Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Joy Happens When Jesus Happens


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

According to the songs we all know, “if you’re happy and you know it, (clap your hands)!” But what do we do when we are joyful? What should I do when “When I've got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart?” Sing? Dance? Shout?

What comes to your mind when I say “Joy”? How would you fill in the rest of the sentence, “Joy is….”?

Joy is… spending time with the people you love, like having dinner with the whole family around the table.

Joy is… working at a job that pays the bills and provides a sense of meaning and accomplishment, or getting accepted into the school you wanted to go to.

Joy is… hearing a child call your name for the first time.

Joy is… a cat on your lap with a good book and a cup of tea. Or coffee.

Sometimes joy is… just getting the laundry finished!

Joy is… seeing my younger sister graduate from college a year ago last May. Joy is also my sister’s middle name. We used to tease her about it sometimes when we were kids, and say that she should not be “Katie Joy” but instead “Katie Not-A-Joy.” I think she might have forgiven us by now. Perhaps if we had grown up on the East Coast, surrounded by so many of our Jewish neighbors, we could have teased her by calling her “Katie Oy” like “oy vey.”

The world around us, especially lately, seems to contain so much more “Oy” than “Joy.” In the last few weeks alone, there has been an earthquake in Nepal that has killed thousands and displaced thousands more, the community of Baltimore has been reeling from injustice and chaos, and just last weekend three people died in a shooting at a park in Menasha, Wisconsin. And in our own state capitol, right in our own backyard, six people so far have been murdered, and the year isn't even half over. Just what IS joy in a world full of all these troubles?

This is not to mention the personal tragedies and struggles we each experience every day – depression, fear, betrayal, worry, pain, abandonment, and illness, just to name a few. Exhaustion rules, event-crammed calendars reign, and energy recedes ever faster. Just what IS joy in a life full of all these troubles?

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus told his disciples. He said this back in John chapter 14, at the start of his goodbye speech, his “last lecture” if you will, on the night that he was betrayed.  This was just hours before the disciples would scatter in fear, abandoning Jesus to be arrested, falsely tried, and sentenced to die by crucifixion. On such a night, love and joy seem terribly out of place. You might say, in fact, they seem nowhere to be found.

Love and joy seem nowhere to be found when your rabbi and teacher says things like he’s leaving you, and that the world will hate you in his name.

Love and joy seem nowhere to be found when Jesus tells you that the greatest love, which he commands you to emulate, possibly might mean laying down your life.

Love and joy seem nowhere to be found, in a world where at birth one twin dies and the other is born healthy, and meanwhile at home there waits two cribs, two car seats, and endless double sets of tiny baby clothes.

Love and joy seem nowhere to be found when Mom can’t recognize her family anymore, and Dad is faced with the reality that he can no longer care for her by himself.

Do love and joy have any place in such a world filled with these troubles?

Is Joy just a “churchy” word that we use to decorate Christmas ornaments and hear in grand Easter hymns? Or is there a possibility that Jesus might be on to something, that joy can also be found in the everyday, mixed up together in the pain and troubles of the world?

My maternal grandpa died last July and my paternal grandpa died the September before that. While we were in Wisconsin celebrating the life of Grandpa Myron, we stopped by the care center where Grandpa Raymond had spent the last years of his life, being visited by his kids, grandkids, and great grand kids and spreading joy and smiles to all the nurses and staff.

Out on the patio there where Grandpa liked to sit is now a tomato planter and a plaque with his name on it, given by the family in his memory. Seeing that planter, with the leafy plants little green tomatoes, brought me so much joy. It could not bring him back, of course, but my heart felt a little fuller knowing that just a little part of Grandpa lives on in that small but tangible way. My joy that day was seeing that death had been robbed of its power through ordinary things like kindness and memories and little green tomatoes.

This is the joy that Jesus has given to us, the kind of joy the world cannot give -
Joy is… that the savior of the world chooses to break bread with the rich and the poor, the power-full and the power-less, with the healthy and the sick, with insiders and with outsiders, with men and women, old and young children.

