Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Sunday After Easter: Storybook Sunday!!!

Sermon 4-8-18

Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

For us, Easter happened one full week ago. A lot has happened in a week, hasn’t it? You probably have eaten the rest of you Easter candy, wrapped up spring break, and have gone back to our “regular scheduled” lives… probably wishing for spring to come. Meanwhile, here in the church, it is the Second Sunday of Easter… that’s right, Easter is not just a day – it’s season that is seven weeks long. A week after Easter, WE are still wearing white, and we are still shouting ALLELUIA!!

A week may have passed for us in “real time,” but for the disciples, Jesus shows up here for the first time during the first part of the original Easter day. So, where did Jesus find them on the evening that he had risen from the dead? On the highways and byways of Judea, spreading the good news?

Nope. In a secure room with the door locked.

And a week later, when they had eight whole days to live into the glorious experience that Jesus had appeared to them and had sent his blessing with them… surely THEN they were out and about, sharing the good news…. NOW… right?

Nope, locked up again.

The disciples might have heard and believed what the women had to say about the empty tomb… but did they believe and understand that Jesus was giving them his peace… so that they could be SENT OUT, just like Jesus has been SENT OUT to spread the good news that is the undying love of God for all people?

It's the second Sunday of Easter. What are we going to do? What would that look like? What COULD that look like?

Let’s try something a little different that what we normally do. I am going to tell you a story about another young woman who went out on a mission to share something amazing with others.

This story is from a book called ….. Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett.  


The archduke wanted to keep the yarn away, locked up, only for himself, didn’t he? But Annabelle wanted to share it. And because she kept sharing it, the yarn keeps growing until it covers everything. I wonder… will it eventually reach across the sea and cover the archduke’s castle? I would like to think that eventually it does. Everybody gets a sweater (or hat) … and I would like to think that even the Archduke finally gets one.

Because we all have a little bit of the Archduke in us. But even though we try to keep the love of God “safe” for our own keeping in locked rooms- out of fear, out of self-centeredness, out of desire for control – like the beautiful yarn, this resurrected life won’t be contained. It won’t be confined for one person, in a locked box. It won’t be contained in one single Easter morning, either. New life is going to get out, to spill over into seven whole weeks and beyond. New life is going to cover you like a multi-colored sweater in a grey world.

Are you ready to get out your knitting needles? I hope so. Because new life and extra yarn are coming our way. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

April Fools: God is Dead Serious About Life

4-1-18 Easter Sunday (reading from Mark)

Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Risen Lord and savior Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Did you noticed something odd about the end of the gospel reading? Take a closer look at it. Did you hear the end and think… “wait, Pastor Lydia, that CAN’T be where the reading ends? Surely there must be some mistake! Are you pulling an April Fool’s joke on us?”

I promise you it’s not a mistake, and I’m not playing an April Fool’s joke. This is EXACTLY how our most original version of the Gospel of Mark ends: “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” THE END. Mic drop.


If it’s not a mistake in the bulletin… and I’m NOT an April fool’s joke on all of you…. then, what is going on here? Is Mark pulling the biggest April Fool’s joke ever…. A joke so big that it ended up in the BIBLE??? Now THAT would be pretty epic, wouldn’t it? It would certainly be one of the best April Fool’sjokes in all of history… right up there with the 1976 planetary alignment that claimed to briefly reduce Earth’s gravity, the Swedish Spaghetti Tree Hoax, and the left-handed Whopper.

I can see the headlines now… “Earliest Copy of the Gospel of Mark Found…. Gospel ends with... “Haha, just kidding you guys.  You should have seen your FACES!!!”

But no. We just have THIS ending. No post-resurrection Jesus. No telling of the good news. No big resurrection appearances, walking through walls, or any kind of nice, neat resolution.

What a big letdown. “You mean…. I got out of bed…. all dressed up in my Easter best…. Got myself to church, with all the flowers and alleluias…. For this???” Worst ending ever.

Well, you’re not wrong. It IS the worst ending ever… if you’re in with the devil. It IS the worst ending ever… if you’re on the side of injustice and domination. It is the worst ending ever if you think that death has won… because … the joke really IS on you.

Because April Fools! Christ is RISEN!! (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!)

