May 24, 2020 Easter 7
As I have pondered this gospel lesson for the past week, the one concept that keeps floating to the top is around unity. This is a prayer that we are hearing from Jesus in the 17th chapter of John and the first verses are a prayer for himself. His prayer then focuses on his disciples throughout all of time, including us. Reading from the Message translation,
“For I’m no longer going to be visible in the world;
They’ll continue in the world
While I return to you.
Holy Father, guard them as they pursue this life
That you conferred as a gift through me,
So they can be one heart and mind
As we are one heart and mind.”
One of my favorite Disney movies is the Lion King. In one scene, Rafiki tells the adult Simba, who is grieving the death of his father, Mufasa, that he knows where his father is. He takes Simba to a pool of water and tells him to look down. Simba complains, “That’s not my father, that’s just my reflection.” “No, look harder,” Rafiki says. As he looks, Simba begins to recognize his father in his own reflection. “You see?” Rafiki hums, “He lives in you.”
What a powerful reminder for us that we, ourselves, are embodied with the Holy. We have been created in the image of God and in this being we are empowered to live out our faithful calling in this world. A world in which Jesus says he is no longer going to be physically present. At least not how the disciples had experienced him.
Yet, for those of us still living in this world, we are commissioned to share the Good News. In sharing this Good News, we build relationships and meet our sisters and brothers where they are. Unfortunately, sometimes we get in our own way when we encounter our sisters and brothers. We think about what is good for our own being. We turn our concerns inward and do not reflect on what is good for our neighbors and greater community. We get so wrapped up in the desire of what we want that we forget that our sisters and brothers have desires and needs too.
In God, we learn what it means to be in relationship. If we foster a deep abiding relationship with the creator, it begins to nurture our relationship with our fellow human beings. This is the desire that God has for all of creation. To be in relationship and to love and abide with one another. To be of “one heart and mind” with God draws us into being with others.
It is my prayer that this is what we all long for. To be of “one heart and mind.” While we may have differing opinions, it is my opinion that we all want what is best for humanity and creation, though we may approach it from different angles. Perhaps, I am being a little naïve in this thinking, yet it is my longing rooted in Christ to be one with all of creation; differences and all.
To live into that longed for unity requires being in relation with one another and to be in relationship with our sisters and brothers means acknowledging their worth as being created in the image of God. As the church in this community, we have the power to share this good news and build relationships with many people.
The lesson from the Lion King that I mentioned earlier speaks wholeheartedly to Jesus’ prayer for his followers in our gospel lesson this week. It also aligns remarkably well with Jesus’ message in John 17, and the message reiterated in 1 John 4, “we come from God and belong to God. Anyone who knows God understands us and listens.” It can be easy at times when we are quarantined to forget who we are and whose we are. You are not alone if you are feeling lost at this time, unsure of what you are supposed to do. Like Simba, we too have a powerful connection as we look into the depths of the water and are reminded that we are created in the image of God and baptized and marked with cross of Christ forever. In this acknowledgment, I pray that you remember God lives in you. Remember that it is in living out God’s love for the world that we have the oneness with God that echoes throughout Jesus’ final prayer.[i] That oneness with God is then reverberated to our sisters and brothers around the world as we begin to share the love.
[i] Jodrey, Linsey S., http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4472
May 10, 2020
Sure, Jesus, that is easy for you to say! “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
There is so much going on right now with us being under orders to stay home and stay safe that it is hard for our hearts not to be troubled. Our church community has been affected. Our jobs have been affected. The very way we go about doing and being have been affected. We wonder about when life is going to get back to normal. However, it will be quite some time before we even get back to a resemblance of what life was like at the beginning of March.
Amid this pandemic life continues. A couple of weeks ago my family heard the devastating news that a friend’s son in his late twenties had a major stroke and that the outcome did not look good. Therefore, his parents started talking with the organ donation people and were planning to say goodbye. However, they received the amazing news the next morning that he was responding to the nurses and has been improving nearly every day. This is as close to a miracle that I can point to, but he is not out of the woods yet and there will be a long recovery. Hearing these words of Jesus in times like this, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” once again seems ridiculous. While his parents’ hearts were troubled and broken at the initial news, they also know God mends our troubled hearts.
