Category Archives: resurrection

“Nevertheless, She Persisted” – Sermon on John 11:1-45

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Try to imagine yourself in the story. 

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 

11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

As we get to act two in our story, take note of the emotions of and the interactions between the women and Jesus.

17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 

28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when (Mary) heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 

In act three of our story, pay close attention to how Jesus takes on the pain of Mary and Martha and how he responds to it.

34(Jesus) said, “Where have you laid him?” (The women) said to him, “Lord, come and see.”35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 

41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to the (crowd), “Unbind him, and let him go.”

45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. – John 11:1-45

If we keep reading past our assigned text for this morning, we would see that this very loving and compassionate act of raising Lazarus from the dead is what leads to Jesus’ death sentence on the cross. Take a few moments in silence to reflect on what this means about Jesus’ love for Mary and Martha and what it means about his love for us.

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She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

These words – which were originally used to quiet the voice of a woman senator in February – have been turned into the powerful battle cry for many women this past month. It didn’t take too long before these words were made into a hashtag, were being shared through memes, and were even being proclaimed on tattoos and t-shirts.

While many women today know quite well what it’s like to be quieted, nevertheless, they have persisted.

I love how these words especially ring true this morning.

For one thing: here we are, on the first Sunday after the one Women’s History month has come to a close. And while women still continue to be silenced at the pulpits… Well… let’s just say I’m very thankful for the many women who have gone before us to pave the way and for the many communities who do support women in ministry.

Nevertheless, they persisted.

But these words can also be heard crying out this morning through our Gospel text in John.

Here, in the midst of our very long story about the death and resurrection of Lazarus, we keep hearing the voices of Martha and Mary.

And despite the fact that their female voices had no importance or place in society: nevertheless, they persisted.

Now, as we are getting ready to follow Jesus toward Jerusalem beginning next week, some of you might be wondering why I would focus on these women rather than focus on what might seem to be the obvious good news of this story: Jesus’ act of raising Lazarus from the dead and thus foreshadowing his own death and resurrection that we will soon encounter.

And, yes: this is – indeed – good news.  Through Lazarus’ resurrection, Jesus conquers death and brings forth new life… And not just in a heavenly kind of sense somewhere “out there” in another time and another place.  But the resurrection of Lazarus shows us that we don’t have to sit around and wait until our physical bodies die before we get to experience this new life Jesus offers us. And we don’t have to wait until Easter before we get to live as resurrection people. Rather, in Lazarus’ resurrection, Jesus actually brings about new life right here and right now.

You see, just as Jesus calls Lazarus to emerge from the tomb, he calls us to do so, as well. Jesus calls us out of the tomb, from our own sense of lifelessness, and he frees us from the worldly expectations, insecurities, and sin that bind us. Yes, Jesus offers us new life, calling us to no longer live as we are dead, but rather to choose to live our lives fully.  This is, indeed, good news!

But the thing that I think is often missed when we look at this resurrection story in John is that this good news would not have been proclaimed had it not been for the two women. The resurrection of Lazarus would not have even taken place if it weren’t for the persistence of Martha and Mary.

You see, it was Martha and Mary who sent a message to Jesus letting him know Lazarus was ill in the first place. And when Lazarus died because Jesus had waited around for two whole days before going to Bethany to see him, it was Martha who confronted Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

And when it seemed like Jesus was not going to do anything about the death of Martha’s brother, it was Martha who ran to her sister, Mary, and told her to go find Jesus.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

And when Mary was distraught over the death of her brother, it was she who fell at Jesus’ feet, pleading: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

You see, it was the persistence of these two women (whom Jesus loved dearly) that opened his eyes to their pain, which greatly disturbed him in spirit and deeply moved him to tears.

It was Mary and Martha’s persistence that moved the one who is the Resurrection and the Life to compassionately respond to their suffering by raising Lazarus from the dead, calling him out of the tomb, and inviting Jesus’ disciples to help free Lazarus from all that kept him bound.

So may we too – like Martha and Mary – keep on persisting, even and especially in times that feel hopeless. May we too – like Jesus’ disciples – open our eyes to the good news being proclaimed through those who do persist. And may we too – like Jesus – be greatly disturbed in spirit at the suffering and injustice around us and thus be deeply moved to respond.

“A Message For Troubled Hearts” – Sermon for the funeral of my beloved Grandpa Wes

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Supper at Emmaus - He Qi

Supper at Emmaus – He Qi

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me…

‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. – John 14:1-6, 25-27

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As I was thinking about memories of my grandfather, Wesley, many of the memories that first came to my mind were times when our family shared meals together. The memories stuck out not necessarily because of the food – though because it was never cooked by Grandpa – the food was always wonderful. But these meals were special because they were always times where cherished conversations and storytelling took place.

The dinners were often shared at my Grandpa Wesley and Grandma Harriet’s home, with Grandpa at one end of the table, looking out quietly and smiling at his wonderful family he always said: “we were sure lucky to have.” But these meals also took place at my parent’s home, aunt Becky and uncle Lloyd’s home, or at a lovely picnic spot overlooking the Mississippi River at Eagle Point Park. And let’s not forget the meals that took place at the grandkid’s favorite birthday celebration location: Happy Joe’s Pizza.

But no matter the location, the same thing often occurred during these meals. The family would sit around sharing funny family stories – often the same ones over and over again that we all knew by heart… and that sometimes lasted for hours.

And with a group of pretty expressive Heitzmans – Grandpa Wes – the quiet one of the bunch – usually sat there listening, taking everything in, chiming in when he could, but most definitely smiling and giggling with the joyful twinkle in his eye that everyone knew him by.

