Friday, July 7, 2017

Running Out the Clock

First Lutheran Church, Battle Lake, MN
July 9, 2017/Pentecost 5
Romans 7:15-25a

A few weeks ago I heard one of the weirdest stories ever on public radio[1]

It was about this woman from New Jersey who suffered from epilepsy so severe that she was having seizures nearly all the time. 

Her physicians proposed a radical surgery—severing the cable of nerves that connected the left half of her brain with the right half of her brain.

For the most part the surgery was successful.  The woman’s near-constant seizures ceased.

But then she noticed something strange happening to her.   Sitting in her doctor’s office, her left hand started to unbutton her blouse—and the woman wasn’t making it happen. 

Other weird stuff happened:  the woman would light up a cigarette with her right hand—only to have it snubbed out by her left hand.   If the woman did something her left hand didn’t approve of, the hand would slap her face—sometimes leaving her black and blue.

The woman’s doctors diagnosed her with  Alien Hand Syndrome (I’m not making this up!)

That name of this diagnosis is a little misleading, though, because the problem was in her head, not her hand.

Alien Hand Syndrome comes from each hemisphere of the brain “having a mind of its own”—one hemisphere no longer in dialogue with the other hemisphere.

This strange, strange story helps us understand what the apostle Paul is saying here our text:  “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”  (Romans 7:15, 18-19)

For centuries readers have been puzzled by and even fought over this section of Romans 7, for at least two reasons:

First, Paul’s words fly in the face of conventional worldly wisdom that says we can change for the better if we just put our minds to it.  

Paul contends, instead, that “mind over matter” isn’t always necessarily so!

And we’re not just talking about addictions or bad habits, either.   In all the choices that matter most in life, we are not as free as we imagine ourselves to be.   We can often see the right path, but our feet fail to get us there.  

It’s as if we have our own version of alien hand syndrome—or alien tongue syndrome, alien feet syndrome, alien body syndrome.   

It’s as if a battle is going on inside us, threatening to undo us….
….which leads us to the second reason why we struggle so much with this 7th Chapter of Romans.

For Paul’s words here also seem to contradict conventional Christian wisdom, which tells us that this is not what our life in Christ should look like.  

Sure, Paul’s internal struggle could be part of our sorry, sinful past….but when Christ burst into our lives, when we’re baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, when Christ moves into our neighborhood and takes charge of our lives—all our hemming and hawing and wrestling with sin should be over, shouldn't it?!

Decades ago when I was serving a congregation in St James, MN, a young man came to my office one morning.   He wasn’t a member of my congregation, but he knew many of my members….and the young man was worried about them.   He had been praying fervently for them, and he told me that the Holy Spirit had laid a burden on him:  a question that he needed to ask me--Was I preaching enough about holiness?  

Based on this young man’s observations of my parishioners, most were still sinners.  They were not yet living the transformed, victorious, “better-every-day” lives of true believers!

This young man apparently assumed that here in Romans 7 the apostle Paul was having an historical flashback, a painful memory of how it used to be in his pre-Christian days…even though all indications in the text are that Paul was testifying to his present, here-and-now experience!

Here we are:  baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, dead to sin and alive to God, freed from everything that might hold us back—sin, death and the power of the devil—that “unholy trinity” Martin Luther spoke of so often.

But why don’t we always look that way, sound that way, act that way?   Why are we still thinking, speaking and acting contrary to whom God has recreated us to be in Christ?

The more we mull it over, the crazier it drives us!   With Paul here in Romans 7 we cry out:  “O wretch that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

And then, as Paul hears himself asking that very question…it’s as if the answer just comes to him:   “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

There is a struggle within us, a battle of wills inside of us—but with Paul, we know who’s going to prevail:  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

But shouldn’t it be more cut-and-dried than that?  Shouldn’t God’s victory over sin, death and power of the devil be plainer to see?  Why does life seem to be not an “either/or” proposition, but rather a “both/and” situation?

What if… what if….this isn’t a falsification of the Christian life?   

What if, rather, this is the very nature of the Christian life?

