Sunday, April 16, 2017

Dare to hope

Luke 24:1-12

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
            See, it’s so easy! You just repeat the same words you repeat every year. Christ is risen… he is risen indeed, Alleluia! So then why couldn’t the disciples believe it?
            Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women had just returned from the tomb as the first preachers of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene is the first Christian preacher and she just delivered the first Christian sermon of all time—also the shortest and best sermon of all time. “He. Is. Risen.” Full stop.
            But Mary’s sermon has about the same effect as most preaching. That’s a nice sermon, Mary. “It seemed to them an idle tale,” says Luke in the Gospel reading, “And they did not believe them.” Well, that is to say most of them did not believe them. Maybe it was because they were women in a society run by men, maybe it was because the disciples assumed that if Christ were truly to rise from the dead surely he would make himself known to them first, but probably it was mostly just that the disciples lacked faith. Well, again, most of them lacked faith. There is Peter, who gets up and runs to the tomb, stoops down, looks in and sees. And what does he see? Nothing. No Jesus. And he goes home amazed.
            Easter morning is about the absence of a thing, which makes it special in and of itself. Most of our lives are spent searching for something, for some thing, whether it be a newer, shinier car; a newer, shinier job; or a newer, shinier spouse. It’s usually a thing that we are after. But Easter reminds us that the greatest things are no-things. An empty tomb, an MRI that’s clear, no call in the middle of the night, no tombstone for a child—none of that. Things happen, and sometimes terrible things happen, and so we sit, like the disciples on that first Easter morning, wondering what went wrong. How can we fix it and make it all better?
            Into that gloomy room bursts Mary Magdalene with a three-word sermon—still the best sermon ever given. HE IS RISEN! And the disciples do not believe her. They are busy trying to fix the problem, probably reading their Bibles, wondering which clues they missed. They are trying to take the thing that is broken and piece it back together again even though they know that death is final and there is nothing they can do. They are depressed, gloomy, angry. How dare these women come with this nonsense!
            Well, there is Peter…
            Peter, for all his faults, dares to hope for something better. Peter who denied Christ three times; Peter who was corrected harshly for wanting to worship the place where Jesus was transfigured rather than Jesus who stood before him, Peter who, according to John’s Gospel, was fishing naked in a boat, saw Jesus on the shore and was so excited to see him that he put his clothes back on before jumping into the water. This Peter who worshiped wrongly, who turned on Jesus in his greatest time of need, and who was a bit of an odd duck if we can say so—this Peter dares to hope for something better.
            He dares wisely. The resurrection is the thing worth daring for. A person can put their trust in all sorts of the wrong things. You can trust in the lottery to find wealth, you can trust in your smarts to win friends, you can trust in your politics to influence others, you can trust in your phone to make you feel connected. None of that is likely to work, but trust in the resurrection and you will not be disappointed. Dare to hope for something better!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Suffer once

