Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter Sunday

“Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.”

What else could they have done? Who would have believed them? If they told their friends that Jesus’ grave was empty, I’m not sure that would have been welcome news.

Let them grieve their friend. It had only been a couple days since he died. Silly stories about empty tombs and folded grave clothes didn’t help. They needed time to remember Jesus. Not to indulge in fanciful stories about him not being dead. That was childish at best. Ghoulish and insensitive at worst.

So it must have been hard both to say and to hear that Jesus was alive. The other disciple believed what he saw but had no clue what it meant. It was probably the same for everyone that day.

News of Jesus’ resurrection couldn’t have been welcomed by everyone because, if it was true, then that meant everything Jesus said became real. It meant that his message was real, the healings were real, stories about God’s judgement were real, and promises of God’s mercy were real. It meant that they hadn’t wasted those years following Jesus.

But it also meant that they encountered a God they couldn’t control. A God whose power is unchained. A God whose Spirit flows freely wherever the Spirit wants. A God who was much more than what they could ask or imagine or believe.

So, I would assume that news of Jesus’ resurrection was met with both fear and awe, as well as joy and celebration. It was all jumbled together. The disciples probably didn’t know what to feel, let alone what to think, or even what to do. They didn’t know what to say to the other believers.

I often think that’s the same for us. When we talk about our faith we do so with some hesitation. That’s not because we’re embarrassed or ashamed by what we believe. But because, like the disciples who believed but didn’t understand, we know that our stories sound crazy to unbelieving ears - or even to believing ears.

Like in the story we just heard, we’d rather go home than to tell others what we have seen. We know that our words don’t do justice to what we say God has done with and among us.

We don’t often talk about our faith stories as Lutherans, and I think we’re poorer for it. Like the disciples sharing the good news to each other by telling what they have seen, we too can grow by sharing what we see through our God-given resurrection eyes.

And by telling our resurrection stories we can reflect on how we live as people who believe in a God that raised Jesus from the dead.

How DO we live if we believe that Christ is risen from the dead? What does Jesus’ resurrection mean for us as a church - as the risen body of Christ, as people of God? 

How DO we live if we confess that the tomb is actually empty? What does this mean for us as individual believers? As enlightened skeptics? As critical thinkers? As a people still searching, not having yet fully arrived? As people wondering who God is?

These are not new questions. These are questions that Matthew is wrestling with all through his gospel. The same could probably be said of the other three as well. If not the whole of scripture.

The gospel writers tell Jesus’ story as if he has already risen from the dead. That’s their basic assumption. In their minds they start at the end and work their way backwards. In fact, some say that the gospel stories are just extended prologues to the resurrection story.

I’m tempted to say the same thing about us and our lives, that we begin with the end in mind, that we can see our lives as extended prologues to our own resurrection stories.

I’m tempted to say that but I worry you might get the wrong idea. It could sound like I’m saying that THIS life is just a prologue to the NEXT one, and God’s REAL life is waiting for us for after we die. It could sound like I’m saying that THIS life doesn’t matter, and that the NEXT one is what we should be preparing for.

But that’s not even close to being true. And today proves that. Jesus didn’t fly up to heaven to a disembodied celestial existence when he died.  But Jesus burst from the tomb, living and breathing, scarred and wounded, but making THIS day, and ALL our days holy.

That’s what the gospel writers saw and tried to teach us. The gospel writers saw the world with resurrection eyes. And they ask that we do the same.

The gospel writers saw a world were God was everywhere; where justice, compassion, peace, healing, mercy, and forgiveness was in the air they breathed. Where mercy was their daily food, and love was the wine they drank.

They didn’t see this world as Heaven’s waiting room. They saw Heaven come to earth in Jesus.

They didn’t live their lives looking forward to some disembodied heavenly existence, way up in the cloud somewhere.

They saw God HERE, all over the place. And they saw the possibility of God where others didn’t think to look. 

They trusted in a new and better tomorrow because they saw it with their own eyes.

They believed that the worst of human behaviour cannot stop the God who is committed to giving life, because they saw Jesus alive three days after his death. 

They knew that the most devastating human impulses to destruction cannot destroy what God has so lovingly made, that the God of creation is still creating and re-creating everything, until, one day, the New Creation that God has promised will rise among us in its fullest, because that New Creation began when Jesus walked out the tomb by the power of God.

That’s the life we live as believers. That’s who we are as Christians. We tell God’s story beginning at the end. We start at the final chapter and work our way backwards.

Through the gift of faith, given to us in the waters of baptism, where we are joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are given new eyes through which to see the world, and a vocation to participate in God’s healing work, taking part in God’s on-going resurrection of everything God has created.

We still see suffering, but we know that healing is possible.
We still see sadness, but we are called to comfort.