What if instead of imagining that in Christ we are now steadily progressing toward eternity, “onward and upward, always better, day by day?”  

What if, rather, we’re caught up in an “already-but-not-yet” life, at least for the time being?

What if this very paradox is, until God’s New Day finally arrives--what if this is exactly what the Christian life looks like?  

What if (as Luther liked to say) we are during our time on earth always simul justus et peccator—at the same time saint and sinner?  What if our Lord Jesus has decisively defeated all the forces of darkness—even though that victory is still playing itself out in us and in our world?

Let me offer a way to think about that.

When I was a teenager I loved basketball but was perfectly awful at playing basketball.

So, to stay connected with the game, I managed our high school’s basketball team, took care of the practice balls and other equipment, kept track of the statistics.

Once a year, though, even I got to play the game, in our high school’s annual intramural class tournament.  

It was our junior year, and my classmates were some of the best basketball players in Minnesota, so we wiped out all our opponents and then found ourselves in the championship game—us juniors against the seniors.

The game was a runaway victory for our junior class, the starting five, some of my best friends, running up a 40 point lead.
…we were so far ahead that when the fourth quarter started, all of us bench-warmers got to play.  We could do no wrong, after all, because victory was already in the bag… we poor miserable scrubs got out there on the basketball floor and played our hearts out.   Even I scored some points and received a standing ovation!

The game had already been won—decisively—but the final buzzer had yet to sound!

My dear friends in Christ, this offers a glimpse of what it’s like to live out our days in God’s “already but not yet” time.

At the Cross and the Empty Tomb our Lord Jesus won the victory—no doubt about it!   When our Lord Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” history effectively ended.  Jesus’saving work marked the turning point of the ages.

But there was still time left on the clock—there was a fourth quarter, in which you and I are still playing.   Sin, death and the power of the devil all have been trounced….but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still feebly trying to re-assert themselves, in the vain hope that they might still come out on top.

St Paul here in Romans chapter 7 sees all of that clearly.  He recognizes in his own bodily life, the futile attempts sin makes to try to win a battle it has actually already lost.

Where does that leave us?   Here’s the last word:  not “O wretch that I am!” but rather:  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

And where does that leave us?

It leaves us free--free to live out the time remaining on the clock, free to trust God, love all our neighbors and care for this good earth.

It leaves us free to play our hearts out, just for the joy of simply to be the people God has made us to be.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Risky Business: Always Reforming

2017 NW MN Synod Assembly
“Risky Business:  Always Reforming”
June 10, 2017 (Trinity Sunday texts)
Matthew 28:16-20

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

 “I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three.”

This ancient creed from the pen of the great missionary who brought Christ to Ireland has been wed to a tune that’s entitled St Patrick’s Breastplate….thus reminding us that the “strong name of the Trinity” is meant to be worn like a garment all the days of our lives. 

But this isn’t just any garment.  A breastplate is always more than a “fashion statement!” 

You wear a breastplate only when you’re doing something so dangerous, so risky you could lose your life doing it.  

When knights of old were thrust into battle their breastplates were the parts of their armor that protected their “innards”--their heart, lungs and other vital organs.

So when Patrick-who wasn’t sailing in “tourist class”—made his way from Great Britain to Ireland, he did so fully intending to take on the pagans who ruled the roost—paving the way for the Greatest Good News about the One and Only God:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And when Patrick made that 5th century mission probe into Ireland—believe me!--he was dressed for the occasion.  Patrick put on the whole armor of God, including the center-piece, the breastplate that protected his life:  the strong name of the Trinity bestowed on Patrick with the sign of the Cross in his baptism.  

Patrick the missionary bishop thus literally “wore” God on his body—the Three in One and One in Three true God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Now I realize that talking about armor and spiritual warfare is out of vogue these days.  Enlightened, gentle souls have tried to scrub out all that outdated militaristic language from our hymns and liturgies.

But this “cleansing” has not been complete —thank God!—because it’s hard to escape the sneaking suspicion that the Evil One has yet to surrender the field. 

The Word of the Gospel--we still realize--always, always, always confronts resistance in this world.