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Though he was often quiet, anyone who knew Grandpa knows that he wasn’t quiet because he was disengaged. Rather, he was quiet because he absolutely enjoyed being with the family he loved.

And this is one of the greatest gifts Grandpa gave to those he encountered: the gift of truly being present with others.

This past August, much of the family had the opportunity to get together for one last meal at Eagle Point Park to celebrate my Grandpa Wes’ 92nd birthday and Grandma Harriet’s 90th birthday. We did not know at the time it would be our last supper there with Grandpa. But even still, we had a very special celebration.

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 Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let them be afraid.

These are the words we hear from Jesus this morning in our reading from the Gospel of John.

Jesus says this to his disciples – his students and dear friends – during their last supper with him. Throughout the meal, Jesus has been dropping hints about having to leave them soon and no longer being physically present with them.

And so the disciples are a bit scared. They had left their homes and jobs to follow Jesus, had spent the past few years traveling with, learning from, and hanging out with him, and they no longer knew what life would look like without him. So now what are they supposed to do when their rabbi – their teacher – was to leave them? How were they supposed to continue to share the good news about God’s love through Jesus Christ without Jesus, himself? How would they know what to do when he was gone? And how on earth would they be able to get by without their dear friend, whom they loved?

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let them be afraid.

Jesus’ words not only speak to the disciples, but they are also speaking to us today, as we sit here grieving Wesley, our beloved friend, uncle, father, father-in-law, grandfather, husband.

And yet, if I am honest with you and with myself, I can’t help but feel a little troubled. I can’t help but feel a little afraid.

Troubled that my Grandfather had gone so quickly – without more than a few month’s notice.

Afraid of what it will be like at family gatherings and holidays without him. Knowing it will not be the same.

My grandpa Wesley will be missed. Even family friends who barely knew him said in the last few days: “Wes made an impression on me. He was truly a gentleman. Wes was so hospitable. He was such a sweet and kind-hearted man.”

So how can any of us here who did know and love my Grandpa not feel a little bit troubled?

And yet, this is also a wonderful gift that we have. To be able to feel the love we do for such a wonderful man. To come here today in this place and to celebrate the beautiful life that Grandpa Wes did live and to know that we will not be the same because of him. To recall and cherish the lovely memories we have with him.

And to hold onto, emulate, and carry on the love that he shared and the legacy that he left this world with.

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…And boy, did he ever leave a legacy.

That Grandpa Wes of mine left a legacy that will always stand.

As a life-long Dubuquer, no matter how much he enjoyed traveling with his wife to places like Turkey, Singapore, Switzerland, Dubuque, Iowa was his favorite place to be. He loved it so much that he brought his beloved wife, Harriet, whom he met at Iowa State, back to share a life and start a family in.

He loved Dubuque so much that he had to come back to it with a grand entrance… One I’m not so sure Grandma Harriet was too excited about – as it definitely took her by surprise. When Grandpa, his father, and my grandmother were moving a piano from Spencer, IA to their new Dubuque home, they decided to place the piano in the back of a pick-up truck on top of several bails of hay. As they entered Dubuque, Grandma looked out the rear view mirror to see what had happened as she wondered why on earth a bunch of fire trucks were flying down the street with their sirens blaring… And as the trucks got closer and the sirens got louder, she soon came to realize that these trucks were actually following them… That these firefighters were there to put out the fire in the back of their pick up truck… A fire that was caused by our very own beloved Grandpa Wes, when he threw his cigarette out the window and it hit the bails of hay, setting them ablaze.

If Dubuquers did not already know the Heitzmans were moving back to town, they sure did then!

But little did any of these (probably now quite terrified) Dubuquers know that this very same Wesley Heitzman would also leave a legacy here in Dubuque that would make an impact on and be enjoyed by many generations to come.

As an architectural engineer in a long family line of builders, Grandpa developed a strong passion and love for building. Several years after moving to Dubuque, he, his brother, Don, and his father William started the highly respected Heitzman Construction Company and began their work of beautifying his favorite place in the world.

And did he ever beautify this city! From commercial and industrial projects to schools and buildings on the University of Dubuque campus, Grandpa created places where people will work, play, learn, and grow for many many years.

And Dubuquers have Grandpa Wes – along with his good friend Wayne Norman – to thank for saving the 4th street district buildings from being torn down when they decided to buy and refurbish many of them below and around the Cable Car. History in this town stands and will continue to be enjoyed by people for years to come because of the acts of love and care made by our dear Grandpa Wes.

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Our family has Grandpa Wes to thank, as well. Influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Grandpa prided himself on using natural and quality materials when he built his lovely family home on Sunset Ridge, which encompasses so many cherished memories from our past and will house many more with the Heitzman family as Grandpa’s legacy continues to live on in it.

And as a life-long and dedicated member of Westminster Presbyterian Church – one who was baptized as an infant in its original downtown location – Grandpa was inspired to devote his time and energy to building this new church structure we are sitting in today. And as someone who had a deep love for God and for the people in this community, this became the project he was most proud of – even in his final years.

Yes, Grandpa Wes left a legacy in Dubuque that will stand for many generations. And we have received this gift from him: that we will always be connected to Grandpa in a special way whenever we drive past a building he built, take a ride on the Cable Car, worship at Westminster Presbyterian, or share a family meal together in the dining room at Sunset Ridge.

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Now, though Grandpa Wes was a very hard worker and made sure the work he did was always of the highest quality, he also made time for his family.

From picnics in the parks to annual family vacations in Chicago, Grandpa Wes loved spending quality time with his family. He took his children fishing and canoeing, he spent some time talking with his sons while they would watch him shave, and he often took his kids with him to the construction sites to show them around and allow them to play while he conducted inspections.

