Tuesday, May 21, 2019

5th Sunday of Easter (Year C) - May 19, 2019

5th Sunday of Easter
Year C
May 19, 2019
John 13:31-35

In this season of Easter, we’ve been jumping a bit around the Gospel of John. Today, we find ourselves just after John’s telling of Jesus washing his disciples feet. It marks the beginning of what we call the “Farewell Discourse” - the discourse in which Jesus prepares his disciples for his absence. “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.”

My Dad’s likely not going to be thrilled that I use this story. But I’m going to go with it anyway. When I was a kid, I had a tendency to take a really long time to get ready. Even at like 4 or 5, I took really long showers and baths. Like the kinds of showers where you use all the hot water from the hot water tank. I had an active imagination. I was the kind of kid that could make anything into a toy or a game. In elementary school, I used to play with the crayons in my desk as if the crayons were characters in a story; so my desk had this whole imaginary world contained in it (I still don’t know how I never got caught). But bath time (or shower time) was another time where I got lost in my own world and had zero concept of time, until the water turned cold, shaking me out of it and back into reality. Once I got out, I often again got distracted by my barbies and stuffed animals while I was getting ready.

One day, my grandparents were visiting, so we were going to go get ice cream from my favorite little ice cream parlor in Red Lion that served Hershey’s ice cream. It was hard to beat Hershey’s Cotton Candy Ice Cream; and it is still hard to beat the Cotton Candy ice cream of my memory. But it was my night for a shower, so I needed that before we could go. Well, as usual, I got lost in my own world and took my own sweet time, and my Dad got, well, got frustrated with my lack of timeliness. So he thought he’d teach me a lesson (as parents do). He turned all the lights out, opened and shut the front door, and they sat in the living room. The idea was to make it *look* and *sound* like they had left without me (as they sat in the dark). To be clear, the idea was not to scare me (by making me think I was alone), but to make me think for a brief moment that they were enjoying ice cream without me (because I took too long). The “lesson” was supposed to be that by taking too long, I was going to miss out on the fun things.

Dad got more of a reaction than he was expecting. I remember hearing the front door close, walking downstairs, seeing the dark, not hearing any voices. 5 year old me was absolutely terrified. I was left alone. And I burst into tears. The reaction wasn’t disappointment at not eating ice cream (like everyone else) but it was utter terror at being left alone. In the dark. For a child, being left alone meant, not only not having the people around us to care for me, but being left alone meant that no one was there to protect me from the monsters that invaded my world - or to quote a song from the new P!nk album - “the monsters in my closet that want to come out and play” (and as a child with an active imagination, I certainly knew those monsters in the closet and under the bed quite well). I somehow knew that being left alone meant being vulnerable. Now, before saying “well, that was really mean!,” or “what a terrible thing to do!” it wasn’t intended to be so. Every once in awhile, Dad or Gram reminiscing about watching my brother and I grow up will mention it (and they still feel bad about it like 20 some years later). Oh, the things we remember from childhood.

I tell this story, of course, not to make my Dad look bad, but because it strikes me that Jesus calls his disciples “little children.” Fred Craddock imagines this scene from today’s Gospel like children playing on the floor, seeing their parents put on their jackets, picking up their car keys. There are three questions - “where are you going?” “Can we go?” “then, who’s going to stay with us?” Those of us who have kids or who have worked with kids know these questions. But I think Jesus’ language in today’s Gospel points to something even deeper than that. There’s a fear attached when there’s a possibility of being left alone. There’s something in that address, “little children.” It seems that Jesus recognizes that this fear of being left alone is a fear that is so intense for little children - in their vulnerability.

Jesus knows that he’s going away from them, and that leaving these little children that he had grown to love so deeply, was going to be terrifying for them. He didn’t want to surprise them. He was leaving them alone - or at least leaving them without his physical presence -  to face the world (the dark and the monsters of that world) on their own - many of them to face their own martyrdoms later. He knows that his absence will bring about fear. And the terror of feeling alone. As someone who has lived alone for a long time, I sometimes forget the intensity of that fear brought by “being left alone” - an intensity that children know well - including 5 year old me - the one who still believed that there were monsters in the closet, kept at bay by a loving parent. And it is a fear that the disciples will know well. So Jesus has to address the questions and the fears of his disciples, the little children, before he departs from them. And that’s what he does in the farewell discourse.

To combat that fear, Jesus unites them as a community. Not just any community - a community defined by love. And it is not just any kind of love. It is the kind love that drives out fear. It is the kind of love that provides security in vulnerability, as a parent comforting their children. It is the kind love that turns the monsters in our closets and in our world to something that can be conquered. It is the kind of love that assures us - that whatever happens - we will not be left alone. It is the kind of love that Jesus showed to his disciples throughout their time together.

In her new book, Love Big: The Power of Revolutionary Relationships to Heal the World, Rozella Haydee White writes about God as lover. She says, “when I think about God, I think about God as lover. The faith that I profess is rooted in a belief in a God that loves us deeply, desperately, and with a passion that cannot be contained. This God is always seeking us out, wanting to be with us and wanting us to experience the very best that life has to offer… This God lovingly crafted us in God’s own image, so that we too reflect God’s desires. This God created us to be lovers too” (White, 14-15).  This is the love of God that is made ultimately known in Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, the Son of God. This Word Made flesh is the one, who facing the monsters of the world, goes to the cross for the sake of the world that God so loves. And that love is made known as Jesus lays his life down for his friends. Because God is love. And that love envelopes the disciples - and us - for whatever is to come - so that, no matter what happens, we are never alone. It is a love that empowers us to take risks for the sake of our neighbor and for the sake of the Gospel.

