Those Big IFs

“It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, in regard to what he has given me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”  John 10: 22-30

Yes, Jesus, just how long is it going to be? Yes, Jesus, just what is going to happen to me, to us, to all of us? Yes, Jesus, just tell me, show me… because, you know, what if?

What if this isn’t the right choice? What if things don’t go as planned? What if something goes wrong? What if I am not as strong as I think I am? What if I am not who I think I am? What if You are not who I believe you are?

What do we do with questions like that? What do those questions reveal about the questioner and whom we question?

I am preparing for a significant “life-event” you might call it. Total Hip Replacement. Just saying it seems so unreal. I’m too young for this sort of thing! I don’t have room in my life for this kind of disruption! While I am thankful I have the opportunity to prepare for it rather than have it suddenly forced upon me, the whole process is raising significant questions, unsettledness, and apprehension within me. For someone who boldly professes her conviction in the things unseen and her assurance in my hope for things to come – the state of unknowingness I find myself in has me feeling untethered; as if I need to suspend my life until I can feel grounded again – if I can ever feel grounded again. I wonder if I am ungrounding my life by taking this leap of trust and why ever would I want to do that – because – WHAT IF?

What if the things to come are not what I intended? (As if I have any control over that!) What if my choice was wrong? What if I am not as strong as I need to be? What if I am changed – CHANGED (gasp!!) forever? Why, Lord, won’t you answer me these things?? I need facts, certainty, vision, reason – give me the straight talk!

When have you asked these questions? When have you wrestled with the discomfort of uncertainty reigning over your circumstances?  Life in the world today is fertile ground for questions of this sort. Perhaps you are facing a decision or a conversation you feel unprepared for or fully inept at making or having? Maybe you are facing a difficult or painful change. Maybe your career, your finances, your health, or your family are at a critical crossroads. This is the stuff of life. The choices and decisions we make determine our course. It is a daunting position to find ourselves in.

No matter how the questions arise, they ultimately reflect our spiritual condition. It’s more about what’s going on within us than around us. And yet most of us would much rather deal with the circumstances – the facts of the matter – than the swirling dervish inside ourselves.

Of course, I tell myself I have no choice than to deal with myself – because I. Am. It. in this go around. The fiercely independent, keeps things close, doesn’t want to be a burden on anyone – me, the me who always commands control of her situation longs to believe – no, make that knows – that it is all up to me. I have learned enough hard lessons in life to know all this is true. And I have absolutely no faith in myself right now.

I sometimes wonder if Jesus ever had questions like this as he made His way through this broken world. As the Messiah, surely, He believed as I do, that it was all up to Him. Yet He was questioned over and over again by those He sought to convince of His truth. Did those questions ever chip away at his grounding and conviction? Was he not fully human?

In 1946, in a lecture given by Victor Frankl, after he survived the horrors and dehumanizing conditions of the Holocaust, the Austrian neurologist, philosopher and writer posited: “We are the ones who must answer, must give answers to the constant, hourly question of life, to the essential “life questions.” Living itself means nothing other than being questioned; our whole act of being is nothing more than responding to — of being responsible toward — life.”

The Stoic in me recognizes that our lives are made of a series of questions – each requiring answers. Every adversity or challenge presents to us an opportunity to find meaning – to think anew – start anew – live anew.  It is how we go about answering these questions and responding to events that challenge us and change us that we find our purpose and meaning. We are refined and strengthened in the process.  We become our authentic selves – separating us from the crowd.

Over and over again Jesus was tested – by Satan himself and cajoled by the crowds and the religious leaders to prove himself – and yet he remained steadfast in moving towards his goal. How did He do that? How did Jesus walk the straight and narrow?

The Jesus lover in me wants the simple answer of faith. Faith. But there has to be more, right?

Throughout His life, Jesus used every occasion he was presented as a lesson for his followers. Some were tests of his identity, some were simply the potholes of life – but with each gave a new perspective, a deeper knowledge of who He is and who we are. Each lesson brought him closer to fulfilling his work of salvation and love. He showed us who He is by staring down Satan in the desert – rising above temptation for “glory” and rising to the occasion of Messiah; in the midst of a grand social foo-pah He changed water into wine; when commerce and gluttony threatened sanctity He cleansed the temple; in the face of hunger He fed five thousand with a scant collection of bread and fish but abundant hope; in the shadow of sickness he enabled a lame man to stand up, take his mat, and walk and gave a blind man his sight; in the wake of scandal he forgave the woman caught in adultery; against the sting of despair and doubt He  raised Lazarus from the dead. And at Easter, He showed us that life comes out of death.

With that in mind, I now see Jesus as the greatest Stoic that ever lived, died, and lives! And I take great comfort that He calls me, in all my independence, His own. Now, if I would just accept that that is indeed enough.

Ultimately, my BIG IF questions get right down to my ultimate need for security and sense of being – both of which will be completely disrupted by this surgery – but will also have the opportunity to be bolstered as well.

I am determined to make the down-time ahead of me worthwhile. I am being presented with a challenge – and yes – a learning opportunity. Not only am I terrible at asking for help and allowing people to help me – which I am being forced to do – I am terrible at resting in God’s plan. I profess that I do – but trusting in His plan for me? No, I tend to hold on to the reins a bit too tight.

As theologian Henri Nouwen wrote: “(I)t seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.”  I am mortified by this – but I have come to realize that in many of my approaches to life I am the God of my life! I cannot give up control. And yes, it is easier to control people than to love them! Our society and politics magnify this blatantly (but our politics are a reflection of the people which is me and you.) It takes a lot of chutzpah to put that into words – but we need to – I need to. And finally, there is a big difference between owning and loving life. I can have all the control of and security in myself that I can muster – but if I do not have meaning and belonging – that isn’t much of a life and there is not much to love.

So, maybe God is using this down-time in my life – literally and figuratively – to remind me yet again that I already belong – to Him – and to show me that only He can fill the void that my incessant going and moving and doing and seeking keeps me from attending to. To teach me that letting others help me may actually help them and show me that I can rely on – even trust – others to care for me. To make me stop and listen – to His voice and hear what He is saying.

