Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

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.