Saturday, March 30, 2013

Easter Sunday: Seeking the Living in a Graveyard

Readings for Easter Sunday:  Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12

The women watched as Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus’ body and laid it in the tomb. There wasn’t enough time, it was too fast, almost Sabbath. This just wasn’t right; it wasn’t the way they wanted to honor their Lord.

So they went, to retrieve spices carefully tended and preserved, packed away for such an occasion, To purchase ointment and more rare spices before the vendors closed for Sabbath. 
To bring their best, an offering of love, the final act they would do for their Lord.

They started out early, each carrying her offering, each determined to do what should’ve been done three days ago, no matter what - after all, Jesus has been in the closed up, hot tomb for three days.

They came to the tomb, spices in hand; ointments ready to prepare the body of their dead loved one.

We’ve all stood at that moment, facing the finality of death. Maybe it was in the funeral home, meeting with the funeral director, selecting just the right casket, just the right songs to proclaim to the world how much your loved one meant to you.

Maybe it was that moment in the doctor’s office when the word cancer was first said.

That moment when the bags were loaded in the trunk and a slamming front door sounded the end of a relationship.

The moment when you walked out of work and as the outside air hit your face, you realized that like it or not, you no longer worked there.

The moment so many years ago when angry words left someone’s mouth, and parent and child, or brother and sister, took one last look and walked silently away.

That moment when a drink or a pill became the most important thing in life. That moment when dreams become lost, and hope for the future disappears. That moment when you couldn’t bear 
to look at yourself in the mirror because you didn’t like what you saw.

That moment when you turn off the TV news, put down the paper, shut off the Internet because you just can’t hear one more report of tragedy, war, hunger, pain – one more report about brokenness, greed, hatred.

At some place, at some time, we’ve all walked the same path to the tomb the women walked that morning. 

It never occurred to them that Jesus would not be there. After all, the dead stay dead.

The open tomb, the scattered linen wrappings puzzled them. They stood and stared, not comprehending.

Suddenly a bright light and two angels startled them.  Dropping jars and scattering spices, they fell to the ground, bowing before these divine messengers.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.”

The thing is they weren’t looking for the living.  They came to look for the dead among the dead.  The spices and the ointments in their hand prove that they never expected to find Jesus alive. It wasn’t until the angels told these women who had travelled with Jesus for three years to remember that they looked beyond their grief and pain.  Only then did they remember all that Jesus said and done and how he predicted not only his death but this very moment when they would discover that he’d been raised from the dead.

They had forgotten to look for the living.  Maybe they just found it too hard to believe that after that horrible death, there was any possibility of life.

Where those places where we still look for the living among the dead? 

Because we do this - well, actually, we don’t look for the living among the dead.  Like the women that first Easter morning, we look for the dead among the dead.  Like the women, we expect death and brokenness in the very places where God’s told us there will be life. 

Resurrection – it’s not an easy thing to believe.  My dad always said there were two things you could count on – death and taxes.  Resurrection messes with the way things are supposed to be.  It defies the natural order of things.

Resurrection means something supernatural has to have happened – something has broken into the natural order of things.

It means God happened.

It was just as hard for Jesus’ followers to wrap their mind around the idea of resurrection as it is for people today.  The women’s story of the angels and the empty tomb sounded like “an idle tale.” Actually that’s a pretty mild translation of leiros, the word Luke uses to describe the 
reaction to the women’s story.

 Leiros - it’s where we get our word “delirious.” It’s crazy talk, nonsense.  Incredible.  Impossible. Rubbish. Crap.  Seriously – a faithful translation of leiros is B.S.

Resurrection –Leiros!

Leiros or not, Peter had to go check it out for himself. He goes and sees the empty tomb, the scattered linens – he doesn’t get angel messengers, so he stands there on his own trying to figure it out. He’s amazed, puzzled, and very, very confused.

Resurrection is not an easy thing to believe. It takes the disciples some time to figure this out.  There are doubts and fears.  That’s normal – because the empty tomb changes everything.

