Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sheep and Goats on Christ the King

Sermon 11-23-14 Christ the King

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Sometimes surprises can be God’s way of breaking into the routines we’ve imprisoned ourselves in, can’t they? We are going along, just fine we think, at the breakneck speed of our lives when suddenly we are surprised, brought up short, and, like in my case, find that had I kept going I would have ended up in a place that I hadn't intended. Like Denver. True story.

Beau and I were flying back from Midway airport in Chicago to Trenton via Frontier after spending some time in WI for my little sister’s college graduation. And, of course, we did not quite leave ourselves enough time for all the complex traveling to the airport. After being dropped off and taking the Amtrak from Milwaukee to Chicago, we rushed to the elevated or “L” train, which was super crowded with rush hour traffic, hurried through some fast food, dashed to the security line, jogged to our gate, and were relieved to see that there were still lots of people in line to board. Whew. That was a close one!

While we were still congratulating ourselves, I gave the ticket lady my ticket. And when she scanned it, it beeped, a concerned, abnormal beep. You all know that beep. Definitely not the beep anybody wants to hear.

“You’re going to Trenton, Ma’am?” the ticket lady asked me. Relieved, I responded with a cheery, “Yes I am!”

“Well, ma’am, this plane is going to Denver.” …. Whoops.

It turns out it was Right Gate, Wrong Plane – our plane had been delayed, which we would have known if we had thought to check our email OR ANY OF THE BAZILLION SIGNS that are ALL OVER the airport. Instead, we were hurried, rushed, and stressed, until we were literally forced to stop, to look up, and pay attention. We were in such a hurry that we had missed all the signs.

For the last few weeks, we have been listening to Jesus’ stories about people who seem to have missed the signs too, and have been brought up short in often some very unpleasant ways. The five unprepared bridesmaids. The slave who buried the talent entrusted to him. And now, Jesus sets the scene for the end of history, where Jesus decides to give his clueless disciples, both then and now, to give away the end of the movie. Spoiler alert, says Jesus. You know all those people who are suffering? That’s where I am. You remember all those people who were in need, who were hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, a stranger in need of welcome? Yup, says Jesus, that was me, I was right there, in front of your very nose all along. Surprise…!

But really surprising thing about this story is not that the goats missed all the signs. That seems like it would be a given. Like the bridesmaids. Like the one-talent servant. But in THIS story, the sheep do too. They were just as surprised to find out that the people in need that they helped -  the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger in need of welcome - all were actually their Lord and king in disguise. Surprise…..!

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the end of our Church year, and it sure can be easy to miss. It doesn’t coincide with our calendar “end of the year,” it falls sometime around the business of thanksgiving and Black Friday, and is soon forgotten amid the hustle and bustle of the “Christmas Season,” or what we prefer to call “Advent.” We don’t make any “New Church Year Resolutions,” though maybe we should. We don’t have a count down. There is not bedazzled ball to drop here in the church. Just some white and gold here and there, nothing too showy or over-the-top, to remind us what it means that Jesus is our king.

And as this story reveals, like Christ the King Sunday, sometimes Jesus is also really easy to miss. After all, he doesn't act like a regular king, does he?  Are you a “Game of Thrones” fan? EVERYONE…. Wants…to be… the king. With that throne comes certain desirable perks. Kings command armies and make decisions. Kings are surrounded by power and wealth. Kings make the rules and shape history. As Mel Brooks once said “It’s GOOD to be the king!”

It might be good to be the king, but have there been any GOOD KINGS? …… That list seems pretty short. Far more familiar to us are the Genghis Khans, Emperor Neros, and Richard the Thirds. And in our own time, we have witnessed of “bad rulers” to spare – Stalins and Hilters and Kim Jong Ills and Quaffafis and now the leaders of ISIS. But what they all seem to have in common is a thirst for power and control above all else, to the detriment of those who have no power, no control, and no voice.

But we don’t seem to do a whole lot better when we throw off these kings to rule ourselves. It seems like an awesome thing to be king of our castle. Why then am I rushing everywhere, so ridiculously busy I can barely keep up? Because I am so NEEDED of course. My time is needed, my money is needed, my effort is needed, and so nothing else and no one else matters except what needs my attention right now.

Thirty years ago a famous experiment out of Princeton University was done with seminary students – because they always have plenty of time on their hands (right?). It has been retold many different ways, but this is how it originally went: The participants were told to go from one building to another, in different degrees of earliness or lateness. For some of students, it was a meeting, and others were off to give a talk about the Good Samaritan.  Remember that story? On the way from point A to point B the participants encountered an actor portraying someone in need. Who would stop to offer help?

As it turns out, “subjects in a hurry to reach their destination were more likely to pass without stopping.” Some of those giving a talk on the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the man in their haste. Surprise….!

We’ve all been there. We’ve all be too busy to see Jesus. I may not have stepped over someone, but I have walked by, driven passed, looked away, refused eye contact with someone who needed a dollar, a helping hand, or just a “good morning.” Surely I must be in the goat category, rushing headlong onto the plane bound for Denver.

But, according to Jesus, that’s not where I belong. I don’t belong to the powers of this world, or the kings in my heart that seek to break me to their will. I belong to that other king, that Christ the King, and so do you.

This is a king who is also shepherd, who is not like any king history has ever known. His armies were made up of palm-waving peasants shouting “Hosanna!” His inner circle was made up of day laborers and nobodies. His royal court consisted of scandalous women, sick people, children, and the mentally ill.  His kingly acts included feeding over five thousand freeloaders, explaining the kingdom of God in stories, and healing people without health insurance. It is any wonder that the powers of this world tried to kill him?

This is a king whose greatness comes from gentleness. This king was born, not in a royal palace surrounded by servants but with farm animals. His coronation was with a crown of thorns and his throne is a cross. His true power is revealed, not in wealth or might or force, but, as Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” And in the meantime, our king makes his home, not in a palace, but with whoever is suffering and in need. With those who have no power, no control, no voice. As Jesus said, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

This may be the final Sunday in our church year, but this is not the final story in Matthew. The Gospel of Matthew ends with Jesus having the last word, and it is a world of hope: Jesus says “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

And that, I think, is a fine way to end one year and begin another: trusting that Jesus is going to keep showing up and keep surprising us by giving us opportunities to see his face in the faces of our brothers and sisters in need.  Because THAT’S where Jesus is found. AMEN.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"Jesus is God's Selfie," Sermon 9-28-14

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

Wouldn't it be awesome… if life came with an instruction manual? It would simply be amazing, wouldn't it - if every morning, we could get out of bed and immediately reach for our handy instruction manual, perhaps the one entitled:

“Instructions on how to fit in, have everybody like you, and always be happy!” Which might go something like this:

Step 1, breathe.

Step 2, greet the day, smile and say: "Good Morning, East Windsor!"

Skipping ahead, Step 9, eat a complete breakfast with all the special people in your life.

Obey all traffic signs and regulations. Enjoy popular music. Drop off dry cleaning before noon, read the headlines, don't forget to smile. Always root for the local sports team. Go, sports team!

And my personal favorite, drink overpriced coffee!

I of course am quoting from the LEGO movie, which I watched for the first time with our youth group two weeks ago. In this LEGO world, there are indeed instruction manuals for everything. Everyone obeys the rules of the seemingly benevolent leader President Business; no one is out of line or acts out of the ordinary; and so, this happy society is rewarded for obeying all the instructions by being part of a safe, homogeneous, and predictable, existence.

Kids see this world as fun because of all the LEGOs, but adults might look on this world with just a little bit of envy. This seems like a really good deal, doesn't it? Until we realize that President Business is not a nice guy looking out for the common good. It seems pretty awesome, until we realize that we have our own President Businesses right here in the real world.

We all live under some sort of authority, whether we are aware of it or not. Some kinds are pretty obvious – traffic laws, taxes, phone contracts, TSA travel regulations, just to name a few.

Some of the authorities we live under are less noticeable – sports and school schedules, the desire to be liked or to be successful, the dream of “having it all,” the drive for bigger and better. But, much like the LEGO people, we have been very well trained. We all know how to navigate the rules of the kingdoms of this world, both consciously and unconsciously. We know what scripts to recite and what patterns to follow.  Our education has come to us for free from the voices calling to us from every corner: from TV commercials and online ads, from newspaper fliers, from the billboards we see every day on the turnpike or the train, from what we see from our neighbors and classmates, from the conversations and interactions we have with our family and friends.

