Sunday, August 27, 2017
This week in response to the gathering of white supremacists and other hate groups in Charlottesville, a hashtag started trending on Twitter, #EmptyThePews. The idea came from disgruntled evangelical Christians whose pastors were either silent about the events happening across the country or who actually condoned racism from the pulpit. #EmptyThePews was basically a call for these evangelicals to leave their churches. It didn’t ask people to leave THE Church, but to leave their particular congregation if their pastors were preaching messages of hate. However, as you might imagine, the following on Twitter quickly morphed into people sharing (in 140 characters or less) reasons why they had left their church, period, beyond just the events of the past two weeks.
I was shocked to read some of the horrific situations people had encountered in their churches, and whenever I hear about this kind of stuff happening at church, I have a hard time understanding it. I grew up in the ELCA and I am proud of our church being a place of welcome, grace, and love. I hope you, too, have had positive church experiences and have a hard time like I do understanding why people might be so hurt by the church that they leave. Beyond the politics of this particular hashtag, I think we should pay attention to the reasons why people leave church instead of immediately placing blame or guilt on them. Because if you listen closely, you realize a lot of people still deeply love God and want to follow Jesus, they just don’t see the institution of the church helping people live their lives as Christ calls us to.
In the gospel for this morning, Jesus establishes the church with Peter as its leader. Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” He knows other people throughout the region have different ideas about who he is, but he wants to hear from his closest followers if they get who he really is. And Peter does. For all the times he gets it wrong: walking on water a little bit but then sinking, questioning Jesus’ need to go to the cross to the point of Jesus telling him, “Get behind me, Satan,” denying Jesus three times on the day of his crucifixion, Peter at least gets this right – Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God! And for his faithful answer Jesus gives Simon son of Jonah a new name, saying, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Jesus asks us, the church, “Who do you say that I am?” As a church, I pray that we at least get that right – we worship Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. As we confess who Jesus is as faithful Christians, then, just like Peter, Jesus gives US a new identity, too, as the church. Jesus establishes the church for a specific reason – he gathers his followers together to proclaim the good news that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
If we think about reasons why we go to church, we could confess that there are ways in which we as a church function differently than Jesus instituted the church to be. Our congregations might be places of welcome and grace – we may not engage in harmful behavior like public shaming or condoning racism, but there are ways that we build our house on sinking sand rather than the rock of Jesus Christ. We worship the building. We think of the church as our social club where newcomers are welcome if they do what we tell them to do. We cling to the past and treat the church like a museum instead of following the living God who calls us to adapt and live into the future. And so now I return to that question, if you were to tweet on the hashtag #WhyIGoToChurch, what would you say? Why are you a part of this church that Jesus established over 2000 years ago? What keeps you here?
If I were to answer that question, I’d have several answers that I hope are faithful! I’m a part of the church because that’s where my extended family is – some of the members of the church where I grew up know me better than my blood relatives. I’m a part of the church because my questions about God were welcome – I didn’t have to leave my brain at the door – and there were people to push me to grow deeper in my faith. I’m a part of the church because the day after I had a miscarriage people from the church showed up at our door with bbq ribs, corn on the cob, homemade bread and rhubarb crisp with ice cream for dessert. I’m a part of the church because together we impact more people’s physical and spiritual lives for the better through Lutheran World Relief, Disaster Response, Lutheran Social Services, World Hunger and the list could go on. I’m a part of the church because I don’t know what I’d do without my relationship with Jesus and I don’t know how to worship him without the body of Christ, this community, with me. That’s a way longer response than Twitter would allow. But think of the impact we could make in the world if we weren’t such good quiet Lutherans and actually spoke up about how God has made a difference in our lives through the church? What if we refused to participate in a society that so easily defines themselves based on what they’re not, and instead positively claimed who we are as beloved children of God and members of a church that bears Christ’s name?
I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH. One of our colleagues, Pastor Anna-Kari Johnson, associate program director for new congregations in the ELCA, has this on her signature line in her emails. Every time I get an email from Anna-Kari, I see this promise from Jesus that we heard today in Matthew. I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH. This can be hard to believe when we look around us and see churches shrinking and dying, and Twitter feeds filling with #EmptyThePews reasons why church is harmful, or irrelevant, or too human an institution to sustain. But Pastor Anna-Kari and Matthew reminds us, Jesus said, I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH. And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. No twitter hashtag, no inadequate evangelism effort, no “wrong reason” for going to church or not going to church can prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ. Our particular congregation might be in trouble but the Church of Jesus Christ is not because not even death itself could defeat the resurrected Christ.
So in faithful response to this promise from Jesus we find in Matthew that I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH, Pastor Anna-Kari also says, “the church isn’t dying, it’s changing.” More and more in my work with congregations across the ELCA I see churches meeting in store fronts and schools, brew pubs and homes. For all the reasons why people have left or are leaving church, others are finding ways to connect to Jesus the Messiah and the living God in community, even if it may not be in a way we imagine a church “should” be. A hopeful sign I see across the church is that the people who are worshipping on Sunday morning know exactly why they’re there – and it’s not to please parents or grandparents, to maintain social standing in the community or because people feel guilty. It’s because like the first disciples, like Peter, they know they’re not perfect people who have it all figured out, but they want to follow Jesus. They know Jesus is the son of the living God and because God is living and active among us then they want to know how they can respond to be a part of what this living and active God is up to. From the very beginning, Jesus established a church to gather his followers together for worship, fellowship, and service. The reasons for being the church may have changed for us, but today I hear Jesus calling us back to being the church that he established, a church that is focused and grounded on him, our Rock and our Redeemer. We have the opportunity now to go and invite others to be a part of this great community of faith, the church. Amen.
Sunday, August 20, 2017
If you are familiar with this story of the Canaanite woman asking Jesus for healing, you may wonder like I have what this says about who Jesus is, and how could Jesus really call anyone a dog? This is one of the most challenging passages of the gospels, but it’s right here in our bibles. What’s more, Mark also recounts this story of Jesus calling this foreign woman a dog in Mark chapter 7, so we find it two places in scripture. This passage is a good example of why Lutherans preach from a lectionary with assigned readings that we are reading across the ELCA every Sunday — I wouldn’t have picked this one personally to preach on, I have to admit! There are ways you could find excuses for Jesus’ language and behavior towards this woman, and when you look at Biblical commentaries there are many ways to interpret this passage. Today, though, I would like us to consider what we tend to overlook about what we believe about Jesus as Christians: that Jesus is both fully divine AND fully human. And at least for today’s read, I am approaching this passage as one of the gospels clearest depictions of the fully human side of Jesus.
