciples, asleep on the job or running the other direction in fear. But still, always welcome.

Pastor Rozella Haydee White wrote in the Free Indeed Lent Devotional that the ELCA published for Lent year, “In a world that divides things into sacred and secular, Christianity offers an alternative, one that has the power to bring about restoration… by choosing to become human, God shows us that we are worth restoring.”

In our world of violence and fear, of division and indifference, of tight schedules and frazzled nerves, our God comes to us in a way that we can see and touch and taste. How amazing is that? And together this night we

break bread,


and remember

that Jesus is here with us. Today we remember the goodness of the Lord, as we look ahead to tomorrow, that Friday that we call good. Amen.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Hosannas and Rejected Stones

4-9-17 Palm Sunday
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

Welcome to Holy Week, where up is down, and down is up. Where a crowd shouts “Hosannas” one minute and “Crucify him!” the next. Where bread becomes Jesus’ body and wine becomes his blood. Where a king is killed for not being the right kind of king. Where a criminal walks free and an innocent man dies. Where disciples deny and run away scared and women and soldiers stand witness at the death of Jesus.

This is it. We made it. This week is what the forty days of Lent have been leading up to, the most important week of the Church calendar. This is why we wear purple: the color Jesus wore to be mocked, the color of royalty and bruises. We are about to enter a week where time gets wibbly-wobbly and hours in the life of Jesus stretch out. We are about to enter a week of reversals and transformation: where enemies become allies against Jesus, where a rejected stone becomes the central foundation block, where an instrument of torture and death becomes the very way we are rescued from death.
By artist He Qi

This week begins… with a parade. Jesus comes down the road into Jerusalem, like kings of old, riding a colt and surrounded by his disciples laying their cloaks before him like a royal procession. They are filled with amazement for all Jesus was doing, preaching sermons that are both challenging to the status quo and uplifting for those who are without hope, for his choosing a Samaritan woman to be his evangelist, and for healing a man born blind. So, the people, filled with hope, cry out along the parade route, “Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Now, the last time we heard those same words wasn’t all that long ago, back in December - when the sky was filled with a multitude of the heavenly host, appearing to some shepherds late at night. These poor shepherds, scared out of their wits, witnessed the first proclamation of the good news of great joy for all the people, the birth of a savior, a messiah, the Lord. That night, the sky was filled with the shouts of angels: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”

THAT night, Christmas night, shepherds bore witness to the arrival of God’s glory being birthed into the world. On THIS day, Palm Sunday, Jesus’s followers are the ones shouting for joy, heralding the time has come, the king has come, to bring peace to heaven and earth.
But not everyone is shouting for joy. The Pharisees, too, have seen these deeds of power that Jesus has done, and they are WORRIED. They asked Jesus, “By what authority are YOU doing these things, and who gave YOU this authority?”

They were worried about this upstart preacher man from Galilee, who won’t play ball and give them a straight answer, a teacher who teaches that God is for the meek, poor in spirit, AND that “shady people” like prostitutes and tax collectors are getting into the kingdom before properly religious people like themselves.  This Jesus person was acting too much like a new kind of Moses, freeing people under a new law of love come down from God THIS TIME in the form of a person, not ten rules on a stone tablet.

And they were absolutely RIGHT to be worried. The Jewish people at this time were under the oppressive thumb of Rome. Whose idea of peace was subduing the people with threats, violence, might of the sword, and death by crucifixion. You don’t mess WITH ROME. Especially by proclaiming that there is another kind of peace out there, another kind of king, another Lord who rules heaven and earth, one that is NOT ROME

So, it makes sense that the advice of the Pharisees to Jesus is for everybody to just chill out, man. Put a lid on it, people. “Ix-Nay on the Osanna-Heys.”

 “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” comes from Psalm 118, verse 26. Jesus quotes from the same psalm to the Pharisees: “22The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. 23This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”

What if what Jesus saying is true? What if the “one who comes in the name of the Lord” says that the Lord is for everyone? What if the people we think of as the “wrong kind of people,” people who are marginalized by societies and nations, are getting into the kingdom of God ahead of us? People like refugees refused entry into this country, people like trangeder kids who don’t feel safe using a public restroom, people like the homeless, those suffering from mental illness, welfare moms and drag queens, the powerless and trampled on? What if the likes of these are first in line in the kingdom?

A Kingdom of POWER, MIGHT, and RIGHT makes sense to us. A hard stone with rules come down from the mountain makes sense to us. Bombing our enemies and making them suffer, instead of welcoming innocent victims into our borders, in the name of “safety” for ourselves, that obviously makes sense to us.

A king who empties himself of his divine and cosmic power does not make sense. A ruler who was rejected in order to save the dejected does not make sense to us. And yet, here Jesus is – on a donkey, then on a cross.

