Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


Easter Sunday Sunrise, 3-27-16
St. Paul Memorial Garden
Luke 24:1-12

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

Taken by Mike Schmidt
What are you expecting this morning, on Easter morning, 2016?

What were you expecting, as you got up early to come to our memorial garden on this slightly chilly morning – though could be worse – to stand in your coats for half an hour to sing some songs, hear some scripture, and perhaps pray, like me, that your coffee would hurry up and kick in any time now?

What are you expecting, here, this particular morning, on Easter, 2016?

Where you expecting that, after wandering around in the wilderness of Lent, you would come out on the other side, to rise this Easter morning completely refreshed, restored, and renewed? I don’t know about you, but I was. Or at least, I was kind of hoping that’s how it would work. But life doesn’t exactly work out in the way we expect it to, does it?  

But then again, I’ve done a lot of expecting over the years, as I’m sure many of you have.  And for me, reality has more often than not fallen far short of those expectations. And, like many of you, I woke up in the darkness of this morning to the very real, very present realities of pain, brokenness, and suffering in our world and in our lives. Our lives are still in the same mess that they were in yesterday. We still find ourselves buried in dark tombs.

And yet…. here we are, on Easter morning, rubbing our hands together to keep them warm in a garden where many of our loved ones have been laid to rest. I’m here. You’re here. Life is poking up out of the ground all around us here. And Easter morning has arrived here, and it DOES change things - just not in the ways we expect.

Really, this whole week tells the story of the unexpected: How Jesus was welcomed into town with a parade at the beginning of the week, and being nailed to cross by the end of it.

How Jesus shared his last meal with his disciples, the very ones who would betray him, deny him, and stand silently by as Jesus was arrested, tried, mocked, and beaten before being nailed to a cross.

How a Roman soldier praises God and confesses that Jesus was an innocent man, while his own disciples are silent.

How Jesus, King of the universe, was hastily laid in a borrowed tomb, a place ruled by death, much like we are in right now, on this early morning.

The women also came to a place of death very early in the morning, where someone THEY dearly loved had been buried. They expected the worst, of course. They expected to be alone with their grief. They expected to find the body of their beloved Jesus, so that they could care for him one last time by anointing his body with spices, as was their custom. They expected to find death in a place OF death, as we all would.

But instead, the women found the stone sealing his tomb had been rolled away. Instead, the women found a grave with no body. Instead, the women found two men wearing clothes that flashed like lightning, with a question for them: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” What the women found was the stunning revelation that Jesus was not there.

He has risen.

And then the women remembered. They remembered what Jesus had been saying all along. They remembered that he must be betrayed, abandoned, and handed over to be crucified. And three days later he would rise again.

And then the women proclaimed. They returned to the remaining eleven disciples and all the rest of Jesus’s followers and told them the amazing and unexpected sight they had just witnessed. These women expected to find death, but instead became the first witnesses to the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead.

On Thursday we remembered the night in which Jesus was betrayed, and Jesus’ command to us to eat of his body and drink of his blood, in remembrance of him. And Paul reminded us that as often as we do this, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. And these women did just that, on that first Easter morning. These women remembered, and then they proclaimed, becoming the very first preachers of the Gospel to their fellow disciples.

They were the first to share the GOOD WORD, that death no longer has the LAST WORD. Death has been swallowed up in victory, Christ’s victory, the victory of life over death, in all its many forms, calling us out from inside of all of the dark tombs we may find ourselves in.

In a place where we expected to find more death, we instead find that Jesus is gone, that death has been buried forever. We who have been buried in the darkness of tombs have also been buried with Jesus in our baptisms, as Paul wrote. And that means that we will be united with Jesus in his resurrection. And it begins now, this very morning. New life sprouts up out of the empty shell of death, right now. As one Easter hymn reminds and proclaims, 

NOW, the green blade rises from the buried grain, 
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain; 
Love lives again, that with the dead has been. 
Love is come again like wheat arising green.” (ELW 379)

In this very place where we have buried our loved ones and laid them to rest, we heard Paul ask, “Death, where is your sting?”  And we know the answer. - NOT. HERE!

