Moving forward

April 5, 2020 Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

Palm Tree at the Church of the Beatitudes, January 2020

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.

It is okay to grieve!

March 29, 2020

John 11:1-45

Grief.

It is a part of the human condition that many of us would rather forego. It hurts. Often grief may hit us at the most unexpected times catching us by surprise and leaving us not knowing how to process or cope. I was caught off guard this past week by the death of a friend that was totally unexpected, due to a heart attack. The grief that I have encountered with the combination of our current situation made me feel drained this week.

For those that have studied any type of psychology or even if you have not, may be familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Of course, we all grieve differently and we follow these stages in our own pattern, but I would guess many of our feelings are rooted in these stages.

As we reflect upon our gospel lesson this morning, I am kind of curious what stage of grief that Jesus may say that he is in throughout the familiar story of Lazarus. Almost the entirety of chapter 11 of John’s gospel is devoted to the story and it begins with Jesus appearing to his disciples to be in denial. He does not respond initially to the news of Lazarus falling ill. He was in no hurry to wrap up the ministry that they were currently engaged, for they stayed a couple more days before Jesus decided that it was time to leave for Bethany.

I am sure that Jesus knew what was going to happen once he arrived in Bethany. Was he ready to face Martha’s and Mary’s questions? Martha first confronts Jesus, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She was angry that Jesus was not present and was giving him a piece of her mind. While at the same time Mary was trying to avoid Jesus and stayed home and continued to grieve in her own way. We even have the people of Bethany questioning if Jesus could open the eyes of the blind man, could he not have kept Lazarus from dying.

As our story continues and Jesus is led to the tomb where Lazarus was, he began to weep. Not only is this a sign of Jesus’ humanity that he can grieve like the rest of us, he also reveals through his tears the great love he had for Lazarus and the same love that is given for us.

We have found ourselves grieving for many different reasons in the past few weeks. We have come to a time in history that we are not familiar, and we do not know how to respond to the rapid pandemic that has overtaken our lives. We have been bombarded by the news, social media, and news from the government as to what we should and shouldn’t do. Sometimes that information is wonderful and other times it can lead us astray or put us in a deep funk. As of right now in Michigan, we will be in this “Stay Home, Stay Safe,” situation until after Easter. As of right now, we will be able to go about our business freely on April 14. While I want to be optimistic, I would not be surprised if this date is extended. I grieve this!

There is a lot of grieving that has happened in this time as we begin to come to the realization that we find ourselves

  • We grieve not being with one another to worship. This is especially shocking knowing the reality that Easter Sunday will not happen as a physically gathered community on April 12.
  • We grieve because birthdays cannot be celebrated with families.
  • We grieve for our high school and college seniors that have had part, if not all, of their last year taken away and even graduations as many colleges have postponed those.
  • We grieve for jobs that we cannot go to and pray that they will still be there once we return to a safe time.
  • We grieve because we cannot visit our loved ones in the nursing home or be at the bedside of a loved one that is in their final days.
  • We grieve for the lives that have already been taken through this pandemic with the realization that we have only started to skim the surface of this thing.

Still, in the midst of Lazarus dying, Jesus arrives bearing a sign of hope. The same sign of hope that we can turn to at this time in our own grieving. Amid the tension of the grief and being cooped up in the house for weeks, the sign of hope that Jesus provides for us is a light among the darkness.

Jesus unbinds us from being captive of the grief that ties us down and leads us astray from the Good News that he came to share. The same unbinding that he did with Lazarus as he wandered out of the tomb. We too will once again be set free to go out into the world and walk closer then 6 feet from people. We will be able to gather, worship, and praise the Lord in our sanctuary once again. However, this time is also a good reminder that the church is not a building. The church is the community we will have created and continued to live into after this is all said and done.

Let us pray. Embracing God, we come to you with a lot of grief. Grief that has ruled our lives in the past weeks. May you take that grief away and remind us of the hope found in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Living in Darkness

March 22, 2020

Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

One of the greatest movie sagas of all time began in 1977. The same year that I was born.

Coincidence? I think not! All around, 1977 was a pretty awesome year!

