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Archive for the ‘Lent’ Category

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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The following sermon was preached on March 29, 2013 at Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH on Good Friday.  The message was based on Luke 23:39-43.

crown_thorn_cross“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

With his arms stretched wide, bloody and pounding from the pressure in his palms and the gravitational force pulling on the nails that keep him suspended in the air, Jesus makes a statement that will change the world forever.

Jesus welcomes the criminal into paradise.

We can easily see ourselves in the role of either of these criminals.  The two figures that surround Jesus are almost like the angel and devil figures we see surrounding cartoon characters when they are about to make a tough decision.

On one shoulder is the cartoon devil, the one who scorns and doubts the power found in God.  In life filled with pain, illness, financial uncertainty and turmoil, it can be easy for us to embody the example of the mocking criminal, the one who says to Jesus, “Okay, Messiah, let’s see what you got.  Save yourself from this cross.  Save me from that speeding ticket.  Stop that school from closing.  Prove to our satisfaction that you have the power.”

On the other shoulder is the wisdom of the angel.  The part of our self who recognizes that God provides in ways beyond our satisfaction and ways we could never expect.  We are the criminal that says, “I understand, Jesus, that you sacrificed yourself for me.  Forgive me for the times I neglected to help my neighbor.  Guide me to remain strong in a life of service and prayer.  Remember me and hold me solid.”

These two criminals, while represented as two separate beings, show the whole of our human nature.  They represent the part of us that is the victim of a fallen humanity, casting our fair share of lots against those around us.  They also represent the person who seeks redemption from the limitations and shortcomings that comes with this humanity.  They represent the fear and the trust, the saint and the sinner.

What makes this penitent man criminal remains unclear.  We never learn about the crimes either man committed.  While it can be easy to see our spiritual limitations and possibilities in the examples of these criminals, one thing is certain.  They were not crucified for their lack of piety or failing to uphold the Ten Commandments.  Rome, Herod and Pilate were not concerned with spiritual laws.  These two criminals were crucified because they broke a law of the state.  They must have committed some crime so heinous that it would warrant a painfully unspeakable death.

It begs the question, who exactly is Jesus welcoming into paradise?

I recently read the transcript from Nelson Mandela’s 1964 trial.  He was arrested and sent to trial for encouraging people to go on strike when basic human rights were violated.  Over and over throughout the transcript, Mandela stated that these rights were so important he would be willing to die for it.  He was a criminal about to be crucified, and he would have gone to the cross to defend those rights.

His example reminds us of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero and other civil rights activists who in the same way were persecuted and imprisoned for advocating for similar rights of equality.  Committing a crime for the sake of advancing human society is a tale as crown_of_thronsold as time.

Just this Wednesday the pastor I work for in Chicago was arrested for civil disobedience at a rally speaking out against upcoming foreclosure of 54 Chicago schools located primarily in African American and Latino communities.  He was willing to go to prison to help speak out against the injustice toward 30,000 children belonging to minority groups.  His crime, like so many others, was a crime rooted in peace and compassion.

Could the criminals hanging beside Jesus have committed the similar sort of crime, crime of civil disobedience speaking for peace and justice?  At first I thought that was doubtful that such a crime would warrant a crucifixion, but then again, many of those supposed crimes were what brought Jesus to trial before Pilate.

Throughout Luke we see countless examples of Jesus civilly disobeying the laws of society while reaching out to the disenfranchised and the outcasts.  Jesus heals the sick, cures leprosy, casts out demons, and raises people from the dead.  Jesus dines with women, fishermen and tax collectors.  No matter where he went, Jesus preached and taught a message of grace and acceptance so strong that societally bordered on the absurd.  The examples of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son increasingly with each tale become more gracious and fabulous with grace filled acceptance, all the while disobeying society’s status quo.

Perhaps our criminals hanging next to Jesus are justice advocates.

Or maybe they were criminals who merely the victims of their environment.  Between currently attending seminary in the SouthSide of Chicago and formerly working in Cleveland, I have met many children who joined gangs at extremely young ages, sometimes in elementary school, because the protection of the gang was more consistent then the protection of local law enforcement.  I have worked with homeless teenagers who have turned to a life of prostitution so they could have enough money for food and clothing.  In the cold of winter, I have several friends who have had their cars broken into by people looking for a place to sleep that would shelter them from the rain, sleet and snow.

Maybe the criminals on the cross are these kinds of criminals, the down on their luck, committing crime for survival sort of criminal.  Of course Jesus would welcome them into paradise and be so generous with that sort of crime.

But what if they are not?  What if they are the sort of criminal who committed crime for the sake of pure evil?  What if they stole for fun, or hurt for sport?  What if they were sex offenders, or murderers?  What then do we do with this welcome from Jesus?

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus’ use of the word paradise tells us a great deal.  Paradise was often associated with the place where the righteous Jewish souls would go to at the Day of Judgment, like heaven.

Paradise also meant a new beginning.  The same word in Greek that Jesus uses on the cross is also the same word that is used to describe the Garden of Eden.  This new beginning is the ultimate new beginning, the formation of a new way of being human, a beginning of life that is as fresh and fertile with opportunity as the garden itself.