The truth is, if we imagine that we were in Jesus’ shoes, we can see how we might react in a similar way. Jesus is tired. He’s trying to get away and rest, which seems like something he’s always trying to do. He’s just been arguing again with the Pharisees who are plotting to kill him. You could say that the Canaanite woman caught Jesus on a pretty bad day. I have two children who are under two so I know personally what it’s like to be pestered persistently after a long day when all I want is some peace and quiet. The disciples are feeling the same stress and exhaustion Jesus is, so they ask Jesus to send this woman away, and Jesus agrees that would be a good idea…at first.
Jesus is also focused on his goal. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house Israel,” he says. Up to this point, Jesus has been clear about his primary purpose being this, that God has sent his son to save the children of Israel, as the Messiah. Gentiles like the Canaanite woman were not a part of the original plan. So not only is the woman annoying and bothersome, she doesn’t fit the description of the kind of person Jesus has been called by God to minister to. This is a very human Jesus, that perhaps Jesus at this point has a blip of memory loss or is not fully knowing the whole plan as an all-knowing God would. In a remarkable turn of events, it’s not the disciples but a foreign and despised woman who is seeking help for her demon-possessed daughter, who opens up Jesus to a much bigger plan for God’s mercy and salvation – she, too, can benefit from God’s grace. And Jesus praises this woman’s faith and heals her daughter as a result.
I don’t think I can pretend to fully explain this story today and what it might mean for us, but I’m going to take a stab at it. The human side of Jesus as one who was divine and human is important to consider for our relationship with him today. The Canaanite woman knows who Jesus is! She knows he has power to heal her daughter. She calls him Lord and Son of David. He can help her. He can show mercy on her and her daughter. This is true for us as well – Jesus can help us and show mercy on us if we but ask. But beyond the healing power of our Lord and savior is also an important and often overlooked human characteristic of Jesus: he is responsive to us. The Canaanite’s interaction and persistence with Jesus causes Jesus to respond more mercifully and generously than he might have originally planned at first. Jesus responds to us in our prayers, just as he responds to the Canaanite woman with extravagant mercy.
The Canaanite woman has faith that Jesus will respond to her even when his response isn’t what she wants to hear the first time. And she has faith great enough to believe that even a few crumbs of God’s mercy is enough for her and her daughter to find wholeness and healing. Let’s think about that image for a minute. Think about a cake, a muffin, a fresh loaf of bread right out of the oven – any baked good that makes you happy. Are you salivating yet? God’s mercy is like one of the best baked goods you’ve ever tasted, fresh and warm and wonderful, so good that even just a taste, a few crumbs, is enough for you to be satisfied. That’s what the Canaanite woman believes. With that faith, she opens up Jesus’ understanding that even just the crumbs of God’s mercy can reach beyond a narrow definition of race, ethnicity, class, and gender. And when you read through the gospel of Matthew, you’ll notice that right after this, Jesus goes on to heal many people regardless of ethnicity, from Israel or not. And then Jesus feeds the four thousand men plus women and children. As you know from that story, Jesus doesn’t just feed them crumbs, but multiple loaves and fish so that all are able to eat until they are full. The Canaanite woman’s faith in Jesus is that God’s mercy and salvation is not just limited to the children of Israel, and after this encounter Jesus’ purpose is expanded – offering mercy and salvation to all.
From the beginning, God created all people in God’s own image and sees all people of ultimate worth and value. We humans have messed this up, from the time that Cain killed Abel to the present day – the gathering of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia come immediately to mind. In Isaiah we hear God’s vision that “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman’s faith and persistence is that God doesn’t just give out the crumbs to some, even if the crumbs of God’s mercy would be enough. God gives the whole loaf. God’s mercy is abundant, inexhaustible, unlimited, never runs out, for anyone – whoever you are, no exceptions. It is the encounter with the Canaanite woman that clarifies God’s role and purpose for Jesus, even for Jesus himself: Jesus has come not only for the lost sheep of Israel but for the whole world, for all of us, too. Jesus gives us his own body and blood, bread and wine, broken and outpoured for us, and not just a few crumbs. At this table, all are welcome, no exceptions – Gentile or Jew, woman or man, prisoner or free. And through that meal, Jesus promises us healing, salvation, and wholeness. In other words, God’s grace in Jesus Christ is not just for a certain kind of person, but for all of us. We have a relational God who sends his son Jesus to be with us as a human being, to be in conversation with us through prayer, to feed us through Holy Communion, to heal our relationships still today with his forgiveness, grace, and love. So we may not have this passage all figured out, and that’s OK, but we can trust that even the crumbs of God’s grace will be more than enough. Amen.
Sunday, July 16, 2017
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
One of the things I miss most from my time living in rural Stromsburg, Nebraska is our garden. The parsonage was right next to the church about seven miles from town, and we had lots of land behind our house for a big garden. My grandparents are farmers and I grew up with a big garden at home so I always wanted to try it. My rhubarb and strawberry plants were just getting going when we moved here. So when we moved to Omaha, I wanted to start a garden again. We had a friend till up the soil for a much smaller plot in a sunny spot in our backyard. I mixed in plenty of compost that we had brought from Stromsburg as well as purchased fertilizer. I decided to go small and plant just a few things – tomatoes, peppers, snow peas, green beans, beets, and carrots. But now three years into having a garden in Omaha, I can say that the soil is just not as good as that rich fertile farm soil in Stromsburg. It will take many more years to build up the topsoil that the original housing developers stripped away back in the ‘70s when they established our neighborhood. It’s mostly clay. But that won’t stop me from planting and growing stuff in the meantime, even if the yield isn’t as good, and I can’t grow as many things.
Now, for me, and for most of us, gardening is a hobby. We don’t need food out of gardens to survive. For large-scale farmers who grow food for a living, just like in Jesus’ day, planting in less than ideal soil is risky, even ridiculous. Seed is expensive. Farmers and researchers spend lots of time and energy to get the best yield. A sower like the one in Jesus’ parable today would be foolish to scatter seed on obviously poor growing conditions, like a path, or among thorns or on rocky ground. But Jesus the sower doesn’t wait for us to be ready in premium fertile soil growing conditions to plant God’s word in us. Jesus shares the word about the kingdom of God with everyone, whether they have ears to hear it or not. Jesus extravagantly shares God’s grace indiscriminately, and some would say, even foolishly.
