When Fear Is the Master

A Sermon on Luke 12:32-40

Grace and peace to you dear friends in Christ from God, Our Father!

I recently came across a short story in a book I am currently reading that really hit home. In the story there was an insistent three-year-old who whispered into her newborn sibling’s ear, saying, “Tell me, tell me what it was like. I am forgetting already.” The memory of the safe, cloudless, watery Eden of the womb had already faded from her young mind’s eye. In just three short years her unworldliness had been taken away.  If you are sitting here today, you were once that newborn and that insistent three-year-old. Can you remember? Can you remember the feeling the young child was so earnestly trying to recapture and hold onto? 

Can you remember when you lived unafraid? 

I don’t know about you, but I had lots of fears as a child. I had a vivid imagination and an older brother who had exceptional talent in exploiting it! I am not sure where my fears came from but by age three, I was terrified of going to sleep and being left alone. By age 6, I knew all about death and I feared it. By age 8, I was afraid of ghosts, dolls that walked in the night, vampires (oh the joys of having an older brother!!) and getting a bad grade. By age 9 I was afraid, very afraid of not fitting in, of being the new girl, and of course nuclear war. I could go on. Needless to say, I had a very special light blue “night-night” and a teddy bear that kept me safe in the dark of night. And long after the thumb that went with that night-night was passe, my security blanket stayed with me … I came across it a few years ago when I was going through my parent’s house after their deaths. It is now in a trunk in a storage shed in Billings – I couldn’t let it go. And even though it is a bit threadbare and much smaller than I remembered it being and my present fears much larger, there are times I still need it. 

I’ll ask you again. Can you remember the last time you lived unafraid? 

When was the last time you lived without fear? 

Which words of Jesus stuck with you, today?  “Do not be afraid little flock…” or the rest of the story – all the talk about selling what is ours, night, slaves, thieves, knocks at the door, and being alert and ready for action for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. 

I’m reminded of the talks I would have with my dad from the time I was a little girl until I was out of the house. He would do his best to allay my fears or anxieties about whatever decision or crisis I was facing in life but then he would follow up his words of comfort with words of advice that I often heard more as admonition – his way of making sure I stayed in line or even more critical for a Scandinavian – that I wouldn’t get a “big head”.  “Do not be afraid, it’s your Dad’s great pleasure to put a roof over your head, but…”

I can’t blame you if your mind settled on the latter part of today’s Gospel.  These are odd words of comfort from Jesus and they don’t sit well with most people. The world is a perilous place and I am nowhere near ready to deal with it. My night-night would come in real handy most nights anymore!

We learn to fear in order to survive. How can we not be afraid? Sometimes we are told to be afraid, very afraid. We learn fear from watching others. We learn to fear what is unknown or different. We learn to fear being ridiculed, left alone, not having enough, not being enough and falling flat on our face. We fear change. Across the vast landmass of our states of fear, failure, scarcity, and abandonment are its primary sources… 

Is it any wonder that we all have night-nights or security blankets of some sort to numb our anxieties and hide our fears? What are yours? A sizable bank account? A fancy car? Your social status? A Big House? Advanced degree after degree? Fancy title? Clothes, shoes, toys, alcohol, food, exercise? We will go to great lengths to maintain these comforts that help bury our fears. 

And yet, no matter what we do, our fear seems unavoidable. It’s always there lurking in the back of our minds, directing our lives as we face the realities of this world. We will always have the rich and the poor. The haves and the have nots. We will always have a party in power and one that is not. And for most of us – in this room anyway – we will always be somewhere in the middle of those poles striving towards or fighting against their gravitational pulls. But it seems as if we never feel successful in our efforts. We can always do better, do more, be more. Failure is not an option. That fear is a powerful motivator.  Our politicians know this well and every 2-4 years they attend to our inherent fears with more things to fear.

Jesus knows our fears too. And he knows how much of our lives we give to them.

Before a crowd of thousands, Jesus speaks to those fears while preparing us for times of trouble, indeed, times of great fear – scarcity, failure, abandonment, death – ahead. Jesus instructs us to sell our possessions and give alms. Get rid of those useless forms of comfort and make purses for ourselves that do not wear out, invest ourselves in an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. In other words, even if every item or title you possess was taken from you, you would still have the one thing that matters most. Your identity in Christ. You are still God’s child; you would still have the promise and the reality of new and unending life in Him and nothing – absolutely nothing in this world can take that away from you. 

And just like my dad would often do, Jesus continues with more wisdom asking us to once again reconsider our relationship to our wealth and possessions, for these treasures do not last. Where your treasure is there your heart will be also – and a lot of people are living with heartache these days. Too often, we end up loving things more than we love each other. Too often, we end up loving things more than we love God.

This is all wonderful advice for our lives and would make for a great stewardship sermon. But I’m not giving a stewardship sermon today and the Gospel is always more than advice. There is a deeper, even more important layer to this story.  

It is about our relationship to God and who we believe God to be and his motivations for sending us this very unexpected visitor in the night. 

That our first reactions to this story are fear and anxiety should tell us something. 

The fact that so many in our world hear the word Christianity or church and assume that someone is there to judge, shame, or condemn them should also tell us something. 

Not something about God but about who we and they perceive God to be.

It has been said that religion is for those afraid to go to Hell and spirituality is for those who have already been there. If our religion serves to keep people in bondage to fear, to tradition, to anything other than what their personal experience with the Word affirms then our beliefs serve only do violence to the soul.

If that is the characterization of our faith, then we are letting fear call the shots and define our God. Is the God we expect or worship that small? Is that the God we want our lives to reflect; one of whom we are afraid?

Why would we think that when Jesus comes to meet us that he would want to harm or shame us or point out our grand failures? Our inadequacy? Fear of the unknown but larger life Jesus calls us to? Why is it that we assume that when the Son of Man comes, He’s going to catch us in the act and reign down God’s judgment on our sins?

None of that is in the story but something in our psyche needs to put it there. It’s what we’ve come to expect as we navigate through life, right?

But Jesus says nothing about harming, judging, or condemning us.  He does say to be alert and ready to answer the door when our Master knocks. But why? So He can frighten us, whip us into shape like the dutiful slaves to fear that we are? No!!

These are words of pure promise!

The Master wants to serve us a meal! To feed us and sit with us!

 “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.”

Just as Mary said He would, Jesus turns the ways of this world upside down. The slave is no longer the possession of the Master but a brother or sister in Christ. The Master serves the slave so the slave can rest. The Son of Man brings liberation not enslavement to each and every one of us.  Including you.

In addition to our confession that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, I often feel like I am in bondage to fear and cannot free myself. How about you? 

You may not think of yourself as a slave to anything – you might even take offense at the imagery – but there are ways of living in this world that feel like enslavement, like we are shackled, trapped, in bondage.

When we feel that our worth as human beings is determined by how much money we have, the car we drive, where we live, the school we went to or send our children to, our professional, social, or marital status, or our physical appearance or prowess –  that we will do anything to maintain that image or better facade  – from going into debt to harming our bodies –  that is a form of enslavement to fear.

When we are so afraid of people who don’t look like us or think like us or come from a different state than us; when we become so convinced that they, like Jesus, are coming to harm us rather than bless us and take what is ours rather than enrich our lives – that we tolerate hostility towards them instead of welcoming and learning from them – that is a form of enslavement to fear.

When we allow our allegiance to a party, a political figure, and all the prolific and divisive isms to come between our friendships, our families, and even our common sense, that too is a form of enslavement to fear.

These are all traps – a bondage to something that is ultimately harmful to us – the fears that narrow rather than enlarge our life. The fears that define and limit us. These fears bring darkness not light, scarcity rather than abundance to our lives. Ultimately, they close the door to our hearts and become our God. 

Rather than being alert for the Son of Man’s coming, we worry so much and get so lost in trying to tidy up the mess of our lives that we miss His knock – or are too busy to let Him in. That’s what happens when Fear is our Master.  We miss out on the true, freely given life God wants for us!

