Sermon for Easter Sunday

Luke 24:1-12

One of my favorite movies is The Princess Bride. For those of you who haven’t seen this movie, it’s a spoof of all of the fairy tales we ever grew up with, and is a fairy tale all on its own. It’s an absolutely marvelous movie with many well-known actors and filled with many memorable quotes. At one point in the movie, the hero, Westley, is killed by one of the bad guys. Two other characters in the story, who need Westley to help them, take him to Miracle Max to see if there is anything he can do for Westley. Miracle Max (played by Billy Crystal) tells the two guys that they are lucky, because their friend Westley is only mostly dead. If someone is all dead, he says, there’s only one thing you can do: go through his clothes and look for loose change.

Well, folks, Jesus was all dead. There was no doubt about that. Numerous witnesses saw Jesus die on the cross. All four Gospels tell us that. Crucifixion was a gruesome and torturous way to die, and the Romans did not let you down from it until they were certain you were dead. The women who went to the tomb at early dawn that first day of the week knew that Jesus was all dead. That’s why they were carrying spices: Jesus’ body had been taken down from the cross and buried so hurriedly, they had been unable to wash his body and anoint it with spices before he was buried. They went to the tomb that morning prepared to honor Jesus in the last way that they were able to, and to mourn him once more. Not only were they going to mourn Jesus, they were going to mourn the loss of all of their hopes that Jesus represented to them. The Messiah was not supposed to be killed on the cross, after all. The Messiah was supposed to rise up and free Israel by overthrowing the Roman Empire. These women were mourning the loss of their hopes and wondering how they would continue their lives from this point onward.

So, imagine what their feelings were when they came to Jesus’ tomb and found the stone rolled away and no body. The Greek word gets translated “perplexed” but it can also mean “to be in doubt” or “to not know which way to turn”. This is the right tomb, Mary, isn’t it? Yes, Joanna, I remember that particular tree with the funny-looking branches. Are you sure, Mary? Maybe we should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque. And then, just as it’s setting in on them that this is the right tomb and Jesus is nowhere to be seen, two men in dazzling clothes appear beside them and tell them that Jesus is not here, he is risen! And here’s the thing: this message doesn’t quite sink in until the angels tell them to remember what Jesus had told them: that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again. They remember and make the connections and only then does the light bulb go on! Click! Oh, THAT’S what Jesus meant. NOW we get it.

And so the women run back to tell the disciples what has happened. And here, this is my favorite part of the story. The men dismissed what the women were saying as “an idle tale”. The Greek word actually means “nonsense”. Next week we’ll deal with Thomas not believing that Jesus has risen, and he always gets a hard time about that, but here in Luke we see *all* of the men not believing just as stubbornly as Thomas did. But that’s okay, women are used to not being believed by men, right? Well, except for Peter. Something that the women said to the disciples sparked something in Peter, and, hoping beyond hope, he ran to the tomb, only to see the same thing the women saw, except for no angels. And he went away amazed. It’s important to note here that Peter still didn’t believe that Jesus had risen, just that the tomb was empty.

And this is what I think is important for us to get today. I don’t understand how the resurrection happened. I have been on this earth for 41 years, and all of my experience tells me that dead is dead, and people don’t come back from being dead. And yet, against all of my experience, I believe that Jesus Christ did physically, bodily, rise from the dead. And that is the promise that we are given: not only that we will be with Jesus in Paradise when we die, as he told the criminal on the cross who believed in him, but that beyond Paradise there will be a resurrection where we will be physically, bodily raised from the dead; where we will be able to be with our loved ones, to touch them, to speak with them, and where all will be well, and there will be no more crying and no more pain. That is what I am here to proclaim, and that is what I believe.

But I also understand that many of you have doubts. Maybe you’re here today to make one of your loved ones happy and you don’t believe any of this. While I was writing today’s sermon, I was also speaking online with a friend in Denmark who told me that there’s a debate in the church there about whether Jesus’ resurrection really happened or it was just an idea, some sort of spiritual thing where Jesus lives on in our hearts only, even though he’s dead. Maybe that’s where some of you are today. And that’s okay: I’m not here to talk you into believing the way I do. And I don’t believe you’re going to hell if you don’t believe Jesus was physically raised from the dead. Because, look, the disciples didn’t believe at first, either. All of their experience told them, too, that dead was dead, and there’s no coming back from being dead. If we continue reading on in Luke, we will find that most of the disciples didn’t believe until after Jesus himself appeared and reminded them of everything that he had taught them. It took many days of repeating and remembering and seeing Jesus appear in the flesh before his first disciples truly believed. And so it may also take us many days, weeks, and even years of hearing Jesus speak to us in many and various ways before we can truly encounter him as risen from the dead.