Why does Jesus do this? Why do I continue to buy seeds and plants for a garden that I know will not produce as much as one with better soil? Why do any of us dare to invite friends and family to worship or another church event when we’ve invited them for years and know they’re not “churchgoing folks? Well, that’s what grace is. God’s grace does not discriminate. God lavishly shares words of love, comfort, mercy, and healing on us all of the time, whether we have ears to hear it or not. And, like a good gardener, I believe God is also working on us to remove the rocks and the thorns, adding compost, fertilizer, testing the Ph levels of the soil to create good soil in our hearts that we CAN receive the good news and hear it more fully in our lives day by day.
Isaiah reminds us of the goodness of God’s word – that God’s word is actually impervious to paths and rocks and thorns. God says in Isaiah, “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Wow. Unlike regular seed that needs ideal growing conditions to survive, God word can grow where even a seasoned farmer would say, “that’s impossible.” I know that there are people here in this room that are living proof of the power of God’s word to change lives – that ten or twenty or fifty years ago people would have dropped dead if they saw you in a church, heard you pray aloud or knew you were reading scripture daily. God doesn’t give up on us. God speaks in many ways in our lives, and we may not hear it right away. But God promises that whatever God speaks “will not return to me empty but will accomplish that for which I purpose.”
What if we dared to be even half as confident as Jesus is in God’s word that we shared it a bit more extravagantly than we usually do? What if we prayed a little more frequently or loudly? What if we invited people to church more often, even our friends we’re pretty sure would say “no thanks?” What if we even just started with ourselves and took five extra minutes each day to pay attention to God’s activity in our lives?
The United Church of Christ has a tagline that I like that says, “God is still speaking.” This is true – through scripture, through prayer, through visual arts and music, God speaks to us daily in all kinds of ways if we pay attention. Part of faith is believing that this is true, that God does speak to us still today, not just in the pages of ancient scripture. God’s word is living and active! The next step of faith is to also trust that the words God speaks will accomplish that which God purposes and will succeed in the thing for which God sent it. That is to say, God’s word is effective. Even when we see empty pews and more and more people enjoying Sunday mornings outside of church walls. Even when our friends turn our invitations to church down again and again. Even when we think God is silent and our prayers are unanswered – God will do what God promises to do. I know this to be true – just a few days ago I was out picking produce from my parents’ garden. They have lived in their house for twenty years here in Omaha, with similarly bad, mostly clay, soil. But after working the ground year after year for that long, they have an abundant harvest, way more than they can possibly eat themselves. Even more than we persistent gardeners, God will be persistent with us. God is making good soil out of us – God is not finished with us yet. Lord, let our hearts be good soil, open to the seed of your word. Amen.
Sunday, July 18, 2017
OK, so let’s see how well you were listening to the gospel this morning…how many disciples are there? And can you name them? Andrew, James, John, Peter, Philip, Bartholomew, James, Thomas, Matthew, Simon, Thaddeus, and Judas (of course). Well, I hate to tell you, but you’re wrong – at least, partly. There aren’t just twelve disciples in the Bible, in fact, there are many followers of Jesus including women that we consider disciples – the twelve we just named were only the first. That’s what disciple means – “follower.” Sometimes we use the word, “apostle,” which means “one who is sent.” So Jesus sends the FIRST twelve disciples to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” and “to proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” But we read this in Matthew not as an interesting history book of what these twelve men did in following Jesus as good information to know, we read this today to hear Jesus calling us, too, to be his disciples, his apostles. Jesus sends us, too, to follow the example of those first disciples to also heal, cleanse, and proclaim the good news. We are apostles of Jesus, too! Jesus sends us, too!
Did you ever want to be a missionary, or do you remember as a child if your church supported a missionary? When I graduated college, I joined a program through the ELCA called Young Adults in Global Mission that was basically like a Lutheran Peace Corps. We showed up at a retreat in Chicago the spring of our senior year to interview for different positions around the globe to serve as volunteer missionaries for one year. We didn’t get to pick where we would go for that year – we were assigned at the end of that retreat. I was SURE I was going to go to Kenya or South Africa. I mean, that’s where the best missionaries go, I thought – to Africa. I loved to travel and had plenty of travel experience and cross-cultural competence, so even though it would be different and challenging, I would be a great missionary in Africa.
Well, I was shocked when I was told instead that I would be going to Slovakia. I didn’t even know where that was on a map. I found out I had to learn Slovak. I learned it would be cold most of the year, like living in South Dakota where I went to college. So much for African safaris and living in sandals for a year. It took me awhile to get used to the idea, but I ended up having an incredible year of learning and growing as I served among the people of Slovakia.
Jesus asked ordinary people to follow him, and he asked people to be local missionaries. He asked fishermen, a tax collector, a political zealot, farmers and shepherds, prostitutes and servants, business people and lawyers. He did not ask the smartest people who went to rabbinical school and knew the Torah by heart. They were not “priestly” “churchy” people. But they followed him when he asked, and he gave them power even to raise the dead. He also sent out those first twelve apostles with specific instructions to go “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus sent them to share the good news about God and God’s kingdom with their friends, in their own country, with their own fellow citizens. Maybe some of them dreamed like me that they’d get to go far away to exotic lands and peoples like I thought a “real” missionary would do. But Jesus didn’t ask them to go very far at all, at first.
Jesus’ words, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” is as true today as it was for Jesus and his first twelve disciples. We no longer have to go to Africa or even to Slovakia to be missionaries sharing the good news about Jesus and the kingdom of God. In fact, Christianity is growing so fast in the global south we brought the Lutheran bishop of Tanzania to Nebraska last year so our Nebraska pastors could learn from him how to be better evangelists. We are not doing such a good job at being missionaries right in our own country, in our own city, right where we live. Fewer and fewer people go to church regularly or call themselves Christian – the statistics are not good. We could debate about how we might cast out demons, cleanse lepers, and raise the dead today – those acts of healing may not be what our neighbors and friends need. But Jesus sends us, too, to be his apostles, to follow him and share the good news of how God has been active in OUR lives and how we see God’s kingdom breaking in here and now.