When Jesus tells the repentant criminal, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he is not merely talking about some afterlife experience.  He is giving this criminal the opportunity to start a new life, to restart what it means to be human, to operate in a way that is fertile with potential for a better existence.

This new beginning happens now.  Today.  Jesus extended paradise to the criminal the moment the criminal repented on the cross and acknowledged his wrongdoings.  Jesus extended that paradise to us the moment he died on the cross.

In his death and resurrection, Jesus created a revolving door of new beginnings for us.  No matter what crime we have committed, what spiritual law we have failed to uphold, what thing we left undone, Jesus welcomes us into paradise.

In this paradise every criminal and law abiding citizen is welcomed.  No one is excluded.  The limits that we place on one another; single, married, divorced, straight, gay, the 99%,the 1%; these limits have no standing in paradise.  Jesus welcomes us if we are the ones committing crimes of spiritual or civil disobedience, or when our crime is purchasing illegal narcotics to feed our addiction.  Jesus welcomes us into paradise when we hurt others by accident and welcomes us when the right and just choice is obvious and we choose the other option instead.

This sort of welcome is absurd in our society.  It is outrageous in its generosity and faithfulness to us.  This sort of extreme, totally unwarranted welcome is as foreign to us as searching for a lost coin or sheep.  Society would never get on board with it.  Then again, throughout his ministry Jesus has shown us repeatedly that he cares little for the living into society’s expectations, and instead welcomes us boldly in a way that is truly paradise.

This welcoming into paradise does not absolve us of our responsibility or suddenly make the challenges of our life disappear.   The penitent criminal was granted paradise today, but not abruptly removed from the cross at the sound of Jesus words.  We are still accountable to one another for the actions that we take.

In Christ, however, the future of our lives is not determined by one moment from our past.  Thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus, the gift of paradise remains before us.  As Jesus welcomes us into paradise, we are welcomed into a new way of thinking, welcomed into a new way of being.  We stand in a garden of hope and possibility so strong that we can be courageous in redefining what it means to be criminal.

Welcomed into paradise, we are empowered to change the laws that perpetuate systems of oppression.  We are emboldened to share the love of Christ to the stranger.  We are strengthened to follow the counter cultural example of Christ.

No matter what our crime, Jesus welcomes us into paradise, inviting us into the possibility and freedom of a new beginning.

Amen.

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welca_boldThis Sunday is Bold Women’s Sunday.  On Sunday, February 24, the Women of the ELCA (WELCA) are encouraging people to celebrate bold women in their lives – women who boldly live, proclaim and embody the message of Christ in their lives.

I find it a bit ironic that Bold Women’s Day is the Sunday that marks the center of two weeks of internship interviews for myself and my heavily female populated class at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  In no less than four interviews this week, I stated with confidence and dare I say boldness my beliefs in God, my hopes for the church, and areas that I think I can grow to best embody my vocation as baptized believer in Christ.

It is also ironic that Bold Women’s Day comes a few days after a horrific terrorist attack in Hyderabad, India, the city where just a month ago I and 17 other students lived, breathed, and learned.  If you have ever been to India, or have ever met anyone who has been to India, you will know that you need to be bold.  Telling a US traveler headed to India to “be bold,” is the perfect word of encouragement to help overcome culture shock and embrace the beautiful, welcoming, challenging and non-western country for what it is.  Throughout my time there, the mantra of “be bold” rang over and over in my head, and as I keep updated on reports on the aftermath of the terrorist attack, I find myself praying, “Be bold, people of India, be bold.”

Being bold in Christ is very different than being be bold by normal social means.  Secularly, being bold means having courage, being confident, and trusting your instinct.  Being bold in Christ is very different.  It means forgiving the terrorist in the midst of seeking safety.  It means trusting that God has not forsaken you when the bank account continues to dwindle.  It means naming your insecurities about how you will be at as a pastoral intern.

I am continually being taught wisdom by my five year old niece.  She is one of the truest reflections of the embodiment of Christ I have ever known.

A few weeks ago, my niece came home from kindergarten and wanted to practice “Lock Down” with my parents.  In the wake of recent school shootings like Sandy Hook, her elementary school is taking safety very seriously and training kids how to best protect themselves in case the unthinkable becomes a reality.  They learn how to hide under tables and in closets, learning how to wait and not be duped by fake police officers.

My sweet niece didn’t just take her lesson and set it aside.  She boldly came home and taught her grandparents what she learned because she wanted welca_bold_2them to be safe.  She had my parents take turns being the student and being the “bad guy.”  When my mom played the student, my niece took her under the table and boldly gave her directions on how to be safe.  “Okay, Grandma.  You need to stay very, very quiet.  You can’t say ‘move over, this is my space’ because you need to stay quiet to stay safe.”  After my mom’s turn of being trained was done, next it was time for my dad to learn “Lock Down.”

