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Archive for April, 2013

Yesterday was one of those days that years from now we will look back and ask, “Do you remember where you were when…”  The history of our lives are filled with those days.  Do you remember where you were when the Challenger exploded?  Do you remember where you were when you heard about the Oklahoma City Bombing? 9/11?  Sandy Hook?  And now, yet another – the Boston Marathon bombing.

It never ceases to amaze me how un-noteable the medium for which we learn life changing news.  Somehow it feels like the way we learn of such powerful moments in our nations history should be equally powerful, and yet isn’t.  I found out about Sandy Hook through a phone call at church.  Yesterday I learned about Boston through a story on my Facebook news feed.  An action that couldn’t seem more normal carried news that the world was tossed upside down.

There are no good words at a time like this.   There are no cute phrases or short sentences that can soothe the ache of a nation who is shocked by pain and unnecessary violence.  In years to come we will look back at this moment and still feel haunted by it’s memory and the impact it made in our world.  We will always remember where we were when.

But this is not the end of the story.  I read a beautiful article in the Huffington Post proclaiming how God has the last word in moments like this and that last word is love.  I was moved by the truth in that article, and I will be forever grateful for such a strong word of hope in a time of great uncertainty.

God’s love is what prevents this moment from being the end of the story.  There can be a hesitancy for us to want to avoid gathering together, celebrating the achievements of a our neighbors and friends when running a marathon, from gathering in historically significant tricycleplaces on historically significant days.  But that hesitancy is not the end of our story.  Instead, how we choose to move forward empowered by God’s love will lead our story on a path that we cannot imagine.

This upcoming Friday, my five-year old niece will be in a trike-a-thon to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.  I can see her in my mind’s eye riding around the gym on her tricycle, her hair blowing behind her while her little legs peddle as hard as they can.  I don’t want her to be afraid of doing a good thing for someone because of an evil person evoking terror at another marathon at another place.  I want her to remember that her actions and choice to ride in that trike-a-thon are an example of how God’s love is greater than death, greater than illness, greater than people evoking terror in what should should be a safe and joyous occasion.  Most importantly, I want her to remember that she in her actions help to show that God’s love is real, it is constant, and it is something we can embody with every action that we take.

I will never forget where I was when I learned about the Boston Marathon bombing.  I just hope I never forget where I was when my niece tells me how she showed God’s love to sick children at a trike-a-thon when she herself was just a little girl.

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The following sermon was preached on Sunday, April 7, 2013 at St. John’s Lutheran Church of Wilmette, IL.  The message was based on John 20:19-31.

Last summer I made a life altering decision – I became a pet owner.  On August 28, I went to the Anti-Cruelty Society and rescued a 7 year old white male cat with black cow sized spots and a dark soul patch around his face.

CozmoAt 17 ½ pounds, Cozmo is a large feline version of doubting Thomas.  Cozmo had not come from an abusive home, just a family that had to downsize the number of pets because of housing restrictions.  It is clear to me he was well loved prior to him living with me, so I imagine it was quite a surprise for him to end up at the bottom of a stack of cages in a shelter.

To make matters worse, because of his extreme size and age, no one else wanted him.  When I met Cozmo at the shelter, one of the volunteers told me that for the three months he was there, not one perspective animal owner took him out of the cage to consider taking him home.  For three months, the only attention or affection or human interaction he got was from the volunteers who were caring for 20 other cats.  For three months, his life was confined to a frightening and darkened cage that barely could accommodate his girth.

People say we shouldn’t personify our animals and that they don’t have emotions like you and I, but Cozmo’s behavior has me beg to differ.  He is by far the most affectionate animal I have ever owned, and he worries all the time that I will leave him.

When Cozmo gets worried, he does one of two things – he either hides in my closet or he attempts to hide under my coffee table.  I say attempt because he can really only fit his first half underneath the table.  He hides when the neighbors are loud, when a bunch of sirens go off in the neighborhood, or when the weather gets windy and thundery.

There are some days when I am gone from the apartment for a while I can tell he’s had a good day.  There will be a big Cozmo-sized dent on my pillow, or some firmly pressed down clothes on a chair where he has snuggled in stuff that smells like me.  There may be shredded toilet paper in the bathroom or highlights and pens pushed off my desk – both things he does when he’s feeling powerful like a lion.

But most days when I get home, there is evidence of his hiding.  Closet doors are open about 8 inches from where he snuck inside, and there will be a few cat toys that he dragged under the coffee table with him.   The memory of being abandoned and confined to that darkened shelter cage is just too much.  Without my presence there to reassure him, he becomes afraid.  When Cozmo gets scared, he hides.