And along with the women that first Easter morning, in this place of death, we wonder, “Where is Jesus?”  - NOT. HERE!!

Why do we look for the living among the dead? We expect to find death in a place of death, but Jesus has done the unexpected. He has risen from the dead. He IS NOT HERE. 

He WAS here, but he is not here any longer. Instead, Jesus has vacated the tomb and allowed some women to be his spokespeople. He has gone on ahead of us, to meet up us out there on the dusty roads we travel. And he has won the victory for us, so that we who have been buried in our own tombs with Jesus may be raised in his glorious resurrection, now and in the life to come.

What were you expecting this morning, here in the garden, on Easter 2016?

Whatever your expectations where, Jesus always exceeds them.

Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed, Alleluia.


Monday, March 21, 2016

Palm Sunday: Hearts of stone, cry out.

3-20-16, Palm Sunday
Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus our king, Amen.

Welcome to Holy Week, where up is down, and down is up. Where a crowd shouts “Blesses is the king” one minute and “Crucify him!” the next. Where bread becomes Jesus’ body and wine becomes his blood. Where a king is killed for not being the right kind of king. Where a criminal walks and an innocent man dies. Where Judas betrays and Peter denies and a Roman solder confesses the truth about this king on a cross.

This is it. We made it. This week is what the forty days of Lent have been leading up to. This is why we’ve swathed ourselves in purple: the color Jesus wore to be mocked, the color of royalty and bruises. We are about to enter the most important week of the church calendar. We are about to enter a week where time gets wibbly-wobbly and seems out of joint. We are about to enter a week where an instrument of torture and death becomes the means by which we are rescued from death.

This week begins with a parade. Jesus comes down the road into Jerusalem, like kings of old, riding a colt and surrounded by his disciples laying their cloaks before him like a royal procession. They are filled with praise for all the deeds of power that they had seen Jesus do – for the healings, the feeding of over five thousand people, the casting out demons, calming a storm and raising a widow’s son – feats so astounding that Jesus’ followers called out their praises from all along the parade route. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

Now, the last time we heard those same words actually wasn’t all that long ago, back in December - when the sky was filled with a multitude of the heavenly host, appearing to shepherds late at night. These poor shepherds, scared out of their wits, witnessed the first proclamation of the good news of great joy for all the people, the birth of a savior, a messiah, the Lord. That night, the sky was filled with the shouts of angels:  ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”

THAT night, Christmas night, shepherds bore witness to the arrival of God’s glory being birthed into the world. On THIS day, Palm Sunday, Jesus’s followers are the ones shouting for joy, heralding the time has come, the king has come, to bring peace to heaven and earth.
But not everyone is shouting for joy. The Pharisees, too, have seen these deeds of power that Jesus has done, and they are concerned. And they were absolutely RIGHT. They remind us that the Jewish people at this time were under the oppressive thumb of Rome. Whose idea of peace was subduing the people with threats, violence, might of the sword, and death by crucifixion. You don’t mess WITH ROME. Especially by proclaiming that there is another kind of peace out there, another kind of king, another Lord who rules heaven and earth, one that is NOT ROME. Not exactly a good plan, disciples. You might want to rethink that one.

So it makes sense that the advice of the Pharisees to Jesus is for his disciples to  “back up, hush up, shut up, and keep your head down.” Don’t rock the boat. Put a lid on it. “Ex-Nay on the Osanna-Heys.” 

Solid advice, from a human point of view. But then we heard Jesus’s surprising response – “If these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Thanks to Jesus, we might need to rethink that old phrase, “dumber than a box of rocks.” If Jesus own disciples didn’t cry “Blessed is the king,” the very creation would be compelled to. Stones, boulders, rocks, and pebbles, are all on standby to pick up where the disciples leave off.