We can choose to look at my niece dragging my parents under the table to go into “Lock Down” as a symbol as how far our world has declined.  We can wallow in how sad it is that five-year old girls know the gun  drill so well they can teach a grown up.  I would rather focus on the boldness of that training session.  My niece – the one who eagerly waits to say grace, the one who can’t wait to go to Sunday School, the one who will tell you it’s okay to be sad on Good Friday because in three days Jesus will rise again – my niece is bold in her faith.  She loves to talk about Jesus.  She understands that Jesus asks us to treat others well.  She loves the world so much that she wanted to keep her grandparents safe.  She loves the world so much that she will boldly tell people she cares about how to be wise when evil knocks on her door.  My niece loves the world so much because she knows she is a beloved child of God.

Being bold doesn’t always mean doing the courageous thing or having confidence.  Being bold in Christ means protecting your neighbor.  It means looking at the realities of the world and coming up with a plan, even when that plan is basic safety and avoiding revenge.  Being bold in Christ means knowing that trouble is around the corner but living with confidence that God will not forsake you when it comes.

Today we celebrate the bold women in our lives, be they 5 years or 105 years old.  We celebrate women who are not afraid to embody the love of Christ in everything they do, even when it is teaching others the importance of “Lock Down.”

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The following sermon was preached at Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH, at the Easter Vigil Service on April 6. It was based on the text of Mark 16:1-8

My niece and nephew love to play Hide-and-Seek.  Just last night at bath-time, four year-old Phoebe hid from her two year-old brother Alex when he wasn’t looking.  She hid in the most stealth of places, behind a curtain, her little hot pink socks pointing out underneath the fabric of the curtain, which was shaking with the force of her giggles.

Once Alex realized Phoebe was missing, he got a little flustered.  He started walking around the living room, “Phoebe?  Phoebe?”  As his search grid became wider, his started to look more and more bewildered, his voice getting louder and louder, “Phoebe?  Phoebe?”  He looked over at me with big fearful eyes, afraid because he couldn’t find his sister.

I pointed him over to the corner window.  Once it sunk in that she was hiding in plain-site, he could not wait to pull back the curtain and “find her.”  Together they laughed and laughed at this miraculous discovery, and my mom and I laughed with them.

The fun as adults watching children play games like Hide-and-Seek and Peek-a-Boo is that we know there is never any real threat.  We know that the missing person will be found.  We can enjoy in the experience of the discovery because we know the ending to the story.

Looking at this passage from Mark, once again we have the privilege of being the informed observer.  We know that there is no real threat to the Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James.  We know that the man in the tomb who speaks to them is an angel telling of a resurrection.  We can enjoy the experience of the discovery because the good news of this message is as obvious to us as a four-year-old hiding behind the curtain.

But for Mary, Salome, and Mary, this news makes them very, very afraid.

Fear is an important part of Mark and is what propels this gospel towards the cross.  Time and time again throughout we see that people are afraid of divine miracles that test their faith.

For instance, after Jesus stills the boat on the sea, he asks the disciples, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  Later, there are three times when Jesus foretells the crucifixion, and each time the disciples had questions about what Jesus was saying but were too afraid to ask.  Perhaps most significant to Easter, the chief priests and scribes searched for a way to crucify Jesus because they were afraid of his teachings, and later when trying to trap him as they questioned him about John the Baptist, those same priests and scribes were afraid of the crowds.

We must also remember that as Jesus performs divine actions throughout Mark, he tells people to stay silent.  We see incident after incident where Jesus casts out demons and heals the sick, and each and every time he instructs the formerly afflicted to “tell no one what has happened here.”  And yet, the healed cannot compel themselves to keep such actions a secret.  They share the miracles, and the attention that comes from these miracles eventually results in Jesus’ crucifixion.

It is ironic that the one and only time in this gospel when someone is specifically told to share a miracle that has happened, Mary, Salome, and Mary cannot do it because they are afraid.

It is hard to acknowledge the times when our fear stands in the way of being courageous in our faith.  This was most certainly true for the translators of Mark.  We have learned that in a few sources translated after the fourth century, the Gospel of Mark suddenly has a different ending from the original source.  This new-and-improved ending has all sorts of reassuring images of Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and the disciples, and the ascension to heaven.  This new ending was to reassure fourth century people that their faith was placed in the right place.

The original intention of the Gospel of Mark does not want us hide from the notion of fear.  The original ending, while at times unsettling, is important because it speaks so honestly of what it means to be a person of faith.

Faith is a scary thing.  Our faith is arguably the most personal thing we have, but it does not come from our own making.  It is given to us as a gift from the Holy Spirit, and it is what calls us into relationship with God.  This gift of faith is what brings us to the table at Holy Communion, and is the gift of faith that justifies us through the waters of baptism.

Tonight we celebrate the baptism of our newest members of the body of Christ.  Somewhere along their journey to the font, they experienced a means of grace.  Somewhere along their journey, the Holy Spirit gave them the gift of faith, and today they will be justified through the waters of baptism.