…which is why serving God’s mission in the world is always more than a “walk in the park.”

It is still, it has always been, and it shall always be risky business—a reckless, audacious venture undertaken in the face of stiff opposition…some of the worst of it arising from right inside of us, from the old Adam, the ancient Eve, who has yet to fully surrender.

These twin realities, of resistance “out there” and resistance “In here” bleed through this gospel lesson as we join the eleven surviving disciples, climbing that  mountain in Galilee, where the Risen Christ met them. 

Heavens to Betsy--what a motley crew those eleven fellows were—what a mixed bag of believers and skeptics—who, as Matthew takes pains to observe, “worshiped [Jesus], but some doubted”

Did you catch that?   Here they were, beholding the One who was crucified and resurrected, standing right before them—but if Mr. Gallup had been conducting a poll that day, Jesus wouldn’t have received a 100% approval rating even from those who knew him best! 

And yet, this same Jesus insisted on commissioning them--sending them out to take on the whole world….with nothing but his commands and his promises.

Can you imagine a more risky business than that?  Did those eleven rag-tag guys have a ghost of a chance, making good on Jesus’ Great Commission?
Apparently, though, this was the Risen Christ’s only plan.   He had no “Plan B” to fall back on.  Christ simply issued his marching orders:  “go…make disciples…baptize…teach!”

And then, like a big red ribbon tied up in a bow, Jesus wrapped those audacious commands inside an even more amazing promise:   “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

You can do this, Jesus told them.  You can handle this risky business, because I’ll always have your back.

So they went out--those eleven perplexed, not-too-sure-of-themselves guys….

And because they went out in the strong name of the Trinity, you and I are gathered here this morning….being fed by Word and Sacrament at the start of this new day so that we can be commissioned to venture out, always under the protection of the strong name of the Trinity.

It’s what we do—even we lumpy, pasty Lutherans who are so often written off as bland, milquetoast, inconsequential folks.

Even we “militantly modest” Lutherans who’re hardly ever 100% sure of ourselves, even we somehow keep on keeping on.

It’s what we do, we risk-taking Lutheran followers of the Risen Christ.

Blame it on a feisty German monk named Martin who 500 years ago took on the entire Church and the whole world—just because he’d been taken captive by God’s sin-forgiving, barrier-breaking, future-opening Word in Jesus Christ.

Not that even feisty brother Martin never had his doubts about the whole enterprise we now call the Reformation!  Hardly!   More than once Martin was wracked by doubt, looking in the mirror and asking himself “Just who do I think I am—defying the Pope in Rome?”  

When Martin Luther wrestled with his own doubting heart, though, he remembered who he was and Whose he was:  “I am baptized!” he shouted!   And in the strength of that confession Luther changed the church and the world.

But that’s just what Lutherans do, don’t you know?

It’s why young Katie, a cloistered nun, hid with her sisters in a bunch of empty herring barrels to escape from their convent and make their way to Wittenberg to feel firsthand the refreshing breeze of freedom in Christ.   It’s why Katie, sworn to celibacy for life, broke that vow in order to make another vow, a marriage vow to Martin in 1525—just  to “spite the devil” as her husband colorfully put it.

But that’s the kind of things Lutherans do.

It’s why two centuries later Johann Sebastian Bach, baptismally bound to the strong name of the Trinity, poured himself into matching Gospel promises with heavenly music, always initialing his compositions with SDG--soli Deo gloria, “Glory to God alone!”    

It's why Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, cross-marked in his baptism, set sail from Halle, Germany in 1742 for the wilds of life on the North American mission field…

It’s why J. C. F. Heyer, American Lutherans’ first global missionary journeyed to far-off India three times, the last time in 1869 when he was 77—to found our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church.

  It’s why Sister Elizabeth Fedde left Tromso, Norway in 1883 to bring the Lutheran deaconess movement to North American…a movement that produced a host of Lutheran hospitals, nursing homes and other social ministries.  

It’s why Dietrich Bonhoeffer forsook the safety of London to return in 1935 to his homeland, Germany, and to resist the Nazis to the point of dying a martyr’s death ten years later.  