Grandpa attended his kids’ and grandkids’ sporting events, practices, and performances as much as he possibly could (even when they were out of town). He helped move his grandchildren when they relocated (and would often be seen with half of his body outside their apartment windows, scrubbing away, to ensure his grandchildren had the cleanest windows on the block.) He was even caught at his granddaughter’s new apartment at age 88 carrying boxes up two flights of steps.

Grandpa loved through his ears, his actions, and his generous heart. He always took his grandchildren aside and shoved a few 20 dollar bills in our pockets, insisting that we needed it for gas money. He took special care of Grandma when she broke her arm several years ago. He would give his daughter the keys to his Dodson Z when he and Grandma went on vacation because he knew how much Becky loved that car. And when he saw his daughter-in-law rock her first newborn back and forth with her body while sitting on the couch, he went to the store, bought a rocking chair, and had it dropped off at her home that Mother’s Day.

Grandpa Wes loved all of his family and was so proud of each and every one of them. I remember how excited he was when his granddaughter, Peili, was first adopted. He kept saying over and over again: “Boy, she’s such a great kid…” as he laughed in his regular sweet and quiet way. I knew that meant he immediately fell in love with her.

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Grandpa was also extremely proud to be a great-grandfather. He loved to hold all of his great-grandchildren – no matter their size. And he really enjoyed watching them play together – along with Peili – and tickle, tease, or wink at them through his glasses – when he could, while he smiled and giggled to himself in the most gentle way.

Grandpa found joy in the little things in life. His face lit up any time he was around dogs… especially Ducheous – the family dog – and Oscar, his god-dog. He enjoyed playing bridge and poker with his friends, card games with the family, and he loved to put together puzzles with his grandkids while eating oreos and listening to kid-friendly comedians on the cassette player out on the screened-in porch.

As many of you may know, though Grandpa was sweet and giving, he could also be quite stubborn… He was a Heitzman, after all. He would often be found on the roof cleaning the gutters… even in his late 80’s. And no matter how many times his children and grandchildren urged him to fly to his annual trip to Aspen, he insisted on taking a few extra days to drive. Though he loved spending time talking and singing hymns with his life-long friends when he and Grandma arrived in Colorado, those long drives with Grandma were always the highlight of the trip, he would tell us.

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Grandpa Wes was talented in many ways. He was a fantastic dancer and an impeccable dresser. He gave great back rubs, could fit large amounts of luggage into the back of a car when nobody else could, and his specialty was making his famous root beer floats whenever his grandchildren came to visit. One of the things he enjoyed most was zipping around Dubuque in his Dodson Z dressed in his black leather jacket and cap… Sometimes he enjoyed this so much that he’d drive right past his own kids while they were walking home from school, not even noticing they were there.

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Now during the last supper with his disciples, just before our reading in John, Jesus gets on his knees and begins to wash the disciples’ feet. The disciples were shocked and did not want him to do this, as the act of washing one’s feet was something that only a servant would do for a houseguest.

Yet, after he finished, Jesus said to them, “You call me Teacher and Lord. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Then a little later, he goes on to say: “I am with you only a little longer… [So] I give you a new commandment, just as I have loved you, so too, should you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Here, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the fact that soon he will no longer be physically present with them on this earth. So he commands his disciples to follow him. To follow his way of life. A way that was full of compassion, service, and love for others.

And it is through the compassionate and loving acts of these disciples – when they do follow this way of life Jesus has set out for them – that others will – in fact – experience God’s love. In other words, Jesus is commissioning his disciples to continue Jesus’ ministry when he leaves this earth by being His hands and feet to the world. This is the way, the truth, and the life. This is how people will come to know and experience the love of God the Father.

I think St. Theresa of Avila explains it best: “Christ has no body now but yours.  No hands, no feet on earth but yours. 
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world. 
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
 Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. 
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet. Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
 Christ has no body now but yours.”

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And this is exactly what I think of when I think of Grandpa Wes. Though he loved quietly, he always loved first with his ears and eyes and then through his hands and feet.

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not let them be afraid.

One of Jesus’ disciples – Simon Peter – can’t let go of the idea that Jesus will soon leave them. “Can’t I go, too? Can’t I follow you to God the Father?” – he insists just before our reading for today. “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now,” Jesus responds. “But you will follow me afterward… when it is time… Believe and trust in God. Believe and trust in me, also.

For in my Father’s house there are many rooms.”

After my cousin, Sandi, found out that Grandpa passed away, she posted a picture on facebook of Grandpa, his brother Don, sister Lois, and his parents. Under the picture, Sandi wrote: “All together again.”

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This is the hope and promise we have in Christ. While we know the tragedy that comes after Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, as he journeys toward his brutal death on the cross, we can have hope because we know what happens next. Jesus’ death is not the end of the story. It is only the beginning. Through his resurrection, Jesus conquers death and brings forth new life. And as children of God, and children of the resurrection, we – like Jesus – are promised this gift of the resurrection, as well. Like Jesus, we will be resurrected from the dead and given new life eternal with God and with one another.

Yes, in God’s house, there are many rooms. One for Simon Peter, Thomas, and the rest of the first disciples. One for Great-grandma, Great-Grandpa, Uncle Don, Aunt Lois. One for Grandpa Wes and for my Uncle Lloyd. One for me, and one for each one of you.

And yet, as Jesus says to the disciples, as we wait for our time to follow him to our God the Father, let us continue to follow his way of compassion, service, and love. Let us be Christ’s hands and feet, as Grandpa was, caring for one another – especially in times like these. And in those painful moments when we just don’t know how we might get by, let us remember that we are not alone. For the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, is always with us, teaching us, guiding us, and comforting us in our greatest times of need. And we know that Grandpa Wes is right alongside her as She does.