We still see injustice, but we are asked to act justly, and speak words of challenge and truth to those tyrannizing  others.

We still say good-bye to loved ones in death, but we trust that one day we shall all be gathered together, raised from our tombs, to new life in Jesus.

That’s why, in the meantime, we live the resurrection life that came in Jesus, and that is coming to greet us, one day, in its fullness.

That’s why...

...instead of cruelty we see and we seek justice.
...instead of division and separation we see and we seek reconciliation.
...instead of judgment we see and we seek mercy
...instead of indifference to suffering we see and we seek, and we bring compassion.
...instead of selfishness we see and we seek opportunities to serve others.
...instead of sin we see and we seek forgiveness.
...instead of death we see and we seek life.

Seeing the world through resurrection eyes means seeing hope where others only see futility, it means seeing healing where others see only pain, it means seeing miracles where others see mere events, it means seeing new possibilities and fresh opportunities where others see failure and defeat.

Seeing the world through resurrection eyes means believing that God has not given up on us or the world, that a NEW world is possible, and is indeed coming.

Seeing the world through resurrection eyes means knowing that our lives matter, and that we are making a difference, an impact, no matter how small, because God can take the tiny fragments of our lives, those moments of setback and shortfall, and mould them into something new and beautiful.

Seeing the world through resurrection eyes opens our mouths to declare what God has done for us, it’s about bearing witness to the God who has raised US from the dead, who has planted in OUR hearts the gift of faith, so that we can fill the world with God’s love.

I’m glad that the first disciples found the courage to tell each other what they had seen. It’s my hope that we’ll have the same strength to tell what WE have seen. 

Because it’s in telling our stories as a people that we begin to see divine patterns emerge, and together we can live God’s story with the confidence that Jesus has truly risen among us!

Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!


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Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday

If you look around you’ll see that crosses are all around us. On church steeples, around people’s necks, on hot cross buns, on wwjd (what would Jesus do?) bracelets.

This is not new. The cross and various other cruciforms - or cross-like images - have long been used by various cultures and religions as symbols of life. 

For some, the cross might depict the four corners of the earth, the four elements of creation, the four beasts in a scheme of the zodiac, the four solstices and equinoxes, the four winds that bring rain.

Ancient Egypt used the cross as symbol of eternal life. Much New Age religion has popularized the image of a cross-tree, with each corner representing one season of the tree's annual cycle. In all these examples, the cross is a symbol of the life of nature or community.(Gail Ramshaw, Treasures Old and New)

But try telling that to Roman-occupied Israel. To them, the cross was anything but life-giving. Too many of them had seen friends and loved ones murdered on them. Too many had encountered forests of crosses, terrible reminders to anyone who broke Roman law. From stealing to murder, the punishment was the same. They had to keep these rebellious folks in line somehow.

That's why the crowds cheered when Jesus arrived in the Holy City. Finally, someone was coming who would stop the cruelty, throw the Romans out, and bring Israel back to its former glory, a glory not seen since King David ruled, so many years ago. AndtThey pinned all their hopes on this poor, backwoods preacher.

He could heal sick people. Maybe he could heal the political sickness that kept God's people from inheriting their destiny.

He could cast out demons. Maybe he could cast out the demonic tyranny of these Roman oppressors.

He could raise the dead. Maybe he could raise the people to reclaim their citizenship as God’s chosen people, a light to the nations.

But when they saw Jesus in handcuffs, they started asking questions. When he wouldn't speak up for himself, they grumbled amongst each other. 

If he wouldn’t defend himself, then he wouldn’t defend them. If he wouldn’t rescue himself, he couldn’t save them.

So when they realized he wasn't going to be the liberator they hoped, they turned against him and watched him die.

The cross was saved for lowest class of people. The Romans knew that it was the most painful and horrific form of torture and death. The victim could hang there for days. And when the Romans got bored they crucified their victims upside down while their families watched in agony.

So, for many of these people, the cross was anything but life-giving.

The early Christians didn't like the imagery of the cross; they didn't use it in their worship and art until centuries after its actual use had declined. 

The cross was for them still so raw, still an instrument of death. If it was empty, it was waiting in deathly silence for its next victim, like an empty hangman's noose or unoccupied electric chair. If Jesus was pictured on it, his tortured body was a reminder of his agony, not his resurrection, and not our salvation. 

But they used the the cross to retell Jesus’ story, because they knew in their bones that Jesus' story had become their story, and their story had become his. They couldn't beautify the torture of the cross away, and so they didn't picture it, but they also knew something had happened in those holy days that forever transformed their lives. And not just them. Us too.

