Monthly Archives: November 2013

Thoughts On Thanksgiving, Advent, and the Infamous Black Friday

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“Give thanks to the Lord, for God is good.  God’s love endures forever!” – Psalm 136:1

It is the Monday of Thanksgiving week, and my Gmail inbox is already full of promotional emails about the “best Black Friday” deals… “Deals” that will “prepare” us for Christmas and will “please everyone on our lists this year.”  … We better make sure to get up extra early this Friday (or even – in many cases – cut Thanksgiving dinner short this Thursday) so we can rush off to the stores and be the first ones in line to snatch up the “top items” on our list… And while we are at it, we might want to bring along a broom or an umbrella that we can use as a weapon against anyone who might get in our way…

Oh, the irony…

It is ironic that this “Black Friday” frenzy comes the day after (or even the evening of) the one day of the year that is set aside for one of the wealthiest countries in the world to “give thanks” for what we already have.

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It is ironic that this “Black Friday” frenzy comes right before the season of Advent in the church calendar… the season where we are called to simplify our lives so we can make just a little more room for God – in the midst of our materialistic and busy schedules – as we wait and prepare for the coming of the One who brings us hope, peace, joy, and love.

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It is ironic that this “Black Friday” frenzy is supposed to help us “get ready” for Christmas: the day in which we celebrate the birth of Jesus – the One who came to this world 2000 years ago in the most humble scene: in the flesh – as a baby boy, in a filthy manger, among dirty animals, and to a poor unwed carpenter and a teenage girl… the One who came to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, give sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free.

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The true meaning of this season of hope, peace, joy, and love – where we should be giving thanks to God for all that we have and for all that God has done and continues to do for us – may very well be on its death bed, just waiting to be given some TLC and a little bit of medicine.

“Look around, and you can see evidence that gratitude is being replaced by good deals. Family meals are losing their competition with shopping sprees. The gifts of life and health are taken for granted as we concentrate on shiny and expensive material gifts. And since we have so many struggles at work and at home these days, we often look for the cheap high that comes from buying something nice for ourselves. It’s called “retail therapy.”  – Henry Brinton

While the seasons of Thanksgiving and Advent are often being suffocated by our schedules that are full of parties and activities and our mass-consumerist hysteria, I still catch glimpses of the true meaning of the seasons in the people around me.

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I catch these glimpses in the children I work with at church who find joy and express gratitude in the little things – even though the majority of them will not likely receive the stores’ “top items” for Christmas.

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 I catch these glimpses in my church youth who volunteer on their day off from school at Care For Real, Edgewater’s community food pantry, and who eagerly ask at the end of our shift when we get to come back to volunteer again.

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I catch these glimpses in the clients who visit Care for Real with huge smiles on their faces and who express so much gratitude – even for the limited and often expired food items that are available that day.

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And just yesterday afternoon, I caught glimpses of the true meaning of the seasons as I gathered with hundreds of my neighbors in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago for the annual ECRA (Edgewater Community Religious Association) Interfaith Thanksgiving Service… Where community members – young and old, Catholic and Baptist, Jewish and Muslim – came together as a unified community to share prayers, songs, and reflections – whether they were sung or spoken in English, Sgaw Karen, or Arabic – and to give thanks for what we have.  As Pastor Barb Cathey from Edgewater Presbyterian Church stated in her reflection: we all have the opportunity to come together each year at this service with our own unique ingredients to make up a wonderful stone soup!

“In time, a crowd gathered with everyone offering their own favorite ingredient: mushrooms, onions, salt, black pepper, acorn, squash. Everyone wanted to be part of the creation. Finally, the traveler removed the stone and declared, “The stone soup is ready!” And the whole community joined in a feast where there was none before.” – excerpt from an adaptation of Stone Soup.

These are the signs of gratitude, hope, peace, joy, and love… For these, I am truly thankful.

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Photo taken inside Bethlehem Bible College in Bethlehem, Palestine. (Emily Heitzman)

I love how honest, passionate, and down-and-dirty Shane Claiborne gets on this topic.  In an article he wrote in 2008 encouraging others to rekindle the true meaning of Thanksgiving and Christmas by being “Advent Activi[sts] against the Demon Mammon” and turning “Black Friday” into a “Buy Nothing Day,” he explains:

“I love the story of one pastor who got fed up with all the decorations and clutter. He began to see that we are in danger of losing the very “reason for the season,” Jesus –- the Jesus that was born in the middle of Herod’s bloody genocide, the Jesus who was born a refugee with no room in the inn, the Jesus who knew suffering from the cradle to the cross. This pastor went through the sanctuary the night before the big Christmas service and spread out manure all over the floor -– nasty, stinky piles of turd. As folks came in the next day in their best attire, he preached … and did he ever. He preached about how the original story was not about malls and decorations. He preached about a story that was not pretty. He preached about a God who enters the s**t of this world and redeems all that is ugly and broken. It is a story they will never forget. It is the story of our faith.”

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Photo taken in the courtyard of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine (Emily Heitzman)

So this Thanksgiving, as we near the season of Advent and prepare for the coming of Jesus – let us not be tempted by the “demons” of mammon and consumerism, but rather: let us be thankful for what we have, be thoughtful and prayerful for those who have less, and be blessed by the many glimpses we see in the people around us who exemplify the true meaning of the seasons.

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Instead of participating in Black Friday and purchasing many of the “top items” for Christmas this year for people who already have so much, think about giving gifts to your loved ones that have meaning: buying fair trade items or livestock for families in need. 