This love is now to be embodied by the disciples as they prepare for Jesus’ physical absence from them. That love will sustain them as a community, will dispel (or allow them to face) their fears united as one body. That love is what makes them willing to face the monsters that they will face in their darkness, and to continue the message of the gospel.

Bishop Yvette Flunder, at the Festival of Homiletics this past week, puts it this way “God never intended that the Gospel would have a closed end. God intends it to be alive.” In today’s Gospel from John, we see that the Gospel comes alive as we embody the love of God in our community and in the wider world.  We get to make the Gospel come alive through our hands, our hearts, and our voices - as we bring the love of God to those around us. We get to be part of the love that breaks down barriers and brings about wholeness and healing. We get to be part of the love that dispels the darkness and the monsters of the world - sexism, racism, homopobia, transphobia, poverty, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, violence, xenophobia - to name a few. We get to be part of the love that creates a new community - united by the love that we’ve already found in Christ - so that we know that we are never left alone. The story does not end as Jesus departs. But it continues and it is as vibrant as ever. Thanks be to God for that.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

4th Sunday after Easter (Year C) - May 12, 2019

4th Sunday of Easter
Year C
May 12, 2019
John 10:22-30

I grew up as one of the kids from “in town.” Our school district was this mix of kids from the suburban-like neighborhoods, kids from “in town,” and kids from “the country.” Much of the land within the boundaries of the school district was farmland. Major crops were (and are) corn and soy. They had various kinds of livestock. In Jr. High, I took vocal lessons. My vocal teacher lived in the far reaches of the district and married a farmer. They had horses, goats, and yes, even sheep. Farming was a big deal -  to the point that the local 4-H held a “drive your tractor to school day” every year.  The town I grew up in wasn’t very big; it was a one stoplight town. But I was very much “in town.” If I’m honest with you, while I had friends that knew the ins and outs of the business, I still don’t know much about farming - or herding cattle, goats, or sheep - at least beyond what I read in commentaries and other sources.

And yet, here I am, preaching as Jesus uses sheep imagery to talk about his followers on what’s commonly known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” I know, even in my own study, because my knowledge of sheep is so insufficient, I tend to focus more on learning about the sheep - what sheep are like, how they think, how they behave. I tend to focus on digging into the role of shepherd. So the focus of my study is grounded on my own lack of knowledge rather than on the Gospel that Jesus proclaims in today. To be clear, it is well and good to better understand sheep and shepherds in order to better understand the metaphors that Jesus uses this morning. But I wonder if, in that process, I sometimes focus so much on that that I get distracted. And then, in focusing so much on sheep and shepherds (an image so common in the world in which Jesus lived), I end up missing some of the Gospel of today.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is on a mission. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved - or made whole - through him.” Whenever we’re reading from the Gospel of John, we read it through that lens. There is acknowledgement of the reality that not all believe (so not all hear the sound of Jesus’ voice), but the end goal of God, according to this Gospel, is to bring all to Godself through the saving work of Jesus. Jesus is the one who can proclaim “the Father and I are one.” So they share the same mission, the same goal, the same view of the world and of God’s beloved creation. The world that God so loves cannot be saved - or made whole - through him unless all are brought to God through Jesus - and all means all.

Some of you know that earlier this week, I was invited to be a guest scholar with St. Mark in Yorktown at their Greek Retreat. I was honored to be invited, and I was thrilled to be able to spend some time feeding that part of me. During the retreat, we spent a lot of time talking about something so central to Lutheran theology - how we are made right with God. Are we saved by faith in Christ? Or are we saved by the faith of Christ? In other words, what is the role of faith and belief in our salvation? In each place Paul talks about this in his letters, without getting into detail, I’ll just say that the Greek isn’t clear; it can be translated either way. In Lutheran circles, we tend to focus on our individual faith in Christ. “Saved by grace through faith apart from works for the sake of Christ.” Faith is assumed to be our faith.

That sounds all well and good. But the reality is that we, as human beings, have far from “perfect” faith. We all have had struggles with doubt - your pastor included. We all fall short of what God intends for us - even in our relationship with and in our faith in God. And usually, this lack of faith is less about my “believing” or “not believing” in God or in Jesus, and more about putting my faith in other things a bit more. That belief that I can do it on my own, or that reliance on anything other than God (money is a prime example in our world - if we hang onto our money, if we have enough of it, I can solve my problems and experience the “good life”). If it is my faith that “saves” me, that scares me. When is my faith “good” enough or not “good enough” for my salvation? Faith, then, becomes a work; yet works, according to Luther, can never give me salvation. And soon I start to understand, on a different level, Luther’s own struggles with his worthiness before God. As Luther noted, we often fail at the very first commandment: you shall have no other gods before me. Our other gods - money, self-reliance, etc - all have voices that pull us away from the Good Shepherd that calls to us.

What if Scripture points not as much to my individual faith but to the faithfulness of Jesus? The faithfulness of Jesus to the mission to which he was called. His faithfulness to make whole the world that has been broken, to restore the relationship between God and humanity. If Jesus promises that, according to the Gospel of John, that as he is lifted on the cross, Jesus will draw all to himself, I trust that Jesus is faithful to that promise. If Jesus promises that he came not to condemn the world, but to save it, I trust that Jesus is faithful to that promise - and that Jesus’ will not quit until that mission is complete. It is Jesus’ faithfulness to his mission - even to the point of death on a cross - that saves. It is Jesus’ faithfulness that promises eternal life that cannot be snatched away. We proclaim that we have a God, in Jesus, that shows that God remains true to God’s promises - that God’s answer to God’s beloved creation will always be life. Jesus’ faithfulness is what makes Jesus the Good Shepherd. To borrow imagery from Luke, Jesus’ faithfulness to Jesus’ promises is what leads the shepherd to look for the one sheep that was lost - bringing it back into the fold with the 99 others. Jesus’ faithfulness is there - even when my faith isn’t. Thanks be to God for that.