When we look to the cross, we know that when we are rejected, he has borne that rejection, we know that when we've failed, he has borne that failure, we know that when we've sinned, Jesus has borne that sin. We know that when we die, he has borne our death.

We know this because his story and our story have been woven together in a strange tapestry, stories that collide with this story that we gather to hear today. To remember how God entered our story in Jesus. And how we find our way into God’s story through Christ.

In Jesus, God has entered our story when it looks like our story might not have unfolded the way we wanted. When life and circumstance take the narrative of our lives in a direction we didn’t expect or certainly didn’t want.

When dreams crumble under the weight of family expectations or social obligations, and when you look at your life you KNOW that you’re capable of so much more.

When you read the news and wonder if human greed will lead to the collapse of the system that’s sustaining it, and you can’t believe no one else can see it.

When the doctor enters the examining room, and the look on her face tells you that the news isn’t good.

When you look across the table and you wonder who this stranger is that you’ve been married to all these years.

When you find yourself across the desk from a funeral director, saying good-bye to someone who is gone too soon, and everyone goes too soon.

When you can feel your own life draining from you, and you’re terrified that when you close your eyes in death, you will never open them again, despite the promises of everlasting life you’ve heard since your were a child.

Today, those stories become God’s stories. They’re interwoven together, so that our stories and God’s GREAT BIG story of creation and life are tied together, and that the ending to our story will change. And the strand that ties these two stories together is Jesus.

That day, on the cross, it was Jesus who wasn’t just standing up the destructive powers of the world. Jesus wasn’t just confronting the forces that defy God’s vision for creation.

That day, on the cross, Jesus was standing up to God on our behalf. Jesus was showing God what it means to be in pain. 

That day, on the cross, through Jesus, God endured the frustrations of limitations, the terror of mortality, the outrage of injustice, the agony of brokenness, the violence of sin, the anguish of estrangement, the ruin of disease, the alienation of isolation, the sadness of separation, and the threat of oblivion.

In Jesus, God learned what it means to be human, and God was exposed to the world that human beings live with.

It was from Jesus’ view on from the cross, that God saw how easy it can be that...

...countries invade each other just to enlarge their territory


...massive disparity between the rich and the poor can be justified, or even celebrated.

...disease can almost destroy entire continents while the rest of the world shrugs its shoulders


...”environmental responsibility” can be dirty words and caring for God’s good creation can be met with hostility.

It was from Jesus’ view on from the cross, that God saw how easy it can be that...

...planes can disappear from the sky leaving their loved ones with a open wound of grief


..five young university students can be stabbed to death for no good reason, if there would ever be a good reason.

...people can discriminate against others simply because they are different.

...people’s pride can destroy lifelong friendships. the human impulse to self-protection can overpower the human longing for love.

In Jesus God knows what it’s like to be absolutely helpless and hopeless.

In Jesus God learned what your life is like. In Jesus God learned what the world is like, not from some far away heaven where God looks down at us from a safe distance, quietly observing us.

In Jesus God learned what the world is like from the very heart of human existence, where Jesus took all the suffering, all the grief, all the fear, all the hopelessness, all the injustice, all the sin, all those things that keep us from God and that hurt ourselves and each other, and were nailed to the cross with Jesus, and buried in his tomb with him.

And today, as we place Jesus in his tomb, we look at our lives, ourselves, each other, and the world, with eyes open for the God who destroyed our delusions about who we are, and is demanding that we are honest about our vulnerability, recognizing our culpability, embracing our weakness. Remembering that we are buried with him in his tomb.


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Monday, April 07, 2014

Lent 5A

“What bible readings do you suggest, pastor?” she asked as we sat across the table from the funeral director.

“How about Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want...’”? I asked

“Perfect. Mother loved that psalm. She had a copy of it on her bedroom wall.”

“Also, what about Romans chapter 8, ‘Neither death nor life...nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“Lovely. I think she would have appreciated that message.”

“For a gospel reading, how about John 11?”

“Which one is that?”

“‘I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me shall not perish, but whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.’ It’s the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.”

“Absolutely NOT!” she snapped. “No one is raising mother from the dead. She is NOT coming back to life. How dare you suggest that story!”

She looked at me as if she couldn’t tell if I were a monster or moron. Or just some religious nut spewing biblical nonsense.

I was shocked by her vehemence, but could see her point. She was still trying to come to grips with the fact that her mother had died. She was drowning in details and trying to just get through the next couple of days. She didn’t have time to reconcile the Christian proclamation with her own understanding of life and death.

“No one is raising mother from the dead. She is NOT coming back to life!”

She wasn’t saying anything that everyone else wasn’t thinking. They probably said the same thing about Lazarus. No one is raising him from the dead. He is NOT coming back to life.

He’d been dead for four days. Tradition said that the soul had since departed and what was left in that tomb was an rotting, empty, shell.

