Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, November 30, 2015

"Jesus is coming... Look up!"

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

Nothing gets us in the “Christmas spirit” like talking about the end of the world.

Every once in a while, I notice a car (normally the one I happen to be behind going 5 under the speed limit) that has a bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming – look busy.” I’m not sure how exactly I’m supposed to be “looking busy” at least while I’m driving. Definitely not by texting, that’s for sure. I wonder if this means we should have some “holy busy work” at the ready. That way, when Jesus arrives, like an absentee boss, he won’t think we’re a bunch of slackers.

Were you ready for Jesus the last time he was supposed to come? Three years ago, when we last heard these words in the lectionary cycle, it was December 2012 - the month the world was actually supposed to end, according to some. It didn’t – at least not that I noticed.

While the end of the world failed to happen on a global scale, the end of the world did happen in December 2012, for the parents of children who attended Sandy Hook Elementary. For that community, what they had previously believed about the safety of their loved ones was shaken and came crashing down around them, as the rest of the nation watched with alarm and grief.

And here we are, three years later, with Jesus yet again seeming to be quoting right out of the news. There is plenty for the nations of the world to be in distress about right now, plenty of confusion, chaos, and fear: Paris, refugees from Syria, ISIS, tension between countries and races, airplanes being shot at, people being shot at… just to name a few of the events in the recent news.  So much pain, so much fear, so much suffering has happened just the last few weeks.

So much so, it might cause us to question whether or not these are the very signs Jesus was talking about. Should we be getting ready for the end? Should we “look busy”? Or should we duck and cover? Perhaps keeping our heads down and stockpiling things for “just in case” might be a better way to get ready than “looking busy,” at least by how Jesus describes the end.

Which leads us to wonder in the meantime, whether the end comes and Jesus returns, in the midst of all hell breaking loose right now, we wonder, where is God?

In the midst of all this, in the middle of the meantime, a voice speaks. A voice with a word of hope. This voice, echoing down through all the turbulent eras of the world, is a voice that tells us that this is not how things are always going to be. Another kind of future is on our way to us – not our future, but God’s future, where we will live not as part of the kingdoms of this earth, but as part of God’s kingdom. Another kind of future has always been and is already breaking in.

During another time of great upheaval in human history, the prophet Jeremiah shared this word to a broken people. The people of Israel were conquered by a foreign nation and forcibly became refugees in a strange land. Defeated, defenseless, and dejected, they might have given up on God and given in to their fear. Would they continue to believe that God would still be present in the chaos? Would God be faithful to the promises God made to their ancestors? How long would they have to wait for this coming day that Jeremiah describes?

Some things never change, I guess. We fast forward to the first followers of Jesus hearing these words written by Luke. When Luke was writing, Jerusalem had yet again been destroyed, this time by the Romans. The temple was gone, the city devastated, countless people were dead, and their world was unrecognizable. As if the sun had stopped shining and the stars had fallen out of the sky. 

Which left the early followers of Jesus wondering, can God still show up, even after all this? Is God’s kingdom still near, will God be able to break in to all the darkness that surrounds them?

If this is the kind of thing that Jesus isn’t going to save us from, it’s no wonder we could rather not hear it, and instead skip over Advent completely, and get right to Christmas carols and peppermint lattes. Especially when the things we hear in church on this first Sunday in Advent has nothing to do with Mary, Joseph, angels or birth announcements, or baby Jesus anyway. It seems like WE are the ones who have skipped over the Christmas story entirely, and jumped right ahead to what sounds like the end of the world.

But I will let you in on a little secret. In Advent, time refuses to behave properly. From the past we find hope for the future, and the future becomes the “now.”

During the season of Advent, Jesus comes to us as a baby and as a grown man. He is on a cross and he is raised. He came, he is here, and he will come again, but we don’t know just when and how until he shows up. Maybe tomorrow, two years, or two thousand years from now. And at the same time, Jesus shows up all the time. His kingdom will come, and at the same time his kingdom IS ALREADY HERE among us.

From Jeremiah to Jerusalem to Jersey, God has given God’s people a head’s up, to lift our heads and look up, that from the dead stump of tragedy, a branch is going to spring up, to show us that despite all the chaos and the fear and the pain, God is still going to SHOW UP. Even when all hell breaks loose. While the rest of the world is telling us to duck and cover, or look busy, Jesus says to stand up and look. Because otherwise we might miss where Jesus and the kingdom are breaking into our world RIGHT NOW.  Look up, your redemption is drawing near.