My faith, then, is still important - just in a different way. It allows me to be assured of that promise. It gives me the knowledge - that despite my waverings - that Jesus gives Jesus’ sheep the gift of eternal life. And it allows me to live into that eternal life, not just in some future afterlife - but in this life, now. It allows me to hear Jesus’ voice and say “yes, that’s for me.” Our faith, our reliance on Jesus as the shepherd allows us to turn toward Jesus and to follow him. Our faith isn’t what gives us salvation - a restored relationship with God -, but our faith is what allows us to live as saved people - with the knowledge that we are redeemed and we are restored to God. It gives us assurance that no one - not even ourselves with our doubts and our failings - can take away that gift which has been given to each one of us. In other words, our faith turns us toward the one who gives us - and all people - the gift of life in relationship with God. This is indeed good news. Good news that doesn’t depend on me understanding a thing about sheep. It is good news that we can we can trust - not because we are faithful - but because we know that Jesus is faithful.

I almost wish that the lessons for last week and this week were switched. Last week, we heard the story of Jesus and Peter having breakfast at the charcoal fire. At breakfast, three times, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him. Peter responds, “yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” To which Jesus responds, “Feed my sheep.” In the light of the resurrection, we - the sheep that follow Jesus and hear the Good Shepherd’s voice - turn out to feed and to tend our neighbors - our fellow sheep in the pasture. We become sheep that feed sheep. In no understanding of sheep does that make any sense. At least as far as I know, sheep don’t typically feed their fellow sheep (and maybe I don’t give sheep enough credit there). But that’s the radical thing about the Gospel. It breaks us out of how this world as it is works. Tables are turned. We learn to expect the unexpected with the Gospel. Like with Peter, Jesus doesn’t require us to be anything we’re not - we’re called to follow as the imperfect disciples we are. And because of Jesus’ faithfulness, we are empowered to become sheep that feed sheep.


Monday, April 29, 2019

Easter Traditional (Year C) - April 21, 2019

Easter Traditional
April 21, 2019
Year C
John 20:1-18

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

The Gospel of John, like usual, records a very different set of events that followed Jesus’ resurrection. It is only in John, for instance, that we hear the familiar story that Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, and he greets her with her name. For those of you who joined us for our Sunrise Service - we heard the story of the resurrection according to Luke. Quite different from what we’re hearing now.

In this morning’s gospel text, we get three very different reactions to the empty tomb. Upon hearing Mary’s concerns about the empty tomb, Peter and the one whom Jesus loved engage in a child-like and almost comical race to see the scene for themselves. Were they racing because they had hoped that Jesus’ word was true and that Jesus was raised? Were they racing because they too were fearful that Jesus’ body had been taken? Were they running out of curiosity? Did they think that Mary was mistaken in her grief (could she have gone to the wrong tomb?)? We don’t know. We just get this race between the two. Once they reach the tomb, there’s hesitation. The disciple whom Jesus loved won the race remained outside the tomb, leaving Peter to go in himself. Did the disciple whom Jesus loved hesitate to go in because he was afraid that the initial hope at hearing that the tomb was empty would be dashed as he looked in, if a body indeed lay there? Was he afraid of what he’d see or what he might not see? Again, we don’t know. But they went into the tomb, saw the linen wrappings, Peter has no recorded reaction, but the Disciple whom Jesus loved “believed,” and the two men returned home. Back to their lives and business, seemingly without talking to Mary.

On one hand, we encounter Mary, who upon seeing the empty tomb, worries that someone had taken her teacher and Lord from his resting place. She is overcome by grief. She thought that the worst had already happened; her Lord had died. He had suffered a terrible and gorey death at the hands of the Romans. Adding salt to the wound, now it appears that someone stole his body, and she’d never be able to properly lay him to rest.

Mary stays. Mary dwells there, in her grief. The world is even more scary and confusing than it was before (how could it get scarier than what she had experienced just days ago?). This is the place, the site of her grief. And she has to name her grief again and again. First to the disciples, then to the two angels, then again to Jesus. Each time, she says, “they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” her heart ripping out again, desperation growing. “Just give my Lord back; we’ve been through enough. He deserves to be properly laid to rest.” Ayanna Watkins says it this way, “Mary stays. She stays and cries; she lets grief prevail. And at grief’s mercy, she stays at the site of her loss, face to face with the empty tomb.” In a moment, that all changes. Mary presumes Jesus to be the gardener. And Jesus calls her name, “Mary.” In that moment, Jesus rolls away another stone, a figurative stone, meeting Mary where she was - meeting her at the tomb. He sends her out to tell the disciples what she had seen. Her grief turns into a proclamation of the gospel, “I have seen the Lord.” Where she expected to find death and decay, she found life. She becomes the first to preach the Good News of the resurrection.

Three disciples. Three different reactions. Peter loses the race to the tomb, but is the first inside. He sees, but returns home without a response, uncertain of what he had experienced. The Disciple whom Jesus loved won the race, hesitated, but saw and believed. Mary, dwells at the place of her grief, but is wooed into belief and into proclamation, hearing the voice of her Lord calling her name.