It’s why Leymah Gbowee, striding in the strength of her baptism, organized other strong women to say “Enough!” to the men of their country who had kept Liberia locked in a civil war fifteen years ago.

That’s the kind of risky stuff that Lutherans who bear the cross of Christ on their brows….it’s what we do!

And I’m not just talking about famous or semi-famous Lutherans either!

You and I, ordinary, garden-variety Lutherans also make choices, take stands, and embark on risky adventures--because that’s who we are as baptized ones, bound to the strong name of the Trinity.

I know this, because I’ve seen you in action….

I’ve seen congregational presidents who shun the easy way out and speak uncomfortable truths to their fellow Lutherans.

I’ve met youth who can’t wait to give a year of their life to Christ as YAGMS, Young Adults in Global Mission of the ELCA.

I’ve witnessed young parents and other caring adults, who are passionate about forming Christ in the next generations of Lutheran disciples.

I’ve heard Lutherans standing up for their neighbors who happen to be refugees or immigrants or adherents to other faiths or indigenous folks who lived on this continent long before many of our ancestors showed up. 

All of that is risky business—and it’s what we Lutherans do!

Better yet:  it’s what Christ, who promised never to leave us, does in and through us who are baptized into the strong name of the Trinity.

“ I have been crucified with Christ,” wrote the great proto-Lutheran,  St Paul, “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
Lutherans love that kind of stuff—sends shivers down our spines.
Because we know that it’s always Jesus who gets us into this risky business….and it’s God who is always reforming, reshaping and renewing us in the strong name of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Gone...But Not Really Gone

Installation of Aaron Suomala Folkerds as Senior Pastor
Lutheran Church of Christ the King, Moorhead
May 21, 2017/Easter 6
John 14:15-21

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“Gone but not forgotten.”

We’ll hear that phrase and speak those words next week, because it’s that time of the year.  By Federal statute, no less, we set aside the last Monday of May as our “gone but not forgotten” holiday, when we stop to remember those who’ve left this world, especially those who died in service to our country.

“Gone but not forgotten” may be among the most poignant words in the English language.

This brief phrase masks a deeper, darker reality—which is that whenever someone leaves us, it is shockingly easy to forget them, despite our best intentions.

Not, of course, that our loved ones pass completely from our memories, but they no longer occupy our minds or command our hearts.  In that sense, gone too often means forgotten.

But on Memorial Day we will ourselves to do what no longer comes naturally—we will ourselves to remember them, to lay fresh-cut spring flowers on their graves, to ponder the great sacrifice that they made.   For this one day at least--by gum!--they shall be “gone but not forgotten.”

But the day after Memorial Day, along with all the days that follow…those days are another story… all too often “gone” means “forgotten.”

As this season of patriotic remembering plays out…..the church is doing its own brand of remembering during the Great Fifty Days of Easter.

And this remembering, this focused mindfulness of the Church recalling the One who died and rose again, reflects a different understanding of reality.

In the church’s way of remembering Christ the Crucified and Risen One, it’s not so much “gone but not forgotten,” as it is “gone, but not really gone.”

Say what?   What kind of nonsense is that?  How can someone, anyone, even Jesus be “gone, but not really gone?”

As jarring as those words sound, “gone, but not really gone” is the pulsing beat, the arresting rhythm of the Great Fifty Days…and nowhere is that more apparent than in this gospel reading from John 14.

Jesus came to earth.  Jesus was born of Mary.   Jesus walked where we walk. Jesus loved and prayed for and healed and taught his neighbors.   And, in short order, Jesus was cruelly betrayed, wrongly convicted, brutally forced to carry his own cross on his bleeding back. 

In the end, Jesus died.

And then three days later Jesus was raised again…

….and then over the course of forty days, Jesus showed himself to his followers, often and compellingly enough to convince them that with him, with Jesus, death’s stranglehold had been broken.

And then, just when his followers were starting to get the hang of it, this same Risen Lord Jesus Christ was taken from them once more, ascended into heaven, returned to his Father, gone for good it seemed…

….gone, but not really gone!  