In fact, Jesus’ life was just one big joke on the expectations of the world. Just a few short months ago, we were singing “Joy to the World” and welcoming Jesus as a baby at Christmas. It’s not hard to imagine how Jesus’ birth announcement went down - With the angel surprising Mary, and saying something to the effect of: “Yo, Mary, I know you you’re a virgin, and you’re not married, but hey – you’re going to get pregnant and give birth, to the son of God no less!” With Mary looking around, going, “Yeah right, get real…. Am I on Candid Camera?” Most likely Joseph also hoped that the angel was joking when he got eventually the news.

And when Mary went into labor, they both probably thought it was a cruel trick of fate, since they were traveling and there were no vacancies in Bethlehem that night. And then wondered why the angels had sent the first news that the son of God had been born, to shepherds on the night shift, and not… you know, actual important people.

The wise men must have felt the same way later, as they arrived at the king’s palace in the capitol Jerusalem – “what do you mean, King Herod, that the newborn king isn’t HERE? Surely you must be joking.” And later, once they were on the right track, how foolish it must have felt for them to arrive all in state with fine gifts… to a humble house with a poor peasant toddler and his mom.

And when Jesus grew up, he kept at these antics.  Who would Jesus call to be in his inner circle of followers? The educated, the powerful, the wealthy? April Fools! It’s fishermen, tax collectors, and working stiffs who flunked out of rabbi school!

And who does the Son of God choose to spend most of his time with? Statesmen, rabbis, priests, and other people with power and influence? Nope again – Jesus hangs out mostly with the sick, with women and children – healing, feeding, and teaching people that the love of God is for ALL… not just for some. April Fools!

Are you sensing a pattern here?

But there were some in power who thought this was not funny anymore, that the joke had gone too far. It might have been cute and amusing at first – the nobody from nowhere preaching about God’s love to the outcast and hopeless - but joke needed to end. So, they chose to end the life of the jokester who was causing all this ruckus in the first place.

That last week of Jesus’ life we call Holy Week, which began last week with Palm Sunday, must have felt like one big nightmarish April Fool’s joke on Jesus’s disciples. It started well - after they came into Jerusalem on Sunday to a parade - but the week took an unexpected turn on Thursday. That night, Jesus passes around bread and wine and says strange things like “This is my body, and this is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” The disciples wait for Jesus to say, “That’s bananas! April Fools!” But it never comes. Because Jesus is not fooling around here, not with the forgiveness of sins.

After supper, Jesus tells them that one will betray him, and the rest will deny and abandon him. Again, the disciples protest that this too, must be a joke. Only Jesus is not fooling here, either – not with facing betrayal and suffering.

And perhaps, even when Jesus was dying on the cross on Good Friday, the women disciples who DID remain with him must have thought – “This is GOD’S SON. … surely Jesus will come down from the cross in a great show of his power … surely an angel army will come to the rescue…. Surely this has to be a joke, because Jesus can’t possibly have meant it when he told us that he was going to die.” Only, Jesus wasn’t fooling this time… especially not this time, especially not with facing death and the grave.

So, for these same women, to have arrived at the tomb early that Sunday morning, only to find that – April Fools! Jesus is not dead, but alive! – it must have seemed too good to be true. They must have thought someone was playing a trick on THEM. Their joy at the news utterly terrified them… and so they said nothing to anyone.   


Or did they?

April Fools!

The Gospel of Mark would not exist if these women had not – eventually – told someone. We would not have a New Testament of they had not – eventually – shared with Peter and the rest of the disciples. WE WOULD NOT BE HERE today, Easter Sunday, April Fool’s Day 2018, if they had not – eventually – shared the good news.

God DID play the best trick of all time… on death, the devil, and the powers of evil.
April Fools, death doesn’t have the last word anymore!

April Fools, the powers of evil and might in the world are going to LOSE!

April Fools, the king of the universe gave us his life so that we may be delivered from death and the grave!

April Fools, new life is happening everywhere we look! Even when we least expect it. ESPECIALLY when we least expect it.

And we WILL see him, in places where we expect to see sadness and death… like after a Good Friday service, when one of the thorns from our “Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Good Friday Service” … was discovered to have a small bud on it. April fools, new life is happening!

This last week we SAW, HEARD, and TASTED how the Lord is good. Today, and every day to come, we will HEAR and SEE the goodness of this new life coming into our lives.
But the joke is on US if we think that the story actually ENDS here, at the conclusion of Mark’ Gospel. God’s story… OUR story, does not. It keeps going. Life happens. 

Resurrection happens. And not JUST TODAY either… April Fools! Easter isn’t just a day, it is a season. 50 days long in fact… much longer than the season of Lent. As it turns out, God is dead serious about life.