Joy is…that Jesus chose to be his disciples a rag-tag band of perfectly flawed human beings, though they be betrayers, deniers, and abandoners.

Joy is…that Jesus chooses US to be his disciples– a rag-tag band of perfectly flawed betrayers, denies, and abandoners.

Joy is… being chosen as children of God, and through us our faith is conquering the world in a revolution of peace and love and understanding.

Joy is… having your sermon interrupted by the Holy Spirit and with a crazy, loud, spontaneous baptism of a whole bunch of people, as we heard that Peter experienced in our first reading.
Joy is … seeing the beautiful image of God in the faces of people of all faiths, races, cultures, languages, and sexual orientations.

Joy is… just when you thought that death had won, that divorce and depression and destruction has the last word; joy is that NEW LIFE HAPPENS.

Our joy… is not complete without Jesus.

It may have appeared a little odd to go back to the night that Jesus was betrayed, essentially back to dark Maundy Thursday, during the celebratory season of Easter. But we know that you cannot have one without experiencing the other. New life cannot happen apart from death. Resurrection cannot happen without crucifixion. Easter cannot happen without Good Friday. Joy cannot exist apart from being open to the possibility of pain. Love cannot endure without anything less than everything you have.

The reason that we have no need for troubled hearts in this troubled world and in our troubled lives is not because Jesus makes the lives of his followers into cupcakes and lattes. Just look at the lives of Peter, James, John, Paul, and the rest. Their preaching of the joy of Jesus brought them prison, pain, and persecution. Nor does Jesus call us to willfully ignore the troubling realities of the world around us, or when tragedy strikes in our lives.

Instead, we know and trust that, as the psalmist says, “Weeping may linger for a night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5) Or put another way, by the musical Les Mis, “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” One translation of Psalm 30 continues: “At night I went to bed weeping; in the morning – a cry of joy. I said in my contentment, ‘I will never stumble.’ God, only by your resolve do I stand on a mountain of strength (from The Complete Psalms translated by Pamela Greenburg)…  You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” (Back to NRSV)

Do not let your hearts be troubled, for Jesus for Jesus has sent his joy to you, to be with you in the darkest nights of betray and troubles, so that your joy may be whole and that through him, you may be made whole.  Amen.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

"Every morning is Easter morning!"


Grace and Peace to you from God our father and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

The Psalmist writes: “How good and how pleasant it is, when kindred live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1) But I would be willing to bet good money that whoever wrote this psalm did NOT have to live in a freshmen college dorm, or be the camp counselor to eight teenagers for a whole week. And I would also be willing to bet they had never been part of a church, either, with all our diverse opinions, personality clashes, and our inclination to leave or split off into smaller and smaller groups when something doesn’t quite agree with us.

The reading from Acts we just heard makes Christian community look easy, though. Gosh, doesn’t that paint a nice picture for us? “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul… and great grace was upon them all.” As nice as that all sounds, it seems to us like this might indeed be too good to be true. If it did happen, this type of sharing and loving community was only in existence for about… 30 seconds tops. And what we don’t read is the “the rest of the story.” In the verses just after this description of spirit-filled community is the account of a husband and wife team who sold their ample possessions, held back a portion from the community, and then lied about it. So much for being “of one heart and one soul.” It didn't take us very long after Easter to mess things up.

It’s the Sunday after Easter, and what about the world has changed? Anything? Yes, Jesus has been raised from the dead – and hallelujah for that! – But what, exactly has that gotten us? There is still death and suffering and illness and pain and war and divisions and fighting in the world. It’s after Easter, but some days the world feels more like it is still Good Friday.

After the FIRST Easter, on the very evening that Jesus had been raised from the dead and appeared to Mary, the disciples actually WERE of one heart and one soul. But not the heart and soul we are supposed to emulate, a heart of love and a soul of generosity. They were united in fear, and of one soul in the desire to hide. So they locked the door.

Yes, Peter and John had seen the empty tomb for themselves. Yes, Mary had actually talked to and touched Jesus. But then they had rushed home and locked the door. They were still afraid.
It was after Easter – but the disciples were still stuck in Good Friday. Good Friday: the day they ran away. Good Friday, they day they let Jesus down, denied him, and abandoned him.