We all come here today for different reasons. Maybe you’re like Peter who comes out of curiosity, and will return and go about your business. Maybe you’re like the beloved disciple, while afraid to peek into the tomb, believes after seeing the wrappings left behind. Maybe you struggle to believe; or maybe your belief is sure. Maybe you’re here out of family duty - of being together as a family - and joining us because it makes Gram happy (and that’s okay; truly it is). Maybe you’re like Mary and you bring with you your grief, your fears, your confusion. Maybe you need to hear Jesus calling your name too. Maybe you’re here because you too have seen what resurrection and new life feels like and looks like. Maybe you’re some of all of these; and maybe you’ve found yourself at different places throughout your life. Easter brings with it the whole range of emotions. For whatever reason you come this morning, I am glad you are here. Today, I want to proclaim that, no matter what brings you to this place, we are an Easter people - in our beliefs, in our doubts, and everywhere in between. The resurrection is for the disciple that Jesus loved, it is for Peter, it is for Mary, it is for you and me - wherever we might find ourselves. Today, we are invited to see the Lord. We are invited to see the resurrection again and again. We are invited to proclaim that the risen Jesus changes us and changes the world.

Resurrection is a promise made - and a promise we can be sure of - because Jesus was raised from the dead. It is an exclamation point on all that we’ve experienced this week. Grace, indeed, starts at the cross; we don’t get Easter without Good Friday. It is there that God, in Christ, connects to the deepest hurts, suffering, and losses of the world. On Easter, we see the Risen Christ that bears the scars of the crucifixion. And it is this morning that, while on one hand, we can be assured that the worst moments of human life cannot separate ourselves from God, God proclaims that those same moments of grief, of tragedy, of heartbreak are not the end. God’s transformative, redeeming, and life-giving Word will always have the last word.

Thus, while important, resurrection is not *just* a promise of life after death. It is also a promise that God will keep showing up and God will keep rolling away the stones that try to contain and restrain life, bringing life, bringing love, bringing hope, where we expect to find death, decay, and destruction. Resurrection insists that love will win over hate, and life will always find victory over death. Resurrection means that God’s word to God’s people is a loud and resounding “yes,” a commitment to being our God, and to making us into God’s people - into the body of Christ for the sake of the world.. Resurrection transforms relationships. Resurrection restores the relationship between God and humanity (not even killing Jesus can turn God away from God’s beloved humanity).

Resurrection means something for us, for who we are, and for the world - not just in some future afterlife, but in the here and now. It means something, not just for our future, but for our present, An Orthodox theologian, Patriarch Athenagoras, puts it this way “The Resurrection is not the resuscitation of a body; it is the beginning of the transfiguration of the world.” Something changed when the stone was rolled away. Not just for Mary, not just for the disciples, not just for us, but for the whole world.

We are an Easter people. Where the ways of the world invite death and despair, God meets us with the promise of new life, hope, peace.  When we turn on the news, it doesn’t take long to see the ways of the world that try to contain and take away life . We see the tombs of sin, of grief, of sexism, of racism, of poverty, of marginalization, of violence, of corruption. When we proclaim, “I have seen the Lord,” we stand in defiance of all the tombs of our society, and we proclaim a different vision of being in the world. We say that none of these tombs will ever have the last word. When we proclaim, “I have seen the Lord,” we proclaim a God who brings life where we might expect to find death, and we proclaim a God who is rolling the stones away, freeing us all from the tombs that try to bind us. Our God is a God of life, and we are called to participate in life-giving ways, freeing our neighbors from their tombs, as we have been freed from our own. We proclaim resurrection everywhere we encounter God’s life-giving work happening all around us.

And so, today, we can say:

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!


Easter Sunrise (Year C) - April 21, 2019

Easter Sunrise
Year C
April 24, 2019
Luke 24:1-12

As I said in our Council meeting last week, in my whole life, I’ve only had to have a Sunrise service be moved inside once. Early forecasts had today as a… less than ideal day for an outdoor service. But I am so glad that the weather held out. It is a beautiful morning. And I’m thankful to be out here, proclaiming “Christ is risen” with you all this morning. Sunrise services have been part of my Easter since I was a small child. We’ve been in the cemetery in the rain, after a fresh snowfall, in the chill of Pennsylvania springs. And I wouldn’t give up this service for the world. I joke with folks that I’m not an early morning nor a late night person; I’m a “is the sun up” kind of person. But this one day per year, I’m energized as I get out of bed, and go to the tomb, sing familiar and joyous hymns, and proclaim that “he is not here, but has risen.” Because it is here, surrounded by the people of God, living and dead, singing “Christ is Risen, Alleluia” that I found faith again and again.

There’s something about proclaiming that message in this place - surrounded by the tombs of our ancestors - known and unknown to us. There’s something about going to the tomb, like the very first witnesses to the resurrection, like the women who first saw the empty tomb. Here in the cemetery, is where, in the words of Joy Moore, “the beginning meets the end.” Or said another way, the end meets a new beginning.

In our first reading from Ezekiel, the prophet is looking at the death of his people. He is looking over the graves of those literally lost in battle. But he’s also looking at what seems to be the death of his people as a whole. His people have been defeated. They have been scattered, placed in Exile. Here, in Ezekiel’s prophecy, God promises that what looks like death isn’t the end. The people of Israel will rise again. And they do, shaped by the experience of exile. There comes about a new way of being God’s people in the world - even separated from the Temple that had become their place of worship and had housed their God. God makes ends turn into new beginnings.

The women who went to that tomb on that very first Easter morning were going to prepare Jesus’ body. There was no time to properly care for Jesus’ body before it was laid to rest. They had to quickly entomb his body so that they could observe their sabbath, their day of rest. As someone who has lost loved ones, I can imagine their heartache. Their Lord, their teacher, their friend was now gone. Taken by a cruel and grueling method of torture. It was now time to say goodbye to this person that loved them and that they had loved to the end (it is no accident that the women who stayed to the end were the ones that came to the tomb that morning). But the body that they had laid to rest just days ago was now gone. I can imagine that briefly panic ensued. Had someone stolen the body? Then, they were greeted by men in dazzling white - angels - literally messengers of God. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but he has risen.” In that moment, sadness, grief, panic turned to hope, to joy, to life. Their expectations had been turned upside down. They go to the tomb - that place that houses the dead - and instead find life. The tomb stone, that heavy, seemingly permanent boundary between the living and the dead was gone. What has seemed to be an end - a crucifixion and the death that followed it - meets a new beginning - a new life, a new start.