As Jesus says: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.

Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Do not let them be afraid.

Amen.

“Wide Awake” – Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

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Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.

So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

– 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11


A week ago Friday night, I took 19 of our youth to the ELCA Chicago Synod Ultimate Lock-In, which meant that I stayed up all night with about 300 12-18 year olds playing arcade games, racing around in go-carts, zapping each other with lasers under a black light in the laser tag room, and watching and discussing a movie. While this is a really fun event that our youth look forward to every year, you can just imagine that it’s quite exhausting for those of us who have long passed our teenage years. So it’s a little ironic that the movie we watched at the event was called “Wide Awake” – something that most of us “older” attendees were struggling to be that night.

Now, if you have not seen this movie, it is about a 10 year-old boy named Joshua whose beloved grandfather had recently suffered from bone cancer and passed away. Throughout the movie, Joshua has flashbacks of times he spent with his grandfather. One of the most touching flashbacks is when Joshua tells his dying grandfather through buckets of tears that he is scared, and when he fearfully asks him if he, too, is scared, his grandfather replies, “You know I’ll be alright because God will take care of me.”

Yet, after his grandfather passes away, we watch as Joshua struggles to find interest in his school and friends, and as his parents have to drag him out of bed every morning and encourage him to have some fun. We later find out that Joshua fears that his grandfather is not – indeed – alright. That maybe there is not in fact a God who will take care of him.

Fear had gotten the best of Joshua. And throughout the beginning of the movie, we see how it consumes him and keeps him from experiencing the joys in the people and the world around him.

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 Fear.

As with Joshua, this is something that gets the best of many of us.

And it is at the heart of the situation that Paul is addressing in his first letter to the Thessalonians. You see, these early Jewish and Gentile Christ-followers in Thessalonica had a lot to fear. They had only recently become converts to this new faith movement. And, yet, it is not too long after Paul begins his ministry with them, that he and other leaders start to face severe persecution for teaching about a King who would save God’s people from the oppressive Empire. And soon thereafter, Paul and the other leaders are kicked out of the city, leaving these early Christ-followers to fend for themselves.

These new Christ-followers are scared. Scared for the safety of their new friends. Scared for their own lives. Scared for their future.

Scared that maybe Paul had gotten it all wrong.

Because if Paul was right about this Jesus being the Son of God, the Messiah – the one who is supposed to come and bring them salvation – then why on earth were they facing persecution for following him? And if Paul was right about this Jesus who is supposed to return again and deliver them from death, then why hadn’t Jesus come already before some of their friends and relatives had already died? What will happen to those deceased friends and family now? Will they be left behind when Jesus comes again?

Fear.

I think this is an unwanted neighbor that many of us here meet too often and know too well. Our news stories are full of reasons for us to fear: the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, the potential spread of Ebola, the ever-growing fear of terrorism and world war. And for some of us here, a new wave of fear may have even swept over us in the last few weeks after we heard the results of the election.

Fear also seems to continuously pound on our front doors and stare us directly in our faces in our daily routines, taking control over our lives and holding us back.

We often tend to allow our fear of failure and the unknown future to hold us back from taking chances; our fear of our children’s safety to keep us from letting them try new things and grow up as unique individuals; and our fear of loneliness and rejection to keep us from opening up in new relationships.

And we tend to allow our overwhelming fear of the wavering economy to keep us from giving to those who are in need around us; we let our fear of change hold us back from experiencing the joys and opportunities in the world that we have never seen or known; and we let our fear of illness and death hold us back from actually living.

Fear is a natural and normal human feeling. One that Paul, Silas, and most likely the rest of the early church missionaries felt at numerous times. One that even Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – felt and so honestly and passionately expressed while hanging from the cross as he cried out to God before taking his final breathe. And fear is something that we – too – will in fact experience at many times in our lives, and therefore must honestly express it before God and one another.

And yet while this is true, we need to be cautious when we respond to the fears that are urgently knocking on our doors. Because if we open up our doors widely and allow these fears to come rushing into our homes and our lives all at once, they can immediately swoop in and strongly overpower us.

And when we let these fears consume us, they can take over our lives, causing us to be so focused on protecting ourselves that we forget to look at the beauty and blessings in the world that God created.

They can drag us down into a deep darkness – where we become blind to the needs of our neighbors. They can transform us into being people of the night, rather than of the day, where we spend most of our time in bed with our sheets pulled over our heads to block out the light shining in and with our eyes shut to the joys and struggles around us.

I think Gandhi explains this well: “The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is fear.”

And once we let this enemy drown us in darkness and we become people of the night, it can be very difficult for us to get out of bed in the morning… and to live.

But Paul compassionately reassures the Thessalonian Christ-followers that they need not be consumed by fear. And Paul’s pastoral words to the Thessalonians are also words for us today. In chapter 4, just before our passage today, Paul explains that we must not be uninformed about those who have died and we must not grieve the loss of our loved-ones as others do who have no hope. For we can be assured that “through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”   When Jesus returns, these beloved ones will not be left behind. For just as Jesus has died and resurrected from the dead – so too shall those who have died, be raised from the dead when Jesus comes again. And – as Paul says – for those of us who are alive at Jesus’ return, we – too – will join with those who are already deceased to meet and be with Christ forever.

And this is why we can boldly proclaim with hope the words we confess every week: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Therefore, Paul urges the Thessalonians: “Encourage one another with these words.”

Paul provides further encouragement in our text for today in chapter 5.

Now regarding the times and the seasons, Paul says, we will not know the time Jesus will return again. It will happen quickly – when we least expect it – like when a woman’s labor pains suddenly kick in or when a thief appears in the middle of the night.