It is so fitting for us to celebrate baptism on this Easter Vigil night.  We were born into the world victims of a fallen humanity.  Through Christ’s death on the cross we are freed from the bondage of that sin that comes from a fallen humanity, justified to engage in the relationship of faith.  In baptism, we can most intimately experience the death and resurrection of Jesus.  It is through baptism we travel the journey of death from the bondage of sin to live forever a life where sin no longer holds us captive.

Through baptism we are justified by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, without the fear that if we do not complete a certain quota of good works our justification will be taken away.  It is in thanksgiving of this fear that at our baptisms we pledge to exhibit our faith the best way we can.  We recognize the truest way to exhibit faith is complete good works like caring for the earth and loving our neighbor.

In baptism, we publically accept this gift of faith and we commit ourselves to a relationship with God that is eternal.  This is a life changing moment, and can make even the best of us a bit fearful.  This is why we celebrate baptism together in community.  We support one another in this commitment because it is easy to be fearful when accepting the magnificent blessing of salvation.

The challenge comes in living out our faith.  It is hard to be bold in our faith at times when we feel shaken.

Today’s lesson of Mary, Mary and Salome is the perfect example.  They were afraid to accept this turn their faith journey took.  They believed in the teachings of Jesus.  They loved Jesus.  They were dedicated servants to his ministry.  It was faith that brought them to the tomb.

But while the stone of the physical tomb had been rolled away, the stone of their fear kept them silent.  They didn’t know how to handle this shocking revelation that so greatly impacted what they understood their relationship with Jesus to be.

Every time I have read this passage lately, I have been reminded of a song by Mumford and Sons.  The song opens, “Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine.  Together we can see what we will find.  Don’t leave me alone at this time, for I’m afraid of what I’ll discover inside.”

When we encounter stones that redirect the pathways of our faith journeys, it is easy to be afraid and to feel alone.  We are not alone.

In baptism we are adopted into God’s family, given a family wider and broader then we could ever imagine.  In baptism we are adopted into a relationship with a mothering Father who stands fast with us in times of strife.  In baptism we are adopted into a relationship with a Son who died on the cross for our salvation.  In baptism we are adopted into a relationship with a Spirit who is as close a confidant as the most tenderhearted sister.

Because our baptismal family is so large and broad, we will experience transitions in our faith at times when we least expect it.

Four years ago, I did not know where my faith would lead me.  Four years ago I was working as a librarian, and while feeling loved by God, did not feel overly connected to the idea of the church.

Four years ago, I stood at a baptismal font with my niece Phoebe.  As I watched the waters of baptism justify her sweet, infant face, I began to weep.  I remember later when I returned to my seat my aunt joking that I cried more at the waters of Phoebe’s baptism then Phoebe did herself.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that moment of baptism reactivated my awareness of my gift of faith.  Within six months I was no longer a librarian, but working part time as a secretary for a church.  Six months after that, I was the director of that same church, overseeing the outreach ministry and living a life of service.  Six months after that I first began discerning my call to ordained leadership, and six months after that I was accepted as a pastoral candidate for our synod.  Six months after that I applied to seminary, and now I stand before you with almost a year of seminary under my belt.

With each and every faith transition I have been afraid.

I was afraid that day at the font of someone else’s baptism because I knew then that despite turning my back on my faith at times, God never turned away from me.

I was afraid because I knew that I am not a perfect person.  I have tattoos, I swear, I battle a cigarette and food addiction, I have let my loved ones down, spent more money on myself then I gave to my neighbor, have ignored the homeless on the street corners, have lied, have doubted, and yet, there I was.

Hearing the Holy Spirit call my name at someone else’s baptism.

Hearing the Holy Spirit say to me, “Tina, child of God, you have been sealed by the cross of Christ forever.”

Hearing the Holy Spirit say to me, “No matter what, I love you, and believe in you.  Be in relationship with me.  Do not be afraid.  Live out your faith and be in relationship with me.”

It was at someone else’s baptism that I was able to start the process of rolling away my stone.  It was at someone else’s baptism that I realized I wasn’t alone.  It was at someone else’s baptism that I re-discovered what was inside, and it was at someone else’s baptism that I learned the joy of being afraid.

It was the fear of my faith transition that gave me the strength to ask my baptismal family to stand with me as I began living out my faith journey, and they have not let me down.  Being true to my faith and my individual sense of calling and sharing that with my church family has been more of a blessing to me then I can ever begin to put in words.

I am so grateful that tonight our family will grow again, and to see how the Spirit will work through their lives.  I feel privileged to bear witness to the Spirit calling their names into a relationship of faith, and supporting them as they are sealed with the cross of Christ forever.

I am so grateful for such spirit filled waters, and I can’t wait to discover how the Holy Spirit will speak to me tonight at someone else’s baptism.

Roll away your stone.  I’ll roll away mine.  Together we can see what we can find.  We are not alone at this time, even when we are afraid of what we will discover inside.

Amen.

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The following sermon was preached on Good Friday, April 6, 2012 at Divinity Lutheran Church Parma Heights, OH, based on the passage Matthew 27: 45-49.

Forsaken.

That is a word I have been hearing a great deal within my community lately.