Luke 23:1-47

Let's start with Saturday. That’s probably a strange way to start a Good Friday sermon, but hear me out. Between this night and Sunday morning we go through Holy Saturday, a Saturday which may feel like just another day in the calendar—a blip on Holy Week where we rest from going to church. But Saturday is an important day, because Saturday is every day. Let's start with Saturday, because our lives are spent in that Saturday.
            That Saturday between the day Jesus died and the morning when the women arrived at the tomb was the longest day. The disciples’ hopes and dreams were dashed. Jesus was not the Messiah. A Messiah wouldn’t die, not before defeating his enemies. They knew this. They were hiding in fear, in shock, starting to try to pick up the broken pieces. Sure, Jesus told them about what was going to happen, but they never heard, they never listened, it went in one ear and out the other. They assumed he was speaking in metaphor. They assumed wrong.
            We, too, have heard the promises. We’ve heard word of what has happened and what will happen. We, too, stand on faith in a time between times—between birth and death. We, too, trust in words to give us hope. Our entire lives pass in that Saturday. It is the day that represents every day to those of us who are alive. Every day is Saturday. Jesus came, so we wait and wonder: What happens next? Can we imagine that Jesus might come again?
            Saturday is the day of unknown diagnoses, the day of middle-of-the-night phone calls; it’s the day where we live in fear. It’s the day of faith because it is a day of waiting. For some it is a long day… too long. For some it is overwhelming. Waiting. We are terrible at waiting.
            All the things that might get us in this life tend to pale in comparison to the worries we carry about what might be. We worry. A lot. We feel we may have plenty to worry about. But do we? Do we really? 
            This can be a day of worry or it can be a day of hope. It can feel funny talk about hope on Good Friday, because this is the day when it feels like we’re supposed to let the heaviness sit, but today is only as heavy as the emphasis we put on the time between Friday and Sunday. The length of Saturday, like the length of grief over loss, is what determines our feelings about today, because resurrection is coming! You can see the signs of it: Signs of hope and joy and peace in the midst of destruction. You can see it in the ones who help, the servants, the ones who give for one another. There are resurrection signs all around us. You can see it in the spring; you can see it in a field, on a lake once frozen, in yards once covered with snow. It’s all around you if you open your eyes. We are living in Saturday but Saturday is packed with signs of resurrection.
            The inspirational quote that has been speaking to me in the last many months is one that is particular apt for a Holy Saturday, and judging by the response I got when I posted it on Facebook this week it’s one many of you find meaning in as well. It is this great little one-liner from Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them where he says, “My philosophy is worrying means that you suffer twice.”
            Worrying means that you suffer twice.
            That’s a Holy Saturday quote because between death and resurrection, between the cross and the empty tomb, is anxiety. We find reasons to worry. It’s easy to pick out examples of suffering and say, “Yes, my worries are justified! Look what could happen to me! Look what does happen.” And so we feel smart in our worrying; we feel we are being honest about the world.

Communion at the heart of worship

Luke 22:1-27

I don’t remember who I was talking with a couple weeks ago but the subject of communion came up and the person I was talking with mentioned that people treat communion with a special kind of reverence around here; that most of the time people are pretty lax around decorum and are fine with subtle changes to the way church is done or how the pastor wants to do things, but the one exception is communion where there is a kind of solemn reverence that we don’t have in the rest of worship. I think this is a good sign, because communion is, as much as anything, what our worship should be about. It is the one thing, above all other things, that centers our worship on God’s presence with us. Communion is at the heart of what we do.
            When I visit with people in their homes, in the nursing home, in the hospital, or in a time of upheaval in their lives the most useful thing I bring is typically communion. My presence is fine, but the reminder of Christ’s intimate presence and in, with, and under the bread and wine is what is really, truly needed. I think sometimes people imagine that the pastor knows magic words to say to people to make them feel better or that a good pastor is a counselor for a person who is lonely or distressed, but my experience has been that the best pastors simply make known God’s presence, especially through the bread and wine of communion.
            Communion connects us with one another and with God in ways that are difficult to explain. This also is as it should be. If it were easy to explain communion it wouldn’t be the powerful, mysterious thing that it is. If someone asked you “What does communion mean to you?” it’s perfectly OK to not have a ready answer. This is not something that needs to be explained; it’s something that needs to be experienced. With the said, it’s good to remember that different people show reverence in different ways. For some people their feelings around communion are fearful; there is an honest sense of anxiety around doing communion the right way or presenting one’s self appropriately. Others of you take it with a sense of joy—an anticipation that a fitting response to God’s grace is to live joyfully. There is no right or wrong way to do it; all of it is good; all of it is appropriate. You can dress up or dress down, keep your head down or lift it up; you can smile or frown. You can feel humbled or exalted. You can come with a heavy heart or with eager anticipation. You can sing along with hymns or wait in silence. There is no one way to prepare yourself for communion—all are valid—and none of us should look down upon any other for the way they prepare themselves. Neither should we feel bad, or raise our eyebrows, at the parent with children running all over the place. Even this is a form of preparation—communion works through our distractions as well as our intentions.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Not a throne--a cross

