Care for Creation Commentary — Easter 2A, 3A, 4A

Needing New Life:  reflects on Easter, Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, and coronavirus

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020)

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Psalm 16

1 Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31

 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020)

Acts 2:14a, 36–41

Psalm 116:1–4, 12–19

1 Peter 1:17–23

Luke 24:13–35

 

Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2020)

Acts 2:42–47

Psalm 23

1 Peter 2:19–25

John 10:1–10

 

NOTE: This selection includes reflection for both the several Sundays of Easter (April 19 and 26 and May 2, 2020). The 2nd and 3rd Sundays have Earth Day as a mid-point between (Wednesday, April 22), but in this unusual year, it might be that reflections for Earth Day stretch later, also.
I had been looking forward to working on this commentary for months now. Back before almost everything changed, I was aiming toward it since before the start of 2020. I was feeling great excitement and some ownership about late April of this year.

 

It’s the 50th anniversary of Earth Day!

 

I’m a Wisconsin boy, where we like to lay some claim to John Muir and Aldo Leopold and Gaylord Nelson. The last makes me feel a special stake in Earth Day, since it was when he was serving as one of our senators that Gaylord Nelson founded and initiated Earth Day. If you don’t know him, I’d like you to, and you can find a bit of the story at this website: http://nelsonearthday.net/nelson/. What started as a day for teach-ins has grown into what the organizing network has referred to as the world’s largest secular holiday, with over a billion participating annually (at least in a typical year).

 

It’s not just my Wisconsin roots and pride. Our possibilities in the church cheer, wave their arms, shout, sing, jump up and down for the propriety of being a voice in these teach-ins and not leaving it alone as a secular holiday, but recognizing it as an appropriate holy day.

 

Earth Day almost always falls during our liturgical season of Easter, as we celebrate the resurrected Jesus, who was born so that we could know God’s presence in our world and in our flesh, and who suffered the burdens and sorrows and pains of our world. This Jesus brings us to new life in Easter. That’s not disembodied life that only awaits its future consummation. It is the first fruits, the seed that rises as a green blade to bear fruit. In northern hemisphere where I live, this holy season arrives with the signs and symbols of spring, the flowers and the returned bird song. This is how we know the risen Jesus, and it is connected to creation and re-creation, to our Creator and this Earth.

 

So, yes!, we observe and celebrate Earth Day in the church! And marking 50 years gives us much to look back to and honor. In those 50 years, besides legal protections for the environment and better understanding of ecological impact, in the church we have come a long way toward what we should have always been, as stewards and siblings of creation. Our prayers, liturgies, songs, sermons, and broader congregational practices, as well as advocacy positions, are much improved during the course of this time.

 

And 50 years also gives us the chance to look ahead. We look to the 11 remaining years before it is too late to stop a 2° Celsius temperature rise for our planet. We know that this commitment needs to happen now. We know that it takes all of us, across the globe, of all religions, of each area of our lives, adapting and mitigating and caring. We know it is urgent.

 

But.

 

I had been looking forward to working on this commentary, then we began to live into a very different kind of new life, with safer at home and social distancing and death tolls and bad news and the coronavirus.

I would generally probably say that addressing climate change is the most important task for humanity. We could name some broader goal or task like “love,” but that would likely still include addressing climate change! The impending impacts are so catastrophic and our window of action is getting so short. As people created by God and placed in relationships with all the rest of creation, all the threatened creatures, from the most vulnerable human populations to species endangered of extinction and ecosystems moving toward collapse, there’s a lot at stake. It’s important. It’s important within church because of life all around us. If Earth Day is a holiday, we need to treat every day as an Earth Day holy day.

 

But in these weeks, I know for me it has taken a back seat. The emails and fundraising letters I’ve gotten from environmental organizations have gone almost entirely unopened. That kind of disregard I felt included writing this commentary, too. I couldn’t find place in my brain or schedule to put thoughts down, much less find expectation that you’d be interested in reading. Are your reflections for the end of April really going to have room for creation care and Earth Day? Or is that part of the set aside plans that has to be ignored for now?

 

In my congregation, we’re by no means having any sort of discussion in these weeks about burning our restored prairies. The tulip bulbs and seedling potatoes that Sunday Schoolers might’ve helped dig in later this month are nowhere to be seen. Our dreams of beginning to recognize the heritage of our property connected to Native Americans before us will have to wait. If we are going to celebrate Earth Day as a gathered community, it won’t be right now.

 

Even as we celebrate (and prayerfully mention in worship!) that the sun is warming and the rains refreshing and the trees are budding out and bluebird houses ready for nests, our congregation is not here to enjoy and participate directly. They are sheltered in place, for their own good and for the care of their neighbors.

 

Of course, there are glimmers of hope. In my neighborhood, as people are tired of being at home but unable to go much of anywhere else, the bike paths and city parks have been teeming with (appropriately distanced) people. It seems more than in a long time, people are recognizing the benefits and joys and relief of being outdoors. They are finding more attention for and meaning in those signs of spring and ways that life continues, that life flourishes, that life wins!

 

That has also been in an enlivened concern and charity toward neighbors, toward doing the best we can for each other and finding even simple ways (all that sidewalk chalk!) to assist or to make life livelier.

 

I continue to wonder about the reduction in C02 output as air travel has been reduced, especially international trips.

 

We’re seeing that a typically immobilized partisan Congress can move to address necessary relief, with responses that even a month ago would’ve seemed impossible to imagine.

 

Regularly people are pondering how this might change us going forward, what benefits we might be able to carry onward. Maybe that means positive opportunity to maintain environmentally practices or maybe it helps propel us forward with societal and cultural change.

 

And in the meantime, we remember that not everything has changed. This is still God’s world. God loves this world. God comes to be present in all the moments of life. Jesus cannot be put back in the tomb. The Spirit is on the loose, breathing life. We are still the church, gathered (even on screens or in prayers!) in love, gathered for the good of the world, gathered yearning for good news and peace that the world cannot give.

 

So what about these readings that are filled with Easter and God’s goodness for these days, which also happen to surround the 50th observance of Earth Day, which nevertheless are very different days and likely have a message filtered through the realities of COVID-19?

 

Here are a few thoughts:

 

2nd Sunday of Easter

The image of Jesus with holes in his hands and side is phenomenally powerful and perhaps worthwhile as we confront this present moment of human crisis and also the larger impending planetary catastrophe. (My favorite image of it is Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Thomas,” where it is both serene and yet remaining a little spooky, and where Jesus is directly in control.) We note that resurrection doesn’t simply undo the harm. It’s not a bright shiny Jesus who is suddenly perfect. Wounds linger. Even to call them scars is too much; that is about the body healing itself and sealing out. Here it is still a gash, but it is not harming or mortifying Jesus any more.

 

Already this is a far cry from a couple phrases in the other readings. Peter (Acts 2:26) quotes the Psalm for the day, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption” (Psalm 16:10). The 2nd reading tells you you have been given “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God” (1 Peter 1:4-5). Those are strong phrases, but not likely to resonate with our lives. We do experience corruption, in the aches that accumulate and the hurts that take longer to get past. We do and will perish. The news is thick with people perishing and having been defiled by the virus and disease.

 

We don’t pretend pristineness. We acknowledge defects and injuries. And for that, Jesus with holes in him is truer to our reality. There are problems and harms that we won’t just get over.
What is it to have a God who is part of those holes and hurts? A God who walks into our isolated homes and still says, “Peace,” who breathes fresh breath on us to inspire us for action and absolution?
Maybe, then, we also find God’s presence in the other wounds and injuries, and we proclaim and work for life, there, too. Though none are fully resurrection, images that occur with that to me:

The remediation of the old copper mine at Holden Village. (See http://www.holdenvillage.org/about-us/mine-remediation/.) It does not undo those gashes torn into the earth or the damage inflicted on the ecosystem. Forever those impacts will remain visible, but now they are doing less harm.