Christ is Risen! (He is risen…)

Thanks be to God! Amen.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Good Friday

3-30-18 Good Friday
This is the brief meditation before experiencing "The Sights, Sounds, and Smells of Good Friday."

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts by acceptable in your sight, O Christ our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Tonight, things will go a little bit differently than you might have experienced before.

The story hasn’t changed. Last night was Maundy Thursday, when Jesus broke bread with his disciples in his last meal before his death… men who would later betray, deny, and abandon him. Jesus broke bread, and shared a cup of wine with them, creating our sacrament of holy communion. In the garden of Gethsemane, he prayed in agitation and dread of this very day. His closest friends could not keep awake with him, and later deserted him altogether. His betrayer, Judas, is about to hand him over to religious leaders who sought his death. These chief priests and scribes, in turn, will him over to their Roman oppressors, who in the end were all too willing to put him on a cross.

From that cross, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus calls out from the beginning of Psalm 22, which we read together just a moment ago. “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Last night the altar was stripped and laid bare, just as Jesus was stripped of all support and comfort. Jesus was left to face death alone. Here was a man, abandoned by his closest friends, abandoned by the rule of law, abandoned even by his God.

That is why we call this day “Good Friday.” Today was not good for Jesus. But it was good for the whole world…. good even for the disciples who ran away and are hiding. Good even for Peter who denied Jesus. Good for the women, who stood near the cross and later stood outside the tomb in hopelessness, waiting for a Sunday they didn’t yet know was coming. Good for us, gathered here tonight, as we enter the story in a new way.

The details are part of the same account we remember every year. This time, however, we will take the time to examine each part of description of Jesus’s suffering and death. We will enter the story will all of our senses – last night we tasted the bread and wine. Tonight, we hear, see, smell, and touch. Because this isn’t just a record of something that happened a long time ago. This is a story that we are a part of too. This is a story that still means something to us, two thousand years after it happened. It is a story to take home with you, just as you will be taking items home with you - to keep in mind that Good Friday is more than just remembering how much Jesus suffered before he died. It’s about all the ways that we get to share in the story too.

We begin the account of Good Friday from John’s Gospel, just after Jesus and his disciples have finished sharing the Passover meal. There will be lots of times for silence and reflection… which may be uncomfortable at times. And that’s ok. And we will be leaving here tonight in silence as well, because our service of the holiest three days of the year isn’t over. Though, this night Jesus is in the tomb, he does not stay there. Sunday is coming. And so is the dawn. Amen.

Some of the items that people took home with

Maundy Thursday: Taste and See that the Lord is Good.

3-29-18 Maundy Thursday

Grace to you and Peace from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

If you have been coming here to Family of God in the last few weeks, you might have noticed that something here has changed. When I arrived here as your pastor over a year and some change ago, our tradition of Holy Communion in our worship services was the first and third Sundays of the month, including festival Sundays. Starting at the beginning of Lent, however, we have made a bit of a shift. Since then, we have had communion every single Sunday, and the plan is to continue for every week, from now until Jesus comes back and tells us to stop. Have you noticed?

Something else launched in Lent too. Nate Karpinski started his first communion instruction, which will culminate in his first communion on April 8th. But this was no ordinary first communion class. And, though he will be the only one receiving communion for the first time on the 8th, he did not come to these classes alone. The whole congregation was invited in these conversations to learn too – with fellowship, food, and maybe just a little fun.

On these nights at the local Panera – whose name, by the way, includes the old Latin word for bread – we read part of the very passage we heard from Mark this evening: the night that Jesus created our sacrament of Holy Communion.

Now, do you remember what a sacrament is? Think back - choose a time machine of your choice – TARDIS, DeLorian, Cosmic Treadmill, or Time Turner – and hop back to your own first communion class. You might recall that a sacrament is a fancy name for how Jesus promises to be present with us. Some kinds of Christians have a LOT of sacraments… but we only have two: Baptism and Holy Communion. One happens at the very start of our lives in faith, and the other keeps us going as we walk the way of following Jesus every day.

Why do we Lutherans only two? Well, this is what we learned over our soup and bread at Panera: for Martin Luther, a sacrament needs to check off 3 boxes:

1.     It is something that Jesus commanded us to do.
2.     It uses something physical and earthly thing we can touch.
3.     It gives us God’s love, forgiveness, and grace.

How does Holy Communion fulfill all these criteria? There is bread and wine…Jesus told us to do this in remembrance of him… and his body and blood was given for the forgiveness of our sins.