Jesus was gone, but not really gone.    The Resurrected One made wondrous provision for us, to deal with his physical absence from us:  “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” (John 14:16-17)

Jesus was leaving this earth, he was about to be gone—but not really gone.

How can that be?

Here’s how:  Jesus promised “another Advocate” to come to us and be with us forever:  the Spirit of Truth would “succeed” Jesus in keeping faith alive and hope strong.

Jesus promised another Advocate, because we already had our first Advocate, Jesus himself in the flesh.

An advocate, you see, is someone who comes alongside us to make a case or plead a cause.

Jesus, the original Advocate, pled our cause before God our heavenly Father.    Jesus spoke out for us most clearly, most distinctly, in the final days of his life….when he gave us a Meal we’re still eating, bread for his body, wine for his blood.

On the Cross Jesus advocated for us most convincingly when he cried out:   “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”   Jesus in his dying breath advocated for us, made the perfect case for us, sinners all:  “Father forgive them.”

If Jesus on the Cross pleaded perfectly for us with our Creator-God, he promised to send “another Advocate,” the Holy Spirit who doesn’t so much plead for us, as he pleads with us.

The Holy Spirit advocates for the risen Lord Jesus Christ, with every breath we take.   The Spirit presses God’s cause upon us every day, giving us reasons to believe, reasons to hope, reasons to stake our lives on Christ the Crucified and Risen One who may be gone (in the way he first lived among us)-- gone, but not really gone.  Jesus continues to have us and hold us and send us into the world that is becoming his perfect Kingdom.

So the living Lord Jesus no longer occupies the body he received from his mother Mary, he is no longer bound to “to distant years in Palestine” as hymnwriter Brian Wren puts it (ELW #389, stanza 2).
Jesus is gone from all that, but he’s not really gone.

In a far fuller, richer sense, Jesus--in the power of his resurrection--is more alive now than ever before!

And Jesus is alive, not because our feeble memories will him to be alive.  Jesus’ resurrection life isn’t about us whistling in the dark, engaging in wishful thinking….

No, Jesus is alive still, because that other Advocate, the Spirit of truth, the Lord and Giver of Life—breathes upon us, kindles within us the unquenchable fire of faith…and never allows that flame to die out.

“Gone but not forgotten” reflects our responsibility, our striving, our work….

But with Jesus everything is made new:  with Jesus, it’s not so much “gone but not forgotten” as it is “gone, but not really gone.”

And you have Jesus’ own Word on that. 

You have the down payment of the Holy Spirit, the urgent, nudging, enlivening testimony of that other Advocate who ceaselessly makes God’s case before us, wooing and cajoling and winning us over, freeing us to confess from our hearts:  “I believe.   Help my unbelief”

So it is the Spirit of Truth who tirelessly reminds us that Jesus is Risen from the grave, nevermore to die.

But there is even more.   

In v. 19 of our gospel lesson Jesus ups the ante with this promise:  “because I live, you also will live.”

Phew!  What a relief that is—to know that we will somehow “survive” death….that in some unimaginable way we partake of Jesus’ own unending life.

But Jesus utters this promise not simply to set our hearts at ease, to beat back our fear of death.

No.  Jesus promises to share his own unending resurrected life with us so that we will be good for something, even as we await and pine for God’s New Day.

“Because I live, you also will live,” Jesus declares to us, and that miraculous life of Christ in us testifies to us and everyone else that Jesus is gone, but not really gone.

Jesus shares his unending life with us so that we will be living specimens, walking talking testimonies who constantly bear witness that Jesus is gone, but not really gone.

Our whole life as the Body of Christ, is God’s best proof that Jesus didn’t vanish into thin air…but has chosen to continue his rescuing, reviving, death-defying, future opening work.

So because Jesus lives in us we can make all sorts of audacious promises in his name.

We can look each other right in the eyes and say things like:
“I announce to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”
“I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit.”
“Take and eat, this is the body…this is the blood of Christ.”
“Because Jesus lives, you will live also!”