31 Bits – fair trade jewelry and bags from Uganda

Bead For Life – fair trade beads from Uganda

Mata Traders – fair trade jewelry, clothes, and home decor from India

B. Salsa Handcraft – fair trade Palestinian olive wood

Sindyanna of Galilee – fair trade Palestinian olive oil, soaps, and spices

World Vision – purchase livestock for a child in need

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On Death and Resurrection: Thoughts, Reflections, and a Sermon for the funeral of my Great Aunt Lois

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What Is Success? – by Bessie A. Stanley:

“To laugh often and much;
 to win the respect of the intelligent people 
and the affection of children;
 to earn the appreciation of honest critics 
and endure the betrayal of false friends; 
to appreciate beauty;
 to find the best in others;
 to leave the world a bit better 
whether by a healthy child,
 a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; 
to know that one life has breathed easier
 because you lived here.
 This is to have succeeded.”

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This Tuesday was a bitter-sweet day.  I officiated my very first funeral… for my dear, sweet, fun-loving great-Aunt Lois… my “3rd grandma.”

Bitter… Dealing with death is never easy.  And it’s especially not easy when it’s someone you love and you will miss… someone whose positive outlook on life and joyful laughter were incredibly contagious… someone who has truly found joy in every aspect of life and has lived it to her fullest… someone who was independent and strong and – though she never married nor gave birth to children – she loved and embraced her nieces and nephews, great nieces and nephews, and even great-great nieces and nephews as her very own…

And it’s not easy to maintain composure as you stand in front of your family – of whom are grieving – and pray that you can at least speak a little hope in the midst of such a painful loss and be able to somehow capture in words the incredible person she was to all of us… What are words when a life was so fully lived?

Sweet… When I offered to officiate her service, everyone kept asking me if I really was sure I wanted to…  if it would be too much to deal with.  But I confidently responded “yes” – because I was sure… To get the opportunity to listen to my family and Lois’ friends talk about what they remembered and loved most about her made my heart smile… To hear about how full of life she was, how much she made an impact on people, and how she made everyone around her feel special… To remember how sweet and fun she continued to be in her final days – and to recall the incredibly strong, independent, and adventurous woman she was before her memory began to fail her… To be surrounded by my amazing family whom I don’t get to see even close to enough and to laugh and to cry together over a woman who connected and brought us all together during her life and now continues to connect and bring us all together in her death… To be able to officiate my first funeral only a few weeks after my ordination for a woman who taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be… including a pastor.

This was not only a healing process for me… but it was a gift.  Maybe – as my second cousin, Linnea, suggested – it was a gift from Lois.

So I will take this bitter-sweet gift and cherish it always… and while I’m at it: maybe I’ll make myself a bitter-sweet scotch old fashioned in Aunt Lois’ honor.  Cheers to you, Aunt Lois!  Cheers to a life fully lived!

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“You – you alone will have the stars as no one else has them…In one of the stars I shall be living.  In one of them I shall be laughing.  And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…You – only you – will have stars that can laugh.  And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me.  You will always be my friend.  You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure…And your friends will be properly astonished to see you laughing as you look up at the sky!  Then you will say to them, ‘Yes, the stars always make me laugh!’  And they will think you are crazy.  It will be a very shabby trick that I shall have played on you…It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh…”   – Excerpt from “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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The sermon I preached at Aunt Lois’ funeral:

Acts 9:36-42:

“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”

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When I was trying to decide what Scripture text I was going to preach on this morning, I was struck by a passage in Acts 9 that talks about a woman named Tabitha.  Now we don’t know much about Tabitha.  Actually, this passage in Acts is the only place she is mentioned in the entire Bible.  And all we are told about her, is this incident we see here in Acts 9 – after she has died.  And yet, as we read this passage, we can come to understand her character and how much she meant to the people she encountered during her life.

What we see in our text for today is that Tabitha was a special woman who was a widow (which – in the first century – meant that either her husband died or she never actually got married.) And Tabitha had a very special ministry for a community of other widows: a special ministry that was extremely necessary.  Since women had no inheritance rights and were property of men at that time, if they never married and their fathers cut them off financially or their husbands passed away, they would lose all their identity, their possessions, and their sense of belonging, and they would often be abused or taken advantage of.  For this reason, the widows in a port town called Joppa were in need of someone to provide for them… And here is where Tabitha comes in.

Our text for today suggests that Tabitha – the only woman in the entire Bible who was referred to as a disciple – was sort of this provider for a community of widows.  In this passage, we see that Tabitha was devoted to good works and charity, and she made tunics and other pieces of clothing by hand and had given them to the widows.  These articles of clothing would have been very valuable in the first century, and it would have taken an incredible amount of time for Tabitha to make each item.  And, yet, she sacrificed her time and money to make these pieces of clothing.  She saw the needs of these widows, and out of love and compassion, she did whatever she could to provide for them.

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As we can see, Tabitha was an incredible caregiver for this community.  And my guess is that she knew and loved each one of the widows dearly – like they were her own sisters, nieces, or possibly even grandchildren.  Not only that, but Tabitha was a leader. She was independent… a woman who stood strong and carried on even as she faced the harsh, patriarchal system that oppressed women in her day.  She was ahead of her time: and instead of living into the expected gender roles and allowing them to dominate her and bring her down, she chose to live an incredibly fulfilling life.  She used her experiences as a widow to reach out to other widows and set up a community where they could find belonging and hope, and where she would love them, nurture them, and encourage them to be strong and independent women.