In this place, surrounded by our own tombs, holding the bodies and the remains of our loved ones, when we pronounce the good news of this morning, it is an act of defiance. Defiance to the death-dealing ways of the world. Defiance to all that tells us that these tombstones represent the end for us and for our loved ones - even as we are in the place of “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” It is an act of trust. It is an act of hope. Today, we clearly say that here death has been destroyed, and while these tombs are now literally full, we trust that because Christ has risen, death and these tombs do not have the final word. We declare that what seems to be end is only the beginning. We trust that the love of God brings about light and new life.

In a few moments, together we will affirm our baptisms. I can’t think of a more appropriate time or place to do that. Because it is in our baptism that we are linked - both with Christ’s death and his resurrection. It is our baptisms that seal us and that assure us of that resurrection promise of new life. Elizabeth Eaton in her address to us this Easter puts it this way, “Easter makes it possible for us, even at the grave, to sing alleluia. Christ is risen. Alleluia.” Even in our fears, in our doubts, in our grief, when our hope is lost, in our death, we proclaim here that none of that has the final word. Instead, we are met with risen Christ and the empty tomb - and God’s yes to us and to life. With the empty tomb, we see that God’s final answer to God’s people is yes. God’s final answer is one of life. God’s final word is one of unconditional love and an unbreakable relationship. We trust that God is always working to upend our expectations, to create life where we expect to find death. And that indeed is good news this morning. With God, in Jesus, the “end” or what seems to be “the end” will always lead to new beginnings.

Thanks be to God for that.

Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Maundy Thursday (Year C) - April 18, 2019

Maundy Thursday
Year C
April 18, 2019
1 Corinthians 11:23-26

This year, our midweek services centered around the Seven Last Words of Christ. As Richard Cline, pastor of Olive Branch, said in his sermon on Ash Wednesday this year, we tend to want to know and immortalize the last words of people - of friends and family or of famous people. For instance, tradition holds that the last words of Martin Luther (the namesake for our own denomination) were, “We are beggars, that is true.” Tonight, I’m less concerned with Jesus’ last words (that’s for tomorrow), but tonight, we encounter a related topic - how Jesus prepares his disciples (and us) for his death. These concrete actions are actions that prepare us for life with our loved one being absent from us. If I’m honest, we live in a death avoidant culture; we don’t often take moments to look death in the face. I think that’s one gift of Holy Week, in courageously facing the death of our Lord and Savior, Jesus, Jesus prepares us to look at death. This week, we face mortality with the promise that our mortality - and the mortality of our loved ones - does not have the final word.

Often, when people know (or suspect) that they’re going to die, they take moments to prepare their loved ones for that. A text to say “I love you” when a plane malfunctions. Gathering with friends and family, to talk about last wishes and to reminisce about the good times spent together. My grandfather died early in the morning on January 2, 2006. I was thirteen and a bit naive about what was happening. At the time, I had a fear of hospitals, so I only went to see him a couple of times while he was hospitalized that last few weeks. But we all - my folks, my brother, my aunts, uncles, and cousins - went to the hospital on Jan 1, New Year’s day. Much of that day, if I’m honest, is a blur in my mind. However, That day was important to him; to this day, I think he knew he was dying. I didn’t - I was waiting for him to come home, but I think he knew. For me, it was any other time seeing Pap, but for him, it was time to show his love to each one of us. We talked. We played cards in the hospital room. We told stories. We said our “I love yous” and after several hours we went home. After we left, my mom went back to spend some time with him and to share dinner with him, as she did most evenings. That evening, he said to her, “I love you. I’m going to go to sleep now.” He was ready to go. He had his day with his family - his day with the people closest to him. It was a day to make sure that we all knew that we were loved. It was his day to prepare us for no longer having him. (Thirteen years later, I still tear up thinking - and talking - about it).

Others have more obvious ways of preparing themselves for death and preparing their loved ones for their absence. “I hope that you’ll go on that trip that we always wanted to take, in my memory.” “I hope that whenever you go fishing, you’ll have a drink for me.” “I hope that you’ll tell the good stories about me when I’m gone.” Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon, was diagnosed with stage IV Lung cancer at age 36. He took the time before his own death to look at death in the face, to write about his journey with cancer, to leave something behind for friends and family, especially for his infant daughter to have, in his absence. He never was able to finish the manuscript. His wife took on that task, writing the epilogue and getting When Breath Becomes Air published. In the last words that he wrote for the book, he writes for his daughter, hoping that she would always know the joy that she brought him, in her short time with him. He writes, “do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing” (Kalanithi, 199). In the act of writing, he wanted to prepare his daughter for growing up in his absence, assuring her of all that she meant to him.

Tonight, Jesus does an enormous thing. He faces his own death (yet again) preparing those whom he loved for his own death. We hear about Jesus’ last supper with his disciples - in two places in tonight’s texts - in 1 Corinthians with the Institution of the Last supper, and in John with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Like me with my grandfather, I think Jesus’ followers were a bit in denial about what was happening; this was just another passover meal. Nothing special; they’d have all the time in the world together. However, Jesus knew that he was about to leave them. Jesus knew that he was going to die on Friday. He knew that, despite telling his followers again and again that he would be raised on the third day, that his death would bring fear, sadness, grief. He knew that once he rose, he would eventually ascend back to the Father and his followers and friends would have to keep this Kingdom building going without Jesus physically being there. These acts of foot washing and sharing a sacred meal are both concrete acts that Jesus takes to prepare his disciples, his loved ones, his friends - and the future Christian community - for his impending death. In these concrete acts, he prepares them - and us - for his absence - at least physical absence from us. He gives them and us gifts that shape who we are and our identities, grounded in what Jesus does in his own death.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke - as well as our 2nd reading from 1 Corinthians, look at the institution of the Last Supper, Holy Communion to be the “thing” that Jesus does to prepare us for his own death. Our reading for today is the earliest known writing of the Institution of the Last Supper. For Paul, he is greatly disturbed by the misuses of the Last Supper by the Corinthians. They’ve used it as a way of reinforcing and even enhancing the differences between members of the community. In short, everyone brought their own food to the meal - so the hungry left hungry, and those who were well off left full.