That is exactly what we see the remaining disciples doing in today’s Gospel lesson.  They are hiding.  The reassuring presence of their teacher and friend is no longer there to keep the fear away.  There is political and social unrest in their city.  They are uncertain of what is going to happen next, so they huddle together in a small darkened room.

The fear and uncertainty of this passage is often placed on one person, the one we call doubting Thomas, but a deeper look at this passage shows us that these emotions are shared by all of the disciples.  They are all hiding, and so deeply in fact that Jesus can’t even walk through a door.  They are so boarded inside their safe space that Jesus has to enter through a mystical appearance out of thin air.

Yet we don’t describe this passage that way.  This passage is referred to as “Doubting Thomas,” not “The Doubting Disciples,” or “Jesus’ Scaredy Cat Students.”

As this story has been retold throughout the ages, we add emotions that aren’t there.  We add accusations that aren’t there.  Yes, Jesus says to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Jesus blesses those who believe without seeing, but this does not mean he doesn’t bless those filled with doubt.  Throughout all four Gospels there are numerous examples of Jesus rebuking people for acting a bit extreme.  However, there are no notes in John about Jesus rebuking, scolding, or shaming Thomas and disciples in the darkened room.  Jesus does not appear to be angry.

Even after the first encounter between Jesus and the remaining disciples, the disciples didn’t come out of hiding.  They were still afraid.  Doubt still filled the room.  Thomas only encountered the living Christ once, but the other remaining disciples encountered Jesus multiple times.  Even having had Jesus breathe the Holy Spirit into them, they were still hiding.  They were still uncertain.

So why is it easy for us to peg it all on Thomas?  Why does he become the scapegoat for our shame that there are times when followers of Christ are filled with doubt.  Why is it hard for us to admit that at times it is a struggle to believe?

In some ways it’s easy to put it all on Thomas.  Let’s ignore the fact that we all experience doubt and put the burden of that responsibility on one man, one historical figure.

The fact that Thomas is referred to as the twin comes from an association that we would rather forget but speaks volumes of how we view his behavior.  There are resources that tell us that Thomas’ real name was Judas.  Wanting to make a clear distinction between the man who needs to see Jesus’ wounds and the Judas Iscariot that handed Jesus over to Pilate, Thomas is both given a new name and referred to as the Twin, the one who carries the name of another.

Whether we know this history of the name or not, there is a part of us that makes an unseen connection.  Judas Iscariot was the betrayer.  The way we talk about Thomas’ doubt is a bit like betrayal, almost as if Thomas has somehow betrayed the gift of Jesus’ death and resurrection by needing evidence to believe.  We place shame on Thomas’ doubt because it is easier than acknowledging we are a bit like the disciples, hiding under our proverbial coffee tables or in spiritually darkened rooms.

I would imagine there are those among us who at some point or another entertained the notion that the blessings found in Christ are just a little too good to be true.  There are those among us who may have been irresponsible with resources, or perhaps entertained thoughts or actions of lust or doubt outside of our monogamous relationships.  It is not hard to imagine that one of us could have used a racial slur in hate, failed to help a neighbor in a time of need, or thought that some people are more worthy of receiving good things than others.  With these experiences in our past, the freedom from our wrongdoings found in Christ may seem a little too good to believe.

applebenchWe could also imagine that there are those among us who can’t quite make the leap from seeing parallels between our Bible stories and our everyday lives.  It is not hard to imagine that someone could have heard a healing story in church on Sunday only to attend the funeral of someone who died from a long cancer of battle on Wednesday.  A recent article in the New York Times noted that an astounding number of our children in public schools across the nation are food insecure, meaning they do not know when they will receive their next meal or where it will be coming from.  It may be hard for the hungry to make the connection from the Bible stories of abundance to the bare cupboards in their homes.

This morning, as we say goodbye to the trusted friend and leader we have found in Pastor Peg, it is not hard to imagine there are those of us who feel a bit uncertain.  While there are many of us ready to celebrate, there may be a few hearts that remain in a darkened room of doubt wondering where to find resurrection in this uncharted journey.

While we want to place doubt in a cage in some darkened room, Jesus does not shame us.  Jesus does not ask the disciples why they didn’t immediately believe and seek him out after Peter and Mary Magdalene had told them he was resurrected.  Jesus doesn’t scoff or rebuke Thomas for needing to see the physical evidence that Jesus is indeed arisen from the tomb.

Instead of acting as if he has been betrayed, Jesus issues a message of love and grace.  “Peace be with you.”   Instead of scolding the disciples for locking the door, “Peace be with you.”  Instead of ridiculing them for being afraid, for hiding, for doubting, he says, “Peace be with you.”

Jesus continues to extend that message to us.  Those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, those who struggle to put food on their table, those who are battling an illness, Jesus says to us, “Peace be with you.”