But I would like to testify to you today why I believe that Jesus physically and historically rose from the dead on that first Easter so long ago. Yes, I am a cradle Lutheran, and yes, I grew up going to church and believing this. I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that all of that teaching and repetition hadn’t taken a hold of me. But part of being a member of the Lutheran branch of Christianity is learning to think about your faith, to study the Scriptures, and to not simply believe just because someone told you that you had to. And I have wrestled with Jesus being physically resurrected at different points in my life. What I keep coming back to, though, is the reasoning that Paul gives us today in his first letter to the Corinthians: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” If Jesus had not risen from the dead, then all he would be is just another great moral teacher who was executed by an Empire who didn’t understand what he was trying to say. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, then, as Paul says earlier in 1 Corinthians 15, our “faith is futile” and we are still in our sins. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, then why did so many who believe in him become martyrs? It seems rather pointless to die for just a great moral teacher, after all.

And so this is my testimony to you: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! We have no more reason to fear death, for, again as Paul writes, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ”. Because Jesus is risen, we know that we, too, will also rise with him and that one day, death will be completely destroyed. This is the faith which the Holy Spirit has given me, and it is the faith and the belief which I proclaim to you. I do not know how it is true, but I believe it to be so, and I believe that this faith is what God has placed the church here on earth to proclaim and to teach. And so I welcome you all to worship this risen Christ, and to experience the love which Jesus has for each and every one of you. You are welcome to worship here, to learn, to question and to express your doubt without fear every day of the year. You are also welcome to express your joys, your sorrows, your pain, and your hope here. That hope that this astounding good news just might be true: that death is not the end; that death will one day be destroyed, and that Jesus Christ has won the victory for us. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

 

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Sermon for Good Friday

Luke 23:39-43

We fear death in our society. Look around and see that this is true. We have a low attendance at our Good Friday worship service, which has astounded me for the entire time that I have been here at Hope. Isn’t this, after all, one of the most holy days of our church year? Isn’t this the day that we remember what Jesus has done for us, by dying on the cross? I’ve thought of reasons that Christians don’t come to Good Friday worship. And I know that this year in particular coincided with spring break, and many are traveling, and still others are suffering from illness. Maybe also it’s not how they were brought up, or maybe it’s not part of their tradition of worship. And that is perhaps true. But I’ve come to believe that the true reason is bigger than that: we fear death. We don’t like to be sad. Being sad doesn’t feel good. We want to focus on the good stuff in life. We have even turned funerals into “celebrations of life” because we don’t want to grieve for those we have lost. More and more when I read obituaries I see people who have requested that no funeral services be held for them: perhaps because they don’t like all of the fuss, or even in death, they don’t want to be the center of attention.

Yet by denying a funeral, or changing the word “funeral” into “a celebration of life”, we deny that we need to grieve. And denying the need to grieve is never healthy. We human beings are material creatures: when we lose something, even something as small as an old jewelry box that we inherited from our grandmother, we mourn the loss of not only the thing, but also the loss all of the associations that go with it. How much more, then, the need to mourn, grieve, cry, and scream over the loss of a person whom we have loved!

Folks, there is no resurrection without death. We cannot truly and rightly understand the joy and wonder of Easter morning without first coming face to face with Jesus’ death on the cross. The women who watched Jesus die on the cross did not know that there would be a resurrection. They had heard Jesus speak of this dying and rising during his ministry, but they did not understand it any more than the twelve did. All they knew at the foot of the cross was that they needed to stay with Jesus in his moment of trial, hoping against hope that he might just yet show forth his power and come down from the cross, but knowing that they needed to be with him even to his death.

But even in his suffering, even in that moment of despair and hopelessness, Jesus offered a word of hope from the cross. When the criminal crucified next to Jesus repented and asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom, Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Salvation does not come at some distant time, but salvation comes today. Salvation does not come by avoiding suffering, grief, and death, but salvation comes through that suffering, grief, and death.

Because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, we do not need to fear death. Because of Jesus’ death, we can face death, we can acknowledge our grief and let it flow, and we can know that death is not the end. For today, today! Salvation has come, and we can be assured that we will be with Jesus in Paradise. Death is real and we must acknowledge it. We must acknowledge our grief and our suffering, and we must acknowledge that sometimes, the grief will be with us for a while. But even in the midst of that grief and suffering, we have hope that Jesus will be with us. And we can be confident that this is so, for we have a God who knows, intimately, the pain of loss, the pain of death, and so we have a God who mourns with us when we mourn.