Thankfully, Our Master is not like other Masters. Our Master is a Savior. 

Though we face life in an uncertain world where evil raises its threatening power to make our life a place of fear, Our Savior promises to help us and keep us in a relationship of faith and trust. 

Our Savior did not come to enslave us with judgment, but to release us from fear. 

Our Savior did not come to collect on a debt but to gather us in, the meek and the lowly, the lost and afraid.  

Our Savior did not come to take our treasure, He IS our treasure and we are His.

Our Savior came to break through all the lies, madness, debts, and false promises of this world that are holding you and me captive to fear. It is Our Savior’s joy and delight to forgive our doubts and fears and cover us with His righteousness and unconditional steadfast love and grace.

Our Savior, Jesus, calls us His own and as children of His kingdom, we can live unafraid. 

Gracious God, fill us with the assurance of your steadfast love and forgiveness found in your word of hope and promise. In the face of the fears of this life, reassure us with the gift of faith in your everlasting promise of salvation. In your holy name we pray. Amen.

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.

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!

I Believe in Life after Birth

A sermon on Mark 13:1-8

November 14, 2021

Let us pray,

O God, you teach us to hope for a better world and place our trust in you. Give us the courage to keep hoping and trusting even when all seems lost. Give us the strength to carry on even when we don’t know where we are going. Give us patience to wait for your timing. Give us creativity to work towards a better world with You. Surprise us with better days. Amen.

Grace and peace to you, dear friends in Christ from God our Father!

Autumn is by far my favorite time of year. Of all the seasons we are so fortunate to observe, however long or briefly, autumn’s nature feels most promising to me. I relish the hidden beauty in the dying that takes place in this quieting season. Autumn brings a sense of comfort and calm after the rush of growing and maintaining summer’s vibrant splendor. But as is so often the case in life, suddenly the warm days with gold and rust-hued pleasantries disappear. Almost overnight the golden glory in the trees can be stripped away, and the lollygaggers are left to wither and shrivel in a boring brown descent to the dead of winter. The vibrancy of life interrupted by the suddenness of death.

We are midway through the season of autumn, but we have reached the end of the church year, and this will be our last foray in Mark – the Gospel that began with a bang – now we take leave of equally so! In two weeks, we will begin to prepare again for a birth.

Yes, life is a continual series of – endings – that give way to seeds of new life. As writer Parker Palmer puts forth “The hopeful notion that new life is hidden in dying is surely reinforced by the visual glories of autumn. (Indeed,) what artist would paint a deathbed scene with the vibrant and vital palette nature uses?”

Unfortunately for us, life apart from the rhythms of nature is rarely so poetic.

I remember the day I woke up in the ICU unable to move freely but able to clearly hear the hushed and anguished voices of my parents. I remember the day I lost the job that I loved, that had defined me and given me a place of recognition in the community. I remember the shock of my mother’s death, my father’s cancer diagnosis a month later, and his death a year after that. I remember the day my marriage ended, and I remember (all too well this damp stormy morning) the day I broke my foot – bringing an abrupt end to my life as a long-distance runner.

With each of these events, one of the great temples of my life was thrown down. The stones that I had built my life upon and around no longer stood. My life would never be the same again and in those moments, I felt completely lost. Each stone or pillar that crumbled took away my sense of certainty, identity, and my place in this world.

Believe it or not, whether you have painful Lego bricks underfoot or not, we are all master architects. We’ve been employed in the trade from our first recognition of ourselves as independent beings. Our area of specialty – temples. Temples of persona, relationships, beliefs, institutions, roles, reputations, and dreams, and sometimes even illusions. Stone upon stone we build them with the idea that these great structures will provide us meaning and direction, identity and value, security and order to our life and our world.

The temple into today’s gospel served much of the same purpose to the Jewish people. More than just a magnificent building, it was the center and anchor of Jewish life. It provided identity, structure, and meaning – the same as do our temples of today.

As a quick recap, when we were last in Mark, Jesus had just given new sight to the roadside beggar on his way to Jerusalem with his disciples. He has since entered Jerusalem to much fanfare (think Palms and donkeys) but it has been pretty much one confrontation after another with the religious authorities since that festive day. Herodians, Pharisees, and scribes – aligning themselves in various and surprising combinations – trying to trap and discredit him, even at times plotting his death. Jesus has been squaring off with his opponents, sometimes with parables and sometimes calling them out quite blatantly. He denounced the seemingly righteous scribe, called out the exploitive religious leaders of the temple, and raised up the poor widow who gave all she had to the temple coffers, easily exceeding the righteousness of those giving what they thought was just enough to satisfy their obligation.

Now, Jesus and His disciples have  left the temple – for the last time until his trial and execution – and all this disciple can muster in response to what he has seen Jesus do is a “by golly gee whiz wowzers” of an exclamation about Jerusalem’s main attraction: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings.”

What the disciple saw was an architectural marvel. Likely the biggest, boldest, and most unshakeable symbol of God’s presence he could imagine. Massive stones that held religious memory and bolstered the people’s identity. Like our Capitol building, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and yes even our iron Jesus out front. The massive gold and marble stones served as a potent symbol of spiritual glory, pride, and worthiness. What took the disciple’s breath away and likely everything he had just witnessed Jesus doing and teaching as he gazed at the temple, was the sense of religious certainty and permanence those glittering stones displayed to the world.

Jesus doesn’t quite see things the same way. He sees ruins. He sees the rubble, destruction, fragility, and impermanence such trust and value in the temple and its broken systems will bring. “Not one stone will be left here upon another,” Jesus tells the stunned disciple. “All will be thrown down.”

Today’s passage from Mark is often alluded to as “The Little Apocalypse.” Called the Olivet Discourse, it is but a snippet from a larger teaching of Jesus here on the Mount of Olives where he speaks of the last days and his second coming.

Jesus stuns his disciples with his ominous foretelling of the last days and His second coming. But his words were not intended to lead his followers (including us for that matter) to speculate on when the last day and his second coming would come to pass. Rather, he meant to encourage them and us to live lives in such a way that we are always prepared.

Too often we think of apocalypse as the end of the world – a time of fiery judgment and something to fear. Some might say we are in the middle of one now. It certainly feels that way – earthquakes shake the foundations of our world while fires scorch her surface, floods overwhelm our cities, while water is nowhere to be found. A sense of scarcity leaves us empty and constantly searching, our own nation is turning on itself while wars of power and rightness and the rumors of such wars divide and fragment the unity of our lives and relationships. Some aspects of our modern culture perpetuate the us versus them judgment day belief – think the Left Behind series that was popular for a while or tune into any cable news talk show.

My own concept of apocalypse was formed by family friends who preached fervently the need to repent and that “those” people were surely damned on Judgement Day.  When the TV movie The Day After premiered in 1983 – maybe one of the last movies the whole country watched together – it left the 11-year-old me terrified of the imminent nuclear apocalypse – I was sure that our end was soon, and I was terrified that I might be away from my family when it came. But it was not the end – thankfully our instantaneous disintegration did not come to pass – but many other ends in life certainly have.

Apocalypse is actually something quite different – not nearly so lethal but at times may be a bit disconcerting. As theologian Debi Thomas writes, “An apocalypse is an unveiling. A disclosure of something secret and hidden. To experience an apocalypse is to experience fresh sight. Honest disclosure. Accurate revelation. It is to apprehend reality as we’ve never apprehended it before.”

Jesus knew how dire the consequences would be for his followers in the days to come and that to reach his followers he had to stun them to impress upon them how important it was not to shore up their lives in something as temporal as the temple. A temple that would indeed fall as would the entire city of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 AD just 6 years after its completion – fulfilling this prophecy from Jesus and destroying any sense of place the Jewish people had.