I think of planting human-made waste in order to provide structure on which coral reefs can grow. What in other instances could be garbage or polluted environment in this case fosters life and restoration. (See https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/artificial-reef.html.)

I wonder what we will value of our culture and society as we come through coronavirus; where has what is injuring us given new possibility and life?

 

None of these, again, are fully resurrection. But they remind us God is working for peace and on behalf of life in this wounded world that God so loves.

 

3rd Sunday of Easter

The first thing that strikes me is the 2nd reading. We may feel ourselves in a time of exile (1 Peter 1:17), exiled from our usual involvement in the world, displaced from our workplaces and schools, banished from our physical human interactions and our typical care for creation. Without overstating an apocalyptic moment, there is something of the end of an age currently (1 Peter 1:20). Maybe that includes how we’ve ignored public health funding. Certainly it’s made us feel less individually invincible and more connected. That makes genuine mutual love the only authentic response we can give (1 Peter 1:22). (Even while I’m typing this, hoping that the weeks don’t accelerate in resentments and riots.) As Christian congregations, we regularly proclaim a foundation and practice of love. Maybe that is imperishable seed, ever ready to be planted and blossom and fruit for the sake of the world (1 Peter 1:23). Can we observe that as the Easter life germinating in us (see John 12:24)?

 

Exile may actually be an easier sense of these days. The Psalm prompts the harder edge, for when “the cords of death entangled me; the anguish of the grave came upon me; I came to grief and sorrow” (Psalm 116:3). Perhaps more than any time in our contemporary human lives, these words resonate broadly for inescapable encounters with death. That grief and sorrow is real and should be held tenderly in our congregations, not brushed past with quick, cheap grace. And even as some of us might want to return to a larger issue of catastrophic climate change and tell others “how foolish they are and how slow of heart to believe” (Luke 24:25), perhaps we find ways to walk along and listen to each other. Those honest prayers and laments long to be heard by God. They need the God who has come to suffer with us. And they most truly need to be met by the Easter promise.

 

One way we receive the assurance of new life is in the gift of baptism. Perhaps the splash of fresh water can be a renewal and remembrance of baptism, that calls us close to God, a promise that is “for you, for your children, and for all who are far away” (Acts 2:39). The physical presence of water is a daily connection to God’s goodness. That makes it easy to recommend as a touchpoint for people who may not be by baptismal fonts in church buildings but should have access to a tap or hose at home! Keep your people splashing, with every wash of their hands remembering that they are held forever by God.

 

Even as we are grateful for the waters of baptism and for the clean water that allows us to wash away the virus, we may expand our attention and our mutual love to those who are far away. You may select local or global projects for education and support in connection to Earth Day; there are many resources on expanding access to water and on assisting with hygiene in these times. One recent example was from Lutheran World Relief for World Water Day, to assist families who are additionally facing worsened droughts in Yemen: https://donate.lwr.org/campaign/world-water-day-2020-coronavirus/c275465

 

4th Sunday of Easter

Some pastoral and rural peace may be just the ticket for these days. Let’s get out of the house and follow the Shepherd! These days, it doesn’t even require the frequent explications of ancient shepherding practices or the personality quirks of ovine taxonomy.

 

For those who may not be able to venture out and explore favorite open spaces and beloved scenery, for living without trips to parks and places of recreation and re-creation, perhaps the occasion invites reflecting on or finding pictures of very earthly real places connected to Psalm 23 (with a good basic Earth Day background that we won’t save what we don’t love). Here’s a starter walkthrough for a mental exploration with the Shepherd:

Verse 2a: Where are the green pastures for you in these days, the outdoor places of abundance and lush, vibrant life? Or where are the places you’ve valued but cannot make it actually to visit right now?

Verse 2b: Where are the still waters? What physical bodies of water have been part of offering you peace and contentment? How have you felt, and how can you access that now?

Verse 3: What pathways have been restorative of life? Where are the trails where you have found more of your identity? Who are the guides who have been with you outdoors?

Verse 4: Where have you walked alongside and amid death, perhaps especially in these days? Where has it been fearful and scary? What makes those places or aspects uneasy? And what has been a resource of faith?

(The remaining verses have less outdoor natural imagery, but may spur reflection on what has been spread on our tables to nourish and sustain us, with gratitude for those who have run the enemy gauntlet of coronavirus to deliver food down highways, through stores, in delivery vehicles. And while having to “dwell in a house forever” may sound more like punishment right now when many might be feeling stuck and isolated, perhaps their remains positive room for reflecting on where goodness and mercy or loving-kindness has surrounded and filled these days of life.)

 

Especially when disease lurks, threatening to steal and kill and destroy—along with all the other causes of diminishing God’s lavish loving goodness—this is the time to remember the Good Shepherd came that we may have life abundantly (John 10:10). And not just us, but sheep, and those who are in need (Acts 2:45), and all who are senselessly and unjustly suffering (1 Peter 2:19), the residents of green pastures, still waters, forest pathways, and dark valleys.

 

Not related to the readings but still for one set of thought for observing this 50th Earth Day as church community when we are apart, here is a starter list:

https://lutheransrestoringcreation.org/5-ways-to-celebrate-earth-day-as-a-church/

 

Happy Earth Day 50 and happy 50 days of Easter, for your life and abundant life to come!

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50 — a sermon

I thought it might be worthwhile to do a little recap of what happened this week.

42,800 people died this week from the virus.[1] Gov. Evers issued a plan for the Badger Bounce Back to lay framework for what it might be to get past some of this. You continued figuring out how to operate from home. That, of course, defined this week.

But there’s much more than that.

On Monday, a coyote was taking a nap in an empty parking lot at Yosemite, a bear roamed the streets of a town in Italy, and penguins strolled sidewalks of Cape Town, South Africa.

On Monday, my peas were sprouting. A miracle! saving a little eventual shipping fuel.

On Tuesday at Picnic Point, trout lilies were budding and I spotted my first ruby-crowned kinglet, a tiny chipper little bird with a red hat.

On Tuesday, John Muir was born. Well, he turned 182 years old that day, but…

He went on to help give us National Parks, but of his boyhood in Wisconsin he wrote of learning to swim by watching frogs, and about a loon he’d brought inside by the fireplace attacking his cat, and of all his favorite flowers. When the passenger pigeons came, he said “Of all God’s feathered people that sailed the Wisconsin sky, no other bird seemed to us so wonderful.”[2] At the death of a horse, he gained

“a real knowledge of animals as fellow-mortals, learning to respect them and love them, and even to win some of their love. Godlike sympathy grows and thrives and spreads far beyond the teachings of churches and schools, [he said] where too often the mean, blinding, loveless doctrine is taught that animals have neither mind nor soul, have no rights that we are bound to respect, and were made only for man, to be petted, spoiled, slaughtered, or enslaved.”[3]

I hope as the MCC and elsewhere, we rediscover a truer Christianity that fosters rather than dissuades what John Muir knew even as a child about our relationships with all creatures.

Besides Tuesday giving us those John Muir connections, also on Tuesday Aldo Leopold counted 871 geese along the Wisconsin River and examined bloodroot flowers at dawn. They were his final field notes, as he died later that day fighting a spreading fire.[4] He’d said “many historical events, hitherto explained solely in terms of human enterprise, were actually biotic interactions between people and land.”[5] His death was interacting with the environment, and he shows us it is always about relationship, including in the likely origins of the coronavirus. Leopold’s personal interactions with the land and ecology have been gone 72 years now.

