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.