Think about the day the walls of one of your temples were thrown down. Maybe it was your own job loss or divorce or the loss of a loved one; a cancer or other life-altering diagnosis. Maybe it was when the tables turned and you became the parent to your own parent. Was it the time someone you loved and trusted betrayed and hurt you? Or that painful day the business you worked so hard to establish closed. Maybe it was the day you realized that you no longer had control of your life but were instead controlled by addiction, fear, anger, or prejudice.

When my certainty in life has been toppled as it was in every one of my own great temple-crumblings – my ensuing bewilderment has always led me into a state of discomfort and disillusionment. In the wake of our apocalypse – we are given fresh sight – we see. See the truth and reality about our self, our life, or our world that we have long denied, ignored, forgotten, or simply refused to see.

In her sermon collection, God in Pain, Barbara Brown Taylor argues that disillusionment is essential to the Christian life. “Disillusionment is, literally, the loss of an illusion — about ourselves, about the world, about God — and while it is almost always a painful thing, it is never a bad thing, to lose the lies we have mistaken for the truth.”

It is always a painful process to see our manifestations of self topple and be confronted by the reality and truth revealed in that fall. Any reflection on our past reveals as much and reveals that it will likely happen again. There is always some kind of spectacle that distracts us from what matters, from what’s urgent. We are no different than the four bewildered disciples sitting before Jesus that day, preferring to be the master architect of our next great temple or reconstruct the one that has fallen.

Jesus knows this and so he warns his followers and us not to be led astray, but to be alert and watchful for the allure of those promising instant gratification, easy comfort, or quick fixes. To not let the next shiny thing that makes us feel good or takes away the hurt capture our devotion but rather be present and attentive to what is actually taking place to be aware of what God is doing.

When we sense the stones and pillars of our temples beginning to shake, the temptation is to shore up the foundation, add some mortar, make it stronger. We’ll do anything to avoid the pain, but this inevitably makes the destruction even more painful. Pain does not always mean something bad is happening – (I’m told childbirth is the evidence of this.)

In those moments, Jesus can see what we are not able to. I’m not suggesting God causes or allows death, pain, or disorder to happen to teach us an important lesson or make us better Christians. That is not the nature of the God I know or trust. The God I know has stood with me amid the rubble and the remains – reminding me that this is not the end but the beginning. The unveiling of something new.

Unfortunately for this sermon writer, Jesus announces the apocalypse but does not provide the disciples or us a tidy wrap-up to his teaching. Rather, he tells us disorder must take place, chaos will reign, there will be pain and suffering, and our temples will fall – because they need to fall. He leaves us not with answers but some mighty big questions to ponder:

  • What are the temples of your life that need to fall?
  • What lies and distortions have you mistaken for the truth about yourself, about your world?
  • What truth and reality do you most need to face?
  • How might God be working a new birth in you right this very moment?

We often associate the radiance of springtime with the beginning of life. But something first had to die – come to an end – so that a newer life, fed and strengthened by whatever has been lost, could come alive in its place. It is in the radiant dying in autumn and the barren sleep of winter, that the seeds for the new life born in spring and lived in summer, are first imagined.

Life is not diminished by its ending. It is made more organic, more wholehearted, more resilient, and resplendent. The endless interplay of darkness and light, the dying and rising, the endings and beginnings, the autumns and springs of life remind me that everything is forever being made new.

Everything alive in the world and in us is made up of things that have passed before us. Nature is a never-ending apocalypse.

Apocalyptic days confront us – God never does. The apocalypses of our lives force us to decide between reality and illusion, between life and death. We have confidence that God stands firmly in and for our life. Apocalypses help us examine where we put our trust. Know that God never loses sight of us. The day our temples fall is the day we face our own fallibility and impermanence and see the perfect permanence of God. We face our temporal nature but discover God’s eternal nature. Something must die away so that we can know the joys of the birth pangs. Our God ensures that there really is life after birth!

Thanks be to God!   Amen

Let your light so shine!

 

 

 

 

Jesus Turns Death into Life

A sermon on John 11:32-44 for All Saints Sunday

Let us pray.  Help us, oh God, to become comfortable with mystery, accompany us as we wrestle with stories that are beyond our ability to comprehend. Meet us in our belief and in our questioning, in our hope and in our despair. Share in our grief and show us the new life that is around us always so that we too may say, Come and See the new life, the light of the world, and the glory of God. Amen.

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

Death. It interrupts life as we know it and changes everything – for good.

It is the elephant in the sanctuary this morning as we gather to celebrate the saints in our lives – all the saints – those who have died and those who have yet to die.

It is as Isaiah writes, the shroud cast over all people – from our very first breath. 

What do we do with death? What do we do with something that is so prevalent in our lives of late, that we fight against from the moment of our birth, and yet know that no matter what, death is certain. What do we do with that? 

I’ll be honest with you. I was daunted by today’s Gospel story. As I sat with the readings for this morning, I even asked Pastor Pete if the alternate gospel reading from the Gospel of Mark was an option…. Because, how could I offer you the good news of the raising of Lazarus when I myself recoiled at the story in the face of death?

You see, this was the gospel story that my pastor in Billings suggested for my Dad’s memorial service almost one year to the day after my mother’s. It was an awful time of death in our lives as a family and the grief and disillusionment my brother and I felt was immense.  All I could think of at the time was “yeah Jesus, where have you been? If only you had been here, Lord.” 

Fast forward to my final LPA (Lay Pastoral Associate) training retreat the October after my father’s death and something our leader Pastor Jason said as we went through the section on ministering to the dying, death, grief and the services that follow. He reminded us that the funeral or memorial service is for the living – not the person who has died – for they are beyond the joy and honor any service could bring – they are with God! It is those of us left behind that have to learn how to live with death and go on in the aftermath.

As I sat pondering what I could possibly bring to you today, those words came back to me and I began to see why my pastor had suggested this particular story to my brother and me. It wasn’t because he was super busy and was pulling things out of a pile of proper funeral readings, it was because he knew how broken my brother and I were.  He wanted to help us through our “if only’s” so we could go on with life after death. He wanted us to see our story through the heart of God. 

As a writer and lover of words, the Gospel of John has always been my favorite gospel –  I love how John reveals Jesus Christ as the Word through which all things were made.  That God chose Jesus as his messenger to tell us about himself. Jesus is God and the revealer of God the Father. Creation is God’s general revelation and Jesus Christ is God’s personal message to us. 

Today’s gospel reveals something for every human being who has ever lived – including the saints. Today’s gospel highlights the reality of the loss, grief, and sorrow experienced with all forms of death – not just the loss of a loved one:  the loss of a dream, the loss of a marriage, the loss of direction, the loss of meaning and significance, the loss of a job, the loss of health, the loss of one’s identity, and sometimes the loss of hope and faith. But it does something more – it reveals to us the nature of God in Christ Jesus.

I think there is a part of each of us in the characters who experience the power of Jesus outside Lazarus’s tomb. There is Mary – whose heart, wrenched by grief, gives voice to our anguished lament, perhaps even our accusation: “Lord, if you had been here…”  Could Mary represent all those who come to church today heavy in heart, the grief of their loss still fresh to the point of being overwhelming?  Because grief has no timeline nor concept of the right time. 

Could Martha be each of us still coming to church after all we have been through?  Martha whose faith seems so incredibly resilient in the face of great challenge and who confessed moments earlier in the verses preceding today’s text that her brother Lazarus would “rise again in the resurrection on the last day “ and then continued her confession in the one who promised her life here and now yet  tarried while her brother died exclaiming: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world!”

And at times we are Lazarus – at least I know I am –  stuck in the tomb of grief,  surrounded by the stench of death, and unable to break free and escape from the ravages of the dying parts of life until he, like we, literally embody the promise of Jesus and the central message of our faith – God turns death into life.

In each of these characters, we see the ultimate miracle at work. God is in the business of turning death into life. And we learn a little bit more about just what the glory of God is all about. It is to be fully alive, to be abundant with life. Jesus said it himself: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

We see that God is more powerful than what scares us the most. 