The stones probably knew, as we all know, that the time was very near that the praises for Jesus would stop, and the crowds instead would cry out for his death. They probably knew that his disciples would be silent from heavy sleep as Jesus prayed alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. That they would be silent in the face of the chief priests and the officers of the temple police taking him away. That they would be silent, standing at a distance as Jesus was crucified.

The stones might see what Jesus’s disciples cannot – that this king does not go into Jerusalem to set up a peace that is like that of Rome, a peace brought by might and sword. This King doesn’t enter the holy city to set himself up as RULER, but to give himself up as SACRIFICE. As Paul wrote, the one who in the form of God and had equality with God empties himself and becomes obedient – even so far as death on a cross.

And this is what Holy Week is all about. Up is down and down is up. Time is out of joint. Stones would shout when we are silent. The King of the universe comes to die. This king that we welcome, we then abandon and reject. We turn our backs and trust ourselves rather than the king who created us. We long for the king of king WE want, not the kind of king that we NEED. We embrace peace that is not peace, but power. Our hearts of flesh become like hearts like stone, silent in the face of evil days and evil deeds. (Bonhoeffer)

Still. There is clearly a place in the story, in this week, for stones.

Stones can still be called upon to praise Jesus for showing us what the glory of God looks like in the flesh. A stone sealed the tomb where Jesus lay after his death, but stones of tombs can be rolled away to make room for the power of resurrection and new life. The stone that the builders reject can become the cornerstone, the very source of our faith. Hearts of stone - like ours - can be gathered together into spiritual house around that cornerstone, gathered and loved by their creator.

In just the next chapter of Luke, Jesus describes himself as the cornerstone to same Pharisees who would continue to reject him. And Peter, our favorite “open-mouth-insert-foot” disciple, the same who denied Jesus three times, his very names means “Rock” or stone. And this rock – Peter - would later write about Jesus as a living rock, a living stone, rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight. He says that we are God’s own people, living stones, stones that are at the same time dead and alive. Stones that are gathered together in order to shout out, as stones are called upon to do, to praise the mightily acts of our King of Peace. Peter continues, “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.” 

Down is up and up is down. We who have hearts of stone cry “hosanna” and “crucify.” We who would not show mercy, have received it. Hearts of stone come back to life. Despite our willingness to turn away from God, God will never turn away from us, and will go all the way to death and back in order to prove it.

In the meantime, join us on the road through Holy Week. Be a witness with the disciples and the stones:

Behold the king of peace, who comes in the name of the Lord, as he rides on to face his death.

Behold our king of peace, surrounded disciples and stones to cheer him on – for now.

Behold our king of peace, who eats his last meal with those who betray, deny, and abandoned him in silence.

Behold our king of peace, who did not resist when he was mocked, beaten, and nailed to a cross.

Behold our king of peace, on a cross flanked by criminals, and dying in darkness.

Behold our king of peace, who was hastily laid in a borrowed tomb.

And lastly, three days later, behold a stone that has been moved,

a grave with no body,

and death with no more power over us. Amen.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Think On These Things

March 16th, 2016, Philippians 4

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

So we have come to the end of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, with Paul wrapping up his thoughts and sending his last greetings. At the time, personal greetings or instructions to specific people were included at the end of letters, and here Paul gives a shout out to two women leaders in the church of Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche. Unfortunately these two women seem to be having some sort of disagreement, at least important enough for Paul to address in his letter, and he does not let this opportunity pass him by to reiterate the theme of unity in Christ.

These two women leaders had worked alongside Paul in the past, and he urges them now to put into practice the unity they have in Christ by working out whatever differences they have. That Paul calls them by name as co-workers in the Gospel is worth mentioning. At a time that women were seen as and treated as property, having no voice and few rights, these small gatherings of Jesus-followers were calling women to prominent leadership roles. Some were fellow-missionaries with their husbands, like Aquila and Priscilla. Some women led house churches, while other women financially supported them, like Junia, Lydia, and Phoebe. 