I am quite certain I am going to go insane not being in perpetual motion but what a lesson this will be – not being in perpetual pain and resting in real truths. In a sense I am going on a fast – to help me appreciate the other gifts I have in life and hopefully enjoy life for its truest pleasures once I am able to again. 

Where will your questions lead you? May the answers always be life changing.

“And then the day came, when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin

Let your light so shine!

Resurrecting Life

A sermon on John 21:1-19

I grew up listening to the late great radio broadcaster, Paul Harvey, every day at noon. I would come home from grade school for lunch and there was his uplifting voice delivering the day’s news – sometimes good, often not so good as this was the 70’s and we were in the middle of a severe economic and energy crisis. Nevertheless, he always ended his broadcast with – the rest of the story – a story about life and ordinary people living it.

That’s how I heard today’s Gospel story – picking up from last week’s climatic closing:

 “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” John 20: 30-31

Today’s story opens with three descriptive words: After these things… Can you imagine the emotional exhaustion all those things brought on?  It’s been a busy time in the lives of the disciples: Jesus appeared  to Mary Magdalene in the garden outside the tomb, and then twice to the disciples in a house in Jerusalem, showing them his wounds, giving them the Holy Spirit, and commissioning them out into the world to proclaim, forgive, and heal: As God has sent me, so I send you and all that great stuff!

When we heard those closing words from John at the end of last week’s Gospel lesson it sounded like we were done. Done with the resurrection stories! But guess what – Happy Third Sunday of Easter!!

John and Jesus will just not let them or us go! John is like me – he loves his words!! 

So now – just as Paul Harvey did so well drawing us into what I thought was the best and most important part of his program – we have the rest of the story…

And it is one of my favorites!  We get a taste of what life in Jesus’ name is all about.

After all those things had happened, we have before us a restless and still uncertain but earnest Peter, a dark night on the sea, no fish and lots of fish, a charcoal fire on the beach at dawn, questions, answers, and Jesus! The scene is a vivid one, and it is one that makes my senses come alive. The salty sea air, the smell and warmth of a charcoal fire on a brisk dawn morning, the taste of fresh caught fish cooked on an open flame – it just makes me sigh.

But this is no ordinary morning coffee among friends and Jesus.  

We are not certain of the amount of time that has passed since that final scene at the house in Jerusalem, but Peter has gone back to fishing and Jesus is still at work.

Perhaps you too have gone back to fishing? Maybe you hooked a few during the Mack Days fishing competition? Maybe you’ve endured a few rough goes on the water – be it a sudden spring storm or nothing at all to show for your efforts.

The disciples have returned home to where it all began. They’ve gone back to fishing – back to their old ways and former lives. They’ve traveled about 80 miles from the place of Jesus’ resurrection to their boats and the familiar waters of the Sea of Tiberias and given themselves to their old routine of fishing. Where the pieces of life fit together and make sense.

Now, I don’t know a dab about fishing. I’ve never baited a hook, cast a line, jigged a rod, or waited hours for a bite.  But I do know well how it feels to be like Peter and gone-a-fishin’. 

After the dramatic and traumatic events the disciples lived through the last three years and especially during the last three weeks of their lives with Jesus – who can blame them for seeking the security of their lives in the before-times. The time before Jesus. 

They are back to doing what they know and do best – fishing off their home shores – except they are not having much success. 

Isn’t that what we all want to do after a dramatic or traumatic experience or when life gets complicated and challenging and we can’t see our way forward?  Sometimes even after the wonderful and exciting events of our lives – who doesn’t catch themselves saying – well, I’m glad that’s over with – now I can get back to normal. Even after the ordinary out of ordinary times we breathe sighs of relief!  Maybe after Lent concluded and the celebrations surrounding Easter were done – you murmured quietly “now I can get back to business as usual – have my Wednesday nights back and not feel so adamant about attending worship on Sunday.”??? The pandemic inspired much pining for the before-times. Many of us are now searching for a new sense of purpose and deeper meaning in our lives. 

When life gets difficult, when we become lost, confused, and afraid, when the changes of life are not what we wanted or think we deserve we tend to run away or seek refuge, comfort. We try to go back to the way it was before – to something safe, something familiar. Even when we do not want to go backwards – backwards always seems easier than moving forward into uncertainty and fleeing humans naturally favor the path of least resistance.

After a long dark night on the sea the disciple’s net is empty and sagging and I imagine their spirits were too. Because no matter how close to home they are, no matter how familiar their daily routines are once again, their lives are not the same.  How could they be? They have spent three years in relationship with Jesus – it was life changing – and then it was over – in the most dreadful of ways!

They are fishing for answers to the piercing questions that sound painfully familiar in our own dark nights adrift at sea: What just happened here? Who was Jesus? Where is he? What have I done? Who am I? What now? Where am I going? What will happen to me? Are you even there, God?

What once gave them purpose and meaning doesn’t do it for them anymore. They are adrift on the water, directionless. Is this what life in His name feels like?

Peter may have left Jerusalem, but he can’t leave behind three years of discipleship, the miracles he witnessed next to Jesus, the love he learned to show, the life of abundance instead of scarcity he experienced. He cannot forget the last supper, the arrest, the charcoal fire, the denials, that crowing rooster that haunts his dreams. He cannot unsee the cross or the empty tomb; he cannot un-feel the fear in the house with the doors locked tight or ignore the echoes of “Peace be with you.” 

In times like these I used to go for really long runs – sometimes really really long runs! Unfortunately, I’m paying for all those mindful marathons now (ha).

What do you do? What do you do when you are searching for meaning, a way forward, a place in life?  Answers? Peace? 

We have all spent time asking the same questions as Peter. Often in the context of the failures, losses, and sorrows of our lives or when our life just doesn’t have much life in it.  When our sense of the way things should be is no longer. When we come face to face with our life in this world and our identity and purpose no longer feel so certain. 