We see the deep sorrow of grief transformed into a most relieved and elated joy. 

We see abiding friendship and deep love.

We see that even when we think we have lost everything –  that there is nothing to live for – it is never too late for a new life with God. 

We know all this by faith and by faith we know that God is love, we know God forgives all our sin, and we know that God turns death into life, and yet…

And yet, we are left with that unspoken uncomfortable feeling of doubt – as we wonder where Jesus  – the one we know works miracles – where is Jesus in the face of our tragedies, in the relentless death march of this pandemic, in the lives of our young people who are so broken by life they chose death? Where was Jesus and his miracle of life for all those we are remembering today? Where is Jesus in this very broken world of ours?

In our questioning, we see that what we most wish for, plead for, long for, pray for so often doesn’t come true. We see that death is still here and death is certain. And we wonder about God’s arbitrary mercy for us.  What do we do with that?

What does the story of Lazarus have to do with the very reality of death in our life? 

Lazarus is not a story about avoiding pain or denying death. Jesus didn’t go about his travels holding walk-in clinics banishing illness, hunger, and general malaise. Jesus didn’t go to Golgotha and cut people down from their crosses of death – nor did he avoid his own. The death rate in our community is the same as it was at the time of Jesus and for Jesus – 1 per person – 100%  of the time. 

Jesus healed, helped, taught, and Jesus loved. And he shows us by raising Lazarus that death doesn’t have as much power as we think it does. 

In the theology of John’s Gospel also known as the story of signs, Lazarus is the seventh and final sign pointing us to who Jesus is,  and through Jesus,  who God is.  

Jesus turns the water into wine and we see that in Jesus we have abundance. Jesus heals and we see that in Jesus we are not captive to our limitations or illnesses. Jesus feeds 1000’s with nothing but scraps and belief and we see that when we give generously to others anything is possible including new sparks of life. Jesus gives sight and we see there is insight and vision to be found in a life with God. 

Lazarus reveals that life in God is more powerful than death. God helps us to go on even when it doesn’t seem possible. When we are in our worst moment, God moves us forward.  Times that should destroy us instead truly do make us stronger. All of us here today attest to this great mystery and promise of our faith in Jesus. We can be broken and whole at the same time.

Even at the grave, life goes on. Yes, we know it does. We cannot escape death nor can we escape God’s promise of life abundant and the power of life over death. Theologian Karoline Lewis writes that resurrection is not just our future but our present reality. Martin Luther reminds us that in our Baptism we with all our sins and evil desires must die daily and that we should daily rise as a new person to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Resurrection can only come through death. It is in the dyings of life when our full humanity comes to life. In truth, life is born through death. We experience these dyings more often than we – at least on the surface – realize. Ideas, plans, and philosophies die back to engender new ones. When we graduate high school and college that season of life dies as we enter the next stage of life in adulthood. When relationships begin and end, when we marry, when we have children, when we leave a job or a neighborhood, when we begin a new endeavor or pursue a different direction, a part of us dies. Must die. Must end. These dyings are passages to something new, something wider, something deeper. With each of these dyings, we are given the opportunity for new life; they allow us to let go and lead us to discover new directions, new purposes. With every ending, we are given a passageway to something more. 

Episcopal priest  Father Michael Marsh writes:

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus stand before us today as saints. Through their lives, they bear witness to our own experience of sorrow and loss. Through their lives, they bear witness to the Christ who called them out into a new place. And they now join him in calling us out into a new place. That is what saints do. Through the power and love of Christ, they call us out of our grief and loss wherever that may have taken us. They guide us to the one who is resurrection and life, to see the glory of God and the light of a new day. (1)

As living saints, we are strengthened by Christ to call those around us who are bound by grief and darkness to new life – with a love inspired by Christ. 

I have grown to love this story. It reflects the truth I know in my own life. Life after death does go on and through it, I have come to know more fully the joy of God. I do not deny the darkness, but I choose not to live in it. I know that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. That is good news. Jesus turns death into life.

Thanks be to God!

Amen. 

Let Your Light So Shine!

  1. https://interruptingthesilence.com/2009/11/01/a-sermon-for-the-feast-of-all-saints/

Take Heart! Get Up!

A sermon on  Mark10:46-52

Grace and Peace to you friends in Christ, from God our Father!

It was a long time in coming. For this impatient one at least.

The cloudless sky was bluebird, the sun brilliant, as I braced myself in the blasting wind. It felt so good to be here again, a place I had unwillingly resigned myself from in the long months preceding this moment.  The smile on my face emanated from the tips of my toes as I stood firmly planted on the rocky outcrop – not a wobble in sight. My eyes glistened – from the wind, mind you – as I stood atop the mountain and thanked God for having mercy on me. 

You see, a few months ago, I had convinced myself that these cherished mountaintop moments were not the end-all-be-all of my being.  Faced with what I thought was a lifestyle-and-joy-ending – never mind painful – running injury that would not heal while still recovering from a major life upheaval on the home front that left me questioning everything about my life – I had written off my 50th year around the sun, became content with discontent, and was endeavoring to make peace with the cards life had dealt me.

My brother says it is in our blood – that my Nordic ancestry has made me strong-willed, stubborn, thoroughly self-assured, and self-possessed when it comes to matters of me. Though my sky had fallen, I was stoically going about dealing with it as I knew best – my way. Well, it turns out all I was really doing was continuing on with the misguided idea that I had some mythic ability to not only heal thyself but control my destiny.

Never mind that my inner compass may have been thrown off whack – by, oh, I don’t know – a year and a half long pandemic?  As for much of the world, for me, the last 18 months have been challenging to say the least. The plight of others has weighed heavily on me making my circumstances seem like nothing compared to the pains of the world, a world that has been in crisis for too long. Nonetheless, I had lost my sense of being and purpose. I had lost heart. 

The moment had also been a long time in coming. For Bartimaeus. 

Bartimaeus had long been kicked to the side of the road, his former life hardly recognizable. After all, blind beggars dwelled near the bottom rung of social privilege in ancient society. He was a sinner through and through – his condition announced that to the world. He was worth only what he could bring in from a day of begging- his value was that of a dropped coin here and there or the amount of pity he might illicit instead of scorn. He had grown used to his miserable circumstances – but then what else could he do? All he had was a cloak that served to keep him warm, protect him from the hard ground and the unforgiving eyes of scorn. Though tattered and dirty, the cloak also gave him a sense of identity. He was one of them. Alienated and outcast to the margins of society.

I imagine his expression was hard to read as he waited for Jesus to make his way through Jericho. The crowd called this Jesus a teacher and Bartimaeus had heard of His healings, but deep down inside he knew he was more than that. Bartimaeus was certain Jesus was his one and only chance for life again. Was there a smile of hope, a grimace of uncertainty, a frown of worry that the blasted crowd would conceal him?

And yet, his position on the side of the road could not have been more perfect.

It is believed that Jericho is the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. And it is on this long-traveled road out of Jericho that we hear the cry that has been the cry on every human heart across the span of history.  Bartimaeus’s cry for mercy.

The same cry that crosses our lips amid the fires of hate, violence, and division. The same cry heard in the anguish wrought by a pandemic and from the hearts of those beaten by oppression. The same cry heard in the aftermath of natural disasters, and in the desperation of broken dreams and broken lives. The same cry from parents of children who made tragic choices with tragic consequences. The same cry that emanates from our own struggles with fear and doubt and guilt and shame. Have mercy, we cry as we lose hope. Have mercy, we cry as we lose heart.

We all face challenging times in life -Jericho road moments you might call them. We are all vulnerable to captivity by circumstances or conditions – be they physical, elemental, or spiritual. Sometimes it seems as though no one sees us, that no one could possibly understand the complexities we are facing or the anxiety we are dealing with; feel the sadness that grips us; comprehend the disappointment that lingers in us; or respect the fears that haunt us. Held captive by them long enough, our challenges can consume us, cloaking us in their heaviness and keeping us from seeing beyond them. Sometimes, this impenetrable darkness becomes unbearable, as our recent tragic spate of suicides across several generations in the Valley can attest. Other times, the darkness just eats away at us, slowly taking life from us.