This lost Leopold also leaves us grief about the extinction of passenger pigeons, for a monument still standing at Wyalusing State Park. He said it was

“the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living [person] will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.

“It is a century now since Darwin gave us the first glimpse of the origin of species. We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that [humans] are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution. This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.”[6]

To continue with the week in review, on Wednesday, my cousin was born. Well, this Wednesday Peter celebrated his 50th birthday.

Also hitting the half-century mark on Wednesday was Earth Day, started in 1970 by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson and becoming the most widely observed secular holiday in the world. In his speech that original day, Nelson reminded us of the objective

“to put Gross National Quality on a par with Gross National Product… concerned …not just with how we dispose of our tin cans, bottles and sewage [but all our problems]…It is a hungry child in a land of affluence…[It] is a problem perpetuated by the expenditure of billions a year on war, instead of on our… congested, polluted urban areas that are inhuman traps for millions of people. Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures. Our goal is a new American ethic that sets new standards for progress, emphasizing human dignity and well being rather than an endless parade of technology that produces more gadgets, more waste, more pollution. Are we able to meet the challenge?” our Senator asked, and answered: “Yes.”[7]

Four years ago on Wednesday, then, the Paris Climate Agreement was signed.

This Wednesday Dane County announced a new solar farm, part of its Climate Action Plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half this decade.[8]

Still, it was for quite different reasons this week that the air was clearer and easier to breathe in Los Angeles and Beijing and probably Madison. And oil, often black gold and the driver of life on this planet, instead had value below 0, as investors were not selling, but paying up to $38 to get rid of barrels of oil.[9]

Further in the week, on Thursday on an outing, I counted 34 forsythia bushes blooming in people’s yards versus 19 magnolias, even though the magnolias had a decisive early lead.

Yesterday, Saturday the 25th, marked the beginning of the Flint, Michigan water crisis six years ago, and an enormous earthquake in Nepal five years ago, and our best ever view of our universe, when the Hubble telescope was put into orbit 30 years ago.[10]

That view of our week and our broader surroundings, of feathered people and the biotic community and our predecessor kin of humans and entire species, that view of our neighborhood on this planet and beyond into the galaxies and the future, that view and perspective took me a long, long time to be able to see.

Coronavirus, I lamented more than a month ago, became the only thing going on. I was supposed to write for a church organization, Lutherans Restoring Creation,[11] about the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, but I kept putting it off, because it wasn’t where my attention was. It even seemed pointless. We’ve got enough just to make it through each of these strange days. In a phrase that Pastor Sonja uses, we just haven’t had the bandwidth to deal with much of anything else.

I admire the people who look at the changes we’ve been making and can anticipate that it will help in being better to the planet and each other going forward. For me, it partly just manifests frustration; if we can change our lives so intensely, so instantly because of the virus, why are we so immobilized to much real adaptation to address climate change? In the early weeks, this even meant that political parties on Capitol Hill were able to work together (though our legislature in Wisconsin seems unshakably stuck in preferring partisan parrying over actually confronting crisis and doing something to help).

That huge list from this past week and from the past I was eventually able to see, of how we make it through or move forward. I hope maybe it helped you to see it too, to see beyond the glare of present circumstances.

Still, a second conundrum for me is that I’ve arrived at a point where sermons would normally be wrapping up and I still haven’t mentioned Jesus. We got to the 50 years of Earth Day, but what does that have to do with living amid the 50 days of Easter?

For how directly our Bible readings kept fitting to speak God’s Word into the reality of the virus and our lives right now, these readings this week left me wondering how God was speaking into all that larger context of creation.

For example, we might feel sympathy with the two disciples in the Gospel reading, who, it says “stood still, looking sad” and knew overwhelming present circumstances as they asked, “Are you the only stranger who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” (Luke 24:17-18)

Again, we probably pray honestly the words of the Psalm: “the anguish of the grave came upon me; I came to grief and sorrow. O LORD, I pray you, save my life. Precious in your sight, O LORD, is the death of your servants.” (Psalm 116:3-4, 15). While that’s a faithful prayer, and may hold those dying or facing the most danger, we’re probably looking for more of an answer.

A question from our 1st reading may then be on our minds: “what should we do?” But we may find less validity in the response: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you” (Acts 2:37-38).

In the face of climate change, against stubborn deniers, we might take Jesus’ words: “O how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe.” (Luke 24:25).

In the end, even though it’s not about a task or how we’re supposed to feel successful, I suggest we take confidence from Luke that the risen Jesus is with you, present, and made known even in something like a confused and fearful, quiet meal at the end of a day, at home when darkness settles. Christ is coming for dinner, for your sustenance.

What matters, then, for any context, what ultimately shapes all our reality, and what puts you in proper relationship with God, neighbor, and creation is simply that, as it declares, “you have come to trust in God, who raised Jesus from the dead…so that your faith and hope are set on God. You have been born anew…through the living and enduring word of God” (1st Peter 1:21,23).

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: All Creatures, Worship God Most High (ELW 835, st1, 4-6)

 

[1] https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/coronavirus-death-toll/

[2] Muir: Nature Writings, “My Boyhood and Youth: A Paradise of Birds,” p78

[3] Muir: Nature Writings, “My Boyhood and Youth: Life on a Wisconsin Farm,” p56

[4] Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work, Curt Meine, p519

[5] in A Sand County Almanac, The Land Ethic: The Community Concept

[6] in A Sand County Almanac, “On A Monument to the Pigeon”

[7] http://nelsonearthday.net/docs/nelson_26-18_ED_denver_speech_notes.pdf

[8] https://madison.com/wsj/news/local/environment/dane-county-looks-to-develop-18-megawatt-solar-farm-joe-parisi-says-project-to-save/article_b3de5ee4-ad45-58c8-8b63-6bcbc86c68e5.html

[9] https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/20/838521862/free-falling-oil-prices-keep-diving-as-demand-disappears

[10] https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/andropov-writes-to-u-s-student

[11] https://lutheransrestoringcreation.org/third-sunday-easter-year-a-utphall/

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Christ as Vaccine

sermon on John 20:19-31

 

Jesus shows up the week after Easter. He comes into a house where his followers are secluded. He offers peace.

That could practically be enough from today’s reading, to hear your parallels in experience and discover the good news for you, on this week after Easter, when you are secluded in your house. Right where you are, Jesus shows up to offer peace, to give you himself and his blessing and his resurrected life.

That could be enough. You may well need a word of peace in these days. You may be shut up in fear. You may be shut up because death is lurking outside. You may be agitated and uncertain, confined not just by the four walls but by news and trying to do—but not totally sure—what is best and is life-giving right now. You may be shut up not by your own preference, a little trapped or cooped up. You may be shut up, as unable to say much good. Or you may be actually fairly comfortable and be confident that you’re doing the right thing and the helpful thing, but still closed into your house anyway. You may not have locked doors and may even get to open a window, but it’s still a restricted life. So Jesus comes to find you there and bring you peace.

Again, that could be enough. If that’s what you need and is helpful today, I’m grateful, and just to be sure, I’ll reiterate it once more: the risen Jesus shows up on this week after Easter, coming behind the doors of the house where his followers are, comes into your home, in order to speak peace, to offer peace, to give the peace that—especially these days—the world cannot give. The peace of the risen Christ be with you.

image of unintentional coronavirus cross

Even though that could be enough, I was thinking of something else. Maybe it’s because I figured you’d be disappointed in a simple three paragraph-long mini mini sermon, that you’ve waited all week for this opportunity and that would leave you begging for more! Maybe it’s because I like to think about these things, the theology exploring where God and Jesus are in the midst of our lives, especially in these current corona circumstances.