We can leave the places and even the people of our life behind, but we can never escape ourselves or our life. Wherever you go, there you are and all that went on before comes with you. The good news is – so does Jesus.

Perhaps you’ve sensed the power of new life, the promise of the risen Jesus, even the helpful contributions you might make as you returned once again this year – especially this year –  to the Easter story — but you are afraid or too painfully aware of your own shortcomings – you suspect you are disqualified, or unqualified, or in any case incapable of answering God’s call on your life – His call to live in His name. 

Or maybe, as theologian & writer Henri Nouwen shared regarding searching times like these “it seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.” 

It is in these moments when we come face to face and heart to heart with Jesus. We may not recognize Him at first – just like the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus calling to them from the shore at first. 

Have you sensed something pulling you forward – perhaps in a direction you are not certain you want to go? Where the security and comfort you are accustomed to may not be as certain? Have you listened for Jesus to answer when you realize you “have no fish” in your current state of being, doing what you’ve always done? Do you find it easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own your life than to love life?  Easier to just live your life rather than live your life in His name?

“Children you have no fish, have you,” Jesus calls out to the disciples and us – calling us out of the dark and empty nights, the pain of our past or current circumstances – out from the running away and the fishing on the wrong side of the boat. 

“Cast your net to the right side of the boat,” He says. Run to me. Love me. Follow me.

Jesus calls us – His children – to move from our errant thinking into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life. 

When we drift about aimlessly or find ourselves lost in regret or guilt, Jesus, knowing all there is to know about us, calls us ashore and fills our nets with abundant grace; by the fire He warms and unites us with His presence, at the dawn of a new day He restores us to Him, to one another and to ourselves; He feeds us for the Good Way ahead; and He loves us three times over by teaching us how to live.

To our questions and self-doubts and professions of love for Him, Jesus meets us where we are and gives purpose to our life sending us out to feed and tend His sheep: to be leaders in love – yes even you (!), to look out for others – yes you(!), and devote ourselves to finding and building His community. Jesus provides for our most basic human need – a sense of purpose and with that a belief that what each of us does matters. Even when we fall short of our aspirations, disappoint, or transgress- which we will do time and again – Jesus keeps calling us to Him and sending us forward with purpose, meaning and a sense of belonging to something greater than our own cause.

Calling us to live in a way that may not be familiar and not always easy but most certainly transformed.  Resurrected living, you might call it. 

Run to Me. Love me. Follow Me, “ Jesus says, “Live as resurrected people. I’m giving you a new life in my name.”

Amen.

Fading Away

A stormy drive

It has been five very long and very short years since I last heard Dad say my name. He knew, for a moment at least, that I had made it home. And with that his journey home began.

5 years ago, tonight, after the longest, fastest drive of my life across this great big state that held his heart, I sat at my Dad’s side – holding his hand willing him to open his eyes just one more time. I’d heard him say my name one last time an hour or so before. It was just a whisper over the annoying din of an old western movie playing on the TV. I will never forget the sound of his voice – it jarred me so. It was not the voice I wanted to remember my Dad by. But that aural memory of my father that I want to hold on to oh so badly – is slipping away into the ocean of noise created by THIS world. Why didn’t I save ANY of his phone messages????

I would not have expected to be in this austere room facing his ending just a few days prior but there I was looking at the shell of the man who with our wonderful mother, had created for me and my brother, lives we wouldn’t trade for anything.

In the last hours of his life- as his body was shutting down, betraying him every step of the way – he seemed so meek and so willing to go on his way while I wanted him to fight, FIGHT with all his might to stay with me. But I could tell he was at peace – and finally –  he gave that incredible gift to me  – to be at peace with the way things were going to be.

I still struggle with how his life came to a close. But that struggle does not come close to the mighty love I have for him still.

I have thought about my last moments with Dad a lot lately – moments I didn’t have with Mom when she died. As someone who is single without children of my own – I wonder what my last moments will be like. Morbid yes, but as I watch death take hold of so many lives of late, it is hard not to wonder about things like that.  

What a blessing it was to share his last breath and commend his spirit to the Lord. To lay my head on his chest for one last heartbeat. Those last moments were the worst moments of my life. I wanted to die with him right then and there and yet, at the same time felt raw and alive with the wonder of the liminality of life. That experience is a gift in itself. I am not afraid to die anymore – of the process of death – yes – terrified – but dying – not so much.

I am so thankful I was able to be with my Dad to send him home. My heart breaks for who don’t get to say the same goodbye.

I’m grateful for their momentary visits now and then, but I can’t wait to see Mom and Dad again.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” – John 14:27

In the Shadow of the Cross

May be an image of nature, grass, twilight and sky

Jesus: “In the shadow of My Cross, you sit. My body and life are missing today. Gone.

What was is no longer and what will be is not yet. You’re not only wondering about what is next but if there will even be a next…”

***

I know this day well, as I suspect many of you do too.

It was the day after my mother died and again, the day after my father died.

It was the day after my marriage ended – in a courtroom far less holy than where it began.

It is the day after all you lived for now is no longer.

It is the day after death. Where hope seems beyond grasp and clarity only brings despair.

A part of your life has died. A part of you has died.

Today is the hard day. Today is the painful day of initiation by reality.

The day we realize again and again that it really did happen. This is our new reality.

And it brings with it feelings: grief, sorrow, hurt, fear, anger, guilt, and shame – feelings so magnified they consume us. The torrent of our tears leaves us exhausted and depleted.

Anyone who has been on the journey of life for a good distance is cognizant of what a great loss can do to upend your world.

I’m not going to try and paint a pretty picture here -the day after changes you, forever.

Normal will never look the same again. Joy and beauty and happiness will never be the same again. Nor will pain. Life simply will not be the same again.

You won’t be the same.

Great loss forever unsettles you from the life you once knew.