I attend seminary at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  Located in the famous Southside of the city, my community is known for many things – the White Sox, the DuSable Museum, Lake Michigan, jazz.

The Southside also has a name for its relationship with violence.  This relationship makes the odds that you will be connected to gangs and/or homelessness to over 60%, and is why in this city over 17,000 children are labeled as “food insecure”.  These statistics are easily overlooked when glamorizing the “Windy City” with memories of a river turned green or shopping on the Magnificent Mile.  When people speak of the great city of Chicago, Southsiders often feel forsaken by the sensationalized impact of our Downtown and Northside counterparts.  There is a division among the city, and is much broader then the Cubs fans verses Sox fans.

In the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin, a young African American male who was profiled and murdered in Florida a month ago, people within my community have been vocalizing racial injustice issues found in our own backyard.  Three weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune reported that in one week in the Southside, 49 children under the age of 18 were shot, ten of which died.  These ten lives that were lost too young were a fraction of over 300 children who were killed since 2008 from gun related incidents in the Southside of Chicago alone.  Over 300 children in four years, and we aren’t even halfway through this year yet.

There is a division in my community.  Right now, on any given Sunday at any given church in the Southside, the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” are not strange to voices raised in prayer.  I am sure our survivors and families grieving from the Chardon School shooting last month are also feeling the weight of those words, also feeling a division between their experience and the experience of their neighbor.  As we read this passage of Jesus’ words on this most holy of days, we know all too intimately what it means to feel forsaken.

For some of us, we feel forsaken by our communities in a time of violence and racial injustice.  For others, we feel forsaken by our friends who fade into the background as we wade through the murky waters of divorce.   We feel forsaken as we spend hour after hour interviewing for jobs that never quite pan out.  We may say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” as we see the red in our check books, or as we sit in through yet another round of chemotherapy.  We may feel that we are forsaken every time we risk our sobriety and are tempted to resort back to our favorite drug of choice.

There is division among us, and its anthem cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I don’t know about you, but I am made incredibly uncomfortable by this passage from Matthew, specifically with the word “forsaken.”  I was so uncomfortable, in fact, I double checked to make sure this wasn’t some faulty literary translation.  I double checked the Greek source of this passage because I hoped that this was one of those times, maybe providing us some sort of theological wiggle room where “forsaken” perhaps could mean something else.

I peered over the text, digging into the Greek word καταλείπω (kat-al-i’-po), and what I found was not much better.  Kαταλείπω can also mean to leave behind, to desert, to abandon.

I even went so far as to check the corresponding passage in the Gospel of Mark.  There it was again – καταλείπω.  Forsaken.  Just as there is no avoiding the moments when our lives are filled with pain, when we feel that we are utterly alone, we cannot avoid that Jesus on the cross cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This moment on the cross puts a bad taste in our mouths, equally as bitter as the vinegar that was given to Jesus upon the sponge.  We can get lost in our feelings of division, and when we hear Jesus cry out those words, it is easy to miss the good news in this message.

The good news of this message is that while these words are Christ’s, they were first ours.  Jesus does not create this anthem on the cross, but echoes this anthem from our ancestors.  He is repeating the words of the psalmist, the songs of his community.

The psalms were written after the Exodus, after the Israelites had left Egypt and had settled into what they thought would be the end of their problems, their promised land.  These were people like the many who thought they were finding refuge in the great city of Chicago only to discover the poverty and violence of the Southside.  These were people like the many who now doubt if their hometown of Chardon is as safe as they once thought.  The psalmist wrote the turmoil of the people who thought they had found safety but instead found division and despair.

Voicing the people’s pain and doubt, the psalms served as anthems voicing the troubling thoughts of the community.  When Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” he is voicing the anthem of the people who felt forsaken and ignored.  Jesus does not shy away from sharing words that are as familiar to the ears of his community as the hymns we are singing together today in our community.

The lyrics from one song, Psalm 22, go like this:

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

6 But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8 ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’

There is a division among us, and when Jesus cries out our anthem, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,”  we should stand fast in recognizing that it is a cry of solidarity.  The psalmist tells us to commit our cause to the Lord, and upon the cross Christ is telling us that his commitment is to our cause.

Jesus cries out not because he is forsaken but because he knows that we feel forsaken.  Jesus cries out not in recognition of his own pain but in relationship with ours.  Even in the midst of extreme agony and torture, he is crying out for for our worries, placing our needs before his own.  He is reassuring us that we will not be abandoned, left behind or deserted.

Through Christ, the word “forsaken” is transformed from a symbol of despair to radical good news.  It is such good news that it is hard to grasp, one that is easier for us to taint with the vinegar that is our skepticism.

It was such radical good news that even the bystanders gathering at the cross couldn’t process it.  It was easier for them upon hearing those words to sneer, “This man is calling for his Elijah.” It was easier for them to mock then to accept that they could be supported so intimately.  It was easier for them to assume that Jesus was thinking of himself then to accept that his love for us is above his own needs and transformative.  It was easier because radical solidarity is not of this world.  When Jesus makes our anthem his own, we are forced to have faith that we will never be forsaken again, and that faith is a holy thing that is given to us as a gift from the Holy Spirit.