And it takes times to wrap your mind about a change that shakes your whole world, that turns everything you knew about how life works upside down.

It takes time for them to realize that the empty tomb changes everything.

The empty tomb changes everything. God happens; God comes down and walks among us. God suffers as we suffer, experiences death just like we experience death – and then breaks the power of death. That very first Easter morning, when the women find the tomb empty, they discover the first sign that things are no longer the same.

Jesus resurrection means that death the longer has the last word, that life and love are stronger than death.

Jesus’ resurrection means that God’s kingdom has come, is coming – that God is working to re-create, to bring closer that day when all tears are wiped from the eyes and that there is a new heaven and a new earth and Jesus rules and justice and peace and love.

Jesus resurrection means that when we hear of the death and experience death – bad news, tragedy, sickness, poverty, broken relationships, lost dreams - that we look for the living, we look for life.

Jesus resurrection means that God, in whom we live and move and have our being, says “leiros” to death, and “yes” to life.

He is risen!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Maundy Thursday: A Night to Remember

This sermon was originally preached at Ascension Lutheran Church, Columbus Ohio, April 21, 2011

This is a night of remembering.

Actually, the next three days are days of remembering.  Tonight’s service contains no blessing and dismissal, neither will tomorrow night’s service.  We leave in silence, to ponder the events of the day.  Thursday blends into Friday, blends into Saturday, and bursts into Sunday as we remember Jesus’ last few pre-resurrection days on earth.

It is fitting that this is a night of remembering.  The events of these holy days are firmly placed in the time of Passover - and if there is one thing Passover is about, it’s remembering. 

Once again, we read in Exodus how God rescued the Hebrew children from slavery. We heard God describe to Moses the final, definitive plague, the closing salvo in the battle between God and Pharaoh and his gods.  We listened as God directs Moses to have the whole of Israel put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts to keep the angel of death from their homes.  And we heard God institute the Passover feast so that all of Israel will remember this night forever.

Passover is all about remembering.  The foods eaten, the prayers said, the stories told all remind the children of Israel of how God reached out with a mighty arm and rescued them from slavery in Egypt, from oppression under Pharaoh. 

How God sent plagues, and divided the sea to bring the Hebrews safely out of Egypt. 

How God made them a people and provided for them in the wilderness.

How God brought them to a land of their own. 

That night, that first Passover evening, certainly was a night to remember. 

But Passover is about more than remembering – at least more than what we, speakers of English, mean when we say “we remember.” As so often happens, something got lost in translation.  That part where God says, “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord;” – we don’t get that part quite right. We think we know what “remember” means: to think of, to recall, to reminisce, to keep in mind.   The Hebrew verb “zakar,” which we translate as remember, actually means something more.  It means to call something to mind and to actively participate in it.

When our Jewish cousins celebrate the Passover feast, they are not simply re-telling a story that happened to their ancestors long ago.  When they tell the Passover story, they are telling a story in which they have participated and are participating in.  They celebrate how God has liberated and is liberating them from their own version of Pharaoh’s oppression. 

Passover is not a celebration of events that occurred long ago. 

Passover is a celebration of God breaking in to the brokenness and oppression that each one experiences today,
     a celebration of God’s saving actions here and now,
         a celebration of God’s provision and care today,
            a celebration of God bringing them together as a community and claiming them as God’s own.

It’s a night of remembering, but it’s so much more.  It’s a present memory; it’s a living history; it’s sacred participation in and with God.

Jesus’ disciples understood Passover. They were good Jews, taught from infancy that each Passover, they themselves were the slaves, that Passover was God acting for them here and now. 

So, when the disciples at the table in the upper room, heard Jesus say,
“This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me…This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me,”
they knew what Jesus meant by “remember.”  They may not have understood what Jesus meant by the bread being his body and the cup being a new covenant in his blood, but when Jesus said “remember,” they knew exactly what he meant.  They understood that remembering included participation.