***

Jesus: “Today you are in the shadow of My Cross. The Cross that will transform you. The Cross I turned from an instrument of death into the Tree of Life. And in so doing I made living for tomorrow possible. A tomorrow where you are no longer imprisoned by your losses – no, they become your story of life. A new life. Tomorrow, your life begins again as it does every day in Me, not apart from your losses but through them. You will grow and live a new life in the light of My resurrection and My life.

I promise you this:

“I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanliness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” -Ezekiel 36-24-28

Let your light so shine!!!

Darkness

“It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.” ~ from Luke 23.
 
I would like to say I cannot imagine the darkness and fear that the Disciples felt as they watched their Lord die on the cross, but I can…
I think we all can. I think we all have experienced a time in our lives when darkness blocks the true light, when fear blinds us to love, when we feel very much alone or overcome with grief. The disciples did not know the end of the story – by faith we do.
We buried my mother on Good Friday. There was darkness, but for us, there was also light – for we knew how the story ends. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for taking away the sins of this world, for bringing light to our darkness, and for giving us everlasting life.

Lord, teach me…

istockphoto

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” John 13:1

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13: 34-35

Oh, that we might all love to our very end and that we might be loved too.

If I have one regret in this life – it is that I have not loved enough. I ask for your forgiveness. Lord, teach me how to love like you.

Risking Joy

A Palm Sunday Sermon

April 10, 2022

Luke 19: 28-40

And then the day came, when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. – Anais Nin

Those words have inspired many hard decisions I have made in my adult life. As I was seeking inspiration for what I might say to you today I was reminded of those poetic threshold words penned by Anais Nin – words that encourage us to take the risk we are contemplating -to open ourselves to the world – to leave the comfort of what we know – be vulnerable – and welcome what awaits us.

During the season of Lent we leave our false comforts of life and enter the wilderness with Jesus. We did our best to withdraw from the busyness of the present and our favorite numbing distractions. Sometimes we choose to sacrifice or live with more intention. Always, we meditated and prayed and allowed the protective walls between our sensitive spirit and the complexity and conflict of contemporary life to fall. We let ourselves be vulnerable – if only to ourselves – but hopefully also to God. 

Perhaps we got to know Jesus better – the radiant child King we lavishly celebrated at Christmas. Hopefully, in our Lenten wilderness with Jesus, we let Him get to know us better too – our fear, grief, even rage and yes, our longings, loves and deepest joys. Perhaps we have wept and hollered and let our weakness and exhaustion show in these sacred and vulnerable 40 days. 

For some, the past two years have been an eternal wilderness. In pandemic America, many were forced into long periods of separation, refrained from celebration, and we worshiped in solitude, without the pomp and joy of gathered community. Indeed it has been three years since we last celebrated Holy Week all together. Now as we enter a new & uncertain phase of life amid a pandemic, we are learning how to be together again. Many of us are raw with grief and despair over lost loved ones and broken relationships, lost dreams, and financial hardship. Distrust of those in power runs rampant, strife and division corrode our foundation as a country and a people. And war in Ukraine is taking lives and livelihoods and threatens the stability and safety of the world. It seems like we live in an ongoing crisis, burdened by crosses laid upon us and of our own making. It’s been a while since we have known true unfettered communal joy. 

The people we meet today traveling to Jerusalem with Jesus also bore crosses. Crosses of oppression and poverty, sin and sickness, despair, and death.  In Jesus day, the cross was the prescribed form of capital punishment. Biblical historians tell us that it was common for the road to Jerusalem to be lined with crosses each of them bearing a body. Picture those roadside crosses you pass on Hwy 40 as part of your daily commute, or the ones erected at the 10 Commandments display with a body hanging from them. Anyone who took that way from their home to the market, or from the market to the temple, or from the temple to a friend’s house, would have no choice but to encounter these grim instruments of capital punishment on a regular basis. They didn’t have the privilege of speeding by in the comfortable confines of a vehicle. They walked with eyes turned away, but they smelled the stench, and they heard the horrors of death on a cross.  Imagine the threat and constant terror the Roman Empire instilled in the people who lived in the shadows of those crosses – their lives and hopes shriveled by this unspoken but most deadly of all messages of power. They were also divided by caste and social privilege and lived with suspicion & scorn for one another.  This was the grim reality of Jesus’s day.  

Today we with the disciples step away from our individual realities and join a celebration of our shared walk with Jesus – a triumphal entry into a new way of thinking and seeing ourselves in the world. Today we join the multitudes on the road to Jerusalem and begin the journey of Holy Week. I’ve seen Holy Week referred to as a Holy symphony with four movements. In years past we have observed the first three movements as Palm/Passion Sunday because the church has argued that you can’t have the finale – the resurrection – without first experiencing the triumphal entry, betrayal and death and most people won’t darken the church doorway after today until Easter morning. But this year this week’s Holy Symphony will have its full expression throughout the days ahead.

And I am glad for that. Palm Sunday feels like life to me — rich and full and complicated and contradictory. And so very expressive of those times in our lives when we stand at a threshold with a choice to make. Today we are at such a threshold as we reflect on a series of events that changed the world and even today – changes our lives if we allow ourselves to fully experience the passion of our Lord.

The last days of our friend, Jesus who lived out our human experience to the fullest, whose deeds of power were indeed worthy of our praise, but who also chose to walk, laugh and cry with us and emptied Himself for us so that we may have true life. 

During Holy Week, just as we often do in our own lives, we have a natural tendency to focus on the worst of what Jesus experienced: the betrayal, the agony, and finally his death. But it’s really important for us not to lose sight of the triumphant entry. It is a joyful experience, inspiring feelings of communal gladness we haven’t felt in a while. 

So let’s spend some time here in this triumphal entry into Jerusalem cheering Jesus on, waving our palms, and throwing our cloaks down before him – all the while acknowledging that many of the very same people we join on that road shouting, “Blessed is He” will be in the ugly mob that cries out “Crucify him” on Friday as this same Jesus, an innocent man, is tortured and executed for alleged crimes against the Empire. There is joy and there is despair. This was and is our human experience.