Pastor Aaron, I suspect that most of the time the last thing you want to be is someone else’s “mouthpiece.”

But there’s one exception to that rule of thumb.  There’s at least one sense in which you and every other pastor are a mouthpiece for the only voice we need to hear in life and in death.

Jesus, who is alive—sure as shooting—has called you here, as the chief shepherd of this flock, to utter audacious promises that only he can keep.  Just remember that everything you’re called to do here as senior pastor of this congregation flows from that absolutely crucial role—of being a called and “dedicated” mouthpiece for Christ the Crucified and Risen One.

And wow--isn’t that grand?

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Epicenter of Encounter

Bethel Lutheran Church, Herman, MN
Dedication of Sacristy
Easter 3/April 30, 2017
Luke 24:13-35

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’

It isn’t every day that we entertain unexpected company in our home—and beg them not to leave!

Not that we’re inhospitable, mind you—it’s just that we’re not exactly in the habit of offering spontaneous invitations like the one Cleopas and his fellow disciple extended to this mysterious stranger.  Here, they had only met the man earlier that day on the short 7-mile trek from Jerusalem and Emmaus—and they wanted him to become their house-guest?  Really?

‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’

Maybe the two disciples simply feared for the stranger’s safety in the dark.  Lots of skullduggery happens after the sun goes down.   In the deepest, darkest hours of the night things always seem more uncertain, more fearful, more foreboding.
Or perhaps Cleopas and his companion had some other reason, or maybe just some impulse of the moment that caused them to blurt out this surprising invitation.

‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’

I believe there was something deeper here than fear of marauders or the “chemistry” of this chance encounter.

Something in their 7-mile journey together, something about this stranger had gotten under their skins—gotten way down deep, under their skins!  

In the few hours they were together Cleopas and his companion noticed a hunger in themselves, a gnawing hunger that reached right down into the very core of their being.

Only later--when the stranger was no longer strange to them--only later did Cleopas and his companion admit it to one another:    “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

THAT….that “hearts burning with us” hunger is what caused Cleopas and his companion to beg, to implore their visitor to remain with them.   They did not want this encounter with him to come to an end:  ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.’….stay with us, because time is fleeting and precious, and we haven’t yet had our fill of what you are offering us.   Stay with us, friend, until we have our fill, until our hunger is satisfied.

Of such deep hunger are spontaneous invitations made.   Out of such deep hunger do people actually begin to rearrange the circumstances of their lives so that this encounter, this relationship, this saving, rescuing connection never ends.

Little did Cleopas and the other disciple realize what they were bargaining for:  not just another few hours with this mysterious but compelling stranger--but a whole new life with him that began on that road to Emmaus and would never, ever end.

This same hunger, my friends, is what draws you and me to this Beth-el, this Bethel, this house of God—because here we’ve found the epicenter of encounter between us perpetually hungry ones and the Lord of life, who is always most clearly and unmistakably making himself known to us in the breaking of bread.

It’s a gnawing hunger that brings us back to this house of God, again and again and again.

It’s hunger for release from all that threatens to undo us.

It’s hunger for being untwisted, untied, cut loose from our waywardness.

It’s hunger for our lives to have significance, it’s hunger for purpose in our lives.

It’s hunger for hope in a world that’s so wretchedly messed up.

It’s hunger for forgiveness, for a fresh start, and for a future without end.

In short, it’s hunger for Jesus that draws us to this holy place, hunger for Jesus that springs to our lips whenever we whisper:  “Stay with us. Because it’s almost evening, and the day is now nearly over…”

And, thankfully, Jesus delights filling us up, assuaging our hunger.

We come here to meet Jesus—and Jesus never disappoints us.   Jesus keeps coming with us, to us, for us….wherever his story is retold….wherever the baptismal bath washes over us….and surely, surely wherever we hear his “for you” and taste the bread and sip the wine and believe once again that our Lord has stooped down to lift us up.

So it is only appropriate on this Third Sunday of Easter—the season in which we bask in our Lord’s firm promise never to abandon us, always to remain with us….it is good and right and salutary, that we tend with great care, this place of our deepest encounter with our Lord Jesus.  