Reading and listening to Jesus’ words literally we think of that organ beating within our chest that gives us life. It goes much beyond that. Jesus is not simply talking about the heart beating within our chest, but our entire being. It involves our mind, character, and inner self. Jesus is talking about the affective center of our being.
In his words, Jesus is attempting to ease the anxiety of the disciples and let them know that it is going to be ok. This is the beginning of Jesus’ farewell discourse after Judas runs off to betray him, and he knows what is to come. They are worried about Jesus because they fear losing him. His response, “do not let your hearts be troubled.” Don’t be fooled into thinking Jesus’ heart was never troubled. Remember, he too was fully human and experienced many of the same things we do. In John’s gospel alone, there are three times when Jesus is referred to as being troubled in either heart, soul, or spirit. He is so troubled at the death of his friend Lazarus that he weeps (11:33). He is again troubled when he speaks to the disciples of his impending death (12:27). He is troubled for a third time when he informs the disciples that one among them will betray him (13:21).
All of these events revolve around death and separation. Naturally, if Jesus experienced these feelings when facing death head on, it is no wonder that we do too. When our prayers are not answered the way we would like them to be, we can put up a barrier between ourselves and God. When we are faced with fear and separation it keeps us from hearing the Good News of God. When all we see and hear is death and uncertainty, it can be easy to slip into those dark places where we forget the simple tasks of praying and giving thanks to God.
In this Easter season, an Easter season like none of us have ever lived before, it can be easy to forget about the death and resurrection of Christ that we remembered just a few weeks ago. In the face of his own death, Jesus was troubled. It is not unusual for us to be troubled with facing that same death. Yet, Jesus assures us, “do not let your hearts be troubled.”
Jesus knows that our hearts are going to be troubled. Especially in times of heart ache and suffering, it is guaranteed that we will in some way or another be troubled in body, mind, or spirit. Jesus speaks to us in certainty and hope just as he did to the disciples. That certainty and hope is full of love and compassion for God’s creation. It is God’s desire for us to leave all that worries and troubles our spirit at the foot of the cross to receive the love and grace of God. It is in the brokenness that we can meet God. And it is in the brokenness that God mends our troubled hearts. And this friends, is the Good News.
May 3, 2020
Back at the beginning of March, a couple of weeks before our entire world seemed to get turned upside down, Vern and Theresa joined me to go see the Detroit Youth Choir and Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. Pastor Nadia is the founding Pastor of The House for All Saints and Sinners in Denver. She started that congregation right after her graduation from seminary and has spoken at multiple National Youth Gatherings. She positively pushes the envelope on how many people believe a pastor should act. She is authentic and does not hold back and is not afraid to share her story (even if her story may contain profanity). A couple of weeks ago she kicked of a new podcast, The Confessional with Nadia Bolz-Weber. In it, she invites her guests to confess to previous actions in their lives they may not be proud of as they look back. Really, it is a repentance.
Her first two guests have not disappointed. As she welcomed Megan Phelps-Roper into the confessional, we here of her turning from the church of her family that proclaimed a Christianity of hate. That church was the Westboro Baptist Church and since she has left that church, she is living a more abundant life. Her second guest was Lenny Duncan, a fellow ELCA pastor. He entered the confessional to share of his life as a runaway and about being arrested and serving time in prison for selling drugs. He too, came to a point where he realized he was not truly following Christ and as he turned his life around, he found a more abundant life. Living in Christ, means living in abundance.
For the next month we hear from John’s gospel, and in John’s gospel Jesus lays it all out there for people to hear. Albeit, he may have to explain himself a couple of times for the disciples and others to understand. This week our gospel joins Psalm 23 and we get the familiar image of Jesus as the good shepherd, and much more. Comparing himself to the thief, he points out that the thieves that attempted to enter the pasture before him only had the desire to steal, kill, and destroy. Jesus, on the other hand, came so that humanity may have life, and have it abundantly.