Paul offers a corrective and turns them back to why Jesus instituted the last supper in the first place. After all, Jesus instituted this sacramental meal to prepare the community for his death and physical absence. Jesus instituted this meal in order to prepare this budding new Christian community for Kingdom building life, in community with one another.  In instituting this last supper as part of the Passover meal, Jesus links his death with the deliverance of the exodus. Jesus’ death (and resurrection), then is a new act of God’s deliverance. It is an act that establishes a new covenant between God and humanity as Jesus gives his own body and blood for them on the cross. Jesus’ death introduces a new way of being with one another and with God, one in which all societal norms are turned upside down - where the barriers between members of the community are broken down. It is a gift of radical grace that grounds their relationship, not just with God, but each other - those whom they gather around the table with - in the life-giving work of Jesus. They are bound together around that table. Jesus’ desire for the community is one of life, together, bound by Jesus’ gifts of bread and wine. When they gather, when they share together the bread and wine, they are to remember Jesus’ self-giving love and to trust in Jesus’ presence in the elements of bread and wine. It is a call for them to remember who they are and to whom they belong. 

When we gather each week around the table, we encounter Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we are brought back to who we are and to whom we belong. We gather in remembrance of everything Jesus does for each one of us. We gather in remembrance that Jesus did everything necessary for us to be made right with God, and nothing can ever break that relationship with God. We gather, giving thanks, for the gifts of forgiveness and new life found in the bread and in the cup.  Deliverance and salvation belong to us, as a gift. In this meal, Jesus prepares us for his physical absence by promising to be truly present in the bread and wine, strengthening and keeping us so that we may be Kingdom builders, that we may be bearers of the light of Christ. We are promised that, in the sacraments, we encounter the incarnate and risen Lord - we meet the Christ of memory, the Christ of the present, and the Christ of the future. In this meal, Jesus prepares us for his absence by binding us to one another - so that all around the table are united and become the one body of Christ for the sake of the world. So we don’t ever need to go it alone. In this meal, Jesus prepares us for his absence by binding us together in these gifts that indeed are for us and for all people. In this meal, Jesus prepares us for his absence by promising that he indeed will come again; neither his death nor his ascension will be the end to our life and our mission with Jesus. In this meal, we are invited to look at Jesus’ death, to stand in the shadow of the cross, to be assured of Christ’s presence among us, to trust in Christ’s saving act on the cross, and to be united with one another around this table.

“For as often as you eat of this bread and drink from this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”


Thursday, April 11, 2019

Midweek Lenten Service - "It is Finished"

Midweek Lenten Service
April 10, 2019
7 Last Words
“It is Finished” - John 19:29-30

It is a great joy to be with you all this evening. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the “other” Pastor Alex, Pastor Alex Witt from Our Saviour’s Luther. As many of you may know, I’m a new pastor, just ordained this last November, as I accepted a call to serve at Our Saviour’s. Thank you to Pastor Alex and Stonehouse for hosting this evening - and providing a delicious meal. As a new pastor and as one relatively new to Williamsburg, I’ve personally greatly appreciated these Lenten services and our ecumenical relationships. I’ve enjoyed getting to know local colleagues and getting to know you all whom I’m now in community with. In addition to being able to worship with you all, it has been a joy to build relationship and get to know some friendly faces throughout these weeks in Lent. I’m thankful to be able to be here,  for the opportunity to wrestle with this text and Jesus’ last word, and to share in the Word with you all this evening.

“It is finished” “It has been fulfilled.” “It has been brought to completion.” “It has been accomplished.” All are possible translations of Jesus’ final word on the cross in the Gospel of John - τετέλεσται. Just one word in Greek, yet that one word holds so much meaning as we think about Jesus and his crucifixion.

It is seemingly an ordinary statement. We “finish” things all the time. I’m a list-maker; I have a white board in my office that lists all the tasks I need to accomplish, checking them off one by one. I like the feeling of checking something off my list - completing tasks and projects. We complete projects at work. We accomplish our goals. We also have moments of victory that lead us triumphantly to say “I have done it.” I remember the first time I beat my dad as a teenager in tennis. It was something that, when I started playing, I thought I’d never do. In that moment, I felt that I had accomplished something. It was a high point in my tennis career. On the other hand, we have moments of defeat or frustration where the best we can say is “at least it is finally over. I finished it” - like for me, college calculus. A seminary professor once told us, “a sermon is never finished. It is only as complete as it can be by Sunday morning” (or in this case by Wednesday night). We finish and accomplish things (or not) all the time. Jesus’ words seem so mundane, but there’s something - a heaviness, a gravitas to his words that lead me to see them as so much deeper than just checking something off a list or just getting through a difficult situation. But isn’t that so often what Jesus does? What seems to be so ordinary (like bread and wine, or water, or finishing it), with Jesus, become something extraordinary. 