Christ is with the family of Trayvon Martin and the parent grieving around the world as they cope with the loss of their children. He will not forsake them.

Christ is with the students of Chardon every day as they courageously return to their studies.  He will not forsake them.

Christ is with us interview after interview, helping us reassess our budgets so we can turn our red balances into black.  We are not forsaken.

Christ is with us as our bodies are ravaged apart by chemotherapy, as we struggle with our addictions, as we suffer from food insecurity, as we search to find affordable healthcare, as we mourn the loss of our marriage, or even when we just feel blue.  We are not forsaken.

Christ is in solidarity with us, has been to the point of suffering on the cross for our sin.  This is radical good news!  This solidarity comes from a love that is beyond our understanding, and completely despite of ourselves.  Just as Christ made our anthem his, we too can make his solidarity ours.

As Christ’s representatives in this world, we need to stand strong with those who feel forsaken and build bridges in places of division.

We show solidarity with prayer, by gathering at the font, communing together with bread and with wine. We show solidarity by not shying away from telling the hard stories of our community but by uplifting the poor, whether they are poor financially or poor in spirit. We show the solidarity of Christ every time we ask someone how they are feeling when we see pain etched in their faces.  We show the solidarity of Christ when we go to Redeemer Crisis Center or help out at the Cleveland Food Bank to fill the stomach and cupboards of people labeled as being “food insecure.”

When in despair our neighbors cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” we help them remember that Christ reframed that anthem as he died upon the cross.  And in helping them remember that the bridge of our division is found in Jesus, we allow ourselves the space to remember that the word “forsaken” has a new meaning now.  In Christ, “forsaken” is radical good news.

Amen.

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The following sermon was preached on Maundy Thursday, April 5, 2012 at Divinity Lutheran Church Parma Heights, OH, on the passage 1 Corinthians 11:23-32.

On January 26, I was standing on the beach at Pacific Ocean in El Salvador.  I had come to Central America on an academic delegation, and after spending a week meeting various political and religious leaders, conversing with families who had survived a horrific civil war of genocide, and learning about the roles the US government and spiritual leaders played to both perpetuate and prevent the armed conflict, I was now at the farewell worship service.

On my right stood my Salvadorian guide, Ceasar, whose father, a priest, had been assassinated because he was preaching a message of Christian non-violence during a violent time.  On my left stood a fellow seminarian, Dominic, who left the battlegrounds of Liberia to study theology in the United States.  One day Dominic will return to his wife, daughter, and mother in Africa and share the good news of Jesus Christ to a war-torn people.

I was sandwiched between two brave men who had seen the blood of their loved ones shed upon the ground, and now we were about to accept the means of grace that is the blood of Jesus Christ through Holy Communion.

I was reminded of my friend Stephanie, who when working with ELCA Young Adult in Global Mission spent a year in South Africa where she worked with people who have AIDS.  She told me that it was really powerful sharing Christ’s blood while standing beside AIDS patients, knowing that while the blood coursing through their bodies will eventually kill them, the blood that they drink together will save them.  She said that each and every time she shared the cup in South Africa she was scared because there was no escaping the sin of her humanity or the love that sets us free.

There are few times in my life where coming to the table has been a scary step.  I couldn’t help but in that moment in El Salvador to remember my first communion, here in this very sanctuary.  Like our brothers and sisters who are about to celebrate their first communion tonight, I had the loving support of my family and church behind me.  That support system watched as I took into my own hands the promises my parents made at my baptism.

I have lots of safe memories communing at the table.  I can scarcely kneel at a rail without feeling the phantom of my father, Dale, at my back.  My family always sat in the same pew, and my father always sat at the end of the isle.  Week after week, my dad would wait until my siblings, mother and I would exit the pew before he would get in line himself, so that he was the last of our family to come to the table.  I have many memories of my dad rubbing my shoulders in in a supportive way as we approached the rail, lovingly encouraging my faith each time we communed as a family.

In January, standing underneath the night sky, hearing the ocean roar as water lapped at my feet, remembering all that I had learned about the Salvadorian people, Holy Communion seemed different to me than it ever had been before.  I didn’t have my dad behind me, or the comfort of a familiar hymn ringing in the air.  Even the bread was different – a tortilla – honoring our Lutheran tradition of the body being found in the staple food of the culture.  This was a table unlike any I had ever seen, and I was really nervous.

Then my professor, a pastor, said the words found in today’s reading from Paul, “This cup is a new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

I may be going out on a limb here, but I’d be willing to bet there are some of us here today who are nervous about coming to the table and participating in this means of grace.  I’m not even thinking only about our first communion students who have dutifully studied what makes communion a sacrament and the differences between common cup and individual cups.

I bet there are those of us here today who are nervous about remembering the sin of our own humanity.  As we begin the three days which contain the death and resurrection of Christ, we cannot avoid the fact that Jesus died because we are sinners.