These struggles are the ones we keep hidden, they go too deep to share.  They aren’t the ones we speak of. Certainly, nothing we would want to be displayed before a king. At least that is what the world tells us and we tell ourselves. 

How often do we silence others, convinced that their cries for mercy are not worthy of our nor God’s attention? How often do we silence ourselves, convinced of the same?

Bartimaeus once had a sighted life – perhaps even a full life. He so wanted to escape his condition, his circumstances – but instead, he was trapped by them, silenced. What thoughts rested on his heart and in his mind? Can you imagine? What kept him going day after day? Did he still have hope for a future? If I were him I would be in a desperate state of funk!

Perhaps that is why I can identify with Bartimaeus and why he gives me hope.

Because I too was in a desperate state of funk!  A state my usual even-keeled countenance hid well. And as such, no one paid heed. The mountains that once called me and the roads I once ran down taunted me;  the little place I called home and took pride in felt like an albatross, the faces and places that once made me happy served only to remind me of my failures and what could have been. My whole reason for being felt called into question. Why was I even here? 

The shadows that hung over me kept me from being seen and the voices I listened to – namely me, myself, and I – did a good job of silencing me even when I called out to God. Lord, have mercy. 

Bartimaeus was expected to keep silent. To keep his voice down, so he wouldn’t cause a disruption in a very controlled and contrived world. I did too. What about you?

Goodness knows what would result from an utterance that would tear apart that which we carefully constructed to keep out the truth – to keep out the what or the who we don’t want to see, hear, or acknowledge? 

Thank goodness for Bartimaeus!

Blind Bartimaeus saw things differently. Already living at the margins of everything, he has nothing to lose and despite the crowd trying to silence this stain on their community, Bartimaeus called out again and again to the One he believed would save him from his desolate place.  “Jesus! Son of David, have mercy on me!

And then there it was. The one voice that spoke louder than any other voice in the abyss of despair – to both of us.

“Call her here,” Jesus spoke over the voices in my head stopping them  – just as he did to Bartimaeus when his voice stopped the crowd. 

“Take heart! Get up! He is calling you!” Mk 10:49

Hear those words again, “Take heart! Get up. He is calling you.” Isn’t this what we all want in this life of ours? We want Jesus to stop in front of us; we want Jesus to notice us in this big messed up world of ours; and we want Jesus to say to us, “Take heart. Get up. I am calling you.”  Those of us who love God need God to come to us and help us when we are discouraged, when we have lost our way, when we have lost heart. When, like Bartimaeus, we are kicked to the side of the road, at the bottom of our ruts, we want to hear the voice of Jesus directed at us. 

There are many times when I have lost my inner desire to get up and go. I just want to give up. I’ve had enough and been tested enough. I dare say, you are the same way. There are times in your life when you are overloaded, over confronted, over your head with life and feel completely unseen. You are short of time, short of energy, short of what is needed to face the challenge at hand.

In that moment, we need Jesus to say, “Take heart.” 

Those words must have been an infusion of energy to Bartimaeus as he took that giant leap of faith forward, threw off his cloak and with it all the encumbrances of his life and went  – I know they are to me. 

Jesus heard his cry for mercy. Jesus took notice, and Jesus called. That is the Gospel for blind Bartimaeus, that is the Gospel for you and it is the Gospel for me.

Take Heart! Get up! Jesus is calling you!

Calling me to see things from His point of view; calling me to question my certainty of the direction of my life and instead place my certainty in Him; calling me to let go of my “my ways or the highway” insistence for once and maybe just maybe let others reflect His way in my life.

The messenger bearing those life-changing words not only opened the door for hope saying take heart – he also said, get up – it was time for Bartimaeus to move into God’s future for him –  to do more than just sit by the side of the road. And Bartimaeus did! Without question. In fact, he left everything behind and went boldly to Jesus before he was even given his sight back.

I have to admire Bartimaeus here. It’s a scary thought – letting go of our lives – trusting God. But that is what saved him. That is what the Word of God does. It moves us to get up and not just go but let go! Our ancestor Martin Luther proclaimed that the Word is a living Word, it is full of Christ and bears the living Christ into our midst and equips us to get up and announce God’s love for the whole world.

We can sometimes hear this Gospel story as a miracle healing tied directly to the strength of one’s faith. We shouldn’t. Bartimaeus was moved by God’s Word into an active faith. Bartimaeus was made whole when Jesus called him. His renewed sight was just icing on the cake you might say  – the renewed sight of a life seen by Jesus. 

So, are all my struggles gone? Is that what faith does for us? 

Nope! Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. As Paul writes in his letters to the Corinthians:  “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” 2 Corinthians 12:8-9

Because Jesus is here with us, we are empowered to get up and move into this broken world with our broken messed up, sometimes painfully afflicted lives – to take heart and have hope in God’s future for us. 

As theologian Henri Nouwen posits, the deepest pain that you and I suffer is often pain that stays with us all our lives. It cannot simply be fixed or done away with. So, what do we do with “that pain, with that brokenness, that anguish, that agony that continually rises up in our heart?” We are called to embrace it, to befriend it, and say that this is my pain and it is the way God is willing to show me His love.

Here’s the awesome thing about that acceptance: We find that God has ears and hands and hearts right here on earth ready and willing to help us along the way. When we are consumed by our suffering; or, as in my case, suffering stubbornness, these ears, hands, and hearts are easy to overlook. But if we take the chance of seeing as God sees – we find them. Messengers saying take heart, I am here and I can help you. Take heart, I am here – I see you. Take heart, I am here and I am with you. 

Messengers like the physical therapist (my personal miracle worker) who didn’t tell me I would never run again – like others had- but instead said that together we would get me running again and running better! 

Messengers like the caring listener who helped me take a 30,000 ft view and a heart level view of my lot in life and helped me set a course of action for living life fully rather than despairing of it.

God continues to show me there are others who want to do this journey with me. Me! The one hidden by her own blind certainty instead of shining her truth in His light.

And in recent days, God has shown me how my challenges can become vessels for me to share God’s love.

God uses our worst moments to show us just how much He loves us.

That’s how it is when Jesus joins you on the way. Life doesn’t seem quite so heavy, so uncertain, so lonely, so dark. Sure, there are storms – but with them comes the revealing light of God’s love.

The kind of love you feel when the pain gives way to running with joy again. The love you feel when you know you are not alone and that you matter to someone. The love you feel as you stand on a mountain top overlooking God’s grand creation and marvel at His wonders – knowing that you are one of them. Take heart. Get Up! Jesus is always calling you into His love.

Amen.

What Difference Does Any of This Make?

credit:istock

August 1, 2021

A sermon based on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Ephesians 4:1-16; and John 6:24-35

Dear Friends in Christ,

What difference does this make? What difference does any of THIS MAKE? That was the question I asked myself as I finished reading through what I thought was my third and final attempt at a message for you this Sunday. What difference does any of this make in our lives after this hour together is over and we go back out into the world?

You came or joined us online fully expecting to sit for a minute or two to ponder at another week behind you and another one about to start, to confess and be absolved of your sins, to hear a few stories about God and Jesus, hear me try to make sense of these stories for 15 minutes if you mind doesn’t wander off,  sing a few songs, say a few prayers, eat the bread, drink the wine and maybe leave a little something in the offering plate as you depart and get on with your day.

 It’s a routine many of us have done our whole lives – even before we knew we were doing it. Until we couldn’t – at least not in the ways we have always done it before. And yet life still went on. And so, as I read through the lessons and Gospel for today, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of cynicism creeping in. Manna from heaven, unity in Christ, just believe and never again hunger or thirst. As I looked in the mirror, as I surveyed my heart, as I thought about you and the community in which we live, the nation and the world – it all sounded rather trite.