It’s scary – it sometimes is easier to talk to someone you don’t know very well about your faith rather than share it with people you already know. Sometimes we make up excuses about why we shouldn’t share our faith when there’s an abundant harvest of friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances who are looking to hear a word of hope, who are looking to find meaning, who are looking to be a part of something larger than themselves. For example, I was at a congregation recently where a woman shared that she had a friend at work who was going through a difficult time. They talked every day, and this woman kept her friend on her prayer list, but she never told the friend she was praying for her. One Sunday her friend showed up to visit at her church. Her friend was actually angry that she had never invited her to come to church before. She said something like, “All this time I was asking God for a sign that he was with me, that somebody cared, and you never told me you were praying for me. I didn’t even know you were a Christian”
Pastor Eric Elnes of Countryside Community Church in Omaha tells another story of being woken up in the middle of the night to drive to a friend’s house he hadn’t seen in a few years. He had a gut feeling that something was terribly wrong. He felt silly because when he arrived at the house, about three in the morning, the friend said he was fine, but they talked over coffee and caught up anyway. A month later, the friend showed up and confessed to Pastor Eric that actually at the moment he heard the knock on his door, he had been loading a revolver, thinking of killing himself. Knowing his Christian friend cared and had shown up at that moment saved his life. God sends us, nudges us, and even urges us to share the good news for people who need to hear it. Jesus is calling us to be his disciples, to be local missionaries.
God uses where we are and sends us sometimes not very far to be signs of Christ’s presence for others. We have been given this precious gift – we ALL have gifts to share.. So shameless plug – next Sunday we’ll be starting a five-week series on the gifts of discipleship that all of us have been given by God through our baptism. We’ll be learning that we don’t have to be special pastors or missionaries, we don’t have to be the smartest or the most talkative, or whatever keeps us back from going where God sends us. God wants to use you for who you are, to be a laborer for his harvest. Amen.
Sunday, July 2, 2017
I want you to take a moment to think back to your childhood. When was the first time you remember encountering Jesus? Was it at Sunday School? In a church? Did you hear about him from a friend or family member? Some of you may have heard me tell this story before, but one of my first memories of Jesus was at the church I grew up, Lord of Love Lutheran Church off of 108th and Fort. Still today at the front of the sanctuary there is a huge wooden cross. It is quite realistic looking, and when I was little I remember thinking that THAT was the cross that Jesus died on – that was how real the story of Jesus was for me. But the other thing I remember is hearing the Bible stories about Jesus welcoming the children. Jesus cared about kids like me. Jesus welcomed the children even when the other disciples wanted them to go away and quit bothering him. I was important to Jesus. I had something to contribute. I heard that message clearly from an early age. That had a powerful effect on my life, obviously, as it led me eventually to serve the church as a pastor.
Jesus says today that “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you none of these will lose their reward.” Now Jesus isn’t necessarily just talking about children, but about all those “little ones” in society – anyone who is undervalued, overlooked, unappreciated. Think about in your life who some of those little ones might be…the grocery store clerk, the garbage collectors, older adults in skilled care facilities, people with physical and mental disabilities. Jesus asks us to welcome these people with the love of a disciple, with his own great love. And you have probably heard a sermon like this before: as Christians we are to be loving, kind, friendly, welcoming people. We can practice hospitality as a spiritual practice, especially by paying attention to those we might otherwise miss, the little ones that Jesus calls us to pay attention to and welcome. I’ve preached a few sermons like this before.
But today, I want to take a little different tack. Because I’m convinced that we cannot extend the welcome and love of Christ to those we know, especially to those little ones, unless we are deeply aware of Christ’s same welcome and love for us. We have to receive welcome, receive the grace of God, before we can share that same love and welcome to anyone else. This is likely more difficult for us to do because we’re taught to be independent, self-sufficient people, for the most part, and we even have that saying, “It is better to give than to receive,” right? I’m not sure, though, if we have never experienced the graciousness of others, if we even know what that looks like enough to emulate graciousness and welcome in return. In fact, if we think of our relationship with Jesus, there is NOTHING that we can give that would be better than the love that we’ve received from him.
Most likely, if you think back to that first experience of Jesus, this was also a time when you experienced the love and welcome of Jesus– it wasn’t about what YOU did to earn Jesus’ love or welcome Jesus into your heart, it was about Jesus waking you up to realize he loves you and welcomes you into the heart of God, just as you are. So I want you to think about this a little more…where have you experienced the amazing love and welcome of God in your life, not just as a child, but even today?
Pastor Rich and I just had an experience where we were reminded that as Christians we receive grace often as much as we give it. One of the mission developer pastors that Pastor Rich works with, John Badeng, invited him to be a groomsman in his Sudanese wedding celebration. It was a huge honor – Rich was the only non-Sudanese person in the wedding party. We learned a lot that day. For example, the wedding invitation came with the day and the location but no time. When Rich asked what time we should be there, John told us “noon.” So all the white people, including us, showed up at noon…but being on African time meant that really the wedding started at 2pm. As people streamed into the church, each one greeted me warmly and tickled the baby. One of the Sudanese pastors interpreted what was going on for us in English while other leaders spoke in Nuer. We were invited into a celebration that we had no idea what was going on, but we were welcomed into anyway.
I really can’t imagine what John and his wife had gone through to get to that day: over twenty years of warfare in their country, walking for days without food or water to get to a refugee camp, waiting in a refugee camp for months before being able to resettle in the United States, being separated and then finding one another again. At the wedding, some of John’s siblings were able to come that he had not seen in over twenty years.. Now, usually because the Sudanese are a minority in our city, the Sudanese have to learn to do things OUR way. Show up on time for work (not African time). Eat our food, speak English, and so on – we are the ones that have welcomed them to live in our country, and they are grateful. Last Saturday was a time for us NOT be in control and simply BE welcomed– a celebration where THEY were the hosts. And out of all of their family, friends, and important people that they chose to invite, I’m still mystified and honored that they also chose to invite us – it was beyond any privilege we earned or deserved.
Another example of receiving grace that I experience as a parent of now TWO children is physically being unable to be in two places with two children at the same time. “Let me help you with that” has been a godsend. My eyes have been opened to people who understand what it’s like to be a parent of young children because they’ve been there before and are willing to help. I don’t like to ask for help, but I know sometimes I just have to. And when I do, it’s like God is tapping me on the shoulder to remind me – I’m in control, not you, Rebecca. I’ve got this, and I’m here to help. Sometimes that’s what God asks us to do – simply receive that help, that welcome, as God’s grace and gift to us.