I’d like to explore, then, the notion of Christ as vaccine. Please don’t critique my epidemiological understanding too rigorously. This isn’t going to a peer-reviewed journal. And I’m sure not trying to co-opt science, but to help frame our religious understanding. Clearly it’s not an exact fit, and we’ll return to those distinctions. But I hope it can be helpful.

The first part is that Jesus has immunity. What would normally harm or kill him cannot anymore. He still bears the wounds, the holes in his hands and his side. It is clear that he really is the one who had suffered, but he has come through the suffering.

Now the first distinction that’s really really important is that Jesus wasn’t just sick. He didn’t recover. It’s not that he was suffering, then got better. He was dead. Done. Gone. The end. Just as Easter isn’t just things greening up in the spring, his resurrected presence isn’t a sort of emerging from hibernation that wasn’t really dead. Jesus isn’t healthy again, at least in our usual sense. It’s a new reality being shown to us and promised to us, which we are even now beginning to receive and live into. We should know that about resurrection and Easter.

For the sake of our metaphor, we can see that what had hurt Jesus can no longer hurt him. He has wounds—not scars, but wounds—but they aren’t bleeding or causing him pain or risking his wellbeing.

In the case of dealing with a virus, we might say Jesus developed antibodies against what had been attacking him. If we did a hypothetical blood test of Jesus, we’d discover trace evidence, then, of what had harmed him and discover that his body would be able to withstand it going forward.

Of course, in the case of Jesus, it wasn’t a virus that was killing him. Maybe we’d say it was the authorities or injustice. But still, the larger point would be not just a strain of a single virus, but that death itself could no longer harm Jesus. He was resistant to death.

The next thing, then, is that he offers that to others. When they have talked on the news about blood transfusions from people who’ve had the virus, it is the thought of adding some antibodies to help others resist the virus. Maybe in some way we think about the blood transfusion from Jesus as when he gives us his blood in communion.

But there’s another notion within this reading about how Jesus gives us what we need to resist the disease of death: he breathes on us.

I was pointing out in Lent how surprisingly often this idea of God’s breath kept coming around. God the Creator breathing the breath of life into the earthling sculpted from mud. The re-creating breath that came to enliven the dry bones Ezekiel saw. Today it is resuscitation, rejuvenating, bringing not just back from the brink of death, but out of death to life.

I’m struck because this is so potent these days, and that tells us to take it seriously. Jesus stands so directly against the harm and disease. In days when we continue striving for ventilators to help breath, and when we make and share and wear masks because of the risk of our own breath, when breath can cause death, it is so entirely powerful that Jesus comes in exactly to breathe on us, to give us the breath of life.

Jesus is a reversal of communicable disease. He is communicable wholeness, a contagion of wellness. When he touches lepers, it is not that he receives the disease but that they catch his cleanness. His breath isn’t the danger of death, but the gift of life. So he breathes on you and gives you the Spirit of life.

Then he sends his followers out from behind their locked doors, into the world.

Now, before you’d presume I’m saying Jesus sends you out from your house as if you’re inoculated against any harm and nothing bad can happen to you, as if God is protecting you in that way, that’s not what this is about.

If Jesus is a vaccine, we could take in that image that a vaccine puts into you a weakened strain of the virus. It gives a dose of exactly what the problem is. By giving you life, Jesus also gives you a dose of death, in order to resist it.

When Jesus sent those disciples, it wasn’t that they were immune to harm. The same powers and authorities that killed Jesus would be out, ready to endanger and damage their wellbeing. Jesus was exactly not going to prevent that. He’s not a prophylactic, rubber glove Jesus. But facing death wasn’t the end of the story.

So even while Jesus these days could be not sending but telling you to stay put, because that is what is in service of life, and while that may also be a difficult dose of death and feel like a diminishment of life, still I’m certain that the central point is as vital as ever: death no longer has dominion. It didn’t defeat Jesus. It doesn’t hold you in its clutches. You aren’t safe, but you have been freed from that fear with the breath of life that is beyond death. That gives you peace the world cannot give.

As you breathe carefully in these days, as you hold your breath for what is going to happen in days to come, this gift from Jesus gives you confidence. That isn’t the same as making you reckless, to disregard the rules and precautions. It’s not to go and spread death simply because there is something more.

But most certainly there is something more. It is not just for this life, clinging to it tenaciously, thinking we can lock out all the harm and sorrow of the world, or that doing our best now is all there is. Even as you confront the bad news of death, I hope this good news enables you already to breathe a little easier, to breathe the breath of new life.

I suggest we take a moment now for those good breaths, ten of them, deep and lung-filling, to inhale and be inspired by the promise of Jesus and to let that fill us with life for now and in the future, as his peace finds you right where you are.

 

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sermon for Easter 2020

Happy Easter!

I say that pretty particularly, not just wanting but expecting it to be happy.

I say it even to convince myself, since some of it doesn’t seem what I’d like. I’m not going for a family lunch later, to watch nephews and nieces chase for hidden eggs and gobble chocolate. I’m not going to eat deviled eggs and get to sample beers. I’m won’t get to laugh in a full room. I don’t like that.

Maybe at least important is that you’re not here in this room. Mary Rowe has said that it makes her sad to see the empty chairs onscreen. This current setup and Kaisa’s videographic skill is trying not to catch the rest of the Blessing Room, to make it feel and serve (as much as this can) to bring your familiar congregational home to you on your computer. But something is missing. I know. I’m sorry.

I love any time I get to see you. I really, really do cherish it. I don’t say that now; I say that as who I am. A day like Easter is usually the most of that, as there would be crowds, people bright and cheery and full of greeting, plus festival brass and communion and fragrant lilies and lighting the paschal candle. This morning is one of my normal most beloved times.

That includes maybe my favorite phrase of the whole year, a call and response that fills me with delight and embodies so instantly the good news we gather around in community. I look forward so much to the first hearty proclamation of “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” and get excited as it catches on and you get perkier at responding. You’d have to yell it REALLY loud for me to hear your response now.

Of course, that is pretty small in one perspective of things not being how they’re supposed to be. Having a church service run differently may not be tops on your personal list of what’s affected and wrong. You may have too much work or too little work or money. You may not know how to do your classes at home. You may not get the contact you want with grandkids, or you may miss your friends and sports. You may turn on the radio and wish for a Brewers game. You may want to go on a trip, or to a state park, or out to eat, or to the grocery store. Who would’ve thought that could be a luxury! You may be bored or may be worn out by the stress, or may be both at the same time. You may be nervous with masks. You may want to give all of the pent-up hugs.

Still, all that is pretty small of not being how it’s supposed to be compared to those directly dealing with the virus or mourning deaths, small next to those who have no stores or food in regular times or who are always fearing for their lives or without homes to stay in.

Sure. But I also want you to hear that. I’m not telling you to stop complaining, not telling you to get over it because it could be worse. I don’t want you to feel that what you’re feeling isn’t valid, that it already felt bad and then is worse because you shouldn’t be feeling so bad.  I won’t tell you to grieve more. For not wishing you should be different, John Prine gave the advice in a song “You are what you are, and you ain’t what you ain’t.”* It’s okay, what you feel. It’s real.

To flip it around, there are certainly things to be pleased about right now. You may take relief that spring is on the way (even with a few Wisconsin snowflakes). There is color back in the landscape of greens and flowers popping and delicate leaves. Maybe you’re more aware of time outside. Maybe you value connections you’re making or maintaining in distanced greetings and video chats. Maybe this has given you more family time or appreciation of your dog. Maybe you’re more tuned in to news and what democracy means, or maybe you don’t want to deal with that and instead are tuned in to music or binge-watching something fun. Maybe you contribute to the care of mask-sharing and kind words and support of health care workers. Maybe you value the creativity and innovation as we’re all figuring out how to do things differently in the quote-unquote “new normal.” Or maybe you still are finding old normal and realizing everything hasn’t changed.