However, we must not live as so many others do – in fear and without hope. For we are children of the light, not of the darkness. We are children of the day, not of the night. Yes, we will experience hardships and suffering, persecution and pain in this lifetime. We will face many great fears while we are on our journey. But we must not let those fears consume us and pull us into the darkness. We must not allow those fears to get ahold of us and keep us from living in the light with our eyes open to the beauty, blessings, and joys of this world. We must not allow these fears to hold us back from seeing the suffering and the needs of our neighbors and doing what we can to address them… Doing what we can to shine the light of God to others around us who are consumed in pain and darkness.

*****

Now, you may be wondering what happened to Joshua in the movie Wide Awake. After a while, he finally announces one day that he is going to go on a mission to look for God to make sure his grandpa is okay. And so throughout the rest of the movie, Joshua goes in search for God. And while on his journey, Joshua begins to find some joy through his friends and a new adolescent crush and relationship with a girl, whose name –of course – is Hope. And he eventually gains empathy for those whom he had least expected, including the not-so-popular annoying kid who longs for attention and the class bully that Joshua later realizes is using his aggression to cover his insecurities and struggles at home. By the end of the movie, Joshua is able to get out of bed easily, have fun with his friends, and find joys in the world around him. And he finally comes to the conclusion that his grandfather is okay because he had found God. Because God had, indeed, been present in the little things in life, through the people he had encountered, and through the empathy and compassion he had shared with others.

At the end of the movie, Joshua explains this as he reads a poem he wrote in class: “I spent this year looking for something, and ended up seeing everything around me. It’s like I was asleep. I’m wide awake now.”

******

I think this is sort of what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Thessalonians when he encourages his readers to live as children of the day. As children of the light. For – Paul says – we can hold onto the hope that God has not destined for us wrath, but rather God has destined for us salvation through Jesus Christ. A salvation that comes through and because of our Messiah, our loving Lord and Savior, who died for each one of us, so that we might live with him – whether we are awake or asleep. That not only will we live with God for eternity after we pass on from this world, but that we might also live with and experience God – here and now – as we are awake and alive in this world today.

It is for this reason that Paul urges us to be not afraid. To shield our hearts with faith and love. To protect our minds with the hope of salvation that we have in the promise of Jesus, who died for us so that we might live.

So let us now choose to live.  Let us now choose to be wide awake.

Let us choose hope over fear.

And therefore, as Paul says, encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are already doing.

Amen.

“Keep on Keepin on” – Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14

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“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”  – Phil. 3:4b-14


This August, I took 28 youth from Ebenezer Lutheran Church and 4 other Edgewater congregations to Iowa for a mission/service and learning trip. We had so many wonderful experiences, and I really hope you will stop by the fellowship hall today at 12:00pm to hear more stories from our youth and to see some pictures from the trip.

However, while we had many great experiences on the trip, there was one experience that was not as wonderful as the rest. I like to say it was a frustrating and yet good life lesson and learning opportunity for our youth. While in Iowa, we stayed at a congregation during the week that did not have showers, so we went to the local YMCA/YWCA to clean up after our service projects every day.  Unfortunately, the girls locker room did not have any enclosed showers with doors on them and only had one large open, shared shower.  Since I knew this would not be a very comfortable situation for our girls, I asked the manager months in advance if he would allow our girls to shower in the women’s locker room (where there were a few enclosed showers with doors) with the supervision of myself or one of our other women chaperones.

The manager had no problem with this.

Unfortunately, while we were on our trip, some of the women in the locker room did…

And what was even more unfortunate was that the manager was out of town that week…

Let’s just say there were a few women who were not very kind to our girls when they walked out of the showers in the women’s locker room.  Or to me (or the rest of the YMCA staff) when we explained to these women that we had received permission because the Y was our only access to showers for the week…

In my conversation with these women, I heard a lot of: “I’ve been a member here for 22 years and you are only guests…” “This is the way we have always done it and this is the way it will always be.” And my favorite: “I don’t care if you got permission, this is the rule, and if you don’t like it, then you can find somewhere else to shower.”

After talking later on in the week with the YMCA staff and a few other members who overheard these complaints, we found out that we were far from the only ones these women had been snippy with or had thrown a fit about.

Apparently, these women had been members for many years and had recently been upset about new members joining the YMCA because they thought the Y was getting too crowded, they had complained about other groups of kids using the pool during their swimming hours, and they had snapped at a few other women for dripping a little water on the locker room floor.

They were long-term members, had established a set of “rules” – both written and unwritten – about the way things needed to be, and believed that they had the right to enforce those rules because of their seniority. Newcomers and visitors needed to abide by their rules, and there were no exceptions. Period.

 *****

 This sort of reminds me of the situation Paul is addressing in his letter to the Philippian church. The city of Philippi was in the center of Macedonia, and yet since it was considered a colony of the Roman Empire, all residents had Roman citizenship and therefore received the benefits that were awarded to the citizens of Rome, such as property rights, exemption from taxes that were enforced upon non-citizens of Rome, and civil and legal protections. Because of this, most citizens of Philippi were very proud of their Roman citizenship, viewed themselves as the elite residents of the preeminent city in the center of Macedonia, and often boasted about their status.

In addition to this, as with a few other churches Paul communicated with, within the church at Philippi there were some Jewish and Gentile Christians who were insisting that any converts to Christianity must first take on the Jewish identity, such as observing the Jewish Sabbath and dietary laws and being circumcised, a practice that was viewed by many Greeks as revolting. In some instances where non-Jewish Christians did not observe such laws and chose not to be circumcised, they were deemed as “un-savable,” inferior to those who were “saved,” and were even excluded from meals and other gatherings.

