Sermon for Advent 1C

Sermon for Advent 1C

Luke 21:25-36

 

Two weeks ago, we heard in our reading from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus’ prediction of the downfall of the temple of Jerusalem, and how wars and rumors of wars are the beginning of the birth pangs, or, in other words, labor contractions, as the new life that God is bringing into the world will put an end to all pain and suffering. Today, we get the rest of Jesus’ talk about the end times, but this time, it is according to the Gospel of Luke. And I want to start today’s sermon by repeating one thing that I said two weeks ago. And that is this: the point of apocalyptic writing is not to predict the exact date of the end of things, nor is it to literally put the fear of God in to us. Instead, it is to give us hope. One of those reasons for hope that I mentioned two weeks ago when I talked about Mark’s version of Jesus’ speech is this: that the evil things we see happening around us will not have the last word, but instead, God will have the last word. That is still true in Luke’s version, but today’s sermon is going to have a slightly different focus, as Luke is somewhat different from Mark, and as our focus in Advent is also different from our focus in the Season After Pentecost. And here is today’s focus: that when we see these things happening around us, we need not be afraid, but we can be confident, because we know that our salvation is coming near, and coming soon.

So, let’s start today first by imagining the congregation to whom Luke was writing. For some reason, the Gospel of Luke has gotten a reputation as the Gospel that is written for the Gentiles, that is, those Christians who came from a non-Jewish background. But, when we look more closely at this Gospel, we’ll find that there is a problem with this assumption. And the problem is this: when we read Luke very closely, we will notice that Luke seems to be at pains to point out the Jewishness of Jesus: Luke is the only one who tells us that Jesus was circumcised at 8 days old, for example. More pertinent to today’s section of the Gospel: Jerusalem, and more specifically, the Temple, play a very central role in Luke. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is found very often either in Jerusalem or traveling to Jerusalem. So we can safely guess that the congregation that Luke was writing for was made up largely of Christians who came from a Jewish background, with perhaps some Gentiles in the group as well.

For Jewish people in the first century, including Jewish Christians, it is hard to over-stress the importance of the Temple. The Temple was the center of the universe; it was THE place where God came to earth to meet with humanity. The Jewish people in the first century had heard stories of how the Babylonians had come in and destroyed the Temple in 586 BC, and in fact, when Jesus talked about the end times, the Temple was still in the process of being reconstructed. I don’t think it’s possible for us to imagine what it would be like to see the Temple being destroyed. The events of September 11, 2001, might come close, but the difference is that we did recover and we continue to exist as a country. In contrast, when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, not only was the most sacred place on earth destroyed, all of the hopes that the Jewish people might have had to exist as God’s people, free from Roman domination, were destroyed as well. We just can’t imagine what that’s like when we live in a country that hasn’t been conquered by a foreign enemy.

Luke wrote his gospel after the fall of the Temple. The Jewish Christians in his congregation would have been struggling to understand how God could have allowed the Temple to be destroyed again, and so they would have heard Jesus’ words first, as a prophecy come true, and second, as words of comfort: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” In other words, the destruction of the Temple and strange signs in the heavens are nothing to be afraid of. Instead, they are signs that Jesus is returning, and that those who trust in Jesus have received salvation already. Those who trust in Jesus know, as the prophet Jeremiah tells us today, that “The Lord is our righteousness.”

There is still a lot of evil in the world today that makes us afraid. We, like those Christians in Luke’s congregation in the first century, are still living in the in-between times as we await Jesus’ return. We are confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves as the earth gets warmer and sea levels rise, forcing people in low-lying areas to migrate and to seek higher ground. We, too, are fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world: refugees from the civil war in Syria flooding many countries, ISIS finding ways into Western countries and creating terror by killing civilians, protesters in Chicago and Minneapolis as the United States realizes that we haven’t learned the lessons of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and many, many more things that are evidence of the evil let loose in the world. We are afraid, and it is a natural response of human beings to be afraid.

The point of this Gospel passage is, though, to remind us that we do not need to be afraid. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, and indeed, throughout the rest of the Bible, we hear that command, “Do not be afraid.” Today we hear, “Do not be afraid, because you trust in Jesus, and what Jesus has done for you on the cross has redeemed you. You have no reason to be afraid.” Well, that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? How are we supposed to not be afraid when all of these fearful things are taking place around us?

The answer to that question comes in the last portion of today’s Gospel passage: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” In other words, we are to continue living faithfully, being alert and being ready for the Lord to return at any time, and to not be afraid. So, what does this look like as we see the evil things happening around us?