And for some of us, following the rules WORKS. Because we were born the right color or the right gender or in the right country to the right family, we have everything going for us. Following the rules of the world comes much easier for us than for many others. But one wrong move, one misstep in following the instructions, and we will find ourselves with those people, on the outside looking in. In the “Instructions on how to fit, have everybody like you, and always be happy” there is no room for failure. There is no rule about grace.

But, rules are rules, I guess. And when they DO work for us, it can be hard to change them. According to the instruction manual the world has ingrained in us, those people are those people for a reason.  We who have done everything right, who have worked in the vineyard from dawn until dusk, we DESERVE to be first in the kingdom of this world, and perhaps also in the Kingdom of God.
And so when someone comes along and upsets those rules, who hangs out with the wrong people and heals the blind,who rides into town on a donkey in an impromptu parade like he’s all that and a bag of skittles and kicks the money changers out of the temple, when this guy name Jesus comes to town and does all that, those of us who are good rule-followers might get a little uncomfortable.

We may even start asking ourselves, who does this guy think he is? Such a person is, at best, a crack pot, or at worst, very, very dangerous. Because this person reminds us that the rules of the world are harsh taskmasters. He reminds us that we follow all the rules in the instruction manual to a tee and still be feel alone and unhappy.

He reminds us that we are as broken and hopeless as the tax collectors and prostitutes, as single welfare moms and corrupt politicians. And yet, even for all that, there is a place for all of us to be loved and to be an essential part of a loving community.

There is another kingdom that we are citizens of, a kingdom with another kind of authority. This kind of authority is the complete opposite of what authority means in this world. This kind of authority does not fill itself up with power, but instead empties itself. This kind of authority does not build itself up or use its power for exploitation, but instead humbles itself. This kind of authority does not command obedience on pain of death, but instead is the essence of true obedience, even to the point of self-sacrificial death, even death on an instrument of torture.

This is the authority of God, shown to us in Jesus.

This week I saw a quote floating around on Facebook: “Jesus is God’s Selfie.” Way back in the day, before selfies and cell phones and before photography even, this preacher named Paul wanted to capture in a nutshell who and what Jesus was. So he quoted a hymn his contemporaries sang, which could have been the first century version of Amazing Grace or for us Lutherans, A Mighty Fortress. He quoted this hymn because it gets to the heart in two verses who Jesus is and what he has done for us - because this is the kind of stuff that is really hard for us to wrap our minds around. It just doesn't make sense to us: Power in humility? Authority in self-emptying? Divinity in the form of a slave? Say whaaaaaat?

And if Jesus is the kind of ruler in this kind of kingdom, what it looks like to live under this kind of authority REALLY makes no sense to the world. And yet, it is a beauty, wondrous, holy, and yes, awesome thing. This is not a kingdom where rules completely go out the window. This, however, IS a kingdom where the rule of the realm is love, condensed and concentrated into the living, dying, and rising of Jesus.

Instead of pleading for his life or arguing or trying to prove his claims of divinity to the religious authorities, Jesus set his face toward the cross and fulfilled the will of his father.

And later, Instead of scolding his disciples for abandoning him at the cross, Jesus give them a great charge: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

And in this text for today, instead of arguing with the smarty pantses (like us) of his day, Jesus told them a story instead – about a man with two sons and two different responses to his charge for them to “Go and work in the vineyard today.”

Our vineyard, where Jesus commands us to go and work, could be far away among those “all nations.” More likely, though, our vineyard is much closer: at the school we attend, the team we play on, our place of work, the highways we drive and the places we shop and the coffee shops and restaurants we frequent. Sometimes our vineyard is right in our own homes with our own families.
And the work that we do there is not always easy to figure out. God has not left us with a book of easy-to-follow instructions on “how to successfully make disciples of all nations 100% of the time.” In fact, we may not want to go into the vineyard at all! It’s so hard, and I’m not very good at it, and what can I even do, anyway? And what if people think I’m weird?

Well, too bad for us, that when we turn our yeses into noes, we are under the authority of a God who all too often turns our noes into yeses, who turns our bad news into God’s good news. For, as Paul says, even when we are reluctant, or full of fear and trembling, it is God who is at work in us, enabling us to both will and to work for God’s good pleasure for the sake of the world.

And whether today is a yes day or a no day, at the end of the day we are still God’s sons and daughters, loved and awesome in God’s sight. And thank God for that. AMEN.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

You are a Super Hero

Sermon 8-24-14

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Please excuse me for a moment, I forgot to put on the most important part of my “uniform.” (Here I put on a makeshift cape and mask)

There. That’s better. I’d like to inform all of you that I’ve decided to change my official title here at St. Paul. As of right now I would like to be known, not as Pastor Lydia, but as Legendary Pastor Lydia of Awesome, or just Pastor Awesome for short, if you so desire. I can baptize faster than a speeding water hose! I’m more powerful than…  And I can leap tall Bibles with a single bound! And now, I am just waiting around for Hollywood to
discover me and make the next big blockbuster movie out of my adventures assisting the good people of East Windsor. But you all already know my secret identity, so I'm going to go ahead and take my "costume" off!

Every good superhero has a good origin story. Some of my fellow superheroes and heroines were born with their special powers. Others got them in all kinds of strange ways – they were bitten by radioactive bugs, exposed to mysterious cosmic space rays or gamma radiation, or injected with strength-enhancing serum. Still others came to be super heroes by using their brilliant use of technology and gadgets. And still others were simply chosen to save the world.

Me? When I was a baby, I had my forehead dunked in water three times in front of a large crowd of people. Then I was sealed with the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.

I grew up in a group of other baptized super hero people, being nurtured and encouraged in my faith by my family and other caring adults in our community. And then, when the time was right, I was send out into the world, to let my light shine before others, that they might see the light of God at work in me and praise God. That work is to bear God’s creative and redeeming word of love to all the world, especially to the dark places of the world where Death and Brokenness and all the forces that defy God still have a foothold.

You and I are part of a very special league of super heroes. Many of us have different origin stories. Some of us might have begun our super hero journey in another tradition, or no tradition at all. Some were baptized later in life, when we were older children or even adults. Others in this league left the community of super heroes for a while to find our own way, but eventually found our way back.
We, who are gathered in this building today, and are gathered to worship in communities around the world.

we, who were baptized part of this community of faith and named as God’s children forever and ever,
we, who have been saved from sin and death by the mercies of almighty God….

We are part of the League of the Living Lord.

Also in this League of the Living Lord there have been all kinds of characters with interesting backgrounds and unique super powers. There is Abraham and Sarah, who became the father and mother of God’s people, both by blood and by their example of trust.  Their superpower might be persistence.

Joseph, of the Technicolor dream coat fame, had the ability to interpret dreams, which helped him to save his family from a severe famine.

Rahab was a prostitute who trusted God and went undercover on a secret mission deep into enemy territory.

Samson was given superhuman strength in order to defeat his enemies, the Philistines.

The prophets of old, like the likes of Isaiah and Jeremiah, were given wisdom and prophesy to speak truth to power in the face of injustice.

Mary refused to give into fear and took a bold risk when she accepted her calling to give birth to and raise Jesus.

Peter, disciple of Jesus, bold talker and water walker. When today Peter reveals Jesus’ super hero name of Son of the Living God, Jesus in turn gives him the name of Petros, or little pebble, a chip of the old bedrock of faith that the Church has been built on. Peter, AKA “Pebble Man.”

Timothy, a young man called to be one of Paul’s companions, given the gift of evangelism.
Lydia, my super hero name-sake, was a busy businesswoman who had the gift of listening and became the first Christian convert on the European continent.

St. Francis’s super power was his self-discipline and concern for the poor and ignored.
Martin Luther turned the Christian world upside down with his stubborn belief in a merciful and loving God, and his ability to write his books, including a translation of the Bible in his language, with incredible speed.

Corrie Ten Boom came from a Christian family who hid Jews during the Holocaust, and survived being caught and thrown into a concentration camp herself.

Martin Luther King Jr. preached his dream of a world where both black and white could be free of racism and segregation.