What did you feel this morning as you entered the sanctuary and sang that wonderful song of glory to our Redeemer and King? What was in your heart as you waved your palm branches high?   Joy? Surely not a yawn!

The people cheering for Jesus that day abandoned their dignity, not to mention an important material possession by throwing their cloaks down on the road in front of Jesus.  They let go of their fear and troubles and were lost in wonder, love, praise, and joy. What did you let go of – if only for a moment?

And what about Jesus? What was He feeling inside? The text doesn’t give us much to go on if we want to know his state of mind during the grand parade. He certainly seemed certain of how the events would play out. I hope He too felt immense joy, don’t you? Then again, a recipient of praise and adoration of this magnitude might also feel uncomfortable – I know I would! 

But Jesus would not have been fully human if he didn’t experience intense joy, maybe even giddy abandon, and yet we rarely picture him that way. I wonder why that is? Do we feel guilty for being joyful amidst a suffering world? Does suffering deny the existence of joy? Does joy deny the existence of suffering?

As I think on the nature of the Jesus I know, I think He wanted the people to feel wonder and joy – to have a taste of the kingdom in which He reigns. To show that joy comes from knowing a love greater than any fear – a joy that can be felt even in the worst of times. And what joy this day must have brought Jesus to see the hearts of his followers, hearts long hardened by fear and oppression, open again to wonder and love! 

Joy in the midst of a politically and personally dangerous time for Jesus. Because this was not a simple parade down a road to Jerusalem. Jesus was committing a subversive act against the powers of the Roman Empire.  Pontius Pilate was on his way to Jerusalem too because this was the feast week of the Passover, the celebration of God’s triumph over the greatest superpower of its day. This would be foremost in the minds of the Jews in their celebrations of the event.  Imperial Rome generated feelings of hatred and contempt from many of its subjects. Pointing to their feelings, the writer Tacitus said, “[The Romans] rob, they slaughter, they plunder — and they call it ‘empire.’ Where they make a waste-land, they call it ‘peace.’

Because of this, the Romans distrusted associations, crowds, and gatherings such as the one we find celebrating the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem and it explains why Pontius Pilate and his legions would have left the comfortable confines of his palace in Caesarea Maritima for the parochial space of Jerusalem. To reaffirm the Empire’s authority and power over the people. Some accounts say it was likely that Pilate was conducting his own triumphal entry upon mighty steeds of war into Jerusalem from the opposite direction while Jesus was making his way through the throngs of adoring. cheering people.

The royal implications of Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem are clear in the words of “the whole multitude of disciples” who praised Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the King who is to come. Obviously, this made the Pharisees very nervous. They had warned Jesus before that Herod wanted to kill him and had advised Jesus to lay low. Now they implored Jesus to silence the disciples. They knew that such a display of royal pretense would bring down the wrath of those in power in Jerusalem, whether it be the Sanhedrin, Herod, or Pilate. They didn’t want to rock the boat. 

But Jesus chose to do the hard thing and the brave thing – He chose to rock the boat – to open the eyes and hearts of his followers and ignite a joy so powerful even stones would shout of it. On a lowly colt, Jesus made Himself vulnerable to the will of the crowd and the events of the days to come. His followers chose the Joy of Jesus that day – they aligned themselves with his authority – not one of oppression, fear, and death – but of compassion, love, and life. They crossed a threshold and took a step forward on the road that would change their lives forever – and they were filled with joy.

And about that crowd – that is after all the role that most of us are taught to play in the passion liturgy – as we wave our palms and shout our hosannas to Jesus and later this week as we join in the calls for Jesus’s crucifixion. 

How is it that we can be so united both in our positive energy and our negative, destructive, even violent energy? We still see this play out in the social, cultural, and political fronts of our lives today. To whose authority are we choosing to live under? 

Franciscan writer Richard Rohr talks about two ways of gathering or creating unity among people. One is the way of love: “God unites by the positive energy of loving, shepherding, and revealing the divine presence in one’s midst.” Unfortunately, there is another more common and more efficient way to gather people and form group cohesion. “You can either rally around love to unite, or you can rally around fear, gossip, paranoia, and negativity.” Fear and Hate can be as powerful and enticing as Joy and Love. 

Palm Sunday captures much of our human complexity and the observances of this Holy Week before us will show us the fullness of God and humanity. We have many opportunities to gather together, and I encourage you to participate in all of them.

There’s a question I want you to contemplate as we enter this week: will the way we gather here as a people, as the Body of Christ, change the way you gather with others outside of these walls? Will we choose to reflect the Joy we know in Christ, choose to be “good gatherers”, people who unite others based on our best instincts, not our worst? Will you lead others to light or allow darkness and fear to permeate?

In his meditation on how to unite people, Rohr concludes, “There are still two ways of gathering: the way of fear and hate, and the way of love. But do not yourself be afraid, because Jesus is still gathering.”  

Jesus calls us to take the risk of joy. This week of all weeks, we know how great the cost may be when we take that risk and listen to the call of Jesus. But the day has come, when the risk to remain tight in a bud is more painful and costly than the risk it takes us to blossom. Let’s take that risk. Let’s joyfully walk in the way of love — together. 

Amen

Let your light so shine!!

A Love You Can Count On

Where will God meet you?

A sermon based on Luke-15:1-3;11b-32-3

March 27, 2022

Grace and peace to you friends in Christ from God our Father.  

Let us pray. 

God of embrace, you free us from ourselves. You open a path to celebration. Turn us always to you and from you to our neighbor in service and in love. Amen. (Dirk Lange – Luther Seminary)

I’m a counter. I like to count things. I’ve been counting things from the time I understood the concept of numbers. Presents under the tree, the number of French fries and – woe is me – the number of Brussel sprouts on my plate; marks on the chalkboard; the straight A’s my parents paid me for; the number of books I have read, miles run, peaks climbed, jobs done, calories consumed, Scrabble games won… For some reason I have this innate need to measure myself against the world. 