With all of that, with more perspective than I can hold onto or certainly know of how you’re feeling and thinking and doing, bad or good, lament or celebration, Easter is different from all of that, but Easter speaks into it.

It’s easy to say Easter is more than pastel eggs and jelly beans and bunnies.

More, Spring springing is nice and we cherish it, but the cycle of seasons that brings back life that was never really gone isn’t Easter. In the end, lilies and green blades rising or butterflies may even be misleading metaphors for Easter. This isn’t “life will find a way” survival in Jurassic Park.

Again, then, hope is not just looking on the bright side, not just trying to list more good things than frustrations or sorrows. That can probably be a helpful practice to de-stress and re-orient, but it’s certainly not Easter to set aside bad thoughts and focus on the seemingly positive and cheery.

The resurrection wasn’t to make the women at the tomb feel dumb for having grieved, to erase it and say “oh, nevermind,” as if they should’ve known better or gotten over it. Easter is something more.

On Thursday my grandma died. I want to thank you for your kind words and love and prayers. And thank you for your laments about it being at this peculiar time when some contact isn’t possible. Either side could become definitive, either the outpouring of love or the limit of love, either the fortunate relationships that help or unfortunate distance that hurts. It’s all true and real. And neither is enough; I need more.

I could approach my grandma’s death with gratitude for her 97 years and having her around so long and how much she encouraged me as a pastor and think of the good memories. Or I could let it be defined that I didn’t see her the last time I was in Eau Claire, which maybe shouldn’t even have been the last time I was in Eau Claire, and I could focus on those regrets and regrets of what her life was or wasn’t, from 1922 until Thursday, when she died trusting in something more.

Thursday also marked the 75th anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Nazi concentration camp. I shared some words of his on Good Friday partly because of that date, and partly because he’s got good words. Those were about God closer in suffering than in happiness. Here’s another dose, where he directly says what I’ve been leading toward:

Where it is recognized that the power of death is broken, where the mystery of the resurrection and of the new life shines into the midst of the world of death, there one does not ask eternities from life, there one takes from life what life can offer—not everything or nothing, but good and evil, important and unimportant, joy and pain; there one does not frantically hold on to life, nor does one throw it foolishly away; there one is content with measured time and does not attribute eternity to earthly things; there one leaves death the limited right it still has.*

These days have some good, and have bad. They may be scary or stifling, or they may be quiet. Spring may be arriving like usual, or it may be unusual as the new normal or with a changing climate. Singing birds may make us think of all creation joining in alleluias of praise, or maybe they are just trying to find a mate. My grandma had joy and disappointment, and her death may have come at a good time or a rotten time. We take what life offers, and take it for the full, real thing it is. We help each other, and realize it’s not everything. “You are what you are, and you ain’t what you ain’t.”

For whatever that is and for whoever you are and aren’t, Easter meets it, speaks into it, or as Bonhoeffer phrased it, “the mystery of the resurrection and of the new life shines into the midst of the world of death.” The risen Jesus doesn’t whitewash over the bad and doesn’t pat on the back the good, as if it’s on its way toward glory. Resurrection is a new word for all of it.

So in details of these days and how you’re managing, there isn’t some that’s closer than the rest to Easter, to Jesus, to God. There isn’t the right perspective that’s godlier. There isn’t health or service of life that’s almost resurrection. There’s something more.

Even in worship, this can neither directly diminish nor entirely enhance the meaning of Easter. The dispersed community doesn’t mean we’re apart from God’s blessing. Festive Alleluias do acknowledge and proclaim it, but don’t actually put us nearer to new life. The sad days of peak death counts and the bleakness as this wears on are met by a new word that puts even that in context. It is not ultimate. Even that is limited. It may feel and may be important, but it is not all.

We do what we can. We find joy. We lament sorrow. We continue through life. It will have its variety, and is okay. But beyond that, and yet coming into the midst of it, coming into your life right now and into the room as you sit with this screen, a totally different new normal of resurrection’s promise. There is more. There is more. There is God’s presence and love, “saving, healing, here and now.” There is blessing that will leave nobody out. There is good news. There is peace, and there is encouragement.

There is this message: do not be afraid. In the Gospel reading, the dead person, Jesus, doesn’t act like a dead person. Instead it’s those men in fear who shake and act like the dead. I take it to mean in resurrection there is something beyond fear, undoing fear, a very real reason to reiterate: do not be afraid. Jesus comes to meet you, to reassure you, to tell you: there is more.

And it is for that reason and not because of any of the other circumstances, not because I’m glad we can still worship across the internet, not because Alleluias rise, not because it’ll be a calm and peaceful day, not because the curve is flattening, not because we’ve got it figured out, not because of anything else. It is because there is more with the risen Jesus that I am confident to say: Happy Easter.

 

 

 

We are gathered as the church you created with your Spirit’s breath. We join as all your followers in worship at the empty tomb on this Easter day, spreading across every place where we are sharing in this service, with our siblings of Community of Hope, and with the communion of saints in all times and places. Risen Lord, we pray (renew this life)

 

Whether or not green grass and flowers and bird songs are meant to proclaim the resurrection to us, we receive them that way, and join in praising you. We pray for where life on this planet that is strained and suffering. Happy Easter and happy birthday!

 

Governments and authorities abuse power too much and did so to crucify you, but you intend that they would be in service of life. We pray for elected leaders all over the world and we pray for democracy. Risen Lord, we pray

 

We hold dearly those suffering right now from coronavirus, for those with the disease and for those suffering financial hardships and ripple effects of anxiety and depression, for all who are striving to offer care. For those who are isolated or don’t understand. For all that we wish life would be. Risen Lord, we pray

 

Even while we anticipate and hope for something more, we pray for health and wholeness now for Mary Maxwell and Ken, for Kaisa Miller’s sister Erica, Yvonne Gern and her sister Linda, for Jen Streit, with her dad and family, after gallbladder surgery, for Jess Kaehny’s friend, for Marj Nelson, Alice Hansen, Kathy Alexander, Helen Remington, Betty Stucki, Christine Hartelt, and Gene Spindler. Risen Lord, we pray

 

For our Easter celebrations today, for the ways we find joy and calm. For the rhythms of school and work and shopping and home and all that we try in these days. For the birth of Carol Faynik’s granddaughter, Rosemary. We celebrate with Fred and Jean Loichinger at their 67th wedding anniversary yesterday. We remember these members in prayer this week: Ken & Vicki Warren; Peter Wehrle & Carol Faynik; Ann Ward & Jean Einerson; Rebecca Weise; Katherine & Scott Wildman, Martha, Thomas.

 

On this day where death has been undone and we proclaim resurrection, we turn with faith and Alleluias where they would otherwise be stifled and entombed. We pray right now when there is way too much death from COVID. We pray for those who grieve, including Dotty Brugge’s family at the death of her sister Claire, my family at the death of my grandma, and those who mourn the killing of Beth Potter and Robin Carre. Meet us all with the promise of resurrection.

 

Into your hands, O God, we commend all for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy; through Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Savior. Amen

 

 

* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJVFY_LX9Ik

* in Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Mystery of Easter, p19

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sermon for Easter sunrise 2020

IMG_1568I think it’s so right to gather in the memorial garden, and this worship service was designed to be here.

I actually wish we could do it all the time. To be with these saints in glory. To lament and hope, but also to be mindful of a better, bigger reality.