Mother Theresa cared for the most forgotten and unwanted people in the slums of Calcutta.
All these people are card-carrying members of the League of the Living God. This is quite an intimidating list of faithful people who have gone before us. And it’s just a TINY FRACTION of the list. These people have indeed left us some mighty big shoes to fill. But, like all heroes, our faith heroes are have mighty flaws to go with their mighty powers. Abraham and Sarah tried their own fertility treatments quite a few times. Joseph was a stuck up brat when he was a kid. Samson slept with the enemy. Most of the prophets were pretty reluctant to take the job. Martin Luther was stubborn to a fault, and Mother Theresa struggled with spiritual dry spells which lasted years. And even among Jesus’ own disciples there are deniers and power players and deserters and betrayers.
So, I guess, we are in some pretty good company. We are part of this body, with all of its beautiful gifts and flaws, lambs of God’s own flock, sinners of God’s own redeeming.

Which is a pretty good thing for us, because we are all too often by a multitude of dead deities who demand our worship. Like Jesus and the disciples in the town of Caesarea Philippi, the local hot-bed temples to every imaginable god and goddess, we are daily surrounded by statues, real and imagined, that hold sway over us: status, success, stuff, salaries, stocks, sports, schedules, and so much more.
But we are part of the League of the Living God, and we follow Jesus, the Son of the Living God.

Our God is a rock that is alive, dynamic, and on the move. Those other things that claim they have power over us? They are lifeless, powerless, and have been overcome by the mighty and loving arms of God. In fact, we as members of the League of the Living God have been given this mission: to not be conformed by the powers in this world that defy God, but instead to be transformed into living sacrifices of God’s justice and deliverance.

We have been called not just to renounce the promises of the devil and the things of this world that claim to give us life but instead leave us empty, but we have also been given our marching orders, to take the battle right to the very gates of hell itself, for Jesus himself says that we will be victorious. Because the salvation of the Living God will be forever, and his deliverance will never be ended. Amen… amen.. and all God’s super heroes say “Amen!”

This is a real shirt, by the way!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

We are all beggars

Sermon 8-17-14
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Though Hailey won’t remember much of anything that happened on today her baptism day, I still sort of feel like I still ought to apologize for Jesus here. This might be the first time that Hailey has gotten to meet him, and I’m just afraid that he might not be making a very good impression.

As F. F. Bruce wrote his book Hard Sayings of Jesus –– “His yoke is easy and his burden is light, but his sayings are often hard.” And this one is certainly no exception. It goes right along with Jesus’ teaching on plucking out our right eye if causes us to sin, with Jesus saying he wants us to hate our parents for the sake of the Gospel, with Jesus saying he came “not bringing peace but a sword,” with “the camel going through the eye of a needle” having a better chance than a rich person being saved, and also cursing a poor innocent fig tree that was just minding its own business. And here, we have a couple of whoppers like the blind leading the blind, what comes out of the mouth from the heart is what ruins a person, and finally, Jesus seeming to ignore this woman in need and then apparently comparing her to a dog.

So much ink has been spilled over the centuries to explain, soften, or justify what Jesus does here, and I don’t think any of them are completely satisfying. Trust me, this week I consulted way more commentaries than I regularly do, looking for a brilliant key to help unlock this story. This key turns out to be rather elusive, like the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price. Instead of a key, what we need to look for is more like a crumb, or rather, a trail of crumbs, that we follow like lost children through a dark forest, hoping that we will be able to find our way home.

For this Canaanite woman, the hope of just a crumb was enough for her. It was all she felt that she deserved. She was, after all, an outsider in nearly every possible way. She lived on the wrong side of the border; she was from a people who worshipped the wrong gods and was on the wrong side of history. She was likely a single mother in the wrong century, and her only child was the wrong gender, and if that wasn’t enough, her daughter was suffering from a very wrong-sounding illness. Even this woman’s whole approach to getting Jesus’ attention seems all wrong.

And yet, this woman could not have been more right about Jesus.  She called him Lord and Son of David while the religious leaders of Jesus’ own people despised and rejected him. She knelt before him and engaged in spirited dialogue with him, while his own disciples seemed almost totally in the dark. She knew what she needed from Jesus, and was not afraid to do whatever she needed to in order to get it, for the sake of her daughter. Even if it meant adding one more demand when Jesus already had his hands full dealing with his own people. Even if it meant facing a tired and frustrated savior. She knew that in the end, he would not and could not go against his nature. She knew he would do the right thing – that he would “throw her a bone,” so to speak. And she was right. And I think that’s why he called her faith great.

I wonder if Jesus ever thought about this woman and her great faith again. I especially wonder if he thought about her on that dark Passover night, as he prepared to face his passion and death.

I wonder if he remembered her as he blessed the bread and broke it, and watched the crumbs from the broken pieces fall onto the table and roll to the floor.

I wonder if he remembered the look on her upturned face as she knelt before him and so wisely said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table,” as he looked at the blank and confused stares of his own disciples, who would soon abandon, deny, and betray him.

As Jesus has proven, though, deniers are welcome at his table. Abandoners and betrayers are welcome at his table. Canaanite women, and Roman centurions, hemorrhaging women, the blind, the mute, people possessed by demons or fear or hate or their busy schedules. Liars and cheaters and doubters and selfish people all have a place at the table.

And God is continually adding extenders to the family table, like family thanksgivings when everybody’s home and the normal size of the table would not be enough. And just when we think that the table is full and can’t possibly be extended any farther without completely collapsing, God keeps pushing.

Sometimes we are pushing outward WITH God, participating in the mission we share as baptized children of God, bearing God’s creative and redeeming word of love to ALL the world. Other times, we find ourselves pushing the other way, telling God that the table has gone far enough and surely THOSE people are not welcome at the table. But they are. Because you are.

Hanging above the dining room table at my grandma’s house is a poem copied out by my uncle when he was in school in fancy calligraphy letters. It’s hung there as long as I can remember, and to this day it’s still my grandma’s favorite poem.

It goes like this:

I dreamt death came the other night and Heaven’s gate swung wide.
An angel with a halo bright ushered me inside.
And there! To my astonishment stood folks I’d judged and labeled
As “quite unfit”, “of little worth”, and “spiritually disabled”.
Indignant words rose to my lips but never were set free,
For every face showed stunned surprise --Not one expected me!

The good news is, Jesus expects you. The good news is, Jesus really, really meant it when he gave his disciples his marching orders: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of ALL NATIONS, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

And if you haven’t noticed, that’s exactly what we’ve done today. Hailey Page Green was welcomed with open arms into this community of faith, where nothing has barred her from being gathered into the body of Christ – not gender or nationality or status or anything else that threatens to divide us when we leave from this place every Sunday. From now on, no matter what, she will have a place and a people to belong to.

During his ministry on earth, Jesus began the work of breaking down the boundaries between who’s in and who’s out, between the haves and the have-nots, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes with gusto. In his death, Jesus is our Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Not just the sins of a chosen few in a certain time and place, but for the whole world. And in his resurrection, we all are reborn as children of God and we are all gathered into the Lord’s household. We, as gentiles and foreigners in God’s original promises, are not left to be satisfied with the crumbs from the children’s table. We have been adopted as children in the waters of baptism, and given a place at the table.

Martin Luther once said: We are all beggars, telling other beggars where to find bread. Now that we have been given a place at the table, and been given the life-sustaining bread that is Jesus, how can the smallest crumbs NOT get all over everyone we meet? And how can we deny even the smallest crumbs to the people around us, even to those the world considers to be as good as dogs?

The world right now this world is begging for even just a tiny crumb of hope to hang on to. Together, as Christ’s body here on earth, let’s show them more than a crumb. Let us show them what a place at the table can look like. Amen.

Take Heart

Sermon 8-10-14

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Where you able to put yourself with the disciples in the boat? Was the wind whipping in your face and the splashing of the water drenching you? Could you feel the crazy rocking of the boat, and the fear of the disciples as they saw this mysterious specter coming toward them across the water?

Really, I wonder who they thought was coming after them. They had just seen Jesus feed over five thousand people with just a little bread and a few fish. And earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had already showed himself to be master of storms by calming one back in chapter 8, after being awoken from a deep and relaxed sleep. Had we been in their place, it is natural to believe that we might have been quicker on the uptake, and responded something like this:  “Hey, look, its Jesus doing another one of his miracle things! Heeeeey Jesus! We’re over here!!!”

But despite our active imaginations, we were not in the boat with the disciples that particular night, battling an intense storm for hours and hours. We were not actually there, drenched in water and battered by the wind, literally being tormented by the crashing waves in a small fishing boat, probably wondering by now why in the world Jesus isn’t there to calm the storm, like last time. By the time Jesus DOES show up, it is nearly morning, and these poor guys were most likely in the brink of complete exhaustion from the physical and mental energy it was taking for them NOT to sink.