So, as we can see, the members of the church of Philippi inherited privileges (that many other Christians in Macedonia lacked) and were proud because these privileges elevated their social status above others. And it is possible that they were using some of those privileges to exclude others from their community, unless these “others” first gave up their own identities and became like “one of them.”

 *****

Now I can imagine many of us here have encountered some modern-day prideful Philippians at least at one point in our lives. I imagine many of us at one time or another have either known someone who has been excluded from a group or discriminated against because of their identities or lack of social status – or have even experienced this ourselves.

And yet, I wonder if any of us here can also see ourselves in the Philippian Christians. I wonder if we – too – have inherited privileges that allow us to enjoy benefits and opportunities that others around us cannot enjoy: whether we benefit from the privileges of being white, male, heterosexual, or having socially accepted body weight and abilities – where we have never felt unsafe, been shamed by others, or discriminated against because of our identities. Or whether we benefit from the privileges of being educated, employed, economically stable, or a U.S. citizen – where we are granted the rights of these statuses and never have to worry about putting food on our tables, losing our homes, or being deported back to very dangerous situations.

And within the Church, some of us may even have the privilege of growing up in a Christian congregation and knowing the Christian lingo, being involved in the Lutheran denomination for as long as we can remember and knowing its rituals, or even worshipping here at Ebenezer Lutheran Church for years and knowing its expectations and unwritten rules that newcomers do not know.

And there may be some of us here who know what it is like to work really hard throughout our education process and our careers, have been involved in our communities, and are pleased at how far we have come. And so it’s no wonder that there might be times when we feel so proud about our resumes and status that we can’t help but boast about our achievements.

It’s easy and very tempting when things go well in our lives to look at ourselves as better than those whose situations are not like our own and to look at those “others” with judgment… That they are lazy or not smart enough or just didn’t do things the “right way” like we did them and therefore “got themselves into this mess.” And as we point fingers in these ways while uplifting our own choices, we do so without recognizing our inherited privileges – that so many others lack – and yet that have enabled us (maybe even with a lot of hard work) to get to where we are now.

 *****

And yet, for Paul, there is no room for finger pointing and boasting. No matter how impressive one’s resume or achievements are, no matter what community or “club” one is a member – or citizen – of, and no matter if one makes all sorts of the “right choices” that have gotten him or her to a comfortable and elevated place in society– according to Paul, this all counts for nothing.

Of all people, Paul knows this. At the beginning of our passage, Paul states that if anyone has the right to have confidence in the flesh (meaning confidence in one’s circumcision or Jewish identity markers, human achievements, or social status) – if anyone has the right to be prideful of and boast about such things – it is Paul, himself, who has more. For it is Paul who has quite the extensive resume: as one who was circumcised when he was eight days old and was therefore a lifelong Jew, a member of the highly regarded tribe of Benjamin, and a Hebrew of Hebrews (or a full-blooded Jew: one whose parents were both Jewish, who spoke Hebrew, and who practiced Jewish traditions that were not Hellenized). And it is Paul who had once been a Pharisee – a zealous religious leader who was seen as having the authority to interpret the Mosaic Law, determine who was “in” or “out” of the faith community based on his interpretations, and persecute those who challenged it, and who – for most of his life – had so meticulously followed the Mosaic Law that he had been seen as righteous and blameless before God.

Of all people, Paul had the reason to be confident in the flesh.

And yet, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul acknowledges his privilege that enabled him to reach such a worldly status and he says whatever societal and religious “gains” he once had, he now regards as loss because of Christ. These “gains” no longer matter. They are rubbish.  

Or in a more accurate translation and more crude terms: they are dung.

Horse manure…

Or whatever other four letter word that comes to your mind.

Contrary to his old understanding, Paul has not gained righteousness by making the “right choices” determined by the law that elevated his worldly status. Righteousness does not come from anything he has done to achieve it.  Rather, Paul says in our text in verse 9 that righteousness comes through “faith in Christ” – or, as some translators suggest is a better translation: it comes through “the faithfulness of Christ.”

In other words, righteousness comes through the faith in or faithfulness of the One who came to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, to give sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free.

It comes through and because of the One who challenged the unjust hierarchical structures – both in Rome and the Temple – that created class systems of privilege, which elevated some while marginalizing others.

It comes through and because of the One who boldly and loudly proclaimed justice on behalf of the “least of these,” even though his radical teachings and actions ultimately led him to his arrest and eventual death on the cross.

It comes through and because of the One who – through his resurrection – conquers injustice and death and brings forth new life, which is both that which is to come and that which liberates us from all the isms and phobias that cause us to experience death here and now.

Righteousness comes through the One who calls all of his followers to choose this resurrection life that proclaims love, peace, and life-giving justice for all of God’s children.

And so counter to what the world says, it no longer matters what our resume looks like, how much education we might or might not have, what our heritage, identity, or worldly status is, how long we have been in or out of the faith community, or whether or not we know the Christian lingo and rituals.

In Christ and because of Christ, we are all invited to the Table.

Now – according to Paul – what does matter is the way we live.  And the way we love.  That we become like Christ in his death. That we come to know him and the power of his resurrection. Knowing not just by acknowledging his existence with our lips and believing in his resurrection with our minds, but rather knowing Christ by truly experiencing his powerful and all-surpassing love for and through all humanity – no matter one’s identity or worldly status – and then being transformed by that love so that we might emulate and share it with all we encounter. 

What does matter is that we continue to learn about and acknowledge our privileges that have helped us get to where we are today and allow that acknowledgement of our privilege to shape the way we look at, love, and stand in solidarity with others who walk through this world differently than we do.  That we begin to listen to those voices around us that are not being heard or represented. That we begin to use our privilege to help right wrongs so that Christ’s liberating resurrection may not just be experienced in the future, but that it will also begin to be experienced by all in the here and now.