Perhaps a better game plan for Jesus would have been to go and find some new disciples, for heaven sakes! But he didn’t. The evening after he was raised, he showed up in the very locked room that they had hidden themselves away in. Their fear had locked them IN, but it could not keep Jesus OUT.
And perhaps Jesus had a few choice words he could have shared in that moment. He could have also rebuked them for letting him down YET AGAIN by continuing to hide, EVEN AFTER confronted with the empty tomb and Mary Magdalene’s testimony.

But he didn’t. Instead he said this: “Peace be with you.” And again “Peace be with you! As my father has sent me, so I send you.”

Jesus knows better than anyone that when humans get together to form community on our own, we have the tendency to do terrible things. We tend to allow some people IN and keep others OUT. We tend to see our differences rather than our similarities. We tend to be closed in on ourselves in order to hide, or reach out with a heavy hand to oppress others. Left to our own devices, we tend to get stuck in the Good Friday world that is out there. And Jesus bears the proof of that in the marks on his very own body.

Because he knows this already, Jesus breathes his spirit into his disciples. Thus, he makes them a community IN HIS NAME. And he gives them a mission that is the same as his father’s mission: to share the peace that Jesus gives us with others. To be Easter people in a Good Friday world.
One of my favorite Easter songs I learned from my church as a kid went something like this:

Ev'ry morning is Easter morning from now on! 
Ev'ry day's resurrection day, the past is over and gone!  
Good-bye guilt, good-bye fear, good riddance! Hello, Lord, Hello, sun! 
I am one of the Easter People! My new life has begun!

There will still be plenty of guilt and fear, but we can say goodbye to the power they have in our lives, precisely because we are Easter people. Me, you, Peter, Mary, and Thomas, all the deniers and deserters, all the saints and believers who have gone before us, are all part of the Easter People, thanks to Jesus.

One such Easter Person who faced a very dark Good Friday world was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German Lutheran pastor, teacher, and theologian who lived in Nazi Germany and opposed Hitler and all he stood for. In his preaching and his writing, he was part a movement in Germany, which became one of the foremost Christian groups to protest the rise of the Nazis government. Even against his own peaceful beliefs, Bonhoeffer was involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, which obviously failed and caused Bonhoeffer to be arrested and imprisoned. He was executed 70 years ago on April 9th, 1945, just weeks before the Nazis surrendered.

Before his death, Bonhoeffer wrote: “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross, he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.” (Life Together, p. 1)

Bonhoeffer knew as well as anyone that in the thick of foes of all kinds is where God calls us to be. We don’t belong in these locked rooms of our own making, like the disciples didn’t belong in their locked room on that Easter evening, and were in YET AGAIN a week later. That’s right, a week after Jesus showed himself the first time, they are still in the house with the doors shut. And YET AGAIN, Jesus shows up despite the closed door to say YET AGAIN “Peace be with you!”

And Jesus will not stop barging into our locked rooms to tell us, his Easter people, “Peace be with you.”

Even if you keep locking yourself away, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”

Even when living with one another is hard, and living in a Good Friday world is even harder, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”

Even on the days that we, like Thomas, demand that Jesus shows up before we agree to be part of his Easter people, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.”

As God the Father has sent Jesus the Son, so Jesus send US out from our own locked rooms into the world. But we don’t go into the “thick of foes” unaided. We get the peace and presence of Jesus himself.

Thomas didn’t have to actually put his fingers in the wounds to believe. Thomas was the FIRST to name Jesus as both Lord and God, but he certainly was not the last. We can be pretty sure that, in the end, the disciple did not remain in that locked room. Just like Jesus burst into that locked room, they burst into the Good Friday world as an Easter people with an Easter mission, to spread the message of peace and hope. We, right here, right now, in this very place, as just one small cell-group of the Easter people, are called to do no less than the same.

Easter isn’t over. It has just begun. Because of Jesus, “every morning is Easter morning, FROM… NOW… ON!” Amen.