Few of us have experienced being in the middle of a storm like that. But most of us have a story or two about living through a big storm that came through these parts. It’s been almost two years since Hurricane Sandy. And for the most part, life around here has pretty much gone back to normal. True, for weeks after the storm things were pretty out of sorts – many of us had to wait for the electricity to be restored and for trees to be cleared. But now, almost two years out, the leaves have grown back, and Beau and I have pretty much reconstituted our condiment supply that was decimated from our own involuntary refrigerator cleaning.

But I don’t think I need to tell you that there are people who suffered far worse from that storm, and are suffering still, in different ways. Two years out, it just might be harder to see. It’s easy to spot the collapsed house, but harder to notice the abandoned lot where it once stood. A house may look fine with a fresh coat of paint and new windows, but the inside may be empty, with nothing yet replacing the damaged furniture, making it easy to see the dark stain of the flood line on the walls. For many, the effects of the storm are still fresh.

But there are others storms that have hit all of us in the meantime. Now, I’m not talking about the Nor’easters or Hurricanes Arthur and Bertha. The storms I’m talking about might not show to the world any external damage. But we can feel the devastation all the same. This kind of storms damage the heart:
The hurricane-force winds of shame and hopelessness that knock you down, all the while shouting in your ears – you are not enough.

Or the driving winds of your hectic schedule pushing you forward, threatening to knock you over if you don’t keep up.

Every day coming like another wave, pounding and pounding your fragile little boat, making you wonder if the next wave will be the one to cause you to sink?

And all the while, the constant rain of stress, or disappointments, or depression beating down on you, mingling with your own tears, blinding you from being able to see what’s ahead.

Wouldn’t it great if our little community in this little boat here would be a safe haven from all the terribly frightening storms raging in the world, and ragingin  our own hearts? Wouldn’t it be great if there was an invisible “Check your Storms at the Door” sign or a “No Storms Allowed” sign somewhere out in the parking lot? Maybe we should get the property committee to work on that one.

Yes, this place IS a safe haven, but NO, the storms are still very present here with us, even on this sunny summer morning. Being Jesus’s own disciples, following orders from Jesus’ own lips did not stop the storm for Peter and the rest that day. The winds still came and the wave still crashed, and the land and the dawn seemed so far away.

But the mighty winds and waves of the storm DID not and COULD not prevent Jesus from coming to their aid.

Let me say that again, in another way: our storms CANNOT and WILL NOT prevent Jesus from coming to our aid.

When the disciples were so frightened that they thought Jesus was a ghost, Jesus said, “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

When the raging storms of our lives are so frightening to us that we see specters instead of a helping hand, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

When Peter’s rational brain caught up with the courage in his heart, and he began to sink, Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.

When we listen to the wind, and reason out how inadequate we are, how much we are failures and nobodies and unlovable, Jesus reaches out his hand and catches US.

SO…knowing this, feeling it in our minds and hearts and souls, are we, like Peter, ready to get out of the boat?

St. Paul Lutheran Church in Beachville NJ has a beautiful sanctuary that is shaped like a boat. The stained glass windows are patterned after the waters of creation, moving in blues and greens and even reds and yellows from chaos into the waters of baptism. But the waters are pictured down here, and the boat comes up like this, like you are underneath a capsized boat. Actually there are a lot of churches around the country, especially where I’m from, that have patterned their sanctuaries like upside-down boats, capsized from being willing to be sent out into a stormy and scary world.

So, what was I doing at St. Paul in Beachville? I was hanging out with sixty Lutheran youth, a small segment of three hundred Lutheran youth from the Nebraska Synod. They drove two straight days cross-country through the storm of New Jersey traffic to literally flood the shore with their time and presence: clearing logs at Cross Roads and canvassing entire shore neighborhoods in the hot July sun. Our own Amy Pennegna with Lutheran Social Ministries sent out a call for savvy New Jersey volunteers, and, for better or for worse, I was the one this particular group got.

These young people got out of their comfortable little Nebraska boats about as far as humanly possible. Jesus said, “Come,” and they responded.

The good news is that we don’t have to go nearly as far as they did to get out of our own boats. Sometimes it’s being brave enough to carve out a few minutes of silence to hear a word from our Lord when we, like Elijah, feel completely alone. Sometimes, it’s knowing the difference between our own storms and someone else who is trying to give us theirs. Sometimes even just getting out of the house to come to worship can feel as difficult as walking on water.

But one thing remains the same. Jesus is not going to let us sink, no matter what storms try to get in the way. AMEN.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Today we are cancelling the Apocalypse! Sermon from 7-20-14

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

The Bible is many things. It is a history book – telling us the story of how God has been faithful to God’s people in the past. It is a poetry and song book – teaching us how to pray and lift our praises to God. It is community bulletin board or blog – sharing the hopes, prayers, and concerns of a fledgling Christian community surrounded by a confusing and scary world. It is a story book – revealing to us who Jesus is and how he lived and died and rose again. The Bible is all of these things and much, much more. But one thing it is not: the Bible most definitely NOT a gardening or farming handbook.

Last week we heard about a sower who went out to sow, who just scattered his seeds around willy-nilly, not really caring where they landed. Now if you have had ANY experience with gardening whatsoever, you know that this is NOT a very efficient way to plant pretty much anything. Most of the time, you take the seed out of the package and carefully read the directions: plant seeds in full sun a half inch deep in loose soil, three to five inches apart. Thin plants when two inches tall. Water often, fertilize as necessary. Germination period sixty to seventy five days.

Here again the farmer in Jesus’ story needs to take some remedial farmer classes. What do you NORMALLY do when you see weeds growing in your garden plot? You get down on your hands and knees and pull those suckers out as soon as possible! Come one Jesus, everybody knows that! It’s just plain common sense.

But this story is not about common sense. It is not a guide to better gardening. And so it has an ending different from what we expect. The weeds are NOT pulled up at their sprouting. Their removal would actually cause more harm than good, so they are left to grow up with the good seed, the wheat. Together the wheat and the weeds are watered by the rain, are nourished by the soil, and shone upon by the sun. It is not until harvest time, many months later, that the weeds are separated out and bound into bundles to be consumed.

But in the meantime, we might imagine the good seed crying out to the master of the field – Lord, there are so many weeds! Look at them all! They are everywhere – right here next to us, sharing our sun and water and soil, their roots becoming intertwined with our roots, their leaves brushing up against ours. O Lord, why must we wait until the harvest day? Why can’t they be weeded out TODAY?

The weeds are with us in our newspapers and on the TV nightly news, filling up space and time with BAD news, of shootings in our neighborhoods and drugs on our streets, corruption within our halls of government and depravity done in the name of religious devotion. O Lord, why must we wait until the harvest day? Why can’t they be weeded out TODAY?

The weeds are with us in our own communities, cutting in line at the supermarket and on the turnpike, bullying our children on the playground and online, they are with us in our boardrooms and even in our
churches. O Lord, why must we wait until the harvest day? Why can’t they be weeded out TODAY?

The weeds are with us even in our own homes…the son who has been to rehab more times than anyone can count, who begs for just one more chance and just one more “loan” of a hundred dollars. The aunt at every family gathering who has nothing good to say to anyone, whose life and children are perfect and can’t understand why you are such a mess. The mother or father or sister or brother for whom nothing will ever be good enough, who will never show you their approval or love.

As the Psalmist writes in psalm 86, “O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them…. Show me a sign of your favour, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me.” O Lord, why must we wait until the harvest day? Why can’t they be weeded out TODAY?

But the weeds are also with us …in the mirror, within OUR VERY OWN HEARTS. The root causes of sin and evil and brokenness has been sewn in our own hearts too, and the seeds of the evil one has all too often found that the soil there is rich and ready. Their roots become deep and stuck fast, and their fruit is the fruit of death. The garden plots of our own hearts have been compromised, and so we cry out with the psalmist, “Give me an undivided heart to revere your name.”

Looking at Jesus’ story from this angle, perhaps our cries for the swift justice of the Lord are a bit premature. We may want to reconsider our eagerness to do our own weeding in the name of the Lord.  For such a harvest of justice in God’s kingdom would not leave any of us unscathed. So perhaps it is a blessing that our God seems rather slow, and is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

But God only seems slow because we are living in the middle of the story. It probably took Jesus less than ten minutes to tell this parable from beginning to end, but it has taken, and will take, many lifetimes to actually be completed. We are still in the growing time before the harvest. From our vantage point, we can only see the small little plot of land around us, and we see that there are a heck of a lot of weeds growing big and strong around us, and inside of us too. Which sometime makes it hard for us to figure out which is which. And maybe that also means we are not meant to.