I grew up in an old-school Scandinavian family – before the Hygge lifestyle was the way to happiness. Love was never questioned in my family, but esteem and approval were hard to come by. Praise was rare and hard won. I did well in most things – even great sometimes – but I could always do better. At least that is how I interpreted my parents’ absent expression of pride.  Mom and Dad were afraid that praise might go to our heads and my brother and I might think too highly of ourselves. Thankfully, both of my parents softened in their stern parental roles as we grew into adulthood and they shared their true feelings of love and pride in my brother and I, but the seeds of unworthiness and hunger for approval were planted. I am a perfectionist and still long for their approval after all these years.

Somewhere along the way, it became hard for me to trust that I am loved without having to first earn that love. That to deserve love I must be accomplished first. Therefore, in order to measure myself against the world, I count things and hope that if I just do more, do better, work harder, sacrifice more – that will count for something! Maybe I will be noticed and loved. 

When I moved to the valley from the plains of Eastern MT almost 9 years ago, I immediately came down with the mountain bug. I went from traversing the flat prairies to climbing 10,000 ft peaks every weekend. I joined the Glacier Mountaineering Society and soon got wrapped up in the counting bug too – religiously recording miles logged on each hike with my GPS system because, as we all know, if it isn’t recorded the hike didn’t really happen. Soon we were comparing peaks bagged in a day and tallies of trails for the year. It became a competition to see who came out on top – and less of an adventure for the sheer joy of being in God’s creation. At some point I realized I was burned out – it stopped being fun. No matter how great my day on the mountain was – someone else always had a better one. 

Now there is nothing wrong with competition. Competition is fun – and it drives us to better ourselves on many levels. We seek higher education, we practice more and refine our talents, we are rewarded with the feeling of accomplishment and sometimes even celebrated – with success and acclaim. For certain, we are a culture that glorifies winners- from sports to summits, poker to politics.  But what about when it stops being fun – the counting, comparing, achieving and winning? When the divisions between winners and losers, the ones on top and the ones who are not, become walls – barriers to joy – barriers to trust- barriers to life – barriers to relationships and love? Comparison is, after all, the thief of joy.

There is a way of being in the world where everything becomes a competition. We measure everything we do against what others do so we can compare. We simply want to be – need to be – on top – be right. And it isn’t necessarily because we are spiteful or conniving – it’s not because we want to gloat over our accomplishments or make others feel less than – well most of us don’t anyway. It’s just that many of us believe that we simply are not enough.  Not enough in the eyes of others and not enough in our own eyes. We want to be able to look in the mirror like Saturday Night Live’s Stuart Smalley and not just say but know that gosh darn it – my life matters and I am doing the right things – and people like me – and here’s the proof just in case.  

In a world where identity is confirmed by likes and followers, proclamation and protest – so many people long for approval – a good word that affirms our place in the world – that we are doing good – that on any given day the work we do is appreciated – that we are seen and not taken for granted.

When we aren’t – when we feel unseen, unheard, taken for granted, we build walls of defense and division and search for something that shows “I did that” and they didn’t; or “I am right” and they are wrong.  Meanwhile inside those walls – all we see is what we didn’t do, where we went wrong, how badly we failed, and how left out we are.

Today’s Gospel lesson continues our Lenten journey of repentance and what that really entails. As I ventured into this well-known parable of the prodigal at first glance, I found it to be a simple story of repentance and forgiveness, what was lost is found; as the fiery preachers of old would exhort – it’s never too late to get up and repent and return to God. God will welcome you – as long as you follow the rules. 

We find Jesus responding to his critics, namely the bishops and priests, pastors and deacons of the day – someone like me for instance – who are striving to follow the rules and follow God’s law – and as such they have a problem with Jesus coloring outside their carefully established boundary lines of righteousness – by liberally welcoming and eating with tax collectors, rule-breakers, and the like. 

Jesus tells the religious leaders a story about a man who had two sons. His youngest son turns out to be dishonorable, selfish, and impudent. He has disgraced his father first by asking for and then receiving his inheritance before his father has died, then gambles it all away, brings shame to the family name, and loses every ounce of respect and everything he relied on to be somebody. He finds himself hungry – very hungry. Hungry for the good life he once had in his father’s house.  He turns to his best form of defense. He devises a plan to win himself back into his father’s good graces and sets off for home. He knows what he wants but he doesn’t expect what awaits him – an exuberant father over the moon happy to see him! After all the wrong the young man has done the father thinks nothing of it! The father runs out to greet his wayward son – before he even has a chance to execute his plan. Not only is he welcomed home, but he is also celebrated with the party of the year!

This made my perfectionist-rule following ears perk up.  Like the young son, despite and maybe because of all my efforts to do and be right, I have been and at times still am demanding, selfish and self-centered. I have made mistakes that hang over me like a black cloud. I have found myself in a pigsty of my own making – ashamed and afraid and hungry for anything but my current life. I’ve been raised to and want to believe that I can pull myself up by the bootstraps and make things right and so I like the idea that I have some say in how God feels about me. If I can finally win approval and love by simply repenting – I can choose to do that – right? And look at the celebration I’ll receive! 

BUT the story doesn’t end there! We have the older son to contend with – the one who stayed. He has built a life of stability and honor through hard work and living right. And yet he does not seem very happy. Nor does he seem secure. He seems to be very alone in the world – as if he has intentionally separated himself from the others. In my mind, he has every “right” to be resentful even before his younger brother’s celebratory return. I recognize that sneaking resentment that creeps in when we find ourselves left out of the party and unnoticed by the world despite all we have done to make our lives matter. I want to shout right along with him – what about me? But like him I instead suffer in silence and keep being right all the while seething at the unfairness of the world, feeling completely unnoticed, unappreciated, unloved. He is just as hungry and desperate as his brother – it’s just that his younger brother’s hunger is easier to see.

Look at everything we have done! Doesn’t any of that count? 

It depends on whose game you want to win. If you are clamoring for a place in this world, if you are hungering for the kind of love derived from status – well maybe – maybe not. This world’s proclivity for belonging is fickle.