On this night we go back to the reason we gather around the table every week with bread and wine, to that night in the upper room …where Jesus chose to spend his last meal with his twelve followers. Men who would later betray him, deny him, fail in keeping vigil with him, and desert him completely.

But they were still there with him that night -  invited, welcomed… and loved by Jesus, enough to break bread and share the cup with him one last time before his suffering, humiliation, and death.

Jesus knew what was to come – that soon he would suffer, die, be raised… and then leave us. So, he wanted to give his disciples, and us, the promise that he will always be with us, no matter what. And so, with items that can be found anywhere – bread and wine – we are reminded that we are forgiven and sustained in this life, no matter how often we fail at following Jesus.

We are invited to the Lord’s table, tonight and every Sunday – we who are betrayers, deniers, and deserters of Jesus, too. We are all in need of forgiveness for all the times we fall short – in all the ways we hurt one another and work against God’s justice. It’s really tempting to think that by our own strength and will we would follow Jesus no matter what, even to death. But the disciples couldn’t do it… and neither an we. We need help.

Before receiving communion, Martin Luther prayed this prayer: “My Lord Christ, I have fallen… For this purpose, you have instituted the sacrament… that we may be helped. Therefore, I am to receive it. … I come now to be helped.”

During one of our gatherings at Panera, we wrote our own prayers in small groups. One of the prayers we wrote says this: “Jesus, thank you for all that you provide for us. Help me to share your love with others.” As food helps to strengthen our bodies, Jesus’ presence with us in Holy Communion helps to strengthen us in our living while following Jesus. And in turn, we share the love of Jesus with others to help and strengthen our neighbors. And I don’t know about you, but I could use a reminder of this promise every chance I can get.

As often as possible I could use the reminder that Jesus loves ME, that he is body was broken and his blood was shed FOR ME, that he died FOR ME….  to SHOW ME that I am worthy of love…. I AM worthy of freedom from sin….and I AM worthy to be called a follower of Jesus and to be the hands and feet of Jesus’ love in the world.

I need the reminder as often as I can get – because I am so forgetful. I need to hear these words over and over again, because no matter how many times I hear them, they never get old or wear out. Just like hearing the words “I love you” never get old or lose their meaning either.

Our travels through the season of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, which was also on Valentine’s Day this year. The two themes of February 14th this year seemed to clash – a day of Love and a day of Repentance…. A day full of red hearts and a day of dusty crosses. But perhaps they had more in common than we think, though it might have taken until tonight to fully understand why that is. This is Holy Week, and this night is where our many weeks of Lent have been leading. When Jesus gathered to share a meal one last time with his friends. When Jesus gave the gift of his body and blood and eternal presence. … a gift given for you and for me to receive in the here and now.

Every time you come forward with hands outstretched to receive this gift, you are getting Jesus – called by name as a child of God. In just a little while, we will hear these words again, and we will come forward to receive: the body of Christ, given for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you. Every time we gather at the Lord’s table to receive the bite of wafer and the sip of wine, we get just a small taste of the great victory feast that God is preparing for us.

Tonight, though, Jesus looks the opposite of victorious. Judas has betrayed him, the disciples have abandoned him, Peter is about to deny him, and he is about to face false accusations and a smear campaign on the way to being handed over to be crucified. In a few minutes we will hear the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” – which Jesus quotes from the cross later in Mark’s Gospel – while the altar is stripped of everything on it…. Just as Jesus was left completely abandoned and vulnerable before the powers of might and death that rule over the world. And we will leave this place in silence, without a benediction, because our service of these three holy days continues tomorrow night on Good Friday.

But tonight, we also taste and see that the Lord is GOOD. And tomorrow we will SEE and HEAR and SMELL all the ways that the Friday we call Good is good for US. And we also know that, today might be Thursday… and though night has fallen…. Sunday is coming. And so is the dawn. Amen.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Holy Week in the Room(s) - and Tomb - Where It Happens.

Sermon 3-25-18 – Palm Sunday Year B

Mark 14:1-9 (The woman anoints Jesus at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany) 

Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Sometimes the right music helps to get me into the right mindset. And nothing quite gets me in the mood for Holy Week… than Jesus Christ Superstar. If you know that musical, you are already hearing that epic guitar riff at the start (Yes, I did make the guitar noises) … but it’s not Jesus or even Peter who sings first…it’s Judas. The show starts on the eve of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Judas begins to question the direction of this whole Jesus movement. Judas sees the direction that this was all likely to go – downhill fast, likely resulting in a clash with the powers-that-be: a clash that they will almost certainly LOSE. Judas sees the writing on the wall, and sing, “Listen, Jesus, do you care for your race? Don't you see we must keep in our place? We are occupied! Have you forgotten how put down we are? I am frightened by the crowd, for we are getting much too loud. And they'll crush us if we go too far.”