God decided that it might be fun to show me what this might mean during this last week when I was away, to be with my family after the death of my grandfather, my mother’s father.  Every part of the funeral service for my grandpa was perfect to celebrate the life of this perfectly flawed but perfectly loved child of God. This was two Thursdays ago. That Sunday we attended my home congregation, but on Monday night we decided to go to the Monday night service back at Grandma’s church. My grandmother belongs to a church that has some different ideas that my own. This time, the vicar, or intern, was preaching, with the aid of his handy power-point outline and his three-point sermon.

As a preacher myself, it is normally a blessing to get to hear others preach, since it is not a blessing that all pastors have. But this particular vicar was making very challenging for me. He began and ended his message by taking a political and religious stance that I don’t happen to particularly agree with. And it would have felt so much better to judge him for it from my only particularly “self-righteous good seed" standpoint, if not for the middle of his message.” Wouldn't you know it, but somewhere in the middle of his sermon was a message about trusting in God in the midst of the hard stuff, a message encouraging us to let go of our fear because our hope is in God. Gosh darn it, it would have been so easy for me to have completely written him off, to have tuned the rest of the sermon out, to have put this young man directly and solidly in the “weed” camp, and felt the better for it.

Well, it’s a very good thing that none of us are in charge of who is in and who is out, who is wheat and who is a weed in the end.

The day of the harvest IS coming. The weeds will be separated from the wheat. The oppressed will be set free. All the wrongs will be righted. Sin and death will be no more. All that is evil in this world will come to an end, and the people of this world who truly are evil will get what is coming to them.

But that day is not today. But today IS the day that we do put our hope in the Lord in the middle of the story, in the midst of the hard stuff. Because that’s where God is too. And in the meantime we, along with the writer of the Eighty-Sixth psalm, ask God, “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.” AMEN.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Yearly Reflections on Hot Weather in NJ

I admit, I'm a big wuss when it comes to heat. I feel uncomfortable when hot; I don't like feeling sweaty; I feel crabby during times of heavy humidity. Growing up in the Midwest, I used to think that "hot" was anything over 75 degrees. Now I think "hot" is anything over 85. I'm more used extended periods of snow and cold than I am to long periods of humidity and hot weather.

(Why did I like camps so much? Being outside and running around in the heat? In NW WI it is not uncommon for it to still be pants weather until the end of June.)

When we lived in our old apartment in Hamilton, it wasn't a big problem - the AC was awesome. In our new place in Trenton, as much as I love (mostly) everything about the new place, it does have a drawback: no central air. But we have discovered that this is pretty common for the City of Trenton. Most homes/apartments have  AC units hanging from windows and fans in windows, and most people sitting around outside during much of the day. And now we understand why - these old brick homes are great for winter, but hold the heat in so that it feels cooler to be outside. We have a window unit in our bedroom, so we sleep fine and the cats can stay cool, but the rest of the place gets lots of nice, hot sun during the day (again, great for winter, not so much for summer).

Thanks, Mom, for teaching me how to keep a place as cool as we can during these hot summer days (closing windows early in the day, having fans on exhaust rather tan intake function, drawing the blinds against the sun). We also have plenty of cool places to be during the day - church, a friends' place while they're at camp, another friend's as we watch their cats, Starbucks, the mall. But we've also been thinking a lot about the people around the city who are homeless and have no place to be cool except for the train station. It sort of makes our little bedroom oasis seem pretty good.

Faithfully Ever After, Sermon 6-15

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

And they all lived happily ever after.

The prince defeats the dragon and saves the princess.

The ship sinks, but love is unsinkable.

True love’s kiss broke the curse.

And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

The End.

No, I’m not accidentally starting with the last page of my sermon. It’s just that most of our readings for today are either beginnings or endings, aren’t they? Because it’s the beginnings and endings of things that we tend to remember – about good books, good movies, good stories in general. And at the end of the very best stories, the ones that stay with us, all of the messy and complicated plot points are all woven together in one giant and satisfying “AAAaaaaah.”

But. how things begin is almost as important as how things end. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It was a dark and stormy night. The hills are alive with the sound of music. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. Not to mention, “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.”

You’ll notice in you bulletin that there is a very long reading that you did not hear read aloud today, from the first chapter of Genesis, AKA the very beginning of everything. Please, read this on your own sometime this week, and notice the beautiful poetic language that our ancient forefathers and mothers used when describing the love our God has for God’s creation, a love God has for us from the very beginning.

But today we’re going to focus on endings – the ending of the Gospel according to Matthew, to be exact. We are skipping ahead, all the way to the last page of the gospel, to hear the last thing that Matthew wrote that Jesus said – the command to go out and make disciples, and the reminder that Jesus presence will go with them to the end of space and time. Which sounds pretty good, right? But if we look closely, not exactly every plot point is resolved. There’s no satisfying “the end.”

Now if I had my way, the end of Matthew’s gospel might have included the following addendum: And then, after Jesus said that he was going to be with his followers always, he added, “and because of this, your lives will always be exciting but never frustrating, you will always succeed at everything you do, and telling people about me will never be hard, ever.” And the people totally and completely understood what Jesus was saying, and rejoiced.

But this is most certainly not the case, and this is certainly NOT what how Matthew ends his gospel. Even after an earthquake, an angel that looked like lightening, hardened soldiers fainting, and Jesus himself showing up, alive, saying “Hey, what’s up?” and giving instructions to meet up with him in Galilee, EVEN AFTER ALL THIS, some of the eyewitnesses did not quite believe their eyes. “When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.” It seems here that Matthew hadn’t paid attention in his “how to write end of your Gospel” class.

The word that Matthew chooses to describe these doubting worshippers, or worshipful doubters, is “distazo,” which, for once, means pretty much what it sounds like it means – distracted. Or more exactly, to be of two minds about something, to waver, to hesitate, to literally be standing in two places at once. As much as we can fault Matthew for his gospel ending, he might have been on to something: these disciples were distazo when it came to Jesus on that first Easter, and I think it’s pretty safe to say that we’ve been pretty distazo about Jesus ever since.

The truth is Jesus’ followers today are living in a pretty distazo world. We are dis-connected, dis-integrated, and distracted.

Too often we are DIS-CONNECTED from one another emotionally and empathetically, even though we are technologically more connected than we have ever been before.

Our relationships are DIS-INTEGRATED within our own lives when we believe the culture’s lie that we are the center of our own universe.

We are a DIS-TRACTED people, literally, knocked off track like a derailed train, by life’s many demands that have become our taskmasters. It’s like the universe is playing a constant tug-of-war between what draws us to God and what keeps us away from God. And WE happen to be the rope.

Think about all the times this last week that you’ve been distazo – actually, scratch that - think about the last time you DIDN’T feel distazo. When was the last time you were fully present in any given moment? Are you even feeling a little distazo right now, in this very moment?

What if the solution to this problem of being of two minds, of being constantly distazo, was to be of THREE minds?

To be of three minds, I think, might mean something like this. We are not more distracted and divided by the tension between what draws us toward God and what draws us away from God. Instead, we are more aware of the presence of God’s three-pronged reality in the world - “the grace of our lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.”

 We begin our worship with this very phrase, you may have noticed. We happen to be quoting Paul’s words as he ends his second letter to the Christian community in Corinth, who were very divided and very distazo by many things. So Paul reminded his congregation, and reminds us many centuries later, that this three-fold blessing of God is WITH us.

The GRACE of our Lord Jesus, who showed us the lengths that God would go to prove that God is not in the sin-accounting business, is WITH US.

The LOVE of God, our loving Father who created you and knows you and is absolutely head-over-heals for you, is WITH US.

The Holy Spirit’s COMMUNION, which draws us together into a community of love from all corners of the globe, from every language, color, and background, is WITH US.

When Paul first committed these words to paper, and when we speak them into the universe every Sunday from this day into eternity, we remind ourselves that in the end, the distazo cannot win. It does not have the last word. It does not have control over our ending.

We may not always live “happily ever after” like in the fairy tales. But in fact, we have something better than a fairy tale ending – the assurance that no matter where our stories take us, Jesus promises to be with us through its chapters, to the end of the age. And so, what we have taken for an ending in the Gospel of Matthew is actually a beginning, a “once upon a time” in disguise.