This active remembering is what Paul has in mind when he “passed on what he had received” to the Corinthians.  The Corinthians understood “remember” in much the same way Paul did.  The word Paul uses for ‘remembrance’ is based on the Greek verb “anamnesis.”  We translate it as “remember.”  But it means so much more:  to call something to mind and to actively participate in it. It was used as a religious term in Greek – to call to mind the covenant made when offering a sacrifice to the gods and act to fill it.

Paul was telling the Corinthians that each and every time they celebrated the Lord’s Supper, they were affirming and renewing the new covenant God had made with them through Jesus.  They were participating in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Dying and rising with Christ, empowered them to live as Jesus lived, and love as Jesus loved.

This is indeed a night of remembering – of “zakar,” of “anamnesis.” 

If we simply “remember” Jesus, we miss out. 

If we just remember, the morsel of bread and sip of wine are just that – bread and wine. 

If we just remember, we can go through the motions and miss out on the gift.

If we just remember, we may have a nice experience here tonight, but leave without encountering God.

If we just remember, we can leave here and go back to our daily life unchanged by the touch of God.

We need to move beyond “remember” to
“experience here and now, fresh and new, God’s grace.” 

We need to move beyond “remember” to
“call to mind and actively participate in Jesus’ death,
to participate in Jesus’ resurrection,
to participate in Jesus’ life.”

Tonight is not simply a celebration of events that occurred long ago.
Tonight, these three days, and every single time we gather at the Lord’s Table is a celebration of God breaking in to the brokenness and oppression that each of us experiences today,
a celebration of God’s saving actions here and now,
   a celebration of God’s provision and care today,
      a celebration of God bringing us together as a community and claiming us as God’s own.

It’s a night of remembering, but it’s so much more.  It’s a present memory, living history, sacred participation in and with and under and through God in God’s creative, redeeming actions in the world.

Tonight is a night of “zakar,” of “anamnesis.”  We sit at the table with Jesus.  Jesus washes our feet.  Jesus shares his meal with us.  Jesus commands us to love as he as loved. Jesus suffers for us and God works through Jesus to liberate us once and for all from our brokenness and chains, so that we can love as he loves us. 

“This is my body that is given for you.

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.

Do this, in remembrance of me.”

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Fifth Sunday in Lent: A New Thing

Readings for this Sunday:  Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; new it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

It’s an odd word from to hear from the prophet Isaiah – do not remember the former things.  Remembering was foundational for the Israelites, part of their identity.  Moses commanded them to remember how God rescued them from Pharaoh’s slavery, and brought them into the Promised Land.  Every Passover, they remembered in detail the story of God’s deliverance.

It’s odder still because Isaiah begins this speech by doing exactly that – remembering the things of old.  God who parted the sea and gave you dry land to pass on while the Egyptians in their chariots drowned says do not consider the things of old.  Instead, look for the new things God is doing – can’t you see them?

Perhaps that was why the Israelites were in exile – they had gotten stuck in the past.  They were focused on what God has done for them, for the days when God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm rescued them from Pharaoh.  The days when God feed them in the wilderness and made water flow from rocks.  The days when God led them into the land, making them a nation.  The glory days when God blessed King David and Israel grew and prospered.

Satisfied with what God had done for them, they no longer looked to see what God was doing.  They could not perceive the new things God was doing.

Now they were in exile and crying out to God to once again rescue them.  Isaiah brings this word of hope – God is doing a new thing.  God is working to make a way in the dry and thirsty wilderness in which they find themselves.

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; new it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

Jesus is at the home of Lazarus and Mary and Martha and Bethany. He’s relaxing with friends, sharing a meal.  Martha is serving the meal that she has lovingly cooked. But this is no ordinary dinner party.

How can it be ordinary, when the host, Lazarus, have been called out of the tomb by Jesus?  God certainly is doing a new thing, making a way through the wilderness of death.  Who would have thought that Lazarus would host a dinner after the sad meals eaten as he lay in the grave?  