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Tabitha reminds me a lot of Lois… Sure, we all know that unlike Tabitha, Lois did not weave or knit tunics or shawls with her hands… or cook… or do anything for that matter that was particularly an expected “gender role” of her day.  But that was one of the things that was so great about her.  Like Tabitha in the first century, Lois was – in many ways – ahead of her time.

She was determined, intelligent, full of life, excited about new opportunities, and she was extremely adventurous.  As the executive secretary at the American Can Company, she was always finding ways to move to a new branch that was opening – if it was in a city that sounded exciting to her.  And her bosses obviously had confidence in her competence and her skills because they were always willing to send her off to the new branch to help with the start-up process… From Chicago to Minneapolis, to Los Angeles and San Francisco and back to Milwaukee: Lois had so many stories to share about her adventures.  Lois was a leader and extremely gifted at what she did.  And she taught her family to be independent and strong, always encouraging us – espially her nieces and great nieces – that we could do and be whatever we wanted – even and especially because we are women.

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Lois was devoted to her commitments: she was a regular member of bowling and golfing leagues she joined with her niece Sandi, and she was an active member of Westminster Presbyterian Church up until the past few years when she started slowing down.

In addition to this, like Tabitha, Lois was incredibly loving and nurturing and made sure her flock was provided for.  She attended games, choir concerts, plays, and graduations of her nieces and nephews – even if it meant traveling out of town, and she called several of us at least once a month to check in on us when we went off to college.  She never missed birthdays, she brought gifts back for her family from her vacations, and she always gave her great nieces and nephews chocolate bunnies for Easter.  Just this year, when she said goodbye to her 7 year old great-great nephew Wesley, she told him to make sure his grandparents didn’t let him walk away without cash in his pockets.  And – just as her father made sure her pockets were always full of cash, she would often shove a few bills into her great nieces and nephew’s pockets – which usually were a bunch of $2 bills… She always had a stash of $2 bills.

Maybe it was her love of parties – but she somehow managed to attend almost every holiday celebration and bring joy and laughter to the family gatherings.  She cracked jokes, played a lot of family card games, and was one of the active participants in sharing stories about the family around the dinner table after the food was eaten.  And she could always be found 1st: in the kitchen – sneaking a “sample” of dressing or turkey before it was served and 2nd: back in the kitchen after dinner with her nephew-in-law, Lloyd, washing the dishes.

She joined her family on so many road trips and vacations: whether it was traveling to Estes Park or to Chicago for the Heitzman/Peters annual Christmas trip, vacationing in Florida or Arizona with the Apels or traveling to Maine with her brother Wes and sister-in-law Harriet.  And just as when she, Wes, and Harriet somehow entered their destination city in Maine from the north rather than the south: there was never a dull moment with Lois.

Lois looked forward to treating her great nephews and nieces to movie dates, joined them for pool parties in the Apel’s back yard, and prided on hosting sleepovers at her house with all of the great nieces and nephews: which consisted of many Skippo games, Ninja Turtle movies, and talent shows… And – even after the time we all sang and danced to “In The Jungle” down her apartment staircase at the top of our lungs – she still somehow decided to keep inviting us back for more.

Like Tabitha, Lois saw the needs of her family members and did whatever she could to make sure she provided for them.  When her mother was living at home with a caretaker, Lois would come home from Milwaukee at least once a month to help care for her.  And several years after her brother Don and his wife Jeanne had passed away, she moved back to Dubuque and began to develop a more intimate relationship with their daughter Sandi, thus becoming a very special sister figure and best friend to Sandi and a grandmother figure to Sandi’s kids.

Lois absolutely loved her family.  She prided on being a daddy’s girl and as the youngest and only girl of three, she was cherished and dearly loved by her older brothers, Wes and Don. Lois loved her siblings and siblings-in-law, nieces and nephews, both “great” and “not-great,” and her great-great nephews and nieces.  (She always loved to brag about how she was the GREATEST aunt because she was the ONLY GREAT-GREAT aunt in the family.)

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When talking to numerous family members, friends, and acquaintances about Lois, the thing that everyone has said about her – even if they didn’t know her very well – was that she had a sweet and joyful spirit, never had an angry bone in her body, and people always loved to be around her – up until her final day… Oh, and also that she was a “character.”  She even was a part of a breakfast group that was named after her: based on “Tuesdays with Morrie,” the group was called “Thursdays with Lois.”   And even in her later years and final days as her memory started to fade, she laughed about it and found ways to embrace it.  When she forgot the name of Sharon, her caregiver, over and over… and over again: she gave her a new name: “Whosit,” which has stuck with Sharon (and is what people at Hy Vee continue to call her.)

While her memory began to fail her in her later years, Lois never forgot how to love and find joy and laughter in life.

So as you can see, Lois was a lot like Tabitha in our passage from Acts chapter 9.  As we have seen, Tabitha was loved and cherished by her community of widows.  So it is no wonder that the widows in our text mourned so much when she died.  It is no wonder that they called out of desperation for Peter – the man who by the power of the Holy Spirit had been performing great miracles in the name of Jesus Christ – when they heard he was near Joppa.  And it is no wonder that when he arrived, they wept and passed around their tunics and articles of clothing that were made by Tabitha, reminding themselves and one another of the memories they shared with her and of the many pieces of clothing she had woven out of love and compassion for them.  These women had lost their dear friend, their aunt, their sister, their grandmother figure, and the one who had clothed them with the love of Jesus Christ, invested in them, and helped them speak their voice and find belonging when they had not found such things elsewhere.