*****

This is not an easy task, and we cannot just reach our goal with the snap of our fingers. It’s a process. It’s a life-long race that we cannot run on our own: it’s one we must pursue together.

And as we do, we must remember – as Paul explains in our text – that we may never quite reach the finish line and obtain the prize at the end of the race. But, as we continue to learn how to take our eyes off the worldly values of our past, learn from our mistakes when we stumble or fall off the path, and let go of the guilt that sometimes weighs us down when we begin to acknowledge our privilege, we must press on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Or, as rapper Travie McCoy says: we “gotta keep on keepin on.”


Benediction from this week’s devotion on d365.org:

It’s easy to only think about things from our one, limited perspective. Jesus pushes us to see differently.

Allow yourself to be challenged. Allow your eyes to be opened. Allow your life to be changed.

Go now, and let the value of knowing Jesus change the lens through which you see the world.

“Peace-making be with you”: A Radical Call for Resurrection-Living

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{This post is my contribution to the monthly Spirit of the Poor syncroblog. The conversation is hosted by Luke Harms this month with the theme “Resist.”  Join the conversation.}

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Christ is risen! Alleluia!

We shouted these joyful proclamations on Easter Sunday. The One we had been following through the wilderness for 40 days and watched as he was arrested, wrongly accused, crucified on the cross, and buried is now alive. His tomb is empty and he has been raised from the dead.

Christ is risen indeed!

And on Easter Sunday we celebrated as we sang the “Alleluias” that had been buried over Lent. The black veil over Jesus’ cross has been lifted. The sanctuary is now decorated in white and gold. And the cross has been covered with bright and colorful flowers.

We finally can take on the luxuries we had fasted from over Lent. Everything seems to be back to normal… Or, for many, everything seems to be even better than before… knowing that Jesus is alive. That Christ could not be conquered by death.

Christ is risen! All is joyful and full of celebration.  Alleluia!

But wait a minute.

Not so fast!

This week, our Lectionary does not take us to a party with streamers, chocolate bunnies, and Easter egg hunts. While we do come to a gathering, it is not one that is filled with celebration.

Earlier that morning, Mary Magdalene is visited by the resurrected Jesus and goes to the disciples to tell them of this great news. But instead of rejoicing, they hide behind closed and locked doors… out of fear.

Out of fear that the Jewish leaders who attempted to silence Jesus by putting him to death would now come after them. And maybe out of fear of Jesus, himself. Now that he is alive, what would he think of his friends who denied him three times, fled after his arrest, and left him to fend for himself in his most excruciating moments on the cross?

Christ is risen? Christ is risen… indeed?

Last week, I wrote about my experience watching the Jesus I knew growing up – who had loved and advocated for me and had called me into ministry at a young age – get spit on, beaten down, put on trial, and eventually crucified as I kept hearing “You Can’ts” because I am a woman. And though these loud voices in my first marriage and campus ministry continuously tried to silence and crucify this Jesus, death did not have the final say. The tomb was indeed empty, and the Jesus I knew and loved was not, in fact, silenced.

And yet, though I could at times shout out “Alleluias” of great joy, there were still times I – like Jesus’ closest disciples – decided to run and hide behind closed doors.

Because this news that Christ is risen may be good news, but it does not come without great responsibility…

Because this news that Christ is risen may be good news for many, but it is not good news for all.

When I saw the Jesus who loved me for who I truly am hanging from the cross, I panicked, thinking I’d never see him again. But when he finally appeared to me at the empty tomb, calling me to follow him into this crazy ministry of radical love that loudly advocates for the “least of these,” I wasn’t so sure I wanted to accept this call, after all. Instead, I wanted to resist it.  I wanted to run and hide out of fear. Out of fear of those who would wish to silence me – were I to follow this resurrected Jesus. Out of fear of what so many of my friends, colleagues, and in-laws would say. Out of fear of how this “speaking out” and “standing up for myself and others” would add more tension to what was already taxing in my friendships and marriage.

Couldn’t I just privately accept the love and peace of this radical Jesus for myself and hold onto it for my own personal healing? Couldn’t I just quietly share the good news of this radical Jesus with only the people who I know would accept him?

But if we know this radical Jesus in the first place, we also know the answer.

We know that when we look into the eyes of the resurrected Jesus and touch the wounds of the crucified Christ, we will understand that his death and resurrection were for a far greater and more powerful purpose than just ourselves. And when we place our fingers on the holes in his wrists and feel with our hands the deep cut on his side, we will not be able to do anything other than loudly confess that Jesus is indeed, “My Lord, and My God!”

…So we run.

But even in our times of fear and questioning – when we resist our call to proclaim this radical Gospel of Jesus; when we choose to deny, flee, and hide – Jesus will keep returning to us over and over and over again. Until we are ready to open our eyes to see him, reach out our hands to touch him, and accept the “peace” he offers to us that comes with a commission.

Because when we receive the words: “Peace be with you,” we must remember Jesus’ words that come after it: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

This resurrected life we are called to live – this peace-giving and peace-making ministry we are sent out into the world to do – is going to lead us to places, people, and situations we will fear and question. When we really follow this radical Jesus of the cross who loudly and boldly advocated for the “last and the least,” we are going to run into some pushback. We are going to get ourselves into trouble. We are going to bump into people who will try to spit on, ridicule, beat, and silence us.

But the good news is that we are not alone. Jesus is with us. He has breathed onto us the Holy Spirit, our loving Advocate, who will continuously comfort and guide us along the way. And he has called us to join together as one body to share the joys and the burdens that come with receiving and passing on this peace of Christ.