Because even if you flip all the way to the end, the very end, the end of Revelation, last page of the Bible, we only have another beginning: “Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints.” And that means you. Jesus is WITH YOU. So what’s that going to mean for YOUR story?  What does that mean for you? Now that the sermon is over what is that going to mean for your next chapter?

And so they lived full of grace, full of love, and in the communion of God, faithfully ever after. The end.


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Sermon 6-1-14 - "MINE"

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

Beau and I were at the Quaker bridge mall the other day, frequenting our favorite guilty-pleasure coffee establishment, (cup) Starbucks. Beau stayed to enjoy his coffee while I took mine to go, so I could go shopping – a happy compromise for all. However, after I walked in a store, I realized I had a problem. A full cup of coffee, even with a cover, is not a good combination with racks of clothes that are not yet mine. What to do, what to do… ah! Look there, right behind me, a small table. Great, I can put my coffee right there in easy reach! That way, I can browse with now worries of spilling… I can look all I want…. and then when I’m all finished, I could just pick up my coffee and….

…it wasn’t there. My coffee. My beautiful, delicious, nearly full Starbucks coffee was gone. Likely picked up by a well-meaning employing in that busy store, simply trying to keep the store clean. But still. That coffee was mine. And I wanted it. And now it was no longer there when I expected it to be. And I was very unhappy about it.

But I got over it. After all, there are more important things to worry about than MY Starbucks coffee. Things like how to arrange getting MY car fixed up after a tough winter of Trenton pot holes. Things like - whether or not MY number will be called up for jury duty in a few weeks. Things like - wondering how MY sister, now graduated from college, will be able to find a job.  Things like -worrying about taking care of all the stuff AND people who are “mine.”

You know that old saying about marriage, that “What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is ours.”? No? You’ve never heard that? That’s kind of what Jesus sounds like here in this prayer – what’s mine is yours, what’s yours in mine, and him in me and I in him and I in you and God is us and yours and mine and what in the world is Jesus talking about here and can I get a translation or at least a little more punctuation please.
On our last Sunday in Easter, as we wait to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday next week, we again find ourselves in the Gospel of John, with Jesus and the disciples on the night of the last supper, the night he was betrayed, with suffering and death awaiting him. In the midst of this last meal with his closest friends, in the midst of a very difficult conversation where Jesus tries to both explain his upcoming absence and prepare his disciples for it, Jesus prays for them.

He doesn’t pause the conversation. He doesn’t say - hold that thought, I’ll be right back, and then go off on his own. He doesn’t close his eyes and pray silently. He prays – out loud – in the middle of their conversation – so that they are able to hear him as he prays. This prayer is not private. Jesus WANTS us to hear him as he prays to his father.

And during his prayer, he reminds those of us who are listening of two things – the first, which he mentions last, in typical Johnish “Yoda-like” fashion, is that those of us who follow Jesus belong to God, and God calls us his. The second thing, which Jesus mentions first, is the reminder that eternal life is not just about what happens to us when we die. It’s about knowing who we belong to (which is God) and knowing the one whom God sent (which is Jesus). Eternal life is about living into the fact that God calls you “mine.”

Two different Pixar movies have shown us what being so claimed by God both IS and IS NOT. God calling us God’s own is NOT like those really annoying seagulls in Finding Nemo - you know, the ones who say to everything in their line of sight MINE. MINE. MINE. After all, that’s how we treat things and people when they are simply a means to an end. Instead, God’s claim on us is more like in the movie Toy Story, where the boy Andy loves his toys so much that he writes his name on the bottom of their feet in case he loses them. Andy, however, did NOT know that his toys were alive and sometimes looked at the bottom of their feet for encouragement when they experienced their own toy version of “dark night of the soul.”

I showed a clip from Toy Story at this past year’s Winter Youth Assembly, and compared Andy’s care for his toys with the love God has for us and the promise that we belong to God no matter where we are and no matter what state we find ourselves in. The theme for the event, after all, was “MINE.” Later I found out that some of the girls from one church had taken a sharpie and written “God” on the bottom of their feet. As silly as that sounds, I realized they GOT IT. They GOT that God calls them his own and has claimed them and has promised to be with them, and wanted to show this in a way that made sense to them in that moment.
So what if we all lived as if “God” was written with a sharpie on the bottoms of our feet? What might our lives look like? Would your lives, in fact, look differently? For this promise – that God has written “MINE” on us – is both a gift and a charge. It means that God is going to be with us no matter what. But it also means that God might ask us to go places that we wouldn’t normally go, places that might frighten or surprise us. We are not just HIS. We are to be HIS witnesses.

On the night before his death, Jesus prays for the protection of all who belong to him, knowing that they will be called to some pretty scary and surprising places. And again, in the days before the Holy Spirit arrives on Pentecost, Jesus tells his disciples that they will be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all of Judea, and Samaria, and to all the ends of the earth.”

A witness tells others what he or she has seen or experienced. We, as Jesus’ followers, are his witnesses in all that we say and do. And this is definitely a most daunting task. And I can at least say for myself that many times I am not a very good witness. At the mall that day I felt more outrage over my missing cup of coffee than the fact that the nearly three hundred kidnapped Nigerian girls are still missing. And at our New Jersey Synod Assembly yesterday I felt more concern about where to get my next cup of coffee than the rising prevalence of food insecurity; as Pastor Sara Lilija from the Lutheran Office of Governmental ministries pointed out, using an illustration that also involved coffee.

In fact, sometimes I feel that I am what they call on Law and Order a “hostile” witness. When a witness is not cooperating in the way the lawyers expect, they often ask the judge in a very serious tone: “your honor, permission to treat the witness as hostile.”

Fortunately for us, Jesus will never treat us as hostile witnesses, even though we often DO let him down in our witnessing. Too often we forget that belonging to God is a life-long calling. Too often we forget that the mark of the cross on our foreheads given to us in baptism is still there. When the pastor said the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” God was writing on you a big ol’ M-I-N-E. And perhaps, God was writing it on our feet, too.

Today is the seventh Sunday of Easter. But it is also June first, and all too soon summer will be upon us. And before we know it, we will be pulled in all the many directions that summer takes us – sports camps, summer vacations at the shore, trips, family reunions and obligations – and it’s gonna feel like these things OWN you. It’s gonna feel like you are at their mercy, that you belong to the business of your schedule, and there is nothing you can do about it.

Or is there?

God doesn’t take a summer vacation from claiming you as his beloved child. We do not stop belonging to God, and we don’t stop being his witnesses, even if we many find ourselves in some pretty scattered places. Because you can bet that if Jesus says you will be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, Jesus is going to be with you to make sure you get to your destination. And, UNLIKE my coffee, he's not going to disappear on you. AMEN.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"Come Thou Font of Every Blessing" verse according to pics at Cross Roads Camp

Here I raise my Ebenezer....

Hither by thy help I've come.

And I hope by thy good pleasure...
Safely to arrive at home.

Homily at my home church, Grace Lutheran in Winchester, WI

1 Peter 2:2-10
Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’  To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner’,  and ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 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.

Wednesday 5-14-14

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Christ our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

My husband and I were at Target the day after Mother's Day, and already the card section had been stripped clean of all vestiges that there had ever been a mother's day at all. Instead, all was being made ready for the next big “card holiday” - Father's Day! So you'd better get your cards now, before they're gone! And of course there are as many graduation cards still available as there are schools and programs to graduate from - high school, college, graduate school, pre school, med school. Cards for holding money, cards that are funny or slightly inappropriate, cards that are mushy and gushy, cards that make us cry with their wisdom.

Target and the Hallmark companies of the world seem to have all the festive and celebratory holidays and occasions covered. But if there were cards for “real life;” - cards that expressed what was really on our minds? What might THOSE cards say?

Alongside the "congrats on that new baby" cards might be the cards that say "Sorry for your loss... of sleep for the next 18 years." A graduation card from such an honesty line, like one I might get for my sister, graduating from college in just a few days, might say: “Congrats on entering the real world! Welcome to crippling debt for the next 15-20 years." or "I’m sorry that you are entering a crummy job market, my condolences."

But also, if such cards existed, next to the cards saying "congrats on your new job" should be cards for the condolences for the loss of job, or a pay cut or reduction in hours. Alongside the festive birthday cards should be cards in large bifocal friendly print that say something like "I hope that today at least is a good day for you, because getting older can be really, really difficult. Your body will betray you, and every year there will be more funerals and fewer faces of the ones you love.”

I suppose in such a world, we would have cards would tell our real life stories, not just the sugar-coated version of the lives that we wish we were leading. With such a honest line of Hallmark cards, it might be easier to share with one another how difficult life can really be.