When we are confused by the “roaring of the sea and the waves,” and when we hear of countries that are poorer than we are being affected by climate change, we need to not be afraid of facing up to what we have done to contribute to this, confess our sin, and act. Faithful living in this situation will include reducing our own consumption, giving to organizations that work to alleviate the effects of climate change, and advocating for change in the system that produced and continues to produce climate change. Speaking of not being afraid, Paris is still playing host to the United Nations climate summit that will be taking place in the coming weeks, despite the fact that they are still reeling from terrorist attacks. These are ways that we can live in hope in the face of one thing that brings “fear and foreboding” of what is coming upon the world.

Another issue that brings fear upon us in these days is that of the Syrian refugee crisis. In fact, we have seen governors of many states in this country reacting in fear and saying, “not in my back yard,” thinking that every Syrian refugee is a potential terrorist. Now I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a vetting process. But, folks, trying to become a refugee and being resettled in the United States is already one of the most difficult things you can try to do, no matter which country you’re coming from. When I researched what it takes to gain refugee status in this country, I was amazed that anyone even attempts it. First, you have to be referred by the UN High Commission for Refugees or by the U.S. embassy in your country of origin. And even that doesn’t guarantee that you will get in to the process. If you pass that step, you go through a lengthy application process, including interviews, approval, getting in with an organization that will resettle you, a medical check, and a security clearance from the FBI and the State Department. The process can take years. Somehow I think there is a better chance of being shot by a disturbed white male in a mass shooting than there is of being the victim of an ISIS terrorist. In fact, most of the refugees from Syria are trying to get away from ISIS themselves. Therefore, faithful living in this case would be to learn more about the refugee process, including finding out more about what Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service does to help newcomers to our country. Living in hope means welcoming the foreigner and treating him or her well, as many passages in the Bible command us.

Finally, besides climate change and ISIS, there is still the problem of racism. Even when we think we are nice people and that we are not racists, we need to continually examine ourselves and see if that is true. For if it were true, then we shouldn’t have protests across the country over how black men are treated in the criminal justice system. If it were true that we weren’t racists, then the Washington football team would rename itself to something not offensive to Native American ears. Being not afraid and living faithfully in the face of racism is to continually examine ourselves, to listen to the experiences of minorities in this country, to repent, and to find ways to change the system in which we live. The presiding bishop of the ELCA will be hosting a second webcast on racism on Thursday, January 14, at 7 p.m., and I am planning on setting it up here in the sanctuary, so that we as a congregation can watch it and discuss it together. Even though we don’t have a large minority population here in Powell, racism still exists, and it’s something that we need to start talking about as we seek to minister in our community.

Climate change, ISIS, and racism are just three of many things that cause fear and foreboding upon the earth. Living faithfully means to live in hope, not in fear, and to be able to stand and lift up our heads when Jesus does return. To be clear, though, we are not the ones bringing in the kingdom. Our efforts are small, and they will fail more often than they succeed. But, we trust that our efforts are not what will save us. Rather, it is what Jesus has already done for us on the cross that saves us, and it is in Jesus that we trust for our redemption. What faithful living, that is, living in hope, in the face of the evil in the world, does for us is to help us to be prepared for when Jesus does return. When we live faithfully, the day of Jesus’ return will not catch us unexpectedly, like a trap. And so, we can say the word “Maranatha!” with generations of Christians that have come before us, and without fear: “The Lord has come!” “Come, O Lord!” Amen.

Advertisements

Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

John 18:33-37

I’ve been thinking a lot about kings and queens this week. Well, it makes sense, right? After all, today is Christ the King Sunday. But I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a king or a queen, especially in today’s society. After all, we don’t have a king or a queen ruling over us here in the United States, and our history tells us that kings and queens are bad things. It’s why we fought a war back in 1776, after all: King George III was burdening the people with taxes, and what gave him the right to tell us what to do when we had no say in the matter? But, that’s kind of the point of being a king, right? Kings get to tell the people they rule over what to do, and the people obey them. But, on the other hand, people today don’t always understand that. After all, the kings and queens we see in Europe today are figureheads—they don’t have any real power, even those like Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, who just passed Queen Victoria as the longest reigning monarch in that country. What does it mean for her to reign over her people when the real power to govern the country rests in a body like Parliament?