It is easy to get confused by what it means to live an abundant life. There is so much in that one word, abundant. We get distracted by a life of abundance when Jesus came to give us an abundant life. To live a life of abundance means that we surround ourselves with those material things and living that distract and leads us away from Christ. By falling into living a life of abundance we may find that we own too much and our attracted to shiny objects (like the newest smart phone). When the shininess wears off (usually within few days), it becomes dull and we look for the next greatest thing.
Jesus, on the other hand, promises that we will have life and have it abundantly. He instructs the rich man that wants to follow him to leave it all behind and he becomes dejected. There are points of the abundant life that we can point to in John’s gospel that Jesus highlights. Jesus promises that those that drink of the water he offers will never be thirsty and will have abundant life (John 4:14). Jesus is the bread of life and whoever comes to him will never be hungry (John 6:35). Jesus is the light of the world, and if he is there we will never live in darkness (John 9:5).
As we seek out our own abundant life, we start to gaze upon other pastures. Pastures where we get led astray to think that some things are more important than Christ. Pastures that highlight our own personal wealth over that of our friends and communities. As we seek a pasture to call home, Jesus reminds us that if we listen for his voice, he will guide us into the pasture that offers abundant life. A life that gives us all we need where we never thirst and hunger and where we are led by the light.
It is God’s desire for us to enter that pasture. It is a pasture of peace and love. A pasture where grace abounds, and nothing is required on our part. It is a free invitation to be part of this incredible unfolding story of the good news. We too are invited to live the abundant life like Megan and Lenny. It may require repentance on our part. It may require being broken to have Jesus put us back together again. We can begin that process in this time of quarantine as we pray and ask Christ to be with us and our communities. It is a process that never ends. Living in Christ, requires work on our part, yet it also provides the promise of abundant life.
April 26, 2020
During this pandemic, we have seen many people stepping up to try new things and to reach out to their sisters and brothers around the world. If you are a fan of talk shows, many have found ways to record from home, like what we have been doing Sunday morning. The actor John Krasinski has even started his own online show, SGN (Some Good New). Who does not need to hear some good news during this time? In one of his recent good news stories, he shared videos from the virtual prom that he hosted for the class of 2020. It is through the little things like this that Jesus opens our hearts to love. Where has your heart been opened this month?
A couple of weeks out from Easter Sunday we continue to hear stories of the resurrected Jesus that shines his light upon the disciples. On Easter Sunday the tomb is empty, and the women return to share the Good news with the disciples that are hiding in fear behind closed doors. Last week, Jesus revealed himself to those disciples and then to Thomas since he was absent when Jesus first appeared. This Sunday Jesus appears to two disciples that are traveling on the road to Emmaus. These stories are connected through love as Jesus opens the eyes of those living in denial of the events of Good Friday and invites them to be transformed.
Opening our eyes does not come easy. When our preconceived notions come into conflict or contradict the truth, we resist. We resist because we are not yet ready. We resist because it may mean we have to completely change our entire philosophy. We resist because we do not want to admit that someone else may be right. When our preconceived notions are challenged, we get defensive and find it easier to enter arguments and debates with our siblings that do not have the same point of view. Unfortunately, it can even be taken to the extreme where friendships are broken, and families are torn apart. Yet, Jesus is present to open your heart to love.
Cleopas and the disciple who are walking on the road to Emmaus are living into the brokenness that is experienced in the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. Their hope was placed in Jesus being the one to redeem Israel. Instead they are left wondering what is next, even amid the rumor coming from the women that the tomb was empty. Their own preconceived notions do not align with what has happened thus far. They are not alone on the road, as a stranger comes up to them and seems oblivious to the recent happenings in Jerusalem. They are astounded that he has not heard and they begin to share what they know. He keeps walking with them and making connections to scripture. It is in this walking that they sense the burning of their hearts. A passion has been set ablaze within them. However, this is not fully realized within them until the stranger breaks bread with them and suddenly vanishes. It is at this moment that their eyes are opened, and they realize that their hearts were trying to tell them something.