If a father’s love is like an inheritance – something that can be divided, invested, gained or lost. If a relationship is like that of a landowner to a hired hand where everything has to be earned – then those things should matter, should count in the grand scheme of things. The older brother should get credit for being good and the younger brother left to wallow in his own mess. 

That is how the world works, right? Sadly, there are many families, relationships, and systems that operate this way. I am sure most of us have felt at some point in our lives like we had to earn someone’s love and approval and have worried that we could lose it all at any time by being a disappointment. I am also sure we have sat on the judgment side as well.

And that’s the problem we face when we forget, or worse, don’t even know whose child we really are. Whose child we have always been and always will be. 

Jesus makes it clear – keeping count is fine for competition but has no place in love; no place in relationships of trust; and certainly, no place when it comes to God. 

Jesus shows us a Prodigal Father who runs out to meet the wayward us the minute He spies us coming from afar. He doesn’t send a servant. He doesn’t wait for us to come to Him. He dashes down the road in a way no respectable landowner ever would, making a complete fool of himself and meets us where we are in the middle of our broken road   Not only that, He doesn’t even give us a chance to sputter or explain or deny or repent but instead embraces and restores us immediately. This is disgraceful behavior but our Prodigal Father doesn’t care because He’s a parent before he’s a landowner and so he doesn’t count all the wrongs we have done but only celebrates extravagantly when we come into His arms.

And if that’s not enough, Our Prodigal Father goes on and does something any self-respecting individual would never do a second time when he leaves the celebration He is hosting to seek us out – even in our seething spite and raging resentment. He pleads with us to come into the party, to soften our hearts and change direction. Because before Our Prodigal Father is a Landowner, King, and Creator, He’s a Parent who loves His children more than anyone can measure.

Your value as a person and your place in the family cannot be measured by the sum total of your good graces, your wins and losses, your acclaim and defeat, your rightness and your sin. It cannot be measured, period!

We are not loved because we are always loveable, right, or “on top” of the leaderboard. We are loved because God is love. That is the only thing worth counting on.

We are so used to making things count, so used to keeping score and measuring up in this world, we feel we must hold something before God – something that we have done or not done – to tip the scales in our favor, to earn God’s grace, to earn God’s love. But God’s grace and God’s love don’t come with prerequisites. There are no scales, there is no contest, no reward for best disciple in this life. 

Only the same extravagant party of abundant life and everlasting love our Prodigal father has been throwing for us from day one. The one where everyone is invited and everyone has a seat at the table. There is no need for counting because there will always be enough and you are always enough. 

Ultimately, it is not about us and everything we do to define or prove ourselves, to matter. It is about a God who forgives us — and our neighbors — even before we repent. It’s about God’s generous grace that makes our repentance possible, our turning away from the ways of death and toward the Way of life1. A life that is both humble and grateful, with our hearts turned not inward but outward toward our neighbors, the community, and all of creation.

It is about God and God’s loving heart and you being God’s beloved child. It is about turning away from the old system of scorekeeping, counting, and judging and embracing our father’s unconditional, undeserved, unbelievable welcome into His immeasurable love. That’s a love you can count on.

Thanks be to God. 

Amen.

  1. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2019/3/26/lost-and-found-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-lent-4
Let your light so shine!

Seeing Clearly

I love to write. Words are like children to me – they are the physical expression of my thoughts and feelings – birthed deep inside and given life on the page. For all of my life I have delighted to see my words in print or on the screen.  Beginning in first grade when my poem about spring was selected for the school magazine to many years later when my well intentioned civic minded letter to the editor was printed in the Sunday Gazette, I beamed like a proud parent gazing upon their cherubic child. I remember being as thrilled over getting positive remarks on my high school essays as the soccer team was at winning the state championship!

Now I write professionally, pastorally, and for pleasure having consistently maintained a blog for 8.5 years. One would think that with my love for words, birthing them would come easy. But on the contrary, when has childbirth ever been easy???  Indeed, I have labored for hours over opening lines and meaningful metaphors. I approach the blank screen with trepidation – if I approach it all. Just this last weekend with a sermon to write and this newsletter article hanging over me – I suddenly realized with great urgency that my refrigerator needed cleaning out. I scrubbed that baby from top to bottom – pulling out every drawer and shelf and thoroughly scouring away every microscopic bit of organic life. I justified this time-sucking task with the inspiration I knew I would glean from the crisper drawer – but in truth I was willing to do anything to keep me from that frightening blank screen that taunts me with just how empty my thoughts are.

And courage. Courage to “put it all out there” for the world to see. To take a chance that what I have to say might make an impression on someone, touch someone, make someone think. I have to put aside fears of rotten tomatoes, click throughs, and “challenging” remarks. Courage to refrain from comparison – the ultimate thief of joy and creativity – and just write trusting that while my words may not be the most profound or philosophical – they still have worth.

With no divinely-cool inspiration coming forth I continued with dusting, vacuuming, cleaning the toilets, and finally taking the dog for a walk – surely, they were out there somewhere – the precise words to perfect my prose. Procrastinate lately – you might be thinking? But I will counter any day with my concept of active percolation – just like brewing the perfect cup of coffee – making words form sentences that turn into paragraphs and pages – takes care and time! 

It is in times like these that deadlines are my friend. At some point I am forced to write something – to put form to the thoughts swirling in my mind. To act. To make a decision and run with it – to take a chance.

As I struggled with words this weekend, I began to see similarities to other areas of my life. You might say my writer’s block was a mega metaphor of my life right now! Struggling with choices and decisions until I am forced by something or some circumstance to finally act. I am as afraid of writing the wrong thing as I am of making the wrong choice. Desperate to be right and win approval, my fear of acting has held me back throughout my life and as I embark on the second half I don’t want to continue being stymied by it.

I’ve never quite understood what is behind this fear but I have always marveled at those who seem to have a clear idea of who they are, where they are going, and how they are going to get there – and then getting there – fears (if they have any) be darned!