And so, this week when our confirmation class was learning about the three best-known kings of Israel: Saul, David, and Solomon, I had to emphasize that these three kings, and the other kings of Israel, literally had the power of life and death over their people. When the people of Israel initially asked the prophet Samuel for a king, Samuel warned them about what a king would do: he would take the sons and daughters of the people to be their servants; he would take the best of the people’s fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his best friends; he would take the people’s animals and put them to his work. And Samuel added: “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” Even with these dire warnings, the people still insisted on having a king to rule over them, and so the Lord allowed this to happen. And in the end, all of Samuel’s predictions about what the kings would do did come true.

So, with our American ambivalence about kings, and with the Biblical record also having an ambivalence about kings, and furthermore, with people today not knowing, really, what a king or a queen does or is all about, why do we in liturgical churches continue to mark the last day of our church year as Christ the King Sunday? Is this description of Jesus still relevant to us today, who don’t understand what being a king really means? Well, I think it is. As we get older, we do learn more about what kings and queens were all about, whether it’s the kings who appear in the Bible or kings in fairy tales or the kings and queens in Europe and other places. Some of them were really bad, while others are remembered as being great, and still others are notorious for things that maybe shouldn’t have happened—Henry VIII and his six wives come to mind. Most of these people have had an impact on world history, for better or for worse. But, we have a king who is better than all earthly kings and queens, better even than presidents, Congresses, and Parliaments, and it is to him that we should look to understand what true kingship is all about. And the name of that king is Jesus Christ.

In today’s Gospel reading, we see a scene from John’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, before Pilate has Jesus crucified. And they are discussing whether or not Jesus is king over the Jews. Now remember, Pilate is the Roman governor, and Caesar is the emperor. For Jesus to make a claim that he is king is rebellion against Caesar, and would give Pilate legitimate reason to have him executed. This is the reason that Jesus is evasive in his answers to Pilate, and does not outright say that yes, he is a king. But, he does describe his kingdom as being “not from this world” and that “Everyone who belongs to the truth” listens to his voice. And then Pilate asks the question that does not get included in today’s Gospel, for some reason, and a question that we need to ask ourselves, “What is truth?”

For that is the ultimate question in this, our post-modern age, when even truth is seen as relative by our culture. What is truth, and how do we know we belong to the truth? It seems as if each person today defines truth as a philosophy of life that works for them. Sometimes religion is part of that philosophy of life, but at other times it isn’t. And as long as we live and let live, then you’re okay and I’m okay. The problem becomes, what happens when one person’s philosophy of life is to gobble up all of the resources to make him or herself rich, and then charge people $750 per pill for a drug that may save that person’s life? Then that person’s truth is no longer harmless, but in fact inflicts harm on others who are ill and in need.

In contrast, John in his gospel declares, against Pilate’s cynical question, that there is indeed one truth, and that truth is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that by believing we may have life in his name. And in his account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, John portrays Jesus revealing the power of God in this way: Jesus takes his throne by being lifted up and by dying on the cross. This is the truth, John is saying, and this is our king: not only king of the Jews, but king over everyone. And when Jesus rules, he rules differently than any other king than we have ever seen. For Jesus’ coronation ceremony, according to John, happens when he dies on the cross for the sake of the world.

A king who rules by dying on the cross is certainly not from this world, for the Roman Empire and everyone else saw crucifixion as a humiliating defeat, as a violent lesson taught not only to the criminal who experienced it, but also to the people who witnessed it: if you do the same thing, this will most certainly happen to you. So what does this mean for those of us who follow Jesus, who claim him as our king? What does it mean for us that Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world?

Let’s start first with what this doesn’t mean. When Jesus says that his kingdom is not from this world, he doesn’t mean that his kingdom is only a spiritual kingdom, where he rules only in our hearts. That would indeed be a poor kingdom. If we say that Jesus rules over us, then he rules over us completely: mind, body, and soul. And he rules not only over us, but over the entire creation: all of humanity, all of the animals, plants, rocks, insects, and so on and so forth that are to be found on this earth. And so, as members of Jesus’ kingdom, we are to show love to one another and also to the whole creation, as we care for one another and for the gifts with which God has blessed us.

Jesus’ kingdom is not a spiritual kingdom just because it is not from this world. Jesus’ kingdom is a kingdom where he rules by washing our feet, that is, by getting down and dirty with us in the mess that we have made of our lives. Jesus’ kingdom is a place where we are commanded to love one another. And love is not all romance and hearts and flowers. Love is difficult. Showing love to one another means opening ourselves up to pain and suffering. Love is work, like the work that a husband and wife put into a marriage so that they willingly stay together for 50 and more years. Love is caring for a parent who has Alzheimer’s and who doesn’t know who you are anymore. Love is forgiving your children and welcoming them back into the family even when their actions have caused such pain that you don’t know how or if the rift between you can be fully healed. Love means intentionally opening yourself up to the pain which the other person may cause you simply because you believe this truth: that the other person is worthy of being loved, so worthy, in fact, that you might just be willing to die for him or her.

