Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

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.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lent Meditation 4-2

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

on and on,

Time. Sometimes, when you’re having a good time, or you’re “in the zone,” and hours or an entire day can pass in the blink of an eye, leaving you wonder “where did the time go?” Other times, minutes can seem like hours, and time can stretch out so that it feels like an eternity.

During these forty days of Lent, we are deliberately stretching out time, so that we are spending six weeks dwelling in the last twenty-four hours of Jesus life. The night began in celebration, with Jesus celebrating the Passover with his twelve disciples. They broke bread and shared a cup of wine. But that celebration was bittersweet with the knowledge that one of Jesus’s own closest friends would betray him and the rest would abandon him in his hour of greatest trials. To prepare himself for the night ahead, Jesus prays and asked his disciples to pray with him, but they their eyes and hearts are too heavy for them.

As the darkness deepened, Jesus is betrayed, arrested, and taken away to be secretly tried by the religious authorities. After a sham trial, they decide that Jesus deserves death, and they will hand him over to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. In the meantime, Peter has denied Jesus three times as the rooster crowed, just as Jesus predicted.

And now it is morning, but this time, morning does not bring hope of a new day. Today, Friday, Jesus is taken by the religious leaders to Pilate in order to carry out his death sentence. In Matthew’s gospel, we skip entirely the trip to Herod the puppet king, colluding with the Roman occupiers. No, in Matthew Jesus is sent straight to the source of political power in the region, Pontius Pilate.

At the time of Jesus, Israel was again an occupied territory, second-class citizens in their own country. So the religious leaders were not allowed to carry out death sentences. That was the job of the Romans, and they were very good at it. IF, that is, they could make Jesus seem dangerous to Roman rule. Rome could care less about some internal religious dispute. But if Jesus were really a threat to the government, Jesus would be taken care of. So the religious elite imagined charges that would get Pilate’s attention – that Jesus claimed to be king of the Jews.

This was not the first time, though, that Jesus had been called “king of the Jews.” Long before this, back at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, a group of wise men from the East arrived in Jerusalem, and starting asking “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” This terrified the entire city of Jerusalem, and with good reason. One does not simply go around claiming to look for the King of the Jews. At this time, there can only be one king of the Jews, and his name is Caesar. It’s no wonder that Herod went to such lengths to try to kill this child. What is the death of one child when the peace of an entire nation is at stake?

And so, all these years later, the question at hand really has not changed all that much – what is the death of one man when fate of an entire nation is possibly at stake?

Jesus, who seems so harmless to us – welcoming children, talking to women, feeding people, healing the blind and the lame. What could be so wrong with that? Isn’t Jesus the kind of guy you want to have hanging around? Not really, at least, not if you are part of the religious elite, and not if you are the empire of Rome. This Jesus was drawing too many people, and attracting too much attention. This Jesus had to go, even if it had to come from witness tampering and massaging of the truth.

But the great irony is that Jesus is actually guilty of the trumped up charges against him. Jesus really is the King of the Jews. He is the messiah, the chosen one, the son of man seated at the right hand of power, coming on the clouds of heaven. Christ is not Jesus’ last name, it’s his title. It means the one who is anointed.  It means the one who is selected and set apart by God to rule. It means king.

But Jesus is not just a regular old king, like the brutal and cruel Caesars and Pilates of this world, set apart above and beyond the people they rule over. Jesus is not a king that comes with armies and weapons to vanquish his enemies. Jesus came to be a king WITH his people, to rule them by example, his example of self-giving love. His is a kingdom that conquers by peace. He is a king that rules by dying.

But before Jesus is to die, the soldiers under Pilate must put on a show of strength before this condemned and tortured man. These soldiers are under the impression that they are mocking Jesus when one takes off his own robe to create a sham of a cape and another braided a pitiful crown out of thorns and a third pulled up a tall weed for a scepter. But the truth is, Jesus was never the kind of king to wear gold and jewels and fine robes. What they put on Jesus is just what a suffering servant-king ought to wear – not trappings of power and might, but badges of pain and suffering.

There is one last item that the Christ will wear before that Friday is over, one last garment that this King will put on for our sakes. That is the shroud of death. And a tomb shall be his royal palace.

Because even kings die. No ruler, no emperor, no king, no matter how powerful, has ever defeated the power of death. But then again, Jesus isn’t just a
is he?