 In the context of our current  communal experience on the timeline of human history, I couldn’t help but think – what difference does any of this make – this worship, these words, this faith in God – because it sure seems like this world – that we are a part of – is as messed up as when Moses was leading the Israelites in the wilderness and a Man who fed the hungry and healed the afflicted was hung up on a cross to die a brutal death by the powers that be.

What difference does any of this make to the farmer who just lost his livelihood to a brutal drought, or the lines of tourists waiting at the gate to Glacier, or the cattle rancher forced to cull his herd because he can’t feed it, or the concert promoter bringing in thousands of revelers to our community, or the exhausted wildland firefighter called to fire after fire in an endless season of fire, or the ER nurse seeing patient after patient arrives with a potentially lethal virus that could have been prevented, or the former business owner whose livelihood was lost, or the new business owner finally seeing a profit, or the family who just celebrated a joyous reunion, or the woman who has spent the last 16 months painfully alone.  What difference does it make to those who tell me they have never felt more distraught, bitter, angry, frustrated, depressed, isolated, divided, doubtful, depressed, sad, on edge, anxious, afraid, and hungry for life?

Have we not evolved at all in our human endeavors since we cried out: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Indeed, the past two years have seemed like a biblical wilderness experience. COVID has impacted every facet of our lives from early 2020 to the Spring of 2021. We’ve seen the rise of racial tensions and been called to a racial reckoning. Economic disparity is as evident as ever as many lost their jobs and their homes while others are cashing in on newfound wealth. Political polarization and disinformation are rampant and threatening our democracy.  The earth is at once drying out and burning up and drowning in epic flooding upending lives and communities. And now, within a matter of days, we’re learning we face a “different virus,” that threatens to upend our semblance of normal life once again.

 What difference does God make in this wilderness?

While the wilderness for those of us accustomed to its raw beauty and proximity can be a source for rest and recreation there is another kind of wilderness place – a place you didn’t expect to be in, a place that’s unfamiliar and beyond your control, a place of testing and doubt, and a place that calls into question much of what you thought mattered in life.

Whether you are adventurous or not, you’ve probably been there. It’s the place you may find yourself in right now, or after a divorce, a significant death, the loss of a job, a career or lifestyle-ending injury, a loss of a significant friendship, a challenge to your ideals, or a serious diagnosis. It’s that feeling you get deep inside when the life you once knew is suddenly pulled out from under you. You feel bewildered, broken, and alone.

 These wildernesses have a way of stripping away all the trappings we bring with us in life to make it more livable – the comforts of home, the security of routine, our notions of self and the things that make us happy. In their wake we are forced to reckon with our deepest most basic longings – the hunger for a sense of identity, belonging, meaning, and purpose we’ve made our way through life trying to satisfy.

That’s a hard hunger to fill, especially in the wilderness.

St Theresa once said that the hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.  Substitute a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and meaning for life and the message is the same. When we have it – it feels like we have everything. Without it it feels like we have lost everything.

The Israelites knew that feeling. They had been wandering for a very long time – their sense of place non-existent, their sense of identity in flux, and their trust in their leaders Aaron and Moses, waning. On top of this, they are hungry. No wonder they start waxing nostalgic. I can’t blame them. When my present gets tough, I tend to linger in the before times – longing for the life I once had. After all, it was what we know and with familiarity comes comfort. Never mind the fact the Israelites had escaped brutal enslavement, at least they had lamb stew and bread to eat. Wandering as they are without a sense of identity or place – it is easier to see the benefits of the past they left behind instead of contemplating the possibilities of what could be. 

Hearing their protest, God intervenes by providing manna and quail for them to eat – and reminding them of His presence. God knows that a hungry body, heart, and mind can focus on nothing else than satisfying that hunger and so God provides – food for the body as well as restoring their sense of identity – as God’s people with a future and a promised land.

And that’s why all this matters. You see, if I lingered more with God than in the wonders of my past, I would recall many of those times weren’t so wonderful until God made them so. 

It’s no wonder this story is recalled as Jesus speaks to his disciples and the crowd that didn’t just follow – but chased after Him to Capernaum. Here we find Jesus fresh off his miraculous feeding of the 5000, walking on water, and stilling the storm. Not only is the crowd still hungry, but they are full of questions for the man they want to be their king.

They’d not had a Passover feast quite like the one they just experienced, and they wanted more. There was something about that bread – and more than likely the fish too. (But who wants to do a 6-week sermon series on smelly fish?)

Like his Father, Jesus had satisfied their hungry bodies, now He is determined to satisfy their hungry minds and hearts. He wants them to feel a deeper hunger – one that doesn’t come from scarcity but from abundance. He replies to them: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”

And that’s why God makes a difference for us today.

Like the crowd, we are accustomed to surviving life as best we know how. We seek control, power and protection against our vulnerabilities, and we see ourselves as the proper agent of that security.  In this sense, our trust is rooted in ourselves, and we are left to find our sense of place, purpose, belonging, meaning, and yes – love in whatever way we can. More stuff, more accolades, more money, better performances, higher scores, more wins. The saying you are what you eat holds true. Not all the bread we eat is good for us.

Think about the variety of bread we make regular meals of in our lives today. It is usually very tasty at first, easy to digest and often offers immediate satisfaction but in the end, we are left with an unpleasant feeling inside. We feel distraught, bitter, angry, frustrated, depressed, isolated, divided, doubtful, depressed, sad, on edge, anxious, afraid, and hungry for life. We eat all kinds of bread. And we do all kinds of things to get it – sometimes to the point of depression, desperation, depletion, even, ironically, starvation. No matter how much we eat, it will never be enough.

If this is what we do to define ourselves, to find belonging, to bring purpose to our lives – no wonder we are starving! It’s a very different bread of life than what God wants for us. Jesus didn’t just come to perform miracles, impress people, and preach a good sermon. He came to meet us in our deepest hunger. To satisfy our deepest most universal needs of belonging, identity and purpose. Jesus doesn’t just feed us this with bread – he becomes the bread and fills us with the very presence of God. 

It’s when we are driven into the wilderness that we realize this bread we’ve been relying on for survival isn’t enough. Sure, it’s often easy to come by – tantalizingly so at times – but it won’t feed us for the journey ahead. I came to this stark realization myself even before I started working on this sermon – and that is why God makes a difference. 

As more and more of the things I filled my pre-pandemic life with were shut down or taken from me – even my running when I broke my foot – I literally began to ache inside. While I thought I was filling my life with the right survival gear or eating the right kind of bread – you might say – just as on many of my wilderness outings – I realized I had left behind one key piece of gear – trust. Trust that the God who created me and provided for me up to this very moment is enough for me. That there the only limits on God’s provision in my life are mine. That in God, my identity is secure and because of that I can hope.

God’s greatest desire is to be present with us in all our wildernesses – creating, sustaining, and nourishing us with the Bread of Life. When you open your hungry heart to Jesus and invite him to join you each day, you see things differently. You live differently. You discover that you are not a solo traveler in the wilderness of life. Rather, you belong to a creator and creation far greater than anything or anyone this world can provide. As St Paul writes, we are a part of one body and one Spirit, called to one hope in one Lord, with one faith, through one baptism into one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 

And because of this, our false notions of self and others are replaced by the ability to see and love ourselves and others as persons created in the image of God rather than issues to be overcome. We say yes to a life set free from the captivity of believing we have to be someone we are not and instead live as God already made us to be with many different gifts. Gifts that when shared with the community give us a new purpose in carrying out God’s goodness for all to receive. Secure in our identity in God, we choose love and forgiveness over anger and retribution; and we relate to each other with intimacy and vulnerability rather than superficiality and defensiveness.

If history is any indicator of what is to come, we have a lot of wilderness times ahead but when we see through God’s eyes, listen to God’s voice, and walk with God’s steadfast presence the wilderness can be a place of transformation instead of brokenness.