Those who start new journeys, those who are nervous about the transition ahead, those filled with doubt and uncertainty, Jesus says to us, “Peace be with you.”

Not only does Jesus extend peace, Jesus is willing to do whatever is necessary to help restore our relationship to God.  Thomas needs to see the wounds, so Jesus shows him the wounds.  The disciples need to see Jesus but are too afraid to open the door, so Jesus appears inside.  Humanity is left broken and damaged by the consequences of our wrong doing, so Jesus dies upon the cross and rises from the tomb to liberate us from our fallen humanity.

Jesus tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not yet seen and have come to believe.”  We tend to envision ourselves as witnesses who have not yet seen and have come to believe, forgetting that we experience physical manifestations of the Risen Christ every day.

The Risen Christ is experienced physically in the sacrament of Holy Communion, where Jesus is present in, with and under the elements.

The Risen Christ is experienced in the holy waters of baptism, where God’s Holy Spirit moves over the particles of H2O and blesses us with grace beyond all measure.

The Risen Christ is experienced when we break bread together on Easter morning breakfast, when we hear the gift of music wafting from our choir loft and the songs of our assembly.  The Risen Christ is experienced physically when we breathe in fresh air after a restorative storm, when we witness the flame of Christ flickering on the Paschal Candle, and when someone sees our darkened faces and checks in with how we are doing.

The Risen Christ is experienced when we share with each other that sacred greeting told to the fearful in a darkened room; “Peace be with you.”

Jesus our Risen Christ will stop at nothing to demonstrate love and grace to us.  Jesus is not afraid of a little doubt, doesn’t shun us like we have committed some act of betrayal when life is just a bit uncertain.  Jesus shows us his wounds to remind us that the sacrifice made on the cross was not a onetime deal, but a gift was once, is now, and will continue to come.  This gift will never go away, not even when we hide under coffee tables and in our darkened rooms.

Our Risen Christ stops at nothing to show us we are safely held in unconditional love and grace.

Amen.

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The following sermon was preached on Easter Vigil, Saturday, March 30, 2013 at Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH.  The message was based on Luke 24:1 – 12.

holyspiritWhen I was in High School, I was in the play “Godspell.”  A group of my friends attended Parma South Presbyterian, and their youth group was putting on a production of this musical.  Never had remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus been so much fun, and I must confess the passages from this Lenten season has filled my memory with flashbacks to some of the old songs found in that play.

I can hear my friend Greg in the Baptist’s cries, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”  I remember lying on a darkened stage playing one of the sleeping disciples at Gethsemane, while my friend Jeff, the person cast as Jesus, prayed to for strength.  And tonight, seeing Mary Magdalene of the tomb, I remember my friend Janessa singing Mary’s sultry number entitled, “Turn Back, O Man.”

Tonight, as the light of Christ turns back the damage of time and brings restoration to the earth in the midst of an empty tomb and dazzling angels, we enter into the ultimate show stopping number – the resurrection of Jesus.

For many of us, the curtain lifts to reveal a familiar scene.  It is morning, just about dawn.  Women come to the tomb of Jesus with spices to tend to his dead body, only to find that the stone to the tomb has been rolled away and the body is gone.  Instead of finding Jesus, they find two men in dazzling clothes, waiting to ask us what we already should know.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

This thought is perplexing.  No body quite gets what has happened to Jesus.  Suddenly a spotlight shines on the women like a light bulb of knowledge.  Now they remember that Jesus taught them this would happen.  He told them he would be handed over to be crucified and on the third day would rise again.  In great amazement and excitement, the women go forth and turn back to proclaim the good news that Jesus has risen.

And end scene.  The story has reached its glorious conclusion.  As Deaconess Judy Hoshek so wonderfully put in her sermon yesterday, it is finished and the whole earth is restored onto God.  Not only has Christ has brought back the earth to God’s glory, as we look into the tomb we can clearly see that Jesus is risen!  Alleluia!  Christ is risen indeed!

What a happy ending!  This moment has all the markings for the final curtain call and for all the actors to come back on stage for their final bow.  Jesus is alive! The work is done, finished.  Our relationship with God is complete.

Or is it?  Is our relationship with God complete?  Has it stopped growing and changing?  Perhaps we should follow the steps of Mary Magdalene and turn back, returning to the question the men in dazzling clothes ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?

Perhaps another way we could re-frame the angels question is to ask, “Do we really live as if Jesus is alive?

The problem with our favorite plays, movies, books, and let’s face it, even Bible passages, is that they can tend to become these museum moments in our mind.  They can become these isolated flashes in our history that live in a place of wistful nostalgia, sort we look back on the glory day of when we were in plays in high school or when we were on the football team in college.