If you think about it, Judas gets all the best songs in Jesus Christ Superstar. In fact, in most musicals I can think of, the “villains” get some of the best songs. The same goes for that smash hit “new” show Hamilton… Alexander Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr sings all my favorite songs.  Aaron Burr longs to be where the action is - inside the room where the decisions get made, privy to information that Hamilton knows, and he does not. Burr laments, “…. No one really knows how the game is played, the art of the trade, How the sausage gets made….  Dark as a tomb where it happens…. I gotta be in the room where it happens!”

Despite getting some of the most memorable songs, both Judas in JC Superstar and Aaron Burr either missed out on where the action was, or was in the middle of the action and didn’t understand the significance of what was happening. We have been able to be draw in on both counts. Even though we are over two thousand years removed from the events written about Jesus, every year we get a front row seat as we enact and remember the story again.  During Holy Week, WE get to be in the room where it all happens.

This is Holy Week, the week where it happens. A week where time stretches out, where we spend a lot of time in and out of rooms -  in the upper room, in the home of the high priest, in and out of rooms with Pontius Pilate… we’ll get to be in rooms where a whole LOT happens.

But HERE is where things really get going….in Bethany, away from the crowds, off to the side in the suburbs of Jerusalem, so to speak … here is the room where Holy Week really kicks off, as Jesus eats with his disciples behind closed doors at the home of Simon the Leper.

As usual, Jesus is always hanging out with people on the margins – and today is no exception, as he visits the home of a man who is known for having a terrible disfiguring skin disease.  Suddenly, A woman enters the room with a jar full of nard, an expensive perfume made plants that grow far away, in the mountains of China. Somehow, she had a whole jar full, in a lovely alabaster container. We don’t know who she was, or where she got this jar, or how she bought it, but what she carried contained the equivalent of nearly a year’s worth of wages for a typical day laborer. In today’s cash, that’s some fifteen-thousand-dollar perfume she’s got there.

She doesn’t just crack it open a bit and dribble a little on Jesus’s brow. No, she busts it open and upends the whole thing on Jesus. Everyone at this gathering was understandably shocked to see this.
Artist He Qi

No, they were more than shocked. They were indignant. Think about how many cows or chickens could be bought from ELCA Good Gifts! Think about how many meals for Aid for Friends this money could make, or meals for Soup and Sandwich, or Code Blue! Why waste this generosity in just one person? Even if he WAS the messiah?

And they were right – this woman COULD have done all kinds wonderful things with the money from the perfume. But in their anger, they all completely overlooked what she did do. She helped Jesus get ready for Holy Week. She anointed him as king… and anointed his body for burial.

Just a few minutes ago we heard the crowds welcome Jesus into town in a parade, shouting their excitement that the return of the reign of KING David was at hand. A reign that they expected would right the wrongs of the Roman oppression they have suffered. Had this woman heard about the parade? Was she anointing Jesus as this kind of king? Or did she have some inkling that, once the crowds realized that Jesus was NOT this kind of king, they would be persuaded to turn on him, and hand him over to humiliation and death?

Jesus knew that he was not being anointed for his coming glory, as his ancestor David had been. For Jesus, there would be no coronation ceremony. This was it, this was the room where it started happening – a meal in a small room, a kind woman, a jar of perfume, and a group of angry people completely missing the significance of what she had done for him.

There was no way this woman could have known the full extent of what Jesus would face in the coming days in and out of all those rooms - that Jesus would be betrayed and handed over by Judas, denied by another, abandoned by the rest…. falsely accused and slandered, tried in the middle of the night under false pretenses, given an expedited death sentence…. beaten, mocked, and finally killed as a common criminal.  

That is what is on the horizon for Jesus in the coming week. But, that day in Simon’s house, that woman gave Jesus the last bit of human kindness he would receive before the cross. This woman will be remembered forever, Jesus says. And so, she is, here in Mark’s account, though we don’t even know her name.

But…. At least she got to be in the room where it happened.

Over the course of the next few days, WE are going to get to be inside a lot of rooms where the salvation of the world happens.