Jesus stokes those same flames within us. His good news sets our hearts burning like Cleopas and the other disciple. The fanning of the flames is a signal for us to stop and realize that there is something happening here, and we better pay attention. Cleopas and the other disciple missed this until Jesus had already departed. It is in these flames that we see things through the light of Jesus Christ. Jesus opens our eyes through the path of our heart.
God wants us to open our heart to the beauty of God’s creation that surrounds us. The beauty that is revealed in our sisters and brothers. The beauty that is revealed in the rising and the setting of the sun. The beauty that is reflected off from a nice still lake on a moonlit night. When we open our hearts to Christ, we begin to see new and exciting ways of being in this world. Jesus opens our hearts to love as we journey down the road with him. Where has your heart been opened this past month?
April 12, 2020 Easter Sunday
Everything happened so quickly for Jesus, the disciples really did not get a chance to say their proper goodbyes as it was Joseph of Arimathea that took the honor of taking Jesus down from the cross; preparing him for burial. As soon as the sabbath was over and that first dawn broke, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb to grieve and possibly say some prayers as they anticipated this was Jesus’ final resting spot.
Were they in for a surprise! That first Easter Sunday they came to the tomb for consolation and they are shocked to see the stone rolled back and an Angel greeting them with the news that Jesus is not there.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Christ is risen, indeed! Alleuia!
Coming to kneel at the tomb and seeking some peace amid the tumultuous last couple of days they are not quite ready for what they encounter. At first the fear and trepidation may have tried to work its way in, yet the words of the angel give them hope of the promise being fulfilled. The very thing Jesus talked about before he died was coming to fruition.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Christ is risen, indeed! Alleuia!
These really are words of hope and comfort in this time. A time that we did not fully expect when we began our Lenten walk back on February 26, Ash Wednesday. We had some great worship services planned as we walked toward this Easter Sunday and everything came to an abrupt halt in the middle of March.
In a way, we are reliving that first Easter Sunday when all the disciples were isolated being awash in grief for their teacher and Lord that has guided them over the past three years. They were frozen with fear, not sure where to turn next. It was the women that garnered the courage to go and be present at the tomb of Jesus. Only it was at the tomb that they got the best news possible.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Christ is risen, indeed! Alleuia!
As we worship this morning in our homes we are following in the footsteps of the early church. A church that met in their homes, told each other stories, and broke bread around the table with each other as they remembered what Jesus had done for them and his command to go out and love one another as he had loved them.
Friends, we are in a new time and place. Our sanctuary this morning is empty just like the tomb. Yes, I too look forward to being together again in worship as we gather on Sunday mornings, but perhaps this is a sign that we are being called out of our buildings to be in the world. To sustain our faith with those in our household and to love our neighbors as Jesus has loved us. The stories coming out of this pandemic are incredible. From all of you that are sewing masks to donate to our healthcare workers, picking up groceries for one another, and offering assistance wherever it is needed has been incredible and has made me proud to be the pastor at Trinity Lutheran in Richmond.
Regardless of where we find ourselves this Easter Sunday, the truth is still with us that nearly two-thousand years ago Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. The brokenness of the world was peeled back that day for all to see and yet three days later, what was broken began the healing process. A healing that we have been in constant need of from the beginning of creation. Out of our brokenness Jesus makes something beautiful as the hope for all is revealed on the cross and arose from the grave three days later.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Christ is risen, indeed! Alleuia!
No one can take Easter away from us. In the past I have read How the Grinch Stole Christmas to the children on Christmas Eve. We do not need all the material things that have become of our Christian holidays. It is our faith that makes these holidays truly what they are. No one can take our faith away from us. In the spirit of Dr. Seuss, I found this on social media the other day and speaks well to our time and place.