And, finally, that is the truth which we belong to: not only that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but also that by believing, we may have life in his name. That life that we have in his name means that we believe what Jesus has taught us and has shown us: God loved us so much, that he sent his Son to die for us. God has deemed us worthy of God’s love, not because of anything we have done, but simply because God made us to be God’s beloved children. That is the truth that we belong to and which Jesus modeled for us. Now we are called to wash one another’s feet, that is, to love one another, just as he loved us. That’s not just a nice thought—it involves actual hard work. And we will fail in this calling. But Jesus will be there by our side, forgiving us, loving us and spurring us on to continue to love one another as he has loved us. Let us carry this truth with us from here into our daily lives always. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 25B

Mark 13:1-8

Well, folks, it’s that time of year again. It’s the time when the lectionary gives us Jesus’ prophecies about the downfall of the Jerusalem temple and signs of the end of time. And to go with that, it’s always fun to look at what this year’s crop of apocalypse-predictors have been saying about the exact date when the world is going to end. This year, the prize goes to end-times preacher John Hagee, who saw that a lunar eclipse was going to happen on September 27th, noted that it was falling on what was called the “blood moon,” noted that it was the fourth blood moon lunar eclipse to fall near a major Jewish holiday in recent years, and declared that this was a sign “something dramatic [will] happen in the Middle East involving Israel that will change the course of history in the Middle East and impact the whole world.” The funny thing about this particular prediction is that Hagee got an astronomer to come on his show, apparently hoping that the astronomer would back up his predictions. However, the astronomer pointed out that first, lunar eclipses are quite common, and second, the fact that four of them have fallen around major Jewish holidays is nothing but a coincidence. Finally, the astronomer noted that the lunar eclipse, while visible here in the United States, was not visible in Israel, and asked the question, “If this eclipse is not visible in Israel, how is it supposed to have such a major impact for events in that country?” Hagee couldn’t answer the question. And nothing major has happened in Israel, aside from the usual fighting that goes on in the region. So much for that particular prediction.

As we approach today’s apocalyptic text from Jesus, my question is why: why do human beings feel the need to know exactly how much time we have until the end of the world, or, until Jesus returns. Is it out of a true desire for Jesus to come again and set all things right? Or, is it the power that comes from making a right prediction, so that people will follow you as a true prophet of God? While there may be some who make these predictions in the true, heartfelt desire for Jesus to come, and to come quickly, I think that, more often than not, our sinful desires lead us to make those predictions in the hope that we are the favored ones and God will reward us for listening to what he is secretly telling his favorites.

But, folks, the point of apocalyptic writing is not to predict the exact date of the end of things, nor is it to literally put the fear of God in to us. Instead, it is to give us hope: hope that, when things are looking particularly bad in the world around us, and when things are especially painful, that the evil in the world does not have the last word. Instead, God has the last word, and that last word is this: there will be new life after all of the pain, struggle, and death during the times that we are currently living in.

This is why, in the portion of Mark 13 that we have before us today, the metaphor used to describe our tumultuous times is that of birth pangs. The phrase “birth pangs” is a little softened for our easily offended ears. I’d like to rephrase Mark 13:8 in this way: This is but the beginning of labor contractions. This should immediately make you think of childbirth. Those of you who have given birth to children know what that intense pain is like, and those of you who are husbands to those who have given birth may have looked on as your child was being born and wished that you could do something, anything, to take that pain away from your wife. This is the image that Jesus gives us for what we are going through now. When we hear of wars and rumors of wars, when there are earthquakes in various places, when there are famines, we are not to be alarmed. This is all just the beginning of labor contractions: even as there is pain and heartache, God will bring forth new life, just as at the end of those labor contractions, there is a brand new, beautiful baby to be held in your arms.

And so, what Jesus is doing in this passage is to tell his disciples not to get caught up in speculating exactly when the end is going to be. If we read on in this chapter of Mark, we will see that the life of a disciple of Jesus is going to be hard. Along with wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines, Jesus’ disciples will be persecuted and will be called upon to testify to their faith before kings and governors. They will have to be on their guard against people who claim to be the Messiah, or who come in Jesus’ name and are not he. What Jesus is calling for in his talk with his disciples is for them to be strong, to persevere and to endure through all of these labor contractions. It’s kind of the same when a woman gives birth, isn’t it? In these times, she will usually have people in the room with her as she is giving birth, urging her to keep going, as well as comforting her, telling her that she will live through the pain of childbirth, and telling her that her baby is coming, her baby is fine and will be a beautiful, healthy child. So it is with us as we are undergoing the birth pangs of the creation: we don’t know when, exactly, that new birth will happen, but we know it is coming, and we know that God is present with us, urging us on.