I believe further still that there are times when we come to the table hoping for an answer to some sort of question, only to return to our seats feeling as if nothing has changed.

While I felt grateful for the support of my family when I celebrated my first communion, it did not quite live up the hype I had in my head.  I thought I would have one of those cloud-opening moments where as soon as I swallowed the last drop of wine I would feel different and changed forever.

I can’t speak for others but for me, on my first communion, that did not happen.  Those moments have happened since, like on the beach in El Salvador, but there have been plenty of Sundays where I when I have ate, drank, and returned to my seat while the pressures that came from sinning still felt like pressure.  On those days, I recognize that something big just happened here, but I can’t quite figure it out.

I wonder if those many nights ago, as they broke bread together and Jesus washed their feet, if the disciples really understood what was happening.  I’m sure some of them knew something big just happened, but did they experience that cloud-opening moment of clarity?

I didn’t feel the cloud-opening moment at my first communion, but there have been many times since when the memory of that day has come back and enhanced things for me.  In the middle of my confirmation, right when I was reciting the Apostles Creed, I remember thinking about two other big days of faith: the day I received my first Bible and the day I first came to the table.

I remembered my first communion the day my nephew was baptized.  As I stood holding him at the font, I realized for the first time that at Divinity we keep our baptismal font at the foot of our communion rail, symbolizing how the grace of baptism and grace of communion anchor one another in our salvation.

I remembered my first communion again the first time I preached, realizing that I had to both pass a symbol of my baptism – the font – and a symbol of communion – the rail – to even make it up to the pulpit.

Memories are a powerful thing.  Memories can transform a moment that meant one thing when you experienced it to mean something totally different when you remember it.  Memories help us tell our story, and today we remember the story of the Last Supper.

But when Paul (and later Luke) tells us that Jesus says, “This cup is a new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me,” he is not just speaking to a memory.  How could we remember the Last Supper when we weren’t there?  None of us were there when the bread was initially broken, so what part of that memory is ours?

Spending some time with this passage, I discovered that there is more to the word “remember” then meets the eye.  We sometimes use the word “remember” in place of honor, as if Jesus was saying, “Do this to honor me.”  Other times the word “remember” means to think back upon a memory, or to repeat an action.  While it is important to repeat these steps and honor Christ and remember his sacrifice, we are also being called to do something much greater.

In Greek, the word “remember” comes from the root word ἀναμιμνήσκω (anamimnéskó).  This translates as going through a process of recollection, to be intentional about gathering together again, to literally re-member.

We are Christ’s body in the world.  When Jesus says “do this,” in remembrance of him, he is instructing us celebrate Holy Communion in order to re-member his body.

Presbyterians take this command to re-member the body of Christ quite literally, and as such will not celebrate communion without an assembly of people.  For them, you cannot re-member a body with only one piece of the body.  This means that when Presbyterians celebrate homebound communion, both the distributer and the homebound person take communion together, so that they are doing the work of re-membering Christ’s body.

As Lutherans, we recognize our calling to re-member Christ’s body, and whenever able we come to the table together.  This re-membering is so important to our understanding of the gospel that we open our table to anyone who wishes to be re-membered to Christ.

We also recognize a deeper layer then just assembling persons together to re-member Jesus.  We recognize that when we are joined together as one body, we share in each others stories and histories.  It is not possible for my arm to be in El Salvador while my legs remained in Parma.  All of my essence shared my experience on the beach.  All of my essence has had faith milestones in this sanctuary.  All of my essence listened to my friend Stephanie share about her time in South Africa.

So when we join together and re-member Christ’s body at the table, we are also merging together our essences and our experiences.  My story becomes your story, and your story becomes mine.  When we re-member as the body of Christ through the means of Holy Communion, my story of El Salvador becomes our story of El Salvador, and Stephanie’s memories of South Africa become our memories of South Africa.  We also reconnect to those who have gone before us, and by remembering the histories of the foot washing, the betrayal of Jesus, the death on the cross and the resurrection from the tomb, we join together so that those stories become our stories too.

So it’s okay if there are times when we come to the table praying for some sort of spiritual awakening that doesn’t quite happen, because there are others who are creating life changing memories that will affect the our body of our church.  Think of how our lives are transformed by re-membering with the disciples who ate with Jesus at the Last Supper.  Their experience at that meal continues to shape our faith every time we taste the bread and the wine.

We have been transformed by the disciples’ experience, just as we will go forth and transform another person’s experience.  There will be times when we come to the table and what we encounter will be so powerful that we will feel we have no choice but to share that memory with someone else so that they can encounter the joy of being re-membered as Christ’s body.

We describe Holy Communion as a means of grace because it is a sacred thing to be connected to each other through the sacrifice of Jesus.  It is only because of the grace of God’s love for us that despite our sin we are granted this magnificent blessing.

It was grace that allowed me to be re-membered with Ceasar and Dominic, having their brave histories become a part of my memory.  It was grace that allowed Stephanie to see her own salvation while drinking Christ’s blood with brothers and sisters who are dying from the poison of their own blood.  It is grace that re-members our homebound members to those able to assemble together at Divinity each Sunday.  It is grace that will re-member us with a future generation as our young people celebrate communion for the first time today.  We are not worthy of this gift of re-membering, but God’s love for us is so strong that we are given this gift.