Nowadays a growing number of small-membership congregations in our part of the world are pondering the possibility of closure.   But they never rush to embrace that possibility.  

Rather, they sidle up to it gingerly, carefully, slowly, thoughtfully…..and often the sticking point in such discussions revolves around this question:  if we close, what shall we do with this place, this building, this house of God?

When I’m asked to advise such congregations considering closure, I sometimes find myself growing impatient with that question—a little voice inside me reminding me that a church building is only bricks, boards, stone and mortar after all—isn’t it?

But over the years I’ve learned that it’s not merely nostalgia that makes it difficult for Christians to close up shop and abandon their church buildings. 

It is, rather, their deep and abiding sense that places like this one are holy because God has made it so, because God has caused holy things to happen here, because God has shown up here, for us and for our very salvation and for our hope in the life of the world to come.

So today-- appropriately enough!--we dedicate the sacred space, the “sacristy” where the precious means of Jesus’ Real Presence among us are lovingly and reverently prepared for our most profound encounter with the Lord of Life:   here at the altar where Jesus meets us once again, even on this April morning.

And just as surely as we keep coming here—again and again and again!—we also leave here, with haste (like Cleopas and his companion!).

Even if our time is short and the world’s darkness is foreboding, we suck it up and brave our way back out into this troubled world, breathlessly eager to tell others:   “We have seen the Lord!”

Sometimes when we poke around in the Bible, the stories seem so distant from us in time and place and circumstance…

But other times, the narratives of scripture enfold us, as this one does….setting forth so memorably, so unmistakably the way that we simply know it, the way we simply feel it deep in our bones that this one, this Jesus, is alive, nevermore to die again….and he lives for us and in us in the bread and the wine and the community we are gathered into….not just for own sake, but for the life of this world and the life of the world to come.

“Stay with us, because it is almost evening, and the day now is nearly over.”

So also we plead with Jesus to be near us forever.

And thanks be to God, that’s a prayer Jesus always answers, granting us not just a wonderful promise, but lavishing us with his presence, giving us himself, his very body, his true blood, for us and for our salvation….and also, for the sake of God’s mission in the wider world, now and forever.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Picking a Fight With Death

Trinity Lutheran Church, Moorhead, MN
Lent 5/April 2, 2017/John 11:1-45
Installation of Pr. Kristina Waters

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

In this gospel lesson we come across two of the Bible’s most precious gems.

One of these gems is verse 25, where Jesus declares:  “I am the resurrection and the life…”

The other comes ten verses later:  “Jesus began to weep” or as an older translation put it: “Jesus wept”—the shortest verse in the Bible.

The first of these two verses cheers us when we mourn:  “I am the resurrection and the life.”  

The second of these gems is cheers squirrelly confirmation students seeking an easy short Bible verse to memorize.  John 11:35 is like the free square in the center of the Scrabble board:  “Jesus wept.”  Check!

All kidding aside, these two verses encapsulate this entire 11th chapter of St John’s Gospel.  

Because one of the things everyone needs to know about Jesus is that he wept.  

Jesus was and is truly human, really one of us.  

Jesus wasn’t protected from life’s hard edges.  He didn’t get a “free pass” from the dregs of our existence.

“Jesus wept.”   John doesn’t pinpoint precisely why Jesus wept.   Was it on account of his deep affection for Lazarus and his sisters?  Did he regret not getting to Bethany sooner, before Lazarus died?  Or did Jesus weep because everyone else was weeping?  Or did Lazarus’s death remind Jesus of his own impending death.

“Jesus wept.”   Let those two words sink in:  we have a Savior whose tear ducts are fully functional.

“Jesus wept” even as we have wept and we shall weep again….because losing loved ones is awful, because death is—literally!-- the pits.

“Jesus wept,” sums up one key thread of this story.   God’s Word in human flesh knew grief intimately. 

But these were not tears of despair.  Verse 33 mentons that 
“when Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  

“Greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” –that phrase depicts Jesus shuddering, being shaken to the core, angry even at the horrible hold death has on us!