“It came without dresses. It came without ties. It came without baskets, eggs, hams, or pies. And he puzzled ‘til his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Easter, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Easter, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
As we spend more time apart, may we be reminded of the first disciples isolated in their room strapped with fear. Jesus came to assure them that all was well and commissioned them to go out and share the Good News. Jesus reassures us in our isolation and fear that all will be well, and we too will be reunited with each other to share the Good News. However, we also have the power of social media, so we can share that Good News in new and exciting ways. May you continue to look toward the hope found on Easter morning as we move forward in this pandemic, knowing that in the midst of anything we encounter, Christ is Risen, and his presence is with us throughout all we encounter.
Let us pray. Risen Christ, you bring hope to a world in a time that truly needs it. We give thanks for those that put their own lives on the line to reveal your presence in this world. Amen.
“For times like these, when our heart feels too sorely pressed, this comfort of the Lord’s Supper is given to bring us new strength and refreshment.”
Martin Luther in The Large Catechism
As we find ourselves in this time of orders to “Stay Home, Stay Safe,” the question arises if we should be partaking in the communal meal that Jesus instituted with his disciples. In the recent past, we have come together as an assembly of the gathered to share in the meal in one time and location on a weekly basis. This has not always been the practice in many of our churches. Many of our churches practiced communion bi-weekly, monthly, or even quarterly. The movement to communion weekly has been welcomed in a majority of congregations and has become a vital part of the worship service and our life in Christ. Many long to be strengthened by its mystical powers.
Traditionally communion takes place among the gathered assembly, unless it is taken to the home-bound, those in the hospital, or those in prison. Just over a month ago, the gathered assembly were our congregations in the sanctuary. Can the assembly be those that gather to watch worship through new digital formats in the midst of a pandemic?
Now that we are worshiping digitally, how do we bring that vital part of worship to the people of God that want to be able to grasp on to that important element to feel the connection with a benevolent and loving God? Some will say that the Word of God is enough of a reassurance of this, and I cannot discount the power of the Word. Jesus Christ is the Word. It is that Word spoken that makes Holy Communion what it is, the body and blood of Christ. However, as people of God, sometimes we need to meet God in more than spoken word.
As long as the bread and wine are accompanied by the Word of God, it seems that Luther’s quote from The Large Catcechism, is fitting for a time such as this. What better way for us to be renewed in our strength to continue our fight against COVID-19 and be refreshed to go out and do this work than through the Lord’s Supper, in the best way possible during our quarantine.
As I turn toward scripture, I am also reminded of the great healing power of Jesus. In at least three separate instances we have stories of Jesus healing from a distance and he didn’t even have Zoom or Facebook Live! The Centurion approaches Jesus and asks for his servant to be healed and at first Jesus tells him to lead the way, but the Centurion’s great faith wowed Jesus and he was told to “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” (Matthew 8:5-13) Later, a Canaanite woman approaches Jesus and tells him about her daughter that is demon-possessed, and Jesus tells her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” (Matthew 15:21-28) Another such story involves an official coming to Jesus, telling him about his sick son, and Jesus tells him, “‘Go; your son will live.’ The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way.” (John 4:46-54). If Jesus can heal from such a distance, who are we to say that Christ is not present in the bread and wine from a distance? It is such a great mystery.
As an ordained ELCA pastor, I turn to The Use of the Means of Grace to guide me concerning sharing communion with the flock that I am called. Once again, it refers to the assembly, and I ask once again about what the assembly looks like in a time like this. Right now we are assembled together through new ways via digital resources and we worship together, pray together, and share with one another. This sounds like an assembly to me, perhaps not in the same traditional sense, yet we are together emotionally and spiritually. Principle 33 in The Use of Means of Grace states, “The real presence is a mystery,” and, “The how of Christ’s presence remains as inexplicable in the sacrament as elsewhere.” It is not our responsibility to find out “how” God works in the midst of the Word, it is our faith that places our trust in such things that Christ is present.