The presence of Euodia and Syntyche in this letter, though brief, reveals the early church’s dedication to Jesus’ message of radical unity, hospitality, and inclusion. All people have value, including women. All are welcome to be co-workers in the Gospel with Paul along his journey – men, women, slaves, Jews and Gentiles.

Paul then picks up on another theme that he has repeated over and other again many times in this letter -rejoicing in the Lord. Rejoice ALWAYS, he says to the Philippians, and also to us. Rejoice in the Lord. Not just when things are going well. Not just when the sun is shining and you’re having a good day. But ALWAYS.

Really Paul? Always? Are you sure? Surely this guy must have an awesome life to be saying such things. But then we remember that over the course of his ministry, Paul was often chased out of town, beaten, arrested, and as he writes this letter he is currently facing jail time for preaching the gospel. This man has very little in his life to give thanks for. And yet, he still does. Constantly. Perhaps even somewhat annoyingly.

And we are not just to rejoice always, but to pray always too. Paul reminds us in verse 6 when we pray about anything, we pray with thanksgiving for all that God has given us. The word that we translate as “thanksgiving” in Greek is “Eucharistia.”: Eucharist. The same word we use for Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.

You may have noticed on Sundays as you follow along in your red hymnals as we begin the Eucharist liturgy, the back-and-forth part after the offering prayer is called the Great Thanksgiving. Ever week, you hear these words, “It is indeed right, our duty and our joy that we should at all times and in all places give thanks and praise to you, almighty and merciful God, through our savior Jesus Christ.” Sound a little familiar? We give thanks for the gift that Jesus has given us: his body. His blood. His death. AND his resurrection to new life.

When THIS is the gift of life we receive from God, what can mortals do unto us, that we should be afraid? What is worry, what is fear, what is death in the face of such a gift that is ours forever and ever?

THIS is where true peace of mind comes from, says Paul. That in Jesus, a peace penetrates us beyond our understanding or knowledge, surrounding our hearts to guard us against all that life throws at us. This is why Paul is able to say in verse 13 “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” When I was in my church’s youth group, I learned a really handy way to remember this verse. Like, literally handy! All you need are your two hands. Ten words. Ten fingers. Pretty simple.

“I can do all things… through Christ who strengthens me.” Let’s all try that together. “I can do all things… through Christ who strengthens me. One more time, so we can get it nice and lodged in your brain… 

Thanks, Paul, and to whoever invented this little memory aid. It’s a good reminder of Paul’s secret for the reason he can rejoice in the Lord always, which is really no secret at all. It is a secret we can learn too, and share, and practice, because it certainly doesn’t come to us naturally. Not with all the messages that the media bombarding us with on a daily basis, saying: Want more. Do more. More stuff and success will make you happy. We try not to, but some days we want to believe these messages more than in the peace that Jesus promises us.

This temptation is not new, and Paul encourages his people to instead to think about other things, the long list you see in verses 8 and 9. It is quite a list, a bit of a tall order, really. Just what IS true, what is honorable, what is just, pleasing, commendable, and worthy of praise? There is only one I can think of that completely fits that description, and that is Jesus.

What is worthy for us to think about as this Lent draws to a close and we are about to enter Holy Week?

Paul might suggest these things. Think about how Christ is life, and death is gain (1.:21). Think about living your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ (1:27). Think about how to make the call of Christ your own, just as Jesus has made you his own (3:13). Think about the way that Jesus emptied himself and became obedient even to the point of death, even death on a cross, in order to show the glory of God and claim you as his own (2:11). Amen.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Follow the Leader

Philippians 2, 2-24-16
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Christ the rock of our salvation. Amen.

Have you sent your hand-written letter yet? Last week we were encouraged and challenged to send a hand-written letter to someone who is important to us. If you have, let us know about it, and if you haven’t, it’s not too late.

We talked about hand-written notes last week because we are reading through Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Philippi. But instead of being a federal offence like it is now, reading Paul’s letters to the churches he planted are somewhat like blog posts or community bulletin boards - regarding specific people and situations, but also for the general benefit of the whole community.