Reading 1st Peter today is sort of like reading someone else’s real-life, honest Hallmark card. Well, really it’s more like reading a post on someone’s blog - this letter was written to a specific group of people, but read out loud in public, and passed down through the ages so that people like us, two thousand years later, can “eavesdrop.” Peter, writing to the dispersed and exiled communities around what is now Turkey, is not sugar-coating anything. Life did not suddenly become easy once the people in these communities began to follow Jesus. Believing and trusting in the resurrection of their Lord often actually made their lives more difficult. The early Christian church was growing like a weed, and was also being treated like one by the the Roman empire at the time.  To them, the growing Christian church was like a weed that must be pulled out and destroyed at all costs.

Fortunately for us, we no longer have to deal with the likes of the Roman Empire. But unfortunately for us, following Jesus does not seem to have gotten any easier. We may not have the Roman Empire to deal with any more, we do have other empires who oppress and seduce us. The empire of wealth will welcome us with open arms as it citizens, if only we have enough money to support the lifestyle of the successful. The empire of success will call us as one of its own if only we put in long hours and excel at everything we do, including the perfect job, the perfect house, the perfect family. The empire of popularity beckons to us with its lure of instant friends and the acceptance we crave. The empire of stuff tells us that we will only truly find happiness with the next new thing, if only we fork over our credit cards for the next hot item at the mall or on Amazon.

And before long we are utterly used up, buried under this Empire of Death, our hearts slowing becoming deadened to love and kindness, slowly turning into stone. We become like walking dead people, trapped in a tomb of darkness.

Well, we know what Jesus does to tombs, don’t we? Tombs just don’t seem to stay shut around him. When Jesus shows up, people have a tendency not to stay dead.

Where the empires of our lives show us no mercy, Jesus has shown us mercy. When we were once a collection of individuals with hearts of stone, now Jesus has called us together to be a people, as Peter writes - to be living stones. As pastor, writer, and speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber has said, when looking out upon her congregation, “I am UNCLEAR about what all these people have in common.” Except, of course, we have our Lord Jesus in common, who gathers us together, and makes us into a new kind of people.

Jesus has called us out of the darkness of death into his marvelous light to be living stones that make up his church. You know that kids rhyme, “here is the church, here is the steeple, open the door and see all the people.” Well, I’m sorry to have to tell you that this rhyme is WRONG - dead WRONG. The church is NOT the building. It’s not the steeple. It’s not the pews or what color they are. The church is not the budget, or the pastors, (or who is preaching), or the banners, or the screen, or the altar rail. The church is not a building made of bricks and stone. “HERE is the church,” made of of living stones, made of flesh and blood, made of people who tried their darndest to follow Jesus every day. The church is wherever God is, and wherever God’s people happen to be, there is the church.

And if that is really true, that church can happen wherever God is (which is everywhere) and wherever God’s people find themselves, that means that church is not just what happens inside this building. It’s what happens OUT THERE, outside the safety of Jesus’ sheep pen we heard about last week.

I don’t have to tell you that the world can be a scary place. But we have built our lives on a movable cornerstone - our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. This cornerstone knows what it’s like to be rejected, to suffer pain in the extreme, both physical and emotional, and has gone into the tomb of the darkness of death. But as we know, tombs don’t stay shut for Jesus. The resurrected Lord is popping up all over the place, and sometimes NOT. EVEN. IN. CHURCH.

Jesus is on the move, a living stone that is rock-steady for us to build our lives on, and yet always ahead of us, leading us into a new kind of future. Now how is THAT for an awesome, real-life, greeting card? Amen.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Friday We Call Good

(A word: I did not originally intend to preach nearly identical sermons at both our 12:30 and 7:30 Good Friday Services - it just sort of happened that way. In the 12:30 I included the phrase "here is the man" repetitively because of the John reading, but took it out for the 7:30, and added the paragraph in italics. This is the 7:30 version)

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.

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 peace. 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 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 Pakistan.

Often we remember great men and women by the last words they spoke before their death. Dr. King allegedly spoke these last words to a musician just before he was shot: "Ben, make sure you play 'Take My Hand, Precious Lord' in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” The last words said by Martin Luther, reformer of the church and for whom our denomination is named, were “We are beggars; it is true.”

But we can safely say that no other death in the history of all people is as important as the death of a Palestinian Jewish peasant who live 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 sacrificed at the altar of the Empire of Rome. Here is a man who claimed to be a king, and look at what they did to him.

The area of Judea and Galilee at the time of Jesus were already under the thumb their fifth or sixth succeeding empire. Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and not 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 authority, both empire and religious. True, he also had some disturbing quirks like eating with sinners and talking to women and children and talking too much about the kingdom of God. But as long as he is the Messiah, those might be overlooked. As long as he kicks out the Roman Empire, much can be forgiven.

And this week also started out so well – the people crowding around and showing 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. No revolution, no overthrow of the oppressive government of Rome, no political victory. A failure in the eyes of his people. A failure in the eyes of history, presumably doomed to obscurity, yet another failed king who did not obtain greatness.

But Jesus didn’t come to be a great king of history. He wasn’t born to be prince over an earthly government, wielding power and influence. 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 rightous, 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 own suffering, torture, and a cruel and humiliating 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 an elusive hermit. He could have called those legions of angels to his aid and proven beyond a doubt who he was. 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 chose the cross.

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 in all of history: “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 himself, and he was talking about this moment. He was talking about 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 in the world. The Roman Empire intended it to be a sign of intimidation, a deterrent, a sign that reads clear as day “This is what happens when you go up against the “powers that be” and lose. Because you WILL LOSE.”

 On this Friday that is called Good, though, the symbol of an instrument of torture and humiliation and death is transformed into 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, even if it means suffering and death on a cross.

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 as beloved by God.

Even when the night has fallen, all hope is 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.

Maundy Thursday Sermon: Or "Cake Boss" and Grandma's Strawberry Jello

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

A wise theologian once said, “The point of the cross is not to be a giant guilt trip.”  And so in that vein, and also by invoking our beloved Martin Luther’s mandate to “sin boldly, but all the more boldly believe and rejoice in Jesus Christ,” I’m going to begin this Holy Thursday sermon by talking about the show Cake Boss.

During first communion class, do you remember watching the video called Grandma’s Bread? Cake Boss is like Grandmas’ Bread on steroids. It’s is a show on TLC about a Hoboken family who are in the business of making amazingly beautiful cakes. You want a fire truck cake? No problem! You want a cake that looks like a roulette wheel? They can make it. But this show is about much more than their incredible feats of sugary goodness. There is often trouble in this paradise of dessert. Between the opinionated and demanding “cake boss” himself, his often overbearing sister, his bumbling delivery driver, and his mother, the widow of the man who started the business, it’s a wonder they get any cakes one at all! But over and over again, at least in the few episodes I’ve seen, they somehow come together to create something utterly breathtaking. Those who received the cakes always oooh and aaaah, and I’m sure that this special memory with their family and friends is one they won’t be forgetting anytime soon.

But what are some of your favorite food memories? The smell of Grandma baking homemade bread? The taste of fresh marina sauce at your favorite restaurant as you celebrated a birthday or milestone? When we ask our first communion class every year about special food served at special meals, they always know exactly what we’re talking about. Turkey on Thanksgiving. Mom’s sugar cookies at Christmas. Grandma’s cheesy potatoes at Easter. Cake at birthday parties.

Family, friends, and food just seem to go together. It’s why I always ate my grandma’s strawberry Jello with bananas at every family gathering while she was alive. I didn’t particularly love strawberry Jello or bananas or the combination thereof; but eating this special desert was like eating with her. And unfortunately there did come a time when strawberry Jello with bananas was no longer on the menu.

So when is strawberry Jello more than just strawberry Jello? And when is bread more than just bread and when is wine more than just wine? Like strawberry Jello, here is nothing inherently special about bread and wine. Just walk down the bread aisle at ShopRite sometime, or take a stroll through Bottle King or a Joe Canal’s. There may be more varieties than were available to Jesus, but really, bread still is just bread and wine is still just wine, no matter where you are. Neither are hard to find, like a package of strawberry Jello. They are common, familiar, everyday things, nowhere near on par with extraordinary Cake Boss creations.

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 funny habit of taking what is ordinary in the eyes of the world and making it into something special, holy, set apart.