Up is down and down is up. Enemies – the Romans and the Pharisees – team up and become allies to get rid of Jesus. Time is suspended and stretched. The King of the universe comes to die. This king that we welcome, we then abandon and reject. We reject this king, but he becomes the stone on which our very hope is built.

For those us already broken, and in pieces, this is good news. Peter, our favorite “open-mouth-insert-foot” disciple, the same who denied Jesus three times, his very names means “Rock” or stone. And this rock – Peter - would later write about Jesus as a living rock, a living stone, rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight. He says that we are God’s own people, living stones, stones that are at the same time dead and alive. Peter tells us, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (I Peter 2:10-12)

Down is up and up is down. Welcome to the week we consider the most holy of the entire year. And it starts right now.

Please join us on this road through Holy Week, through the festival of the Three days, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Come and see what this week has in store:

Come and see Jesus, who comes in the name of the Lord, as he rides on to face his death.

Come and see Jesus, surrounded by people who cheer him on – for now.

Come and see Jesus, who eats his last meal with those who betray, deny, and abandoned him.

Come and see Jesus, who did not resist when he was mocked, beaten, and nailed to a cross.

Come and see Jesus, who was hastily laid in a borrowed tomb.

Then, come and see, three days later, a stone that has been moved,

a grave with no body,

and death that has been turned upside down, transformed into eternal life. Amen.

Monday, April 3, 2017

We Wait for the Lord

Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

Yikes. Are you feeling the burn? Yet another marathon-length reading from the Gospel of John, our fourth in five weeks.  Even though it’s the year of Matthew’s gospel, during Lent we are treated to a Gospel of John mini-series. So it might be good to do a little re-cap, to review of all the interesting characters that Jesus has met this “season.”

“Previously in the gospel of John,” or on what we could call, “How I Met our Savior”: Jesus had a late-night meeting with perplexed Nicodemus the Pharisee. Next, Jesus talked to the woman at the well, victim-of-gossip turned town evangelist.  Last week Jesus healed a man born blind and created a giant controversy for the whole community. And today, for this last Sunday before Palm Sunday, the season finale, his greatest accomplishment to date: raising Lazarus from the dead. Well, really, for John it would be more like a mid-season finale, because this story is only the half-way mark in the gospel, right in the middle of John’s 21 total chapters. in more ways than one, this story is central to the Gospel of John.

This is the watershed moment that sets into motion the events that we will be remembering during Holy Week – Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. It is, according to John, the incident that begins the conspiracy by the religious leaders to end Jesus’ life. In John, by raising Lazarus, Jesus is signing his own death warrant.

Jesus had become practically part of the family of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Lazarus was near death, and so they called on the one person in the world that they believed and hoped could help – their friend Jesus. Only Jesus didn’t come right away. He didn’t arrive in town until it was much too late, when Lazarus had been dead for four days. What was Jesus thinking?

Both Mary and Martha, in their grief and sorrow, lay this heart-piercing statement at Jesus’ feet: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Buried in that statement is an accusation: “So, where were you, Lord?” I imagine they were furious with grief. From their point of view, while Lazarus was alive, somethinganything - could have been done. He could have been healed. But now? By the time Jesus actually gets there, it’s too little, too late. Death, after all, is final. Death is the one thing we cannot escape.  

Where were you, Lord, they seem to ask, when Lazarus was on death’s door? Where were you Lord, while we waited for you? Where were you, Lord, as we sat by his side as he took his dying breath? Where were you Lord, when we buried his body in the dark, cold tomb? Where were you, Lord?

Martha and Mary say out loud what many of us might be thinking. We may be sitting in our own kinds of dark tombs at the moment.  Tombs that are dark and smell like death. Lord, if you had been there…. We wouldn’t have lost that job, the bills wouldn’t be piling up… Lord, if you had been there, we would not have gotten that cancer diagnoses, or had a tough time with that round of chemo. Lord, if you had been there, gun shootings would not happen and people would not die at the hands of violent people. Lord, if you had been there, our grandkids would still be going coming to church and the future would not seem so scary….

The Psalmist who wrote Psalm 130 puts words to what is in our hearts while we wait in these tombs – out of the depths we cry to the Lord, and we wait for an answer with our very souls, with every fiber of our beings.

Lord if you had been there, our world would not seem so dark and full of death, filling in the news we hear every day. Lord, of you had been there, we would not have to wait here in the darkness of our tombs.

Hospital waiting rooms seem to have a tomb-like feel to them, don’t they? Especially if you have ever waited all day or all night in one of them. When I lived in NJ, I also worked as a part time chaplain at the local hospital, which included a weekly overnight on-call shift. 