We will be in the upper room with Jesus and the twelve disciples, - including Judas, eating one last meal with him. We will hear the words that Jesus first said to them, that this bread is his body and the cup of wine is his blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. We will hear Jesus reveal that one of them will betray Jesus, the dismay of the disciples…. While hours later knowing that they all abandon Jesus at the first sign of trouble.

We get to be in the room where Jesus is questioned by the high priests and the Judeans who sold themselves to the Roman empire for power and influence. We hear Jesus face unfair charges … and if we strain our hears, we can just make out the voice of Peter just outside the gate, denying Jesus for the third time as a rooster crows.

We will be there in the room as Jesus faced Pontius Pilate, to be subjected to more unfair accusations and questions. We are in the room when Pilate interrogates Jesus. We are in the room where Jesus’ humiliation happens, where he is mocked, and a crowd cries “Crucify him!” a criminal is released instead.

After this, we leave all rooms behind, and go instead to a cross on a hill, where Jesus died, looking like a failed king, with only weeping women to mourn him. 

And lastly, we find ourselves, not in a room, but at a tomb, where Jesus is buried. A tomb with a heavy stone for a door.

But like all these rooms we find ourselves in this week, the tomb is not where the story ends. Like the rooms where things happen…. A BIG thing is about to happen in this tomb… it’s not going to stay empty for long. 

But before resurrection comes death. Before dawn, the night rules. Before victory comes betrayal and rejection. Before Easter, we walk through Holy Week. Which, honestly, feels more than a little familiar to us.

As Aaron Burr rightly sings, outside the room where things happen, “We dream of a brand-new start—But we dream in the dark for the most part. Dark as a tomb where it happens…”

But until it happens… we … wait for it.  We wait for the door of the tomb to open. Because we know that it will.

Welcome to Holy Week, the week where it happens. Amen.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Dragging our Feet in the Sand

Sermon 3-18-18
Grace and peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

 You all are familiar with the “Footprints in the Sand” poem, right? A man has a dream that he was walking along a beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashes scenes from his life, and most of the time there are two sets of footprints. But after the last scene ended, the man looked back on the beach and saw that sometimes there was only one set of footprints, and they happened to coincide with the very lowest and saddest times in his life. The man was understandably upset that it was at THESE dark times that the Lord seem to abandon him.
The Lord replies to this man, “My precious, precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During those times…. when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

For some of us, this poem is our reality.  Some of us at times have been so overwhelmed with these lowest and saddest times that we cannot take even take one more step forward, and the only way we make it through each day is to be carried by God.

But at other times, our walk with the Lord may leave behind a different kind of trail in the sand.
Read this version closely.... 

I once found an alternative take on the footprints poem in a funny comic on Facebook…. In the first panel, God has his arm around the dreamer and says the familiar words, “…where you see one set of footprints is where I carried you.” But there is an alternative ending, where God points off in the distance and says, “Now, THAT long groove is where I DRAGGED you, kicking and screaming.”

Jesus makes a lot of promises to us, including to never leave us. Where Jesus is, we are there, as he says in verse 26. And this does indeed bring us a great deal of comfort when our lives are challenging. However, the first part of that verse reads “whoever serves me must follow me…” and sometimes where Jesus goes are not places that I am exactly eager to be.
After all, Jesus and I don’t exactly have the same taste in hang-out spots. 

From the last few weeks in Lent, we can get an idea of what kinds of places Jesus likes to frequent:

The wilderness with the wild beasts, being tempted by Satan.

With his disciples, talking about crosses, death, and self-denial.

In the temple, trashing the booths of the money changers and chasing out their animals with whips.

In late night conversations with Nicodemus, foreshadowing his own death.

And today - hanging out with people on the outside, chatting with God through thunder, and YET AGAIN speaking of his own death.

Hmm. No thanks, Jesus. I’ll catch up with you the next Lent.

Even after all this, the late-night conversations and the cleansing of the temple, the Greeks in our Gospel reading were still drawn to Jesus. As Jesus said, “I will draw all people to myself.” But the drawing that Jesus is doing here has less to do with nice things like crayons, or magnets being drawn to one another, or being drawn to someone through love at first sight … it has more to do with dragging heavy nets full of fish across the sand.  The word that Jesus uses here also describes how fishermen “draw,” or rather, drag, pull, or heave these heavy nets onto the beach. Probably leaving behind them a long groove in the sand.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised when following Jesus looks more like a long groove than footprints in the sand.