How can it be an ordinary meal shared with friends, when the very fact that Lazarus is alive has become the catalyst for events that will lead to Jesus’ death? The chief priests and Pharisees have finalized their plans to have Jesus arrested and put to death. Lazarus must die too – there should be no reminders of this upstart preacher from Galilee and his miracles.

How can it be an ordinary dinner, when the very next morning, Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, Palm branches waving and shouts of “hosanna” in the air?

Mary perceives this is no ordinary dinner, this is no ordinary night.  God is doing a new thing, and while she doesn’t understand why, she knows that Jesus is going to die.  She may not have wanted to believe it when she heard Jesus predicts his death, but she has heard the rumors and she can see the signs and she’s prepared.

She takes the jar of expensive perfume – worth a whole year’s salary - she has purchased for just this moment. Kneeling by Jesus’ feet, where she is so often sat and listened as he talked, she pours the perfume on his feet and wipes them with her hair. 

It’s the least she can do, this extravagant act of gratitude and love. God is doing a new thing, and Mary does what she can to be a part of it.

Judas protests - what a waste of perfume, a waste of money.  He’s offended by Mary’s devotion, her unstinting love.   He doesn’t understand. He’s heard Jesus predict his death. He knows that Jesus is a very real danger just being in Bethany. He too can read the signs and has heard rumors. 

Perhaps he’s so certain that he knew just what Jesus should do to free them from the detested Romans that he longer looked to see what God was doing.  He could not perceive the new thing God was doing.

He could not perceive that God could use a cross as a path through the wilderness of death, that Jesus provides living water and the bread of life.

“Don’t dwell on the things of the past;
........don’t get bogged down in nostalgia.
I am about to do something completely new;
........can’t you see it taking shape before your very eyes?”[i]

Paul has a heritage to boast of, a pedigree to be proud of.  He’s lived a good life, a godly life.  But one day on the road to Damascus he comes face to face with the new thing God is doing.  Face to face with amazing grace and love, Paul understands that his own righteousness has gotten in the way of his right-ness with God.  He had been blinded by the past, but now his eyes were opened to see the new thing God was doing.  The heritage, the pedigree, the good life are meaningless to Paul – the only thing he can see now is Christ.

“Don’t dwell on the things of the past;
........don’t get bogged down in nostalgia.
I am about to do something completely new;
........can’t you see it taking shape before your very eyes?”[ii]

Like the Israelites, where are we stuck in the things of the past, complacent in our nostalgia for the glory days?

Like Judas, in what ways are we so sure that we know what God thinks and wants and should be doing, that we cannot see other possibilities?

Like Mary, how can we be open to that new thing God is doing, pouring ourselves extravagantly, lovingly into it?

Like Paul, do we put aside the things of the past and eagerly pursue God’s call, that new thing God is doing?

There’s one thing of which I am sure – God is still doing a new thing.  The God who will stop at nothing to reconcile humanity, to restore creation, who gathers us as a mother hen gathers her children to protect them from the foxes of the world, who runs to meet the prodigal and goes out to bring in the elder child, who says no to all the devil’s schemes and yes to life, says to you, to this community today:

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; new it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

[i] ©2001 Nathan Nettleton
[ii] ©2001 Nathan Nettleton

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Fourth Sunday in Lent: Prodigals and Parents

Readings for this Sunday: Joshua 5:9-12; Psalm 32; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Prodigals and Parents.

Cheryl, and Anne, and John and Lois gather to listen to each other’s stories.  Each one – Cheryl, and Anne, and John, and Lois - can tell heartrending stories of prodigals and parents.

Daily, they live the story.

They are all parents of prodigals.

Cheryl lives this story.  Life in her home is a battlefield. 

Her son rages at the rules.
Curfew is a joke. 
He refuses to do the least little thing around the house.

Cheryl gets regular calls from the school –
he skipped class,
he started a fight,
he’s failing… well,
failing everything.

She walks around on eggshells, never knowing just what might set him off into an angry, vulgar tirade.