Star Wars has set a course through the universe for generations. It has brought families together as each new film arrives, making us wonder what turn the saga will take next. It has also introduced us to the likes of Yoda and Darth Vader. The power of the force versus the power of the dark side! Throughout the saga we experience a battle between the dark side and the power of the force or the light which has been led through the likes of Luke Skywalker. Perhaps in this time of prolonged social distancing and isolation, a revisit or even first time visit to the Star Wars universe can shine a bit of hope and light on this time of darkness that we find ourselves.

It is kind of ironic that we find ourselves in this pandemic during the season of Lent. Lent is a time that we find ourselves being intentional to slow down, fast, and enter more deliberately into prayer. While we talk about fasting, I am pretty sure this is not what we had in mind when it came to fasting from something for Lent. To fast from being with one another in person is difficult, surreal, and can even be depressing as we are secluded from the life we are familiar living among family and friends. It is even more so now in this time of Lent, that we can find ourselves in a darkness in which we are not sure when it is going to end. For many of us, our entire routines have been uprooted and we are left to wander the desert looking for something or someone to break bread with and quench our thirst. Sometimes we turn to those things that are not the healthiest for us and distracts us from our true calling in God. These are the things that are found in the darkness.

The letter to the Ephesians confronts some of the same things that we experience today and view in our movies.  Jesus came into the world to make God’s love known to all. He came in a time when there was bickering among the people of God and they had truly lost sight of what it meant to live out God’s calling in the world. If we look back a few verses in Ephesians before our assigned reading this morning, the author writes, “​1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2) The light that we continue to hear about is rooted in that very love of God that came down to earth and walked with us as Jesus Christ.

As you listened to the gospel this morning, you may have sensed the struggle of light and darkness. The story of the man born blind shows the power of the light of Christ that illuminates and gives vision to those that were once in the darkness. Jesus brings healing to the man born blind and what was once cast in shadows and darkness now shone brightly in the light of Christ.

It would be later that the author of Ephesisan would write to the community and make sure that they had the same opportunity to live in and experience the light of Christ that shone brightly for the man born blind the day that Jesus instructed him to go to the Pool of Siloam.

Where do we find grace today as we seem to be living in a darkness that reveals itself in the uncertainty of when we will meet again? The light comes from those that are willing to step out and help where needed, delivering groceries, toilet paper, or simply calling on the telephone to say hello. The darkness that we find ourselves in has provided us a new opportunity for Jesus to transform our way of being and shine the light of Christ in new and amazing ways. We are washed anew in the light of Christ and are reminded so in the conclusion to Ephesians this morning, “Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

May you be transformed by that very light of Christ in the days and weeks ahead as you witness God working in new and miraculous ways.

Let us pray. Transforming God, you shine a light into the shadows and darkness of our lives. May we be forever reminded of your love that was sent to us through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Review: The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God

As a pastor, it is probably one of the most received questions that I hear, “Why to bad things happen to good people?” This age old question is known as theodicy. Laytner goes to the depths of this theology through his own personal experiences.

Anson Hugh Laytner retired from a career in nonprofit and academic settings. His reflections are from the lens of a liberal rabbi, thus venturing deep into the book of Job is a natural descent into the suffering found within the Hebrew Bible. He attempts to shed some light on the subject for those that are challenged by the concern of God’s presence.

Laytner’s story begins with enough pain and suffering that it would be understandable to turn away from God and yell at the top of your lungs in anger. He continues to weave his story in and out of the narrative from Job. Interpreting Job in the way of mid-rash, he comes to his own way of dealing with struggle that could assist others that have encountered suffering like Job or even Laytner himself.

The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God will give you a new perspective into living a life that can find a deeper relationship with God. The vulnerability that is shared is also a great example of being open to where healing may occur.

Thanks to Speakeasy for a review copy of this book.

Book Review: Seculosity by David Zahl

Secul… what?

David Zahl presents a lively discourse on what we turn our attention to in the present time. What is it that leads us away from God and what do we treat as our priorities today.

If you have never heard of the term seculosity before, it is because it is of Zahl’s creation. “What’s more, there does seem to be a discernible difference between grounding your hope in something material and something spiritual. Blanketing both groups with such a loaded label could come off as patronizing. Which is why I am proposing a fresh term seculosity. I’m using it as a catchall for religiosity that’s directed horizontally rather than vertically, at earthly rather than heavenly objects” (xxi).