Jesus embodied this during his lifetime, even to excess. 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, children, foreigners, the blind, and the lame – all people who were on the outside of power and status, looking in. Jesus chose to be with them, just ordinary folks. As Rob Bell writes, “In his insistence that God is for everybody, Jesus challenged the conventional wisdom of his day that God is only for some.”

But there were those in power in Jesus’ time who could not abide the thought that God would stoop to 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 to upset the established and excepted order, so much so that 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 to betray him.

But that didn’t stop Jesus, not 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 who are Jesus’ closest friends, the people he chose to spend his last meal with: common working men who didn’t understand him, political zealots and hot-heads, those who would later desert him, and one would hand him over to death. And yet, there they all are, sitting around the table with Jesus, sharing bread and wine.

And I ask you this night, to look around, to see who is gathered around this table. As Pastor Nadia Boltz-Weber often says as she witnesses the diversity in her own congregation: “I am unclear about what all these people have in common.” It just doesn’t seem to make any sense. Why would all these people be coming together? 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 Jesus was making a memory with them that they would not soon forget – a memory that will be passed on, remembered throughout the ages.

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

Jesus promised to be present with us in the sharing of bread and wine. And this he does brazenly, while sin and betrayal and fear are sitting 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 fists and reeds and flogging and splinters and nails.

Jesus makes a new covenant 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.

We don’t have to understand it. In fact, most days we won’t be able to wrap our minds around it. But we believe it, trust it, and grasp it tightly and do not let go. We reach out our hands and accept 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.

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. And together this night we break bread, eat, and remember that Jesus is here with us, in the breaking of the bread. Today we remember the goodness of the Lord, as we look ahead to tomorrow, that Friday that we call good. Amen.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lent is....

Lent is… letting God defragmenting your hard drive.

At the beginning of Lent, I usually have the best of intentions. I don’t normally give something up, but I try to add something to my devotional live. This year it was a nice resource put out by Augsburg Fortress, a little devotional on Romans that fits in your pocket. And, like most years, my use of it has been hit or miss.
But that’s ok. Because Lent is like letting God defragment your hard drive.

When my seminary Luther tweeted “Lent is….”, encouraging people to fill in the blank, I thought I was pretty clever at coming up with this one. I didn’t expect that God would actually listen to me and make me eat my words this Lent.

Defragmenting a hard drive, if you recall, is the process of getting rid of the unnecessary junk in your computer and rearranging the programs to fill in the gaps more neatly, kind of like arranging your bookshelves by height and size so that they fit better. Now when we defragment computers it takes an hour or two, maybe more if it’s been a while. Beau once told me that he defragmented his computer way back when, and it took it an entire week. AN ENTIRE WEEK. Seven days of defragmenting. Can you imagine? What would we do nowadays without a computer for an entire week??? Thank goodness the process is sooo much faster now!

But defragmenting life is still a much longer process. And letting God defragment your personal hard drive takes an entire Lent, if not longer. For the past few weeks, and really for the last five months since moving to Trenton, God has been trying to teach me what is really necessary and what things might fit better in my life if rearranged a bit. Sometimes I’m a good student, sometimes I’m not. But I’m still learning a lot. I’m learning that it is possible to be a one car family even with both of our crazy schedules. I’m learning that a few sewing skills and some creativity can go a long way when it comes to saving money. I’m learning that when God rips down the detailed map of where you thought your life would go, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole wide universe behind it.

But that’s pretty much Lent in a nutshell. God taking our fragments and putting them back together to make a whole that is much better than the cobbled-together mess we’ve come up with; God making something beautiful out of the mess. 

This liturgical art is made from sea glass and broken IKEA plates, reconstructed and used at "Baby Pastor School" 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Out of the Tombs, or Third Sermon in a Three Sermon Week

Sermon 4-6-14

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 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 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 town. And today, for this last Sunday before Palm Sunday, the season finale, his greatest accomplishment to date: Jesus comforts his friends Mary and Martha, then raises 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, pretty much right in the middle of this gospel. And in so many other ways is this story central to the Gospel of John. We have the great confession - that Jesus is the messiah – though it comes from the lips of Martha and not Peter. The raising of Lazarus is giving us a foretaste of what is to come. It 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 warrent.

But… that’s all part of the teaser trailer for next time: “Tune in next week for the second half of ‘How I Met Our Savior’.” So let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Let’s talk about THIS week.

How was this week in your life? Was it pretty average, things going along according to schedule, no surprises, pretty run-of-the-mill?  Did things go especially well for you this week? Did life seem to “go your way?” Did you find yourself unexpectedly surprised by some good things? Or was it “one of THOSE weeks”? Where nothing seemed to go right, one setback after another throws you for a loop, with hardly a moment to catch your bearings?

Let me share with you a little bit about my week. A week ago last Saturday, I attended the funeral service for the mother of the council president at St. Mark’s in Hamilton, where I am the vice-pastor, helping them through their pastoral transition while they call a new pastor. The woman was nearly 90 and had lived a full life when she had a stroke the week before. And then, the evening of the same day of that funeral, another member of St. Mark, this time a man in his 40s died, after suffering from a long illness. His service and burial were on Wednesday. Then, on Thursday, I attended a discussion for church leaders at the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in Hamilton, on the topic of navigating end of life issues for patients and families. And through all of this week about death, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus hovered over me.

Mary and Martha were having “one of those weeks” too, where time seems to stop and all semblance of normalcy goes out the window. This time there is no bickering about who will cook and who gets to listen to Jesus. Their brother was ill and near death, and so they called 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 Lazarus had been dead for four days.

If I had been Martha or Mary, I would have been furious. From their point of view, while Lazarus was alive, something could have been done. He could have been healed. But death is final. Death is the one thing we cannot escape, and we are mercilessly captive to its power.  From our perspective, death is the end for those of us left behind.

And Mary and Martha do lay this statement at Jesus’ feet, along with their grief and sorrow: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Buried in that statement perhaps is the question: “So where were you, Lord?”

Where were you, Lord, when Lazarus died? And where were you in the life of the young man from St. Mark’s who died? Or when the stroke happened to the mother of their council president? Where were you, Lord, when I lost my job, or my hours were cut, or my child got really sick, or my grandchildren stopped going to church? Where ARE you, Lord, in the crazy-busy grind of life? Where is the “Resurrection and the Life” when my life feels more like death?

When Mary and Martha asked this question, they were not lamenting to an aloof and unavailable god somewhere far away, hoping that perhaps someone was listening. No, Mary and Martha were speaking face-to-face with Jesus, 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, and who wept 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 foolish and insensitive of Jesus, it seemed to everyone around, for Jesus to then dry his tears and shout at the tomb: Lazarus, come out! Until, that is, Lazarus, still dressed in his burial wrappings, emerged from his own tomb.

 “Where were you, Lord?” He is there, in our tomb with us. He is there, calling us to come out. He is there, calling life out of the darkness of death, just as he did that day at Lazarus’ tomb, and then again on that Sunday morning we call Easter.

Where is God calling life out of death in your life, right here, right now? Or, where has God called life out of death in your life in the past?

This week, It’s been just over six months since my Grandpa, my dad’s dad, had a stroke and later died. He was eighty-seven, and had lived a full and satisfying life, working the land and raising nine children. His wife of over sixty years, my grandma, had died of bone cancer ten years before, and he still missed her terribly. Sometimes he wondered what he was still doing here, but he still tremendously enjoyed his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In September he had a stroke that left him unable to speak or swallow. He had made it clear that he did not want to live as his aunt had, many years ago after her stroke, with very little quality of life.  But his strong heart meant that it was almost two weeks before his body gave up the fight. It was so hard to watch as he got weaker every day. But the remaining time that we spent with him was the greatest gift he has ever given me. I was able to spend time with my family as we sat around his bed, holding his hand and telling stories. The memories of those days, like the memories of my grandpa, will be with me forever. It was a holy time, with the space between life and death blurring together. And for me, God was bringing the gift of new life of strengthening my relationships with my family out of the grief and sadness of his death.

What about for you? Where can you see the power of life overcoming the power of death? What cold and dark tombs is God calling you out of? And how can we, as the community who surrounds you and loves you, help to unbind you once God has called you forth out of death?

The final hymn for the funeral at St. Mark’s on Wednesday was A Mighty Fortress is our God, chosen by his family because it was a favorite of the young man who died. If you recall, that hymn reminds us that that death does not have the final word. “Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child or spouse; Though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.”

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 see through death to see the coming life emerging; we can look through Good Friday to see that Easter IS coming. Amen.