Philippians 2, which we heard tonight, comes at the end of the “warm up” that was the beginning of his letter, and now he is ready to play hardball, to dive head-first into his message to the Philippians about unity and humility, obedience and submission. Which are pretty good things to think about in Lent.

It’s not as clear from this letter what ARE some of the concerns at this congregation – because frankly, ALL churches have issues of one kind or another – but some have guessed that Paul was addressing questions about leadership and community looks like. Paul at the beginning of chapter 2 makes it very clear what kind of leadership practices would give him joy– being humble, practicing unity, and sharing the mind of Christ.

Starting at verse 5, Paul beautifully integrates into his letter what is considered to be one of the very first hymns of the Christian church, called the Christ Hymn.  He uses this hymn to more fully explain the kind of leader that Jesus was – who could have exploited his divine status to the fullest, but instead used his form of God to become the form of a human person. The ruler of the universe became like a slave, a human being under the dominion of inward passions and exterior forces. 

The point that Paul is trying to get across to his people, and to us, is that THIS is the kind of power that we should be trying to imitate. The self-sacrificing, self-emptying obedient role that was so counter-cultural then, and is so counter-cultural still. For the divine form to take on human form, for the exalted to be completely obedient, for the immortal to take on mortality and death – especially to be subjected to a death that was reserved for slaves and criminals, is pretty hard to wrap our minds around - even now, after these words have been read and re-read for nearly two thousand years. 

THIS is the kind of obedience that Paul expects us to have as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus – to have Jesus’s same mind about what the form of true and eternal strength and power takes. The form of an empty vessel. The form of a slave. The form of human weakness, subject to the power of death. The form of death, even death on a cross.
And this Lord, this Christ, this Jesus is the one we are supposed to imitate. Not in the way that we sometimes think about the word “imitation,” meaning “fake” or “artificial,” like comparing Cheese Wiz to the real stuff. Rather, he means imitation like Simon Says or follow the leader, only grown-up style.

This is a daunting task. But to show that all hope is not lost, Paul lifts up examples of people he knows attempting to follow where Jesus leads. There is Timothy, his loyal and young companion, and there is Epaphroditus, who struggled through illness. Paul also included himself in that list of examples, but makes sure that we know that he is making himself an offering to God for the sake of the faith of the community at Philippi.

We can’t follow these greats in the faith by ourselves, pulling our own bootstraps.  That’s why Paul reminds his readers that it is God who is at work in us, as he writes in verse 13. But there ARE things he suggests that we CAN do (and AVOID doing), with the help of God – to avoid complaining and arguing with one another, to seek out and hang on to the word of life. These are things we do together and act out the salvation that Jesus has already given to us.
Our salvation is not just what happens to us beyond our death, but also in living in the here and now. And Paul exhorts all of us, not just the individual person “you,” but rather the collective group “you” - as they might say south of here “Y’All” or “All Y’all.”  Or, “Yous guys,” nearer to where I come from. We are not in this alone, following Jesus and shining out by ourselves. We are all shining Jesus’ light together, as one.

When I worked at the Lutheran camp in Wisconsin, I would use verse 14 and 15 on our late night camp-out hikes in the woods. I would make my cabin of eight teenaged girls march out into the clearing with me, read these two verses, and turn off the flashlight. In the darkness, they would look up and see the stars, and go, “whoaaa.”

There is a whole lot of darkness in the world, both in Paul’s time and in ours. The way that Jesus leads us through that darkness is going to make us shine like those little pinpricks of light in the heavens. If we were alone, it wouldn’t make much of a different. But there are quite a few of us, shining the light of Jesus in a dark world. We may not be imprisoned for it, like Paul. But we’re gonna get noticed. We’re gonna be wondered at, and thought to be weird or backwards or misled. But it is Jesus who is shining out in us and leading us, to the glory of God our father.