Jesus is the bread of our life so that we may live life, not just hunger for it.

And that makes all the difference.

Amen.

The Wilderness

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

credit:istock

A Lenten Sermon 

During this Lenten season, we’ve been hearing Martin Luther’s explanations of the Sacraments we as Lutherans celebrate. Tonight, as we reach the end of our Wednesday Evening Prayer Services, I will continue with the Sacrament of the Altar a.k.a Holy Communion. 

It has been over a year since we last celebrated communion with our Lord together as one body. Yes, we have had the occasional virtual sharing of the body and blood of Christ – making do with a cracker or piece of toast and a blessed swig of our house wine or whatever we can find in the fridge while at the breakfast table or in front of the TV, but I will be honest with you – to me it seems a bit sacrilege and has left me feeling a bit empty. Most definitely, this long pandemic fast we have endured has made me hungry for the day we can be together again to share a blessed communion with one another, bound together by our common Baptism and a bond of love that reflects the love of Christ for us. 

I have vivid memories of receiving and giving the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ throughout my life – from my very first communion as a newly confirmed 8th grader in my lace-trimmed white dress and black patent shoes surrounded by family and fellow formally dressed confirmands to the last time I served communion to my father on my last Sunday at our family’s church in Billings before I moved away. As I held my dad’s eyes and spoke the same words spoken by Christ – there was a love so deep and a common understanding between us that only God could create out a piece of bread and sip of wine. I have witnessed grown men cry as they came forward for this special meal, I have watched broken souls struggle through infirmities to come forward with the help of others, I myself have cried with tears of relief and tears of joy that I only feel after tasting the bread and drinking the wine. 

Which begs the question that Luther asks:

How can bodily eating and drinking do such a great thing?

Eating and drinking certainly do not do it, but rather the words that are recorded: “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.” These words, when accompanied by the physical eating and drinking, are the essential thing in the sacrament, and whoever believes these very words has what they declare and state, namely, “forgiveness of sin.”

But, you ask, weren’t we already offered and given forgiveness of sins, life and salvation in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism? Do we somehow lose that forgiveness so that we need to be re-forgiven, re-saved, resurrected to life again every week? What does that mean for us during a pandemic when we haven’t communed in over a year? Gasp!  No forgiveness doesn’t work that way. What Jesus is offering you in Holy Communion is a REmembering – a tangible reminder of his life and death. Not a memory that simply makes us think of Him but a memory that makes us members of His body. An intimate interaction with His presence. And where Christ is found, there is complete forgiveness – there and only there, whether you take the bread and wine this week or not.

What joins you to Christ is your faith in Him for the forgiveness of sins, faith that comes from hearing and living in His promise. Jesus called you to Him in the waters of your Baptism and through your faith in Jesus and His promise, your sins are counted – counted as forgiven – always and completely. But while God doesn’t keep a tally of your sins, the world and the devil do and they will do their level best to work against God and on you. 

Your faith in God is a target. During His last days with them, Jesus told his disciples: “In this world you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) And He was right! You are literally surrounded by enemies who  seek to sever your connection to Jesus, to pull you away from Him, and pull you away from God’s forgiveness and life. Who are your enemies? Who or what comes between you and God and keeps you from sharing God’s promises with the world and living the life that God wants for you? 

Because Jesus knows what it is like to be human, to have our weaknesses tested and our faith tried, Jesus wasn’t content to give you only a once-in-a-lifetime Baptism. Jesus knew you would need more than that, something tangible – a symbolic reminder of His enduring presence and an open invitation to His mercy, grace, and love in the face of the world’s troubles and all that would pull you from Him. In remembering and celebrating the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, through the bread and wine, body and blood, He gathers your life and the lives of the world to Him.That is why Jesus, on the evening before he died, took bread saying, “This is my Body,” and took the cup saying, “This is my Blood.” “Do this in remembrance of me.”

I dare say there are a multitude of things vying for God’s place in your life right now. And you might – after a year most often described as one of  separation, polarization, judgment, frustration, distrust, and hate – you might be feeling a bit unworthy of this great gift of God’s love. 

Such thoughts were not foreign to Luther either. Indeed, he questioned this himself:

Who, then receives this sacrament worthily?

Fasting and bodily preparation are in  fact a fine external discipline, but a person who has faith in these words, “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sin,” is really worthy and well prepared. However, a person who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, because the words “for you” require truly believing hearts.

I think we have this fasting thing down pretty good – and we have been keeping our bodies well- prepped against ruthless invaders for over a year now – so that should make us worthy, right? Sure, that might make you LOOK worthy to others and FEEL worthy. But it isn’t very concrete. How can you be certain you have fasted enough or kept your body primed enough? So how do we define worthiness? It’s in our human nature to like lists and categories and systems that enable us to measure our success, align with the “right” group, and see others as not like us – you know – not worthy. 

So here goes – where do you fit in? If you don’t have a single sin that needs forgiving, then by all means,don’t come taste and see.  If you have no fear, no doubt, no weaknesses of the heart, then this bread for the journey is not for you. If your faith can’t be moved or shaken, if you’ve never thought only of yourself, if your “love for one another” is already perfect, and if you have had it with Jesus and feel no need for communion with Him, then this invitation isn’t for you.  It probably isn’t going to mean much to you because this divine invitation is meant for sinners. 

Who is worthy? Christ’s body and blood – His eternal presence – is for YOU. You who yearn to walk with Christ – but get tripped up every so often; you who long to be touched again by His sacrifice even when you can’t find the time to sacrifice for Him; you who long to receive forgiveness for all your sins from His wounded and outstretched hands all the while holding onto a grudge, and you who need His help in order to fulfill His command to love one another even though you have yet to love yourself.

If you feel the world pulling you away from God, if you know you need Christ and you know that all His forgiveness and all His strength is in here – in your heart – as you eat the bread and drink the wine of this Holy Communion, if you believe that you have been personally invited by your Savior to this feast for sinners, because you have, then come – taste and see. You are most certainly worthy and most certainly welcome. 

Amen

Life Begins Where Fear Ends

Inspired by: Matthew 25:14-30,Psalm 90

With Thanksgiving around the corner, my mind has turned repeatedly to two things – my family who are far away and what I have done with the gifts bestowed upon my life in the past year. Both of which are triggered by the back-page stories in the newspaper – one of the few reasons I still subscribe to a local paper. I love to read obituaries, much more than write them mind you. I often find myself skimming past the headlines of the day but once I get to the obituary page, I read them word for word. It is the only time, that I know of at least, that the dash takes center stage – the life in between the numbers. I know what an impact the dash can make. Seeing the dash on my family’s headstone with both of my parent’s birth – dash – death years is one thing. Seeing my name with my birth date – dash – (blank) is a rather unsettling experience! But I digress…

Obituaries can move me, leave me awestruck, and inspire me. The really good ones cause me to reflect on what I have done with the dash in my life. They don’t dwell so much on one’s scholarly or professional achievements, though certainly worthy of mention, but where those achievements led the person and the impact that person had outside of themselves during their dash. We get to learn about what is really important in life and we get to laugh at the humorous side of our humanity.

I have noted two commonalities among most obituaries: they often recount a person’s relationship with God and they rarely list one’s fears. For good reason. With God, our lives are lived with anticipation, whereas fear negates the talents we are given – the opportunities and the possibilities God entrusts to us. Fear can have a very powerful role in the direction of our lives. We see that play out in Matthew’s Gospel in the parable of the talents.

Imagine if you will:

Jesus was going on a journey, one that he knew he would be on for quite some time.  He called a few of his followers to him and entrusted some very valuable treasures to them. To one, named Martin, he gave stories; to another named Paul he gave compassion; and to a third, Goodwin, he gave the bread of life and the cup of salvation. These treasures were of incredible value – he deemed each of them of equal importance even though the weight and substance of each differed.  Then Jesus went away.