I look around at a few I have known—John, Winifred, Annette, Mary. I celebrate others I didn’t know, but am grateful to be with—Brian, John, Joanne, Jesse, Ordean, Claire, Wayne, Andrew.

Then I also think of the others—this week Dolly and Betty were with me. I picture Les and Roger and Dorrie and Cynthia and Andy and Rosamond and Carol, and just this week my grandma Irene. I think of the connections, expanding this circle, those I didn’t know but whom others loved and cared for, like Otto and Gary and Caroline and more. I think back in time, to those who shape our gathering in their words and songs and by their faith, and it stretches around the globe and for centuries, or eons, if we acknowledge broader life in this grand communion of saints.

For every gathering, not just funerals or All Saints celebrations, we are connected in faith, so it would always make sense to be present in the memorial garden.

But especially today. Today obviously begins in a cemetery, or a memorial garden. It begins at a tomb, in the face of loss and of grief. But now with this tomb today, it’s not just an occasion to recall or to remember, in the usual sense of the word of looking back, in the past. It is better re-membering in what has been dismembered, as members of the body of Christ, being brought back together. As Christ himself is brought back to us, we are brought back to each other.

Of course that stretches much further these days. It is not only beyond the grave, but extensively within this life, as we are cut off, as virus concerns make us restrict what should be. I’m grateful for those of you who join this worship service remotely and are able to participate. These services have even widened our circle as those far away have been able to be part of these new gatherings. That is beautiful.

Still, we are waiting for when it won’t be like this, when life will go on, when relating in relationships will be what it should be, when we are able to be together again and are re-membered.

In small ways of distancing now and in the unfathomable distance caused by death, we turn to Easter and Jesus, whose good news breaks out of the tomb, is shaken loose, can’t be kept in, and whose Spirit is on the move to enliven.

Most vitally, this is about the distance with God being bridged. God in our flesh, and nothing we do or leave undone, nothing that happens to us in this life and nothing that ends life, is able to separate us from God. Here in this small quiet gathering around a memorial garden, on this day at the barrier of a tomb—preceded by denial, betrayal, desertion, injustice, and death and burial—here we remember, no separation will stand. We are brought together again in God’s love. We are reunited in life.

We aren’t on a path of entropy and isolation. Though we cannot yet see the ending, we are on a path untrodden as we follow Jesus going ahead of us, to be reunited for the sake of life.

I mostly love this morning and the memorial garden gathering, then, not for looking back, but for a hint of what is to come. It is coming to us in love in days ahead, as we keep figuring this out. And, most assuredly, it is coming to us in a future that is good, that is together, that is as it should be. It is with Jesus.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

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reflections for Good Friday 2020

Reflection 1 (Nick, plus Dietrich)

Where’s the good news in this?

That remains to me the essential question, the reason we turn to church, what we desperately need, and sometimes the only place we can wring out the blood from a turnip. That’s perhaps a poor expression, to focus on blood when there’s spitting and flogging and worse in the story. And when our news is wall-to-wall with ICUs and Personal Protective Equipment. Again, when we’ve got too much death in daily life, it might seem like we don’t need more from an old story. Maybe it would be better for us to wring healthy turnip juice from the turnip and leave blood out of it.

But to skip to the ending, if blood from a turnip seems unlikely, it’s even more unusual where rocks are ringing out. Out of death, they turn up praising. This ending is a peculiar detail to Matthew’s telling of the story, and I find it fascinating and beautiful.

Luke’s version has a line back on Palm Sunday. The authorities try to tell Jesus he should make his followers shut up and stop singing Hosanna. He says that if they were silent, the stones would shout.

In Matthew’s Good Friday version, all of creation is responding to Jesus: the sun darkens, the curtain of the temple is torn, rocks split open, dead bodies even respond. Maybe it’s in grief. Maybe anticipation. Maybe it’s simply to highlight it for us. After all the cosmic phenomena, an unlikely human character finally gets it, still slow to catch on, given all those huge signs. A Roman soldier says, “Truly this man was God’s son.” And the women stay, wait, watch, pray.

On Sunday, the rocks will ring out again, another earthquake rolling the rock away. These are telling us, as if they are followers of Jesus, that God is here, in crucifixion and resurrection; in death, and beyond death.

Maybe we take that rare Roman soldier both in his reality and at his word. Slow to catch on, we’d like some bigger signs, to know where God is working. We hunch at trees budding and duck eggs, flowers and sunshine. We might proclaim God’s presence in the busy hospitals, though the danger of the wild guessing is that where I’d say God is for life, some self-satisfied folks say God sent the virus as a punishment to harm life.

So it would be nice if God would show up with a shout, to answer for the suffering and to proclaim goodness. It would be nice to have not just vague signs but an unambiguous answer.

But I suggest we do. In that Luke passage, Jesus said the stones would cry if we were silent. Well, we aren’t. We don’t need to wring an answer out of the rocks because we have a Roman soldier who tells us this is God’s Son. We have Matthew telling us this is God dealing with death and bringing something radically new, refusing to be undone or overcome. We have songs to proclaim it with our own lips. Today we’ll hear from others, voices that proclaim our suffering is not apart from God. We are not forsaken. There is good news in this.

You’ll hear more through the service, but here’s a snippet to start with surprise, not wringing blood from a turnip or lemonade from lemons, but faithfully and honestly meeting sad and desperate moments like today with God’s presence. It’s from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis 75 years ago yesterday, a man acquainted with sorrow, but still hopeful:

 

God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross; God is impotent and weak in the world and yet specifically and only so that God is with us and helps us.

Suffering and God are no contradiction, but much more a necessary unity: for me that idea that God himself suffered was always one of the most convincing teachings of Christianity. I think that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and to find God in this manner gives peace and rest, and a strong and courageous heart.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Mystery of Easter, p10)

May God find you with peace, rest, and courage.

 

Reflection 2 (Paul)

As we heard Peter lamenting his denial and Judas repenting of his betrayal of Jesus, with bleak separation and maybe despondency, it made me think of this passage of Paul I happened through in my daily Bible reading this week. They seemed like good words for this time of coronavirus, as we’re in it together, and our sorrows lend compassion and the ability to console each other and we’re trying so hard to help as caring community, and we’d say that primarily is grounded in God’s consolation and compassion.

It also reminds me we aren’t stuck in our worst moments; Good Friday is about God coming to find us wherever we are suffering, including in not having done the right thing. This day isn’t just about afflictions, but about consolation that abounds through Jesus.

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.

We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

(2 Corinthians 1:3-7, 8b-9)

May you be consoled by and rely on God who raises the dead.

 

Reflection 3 (Charlotte Brontë)

I mentioned there are peculiar details that only Matthew tells. That includes a few with Pontius Pilate. Another unlikely character to confess about Jesus is Pilate’s wife. From the brief mention of her dream, this poem envisions more, like how she personally despises the vile political leader as much as the masses. More, it shares our own feeling futile in failing to make a difference. She knows our sense of wishing we could do something more. Here are excerpts from the poem.

 

All black—one great cloud, drawn from east to west,
Conceals the heavens, but there are lights below;
Torches burn in Jerusalem, and cast
On yonder stony mount a lurid glow.
I see men station’d there, and gleaming spears;
A sound, too, from afar, invades my ears.

I see it all—I know the dusky sign—
A cross on Calvary, which Jews uprear
While Romans watch; and when the dawn shall shine
Pilate, to judge the victim, will appear—
Pass sentence—yield Him up to crucify;
And on that cross the spotless Christ must die.

Dreams, then, are true—for thus my vision ran;
Surely some oracle has been with me,
The gods have chosen me to reveal their plan,
To warn an unjust judge of destiny:
I, slumbering, heard and saw; awake I know,
Christ’s coming death, and Pilate’s life of woe.