Because of the wonders of technology, I didn’t have to stay at the hospital all night – the ER could call me on my cell phone if there was an emergency. So, from 8 PM to 8 AM on Thursday nights into Friday mornings, I kept my phone by my side at all times, and slept with one ear open, waiting and listening for the sound of that special ring I set for the hospital number. When the morning came and my clock showed 8 AM, I would thank God for another quiet night.

But not every night was this way. One night it rang at about 12:30 AM, for the family of a woman who was fine one minute, and in cardiac arrest the next. For the next 5 hours, I sat with that family in the hospital waiting room, waiting for what would happen next, then waiting to hear that she would not recover, then waiting for the last family members to arrive to be present for her last breath… waiting for the sun to rise on the first morning that family would face without their beloved wife, mother, and grandmother.  

Another night I was called, and I arrived after a woman had died, and her husband and her adult children stayed at her side and continued to gently and lovingly touch her face and her hair. They rubbed her hands with scented lotion and brought a little humanity to their loved one in that cold and sterile emergency room cubicle.

I’ve been on the flip side too, waiting all day in a waiting room subsisting on prayers, uncomfortable chairs, and mediocre coffee for hours at a time, just last year while my Dad was in surgery. We waited in a couple different waiting rooms, drank the coffee, sat in the chairs, ate the hospital food, waiting for the surgery to be over, and then waiting to visit my dad afterward. The outcome of our waiting was a good one, of course, but I know first-hand that it is not always true in every case. Where are you Lord, when the news is not good, and the on-call chaplain needs to be called in? Where are you Lord, when the night is dark, and it seems like the dawn will never come?

At the beginning of the Gospel of John, there is a poem about light and darkness. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God… what came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people… the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … and the word became flesh and lived among us.”

Mary and Martha spoke face-to-face with the flesh and blood son of God. They were speaking with Jesus, the man who walked and talked, and taught and healed. Jesus, who got thirsty, and who felt sadness, pain, and rejection. And who wept with anger and sadness as his heart was breaking over the death of his friend Lazarus and the pain it caused his friends. Jesus, who broke down and cried.

How unbelievable, how daring, how incredible of Jesus to then shout at the cold, dead tomb: Lazarus, come out!

Until, that is, Lazarus, did just that.

Lazarus lives.

“Where were you, Lord?” We ask. He is there, in our tomb with us. He is God with skin and a face, and has experience all that we have experienced, even the dark dead tomb of Good Friday.

He is also there, calling us out of the tomb. He is there, calling the light of life out of the darkness of death, just as he did that day at Lazarus’ tomb. Even though it will cost Jesus his life.

Lazarus died again, eventually. Every one of us will have laying in real tombs someday. Everything around us may die away and change into until the world becomes strange and unrecognizable. Even Jesus was given into the power of death and the grave, and was shut away in a cold, dark tomb for three days.

But Jesus lives.

After waiting for three days, other Marys who followed Jesus discovered that this place of death now stood empty. The dark night was over, and the light of dawn had arrived.
Death does not win the day. Because we believe and hope and trust in the one who is the Resurrection and the Life, we can look through death to see the coming life that is emerging, like sun after a long day of hard rain.

It is true that death, and tombs, and waiting is always present in our lives, and Good Friday is on its way,

But after that, always comes Easter and Resurrection and Life. AMEN. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

Mud in our Eye

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Congratulations on making it through another long and memorable story from the Gospel of John! Though I should warn you that we aren’t quite out of the woods yet. We have one more reading from John this Lent, though I promise you that this is the longest reading from John we have. And John is not all that easy to get through sometimes. John is full of double meanings and conversations happening on many levels at the same time, enough to make your head spin.  John likes to speak in code, which we’ve already seen much of this at work already, with Nicodemus and the woman at the well. Nicodemus talks to Jesus in the dark, Jesus meets the woman in the light. Nicodemus struggles to believe, while the woman at the well gets her WHOLE TOWN to believe. For John, those who don’t believe in Jesus are in darkness, and those who do are in the light.

So it is for most of scripture – God created light, and it was good. Those who walk in darkness have seen a great light. Jesus is the light of the world. The darkness shall not overcome it. The dark is full of the unknown. Scary things happen in the dark.

But does darkness and night deserve this kind of reputation of so much fear and avoidance? Pastor turned Seminary professor and writer Barbara Brown Taylor doesn’t think so. She embarked on a project to explore our complicated relationship with darkness, to prove that darkness and night have value. In her exploration, she has done a lot of adventurous things. She sat in a cave all by herself with no lights. She ate at a restaurant in Germany that serves their food in the dark. She even went to a completely dark exhibit in Atlanta that imitates what life is like for a person who is blind.