This is not an argument for distance communion forever. Once we meet again in our sanctuaries the assembly will be gathered there to be fed and nourished. We find ourselves in unprecedented times with the ability to utilize new and exciting ways to interact. God is doing something new in the midst of our daily uncertainty and as we find a new way to be church at this time, let us let God be God and allow Christ’s presence to show up where it needs to be for such a time as this.
April 5, 2020 Palm Sunday
I was speaking with a member of Trinity earlier this week and we were talking about the major national and global events that have helped shape our lives. Now, she has just a few years on me since those events in history that helped shape her life include the aftermath of the 1918 Flu and World War I. She has lived through the Great Depression, World War II and countless other wars. I marvel in those stories and her ability to remember and share them.
For me, the first major event that has shaped my life was 9/11 and the wars that have occurred in response. I could also point back to 1986 when the Challenger Shuttle exploded after takeoff as it was ascending into space. As my class watched it live on television, it brought about the discussion of tragedy and death. For those that were born after 9/11 in the United States, this time right now will be one of the major events that have helped shape them as people living in the world. God has been present throughout all these major events and there is no reason to believe that God is not present and grieving with us today.
This morning I would like to turn our focus more toward the Processional Gospel, the beginning of the twenty first chapter of Matthew. In the past, we have tended to blend Palm Sunday and the Passion Gospel together as we know that many of you usually do not attend the mid-week services during Holy Week. And truly, you cannot have a resurrection without a death, so we make sure you can witness Jesus’ death on Palm/Passion Sunday. However, due to our current stay at home orders from the state of Michigan, you will have the ability to follow along during Holy Week on your phones and computers as you watch our Facebook Live feeds or go to YouTube.
If you noticed, when talking about those events that helped shape our lives, they were events that brought turmoil and left us searching for a greater sense of community amid the uncertainty. We find ourselves in a similar time and place as we approach every new day not knowing what the news of that day will be. Reading the gospel of Matthew once again, something caught my eye that had not stood out in the past. Matthew 21:10 states, “When [Jesus] entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking “Who is this?” The Message translation says that “the whole city was shaken.”
For me, there is some reassurance in these words that during the uncertainty that we find ourselves, it is nothing new. Those that began following Jesus nearly two-thousand years ago were also gripped by fear and unknowing as they approached the festival of Passover. We are approaching Holy Week where everything will be different. So different, that we have never truly had to confront things on this level.
Maybe, seeking new and meaningful ways isn’t necessarily a bad thing. God has been at work from the very beginning of time creating and drawing us ever closer to the mystery that is the kindom of God.
We have been walking with Jesus since Christmas as he has encountered many people that others would not have given the time of the day. He has brought healing to the sick and broke bread with the very people of God living on the outskirts of society. This is a sign for us that the love of God is greater than anything that we will encounter in the world today. It washes away all preconceived notions and welcomes us in just the way we are, sinners and all.
The hope that I find on this day is that over the past three years of Jesus’ ministry, he keeps moving forward. Even as he approaches Jerusalem and there is a sense of turmoil in the air, he continues to move forward. He knows what lays ahead of him and he knows that his followers will disperse, and he will be left to face Pontius Pilate alone. Yet, he moves forward. He moves forward into what he may know, but the disciples see as an unknown.
As we move day by day into this new normal (at least for the time being) of doing church online and not being able to see one another face to face, it is important to remember that we are still moving forward towards the kindom of God. This Holy Week is going to be different from any we have experienced in the past, but during the longing for the familiar, God is at work and breathing new life into our community. We have talked more than we have in a long time. We have been able to hear stories from people and grow deeper in relationship through those stories. People have stepped up to help friends and neighbors.
In the midst of what we call darkness, Jesus has brought the light and is calling us forward into a new creation where the church is being renewed and given new and abundant life. May we be open and listen to how God is calling us forward towards a new heaven and a new earth.
Let us pray. God of grace, you have trusted us in this time to just be and opened our hearts to new ways of slowing down when we are used to being busy. May we continue to listen to your guiding word in our lives and be open to what is to come. Ame.