So come now and, with those first women who stayed with Jesus, gaze upon the cross. Come and see what Jesus has done for us. Come now and hear his last words as he dies. Come and confront death, both Jesus’ and our own mortality. Come and mourn, but mourn knowing that even through death and suffering, our salvation has arrived. Our salvation has arrived today, and, with the repentant criminal on the cross, we will be with Jesus in Paradise. Amen.

Sermon for Maundy Thursday

John 13:1-17; 31b-35

One of the things that was exciting for me on my recent trip to Germany was meeting Lutherans from many different parts of the world. Besides people from European countries, like Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, and Estonia, there were many people from African countries, one from El Salvador, two from India, one from Nepal, and two from Malaysia. With the exception of one gentleman from South Africa, who was Moravian, all of us were Lutheran, and came from churches that are members of the Lutheran World Federation. Going into this, I knew that there would be differences in beliefs and opinions in spite of our common denominational background, but one of those differences truly surprised me.

All of us in this group were pastors, and of the 21 of us, only 5 of us were women. With the exception of one woman who was from El Salvador, the rest of us came either from the United States or Europe. We 5 women were all ordained Lutheran clergy. One afternoon early on in the two weeks, one of the questions that was raised to be discussed in groups was whether or not it was permissible in Lutheran theology to ordain women. I was stunned that this discussion was even taking place. I guess I had thought that even if this was still a live issue for our brothers in African countries, that out of courtesy to the five of us women who were there, they would refrain from debating this topic in front of us. But, this was not the case. I had thought that, upon my coming into the ELCA and becoming ordained, I would not have to deal with this theologically again. And, hearing these arguments against the ordination of women wounded me all over again: it felt like the calling I had heard from God was being questioned, and that these men who were there were not respecting me as a pastor. One gentleman from Cameroon was particularly vocal in his opposition to the ordination of women, and I resolved in my mind that, from that point onward, I would be polite to him, but I would not seek out his company.

The days went on, and on a Saturday, we took an all-day trip to Erfurt, to see the cloister where Martin Luther became a monk, and to the Wartburg, the castle where, while he was in hiding, Martin Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German. The Wartburg is a castle that sits atop a very high hill, and when you go there, you have to park in a parking lot and then walk up many flights of stairs the rest of the way up. As you might guess, I fell behind everyone else and was huffing and puffing the whole way up. Suddenly, there by my side was the gentleman from Cameroon, offering me his hand and helping me up the stairs. I almost started crying right there out of frustration with myself: first, for not being able to handle all those stairs, and second, that this gentleman understood what being a Christian meant better than I did.

This night is called Maundy Thursday. The word “Maundy” is a corruption of the Latin word “mandatum”, meaning “command”. This is the night when we remember that Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another. Jesus shows what loving one another means when he washes their feet. Have you ever literally washed someone else’s feet? I would like to try that here sometime; maybe next year on Maundy Thursday. Washing someone else’s feet is an intimate act. It feels awkward, because it seems like a highly personal act for someone who we may not know very well. To wash someone else’s feet means that we must admit, in a very literal way, that we really do love that person regardless of any differences of opinion we may hold. And, something that struck me this year as I was studying this passage from John once more is that Jesus did this highly personal act for Judas. Judas, the man who, Jesus knew, was going to betray him to the authorities in just a few moments. And yet, by washing Judas’ feet along with the other disciples, Jesus was saying that he truly loved Judas in spite of what Judas was going to do.

This night is a good night to think about whose feet we would wash, and whose we wouldn’t, literally and figuratively. Would you wash the feet of Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton? Bernie Sanders? A member of ISIS? Would you wash the feet of the ex-convict who lives in your neighborhood? How about the drug addict? Or one of the county commissioners? Would you allow your own feet to be washed by one of these people, if they offered? If we are being brutally honest with ourselves, a lot of us would answer “no” to one or more of these people whom I have suggested. We would have to confess to God that we have not truly followed the command of our Lord Jesus as we ought to.

And yet, the good news is that Jesus has indeed washed our feet. He has shown us his love for us, even while we are yet sinners, by loving us so much that he dies on the cross for us. This good news gives us hope that God will yet love us and forgive us, even when we fail to love one another as we ought to.

On that day when we climbed up the hill to the Wartburg, the gentleman from Cameroon loved me as Jesus commanded, and helped me up those stairs in spite of our differences in theology. His kindness shamed me, and from that day onward my heart softened toward him. I can’t say that we became the best of friends, but we had some more conversations, and we parted as friends. I will always remember him and the lesson that God taught me through him. I pray that the Lord will richly bless his ministry, and I pray that my ministry will be better because of him. Jesus tells us, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” May it be so, Lord Jesus. Amen.