Like the Greeks, we may THINK we want to see Jesus… but do we really? Seeing Jesus is seeing the cross. Seeing Jesus means following him TO the cross, to suffering, humiliation, and death. The cross is not a place anyone in their right mind would want any part of. And yet, that is exactly where Jesus calls us. To deny ourselves and take up our cross.  To lose our own lives for the sake of Jesus and the good news. To die to our selves for the sake of our neighbors. To be buried in the earth like seeds so that we may bear fruit.

This is not exactly a journey where we are keen to go on... even if we know that, because of Jesus, there is resurrection on the other side. Jesus WANTS us to be with him, because he loves us and desires that we would not perish, but have life…. Eternal and abundant life. And that is only possible if we go where Jesus leads us.

This is really, really hard though. It’s going to involve change, loss of the familiar, and new experiences, and not being able to clearly see the path we are traveling sometimes. It’s going to involve trusting Jesus to lead us through some unexplored territory. This is really scary, so too often we dig in our heels and try to stay put.

Much like my cats tried to do during one of my many moves with them over the years. By now, they have been through quite a few moves with me…. But once, early on, I hadn’t quite worked out all the kinks. Everything was all packed up at my new place. I marveled at the wisdom of my plan of leaving the cats until very last. You can probably see where this is going.

Can't stay mad at this face for long...
As I put one cat in the carrier, my other cat dug her claws in, to let me know SHE DID NOT WANT TO GO…. And her claws left a long bloody grove down my pinky finger. Great. I got her in the carrier, but I’m bleeding from a pretty decent cut, and naturally I had left all the bandages at the new place!! Fortunately, I found a spare tissue to wrap around my hand … and now I can laugh about the time that I drove to my new apartment, angry cats in the back seat, with a bloody pinkie up in the air.

My cat was scared and didn't know where we were going. She didn’t yet understand that we were going to a new home … together. I didn’t want to leave her behind, because she is part of my family. But she wasn’t happy about it… and her long groove of protest intersected with my hand. But I was willing to risk her claws and losing a little blood - if that’s what it took to bring her home with me.

Jesus refuses to leave us behind. He thought that facing our claws, our dragging feet, our reluctance to the point of turning our back on him, was worth it – that WE are worth it. Jesus stops at nothing to draw all people in to God’s family. Even if that meant that we would rather betray, deny, abandon, or even crucify Jesus rather than follow him.
But God has a way of making crosses and tombs empty. God has a way of turning death into life. God has a way of even making our long grooves in the sand into something that God can use for good.

If you grew up on a farm like I did, or with someone in the family who gardened, you know what a long, straight groove – or furrow - in the ground is perfect for: Planting a row of seeds.

Like the cross, a seed is a vehicle for life. By itself, a seed looks dead and lifeless, but once it is buried in the earth, it can become what it was created to be – to burst open and bring forth new life, many times over.

We may not know yet exactly what kind of seed we will be – but we know the One who has planted us here in this place at this time. It is the same God who gathers us together every week to sustain us with the body and blood of his son Jesus… only to send us out again into the world. It is the same God who will not leave us behind. It is the same God who commands us not to leave OTHERS behind. We are drawn in and welcomed to God’s table of love, and we in turn help in the work in drawing in others too…. there is a place for ALL here with Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, March 12, 2018

John 3:16 - Not What We Think It Means

Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

My favorite movie has a plot familiar to most fantasy stories – the most beautiful woman in the land, destined to marry the prince, has been kidnapped. As the bad guys escape with her across the sea, a mysterious stranger, dressed in black, pursues them. At every turn, as the stranger keeps up with them, despite the traps they set... and every time, the leader of the bad guys exclaims “Inconceivable!” At one point, one of his henchmen says to him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

If you are familiar with the rest of the movie – I’m taking about the great cult 80s classic “The Princess Bride” – you’ll remember that this is a different kind of fairy tale - the princess doesn’t want to marry the prince and the prince turns out to be the bad guy. As it turns out, the mysterious man is an infamous pirate, but he is also the princess’s actual true love. He pursues her and overcomes every obstacle to rescue here… perhaps a bit similarly to the mother bunny who assures her child that there is nothing that he can do to outrun her love (I read The Runaway Bunny for the children's sermon). …which if course is exactly like the love that God has for each of us, God’s beloved children.

All through Lent, we have been exploring the depths of God’s love and how far that love will go for us.... and today we have the mother of all Bible verses about love to explore, don’t we?