When Jesus arrived on the scene he must have seemed terribly insensitive. People were grieving. He even wept.

When Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” I’m sure that some of Mary and Martha’s friends wanted to put a hand over his mouth and hustle Jesus back to where he came from. How would you respond if some preacher just showed up at family member’s funeral and starting pounding on the coffin, and shouting “Wake up! Wake up!”?

This was NOT a pleasant scene.

It got even worse when Jesus demanded that the grave be opened. And when the stone was pulled back, the smell probably reached their noses before Lazarus appeared at the entry way. This was no sanitary resurrection, because death is not clean.

I’m sure Lazarus emerging from the tomb was met with mixed reaction. His sisters I’m sure were overwhelmed with relief that they got their brother back. Others might have been terrified at such an industrial-strength display of God’s power. Still others probably didn’t know what to think.

For the reader, questions remain. Was his body healed?  Was his skin repaired after days in the sweltering tomb? What could he tell us about his experience during those four days in death?

Not everyone was glad to see Lazarus alive, however. For some of the the religious leaders, Lazarus being raised from the dead created a problem. Seeing Lazarus walk around again would create a huge support base for Jesus, which would catch the attention of the Romans, who would then act swiftly and mercilessly to protect their rule.

If Jesus became too popular, the Romans would step in. If Jesus became too powerful, then Caesar would protect the peace by killing Jesus’ supporters.

But if Jesus died, then the Romans would stand down. If Jewish leaders dealt with the Jesus problem themselves, then the Roman problem would take care of itself.

So there is a direct line between Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and his own execution.

“It is expedient than one man die than to have the whole nation destroyed,” admitted Caiphas, the high priest. Many bible commentators call Caiphas “ruthless” for sentencing Jesus to death to spare the country.

But I’m not sure that’s true. “Ruthless” isn’t the word I would use to describe Caiphas. I can see the bind he was in. Despite the way history reports it, I’m sure Caiphas wasn’t happy about sacrificing one of his fellow Jews to satisfy Roman anger. It wasn’t a perfect solution to the Jesus problem because their wasn’t one.

I’m obviously not saying that I agree with Jesus being executed. But I understand the reasoning behind it. At least in this situation.

But what Caiphas didn’t know, was that he was sending Jesus to his death not just to “save a whole nation,” but to save the whole world. Jesus’ death wasn’t just for his own people, but for all people everywhere. His death was political. And it was universal. The cross wasn’t just an isolated event on a lonely hill just outside the city. It was an event that grabbed history with the force of its love.

And unlike Lazarus who appeared from the grave still wrapped in his grave clothes, still bound to death, Jesus rose from the dead with his grave clothes neatly folded and tucked away. He wouldn’t be needing them any more.

“No one is raising mother from the dead. She is NOT coming back to life!”

That’s true today. But that’s not true tomorrow. There will be a day when our grave clothes will be neatly folded and put away forever. 

There will be a day when the strength of Jesus’ death and power of his resurrection will flood the universe with love. 

There will be a day when the whole world will rise and meet its God. There will be a day when tomorrow lasts forever.
Our God is in the LIFE business. Our God is always putting something there where there wasn’t anything there before. Our God never gives up on us or the world, but our God takes our deaths and destroys them, and calls us out of the tombs of our lives.

It’s Jesus who gives us the resurrection of second chances.

It’s Jesus who gives us the resurrection of forgiveness.

It’s Jesus who gives us the resurrection of strength when we are afraid.

It’s Jesus who gives us the resurrection of hope, when the world seems to be against us.

It’s Jesus who gives us the resurrection of confidence, when circumstances demand that we step out in faith, not knowing where our foot will land.

It’s Jesus who gives us the resurrection of seeing new opportunities and fresh possibilities when we fail.

It’s Jesus who gives us the resurrection of comfort when we grieve.

“I am Resurrection. And I am Life,” Jesus announces. “I am the power of God that is making all things new. I am God’s creative energy that gave birth to the universe. I am the one who will not let death defeat YOU or anything God has made.

“I am breaking open the graves that the world has created.”

“I am breaking open the graves of hopelessness.”

“I am breaking open the graves of failure.”

“I am breaking open the graves of hatred.”

“I am breaking open the graves of greed.”

“I am breaking open the graves of cruelty.”

“I am breaking open the graves of selfishness.”

“I am breaking open the graves of sadness.”

“I am breaking open the graves of death, so that you will rise to a new and better tomorrow, meeting God’s abundant future today, unbinding your mortality, and greeting God’s eternity in your life - at this moment - to claim the joy and freedom that comes from knowing that your days will never end. ”

“I am resurrection. And I am life,” declares  Jesus.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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