Jesus groans as he approaches Lazarus’s grave, because he knows in his bones that this just isn’t right—this state of affairs shall not stand!

In Jesus’ tears there’s an undercurrent of righteous anger—indeed a defiance of death stirring deep within Jesus.  

Jesus travels to Bethany to pick a fight with death—to announce that death is about to be up-ended.

Which leads us to the other gem in this lesson:  “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Jesus speaks these words in response to Martha who at first chided Jesus for dilly-dallying and then—in the same breath--voiced her hope that Lazarus would rise again on the Last Day, the Resurrection Day….

….but Jesus cut her off with one of the most astonishing promises in the Gospels:  “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Here, Jesus snatches the hope of a future resurrection and ushers it right into the present moment boldly announcing that in him the resurrection is already walking around on two feet.  Life itself is pushing its way through the mourners wailing at Lazarus’s tomb. 
Jesus goes beyond promising resurrection and life in God’s good time.

He insists that he, Jesus is the resurrection and the life, right here, right now.

And that’s why Jesus didn’t scurry off to Bethany the moment he heard of Lazarus’s mortal illness.   Jesus waited  so that Lazarus could get “good and dead,” four days in the grave, all traces of his spirit having vanished from the scene….

Jesus needed Lazarus to be really dead so that folks would witness God’s power not just to prevent death but to undo death.

Jesus arrives in Bethany, seemingly too late, with the stench of decay already in the air.  He waits for just the right moment, when all seems utterly lost, in order to take charge of the situation.

For in Jesus the Resurrection and the Life has arrived to pick a fight with Death—and that’s a fight that Death is surely going to lose.

As if all that were not enough, Jesus commandeers those around him to help him finish this astonishing miracle.
Isn’t it fascinating that instead of crawling into the tomb and single-handedly dragging Lazarus out—Jesus calls to Lazarus, Jesus issues an executive order fully confident that dead Lazarus will hear it and obey.

And then when Lazarus shuffles to the door of his tomb, Jesus hustles the whole community into action:  “Unbind him, and let him go.”   Come on, folks--turn Lazarus loose!

Let’s call this “Round One” in a three-round battle that our Lord waged with Death.  

Virtually every detail in our gospel lesion foreshadows another drama, soon to play out in Jerusalem.

The late great preacher Fred Craddock observes, “The passion of Jesus bleeds through the surface of [this] story…. Jesus is experiencing something like a Gethsemane, for he knows that calling Lazarus out of the tomb means that he must enter it.”[1] 
When Jesus was arrested, tried, executed and buried he dealt Death a knockout punch.   Let’s call that “Round Two” in our Lord’s fight-to-the finish with Death.   As we shall celebrate in two weeks, the Resurrection and the Life won that round—for you and me and all people.

But there’s even more:  the story of Lazarus, along with the passion of our Lord Jesus….these core narratives of faith “bleed through” into our own lives of following Jesus today.

We weep—as Jesus wept—because death still robs us so cruelly, so brazenly.

We weep though, as persons who feel it in our bones that this sad state of affairs shall not stand.  

Our Risen Lord Jesus is seeing to that!   Whatever sort of “tomb” we may be stuck in—Jesus is always calling us out of the darkness into the light..

Let’s call this “Round Three” in the battle between death and the Resurrection and the Life.

Jesus is still catching us up in this fight to the finish with death.   

Jesus “calls us out”—out of whatever tomb holds us captive.

And—lo and behold—Jesus even enlists us, to be part of the action, calling out others….setting free those whom Jesus places in our paths, just as Jesus enlisted Lazarus’s neighbors to unwrap the bands of grave-cloths, and turn him loose.

This is, in fact, the most critical thing that marks us…not just as a happy club to belong to, but as the community of Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life, even now, here today.

Pastor Kristina, I can imagine no better watchword for you, as today you formally assume your ministry as Pastor for Community.

May you, may all of us, never forget that this community lives every day between “Jesus wept” and Jesus’ promise: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” 

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

[1] Fred Craddock, “A Twofold Death and Resurrection,” The Christian Century, March 21-28, 1999.