If someone in your daily life stopped you and asked you to recite a Bible verse by memory, I would be willing to bet that you could do a decent job with John 3:16, right? This is a pretty familiar one. We see it a lot of places OUTSIDE the church, too – like sporting events and billboards - and hear it quoted in books and movies often enough. But, do we have something in common with the lead bad guy in the Princess Bride in our misunderstanding of the familiar? Do we understand the wealth that is contained in these twenty-eight words? Does this verse mean what we think it means?

Supposedly the whole Bible, and the whole Christian faith, is boiled down to this one verse. Martin Luther once said that this is the whole Gospel in miniature. But unfortunate, how our chosen readings for today are selected might make us forget that this one verse – as important as it is – does not exist floating around by itself in a vacuum. 

Like famous sayings that we love to misquote, what happens when we put the word of John 3:16 back in Jesus mouth, where they belong? What happens when we put these words back into the Gospel of John in it’s entirety?

John 3 begins right where last week's Gospel reading left off. Jesus has just driven the money changers and all the animals being sold at unfair prices out of the temple, throwing over tables and chasing people out with whips … all very dramatic, if you recall.

After this, a man came to talk to Jesus named Nicodemus. A Pharisee and a leader of Jews, Nick here was part of a group that was against Jesus… and yet, here Nick was, wanting to have an in-depth conversation about who and what Jesus is. Nick even admitted “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who as come from God; for no one can do these signs (he means the wedding at Cana and the cleansing of the temple) apart from the presence of God.” Jesus’s response to this could be a paraphrase out of Princess Bride – Jesus is not exactly who Nick THINKS Jesus is. Jesus is not just a rabbi, or someone who does signs. Jesus is the son of God, sent to save the world. 

John 3:16, as it turns out, is only one small part of a larger conversation – well, fairly one-sided really, since Jesus ends up doing most of the talking – that ranged all over the map, from being born from above, the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit, the judgement of God, believe in Jesus, light and darkness. Most of which goes over poor Nick’s head… and over ours too.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is continually opening wide the horizons of people’s notions about God. It is here in John, that Jesus says all of his famous “I am” statements:” I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the gate for the sheep, I am the way, the truth, and the life.

In John, his gospel starts in such an epic way as to emulate the great poem at the beginning of Genesis itself: “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the word of God became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory… full of grace and truth.”

In John, Jesus gives hope and living water to the woman at the well, and she opens her mouth to testify to this encounter. Jesus opens the tomb of Lazarus and calls him out of the darkness of death. On the last night Jesus spends before his crucifixion, he humbles himself among his followers – the very ones who would later betray, deny, and abandon him - and washed their sweaty, travel-worn feat.

All through John, Jesus challenges people to open their eyes, minds, and hearts to the fact that the Word of God became flesh and was walking among them.

But why did Jesus come to us in this way? And what did Jesus arrive here to do? Perhaps that is why we cling to John 3:16 so much, because we get a who, why, and how… which are actually pretty few and far between in the Bible.

Who did God send? Well, that would be God’s son Jesus…. But to whom did God send the son? Jesus says to Nicodemus… and to us… and to the whole world…. God loved the whole world, just to certain people in the world …  not just people who have seem to have it all together, or who mentally subscribe to all the right doctrines, or even just for those who come to church every single Sunday. The whole world MEANS the whole world, and Jesus proved that in every part of John’s Gospel.

Why did God send Jesus? “So that …. whoever believes in him... may have eternal life.” And, dare we go past verse 16 into verse 17, we find out that what God has in store for us is NOT judgement, but instead that we might be rescued through our rescuer, SAVED through our SAVIOR Jesus. Saved, that is, so that we may have eternal life NOW. Present tense. Not just for some far-off time when we need to reserve our place in heaven. Not someday, in the sweet by-and-by. Eternal and abundant life happens NOW. We get to truly live before we die AND after we die.

How we can participate in this eternal life gets a bit tricky. Jesus tells us, “all who believe” in him may have this eternal life. All throughout John’s Gospel, and all throughout Jesus’s life, belief is not a box that gets checked off. Belief is a road that is created by walking in the footsteps of where Jesus has gone before us. Believe in Jesus is actually a verb, and action, a way of life, where we live as Jesus lived, and we choose love over hate, we choose compassion over fear, we choose to place our hope in the coming dawn rather than trust that the night of sin and brokenness have the final say.

Inconceivable, you might be tempted to think, as we sit here in our own dark times and dark nights, even as dawn has come an hour earlier because of Daylight Savings. Well, perhaps that word doesn’t mean what we think it means. Perhaps we don’t have to fully conceive to believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.