Martin took those stories and studied them and wrote them out so the stories could easily be read and shared. While a little unsure of where Jesus was leading him, he knew his guide well. His Lord had been a dwelling place for all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever he had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting He was God. That He had entrusted Martin with stories filled Martin with joy as he set to work. Soon there were five more followers of Jesus reading and sharing those stories and those stories are still being read and shared today.

Reflecting often on his mangled past, Paul couldn’t believe Jesus had entrusted him with compassion – him of all people! And yet, Paul, acknowledging Jesus’ decisive impact on his life, changed his name from Steve to Paul and relinquished his life to Him. The freedom he found in trusting Jesus fueled him with a drive that couldn’t be stopped. He took that compassion and traveled all over the region offering compassion to all who would hear and open their hearts to him. The first two who opened their hearts shared the compassion with another 2 and so on and so forth. Soon all across the world many were receiving and giving compassion in the name of Jesus.

But Goodwin, who had been given the bread of life and the cup of salvation, dug a hole in the ground and buried them because he believed the Lord would plunder his wealth and lay his house to waste. He was afraid— afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what Jesus would do to him if he didn’t get it right, and finally, because he had no idea what might happen to him if he shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with anyone else. There were so many unknowns! People might expect him to do more than he thought he was capable of! Surely, all would be better if he just stored the bread and cup until Jesus got back. Besides, Goodwin thought, he was a much better farmer than an evangelist.

Finally, back from his journey – no worse for the wear – Jesus stopped by each of his follower’s homes and asked them what they had done with the treasures he had given to them.

The first two followers offered Jesus some coffee and cookies and told him about how the stories were now in book form and in their millionth copy! They told him how the compassion had grown and was now administered not only on the streets but in buildings called churches. They introduced Jesus to some of his new followers and the new followers in turn introduced Jesus to their friends and families.

Jesus was very pleased.  He thanked each of them for their wonderful hospitality and told them, “Well done, good and trustworthy followers! You have been trustworthy in a few things, now I will trust you with many things. Enter into my joy!”

Martin and Paul and all Jesus’ followers, now called brothers and sisters in Christ, went about their lives with the joy and freedom knowing Jesus brought them. For all those who have the Good News, even more will be given to them. Gone was their need to control and worry about everything, for Jesus showed them that He was their true Master, who, with grace and mercy, would lead them through life’s ups and downs and welcome them home at the end of their days.

Then it was Goodwin’s turn. After a long hot day working in the field harvesting his hay crop, he was slow to answer the door when Jesus knocked.  “Hello Goodwin,” Jesus greeted him, as he looked over his shoulder at an empty room except for a Lazy-boy recliner and a radio blaring some hotheaded advice guru. “I’ve come to review your work. May I come in?”

“Geez, Jesus, now? Can’t you see your interrupting…”

“Goodwin, please, it is time. Let’s talk.”

Goodwin stepped aside and let Jesus into his house. He felt a bit nervous – no make that terrified – worse than when he was first given the bread and the cup. But Jesus just stood there and waited patiently until Goodwin cracked.

“Jesus, I knew you were a harsh man. I knew you reaped where you didn’t sow and gathered where you didn’t scatter seed. I don’t much care for people who trespass on my property.”

Jesus raised an eyebrow.

Goodwin’s reddened face paled. He continued. “Alright Jesus, I was afraid of messing up, of not getting the theology right, of what you would do to me if I didn’t get it right. Besides, I had crops to tend to. With no idea of what might happen to me if I shared the bread of life and the cup of salvation with others, I just couldn’t bet the farm.”

Jesus stopped him mid breath. “Goodwin, I think you’ve misread me. Of course, I reap where I don’t sow! I give you free will to live your life as you will and sometimes, I get really lucky when someone gets a brilliant idea – like your friend Martin did with that printing press! Boy, I never saw that coming! But I entrusted you with a few tasks I thought you would be perfect for. I guess you didn’t see what I saw in you.”

Goodwin continued in his protest, “But there were so many unknowns! People might have expected me to give more of my time than I was able! So, I thought, surely all would be better if I just stored the bread and cup until you got back. Besides, I am no evangelist.”

And that could have been the opening line to Goodwin’s obituary and the engraving on his headstone. There would be no dates with a dash in between. What would anyone want to remember him for? After their conversation, Goodwin gave the bread and cup back to Jesus. Condemning himself to a place of darkness rather than risk the unknowns, he turned Jesus away. Feeling what was left of his poor sham of a life suck out of him, he wanted to stop living – after all what was the point? He did the same thing over and over again and look where it got him?  Nowhere.  Standing in the darkness of his empty living room he ground his teeth so badly he felt a filling fall out.

That is what happens when you let fear be your Master. Indeed, we all have times of anxiety — times filled with worries over the direction our culture is drifting or concerns for our children, our marriages, our businesses, our finances, our personal health and well-being. Whether it is fear of losing control  – so you live your life so tightly shut that no one can venture in and you cannot get out, fear of being alone or standing alone in your beliefs, fear of not measuring up, or fear of the unknown – staying well within your comfort zone, walled off from the risks of new opportunities and possibilities – nothing Godly or goodly can come from fear.

Fear limits us. But our fear cannot limit God, nor can it limit what God wants for us.

(The story continues)

Goodwin walked to the sink, spit the metal out of his mouth and went to bed. After a restless night with little sleep there was a knock at the door. “Now who could that be? Why won’t people leave me alone?” he muttered as he passed by the empty mail cache and phone that never rang.

He opened the door and a radiance shown into his dreary space and forlorn face.

“Jesus! You came back!”

“I just couldn’t let it go – you saying I was a harsh man.” Jesus looked at Goodwin. He looked pretty scruffy and what was going on in that mouth of his? Could it be he wasn’t frowning quite so much?  “You’ve had a long night. What do you say we go get some of this bread of life and a good swig from the cup of salvation? It really is far more appetizing than you think, and I know just the place.”

Jesus put his hand on Goodwin’s shoulder – he felt the tension release and the strength he once saw in him come back.  Goodwin closed the door to his emptiness and headed down the road to this place Jesus had heard about from Paul.

“You say they call this a church?”

“Yup,” said Jesus. “It’s full of people just like you – I was kind of surprised, but then not so much as it is kind of hard to surprise me. There are people in there just as fearful as you. Life isn’t easy, I know.  There are people inside who see me as harsh and full of judgment, easy to ire, impatient, and kind of surly and so they go to this place because they think they have to. And then – then there are those inside who have fully embraced the new me – loving and kind, patient and enduring – I like to think I’m their Great Protector – of course, I am, to all of them.”

On the way they pass by a few who see Jesus as someone who will not do good or do harm – Jesus shook his head, “They think I’m a willy nilly – to them I’m some old man from ages past who doesn’t much impact their day to day lives. Do you know how that makes me feel? After all I’ve given? But enough about me, we should welcome them.”

Goodwin and Jesus went inside the church and found themselves surrounded by children of the light – clothed in their Sunday best – faith, love and hope. And they heard the story of a God who loves us so much that He came in the person of Jesus to experience our lives first hand, to share our hopes and dreams, and our fears and failures. A God who does not want the time between our numbers to be spent in fear. A God who wanted working knowledge of our trials and tribulations and to see just how amazing His creation turned out to be. A God who entrusted us with stewarding his amazing creation for our joy and our fulfillment.  A God who fell so in love with us that He died for us on the cross, so that we could be freed of our sins, and live our lives abundantly – without fear.

Goodwin felt his fears melt away. He realized his life was not his alone to live – his life belonged to God – the One who gave his own, so that he, Goodwin, might live fully. And so, by golly, live it fully he would! Surrounded by fellow brothers and sisters – the very living body of Christ – who would continue to hold him and each other in love while encouraging and building one another up in their various pursuits, until the day of Our Lord comes again.

Wishing you a Thanksgiving that is abundant in life and absent of any fears – whether you are spending the holiday with family or staying apart out of love.

Peace and blessings to you.