When I was a child, one of the shows that I really liked to watch was “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Fred Rogers, the host of the show, was a Presbyterian minister and much loved for his gentleness and his kindness towards children. Mister Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” With all due respect to Mister Rogers, I would like to take this thought one step further. When you find the people who are helping during a scary situation, look closely, because this is where you will see God’s presence in our midst.

On Friday, we received the news that there were multiple terrorist attacks carried out in the city of Paris. As I was reading the reports of all of the dead, all of the grief and mourning, and all of the fear, I read this one sentence, “People were inviting people off the streets into their apartments.” Here were the helpers. Even in this horrible and terrifying situation, there were people helping other people. God was present through those helpers. God was present through the many emergency workers who came to the rescue of those who were injured and scared. Even in this terrifying event, even when the labor contractions are so painful, even where we think Satan has full reign, God is there, giving us glimpses of his coming kingdom, and giving us hope that the pain and the suffering will one day end.

When an earthquake struck Nepal earlier this year, Lutheran World Relief was there immediately to help, and they are still there. Currently, they are providing food and shelter, as well as distributing quilts and personal care kits—some of which may have originated here with our congregation!—and they are there for the long term, working to rebuild and help people recover their livelihoods. God is there in their midst, weeping with those who have lost their homes and their loved ones, and being present with workers who encounter heartbreaking situations, urging them to be steadfast and to endure, for something new is being born. And God is there in their midst, reassuring them that their brothers and sisters around the world care for them and are praying for them, as well as sending money, quilts, and supplies to help.

That new world-wide community of sisters and brothers, with Christ as our head, is part of that new birth. These instances are just two of the many glimpses of the new life that is being born through the pain and suffering that is going on in the world. And do you know what the very first sign of that new life to come was? Turns out, there was a sign in the heavens, but it wasn’t the moon turning to blood. When Jesus entered the Jordan River and was baptized, the heavens were torn open and the Spirit descended like a dove on him, and a voice from heaven named him God’s Son. He thus began his ministry by teaching the people, kicking out the unclean spirits, and healing those who were sick. And finally, Jesus died on the cross for us, and the curtain of the temple was torn apart, signifying, among other things, that there is no longer a barrier between us and God. In Jesus, in his death and resurrection, God is present with us, and will be with us, even when things look bleak and we cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel.

So, let’s stop trying to read signs in the heavens and predict the exact date of Jesus’ return. Let us not be afraid when we hear of terrorist attacks, earthquakes, and famines. For when we do that, we fall prey to all of those people who want power among human beings more than they want Jesus to come back. And, as a very irreverent friend of mine once said, every time we try to predict an exact date for Jesus’ return, God gets out a lawn chair, sits down, cracks open a beer, and laughs at all of us running around like idiots. What we should be doing instead is this: first of all, resting in the knowledge that the ultimate sign of God’s presence with us has already come. In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the heavens have been torn open, God is with us, and we have been and are saved. While we wait for Jesus to return and strive to follow him, we are undergoing labor contractions with the world as something new is being born. So, the next thing we should be doing is to not speculate on when Jesus is coming, nor to follow those who are predicting it. Instead, we should be working to form that beloved community across the world: being with those who are suffering, praying for them, helping them as we can, and living in the hope that this will not be forever. For even though the labor seems long, that new birth will come, and that is the hope that we keep our eyes focused upon. Until then, we pray with generations of Christians before us: Come, Lord Jesus. Come quickly. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 24B