Jesus finishes, accomplishes, completes something tonight. It leads me to ask: When Jesus is proclaiming that “it is finished,” what is the “it”? What has been brought to completion or what has been accomplished in Jesus’ dying moment on the cross? On one hand, a simple/ obvious answer might be: “Jesus’ life; Jesus gives up his own spirit and with it his life.” Maybe Jesus’ opponents were hoping that “It is finished” meant that Jesus was finally out of their way, no longer a nuisance, no longer a threat to their power and their way of life. That was exactly what the crucifixion of Jesus was supposed to do: bring a potential problem to its end, quell a growing movement.  Maybe for the crowds (and even those who remained with Jesus), these words brought relief; the suffering, the gore, the horror of a crucifixion is finally finished, and now we can lay our friend and our teacher to rest. “It is over.”

While to some that may have been their experience of this last word of Jesus, I believe that there’s something more to Jesus’ word to us this evening. “It is finished.” The “it” has to be deeper than that. The Gospel of John portrays Jesus’ crucifixion so differently from the other gospels. Just two weeks ago, we heard Pastor Lori Beach preach a wonderful, moving sermon on “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” - as told in the Gospel of Matthew. In that text, we can hear the anguish in Jesus’ voice from the cross. In comparison to the other Gospels, Jesus’ final word in the Gospel of John seems a bit anticlimactic. There’s no tearing of the temple curtain. There’s no earthquake with the raising of people from the dead (as in Matthew).

Here, in John, Jesus takes a sip of sour wine, and simply proclaims “It is finished,” “Then he bowed his head and gave up (or handed over) his spirit.” Here, in John, Jesus seems calm and collected - and most importantly, completely in control of what was happening to him. Only Jesus gets to decide when “it” is finished, and only then, does Jesus decide to give up his spirit and die. Jan Rippentrop, a pastor and preaching professor, in reflecting on Jesus’ word, “It is finished,” she remarks, that the actions of Jesus on the cross, “are the actions of one in control of a new future.” 

Jesus’ death brings about a new future in relationship with the one who created us and the whole world. It connects us  to God’s creative and redemptive work that God has been doing since the very beginning. It grafts us into the love of God, into the people of God. In John’s telling of Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus becomes the Paschal lamb who was slain, crucified at the time that the lambs would be brought for sacrifice in preparation for the passover meal. In doing so, John reaches back into God’s history of saving work among the people of Israel, bringing us back to the passage we read from Exodus just a few moments ago. God has always been bringing about redemption and salvation for God’s people. God’s desire for God’s people has always been life abundant and liberation from all that enslaves us. God’s love for God’s people has always been there. In Jesus, God reaches out into the world yet again, entrusting Jesus with this work of salvation and redemption, which extends not just to our Jewish siblings, but to all of humanity and to the whole world that God so loves. 

To show the love of God for the world, God dares, in Jesus, to become like us. The Gospel of John opens with one of my favorite passages in the New Testament. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…  And the Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-5, 14). Jesus came into the world to dwell among us, to pitch a tent among us - the divine becoming incarnate, becoming flesh, identifying so closely with us - in the depths of our humanity -in our life (and all that comes with it) and as well as in our death. In Jesus, God godself experiences the vulnerability of human life, both the joys and the pains of human life, both community and the loneliness the of a human life, and the death of a human life. What kind of God would do such a thing?

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may
not perish but may have eternal life.” The kind of God made known in Jesus is the kind of God who would do such a thing. This, for the Gospel of John is Jesus’ mission - this is “it”, to make God’s love for the world known as Jesus pitches a tent among us. Jesus tells us that there’s no greater love than to lay one’s life down for their friends. It is a love without limits. It is the love of God that comes to us, dwells with us and for us. It is a love that risks suffering and death so that nothing can any longer be a barrier between God and God’s beloved humanity. On the cross, Jesus makes something so ordinary - love - extraordinary. This mission is accomplished, brought to completion, made ultimately known to us on the cross, for it is here on the cross that God’s love for humanity is made most visible.

We proclaim a God, in Jesus, that pitches God’s tent among us. We proclaim a God, in Jesus, that risks absolutely everything to be made known to us, to be in relationship with us, to love us. So that nothing - not even our denials (like Peter), or our doubts (like Thomas), nor our sins, nor our sufferings, nor our even own deaths - can stand in the way of the life and the love given by God through Jesus. This is accomplished once and for all as Jesus gives up his spirit on the cross. As we start to turn toward Holy Week and the cross, it is my prayer that through the love of God we’ve found in Jesus, we can stand in the shadow of the cross, trusting that it is here, in our weakness, in our vulnerability, in our dying, that God risks meeting us. It is here that the love of God is shown as something extraordinary. It is here that “it is finished.”

Monday, April 8, 2019

5th Sunday in Lent (Year C) - April 7, 2019

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Year C
April 7, 2019
John 12:1-8

Usually, when I have encountered this text, it has been this particular Sunday in Lent in Year C of the lectionary cycle. Something hit me this time that never quite hit me before. Perhaps for so long I’ve meshed this remembrance of the Jesus’ anointing with the remembrances as told in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. Perhaps I heard it so often as it’s own unit that I never noticed what was surrounding it. Or perhaps this is just the way of the the Word of God working on me again. This time, reading the Gospel for this Sunday, I was struck by this story in a new way. I never noticed that this story, at least in the Gospel of John, comes almost immediately after the raising of Lazarus. This story comes after Mary and Martha mourned their brother’s death. This story comes after Martha and Mary both cried to Jesus in their pain, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This story comes after Jesus tells Lazarus to “come out” of his own tomb. Today, they gather for a meal, to honor “him” (likely Jesus, but it could also refer to Lazarus - the grammar is less than clear). Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet is directly tied to her own experience of death and of resurrection.