God loves you and has welcomed you forever into God’s kingdom, period. When you experience radical welcome, that is God in Jesus Christ reminding you that you are a child of God, loved and valued deeply, beyond anything you could hope for or imagine. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” Jesus reminds us. Not just that when we welcome others we ought to be recognizing the Christ in those we welcome – that is also true, but that when we receive someone else’s hospitality, someone else’s generosity, someone else’s help, that welcoming is Christ for us and to us. When we can recognize and respond with gratitude to the many ways God is at work in others to show us love, then we can share that love with others in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Sunday, May 28, 2017
Jesus says at the end of today’s gospel reading, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” With how divided our country has become recently, I have been wondering a lot whether Jesus’ prayer that we as Christians be one as God the Father and Christ the Son are one will ever actually happen. We live in a world where we’re quick to judge and to label “Democrat,” “Republican,” to call people names or troll on social media, and too often how we identify ourselves is based on how we can separate ourselves from others, rather than on what might unite us and make us one.
We can look at how divided the world is, but just within the Christian world, it’s debatable how different researchers get to the number, there’s at least around 1,100 Christian denominations in the world, some argue as many as 30,000. Even though we know as Christians that we’re supposed to get along and be united as Jesus prays for us to be, being divided is not new for us. Ever since Jesus walked the earth and the early church was formed, people have looked for reasons to break apart from one another. Have you heard this joke? There was a man rescued after several years of being alone on a deserted island. They found three buildings the man had constructed and inquired about them. “Well, this one is my house, and that one over there is my church,” the man answered. “What about the third building?” one of the rescuers asked. The man on the island responded, Oh, that’s the church I USED to go to.” Division and separation seems to be human nature. One of the first Christian controversies you can read about is in the book of Acts. Gentiles, not just Jews, had heard about Jesus the Messiah and wanted to become a part of the church, but Jewish Christians insisted that the Gentiles must be circumcised to be a part of this new Christian church. This changed when Peter had a vision where God told him that what had previously been considered unclean by the Jews was clean in God’s eyes – circumcision was not a prerequisite for being a Christian. Not everyone jumped on board with this new policy right away, though. As we learned in our Lenten midweek discussion on what it means to be “one,” the Nicene Creed was established in 325 AD to define a Christian church based on some basic theological believes, like Jesus being the son of God, both divine and human. But some broke off at that point because these holy men couldn’t agree on whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father AND the Son or just the Father. The Roman Catholic Church separated from the Eastern Orthodox church in the Great Schism of 1054 AD, if you remember that from history class. And of course, 2017 is the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses and opened the door to the formation of many Protestant denominations apart from the Roman Catholic Church.
The question then is with our fractured history, our current hostile and divisive situation, and our human tendency to disagree with one another, what can possibly make us still one? Unity is not uniformity, as we learned this past Lent. It’s not Christ’s intention that everyone who follows him look the same, think the same, and act the same. I’m pretty sure the God of the universe who knows us better than we know ourselves knows this is impossible for human beings – to ask us all to be the same. It’s good news that being one in Christ is about being unified in our diversity and not about uniformity. God models this one-ness for us perfectly in God’s very being and nature: God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit are not all the same, – they are three and yet one. That’s what Jesus is trying to tell the disciples and us today in this gospel – we are one because God in Christ brings us together, not because of anything that we can do on our own to get along. We share a common identity with Christ at the center.
Perhaps you are starting to wonder like I was when I first read the gospel passage for this morning what Jesus is actually talking about, though. It get confusing, admittedly – so, Jesus wants us to be one but it’s still Ok to be different? What’s really the difference between unity and uniformity? Or you might just plain be thinking, “If you’re going to tell me to get along with a Trump supporter or a Bernie Sanders socialist liberal you can forget it.” While I was on parental leave, I thought about what might be a helpful analogy as we try to envision what makes us one as Christians – what we mean when we say we are “one” in Christ. Ever since we’ve started introducing Grace to people after she was born, we hear: “She looks just like her sister!” Now, when Erin was born, most people said, “She looks just like Rich!” Or they will ask us, “Who do you think Grace looks like more? Does she look like you when you were a baby?”
Now, we get that question still as adults sometimes, especially at family reunions or when we’re out with siblings or our parents or adult children. I’ve been told I look a lot like my mom. When I look at old pictures of Rich’s Grandma Addie, whom Grace Adelaide is named for, I realize my sister-in-law looks a lot like her. Whether you’re a spitting image of one parent or some combination, as family we resemble one another. We can’t help but inherit some traits, good or bad, from our ancestors. And this, I think, is at least partly what it means to be one in Christ. We can’t help but look a little, act a little, sound a little like Christ because we have inherited the riches of his grace – we have some of Christ’s genes, so to speak. We resemble Christ because at our baptism we received his name, “Christian” and became children of God. We can disagree about all kinds of things as Christians – how we do communion and what it means, women’s roles in ministry, how or when we baptize, and so on. What unites us is our identity in Christ – we are a part of God’s family, and that means we bear God’s resemblance.
The challenge, of course, is like our blood relations, we may resemble one another, but that doesn’t mean we always get along or present a united front to the world. We need to not only know that we look a little bit like Christ but also act like we’re actually related to him. How do people with whom you interact on a daily basis know you’re a Christian? It’s not just the bumper stickers you put on your car or the cross jewelry you wear. To use the body of Christ imagery throughout the New Testament, do you feel like God has particularly gifted you to have Christ’s hands, ears, eyes, or feet? Perhaps his voice or his heart? How are you being uniquely YOU while also resembling Christ in your daily life? That’s what being one in Christ is about.
What’s more is that we need eyes to see that our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ are just that – our siblings who also resemble Christ. That’s where the whole getting along piece gets hard, and where Christ’s prayer for us to be one in unity with him and God’s children sometimes seems like wishful thinking. We have to get beyond the labels and stereotypes to recognize our commonalities as Christians, not just our differences. I can be a proud Lutheran and still do great work with my Methodist colleagues. I know why I’m a Lutheran and can still appreciate worshipping in a nondenominational or Catholic church. I can even strongly disagree with some of you here in my own church in my own congregation but at the end of the day, you are my church family and Christ unites us, not the issues we agree upon. One of the most powerful ways we can recognize our oneness in Christ is when we pass the peace. This isn’t just a casual hello or catching up on the week – this is looking people in the eye to extend Christ’s love and even sometimes forgiveness. We are acknowledging that we are one in Christ – and we have a striking resemblance to him! Be attentive to that this morning as you look into each other’s eyes and shake hands. These are your brothers and sisters in Christ, and isn’t it amazing?! Maybe like your blood relatives, there are some people here that you’d NEVER otherwise associate with or even be acquainted with, but that’s what Jesus does. He brings otherwise completely different, unique people together. And so we pray with Jesus, “Father, protect us in your name that you have given us, that we may be one, as you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are one.” Amen.