As we get overwhelmed in our daily lives, there are many areas that get prioritized over our dedication to Christ. Zahl ventures into the areas of parenting, work, technology, politics, and much more as we have turned these into our own type of religion. He even ventures into how we co-opt the church and what we have made it to be that is far from the vertical faith that God has originally called us.

Zahl includes a great sense of humor that brings the discourse to heart and one that the reader can relate. While he points to the things that create seculosity, he does conclude the book with “What to ‘do’ about it.” His argument is not that we are less religious than we have been in the past, in fact, we may be more. We have just turned our religion to things that are not the God of creation. He points to the unique position we have as offering the grace of God. However, amid the grace, we are also sin and are broken. To repent of this and be awash of the grace of God is a hope that nothing in the secular world can offer.

Fear and Faith

August 11, 2019

Luke 12:32-40

Fear and Faith.

These are the recurring themes from our lessons this morning.  Could living our lives be as simple as stripping everything away to whether we are living in fear or if we are living in faith? Do we know how to name fear, and do we know how to name faith?

Sometimes fear is very evident and can be seen in the faces of little children. This past Thursday I had the opportunity to meet Alice whose husband was deported after following the legal process for nearly two decades. She shared how her five-year-old granddaughter had developed a fear of police after her grandfather had been taken. She would scream and cry while they were in the car whenever they saw a police officer. To combat this fear, she had a friend dress up as a police officer come over to their house and teach her that the police are not people to fear. She wanted to make sure that if she was ever in trouble, she knew that she could go to a police officer for help. For some, that feeling of safety and freedom is hard to find in this earthly world. That is when we turn towards God to catch a glimpse of the hope that resides in Jesus.

There is an absolute freedom in the reign of God which calls us to live in faith and to banish fear from our lives.

It can be easy to let fear control our lives. It has happened over and over again. As we turn to history, we can look at the rise of the Third Reich and Nazi Germany. Fear in the face of Hitler gripped Germany, while many people knowing what was happening, chose not to raise their voices. Many of those people were Lutheran! The fear also went the other direction as the reich created a fear of those that were different, resulting in nearly 11 million people killed during the Holocaust, simply because they did not fit the model picture of what the leaders thought humankind should look like. Fortunately, the rest of Europe and America stepped up to this manufactured fear of the other and fought to bring peace and freedom to Europe.

It is easy to co-op the gospel to your own making and we have seen it done in our own country through slavery, segregation, opposition to suffrage, and even to our present-day treatment of the stranger and neighbor among us.

Fear is not new. Fear has shaped humanity from the very beginning. Fear gripped Abram as he was afraid that he would not have any heirs to receive the blessing of the Lord. He was fearful of what would happen to his possessions after he died. What would happen to those things that he had been promised? He was fearful it may go to a slave born within his house.

Fear has gripped the disciples as they think about the difficult call that Jesus is continuing to make for them to follow. They worry about what is coming next and how they are going to live in their lives with Jesus. Jesus’ ministry is changing things and that change brings the unknown. Change can easily heighten our sense of fear.

When our surroundings change, our sense of direction is thrown out of whack and it can be easy to get lost. Do we become complicit to the negative changes around us like history has done in the past, such as Nazi Germany?  Do we embrace the change that lifts up all of God’s creation and pray for it as the in-breaking of the reign of God?

To move toward the freedom found in Jesus, we must acknowledge our fear.

Jesus is well aware of our fears and says, “Do not be afraid.” Our first response may be cynicism.

Thanks, Jesus! Sometimes that is much harder than what you suggest. Change is difficult. The unfamiliar can scare us. When we venture into the unknown our knees begin to quake and buckle. And in the midst of it, you tell us, “do not be afraid!” Yet, somewhere amid our fear we can begin to find just that tiniest seed of faith. That is all it takes. And, each one of us has that seed within us, even when it does not feel like it.

The author of Hebrews reminds us of what faith can look like. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Abraham learned what it meant to have faith. He found the freedom that is in the grace of God. As he listened to God and released all of his fears, he began to truly understand what God had been calling him to from the very beginning.

Jesus nurtured the seed of faith in the disciples that are following him, “have no fear little flock.” Jesus continues to nurture those seeds within us through the freedom that is given to us to follow and obey his word. Our faith, as it grows, begins to drive the fear out. There is an absolute freedom in the reign of God which calls us to live in faith and to banish fear from our lives.