These museum moments become a beautiful example of something that is over, a time that has ended. Sure, they were experiences that shaped who we have become, but they no longer continue to shape who we are going to be.

It can be easy to look with amazement on the glory of the resurrection and get a bit stuck remembering what Jesus has already been done without recognizing on what Jesus continues to do.

After spending a week journeying on the last days of Jesus’ life and death, we can assuredly look back and boldly state, “Never again will I be held captive to sin.  Never again will the choices of my past keep me from being in relationship with God.  Those days are long gone, those days are finished.  I have been saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.”

While unshakably true, those statements can quickly turn into a museum moments.  Saved can feel like it is past tense.   They can serve as the final curtain call, failing to carry us into the reality that the grace of Christ is alive.

Tonight, with the new fire still burning on our paschal candle, we celebrate that our salvation is not past tense, it is all tenses.  Past, present, and future.

Paschal candles are marked with images of God – the Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end.  Those marking and this candle are introduced every year into our present.  We first carry the flame of the new fire on this candle to serve as a visual reminder that the grace of God was found in our past, it lives in our present, and will continue to live into our future.

There is a momeoceannt in Exodus when God speaks to Moses and says, “I am that I am.”  If you’ve ever looked at the original Hebrew, you would agree with me that this particular passage is a translator’s nightmare, because that passage doesn’t claim a tense.  When God says to Moses, “I am that I am,” it can also be translated, “I was who I was,” or “I will be who I will be,” or “I am who I was,” or “I was what I will be,” or “I will be who I am”…the list goes on.  In that simple, un-declined word, God tells Moses that that God is the past, present and future.

The Gospel of John tells us the same thing,

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  2He was the in the beginning with God.  3All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being 4in him as life, and the life was the light of all peoples.  5The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Past.  Present.  Future.

The restoration we find in our Triune God is timeless.  It reaches forward into and beyond our present from the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It stretches behind us to the dawn of time, back through the valley of the dry bones, back through the parting of the Red Sea, back through the flood, back to the garden where creation was first formed.

God has always been working to restore the world, to turn back the consequences found in our fallen humanity.  God continuously has claimed us as sons and daughters, giving us signs that God is committed to being in relationship with us despite our shortcomings.

Those signs have been witnessed in the covenants made in circumcision, the rainbow, and when we were given the Ten Commandments.  That commitment that we are claimed as God’s own is witnessed in the fulfilled promises made to Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, Moses, Aaron, Ruth, Daniel, Joseph, Elizabeth, Mary, and countless others.

God is so invested in restoring our relationship that God came in human form as Jesus, to live among us and to teach among us.  Christ our God was so committed to our relationship that he died upon a cross to ensure our restoration.

In Christ, we witness the accomplishment of God’s tireless work throughout all time.  But that accomplishment is no museum moment, it is not this finished thing that no long has an active voice in our lives.  This accomplishment is alive.

This accomplishment is alive because our Triune God loves us and continues to claim us as sons and daughters.  We belong to God the Parent, who nurtured us in the conception of our mother’s womb and called us through Sacred Word.  We belong to Christ, marked with his sacred cross at our baptism.  We belong to the Holy Spirit, who lives among us in our relationships with one another and the authority we are given by God to carry the light of the new fire into the world.  In the light of the resurrection, we witness how God had claimed us in our past, claims us in our present, and will continues to claim us throughout all ages.

The tense-less God is with us when we gather at the font.  As we witness the baptism of others, we remember what occurred at our baptism, but it God does not stop at a memory.  God’s Holy Spirit moves over the waters, being present both in the particles of water and the community of believers who were cleansed by their embrace.  The grace found at our font provides us the strength to complete ministry that will go forth and forward into the world.

The tense-less God is with as when we gather at the Table.  In the words of Holy Communion, we remember Jesus’ words to us to eat and drink at the table of our salvation.  We recite his sacred prayer.  But God does not stop at a recitation.  Christ comes among the elements, being physically present in bread and wine, existing in, with and under the elements.  This meal nourishes us and propels us forth and forward into the world as we strive to bring peace and justice to the earth.

The tense-less God is with us in the Word.  In scripture, we remember the history of our people, and recount the ways that God has continued to be gracious and faithful from age to age.  But God does not stop at a recollection.  God is present in the words as they seep into our heart and mind and guide us on the path of righteousness.  These words go forth and forward, opening doors and opportunities from the example we find within them.

The empty tomb is not final curtain call.  It is no final role of credits.  It is no place to look for the living among the dead.  It is a sign of life.  The empty tomb is an invitation to be in relationship with our God who loves us so much that God will stop at nothing to be in relationship with us, not even dying on a cross.

The accomplishment found in Christ is alive.

Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.  Alleluia!

Amen.

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