In these dark days of violence and fear, this is where I have seen the kingdom coming near to us:  In two teenage Syrian refugees who are helping the homeless in Seattle. In my friend and other white allies who are keeping the vigil for justice with Black Lives Matter movement in Minneapolis.  In this past month, the Rescue mission of Trenton made it into the Guinness World Record for most clothing donated to people in need. On Tuesday night our youth served a thanksgiving meal at Hightstown Methodist for those who needed a hot meal. In our own generosity in Christmas gifts for kids through RISE and the Tree of Hope for Hightstown Head start, and in our financial support of the ministries of the greater church and the ELCA.

And in most unlikely places, even in the full-on advent of the Christmas shopping season, there is plenty of opportunities to witness the kingdom come. We can continue to be grateful for what we have, beyond just sharing what we are thankful for around the table last Thursday. We can remember the humanity in a cashier who had to work all weekend. We can make choices in our purchases that honors the work and gives the worker a far wage. Your family might even choose to forgo the gift-go-round all together and instead opt for giving to your favorite charity. I might even choose to be courteous of the slow car ahead of me, even if they have that bumper sticker that says “Jesus is coming, look busy!” All these things, and more, are signs of the kingdom of God arriving, even in all the Christmas frenzy. Imagine that.

I’m going to let you in on another secret, one that is perhaps not so secret. Every Sunday when we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we are looking toward a time where God’s justice and mercy will reign supreme. When there is no more racism, sexism, classism of any kind, where fear and war and violence and greed and death no longer rule us. And every time we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we are allowing ourselves to be open to being part of that coming. And not just by “looking busy,” but by being busy bringing in God’s kingdom.

Until God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, and Jesus does come riding in on the clouds, we wait and we hope and we be God’s lights shining in a very dark world. We don’t know what the world will bring to us around the next corner or in the next news cycle. But we can keep our heads up knowing God is going to show up. Jesus is coming… so look up! Your redemption is near. AMEN. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

All Saints Sermon - Out of the Tomb

All Saints, Nov. 1st, 2015

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

Two weeks ago, on our way to the cheese factory to stock up on cheese curds, my sister, my mom, and I first made a stop at the cemetery.  My grandpa - my dad’s dad, who died two years ago last September – is buried there next to the church I grew up in, and I go “visit” him and Grandma in there every time I’m in Wisconsin.

Myron Wittmann, saint

In the very same cemetery is the grave of the father of a friend and pastor here in New Jersey. And that very day we went to the cemetery, my friend’s wife texted to ask if I would go to his father’s grave too. I let her know I found his headstone, and she replied that the thought of me being meant a great deal to them.

Just a few days before that, on a clear and sunny 48 degree day, my brother and his now wife said their vows in that very same church. They made their marriage promise surrounded by those of us present, and also surrounded by the cloud of witnesses of family members who have died, including my grandma and grandpa, buried just yards away.

Loma Jean and Raymond Posselt, saints
Some of the stones in the cemetery, like my friends’ father and my grandpa’s, are fairly recent additions, with fresh stones and fresh grief. Others were buried so long ago the headstones are leaning and the writing unreadable. Regardless, these stones stand as reminders to what we have lost. They stand to mark the place where the earth swallowed up Grandpa, and we would see him no more. They stand as witness to our grief which also swallows us whole.
Raymond Posselt, saint

When you last heard many of today’s texts, you might have been in grief’s grip as you and your family stood graveside. Perhaps you still have yet to emerge from under that grief’s heavy shroud. For many of us, we wonder, along with Mary and Martha, where Jesus is when our loved ones have died and all we are able do is sit at the tomb and weep.

This episode in the Gospel of John began with Mary and Martha sending word to their dear friend Jesus that their brother Lazarus is ill. They assume, as we all would, that being friends with Jesus might also come with the “benefits” of miraculous healing. So they must have expected him to show up in a hurry. 

But by the time Jesus arrives, he was four days late for the funeral. Mary and Martha are still grieving, and surrounded by supporters When they hear that Jesus has arrived into town, Martha got up and met him, while Mary stayed behind.