Sunday, March 26, 2017
In seminary, our preaching professor was legally blind. When we talked about preaching this passage and others where Jesus heals the blind, his perspective was that physical blindness is not the real problem. As John tells us, the culture of the day blamed any disability on sin – this man or his parents must have done something wrong. Instead, we hear Jesus say from the start of this passage that this man “was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” It’s as if Jesus is suggesting that the blind man, while limited by not being able to physically see, is able to “see” in a spiritual sense in a way others around him cannot. They are limited by their physical sight. Jesus tells us God is using blindness as a gift to help people see God in a new way. So, yes, Jesus gives this man physical sight, but Jesus opens the man’s eyes in a different, spiritual sense to see Jesus as the Son of Man.
Last week we talked about living water – that while the Samaritan woman can offer Jesus a drink at the well to quench his physical thirst, Jesus offers us water for our spiritual thirst – water where we never will be thirsty again. Today, we are again not just talking about physical blindness, but spiritual blindness. How does Jesus heal us spiritually so that we can see God and ourselves in a new light? The Pharisees are confused by Jesus’ explanation of spiritual blindness. They ask, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” and Jesus says, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
Where are we spiritually blind like the Pharisees, unable to see how God is at work? Maybe we become overconfident in thinking we know the right answer, or have the solution to the problems we’re facing. Maybe we think we know the direction God’s leading us, but we’ve encountered closed doors, or that the way we thought God was leading us wasn’t actually the right way. In the show Silicon Valley, one of the computer programmers, Dinesh, is a stereotypically very nerdy guy who constantly has trouble finding a girlfriend. He is excited to get to know a new employee working in another part of the country through a video chat. He’s attracted to her, and she seems to like talking with him, too. The picture on the video chat, however, is blurry. Being the smart computer programmer he is, he designs a better video chat program to make the video picture clearer so he can better see this woman. When they try the new clearer video program, he’s delighted that his program works, and he can see that she is even more physically attractive than he thought. What he didn’t account for, however, is that she can see him more clearly, too. Suddenly she makes it known that she already has a boyfriend and isn’t able to chat with him anymore – It’s pretty clear she is NOT physically attracted to him in the same way.
Sometimes our physical sight gets in the way of seeing how God sees. We judge people based on our sight as not good enough for us to be friends with, or for God to love, whether we realize this consciously or not. Because of our sight, we might mislabel others as “poor,” “attractive,” “sinful” or “dangerous.” We’re reminded however, that our physical sight can get in the way at times like these, from our first reading’s story of David’s anointing in 1 Samuel: “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” God wants to heal our spiritual blindness, and we can start by confessing all the ways that we are blind – blind to those who may be unattractive or fit our distasteful stereotypes but are close to the heart of God. We are blind to doing God’s will rather than our own and trusting where God leads instead of forging ahead based on what we think we see. We are blind to the ways that God is at work.
The good news is that Jesus comes to heal us from our spiritual blindness so that we can sing confidently those words in the hymn Amazing Grace: “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see!” At our baptisms, we were given a candle by a representative of the congregation who says, “Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life.’” Light of life, living water. Water to quench our spiritual thirst for God by connecting us to God creator of us all. Light of life to guide us all our days and lead us from spiritual blindness to sight. These are the amazing gifts God gives us so that we can live the life that truly is life in Christ.
Do any of you know if you still have your baptismal candle at home? I know mine is long gone. During Advent, you might already light candles at home on a wreath to mark the weeks leading up until Christmas. Perhaps now you might either light your baptismal candle or another candle from time to time to remind yourself and your family that God gives us new eyes to see – eyes of faith to look at the world differently, eyes to trust God’s leading instead of our own, light to give us hope that shines even in the darkest moments of our lives. This light can remind us of the new life we receive through baptism: that we were lost and now found, thirsty for God, but the thirst is quenched, blind, but now we see.
The last piece that the baptismal candle can remind us of is how we are sent to show others God’s works, too, so that others might see God in Jesus Christ, too, and want to follow him. The pool that the blind man goes to wash away the mud so that he might see is called Siloam. Do you remember what that means in English? “Sent.” Jesus sends the blind man healed from his physical and spiritual blindness to tell others that Jesus is the Son of Man, the Son of God. Jesus sends the man to help show others God in Jesus Christ. Jesus sends us, too, anointed with the cross of Christ, washed in the waters of baptism, with light for the world. Just like the blind man, God created us to be born so that God’s works might be revealed in us. What particular gifts has God given you that you might have to share with the world? What special abilities or disabilities do you have that can help others see God in a new way, or help others see God at work in their lives? God is sending us out, too, to share what we have, use what we have, for God’s glory. Amen.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well: can you recall other people in the Bible who meet at a well? Jacob meets his wife Rachel, Rebecca meets her husband Isaac, Moses meets his wife Zipporah – one of the commentators I was reading this week described men and women meeting at the well as the Biblical version of “match.com!” A well – and in particular, Jacob’s well – was the place for men and women to meet and get to know one another in a socially acceptable way. But Jesus doesn’t go to the well to catch a date, or find a mate. He’s there to rest, he’s there because he’s thirsty, and he’s also there to tell this woman and others about this special kind of water he has – living water.
Just this week, if you could catch it amidst all of the political news, we heard reports of a widespread famine that will affect at least 20 million people in four countries: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria. In particular, the United Nations estimates about half of the population of Somalia is in danger of starving to death. That was staggering news when I read that! To put it closer to home for us, our bishop sharing at our synod staff meeting that Bishop Shoo of our companion Lutheran Church in Tanzania asked us directly for assistance, because Tanzanians are also suffering the effects of a failed winter crop. The winter crop failed because of drought – they simply didn’t get the rains they needed to grow adequate food. They’re hopeful for the next crop to bring relief as they do have rain now, but as you know human beings can’t live without water and food for a few months to wait for another crop to come in. Living in farm country in Stromsburg for three years, I learned what it meant to really pray for rain, or to pray for the rain to stop. But our farming technology, irrigation systems, and land wealth is such that farmers would worry about having a failed crop, but insurance would probably cover it – a big hit to the savings account or even bankruptcy was possible, but I don’t think anyone was actually worried about starving to death. Here in the city, we’re that much more removed from our dependency on water. It struck me as I heard this news of famine in Africa that Jesus is talking to people for whom thirst, hunger, and the threat of starvation was much more real than it is for us. The community needed that well – for water, for crops and livestock, even for matchmaking and relationship building. If we think about it in this way, this well being literally a source of life for the Samaritans – we can see how this woman is confused and intrigued when Jesus talks about “living water.”