Throughout history the faithful have been lifted for us to remember. Today we remember the faith of Clare of Assisi. Clare was friends with Francis of Assisi before he heeded the call from God to rebuild God’s church. Clare faithfully followed in the footsteps of Francis. Clare learned what it meant to give herself wholeheartedly to living into her faith. Her faith led her to found the Order of the Poor Ladies. Fear was not on her radar and the example of her faith lives on today as we remember her.

Fear and faith are both powerful entities. The question is, which one are you allowing to direct your life? Will you live into the fear of the unknown, the fear of change, or the fear of those that are different? Or, will you embrace your God-given faith to bring the reign of God closer to all of God’s creation?

This morning I leave you with a prayer from Clare,

I pray you most gentle Jesus…

Give me a lively faith, a firm hope, and perfect charity,

so that I may love you with all my heart,

and all my soul, and all my strength.

Make me steadfast in good works

and grant me perseverance in your service,

so that I may please you always. Amen

Christ in All

Bethany Retreat Center, Lutz, Florida

August 4, 2019

Luke 12:13-21

In Christ there is no division!

“There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all” (Col 3:11). Feel free to add what other divisions we may witness out there to this list. Simply put, Jesus tells us that there is no difference among God’s creation.

We are the ones to make up the differences. We have created the idea of race. We have created the concept of political parties. Those that have and those that have not. We have made our own categories of what we think is right and what we think is wrong. Evil creates differences and tries to separate the people of God through means like the two mass shootings that have happened in our country in the last 24 hours, in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Yet, Christ is in all! This can be hard to comprehend in times like this.

When I woke up this morning my hear broke even more after hearing of the Dayton shooting in the early hours of the morning. How often does this have to happen for people to raise their voices and a difference is made. We create differences that are not their in God’s eyes.

In God’s reign there are no differences and we encounter the grace of God in ways that are beyond our current understanding.

The rich man in Jesus’ parable likes to set himself apart and above others so that he can live prosperously. In other words, he is taking more than his daily bread that we pray for in the Lord’s prayer. Now, wealth is not a bad thing!

However, it is the person in the crowd asking Jesus to tell his brother to split the family inheritance that provokes the telling of this parable. The person in the crowd is most likely the younger of the two and thus according to Jewish inheritance traditions would not receive much. He wants what he believes is due to him. The rich man is not much different. He has done well farming his land and has been blessed with an abundance of crops. Instead of ensuring that those in the community are cared for, he is just going to build a bigger barn.  

We are good at building places to put our stuff. We buy bigger houses so that all our stuff can be contained. If we cannot buy a bigger house than we buy a storage unit so that we can collect more stuff. While George Carlin could be profane at times in his standup comedy, his social commentaries were many times spot on. His routine on our obsession with stuff is about as absurd as the rich man tearing down his barns to build even bigger barns.

In some form or another, we have probably all done it at one point though. We got a bigger car because we needed. We got a bigger house because we needed. We rented a storage facility because we needed it.

Instead of a new life in Christ, we can easily get wrapped up in the material stuff of the world. The person that asks Jesus for a share of the family inheritance is more concerned for himself. The rich man is more concerned about living the good life and stockpiling so that he can eat, drink, and be merry. They are concerned with worldly richness, not being rich toward God.

Paul has addressed some of the same concerns to the communities he has preached. In the letter to the Colossians he reiterates the importance of Christ and the freedom that now exists. This freedom should be lived as a new life in Christ and not of the world. Paul’s letter was written nearly 2000 years ago and sometimes we get caught up in his choice of words.

Sojourners magazine recently published an issue of letters to the Christian church in America from Christians around the world. These letters may have been some of the very things that Paul, himself, would write to us today. I would encourage you to read the letter from Kuki Rokhum in India.

We are blessed to have the opportunity to worship together this morning where some of our siblings around the world do not have that freedom. We are blessed with a great abundance that we quite often take for granted. More importantly, we must remember that we are not blessed because of where we live, but because we are children of God. We are created in God’s image. In this we should be reminded that there are no differences or division in God’s eyes, only the ones we have created in our own. For Christ is in all and in God’s reign there is no difference and we encounter the grace of God in ways that are beyond our current understanding.

Let us pray. God of unity, you are Christ in All. May we be open to seeing that in our neighbors and strangers alike. May we worry less about our worldly wealth and focus on the wealth that can only be found in you. Amen.