I do not weep for Pilate—who could prove
Regret for him whose cold and crushing sway
No prayer can soften, no appeal can move:
Who tramples hearts as others trample clay,
Yet with a faltering, an uncertain tread,
That might stir up reprisal in the dead.

Forced to sit by his side and be his wife—
Forced to behold that visage, hour by hour,
He has no more from me Than any wretch[ed] life ;
A triple lust of gold, and blood, and power;
A soul whom motives fierce, yet abject, urge—
Rome’s servile slave, and Judah’s tyrant scourge.

And now, the envious Jewish priests have brought
Jesus—whom they in mock’ry call their king—
To have, by this grim power, their vengeance wrought;
By this mean reptile, innocence to sting.
Oh! could I but the purposed doom avert,
And shield the blameless head from cruel hurt!

What is this Hebrew Christ? to me unknown
His lineage—doctrine—mission; yet how clear
Is God-like goodness in his actions shown,
How straight and stainless is his life’s career!
The ray of God rests on him; but will his faith
Survive the terrors of to-morrow’s death ?

This day, Time travails with a mighty birth;
This day, Truth stoops from heaven and visits earth;
Ere night descends I shall more surely know
What guide to follow, in what path to go;
I wait in hope—I wait in solemn fear,
The oracle of God—the sole—true God—to hear.

https://poets.org/poem/pilates-wifes-dream

Even if unable to avert doom or woe, may you wait in hope to know more of what comes to birth.

 

Reflection 4 (Oscar Romero)

With this final spoken reflection, before you get a moment to reflect yourself where all of this takes you and what goodness you wring out of it, this last bit was spoken on Good Friday by Saint Oscar Romero, killed just over 40 years ago during a church service in El Salvador. Maybe singing in concert with Bonhoeffer, Archbishop Romero holds the hard words of forsakenness, wondering where God is when it feels like we’d want so much more or something else. Is God responding? That’s maybe down to the central difficulty of this day, of our current desperate moment, of how in the world God is present on a cross and here.

 

God is not failing us when we don’t feel [a] presence. Let’s not say: God doesn’t do what I pray for so much, and therefore I don’t pray anymore.

God exists, and God exists even more, the farther [away] you feel. When you feel the anguished desire for God to come near because you don’t feel God present, then God is very close to your anguish.

When are we going to understand that God not only gives happiness but also [encourages] our faithfulness in moments of affliction? It is then that prayer and religion have most merit: when one is faithful in spite of not feeling the Lord’s presence.

Let us learn from that cry of Christ that God is always our Father and never forsakes us, and that we are closer to God than we think.

(Violence of Love, p131)

May you know God is close and will not fail you.

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sermon reflections for Maundy Thursday 2020

Three things I want to pause and reflect on this evening:

First, the trajectory of the Bible reading and our current circumstances.

Second, thoughts about communion tonight.

Third, our abilities, what we do.

These are first, a lament; second, conundrum and lament, but also good news; and third, lament met by and altered by good news.

To start, the shape of this reading from Matthew moves from communal gathering and gathered community toward scattered isolation at the end. I apologize for that. I lament it. You have too much separated and alone these days. You may long to gather at a communal table and be able to laugh and talk and pass the peas or the basket of bread or the bottle of wine. Instead we are struggling so faithfully to stay apart and avoid contact.

We trust that eventually our story will move in the other direction; we will come together again. But for now, I wish this Gospel didn’t lead toward and reinforcing the distance. You have plenty of hardness, so you sure don’t need additional manufactured sorrow from the story. I don’t want to make it worse.

Picture1Second, communion. Clearly this night is important for this. We regularly hear Words of Institution, of this night when Jesus instituted this meal.

I’ll be eager to hear about how it was for you, because I don’t know what’s happening out there. Something communal of communion is missing.

Wanting and needing the Lord’s Supper, and having it make so much sense tonight, ELCA clergy have still been hugely debating what to do. It’s another of the many things we’re all trying to figure out in these days and to do right. It comes with conundrums.

One small conundrum is whether you’d have available what you needed at home, bread and grapey liquid.

Maybe more, the fullness of this meal is discerned as church, the Body of Christ together, as congregated community. As we’re separated, people have debated if we’re still community enough across the internet (and I come down with those who say Yes).

What about my role? The reason I’m called a minister is because in ministering to your needs, I administer this relief, this antidote of this sacrament. If we would find it less risky to take communion at home than a prescription-filled syringe, we might ask how much we overvalue medicine and discount this cure and care from God.

In evaluating online capability, Lutherans weigh these balances in a difficult middle. For Roman Catholics, for example, a main emphasis is on the priest offering a sacrifice to God on behalf of the people, and it doesn’t totally matter whether they receive communion and it’s fine to watch. It’s mainly something the priest does. For our siblings in the UCC, it’s something the people do, remembering we are connected in Jesus. Thinking about that while dispersed serves the purpose of recognizing community, and it can be done with crackers and water as much as bread and wine, I guess.

I don’t want to overstate my sense of differences, but for us what happens at this table is mostly something Jesus does. Our basic Lutheran understanding is that Jesus means what he says. It isn’t any special powers I have. It’s not just a symbol we gather around. Jesus takes bread and says, “This is my body.” He takes the cup and says, “This is my blood. It is for you.” We believe him, without needing to explain exactly how. Jesus promises he is here as you eat and drink this meal. God is everywhere anyway—in outer space and our hearts and lungs and little leaves. But God in Jesus promises especially to be here for you in a good way, for forgiveness and life, in bread and wine. That’s why we do it.

So if you watch the video of this service later, could you repeat communion? Could you replay the Words of Institution multiple times a day? I’d say, if you’re finding the assurance from Jesus, the promise of his life with and in you, that seems good to me. Neither do I personally worry much about consecration and what to do with leftovers, as if Jesus would get chilly if we put him in the fridge. The main point of him promising to be in the meal is so that you can receive him.

This circumstance for communion isn’t ideal. It’s lacking some really relevant relationship. If you’re alone, you may not have another voice speaking the words of Jesus’ promise: “The body of Christ, given for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you.” But in this extraordinary moment, I believe you really need that presence, and we should and we did do what we could to make that promise available for you. Even with conundrum and lament, I am trusting that good news wins out.

Thirdly, I want to reflect on our abilities. This night can seem bleak. It starts with words of betrayal. The most committed and most confident one offers to give up his life for Jesus but is conversely told he would triply deny even knowing Jesus. The flesh is weak and can’t even linger an hour in prayer. By the end, when their violence won’t resolve anything, all decide to give up and flee.

It’s not just a sad state of affairs that Jesus had (and has) mediocre followers. After all, it was exactly those people and we people whom Jesus gathered at his table and to whom he offered himself. That offering himself is the main point. It’s not that we lay down our lives for him. It’s not that we’re so dedicated or devoted. It’s not that we manage to do it right. You probably have way too much that’s not going how you want right now, and I’ll say: don’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Jesus knows that’s our story, and he came to be in solidarity with us in it. These three days are about Jesus coming to the fullest extent into our reality and bringing God’s blessing and presence into that and through it.

Tonight Jesus knows abandonment and loneliness. He knows bleak prospects that are constrained and confined. Jesus faces the direct dominion of death and the end of life.

We know those things in these days, know them intensely and relentlessly, maybe more than ever. You are at home, separate and alone. You are isolated in and surrounded by bad news of death, held captive. You don’t have answers of how to get out of this. This story in these days is sad and hard. Or sometimes it’s just boring and you get hungry or fall asleep or think you know better.