Listen to how Jesus describes this living water: “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The Samaritan woman wants that water – she’ll never have to go to this well again. She won’t have to worry about if the well runs dry, or if the water gets contaminated. But what Jesus offers her goes deeper than meeting her physical thirst for water: Jesus knows her and what she’s done. He offers her a different way of life where she is no longer defined by her past—by how many husbands she’s had or her work to bring her household water. Jesus calls her to be a disciple – to follow him, to worship God, and to share what she’s learned about living water with others, which she does.
We take water for granted. All we have to do is turn on a faucet, and it’s there, usually drinkable right from the tap. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to countries where you need to use bottled water even to brush your teeth in hotels because the sanitation and plumbing systems are inadequate. When I was in Guatemala staying with a host family, we were told explicitly to shut off the water in the shower when we shampooed and soaped up and limit our shower time to less than five minutes because using the water was so expensive, and the family only could get so many minutes of hot water a day. It’s only times like these, if you’ve gone primitive camping or travelled as well, that you are grateful for the gift that water is for us – this gift God gives us that ALL of us need to survive.
I wonder, then, if we can so easily take something as basic as water for granted – something that we use every day—if we also take Jesus’ offer to us of living water for granted. Jesus has given us the gift of salvation – a relationship with God that lasts eternally – something even more precious and life-giving than water. How often do we stop to thank God for that gift? How often, like the Samaritan woman at the well, do we tell others about it?
God uses water throughout Scripture so that we can pay better attention to God through something we have to use every day. Every day, when we use water – when we get a drink, wash our hands, wash the dishes, or take a shower, when it rains, we can remember God’s overwhelming, abundant, gracious love for us through Jesus Christ. When Jesus meets with the woman at the well, Jews AND Samaritans would recognize the familiar biblical stories – hey, that’s where Rachel met Jacob, and Isaac met Rebecca – God loves us enough to meet us at the well to give us life-giving water, too. Noah and the flood, Moses and the rock, the Israelites crossing the Red Sea, the baptism of Jesus at the river Jordan…the Bible is full of God saving people with water. This isn’t because the water itself is particularly special, but because God acts and saves all the time with ordinary things. God promises us salvation at our baptism, with ordinary tap water at this font, or maybe it was a pool, or a lake or a river for you: God used that water to offer you living water through Jesus Christ. God said, “I know who you are, and what you’ve done.” But that’s not the end of the story for us, just like it isn’t the end of the story for the Samaritan woman. With ordinary water, God saves us from ourselves, from all we might do or leave undone, so that we would know apart from whatever we’ve done, we belong to God, that we were created by God to worship him in Spirit and truth. Just like the water we use every day, we’re surrounded by reminders of God’s gracious and saving love for us. May Jesus’ reminder to look to him for living water inspire us to see that grace, to thank God for it, and to respond. We can respond in all kinds of ways: whether it’s building a well like we did for our anniversary project to give more people access to water, using the water we have more wisely, sharing our faith with someone else like the woman at the well, simply praying for all those who are affected by drought and thirst – physical and spiritual drought. May ordinary water remind us of the extraordinary living water of Christ. Amen.
Sunday, March 5, 2017
What would you say is the most important, holiest day for Christians? Easter! Did you know that the seasons of Lent and Easter are some of the oldest seasons of the Christian church? They were established about two hundred years before the Christmas holiday even existed, and still today we say that every Sunday is a little Easter. Christ’s death and resurrection are central to what we believe as Christians – that God sent the only Son into the world to save us from our sins and give us eternal life. For the early Church, and still for many churches today, Lent is also a time of preparation for baptism. During Lent, candidates for baptism would go through an intense period of preparation – our version of confirmation classes for adults – and they would be baptized all together on Holy Saturday at the Easter Vigil. For over a thousand years, in fact, you could not enter a church building for worship until you were baptized – so Easter was the first day the newly baptized could join the Christian community for worship and Holy Communion. For Christians who were already baptized, Lent was a time of remembering and returning to those promises they made at their baptism. In that spirit on Sundays this Lent, we’ll be reflecting on what it really means to be baptized into Christ so we can more fully celebrate the gift of new life Jesus gives us at Easter!
In our gospel for today, we remember how Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness for forty days. At the beginning of the baptism rite, the pastor asks the person who’s going to be baptized or the parents and sponsors these three things: Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin that draw you from God? And we answer, “I renounce them.” The thing about temptation, though, is that it’s pretty difficult sometimes to resist or renounce. If only it were that easy – to say those three simple words: “I renounce them,” and to feel confident that indeed, the devil, the powers of this world, and the ways of sin have no sway over us!
What does it really mean to renounce evil as a Christian, to follow in the way of Jesus and resist the temptations of this world? It’s pretty popular in Lent to give up something – maybe chocolate or pop or Facebook. These are small ways we can resist the temptations of this world and practice going without something we don’t really need. We have to be careful, though, that we are not lulled into complacency, thinking that chocolate or Facebook is the worst evil we have to resist in this world. As Americans, we are extremely fortunate that most of us do not have to endure atrocities that others around the world face – extreme hunger, sexual exploitation, slavery, war crimes, persecution because of our faith. Evil for us is often much less obvious or identifiable, which is how evil works. Just eat this fruit – you will not die – the serpent tells Adam and Eve. But that seemingly innocuous offer of fruit is the beginning of the end for Adam and Eve, as we well know.
Similarly, the devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread – it seems harmless enough. After all, he is fasting in the wilderness, and what could it hurt him to eat something? But Jesus knows he doesn’t need the bread – he has committed to a spiritual fast to prepare himself for his earthly ministry and journey to the cross. What’s more, when he returns from his wilderness fast, Jesus will take a few loaves of bread and feed over 5000, sharing his gifts with others. God calls us to resist evil not only in refusing personal temptation, but by doing what we can to share our bread, our material wealth, with those who face greater evil than we know. We renounce the forces that defy God, the powers of this world, and sin when we work to feed the hungry, aid refugees, and combat evils like human trafficking and slavery.