This gift is not something that should be taken lightly.  Paul tells us,

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.  Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”

Paul urges us to recognize the importance of this re-membering.  He asks us to hold this gift with respect, examining our intentions of why we come to the table.  Are we coming seeking forgiveness?  Are we coming to connect as the body of Christ?  Are we coming, in hopes that this will meal will help enhance our faith?  Or are we coming to the table because we this is just what we do on Maundy Thursday, that this is just an expectation of being a part of the church?

All are invited to the table to experience this grace, and grace will be given to anyone who seeks it.  It is a miraculous thing, and Paul is right to encourage us to recognize the blessing of what Holy Communion means.

Amen.

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This afternoon I and four other friends from seminary attended an event called Occupy Palm Sunday.  This event, sponsored by four congregations in Logan Square, talked about housing, immigration, healthcare, and food justice from a Christian community perspective.  United together, we sang songs, broke bread, and learned about different ways we can be involved in creating equality within our home.

I’ll be honest, in general I’m not someone who totally get’s the whole “Occupy” movement.  I admire the goal to help bring awareness to the difference between the 99% and the 1%, and my heart simmers with joy at knowing that people are trying to find away to work together.  However, the deepest recesses of my identity recognizes I am a planner.  When I look at the overall “Occupy” movement, I get overwhelmed with knowing how to move from information sharing to the next steps of problem solving.  I see the people camped in tents and want to know their plan, even as I recognize that for some “Occupiers” their main plan is to inform.

This past January when I was in El Salvador, I was granted access into the cathedral in San Salvador which was at the time occupied by a para-military group.  This cathedral is the Catholic Church’s Salvadoran epicenter, the place where the Archbishop of El Salvador resides and works.  This space is also important because the mausoleum of Archbishop Romero is found inside its basement.

The January occupation occurred by people who fought in the civil war.  The war had ended with the signing of the Peace Accords.  20 years later aspects of that agreement had not been upheld by the current government, resulting in ex-soldiers and their families starving to death.  They tried to negotiate change peacefully, but 20 years later were still starving.  So in January, with firepower, they forced the Archbishop out of the space and closed the cathedral off from the community.  The occupation prevented anyone from the community to enter to worship.  The occupation caused pilgrimages hoping to visit Romero to cease.  Yet I, a privileged US citizen, someone whose income would place me in the 1% if I was a Salvadoran, was invited into the cathedral where native citizens could not go.  Granted, there were shotguns pointed at me the entire time I took pictures in of the tomb, and I was unable to leave until I heard the para-military groups demands.  But the fact remains that because I came from a place of privilege I was safe in God’s house when people of the community were not.

Since that day, I look at the word “occupy” quite differently.  I now recognize that at any moment I could slide between the barriers between the 99% and the 1%.  At any moment I could be the oppressed or I could be the oppressor.  I could be the person who needs to be uplifted or I could be the person who steps on others as I rise the top.  That experience also showed me that sometimes the separation between church and state also have barriers that slide back and forth.  It was a para-military group that stopped the Salvadorans from worshiping in their Cathedral, and in the United States the limitations of our laws at times are what stop us from being able to provide care to all who need it.

This afternoon, a speaker mentioned that to live in Chicago, the average person would either need to work 81 hours a week at a minimum-wage job or get paid over $18 an hour at a 40-hour-a-week job to be able to afford housing.  I know I don’t get paid anywhere near $18 an hour at either of my jobs or even work close to 81 hours a week, and I consider myself secure in my middle class status.  Then again, I am fortunate enough to be in school and receiving scholarships, and my home parish helps to cover some of my tuition.  Where would I be if this was three years down the line and I was still at the same jobs at the same rate?  I know where I would be — homeless.

Knowing that the barrier between safety and insecurity can so easily slide back and forth for any of us, noticing that the separation between church and state is not as stable as I once thought, I need to have a plan.  I need to know that there is something secure to set my sights on, something that will stand the test of time and the roller-coaster of our economic system.

That something is the love of Christ, and my plan is never to forget that love.  It is through the love of Christ that I have people helping to support me while I am in seminary.  It is through the love of Christ that my income comes from my employment in serving a Christian parish and serving a Christian periodical.  It is through the love of Christ that I was able to car-pool with fellow students to worship in the square with four very different congregations. It is through the love of Christ that today each person who was able brought a few snacks to share and we not only fed the large crowd but had leftovers.

I “occupy” because the message of the good news of God’s love for us transcends the limitations of our barriers.  This message and sacred love is what gives us the fuel to keep striving for justice, learning how we can work with one another so that we all can feel as fortunate as the 1% of the community. I “occupy” because my God loves me so much that even in my darkest hours I am never alone, and this is a message too good to keep to myself.

This Palm Sunday, my occupation is one of praise and thanksgiving to the one who rode into our midst to transform our lives.

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