Jesus knows that. God with us in these three days and always is about getting through that reality, not just of a dark garden and contaminating kiss and evil government and going toward his own death, but also for you this evening in confronting death and striving on behalf of life, striving to bring about goodness, to offer himself in love.

That is why we tune in. We need it, and it is offered here. We need some answers for what is bad. We need encouragement to continue on. We need to be told it will be okay. More, we need actual good news. You need Jesus, with you in bread and wine, with you on a lonely evening that is not as it should be, with you in the face of death, with you when you can’t do it, with you through uncertain times, with you for what is to come.

 

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sermon for Palm Sunday 2020

What makes Jesus a king?

Today he comes parading in like a king. Well, sorta. A humble king. Maybe the opposite of regal or triumphant as we’d normally see it. Not in a limo or private jet but on a moped. So he’s not acting much like a king.

Sometimes we highlight that it’s street theatre, a protest. Jesus was putting on a political rally. He’s mocking, countervailing the imperial powers. He’s not on a warhorse. He’s not Pontius Pilate. Of course, Pilate wasn’t a king, either. He was a governor. But this was probably provocative against the Roman Empire.

Throughout Matthew’s Gospel Jesus has talked about a different kind of kingdom, a kingdom of heaven, a godly empire and bringing us to live under or within that alternative jurisdiction.

But Jesus doesn’t claim for himself the title of king, he doesn’t say he’s an emperor (even if it were a very different kind of emperor). In John’s Gospel at one point he runs away because the people were going to come force him to be king. When he’s directly asked by Pilate if he’s a king, he brushes off the question.

So this may be the one time he’s treated like a king, in this Palm Sunday procession, the triumphal entry to Jerusalem.

And yet even this small solitary occasion is strange. In a normal year, Palm Sunday can feel like a bigger party than Easter, because we don’t have to be dressed up as fancypants and last year we got to tromp around with a donkey. It makes it more fun and games, with a parade and lots of kid activity.

And yet, it’s a weird party because the mood of Holy Week changes so rapidly. There’s a standard phrase that the crowds who shouted Hosanna on Sunday were the ones who cried out Crucify on Friday. In many churches, the change comes even more rapidly; this day isn’t just celebrated as Palm Sunday but also observed as Passion Sunday, so within one worship service, from festive cheers it races ahead to hear the whole crucifixion story.

If today is Jesus’ big day, it sure doesn’t last very long. So much for shouting “Long Live the King.”

And of course, there’s this year.

IMG_1534No parade. No donkey. No eco-palms. No banners. No shared worship service. No combined choir. Maybe it’s happening in your particular household, but in this room there are no “lips of children” to make “sweet hosannas ring.” A couple weeks ago, I dreamed of gathering for worship in the parking lot, and then doing a procession with lots of honking as you waved palm branches out your car window. But even that version of frolicking is beyond what we can safely do right now.

So not only is our possibility for worship subdued; much of life is stifled and on hold. I know each of us faces that uniquely, with your own difficulties, your particular worries. I want to thank you for what you’ve shared of that with me—on economic concern and family challenges and stresses and ways you’re making it through the day.

Thank you for the support of being caring community. We’re all confronting the same thing and this brings us together in a shared reality like nothing in our memories. But of course we’re not the same. We each meet it as our individual self, with our own personalities and capacities, our own way ahead to address it. And there’s a lot that’s just plain physically apart, no matter how much we Zoom or call or wave across the street.

For all of the loss and diminishment, along with my prayers of grief and lament, I also hope you are finding good things, the daily bread of sustenance through this. I hope you got to see some flowers this week and buds on trees and hear the goofy robin songs. (Maybe they provide sweet hosannas ringing for now.) I hope you’re getting rest and finding things to laugh and smile at. I hope you’re getting enough news to feel engaged, but that you can also pull away and not need to look at everything. I hope you’ve had moments where life has slowed down. I hope there are things that can still feel normal. And I hope you’ve been able to rely on good news from God through this.

Again, that’s why we turn here for this service, for good news, so you can be re-minded of the God made known in Jesus, who is celebrated in Palm Sunday’s typical unusual way and the current unusual way of this Palm Sunday.

That returns us to the question of what makes Jesus a king.

You may think of a king being praised and worshipped. But that’s an odd fit for Jesus since this praise is so short-lived. We don’t really worship him because of power and glory; in fact, his kingdom reverses our expectations of that. Instead what we find in Jesus is love in the service of life. The exact opposite of a king who rules over, this king came to serve, even to be a slave to you.

As you live in the kingdom of heaven, as you emulate Jesus, you also serve in love. Today it’s phrased as having “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” in that amazing reading from Philippians. On Maundy Thursday, that is reinforced as a new commandment, to love one another as Jesus loved you, to lay down your life in love for others. I commend you in this work regularly, for your efforts in family, for your compassion and concern that serves our world, for all the ways and places that you offer loving service.

We know that more directly in these days, as we are all invited and instructed to lay down our lives for the sake of others, as we stay in in order to spare other lives, as we give up much of what we would know as normal life in order to slow the virus’s spread, as we are suffering in our efforts to help each other. We know that’s especially true for our front line care providers. It’s true in uncommon praise of delivery drivers. It’s true of your enormously hard working church staff dedicated to helping you. It’s most broadly true of staying home. Thank you for your hard work and loving efforts for good and for life. It isn’t regular glory; this is love. And we celebrate it because we are mindful of a king who served us in love.

With Jesus there’s also something more than just our loving. I see it in the crowds on the Mount of Olives, and I see it in the phrase from our 2nd reading, of every tongue “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”

That very large crowd gathered on the Mount of Olives because they expected something from Jesus, they needed something from him. If it were a lesson in love, then they wouldn’t have had to follow from their villages. They could’ve just stayed home and helped each other. But Jesus wasn’t community organizing or helping neighborhoods lend a hand or setting up social services to aid the vulnerable.

The crowds followed Jesus and were shouting Hosanna because they needed God to save them, because life wasn’t what it should be, because death lurked with its various overwhelming stifling intimidations.

On this Palm Sunday, we may be closer to that than usual. If we generally like the pageantry and fun, to delight in our children, to enjoy peppy music, then probably this year and in this instance, we know more of the honest desperation. We know the cries of Hosanna. We long to be saved from death, from life that isn’t what it should be. We need something from Jesus.

Maybe it’s an irony in the story and occasionally in our lives that Jesus is fulfilling his role even amid the reversals where he is acclaimed as king and then forsaken, abandoned, turned against. The crowds had turned to him, but maybe they wanted a regular kind of king and emperor. Maybe they wanted more bread. Or maybe circuses. Or maybe security.

Jesus didn’t drive out the Romans or fix bad government. He didn’t keep curing people of their diseases. He didn’t make everyone happy. But he continued to serve in love, most importantly on Friday. He laid down his life. He died because that’s how he could finally and fully give himself to you, his death in service of your life.

And God raised him, highly exalted him, so that every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, meaning all creation, living and dead, all together, to be mindful of this king of love. The living and also those who have died, because this one in his love gives you life. It’s an irony because when he seemed least praised and like a king, he was serving in the deepest way, exactly what he wants to give us, what we really need. We may be confident and see that in death, our God works life.

On this Palm Sunday, we know this need. On this Palm Sunday, we cry Hosanna. On this Palm Sunday, as we cry Hosanna we are the ones who will still sing Alleluia for Easter. On this Palm Sunday, we don’t just look to Friday’s crucifixion, but to Easter’s resurrection promise, where life is victorious. On this Palm Sunday, this is why we look to Jesus.

This king says “Long Live You.”

 

 

Hymn: “Jesus Shall Reign” (NCH 300)

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