Throughout the centuries, Christians have personified evil in the devil, through artistic depictions like these. Even in cartoons, you might see the angel and the devil sitting on either side of our shoulders. If only it were always so easy to identify the evil that surrounds us and the evil within us. Evil is not just something “out there” for our elected officials or trained military to fight and for us to fear. It’s easy to identify the threat of terrorism and ISIS as evil, or those other things I named earlier – hunger, slavery, war crimes. It’s a lot harder to examine our own selfish desires and sins and realize how we’re tempted daily to serve ourselves rather than God, to follow earthly power rather than God’s power, to work for the kingdom of heaven rather than serve the kingdoms of this world. Richard Rohr in his book Immortal Diamond, which our Bethel Prayer Group has been reading, puts it this way: “Satan does not tempt you so much to the ‘hot sins’ like greed, lust, and gross ambition. They are too obviously evil and will eventually show themselves as such. Instead Satan tempts you to do proper, defensible, and often admired things, but for cold, malicious, or self-centered reasons…Nuns who work in the inner city are not taken too seriously, while we envy city bosses who are being driven in stretch limousines.”
I believe one of the greatest temptations we face as American Christians today is to allow FEAR to rule our lives rather than trusting in the power of Christ. We don’t follow Christ’s call to love or even talk to our neighbors because we are afraid. We shut out those who are suffering and seeking a better life here because we are afraid.
It is our baptismal calling to take resisting evil seriously and to be on our guard about the ways that sin can easily overtake us. It is also our baptismal calling to trust in God’s strength – that God in Jesus Christ is more powerful than any evil no matter how pervasive or unspeakable in this world. We know that we cannot resist all the temptations we face daily – we give into fear, we give into our selfish desires, we give into the delectable goodness of chocolate! God in Christ calls us back to serve him and him alone, to continue to resist temptation. God promises to deliver us from evil, as we pray in the Lord’s prayer.
We are going to sing one of my favorite hymns for the hymn of the day today, which is not just a celebration of Martin Luther, but at the core of what we believe as Lutheran Christians about resisting evil by putting our faith wholly in the power of Jesus Christ. This is what Jesus did on the cross for us – he overcame death and the grave to give us the victory. We have already won. Pay attention to the words as we sing this today. Especially pay attention to the third verse: “Though hordes of devils fill the land all threatening to devour us, we tremble not unmoved we stand, they cannot overpower us. Let this world’s tyrant rage, in battle we’ll engage. His might is doomed to fail. God’s judgment must prevail. One little word subdues him.” Do you know what that little word is? Jesus. It is in the power of Jesus’ name we pray. And it is in the power of Jesus’ name that the devil runs and hides, because he knows he cannot win. This is what our yearly journey through Lent to Easter is all about – acknowledging our vulnerability to all forms of evil and sin, yet being strengthened through those baptismal promises to know that Jesus has defeated all of that for us on the cross. Because he lives, we live. Because he has won, we share in his victory. Use the power of that little word to live confidently, temptations and all. Amen.
Wednesday, March 1, 2017
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
I have been thinking about birth more than death these days as our second child is due April 4. My husband Rich and I also have a 16 month old daughter, Erin, and last year was her first Ash Wednesday service. It was a humbling experience to bring her forward to have ashes put on her forehead as well as mine – “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This is the stark reminder God has for us today – God our creator formed us from dust and breathed into us the breath of life, but just as all of us are born, all of us will die. Even Erin, so young and full of life. The prophet Joel today instructs all the people to gather in a solemn assembly to remember this: the aged, the children, “even infants at the breast,” the bridegroom and bride leave their celebrations to fast, weep, and mourn.
The topic of death isn’t something we like to think about or talk about much in our culture today. We would rather think about babies and new life, attend a wedding rather than a funeral. As a pastor, I’m not surprised, but often saddened when I meet with a family whose loved one has just died and they have no idea what the person’s wishes were for what scripture or music they wanted at their funeral, whether they wanted to be cremated or have a casket, and so on. Only about 50 percent of Americans have a will or living will. It’s as if we think that if we avoid talking about death, we won’t ever have to deal with it.
Here’s what I’ve also noticed as pastor, though – Ash Wednesday is a popular worship service – probably more people who don’t attend regularly Sunday services show up for this service right up there with Christmas Eve and Easter! I know of churches who even do “drive by” ashes for morning or evening commuters who want to have ashes put on their forehead but don’t have time or don’t want to make time to go to church on Ash Wednesday because people value that reminder for some reason – that they are dust, and to dust they shall return. However, I have learned through my work as an evangelist that my generation, millennials, in particular, have said that they value genuine relationships and an authentic faith community above anything else about church– above the style of the worship service, sand volleyball pits or whatever other gimmicky activities churches try to come up with to attract young people. I think this is true for all of us, not just for young people. We want our relationship with Jesus to be real. We want our faith to be real! And it doesn’t get much more real than publically wearing a cross of ashes on your forehead.
This cross says, “yes, I will die, but I’m not afraid of that death.” We don’t have to be afraid to talk about the reality of death, because we also know the reality of life in and with Christ. We know that on that cross, Christ, God’s only son, died for us. We know that at our baptism, we were marked with that same cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever. The Rev. Dr. Stephen Bouman tells the story of fishing with his grandfather, who was a pastor and seminary professor. His grandfather looked at him and said, “Stephen, the only death you have to be afraid of is already behind you in your baptism.” And then he went on fishing. That means that while we will die, in Christ we will live as Paul says in 2 Corinthians. We have a treasure in heaven that no one and nothing can destroy. Our faith in Christ is not a false hope that sweeps the suffering, pain, and loss we have all experienced under the rug. We’re not pretending that because of our faith in Christ, everything is roses and sunshine all of the time. In fact, in the words from the prophet Joel we just heard, and in 2 Corinthians, we acknowledge that all of us go through really difficult times sometimes. “We’ve lost the heartbeat.” “I’m afraid he didn’t make it.” “We found a lump.” “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us have heard words like these: words that have made us reevaluate our priorities in our lives, or even doubt our faith. But the cross on our forehead reminds us that because of Jesus, we have nothing to fear, even death itself.
Joel asks us, “Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” Because Joel knows that it is in these difficult times of suffering, death, and loss, that God meets us in the ashes, on the cross. God is not absent during these times. God shows up and meets us wherever we are, in good times and in bad. God in Christ suffers with us. And God in Christ reminds us that suffering and death do not have the last word. Today, we enter into the season of Lent, which is a more contemplative, solemn time. But Lent also is preparation for Easter. We look forward to the resurrection – to the hope that God gives us of life after death. As Joel reminds us, “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” This is the God we worship at all times, a God who is faithful to us at all times. Gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. That is the good news we have to share about God today as we wear our ashy crosses proudly, and every day. Amen.