And it is no wonder that we come here this morning – as well – weeping and grieving as we experience the shock of Lois’ sudden death without warning and as we gather together to recall our wonderful memories of her.  For we have also lost such a special woman who has left a loving and joyful imprint on our hearts that we will always hold onto.

We will truly miss her.

And yet, just as our passage does not end with the grief and mourning of Tabitha, we have hope that our journey with Lois does not end here in our grief, either.

As we see in our passage, after Peter appears to the widows, he heads up to the upper room.  And after listening to the widows, he sends them out of the room, and then he calls to Tabitha to “get up.”

… And she gets up.

And Peter calls to all the saints and the widows to see that she is alive.  And all who were there believed in Jesus.

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This miracle in Acts reminds us of the center of our hope.  This act of Peter resurrecting Tabitha from death points us to the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise he gives us (as we see in Luke chapter 20) that we – as children of God, are children of the resurrection.   And as Paul states in our passage that was read from Romans 6: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his… if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

Now Jesus – in the book of Luke – and Paul – in his letter to the Romans – do not lay out what exactly will happen in the bodily resurrection – in our life after death.  As much as many of us may wish that they did: they do not tell us details about how we will be resurrected, what we will look like, what age we might appear in, how we might be reunited with our loved ones – all of those questions we often ponder when we think about death and eternal life.

For Jesus and Paul, these details are not important – and my guess is, once we experience eternal life with God after death ourselves, they won’t be important to us either…

At Easter and every time we say the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, we proclaim our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  – That in his resurrection, he conquered death and brings forth new life.  And because of this great act that occurred 2000 years ago because God so loved (and loves) the world – we – as children of God and as children of the resurrection – are promised this, too.  We are promised that we, too, will be resurrected from the dead and given new life eternal.  Death does not win.  It does not have the final word.  And when we are resurrected, we will be reconciled to God and, in Christ, to one another (however that may look)… for all eternity.

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Aunt Lois knew she lived a joyful and fulfilling life – up until her final day.  And we can find comfort knowing that she looked forward to the time she would be united with God and reunited with her loved ones – her father William and mother Lena, her brother Don and sister-in-law Jeanne, and her nephew-in-law Lloyd – as she often told many of us several times the last few years: “I’m going up THERE (pointing up) sometime soon.”

We are coming up to a time of year that often brings us joy and yet sometimes brings us pain – as we miss those who can no longer gather around the table and celebrate the holidays with us.  This year, the holidays will be more difficult without Lois.  And yet, we can find joy as we come together as a family: remembering, crying over, and laughing about all of the wonderful holidays she brought joy and laughter to.

I would like to leave you this morning with a quote by Anne Lamott: “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

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Sermon: “Time to Protestify”

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While this is a sermon I preached two years ago to fellow seminarians and pastors at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, it is the lectionary text for this Sunday, Nov. 17 and touches on issues that we still are dealing with today.

Luke 21:5-19: “Time To Protestify” – 26th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 28C

5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”

10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

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Sukkot Action in downtown Chicago led by Jewish Council on Urban Affairs

Sukkot Action in downtown Chicago led by Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (Emily Heitzman)

If you talk to me pretty often or you are a friend of mine on facebook, you have probably heard from one of my rants or seen on at least one of my posts that I keep up with the Occupy Movement in the news and have been participating in several marches with numerous advocacy groups around Chicago.  Now the question I often get from people who hear that I participate in these protests  – particularly from church clergy – is: what are these folks protesting?

Let’s just start by giving a short answer to this very large and complex question.  According to an article in Business Insider by Henry Blodget: CHARTS: Here’s What The Wall Street Protesters Are So Angry About, three years after the financial crisis, unemployment rates in the U.S. are still at the highest level since the Great Depression; jobs are scarce and at least about 14 million Americans who want to work cannot find jobs; and the number of Americans with jobs right now is the lowest its been since the 1980s.  At the same time, corporate profits just hit another all-time high; CEO pay is now 350 times the average worker’s pay; and according to a recent study: in the last 30 years, the incomes of the top 1% of Americans increased 275% and the income for the next richest Americans increased 65% – while the income of middle class households increased only 40% and the lowest incomes increased only 18%.

Additionally, in terms of net worth, the top 1% of Americans own 42% of the financial wealth in the country and the top 5% own 70% of this country’s wealth.  The crisis doesn’t end here. The richest 1% of Americans have a lower aggregate tax rate than the next 9% of Americans, and this tax rate is not much higher than it is for everyone else in the country.  On top of all this, a few years ago we may recall that the banks were bailed out in order to help put money back into the economy, but instead of lending to American businesses, they have been buying risk-free treasury bonds and collecting interest for their own profit.  At the same time, while banks are not paying their fair share in taxes and while there are currently more proposals to make tax breaks on large profit corporations, major budget cuts are being proposed on programs for the people who need programs the most: such as social security, HUD programs, Medicaid/Medicare, after-school programs and food pantries.  And numerous jobs are being cut: such as librarians, CTA workers, construction workers, and school teachers – to name just a few.