Mark 12:38-44

So, after today’s Gospel text, I expect that you’re thinking you’re going to get a stewardship sermon. For years upon years, pastors have held up this text of the widow giving her two small copper coins, everything that she had, as an offering to the Temple. They then take this and make us feel guilty about our current levels of giving. See what the widow did, they say. She gave everything she had to God, and Jesus regards what she gave as much, much more than what the rich people gave. Now that you feel guilty that you’re not giving all that you could to the church, like this widow did, won’t you raise the amount you are giving by 1% this year? Well, I feel that financial stewardship is important, and there are many other places in the Gospels where Jesus talks about our relationship with money, and when those Gospels come up, then I will talk about financial stewardship and how we can be giving more to the church for God’s ministry and mission here in Powell. But I don’t believe that this is a place where Jesus is talking about our relationship with money and how we use our money. At least, not entirely. And here’s why: where our English translation has Jesus saying that the widow put in “everything she had to live on,” the Greek is more properly translated as the widow gave “her whole life.” Those two coins that the widow gave represented her entire life. Jesus wasn’t talking about portions of money that we give to God. Rather, he was talking about how much of our entire lives we give to God.
To get at this, I’d like to take you back a couple of weeks to the sermon I preached about the rich young man who came to Jesus wanting to know what he had to do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus discovered that the man was righteous, that is, that he followed all of the commandments and made the proper restitution when he inevitably broke the commandments, Jesus told him that the one thing that he lacked was to sell everything he owned, give to the poor, and then to come and follow Jesus. And the man went away sad, because he had great wealth. If you can remember back that far, I asked us to think about what that one thing is that we find impossible to give up, that one thing that is our “precious”. Money is often the answer to that question, yes, just as it was the answer to the question for the rich young man. But just as often, it is something else besides or in addition to money that we are not able to give up.
In contrast to the story of the wealthy young man, we have this nameless widow who gave up these two small coins, her entire life, into the Temple treasury, and thus gave her entire life into God’s keeping. And this is why I think this Gospel text is poorly chosen for a stewardship sermon: the woman sets an impossible standard for us to live up to. In today’s society, it is next to impossible for us to give up all of our money to God. We have bills to pay so that we survive, after all. To give up all of our money to the church would require us to radically restructure our society, and resort to communal living. We might end up looking similar to one of the Hutterite colonies to the north of us, or perhaps even a monastery like the one down near Meeteetse. And I don’t think that any of us are quite prepared to do that.
So instead of a stewardship sermon, I think today’s Gospel lends itself better to a discipleship sermon. What would it take for us to consciously give our whole lives into God’s keeping and to follow Jesus with everything that we are? Most of us, I think, are like the rich people putting large sums into the Temple treasury and even those large sums only represent a portion of our lives. We compartmentalize our lives and say: I’ll give a few hours on Sunday morning to worship God, and maybe I’ll come and help out with events during the week. But God, the rest of my life is for me to do what I want with, thank you very much. And so, I ask this not only of you but of myself, how do we fall in love with God so much that God is in every part of our lives, in everything that we do, and we can’t help but talk about that love for God to everyone that we meet?
What I’m talking about here is our spirituality. Our Thursday morning Bible class this week asked the question, “What is spirituality?” And the answer we came up with, as a group, is that spirituality is how we express our faith in our daily lives. Now, just to be clear, I’m not talking about that favorite of all Lutheran theological terms, justification. Justification is the idea that all of our sins are forgiven and that we are made right with God through what Jesus has done for us on the cross. Nothing that we have done, are currently doing, or will do will ever earn that wonderful gift of forgiveness that Jesus gave to us through his death and his resurrection. Our spirituality, then, is how we live as Christians now that we know we are forgiven. What does knowing that all of our sins are completely forgiven lead us to do with our lives? What kinds of things do we do to strengthen one another in our faith? What kinds of things do we do to share our faith with others who have not yet heard it? In short, how do we follow Jesus with our entire lives?
As I was pondering these questions this week, my eye happened to glance up toward the bookshelves in my study, and I saw a little book that I had called “Spirituality: Toward a 21st Century Lutheran Understanding.” This book is a series of essays by professors at my alma mater, the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, getting at what spirituality looks like for Lutherans. I opened up this book and started skimming the pages, and I found an essay written by Robin Steinke, who was the dean at Gettysburg seminary when I was there and who is now the president of Luther Seminary. In this essay, Steinke makes the claim that our spirituality starts with worship. She writes, “The worshiping community presupposes focus on the ‘other’ rather than the individual” (73). While she acknowledges that there are aspects of our faith that are individual, the greater focus when we come to worship is on the community.
For it is here, as a community, that we hear, week after week, about how much God loves us through the Word that is spoken and preached. It is here, week after week, that we are reminded that God has claimed us as his children in baptism, and where we are reminded in Holy Communion how much Jesus has done for us. It is here in worship that we are hearing today that Jesus, like the widow in our story, gave his entire life away for us, and how Jesus is calling us to serve one another, just as he came not to be served, but to serve. Worship teaches us to be God’s beloved and loving community, and in worship, we are empowered to go out into the world, serving those outside of our congregation and witnessing to the love of God through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Everything that we do to express our faith, therefore, comes out of worship. When we volunteer at Loaves and Fishes, we may be reminded of the words of Jesus, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” When we spend time with God in our daily devotions at home, we may remember Jesus’ words telling us to pray to our Father in secret. When we get involved with politics in order to advocate for correcting injustice, we may remember the words of the prophet Micah, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” All of these words, and more, have been read and preached on in worship. When we comfort someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one, we may remind them that Jesus weeps with them, and we may encourage them to come to receive Holy Communion, rejoicing in the knowledge that they are receiving a taste of the feast that their loved one is experiencing in heaven, and that Jesus is present with them.
And finally, there is money. In worship, we take up an offering. The time for offering is not merely a time for fumbling for your envelope and trying to sing the offering hymn at the same time. The offering represents our lives. The offering up of our financial gifts is an expression of our faith in God. It speaks of how much we trust God to care for us. It speaks of how much we are willing to give, to sacrifice, so that God’s mission and ministry may continue here in Powell and around the world. Do we have faith that our hands are indeed doing God’s work, as the ELCA tagline says? Then the financial gifts that we give should be expressing that faith.
Mark Allen Powell, in his book, “Giving to God,” tells a story about the Gauls, a warlike people who lived in what is now France. In this story, Christian missionaries arrive and convert many of the Gauls, who then become baptized. But, when they are baptized, they hold one arm high in the air so that they can say, “This arm wasn’t baptized—I can go fight in battles and kill someone with a clear conscience!” I think this is a good image for us to end our reflections with today. What part of our lives are we holding back from giving over to God? Perhaps it is money. Perhaps it is helping people in need. Perhaps we are refraining from visiting someone who is grieving because we don’t know what to say. Whatever that thing is, whatever that “precious” is that we do not wish to give up, let us be in prayer about it in the coming days and ask God what it is he is asking us to give over to him. Jesus gave his whole life so that we might be saved. Following Jesus requires us to grow into entrusting him with our whole lives. Amen.