Luke 19:29-44

            Throughout the Bible there is an ongoing tension around kings. Far back in the Old Testament you might remember that Israel had judges rather than political leaders. Then, after a time they complained until God gave them a king. First it was Saul, then David, then Solomon, others followed who are generally less well-known to us. Then, when the kingdom was toppled there were no more kings; instead, the people awaited a Messiah, who they assumed would come as a new David—a new king over the people of Israel.
            Today, we remember their coronation of Jesus as king. He comes into town on a donkey riding over the cloaks of people spread across the way. The people are cheering, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” The Pharisees don’t like this, of course, because they don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah, but you get the feeling that even the people who want to believe this Jesus is the Messiah are missing the point. This is a riotous crowd. How else to explain that this very same crowd—the very same people of Jerusalem—who cheer the entrance of the king on Sunday would be shouting “Crucify him!” five days later. This is the paradox of kingship in Israel: The people never know what they want.
            As it turns out, the “king” title is only fitting for Jesus for precisely the opposite reason that the people of Jerusalem were imagining. They thought Jesus was coming to fix their state through military, political rule. They looked for the defeat of the nations that surrounded them. They wanted an earthly home to call their own. They wanted a king to sit on a throne in the palace. Instead, they got a king who fixed their state of affairs not through politics but through self-sacrifice. Instead of defeating the nations around them they got a king who defeated sin itself. Instead of an earthly home to call their own they got a heavenly one. And instead of a king on a throne they got a king on a cross.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

It's about Jesus, duh

Luke 18:31-19:10

            “Today salvation has come to this house,” says Jesus. Salvation has come to the house of Zacchaeus because Jesus has come to the house of Zacchaeus.
            We try to make this really complicated: Who is in, who is out, what achieves salvation, what is faith. Blah, blah, blah, blah. I realize I just threw out all your Bible studies, all my study, and everything about education that we value so much as Lutherans with a series of blah blahs. But it’s true, it isn’t so complicated: Salvation has come to Zacchaeus because Jesus has come to Zacchaeus.
            Jesus brings salvation; that’s his shtick. So what’s salvation? I’m glad you asked. Salvation is wellness, but it is wellness that is both immediate and forever, so unlike wellness sold to you it has nothing to do with diet or life-changes or workout plans. It’s about things coming together and actually working as they should. Salvation is about Jesus. If there’s a somewhat hard lesson in all this it is that salvation, since it is about Jesus, is therefore not about Zacchaeus. It’s not about personal character. It doesn’t matter if he’s good, she’s bad; he made poor choices, she is greedy, he is nice. He deserves it; so does she. Blah blah blah. It’s not about Zacchaeus. It never was.
            If it were about Zacchaeus then Jesus would be particularly concerned about the person Zacchaeus was, how despised he was by the people, about how he defrauded them and lived off their hard-earned wages. As a tax collector, he took what the Romans told him to take and then he skimmed off the top to make his own living; the more he could extort the better it was for him. He was a traitor to his people, despised by more or less everybody. If this were about Zacchaeus we would most definitely be hearing all about this stuff.
            But it’s not. Salvation has come because Jesus has come. So Zacchaeus responds: He’ll give it all back and double the defrauded amount. He’ll change his ways. He’ll love on his people. Is this why salvation came? Was it cause and effect? Zacchaeus turns, so God changes God’s mind? No! Jesus already came to him. Zacchaeus is responding to a promise of grace that he does not deserve. This is how a person should act when Jesus brings salvation to your house, but it’s not the reason Jesus is there. This isn’t about Zacchaeus.
            As we look forward to Holy Week, a week away, this is a good time to remember that this isn’t about us. It’s not about you; it’s not about me. It’s about Jesus. It’s that simple. Follow Jesus through Holy Week, turn off the TV, turn off the opinions in your head about what’s right and what’s wrong, who is good and who is bad, and instead turn to Jesus. Follow along with the disciples into Gethsemane, follow along with Mary’s mother to Golgotha, look to the cross, then come back with Mary Magdalene and the others to the empty tomb. This season is about Jesus—not bunnies, not Spring, not planting, not even burying our dead. “Let the dead bury their own dead,” Jesus said not so many weeks ago in Luke’s Gospel. This is about Jesus.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Bridging the chasm: Rich and poor, law and gospel