Fear of failure has clouded my vision and therefore I have always lacked clarity of purpose and lacked direction in living my life. Oh, I manage to get by alright – some might even think I have it all together – that I am right where I am supposed to be doing what I do best. And maybe that is true – but getting by is not the same as living your best. And living your best takes clarity which turns into courage which turns into action. 

Have you ever felt like something – maybe yourself – was holding you back from living life fully – trusting your choices and believing you are on the right path? What is it? What clouds your perspective and keeps you from moving forward?  What keeps you from living wholeheartedly and with integrity?

In addition to my fear of failure I struggle with:

  • The belief that my past failures will forever haunt any future successes;
  • The illusion that someone else is in charge of and responsible for my life and therefore has the right to direct my life
  • The belief that someone is far more qualified and better than I am for the situation at hand and therefore I am not needed;
  • The unhelpful messages I received and believed about myself in the past and continue to live into;
  • The child inside of me who still just wants to please, gain approval, and meet expectations;
  • The constant need to prove myself to others and therefore being unable to show up for my own life.

Counselors will applaud me for the time I have spent wrestling with all of the above but to be honest it hasn’t gotten me anywhere. Kind of like hoping divine inspiration will come from the crisper drawer if I clean it for long enough. The more I focus on the naughts and shoulds of my life the less time and energy I have for simply living life.  What I have come to realize is that there are far too many subjective and fallible things in this world that I have clung to for my own personal sense of worth and meaning and none of them will get me anywhere close to where I want to go – especially for the second half of life.

There is a story in the Bible about Jesus on His way to Jerusalem. Jesus is met by some Pharisees who warn him: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Jesus replies, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” (Luke 13:31-33)

Jesus knows where He is going, he is clear on His purpose and is not afraid of what is ahead. He doesn’t let the foxes of life deter him – even his impending death.

I want that kind of clarity for my own life. Clarity that encourages integrity, wholeheartedness, and a vision of life that is connected to something beyond me. Clarity that makes living with authenticity, commitment, resolve and discernment my default and not something I have to labor for.

I’m not going to find that if I am constantly battling my fears. The fears I allow to dominate my life are of my own making. They have tamed and impoverished my life. That is not the purpose God had in mind for me. God is much bigger than that.

God doesn’t want us to waste this precious gift of life in fear, regret, or despair.  He made that perfectly clear on the cross. I must remind myself of that. My sins are forgiven. I must not wallow in my failures or dwell on my regrets. God is not my source of condemnation; He is the source of my clarity and the source of all life. He is my strength and my shield against all that seeks to deter me.

Jesus came so that I may have life. (John 10:10) Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls me (and you) to a meaningful life in the now, in this very messed up time and in this place – wherever and however that may be.  A life that savors all that I have in the now and accepts what I don’t. A life that embraces the challenges and all the opportunities they bring. A life that finds its essence by sharing it and opening it to others – others who are also living facing challenges and finding new doorways to life.

Clarity isn’t about knowing and seeing everything. It’s about knowing and seeing ourselves as a child of God. It’s about knowing who our heart and our deepest loyalty belongs to. Clarity is about seeing clearly our gifts and abilities while acknowledging our limitations and feeling great about both.  God’s gift of grace and steadfast love frees us to live lives focused on what matters most to us not on what we should have done or who we “should” be. In that freedom is life at its best where there is nothing to fear.

Psalm 27 says it best:     

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall. Though an army encamps against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rises up against me, yet I will be confident. One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.”

Psalm 27: 1-5

Let your light so shine!!

Ashes for My Birthday – Amen to that!

“Remember you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.”

Such fitting words as I mark the beginning of another year around the sun or as today will remind me, another year closer to my Maker.

They don’t always fall on the same day – my birthday and Ash Wednesday. The last time Ash Wednesday occurred on March 2 was 1960  – way before my time – but this year the juxtaposition of these two days is not lost on me. Today we begin the journey to the cross. On my birthday I will wear a cross of ashes reminding me of my life saved from eternal death

This morning, my coworker asked me how I was celebrating my birthday. Deep in thought, I said.

Yes, of course I am deep in thought today. It is what I do and who I am – from the very dust particles of my being. I am a deep thinker and feeler. The last several weeks even more so, as so many of the things I have clung to in life besides the One I should – have fallen away as everything eventually does. In the process I have come to know myself better – my TRUE Self. It’s an eye-opening, lay awake at night, unsettling process. I came to realize how heavy I have let this little life of mine become. Weighed down by the weight of my own being – buried in a very lonely place.

The crosses I bear are of my own making. The darkness I have held within me is my greatest sin. It has tamed and impoverished my life.

Yes, the ashes of this day weigh heavy. They remind me that life is fragile, finite, precious, and unpredictable. There are no guarantees on tomorrow and the past is but a memory – all we have is the beautiful, painful, everchanging now.  God doesn’t want us to waste this precious gift of life in regret or despair.  He made that perfectly clear in the waters of my baptism and on the cross I wear today. I must remind myself of that. My sins are forgiven. I must not wallow in my failures or dwell on my regrets. God is not my source of condemnation, He is the source of my life. He is my strength and my shield.

Jesus came so that I may have life. (John 10:10) Jesus gives life, reveals life, and calls me (and you) to a meaningful life in the now, in this very messed up time and in this place – wherever and however that may be.  A life that savors all that I have in the now and accepts what I don’t. A life that embraces the challenges – even a possible hip replacement and the changes that will bring.  A life that finds its essence by sharing it and opening it to others – others who are also living through life’s deaths before death as well as giving life to life. 

And so today I won’t be celebrating with birthday candles on a cake – but ashes on my forehead. Celebrating life  – the life given for me and the life breathed into me by Jesus. The life I still have yet to live. The life I want to live.  

 ‘

When it’s over, I want to say all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder

if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,

or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

“When Death Comes” -Mary Oliver

Let your light so shine – especially through the ashes.