The list of issues about this large inequality gap between the rich and the poor and the economic crisis could go on and on and we haven’t even started on the housing crisis yet.  So this may give us a bit of an understanding of why Occupyers are camping out in the streets for months at a time in order to make their voices heard.  People are suffering, and the number of people who are suffering is growing fast.

Photo taken at Occupy Chicago

Photo taken at Occupy Chicago (Emily Heitzman)

There are several similarities between the economic situation in the U.S. today and the economic situation of First Century Palestine, which was an important issue for the writer of Luke.  Just like in the U.S. today, the economic gap between the rich and the poor at the time the Gospel was written, was extremely large.   While the lower and middle classes made up the majority of the population – at least 90%, the small group of elites, owned most of the wealth, received special treatment, often did not work for their wealth, and increased their wealth at the expense of the poor.  Additionally, there were great numbers of people who were labeled by society as unemployable – including the lame and the lepers – and there were no governmental programs that enabled these people to have something to fall back on so that they could take care of themselves.

Not only this, but the religious leaders – the Sadducees and the scribes in Jerusalem – were part of this elitist class and used the temple as a place where they could gain financial profit at the expense of the poor and marginalized.  We see examples of this throughout Luke and particularly in chapters 19 through the beginning of 21, which immediately precede our passage for today.  In these chapters, Jesus enters the Temple, drives out all who were selling in it and declares that they turned what should be a house of prayer into a den of robbers: where the money changers – who would often inflate the currency rates – and the merchants – who had control over the prices of livestock they sold to the people for Temple sacrifices – would often take advantage of the poor.  Soon thereafter, Jesus continues to teach in the Temple and warns his disciples about the scribes – who walk around in long robes, like to receive special attention and high honors in public places, and who devour widows’ houses.  And in the first four verses of chapter 21 – which are the verses that immediately precede our passage for today – Jesus points out an example of how the elite devoured these widow’s houses: by allowing a poor widow to place two coins (all that she had to live on) into the treasury, and thus leaving her to fend for herself in such a brutal society with no money.

And this is where we come to our passage for today.  At this point, some of the people in the Temple begin talking about the Temple structure.  What is interesting about this is that they do not seem to process what Jesus has been teaching about since he entered and cleansed the Temple.  It all seems to just go in one ear and out the other.  Because instead of responding to Jesus’ rebuking of and warnings about the elite and the leaders in the Temple who were taking advantage of the poor and the widows, they focus on the Temple building, which was made with expensive and beautiful elements, stones, and gifts that were given to the Temple.  Nevertheless, Jesus gets the people back on track and points out that there will be one day when these elements, gifts, and stones will all be thrown down.

Now, while the readers of Luke would have known Jesus was speaking about the destruction of the Temple – as they would have already lived through it, Jesus’ words had two additional possible meanings here.  First, this actual “throwing down” of the expensive gifts and stones symbolizes what those material items represented in the Temple.  You see, these gifts would have been given to the Temple either by:

A. the elite in order to gain respect and status  OR

B. the poor, who would have spent much of their finances in order to purchase these gifts, and consequently, would  have been left with very little to live on (like the widow immediately before our passage).

Thus, the “throwing down” of the stones also represented the “throwing down” of what the Temple had become: a den of robbers and a place where the elite gained additional wealth at the expense of the poor.

Secondly, the audience of Luke – who lived in the oppressive Roman Empire after the Temple had been destroyed –  was expecting Jesus’ second coming to occur soon.   So, to them, the foretelling of the Temple destruction also represented the coming judgement.

Back to our passage: the people in the Temple then ask Jesus when this will occur and what sign there be that will inform them of what is to come.  However, Jesus does not give an answer as to when.  Rather, Jesus warns the people not to be led astray by false prophets who claim that the time is near.  He says to them: “there will be wars and insurrections, but the end will not come immediately – so do not focus on when… Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom, there will be earthquakes and famines and plaques.  But before ANY of this occurs, you will be greatly persecuted because of my name.  You will be arrested and brought before kings and governors and hated because of my name.  Even those closest to you – your parents, brothers, family and friends – will persecute you and even put some of you to death – all because of my name.”

Demonstrators with the Jane Addams Senior Caucus peacefully sitting in the middle of the street to say that cuts should not be made on programs for seniors.

Demonstrators with the Jane Addams Senior Caucus peacefully sitting in the middle of the street to say that cuts should not be made on programs for seniors. (Emily Heitzman)

As I think about the persecution of these early Christ-followers, I can’t help but think of the many Occupyers and protesters around the country who have faced hatred and persecution in the past few months.  Peaceful protesters have been described by Ann Coulter as “demonic,” “brainless,” and “brainwashed,” thousands of peaceful protesters have been arrested, and many have been sprayed with pepper spray, hit with batons or taser guns, and some have even been kneed in their stomaches by police officers.  One of the most haunting pictures I have seen is an image of an 84 year old woman who was doused in the face with pepper spray.

While protesters and Occupyers come from all different religious traditions and often no religious tradition at all, I believe that they are still in some capacity – whether they know it or not – being persecuted because of Jesus’ name.  As evangelical activist and CEO of Sojourners Magazine Jim Wallis puts it in his post Praying for Peace and Looking for Jesus at #OccupyWallStreet: “When they stand with the poor, they stand with Jesus…When they talk about holding banks and corporations accountable, they sound like Jesus and the biblical prophets before him who all spoke about holding the wealthy and powerful accountable.”