Easter is not over after we sing “Alleluias” on Easter Sunday. It did not end when Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. And it did not end when Jesus appeared to the disciples who were hiding behind closed doors.

It continues with each one of us as we choose to live this resurrected life by accepting and boldly passing on the peace that comes in and through this radical Jesus who was resurrected from the dead.

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

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For the Women Who Hear “You Can’ts”: An Easter Story of Hope #StoriesofEaster

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{This post is my contribution to the Stories of Easter syncroblog hosted by Convergent Books.}

It was a Sunday morning my senior year of college. I was sitting in church with my fiancé and his family as I thought about how nice the service was: the music was incredible and the people were really friendly.

But then came the sermon.

I began to feel a little uneasy when the pastor started reading 1 Corinthians 14 about women remaining silent in the church. And things only got worse when the pastor continued to preach about how women had their own special “roles” in the faith community… And that these “roles” did not include teaching adult men, preaching, or serving as pastors, among other things.

This troubled me… as I had been raised in a church with a female pastor, in a family where women were seen as equal to men and could be anything they wanted to be, and where I – myself – started to feel called into ministry in high school.

At a young age, I met and had fallen in love with a Jesus who loved me for who I truly was and who – despite my struggles, faults, and failures – kept washing my feet, calling me his “beloved,” and for some odd reason kept urging and empowering me to follow him.

But there – on that Sunday morning with my fiancé and soon-to-be in-laws – this Jesus I loved was being silenced. He was being beaten down, spit on, and mocked.

And this was not the only place I heard these messages… I had been hounded by “you cant’s” because I was a woman in my campus ministry since my freshman year and would continue to be hounded by them later in my marriage for many years until my divorce.

The Jesus I knew for so long – who had been my true friend, advocate, and encourager – was on trial and the prosecutors were winning. And I began to fear that I would never see or hear from him again.

*****

I wonder if this was how the women who knew and loved Jesus felt as they watched him from afar during his arrest, his trials, and as he slowly and painfully journeyed toward the cross.

The Jesus who had allowed women to touch his cloak, rub his feet with their hair, sit in the places where disciples sat, and who rebuked the men who criticized such women was now being spit on and mocked. The Jesus who not only taught these women the Scriptures, but also empowered them to speak their voices and allowed them to accompany him on his ministry was now being flogged. The Jesus who had loudly and boldly proclaimed that these women – “the least of these” – were just as cherished and beloved in God’s Kingdom as any man was now being silenced, as he was forced to walk – with a crown of thorns on his head and a heavy cross over his back – toward his violent death.

I wonder what those women who loved this radical Jesus thought as they gazed up through their tears at his broken and bloody body as it hung silently and still on the cross.

Would they ever see or hear from him again? Were they really going to be cherished in the Kingdom of God or was all that he had proclaimed and done for them done in vain? Was Jesus truly the One he said he was or did they completely misunderstand him?

Who would advocate for them now?

Their grief, confusion, and anger over the loss of their beloved Jesus must have been incredibly overwhelming as they heard Jesus cry out in anguish on that dark night: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and watched him take his final breath.

And yet, in the midst of this grief, confusion, and anger, some of these women decided to go back to his tomb after he was buried. We don’t know why. It may have been the same reason they chose to follow him to the cross, while almost all of Jesus’ other disciples bailed out on him.

Maybe they wanted to make sure the tomb was being taken care of, just like he had made sure they were taken care of. Maybe they needed more opportunities to say what they didn’t have the chance to say to Jesus before his arrest. Maybe they thought they would feel closer to him if they were close to his body.

Or maybe they held onto hope that this Jesus really was the One he said he was, and that death would not defeat him.

Whatever the reason, they went back to the tomb.

And it must have been a shocking and horrifying moment when the women found the tomb empty. Had someone stolen Jesus’ body? What did this mean for them now?

And yet, they must have been even more shocked when they were greeted by their loving Jesus, himself – before anyone else – and were commissioned by him to be the bearers of the good news of his resurrection.

The Jesus they knew and loved really was the One he said he was. And this Jesus who loved, advocated for, and empowered them before his arrest was now continuing to do so in and through his very death and resurrection.

*****

When I felt voiceless as I heard and watched others mock and deny the Jesus I knew and loved, no matter how strong and loud their voices were, I could not give up hope that Jesus might still be the One I had experienced him to be. And so I followed him on that long, bumpy road toward his death. There were times when I felt hopeless: at the bottom of the cross, gazing up at what seemed to be just a broken and bloody body hanging silently from it.

And yet, somehow I felt a constant urge to keep returning to his tomb. To see if he was still there. To see if he was, indeed, the One I knew him to be long before. And though there were times I felt alone when I found the tomb empty, after continuously returning to it, I finally realized that those loud voices that led him to his crucifixion did not, in fact, win.

For there standing in front of me was the very Jesus I knew and loved for so long: calling out to and commissioning me – his beloved – to go out and spread this great news of his resurrection to all who fear that his death would keep him away forever.

*****

For all the women out there whose loving Jesus has been crucified before your very own eyes: may you find hope in this Easter Story, as well. When others around you ridicule, spit on, and beat down the Jesus who has claimed and cherished you, follow him to the cross. When you witness his crucifixion, visit his tomb… over and over and over again.

The promise in this Easter story is that no matter how loud those voices are around you that mock and deny your Jesus, death will not defeat him. And though these voices wish to silence him, he is proclaiming on your behalf louder than ever as he hangs silently and still from the cross.

And in a few days time, the Jesus you once knew and loved will appear to you in full form – claiming you as his own, and commissioning you – his beloved – to speak your voice and share this good news.

 

 

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.