For a moment, I’m going to turn to our first reading from Isaiah. At this point in the book of Isaiah, the Israelites are in exile. They have been defeated by the Babylonians and pulled from their land. They’re separated from their home, their families, and seemingly their God. They’ve been in this place of wandering and wilderness for about 50 years at this point. It is here that God tells tells the exiles, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Just like God did a new thing by choosing the Hebrews as God’s people and pulling them out of slavery in Egypt and bringing them to a new place - as God’s own people. God asks God’s people to trust in God’s creative and redeeming work - even when it requires God doing that new thing. God will do a new thing for the sake of God’s people.

And as always, God remains true to God’s promise. God again does something new; God uses King Cyrus of Persia to lead the exiles back home, bringing them wholeness, healing, and salvation. By claiming the Old Testament texts, we claim that the promises God makes are true. We have a creative God. We have a God that continues, throughout history, to reach out to humanity by doing “a new thing.” God continues to make ways in the wilderness and rivers in the deserts. As Christians, we proclaim that, in Christ, God yet again is doing something new in order to bring about wholeness, healing, and salvation.

Mary, as a Judean Jew, would know these stories. And she too would trust in the promises that God will do a new thing for the sake of God’s people. Mary seems to see this new thing that God is about to do in her Lord, in Jesus. Mary gets it. Mary gets it in ways that the disciples don’t. Mary gets it in ways that the crowds don’t. Mary gets it in ways that no one else to this point in the story can - other than Martha and Lazarus. Death and resurrection mean something very personal for her. Her brother, who had died - who had even, as John tells us, begun to rot - was now sitting enjoying a meal with her. The relationship with her brother was restored. And she was restored to relationship with her Lord that she had felt betrayed her by not coming sooner. She knows what resurrection and new life look like, feel like, sound like. It looks like her brother unbound from linens he had been wrapped in while he was in the tomb. It feels like a hug from a loved one thought to be gone forever. It sounds like a dinner party, with conversation and laughter, when one thought they may never laugh again. God acted again, doing a new thing, for her and for her family.

And she knows that by raising her brother, Jesus has caused problems for himself. In the Gospel of John, it isn’t the cleansing of the temple that is the “final straw” that leads to Jesus’ death, as it is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. No, it is the raising of Lazarus that is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Jesus choosing to give Lazarus his life, leads to Jesus’ own death. Mary can connect the dots - she knows that Jesus’ act of love for her and for her family will lead to the cross. Mary knows that Jesus is at a transition point in his life and in his ministry. And she trusts that yet again, in Jesus, God will do a new thing, God godself will experience death for the sake of the world that God so loves.

Mary responds to that experience of Jesus and to that trust that God is about to do yet another new thing. Mary responds in an act of love, an act of discipleship. In response to the experience of death and resurrection, what else could she do? I can only imagine the range of emotions for her, as she looked at her brother, as she looked at her friend, her teacher, her Lord. So she acts. She took a pound of expensive perfume. She bent down. Anointed Jesus’ feet. Wiped them with her hair. The text tells us that the fragrance of the perfume filled the house.The love she shows Jesus is one that hits the senses: it can be felt, it can be seen, it can be smelled. It is an act of love that extends from that dinner party to the cross. It is an act of love that remains with him as Jesus does exactly that new thing that God sent him to do. Karoline Lewis puts it this way: Mary “loves Jesus into the future” that he is about to experience (1). And I agree with her: Jesus needs Mary’s love as much as Mary needed his. It strengthens and keeps him as he shows his love for all on the cross. Together, joined in unconditional, radical love, they face the cross and Jesus’ death together. It is a dinner party marked by endings and new beginnings.

What feels like an ending will become a beginning. The Rev. Anna Blaedel puts it this way, “In seasons of endings, we yearn for beginnings, but if we do not tend to what is ending, if we do not face the losses and griefs that are rending our collective life, there is no space for something new to emerge. As long as we deny the forces of the crucifixion, we cannot expect to participate in the mystery of the resurrection.” - “as long as we deny the forces of crucifixion, we cannot expect to participate in the mystery of the resurrection”(2). Today, Mary lives into that. Mary faces the crucifixion and death head on, anointing Jesus with the perfume that she had purchased for her friend and teacher’s burial. It is through the new thing of the cross that God will again bring life and salvation - not just for the Jewish people but for the entire world. It is in suffering and dying that God chooses to find us, to identify with us, to woo us into relationship with Godself. It is on the cross that God’s love is made known - so that nothing - not even the suffering and death of God - can separate us from the love of God that we’ve found in Christ Jesus. It is on this cross that Jesus takes on everything that threatens to separate us from God, freeing us from the power of sin and death. It is here that we are reconciled to God. God indeed does a new thing yet again to bring humanity back in God’s own embrace.

Mary helps us prepare for it. As she anoints her Lord’s feet, in humble, loving, service, she
encourages us to face the cross, to risk facing death with the trust that God is indeed doing a new thing. She encourages us to look at the signs of new life all around us - trusting that death and suffering never have the final answer - instead God’s word of new life will enfold us all. As we turn toward Holy Week, with Palm and Passion Sunday next week, I pray that Mary’s witness guides us and encourages us to turn toward the cross and look at Jesus’ suffering and death with courage and with devotion, as we too have had a glimpse of what resurrection means for us and for the world. I pray that we trust that God is always doing something new to bring about new life, wholeness, and salvation for us and for all people.

(1) Lewis, "Loved into the Future," http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5309&fbclid=IwAR1E8EqYZBH6HxAIJ8h1rKQrYXNFhyvpbhc_q2YT1G4oIzdkaImrCbByc5s.
(2) Blaedel, “First, we sit with the end,” https://enfleshed.com/blogs/mfcn/first-we-sit-with-the-end?fbclid=IwAR1DqTDWFN3fbT-63jieBjGI9fT3O4hW0or8EJ3qnDgSe-kORYY4HQ3r6Zo.