And as our passage in Luke claims, when people stand with Jesus and speak as he did, there will be great persecution because – we all probably know from experience – the good news is not always easy news.  However, according to Luke, while this persecution will be great, there is still hope.  For Jesus says, “this persecution will give you an opportunity to testify.”

To testify is to proclaim the message Jesus proclaimed, to speak as Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace – spoke, and to make peace in this world like Jesus Christ made: peace in the midst of a society where inequality prevails and where the poor are being taken advantage of.

Photo taken at demonstration with Jane Addams Senior Caucus

Photo taken at demonstration with Jane Addams Senior Caucus (Emily Heitzman)

And so this message is particularly important for us as current and/or future pastors.  Like the early Christians in Palestine, most of our parishioners, neighbors, and even family members are suffering in some capacity from the economic crisis due to the greed and special treatment of the elite at the expense of the poor and middle class.  There are so many people today who are hurting – which explains why thousands and thousands of people have and continue to join the Occupy movement.  And so, in a society like ours and at a time like this, we must as Christian leaders become engaged with these people in our communities, our churches, and in the Occupy camps in our cities – Whether this means we protest and march, act as an Occupy chaplain and provide pastoral care, preside over the Eucharist at the campsite, or bring food and sleeping materials to the Occupiers, this is our opportunity to testify.

But we know that with this kind of testifying and peace making, there will come persecution.

Blogger Todd Weir explains this well in his post “Luke 12:49-56 ‘Not Peace but a Sword.'”  He writes: “true peace seldom comes without a painful process of being honest about the real issues.  Peace can only be built if there is truth, justice, equality and respect.”

Similarly, Tom Mullen writes in his book: Laughing Out Loud and Other Religious Experiences, “I learned upon joining Quakers that they attack large social and moral problems with conscientious determination. They work for peace – and if you really want to cause conflict, work for peace.” (pg. 59)

And Christian author and activist for nonviolence and service to the homeless, Shane Claiborne explains in his book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical: “The more I get to know Jesus, the more trouble he seems to get me into.” (pg. 226)

When I attended the SCUPE conference: Peacemaking in a Culture of Violence – last spring, The Rev. Dr. James Forbes explained that there is a difference between peacekeeping and peacemaking.  He claimed that while peacekeeping is just being concerned with keeping peace between different parties in order to avoid conflict, peacemaking is actually creating peace that enables all of God’s children to live holistically.

However, too often, we as Christian leaders and clergy are so focused on keeping the peace, that we avoid standing for what is just and avoid being peacemakers.  Too often, we get so worried about keeping politics out of the pulpit, not being considered “too radical” by our parishioners, and therefore we decide to sit around and wait for the right time to act.   However, when we do this, we often fail to testify and proclaim the good of Jesus Christ.

During this Occupy movement, we must remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. which he wrote his letter from Burmingham Jail in response to four clergy who claimed he was too radical: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was “well timed,” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” (Ed. Washington, James M., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings And Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1986, 292.)

We cannot fail to testify the good news of Jesus Christ.

Marching with my Lutheran youth: ECT (Edgewater Congregations Together), 500 Rogers Park community members, and IIRON to the alderman's home: Invest and don't close our public schools!  (My 8th grade youth gave a speech on the alderman's porch about not closing down Gale Elementary school.  He ROCKED the house!)

Marching with my Lutheran youth: ECT (Edgewater Congregations Together), 500 Rogers Park community members, and IIRON to the alderman’s home: saying No to charter schools that close our public schools! (My 8th grade youth gave a speech on the alderman’s porch about not closing down Gale Elementary school. He ROCKED the house!)

You see, to Luke, the good news of Jesus Christ can be summed up in chapter 4 where he begins his ministry by proclaiming: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (And this year of the Lord’s favor in which he was to proclaim was the year of Jubilee – the year that the Jews had been waiting for – which was the year when land would be returned to its original owners, all Hebrew slaves would be set free, and all debts would be remitted.  It was the ordered way of breaking down inequalities and injustice and making peace).

And as Shane Claiborne states in an article Moving Money: Investing in a New World on sojo.net: “No doubt Wall Street has some things to learn about Jubilee. Jubilee was God’s alternative to the patterns of Wall Street. As the Occupy Wall Street movement catches the world’s attention, those of us who are critical of Wall Street have a responsibility. We can’t just be defined by what we are against, but should be known by what we are for.  After all, the word “protest” originally meant “public declaration”. It wasn’t just about being against something, but it was about declaring something new and better. “Protest” shares the same root as “testify”.  So It’s time to protest-ify.”

As we begin this season of advent, and we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ, may we find hope knowing that in the midst of these trying economic times, where so many of our parishioners, neighbors, and even family members are struggling to get by, that we have an opportunity and a responsibility to stand for and with them.  And as the weather gets colder and it becomes more difficult for the Occupyers to be out in this weather during the holidays, as our legislatures are getting ready to make budget cuts, as we get closer to the G8 – which will take place in Chicago, and we get closer to the upcoming elections next fall, let us jump at the chance to take this opportunity.

For now is our opportunity to protestify!

Marching with Jim Wallis during a Circle of Protection at Friendship Village Center in Chicago.

Marching with Jim Wallis and Northside P.O.W.E.R. during a Circle of Protection at North Park Friendship Center. (I’m the one with the white sign next to Jim Wallis in the front.)

Sermon: “Children of the Resurrection”

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The sermon I preached at Immanuel Lutheran Church on Sun., Nov. 10, 2013.

“Children of the Resurrection”

25th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 27C:  Luke 20:27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.

Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

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Working with youth keeps me up-to-date on the teen movies and books that the youth are into or that touch on issues that teens and kids face today. One movie that came out years ago and yet still is a popular movie among many youth I work with is an old Lindsay Lohan movie that is loosely based on some events that occurred years ago in a high school in the Northern suburbs of Chicago. If you haven’t seen the movie, you can just guess what it is about by its title: “Mean Girls.”

In the movie, Lindsay Lohan plays a character who moves to the Chicago suburbs and begins to attend public high school for the first time after growing up in Africa as a missionary kid and being home-schooled her whole life. There is a scene toward the beginning of the movie that sets up how the rest of the movie will be played out: with a clique of mean girls that refer to themselves as the “plastics” who try to control who is or isn’t included in the “in crowd” – through all sorts of mean and nasty tactics. This early scene takes place in – what many of you – if you ever had experiences like I did growing up – may know to be as one of the worst places for cliques in high school: the school cafeteria during lunch period.

During lunch on her first day of school, as Lindsay Lohan’s character enters the cafeteria, she looks around, trying to determine where to sit. All of a sudden, she is approached by several of the “Plastics,” and the ring-leader, Regina, begins what first seems to be a friendly conversation. Regina asks Lindsay’s character why she doesn’t know her, and when Lindsay’s character explains that she was from Africa and was homeschooled, Regina answers: “Really, but you are like really pretty.” Taking this as a compliment, Lindsay’s character thanks Regina. And then something happens that Lindsay’s character had not expected. Out of nowhere Regina says in a sly and challenging voice: “So you agree…?” As you can probably imagine, Lindsay’s character is thrown off guard, and she becomes defensive. Regina continues to push her: “So you agree? You think you are really pretty?”

What seemed to be a nice and friendly conversation and compliment by Regina quickly turned into a trap: As you continue to watch the movie, it becomes clear that Regina did not really want to compliment Lindsay’s character… to Regina, Lindsay’s character was a threat – a new girl in school who seemed to be getting positive attention by others – which – to Regina – looked like competition for popularity and power. So Regina intentionally corners and sets Lindsay’s character up: by making what sounds like an authentic compliment and gesture turn into making Lindsay’s character sound arrogant and haughty around the others listening.

This reminds me of our text in the Gospel of Luke for today. Jesus is basically in his own kind of “high school cafeteria lunch period” setting. However, in order to understand how this is so in our text, we need to back up a chapter in Luke.

Jesus has recently entered Jerusalem – where crowds of people who had heard of his great acts – had greeted him with shouts of royal acclamations: “Blessed is the king! Hosanna in the Highest!” If you’ve been to church on Palm Sunday, you know the drill.

And not long after his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the Temple – not to worship – but rather to drive out the money-changers who were selling goods in the Temple at high prices and taking advantage of the poor. From there, Jesus remains in the Temple – teaching every single day. We don’t know exactly what he taught during that time, but it was likely similar to the teachings we hear throughout Luke: about how God’s love requires equality for all people – especially the poor and oppressed – and it possibly included denouncing several of the religious leaders (as we see earlier in Luke) for boasting in their honorable positions of power while “neglect(ing) justice and the love of God” and loading burdens onto the common people.

So you can imagine how many of the wealthy and powerful Jewish leaders felt challenged by Jesus as He was continuing to gain a large following. – Jesus was a threat to their own popularity, power, and lifestyle. And so, of course, we see at the end of Luke chapter 19 that many of the Jewish leaders and the leaders of the people began to look for ways to kill Jesus. The only thing that was stopping them by that point was the growing number of people who were spellbound by what Jesus was doing and saying.

And so here comes our “cliquey high school cafeteria setting:” As a means to try to find a reason to arrest and put Jesus to death, many of the religious leaders start to find ways to trap Jesus in his words while He is teaching His followers in the Temple. This occurs several times throughout chapter 20 in Luke: first the scribes and chief priests challenge Him about His own authority. When that wasn’t successful, they send spies to Jesus who try to trap him through questions about taxes. Again, they were unsuccessful. And this is where we come to our passage for today.

Here, in our passage, Jesus is being confronted by a group of Sadducees, yet another group of Jewish leaders. However, these leaders are a little different from the others: unlike many of the other religious leaders, these elite and aristocratic Sadducees did not believe in the bodily resurrection – they did not believe that after death, people would be resurrected and given new life.

And in order to trap Jesus, they pose him with a very ridiculous scenario and question in order to make Jesus and his understanding of the bodily resurrection look ridiculous: The Sadducees begin by referring to a levirate marriage law that is found in the book of Deuteronomy – which protected women who were widowed and remained childless by requiring her dead husband’s brother to marry her. (Now, to those of you women out there who are now starting to feel a little uneasy: while this may not sound like a “protective” and a life-giving law – remember that women at this time were property of men. When their husbands died, they lost all of their rights, their land, possessions, their status. This levirate marriage law would protect such women from loosing everything.)

So, referring to this levirate marriage law, the Sadducees ask Jesus: What happens to a particular woman who – when her husband dies – marries the dead husband’s first brother. When this brother dies, she marries the second brother, and when he dies, she marries the third brother, and so on until she’s gone through all of the seven brothers who end up dying and leaving her childless. So, the Sadducees ask: after she finally dies, whom does this woman belong to in the resurrection? … Kind of a ridiculous story and question, right?