Just last night, he told her that he hatred her,
has never loved her,
has never loved the family
and is just waiting for the day he turns 18
and can leave them in the dust.

Her heart shattered as she gasped for breath at the hurtful, hateful words.

He might as well as said
he wanted her dead.

Anne lives this story.

Every knock at the door, every ring of the phone her heart pounds.

Anne has not talked to her daughter in 7 years,
not since that day she called to tell Anne
she was dropping out of college.

She thinks her daughter might be in Seattle
– that’s the address
on the worn envelope
that holds the last letter Anne got from her.
But maybe not.
All the letters Anne mailed have been returned.

Her daughter’s phone was disconnected years ago,
or the number was changed.

Anne worries and waits –
is she homeless?
does she have anything to eat?
a job,
any money?
Anne waits and worries,
full of hope and full of dread –
hope that the next time the phone rings, she’ll hear her daughter’s voice;
dread that instead the voice will tell her that her daughter is dead.

John lives this story.

His son is in and out of treatment centers.

John has spent all he has
on rehab,
on therapy,
on apartments
for fresh starts that sour
as his son skips therapy
and replaces his medicine
for the magic of street drugs.

Things start going missing from John’s house –
food at first,
odd and ends,
and finally,
it looks he’ll need to replace his computer -

His friends say he should change the locks,
stop paying for rehab
and therapy that get no results –
be tough.

But to John,
those few precious days,
occasionally month or two,
when his son is fresh out of rehab –
those days are worth it.

He has his child again –
a glimmer of hope
between episodes of madness.

Lois lives this story.

Her son is back again after life on the streets and a stint in jail.

He has a modest apartment across town and Lois calls him daily.
Their conversations are short, awkward.

He’s reluctant to come and visit, saying he’s just not ready.  

But he took a small step this week –
he’s agreed to come to dinner with the family this Sunday.

Lois’s daughter calls to tell her mother that
if HE comes,
she will not be there.

She can’t understand why her mother would open her heart again
after the way he treated her,
the way he treated the family,
after the drugs
and the assault charges
and the DUI conviction.

Lois sadly says
she loves him,
loves her,
loves both her children.

There will be a place at the table Sunday for both of them.

Cheryl, Anne, John, Lois live their stories together –
the small joys,
the bitter disappointments,
the lost dreams;
the frustration of having a child with mental illness.

Horror stories of abuse abound,
homes become revolving doors,
and parents wait for the next shoe to drop.  

Mingled with the anguish and pain,
there is love, and –amazingly - grace.  

Cheryl swallows the pain of her son’s abuse and hatred,
and offers in its place love,
the kind of love only a parent can give.

Anne prays and waits
for her daughter’s voice on the phone.

John keeps trying everything he can,
giving his son a fresh chance
in the hope that this time will be
THE time.

Lois refuses to choose,
loving both children,
saddened by the pain and anger,
relentlessly offering the chance for reconciliation.

Some people may say they are being too soft on their children.  That they are enabling them.  That they need to set some boundaries, to hold their kids accountable.

It’s shocking – the way their kids treat them.

It’s shocking – the lengths these parents will go to bring their children home.

In the stories of these parents of prodigals, we hear of shocking, radical love -

In the stories of parents of prodigals, 

we get a glimpse of God’s shocking, radical, amazing love for us.

We see God revealed in a love that gives all,
that willingly suffers humiliation, pain.
A God who in love opens wide arms,
only to have them nailed to a cross.

We see God revealed in a love that is patient,
hopeful, never-ending.
A God who waits faithfully
for wandering daughters and sons.

We see God revealed in a love that forgives all things,
that believes in second and third and fourth chances.
A God whose grace is abundant
and mercy is new each day.

We see God revealed in a love that is welcoming,
A God at whose table all are invited,
all are reconciled
and all are fed.

God lives this story,
with every one of us.
God is the parent of a prodigal
daily gazing down the road,
running with outstretched arms,
to welcome the prodigal home.