Sermon for All Saints’ Day

John 11:32-44

This Wednesday, when the area Lutheran pastors gathered to discuss today’s texts, the topic of funerals came up. You may have noticed that all of the texts that you have heard today are often chosen to be read at funerals. One of our group said that, at one funeral that she had led, she began to cry. Someone asked her later, “Shouldn’t you be used to this by now? After all, you’ve led several funerals already in your pastoral career.” And her response was, “The good pastors never get used to death.” Death is a severing of a relationship. Death is a loss of the potential of that person to continue relationships, to make a difference in the world, to teach those who are coming after her what she has learned in life, and to pass on her memories, her stories, to teach those who continue to live. Death is painful—not for the person who has died, who is beyond all pain, but for the people who will miss the person who has died. And in every funeral that I’ve done, even if I didn’t know the person that well, the emotions of those who did know the person well will overwhelm me, and the enormity of the hope of the resurrection that I am preaching will overpower me, and I will choke up. That is something I hope that I never “get used to”.

So let’s bring those feelings with us as we hear this Gospel text today, and as we overhear and experience the grief of Mary, Martha, their friends, and especially, Jesus. Since we only get a snippet of the whole story today, I’d like to take you back to the beginning. When Lazarus falls ill, his sisters, Mary and Martha, send word to Jesus that he is sick. They are expecting that Jesus will come and make Lazarus well again, because they know that Jesus loves Lazarus. But Jesus doesn’t go to Bethany right away. John puts it like this: “Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” So, when Lazarus dies and there’s no sign of Jesus coming, can you imagine the things that Mary and Martha were thinking and feeling? Well, of course. They are the same things that we think and feel when someone that we love dies. Where were you, Jesus? Why didn’t you come and make him well? I thought you loved us. Don’t you love us, Jesus? Don’t you know that we still needed him to be with us? These questions are filled with hurt, with anger, and with pain at Jesus’ seeming rejection of those whom he is supposed to love.

So, when Jesus does finally arrive in Bethany, he discovers that Lazarus has been dead and buried for four days, and he finds Martha, Mary, and their friends in deep mourning over Lazarus. Now I’d like you to imagine the feelings that Martha and Mary are experiencing when Jesus comes strolling in to Bethany. And I think the chief feeling would be one of anger: Oh, now you show up, Jesus. If you’d gotten up off your butt and come when we sent you the message that Lazarus was ill, you could have healed him. But no one is able to bring someone back from the dead. Too little, too late, Jesus. And so, they let their tears and their anger out. Both Martha and Mary say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Do you hear the rebuke in those words? And how many times have we said it, too, when someone that we love dies: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother/sister/husband/wife/father/mother would not have died.”