 She and a group of sighted people were led through a life-like simulation by a person who is blind in real life. They crossed a fake street with real traffic sounds, navigated through rooms, and all the while running into walls and bumping into each other. When Dr. Taylor ran into the man in front of her, she “did not know if he was old or young, white or black, pleasant to look at or not.” She had no visual information to judge him, or any of the other people stumbling along in this terrifying new world of noise and darkness and pretend danger. She only knew that he probably felt just as lost as she did. This experience left her with a question: how is it that seeing makes us blind?

Jesus had just finished teaching in the temple, and he and his disciples were walking along the road, when they came upon a man who had been born blind. The man existed outside of his community because of his disability, and he might have been begging along the road to support himself. When the disciples saw this man, they instantly judged him and his parents as sinners. Surely someone is to blame for this man’s blindness. In their minds, his disability was an outward sign that someone did something wrong, and this man was being punished for it. Therefore, this man was pushed to the margins of his community. To many, this man was invisible.

But Jesus did something that the disciples didn’t expect. Jesus refused to participate in the accepted culture of victim-blaming. Instead, Jesus saw the man with something more than just his eyes. He saw him through the eyes of God, the one who sent him, and viewed him as a created child of God, worthy of his attention and love, instead of judgment and rejection.

What did this man DO to EARN Jesus’ attention and healing that day? This man didn’t have extra strong faith. This man didn’t “pray hard enough.” He didn’t do extra community service or was an “extra good person.” He was in need. He was on the outside. And Jesus found him.

This is what Jesus is in the habit of doing – finding people on the outside of the rules that we are so good at creating for ourselves. Those of us who are able to see rely – perhaps too much – on the visual. We are really good at making judgments about what’s on the outside – skin color, biological gender, difference in dress because of religion, cultural values or economic status, weight, height, athletic ability, physical differences or visible disabilities.

We are really, really good at finding ways to separate ourselves from other people, making divisions between one another, whether physical or emotional walls, fences, or barriers. And once we are divided, we can judge and weight the importance and worth of US verse THEM. THEY do things because they are lazy, less smart, or loved less by God because of what we perceive as their deficiencies.

I recently saw a picture on Facebook that shows a group of people with pencils drawing lines between each other, and Jesus following right behind with his eraser, erasing all the lines. Because that’s what Jesus is actually all about. Erasing the lines we have drawn between one another. When we make lines and rules to keep people out, Jesus is always with the people on the outside. Which makes the people who are the ones drawing the lines very angry.

Case in point – just in case you were thinking that surely Good Protestants like us were beyond such things. This last week at Princeton Seminary, affiliated with a branch of the Presbyterian church, it was announced that a well-known preacher named Tim Keller was to receive a prestigious award. There was one problem though. Princeton Seminary represents a branch of Protestantism that affirms the ordination of women and also those who are part of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, as does our own denomination, the ELCA. The Reverend Tim Keller does not. When a public outcry came from both current students and alumni, the seminary decided to rescind the award but still allow Keller to speak. The most surprising thing, though, was the counter-outcry that came from some male heterosexual pastors, who minimized the legitimate calling of women and whose who identify as part of the LGBT community. Their pencils were sharp and full of lead, ready to redo the lines that Gospel has erased, blind to the inclusive power of the message of Jesus.

The man born blind in today’s story had not sinned, but the sin of the Pharisees and those in power trying to stop Jesus made them blind. And what was that sin? It was the certainty of the Pharisees that God was on THEIR side – the side of rules, walls, and dividing lines.
In their minds, Jesus was doing this Messiah business ALL WRONG. He healed the wrong person – a blind beggar. Jesus healed on the wrong day – on the sabbath, the day that no “work” was to be done. Jesus hung out with all the wrong people – women at wells, fishermen and tax collectors, revolutionaries, and outsiders. Jesus was doing this “God thing all wrong.” And so, Jesus must be stopped. The people in power got angry too. Angry enough to take matters into their own hands. This made them blind to all the amazing things that God was doing in their midst.

“How has seeing made US blind?” as Barbara Brown Taylor asks. How have WE too missed out on what is God is doing in OUR midst? How have we missed seeing Jesus at work because he uses people we don’t expect?

In fact, could God be doing amazing things in our midst RIGHT NOW, just as we are?
We may look around at ourselves and think what we see not enough for God to use. We may feel like we are on the outside, looking in, compared to others. We may look around and feel like we are incomplete as we are and not fit to be useful for God’s kingdom. Right now – TODAY -  Jesus sticks mud in our eyes and washes us in the pool called Sent, revealing to us that we are worthy to be claimed as part of God’s family and worthy of doing God’s work. NOT when we are more of this and less of that. But right now. So, we go out following Jesus’ lead – erasing the lines, breaking the walls, ripping up the fences that come between us and those the world says are not worth our notice.

Like Jesus, you are the light of the world. But you are also the erasers of the world, too. Amen.