Luke 16:19-31

One of the hardest parts of preaching is trying to give you appropriate context to the scripture we are reading. Most of you haven’t studied the Gospel of Luke extensively—maybe you have done a Bible study on it—or maybe you’ve never read a word from Luke’s Gospel apart from Sunday mornings at church. It’s hard enough if you read the Bible every day to piece together the context, let alone if you never read it at all. But no matter what you know you need to know this: Context matters. You wouldn’t pick up a copy of Gone with the Wind, read a paragraph, and imagine you’ve got the picture. So how much more important is it with the Bible? We need to constantly be wondering: Where is Jesus in his ministry? Who is he talking to? Where has he been… where is he going? Is this story part of a bigger series of stories?
These are important questions to ask, because Jesus was not the brothers Grimm or Aesop. Their stories were distinct and universal; you can pick up a single Aesop fable and easily understand the moral. On the other hand, Jesus’ parables were specific and contextual. He told the parable of the Good Samaritan immediately after being rejected by the Samaritans. He points to Jerusalem immediately following the Transfiguration, saying that Jerusalem is where something big is going to go down. The context helps us to understand the meaning; everything after the Transfiguration is downhill to the cross and everything should be read accordingly.
One last example of contextual reading for you: In our men’s Tuesday morning Bible Study leading up to Lent we read through the book of Romans. Romans is the perfect example of a book that has to be read in whole; if you read it in part you will miss the point. If you read verses from anywhere in the first few chapters of Romans it is easy to see that Paul’s purpose in writing this book must be to convict people and strengthen the importance of the law. However, if you read anywhere from about chapter 8 on in the book of Romans it’s easy to see that Paul wrote Romans to obliterate the law. If you read all of it you will find something infinitely more interesting: Paul laid out the importance of the law to give weight to our sinfulness. Then he obliterated the law under grace’s power. But you cannot get there from reading only a single passage.
So it is with readings like today’s. The rich man and Lazarus: A parable of Jesus that, if we’re honest with ourselves, should scare us half to death, especially when read on its own. This parable better get us thinking, “What does it mean to be rich?” How much money does it take to be rich?

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Life is unfair... but not how you're thinking

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus asks. Now that’s a great question. In fact, it’s about time, because that’s the question—in various forms—that I get asked more than any other. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do some people seem to get much worse than they deserve? Why do some get better? Where is the justice? This is the most direct Jesus gets in dealing with this question, so this is a good time to perk up and listen, because I’m willing to bet that this is a question you care about.

    Intuitively, we like karma. The idea that people who do bad will end up getting bad in return somewhere down the line is a very attractive one to us. Likewise, the idea that if we are good God will reward us for being good is also attractive. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be how this life often works—good people suffer; some people are rewarded for sins like pride and covetousness and gluttony and lust. God has a plan for history—we can understand that—but individually things are not always so clear. We don’t always get what we deserve. So, if the reason you are being good is because you believe God will reward you with a good things then you might want to find another plan. You have to look no further than the apostles, martyred for their faith one by one after Jesus, to see that the reward for following Jesus is not the type of throne we might like; it looks a lot more like a cross.

    So if not karma, then what? And if we’re not rewarded with good things in this life, then what? And if grace is true, then what? We should be wrestling with all of this; we should be pondering it; because in this mess of brokenness and unfairness that we find in this world the important question is not “Is it fair?” because we know it’s not. Cancer in children, car accidents, war, poverty, a baby born with AIDS—none of these can be blamed for their actions; we can’t imagine they did this to themselves—but even if we start to think about people who have brought their ruin on themselves so often it’s not always clear how in control they really are. There’s the person who is otherwise wonderful but has a problem with alcohol, or the person who has a great heart but whose head is affected terribly by mental illness. Others can’t understand social cues. People are influenced by everything from their body chemistry to their families to traumatic experiences in their past. We all make choices, but our choices are not as all-powerful as we want to believe they are. We are free, but we are also captive.