But, here’s the thing: Jesus gets these emotions. And he feels them, too. When John tells us that Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved, what the original Greek is saying is that he is angry. Our English translation really softens this, because we don’t like to think of Jesus being angry. But, in modern English slang, Jesus is p.o.’ed. The question then becomes, Why is Jesus angry? I don’t think it’s because the people are not believing that he can raise Lazarus from the dead. I think that Jesus is angry at death. After all, death was not God’s plan for humanity. And so, he is angry at the pain that death causes, and how unnecessary death should have been for humanity. And Jesus also is moved to tears when he sees Martha and Mary and all of those with them crying. And this is not the elegant, one or two tears leaking out of the corner of Jesus’ eyes that we see in movie portrayals. Why don’t we like to see Jesus expressing strong emotions, anyway? No, the Greek word here indicates that Jesus bawled like a baby, barely able to speak the words that he spoke because he was crying so hard. When I say that God weeps with us when we are sad, this is what I mean: as hard as you are crying, that’s what God is doing too. God knows and feels your pain intimately, because Jesus knew and felt that human pain too.

Jesus, however, doesn’t leave us wallowing in our grief. Instead, he gives us hope: hope that we will one day see our loved ones again. And we see that hope in the story before us today. Even as we know that Jesus understands and feels our pain at the loss of our loved ones, he gives us promises. He gives us the promise in words that, unfortunately, are not part of the snippet of the Gospel story that we have in front of us today: after Martha reproaches Jesus for not having been there in time to heal Lazarus, Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again.” When Martha says that she knows he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day, Jesus responds, “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.” Those words that brought comfort to Martha on that long ago day in Bethany still bring comfort to us today as we live in the hope that we will see our loved ones again. But then, it gets better: Jesus gives Martha and Mary the physical sign which confirms his words, and does what everyone thinks is impossible: he raises Lazarus from the dead.

And as if that hope that we receive from the raising of Lazarus from the dead were not enough for us, the lectionary actually does a good thing today and pairs this John text with two readings that describe what things will look like when the kingdom of God comes at the end of the ages. Isaiah tells us that death will be destroyed, that the Lord God himself will wipe away all tears from our eyes, and that we will have a rich feast together with all of those whom we have loved. As you come up today for communion, I want you to hold that image in your minds, and think of communion as a foretaste of that feast, and believe that even now, we are sharing that meal not only with those whom we see here today, but also with those who are already in heaven. Our second reading today, from Revelation, tells us that God will dwell with us, and again, that death will be no more, and God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes, reinforcing what Isaiah prophesied so long ago. We can be sure of God’s promises, so that, even while we mourn those whom we have lost, we live in hope of seeing them again one day, because of what Jesus has done for us.

In many churches on All Saints’ Day, the names that get read are only the ones who have died in the past year. We have read and seen pictures of many of our loved ones today who have gone on to be with Jesus in heaven. But I would like to, now, take note of the people of Hope Lutheran who have died in the last year: Nellie Kloster, Kay Hannum, Wesley Johnson, Jim Vogt, and Vangie Sanders. I think these deaths have hit our congregation particularly hard this year. Nellie, Kay, and Vangie, while older and in poor health, represented the old era of what church was all about: evangelizing and volunteering with little thought to themselves, because they believed so strongly in the Lord Jesus and wanted everyone else to know, too. With their deaths, we are mourning not only their loss, but the passing of a different era from the church. Jim’s death hit us hard because of the unexpected and lengthy illness that preceded it: Judy, the whole congregation has been in mourning with you. Wesley, while not an active member of Hope, was young, and the tragedy of a young life cut short, especially when God was just beginning to draw him back to faith, caused us to mourn the potential of what he could have been. It’s been a difficult year for all of us, and I think that we as a congregation, whether we have known it or not, have been in deep mourning, and have really been wondering what the future of our congregation will be.

But if today’s readings show us anything, they show us that we are resurrection people. Yes, Jesus has been weeping with us, just as he wept with Martha and Mary over the death of Lazarus. But just as he gave Martha and Mary and all who were with them hope for new life when he raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus also gives us hope that new life can spring from the ashes of our grief. Today, on All Saints’ Day, we remember our dead and we grieve their loss. But we live in hope that we will see them again one day, when Jesus comes to fulfill the kingdom of God here on earth. Until that time, we continue living. And we live in hope. Like Lazarus, we are unbound and we are set free to continue living here on earth, bringing the good news of the hope that we have in Jesus to everyone around us. So let us go forth and live as resurrection people. Amen.