The very first words out of her mouth were “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And later, when Mary confronts Jesus, she echoes Martha, and doesn’t even know it – “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.”
“Lord, if you had been there…”

We can all join in with Mary and Martha here, and ask where Jesus was… when the chemo stopped working, or when your parents got divorced, when your spouse lost their job, when your son became addicted to drugs or any number of things that happen to us. Lord, where were you when we were swallowed up by grief, loneliness, anxiety, depression, or regret? Lord, where are you, it’s been four day… four weeks… four years… four decades….?

Well, Jesus finally DID show up for Martha and Mary. And when leveled with this hurtful accusation, Jesus did not try to ignore their hurt feelings, make excuses for his delay, or leave in a huff, blaming their lack of faith.

Instead, Jesus wept.

Not just a couple of tears, hurriedly and discreetly dabbed away. This was some full-on sobbing – the completely consuming, can’t breathe, knocking you to the floor, eyes streaming, entire tissue box necessary type of crying. The type of crying when the grief is so immediate, so raw, so painful that it simply has to get out, no matter who is around or what people might think.

And this was JESUS… doing…the crying. In public. In front of Mary and Martha and all the others who were present.

Which made them all wonder – if Jesus cared about Lazarus so much, WHY the DELAY? What about the OTHER healings? Why did Jesus goof up Lazarus?

But, ignoring all that, Jesus, still full of emotion and grief, goes to the tomb where Lazarus lay. No to mourn and grieve, but instead to confront death head-on. And we know what happened next. Jesus – 1, Death - 0

This would not be the last time that Jesus and Death go toe-to-toe. In fact, in John, the raising of Lazarus is the last straw and sets into motion the events that lead to Jesus’ own death: his arrest, trial, suffering, his crucifixion, and burial in a borrowed tomb.

It seemed to everyone present that even Jesus could not escape being swallowed up by death. And a stone was rolled into place as a reminder and witness. Those who sealed Jesus’ tomb may have remembered Lazarus, and perhaps thought to themselves, “Maybe the one raised that Lazarus guy could have kept HIMSELF from dying. But I guess not.” Point, set, match. Death wins.

Three days later, another Mary came to his tomb to mourn. But she found there a surprise waiting for her: a tomb without a stone and a grave without a body. Death, so used to swallowing up people, had instead found itself swallowed up by Jesus, just as Isaiah said– he will destroy the shroud over all the peoples, and the sheet over all the nations, and he will even swallow up death forever. The way things were has been turned upside down. All things are being made new.

Like with his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, Jesus does not stand by to watch our grief from a distance. Jesus, the one who cried, is the one who wipes away our tears. Jesus, the one who died, is the one who removes the bitterness of death to instead promise us a rich feast and an end to separation, grief, and pain.

Jesus, the one who rose, knows what the inside of a tomb looks like. He knows what it like to be inside whatever kind of tomb we may find ourselves in, swallowed up by death, grief, illness, and suffering.

But Jesus is also outside the tomb, ordering the removal of the stone, and calling us by name to “Come out!”

This is what it means to be called a saint on this day, All Saints Sunday. To be a saint is to be called out of death to be part of God’s abundant life, right here and right now. To be a saint means being surrounded by the great crowd of the faithful who have gone before us into the glorious feast that God promises us.

To be a saint does NOT mean being extra holy, or pure, or having an immaculate life. There is nothing we can do to earn our way into sainthood. Rather, being a saint means living and trusting this notion that God loves us like crazy, and would even swallow up death for us so that we might have life. Living this way might leave us a bit dinged up from time to time, left over from our stints in the tomb. But that never stops Jesus from calling our name, to get out of the tomb and to follow him on the way.

Being a saint also means joining Jesus at the promised banquet with Grandma and Grandpa, those who have died in the last year, Lazarus, Mary and Martha… but also with other flawed, imperfect, and perhaps “unacceptable” people that didn’t expect to be there, with their own cracks and scars and tales of tombs to share. And who knows, they might be just as surprised to see US there, too.

But before we get there, between now and then, Jesus continues to show up, wipe tears from our faces, and call us forth from our tombs. And we continue to remember the saints who are no longer with us, who have gone ahead of us. And we remember that the title of saint is a gift, to all who have been in one kind of tomb or another, to all who cling to Jesus as he calls us forth into life and makes all things new. AMEN.