But Jesus – who is a pro by now in responding to his challengers – keeps his cool and responds to them: “those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” In other words, marriage in this age – in this time here on earth – is no longer relevant in the resurrection… and by golly: in the resurrection, women in particular, are no longer considered property of men and given up in marriage.

Now, without the rest of the context of what was happening in Luke at this point while Jesus is teaching in the Temple, we might look at this text and think that Jesus is talking about what literally happens in the resurrection… that in our life after death, we will not be reunited with those we married on this earth. – Which to many of us – but maybe not all – would not be very good news.

However, as we know, the Sadducees were not looking for a literal answer. They were looking for a way to trap Jesus. And in response, Jesus – in his usual way of speaking in generalities and in metaphors – wasn’t really giving a literal answer to the Sadducees’ ridiculous question.

In His answer to the Sadducees, Jesus does not lay out what exactly will happen in the bodily resurrection – in our life after death. As much as many of us may wish He did, Jesus does not tell the Sadducees and the other observers exactly how we will be resurrected, what we will look like, what age we might appear in, how we might be reunited with our loved ones – all of those questions we often ponder when we think about death and eternal life.

For Jesus, these details are not important – and my guess is, once we experience eternal life with God after death ourselves, they won’t be important to us either…. What IS important to Jesus is seen in the rest of Jesus’ response to the Sadducees: “those who are worthy of that age and in the resurrection cannot die anymore, because they are like angels, children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

At Easter and every time we say the Apostle’s and the Nicene Creeds, we proclaim our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. – That in His resurrection, He conquered death and brings forth new life. And because of this great act that occurred 2000 years ago because God so loved (and loves) the world – we – as children of God and as children of the resurrection – are promised this, too. We are promised that we, too, will be resurrected from the dead and given new life eternal. Death does not win. It does not have the final say. And when we are resurrected, we will be reconciled to God and, in Christ, to one another (however that may look)… for eternity.

So, to Jesus, the Sadducees in our text for today were asking the WRONG question.

A few years ago, when a reporter asked former Royals baseball pitcher Dan Quisenberry about the future, he responded: “The (future) is much like the present, only longer.” The Sadducees had a similar understanding of this in regards to the future… of life after death. Their understanding was that IF there were a resurrection, the life after death would be much like the present, only longer.

But to Jesus, this is an important point to debunk. Eternal life will NOT be like the present only longer. As we all know too well, the present life on earth is full of death. It is full of hatred, racism, violence… pain, suffering, injustice. Many of us experience death – and Hell, might I add – here on earth… as we deal with depression, fear of deployment, lack of sufficient health care, abuse, fear of our children facing violence on their way to school, terminal illness, unemployment or lack of fair wages at our current jobs that do not enable us to feed our family every day. And many of us here today experience Hell in our own personal brokenness: as we continue to make decisions for our lives that we later regret because they weigh on us and eventually pull us down into a pit of what feels sometimes like death, itself. So what Jesus is stating in our text for today IS good news. Our future in the resurrection – in life eternal – will NOT be much like the present, only longer. Rather, in it, we will be freed from this captivity of pain, suffering, brokenness, and death for eternity.

Now, while finding hope in this different future in the resurrection is a crucial part of our Christian faith, it does not give us an excuse to maintain an “escapist” understanding of hope in the resurrection… We cannot just sit around on butts in this life here on earth – and waddle in our sufferings, in our pain, in our brokenness – and just wait for the future resurrection as we watch others throughout the world or even allow ourselves to experience violence and injustice in this present age. For, as Jesus finishes His response in our text for today: He proclaims: “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

And this proclamation has a twofold meaning: God IS the God of the living – both of the living in the future age to come in the resurrection – AND of the living in the present age. And in the same way, the promise of the resurrected life is not just for our future life after our bodily death, but it began 2000 years ago when Jesus entered and left this world in the flesh and it continues with us today in the present age: in the here and now.

As Katie Faerber, a teacher at the Geneva School in Florida writes: “We live in hope for new life with (God) after our physical death, but he also calls us to be new creations, engaging in the daily practice of death and resurrection. When we pray for his kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, we are asking God to bring to life all that is dead, to resurrect here and now.”

And as Nadia Bolz-Weber, founder and pastor of the Lutheran Church, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, explains in her new book Pastrix: “The Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection. It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small… Smiley TV preachers might tell you that following Jesus is about being good so that God will bless you with cash and prizes, but really it’s much more gruesome and meaningful. It’s about spiritual physic. Something has to die for something new to live.”

We are currently in the midst an interesting time of year – both in the church calendar and in our own secular calendar. Last week we commemorated all the saints – including our loved ones – who have paved the Christian way before us and who have passed on from this world. And as we commemorated them, we celebrated the promise that we somehow will be reunited with them in the resurrection. We are also coming up on the holiday season: for some of us, this is a time of joy – where we gather with our loved ones over food and conversations. Yet, for others of us, this is a time of suffering – as the holidays become painful reminders of those we no longer can gather with. And, finally, we are also coming up on the time of advent in the church calendar, where we prepare for the coming of Jesus – who both came in the flesh 2000 years ago and who will one day return.

As we enter this time of year where death constantly collides with resurrection, let us remember the promise we have been given: that we are children of God, and children of the resurrection: both of what is to come and of what already is. So in our sufferings, may we find hope in the future of freedom from death; in our joys, may we find hope in the greater joys to come; and in all things, may we always live fully in the present: dying to our old selves, and being resurrected into new life here and now.