a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Roger Duane Kinsonroger

15 August 1929 + 24 April 2017

Psalm23; 2Cor4:16-5:5; John17:1-13

 

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

I want to thank Pastor Elisa for the opportunity to be here. I used to be Roger and Nancy’s pastor. Now I’m just a twerpy sneaky evangelist. In that way, I want to add on to the very fitting Bible readings Nancy chose to add one more from the Gospel of Matthew:

A centurion came to Jesus, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And Jesus said to [the foreign commander], “I will come and cure him.” The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard him, he was amazed…And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour. (8:5b-9a, 13)

In the good ol’ days, before I became a twerpy sneaky evangelist, Roger took me to my first Badger football game. I’d never been to anything more than high school games, and I’ll also admit I’ve only been to one game since then. That might reinforce my status for Nancy as a “scrawny young goofball.” I didn’t know what to expect of the game or the experience, but Roger was so organized and ready on all the details. He knew when we needed to leave, what route to take, where to park. Those may seem small, but it impressed me at the time (though I was also a bit nervous as his big Lincoln went barreling through traffic). Once we were inside Camp Randall, he was pointing out all kinds of things I would’ve missed otherwise—what plays were happening, who was running where, what went on between downs. The man knew his football. He was also grandfatherly enough that while he was directing my attention toward the game, he directed me away from trying to hear the cheers coming from the student section.

This sense of Roger’s direction was something I got used to. In the same way that I’ve heard Oscar Mayer employees recollect his emphatic greetings and wave as he walked down hallways with his firm and demanding presence, I got used to Roger’s arrival in the office at St. Stephen’s. He would pull up with rakes and garbage buckets sticking out of the Lincoln and come in to schmooze the secretary Jane Voss, a lingering style of check-up that must have fit his days at Oscars. But it wasn’t just for a cordial howdy. He was investigating what was going on. I also knew that Roger would have some sort of idea in his head that he was ready to execute. He’d be talking about spraying chemicals on the weeds in the parking lot or what branches needed to be cut off of shrubs or how the Building & Grounds meetings should run differently. He’d have these plans fully formed and, even though I’d try offering other suggestions, there was absolutely no way of changing his mind.

In the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, that commander said he was a man of authority, used to giving orders and being obeyed. Roger, too, was used to being in charge, used to being listened to in his opinions or decisions, used to having final say. He could do it with great charisma and charm. He could lead with his loud, exuberant voice and his big smile. He could direct and guide with passion and love. If I knew him in that way even though I met him 15 years after he retired, I also know it must be true in the stories I’ve heard about him as a boss at Oscars, and I expect that you children also had sense of that caring but sometimes firm authority.

Maybe it softened for grandchildren. But about the only place it wouldn’t fly is with Nancy. You could change Roger’s mind. With you, Roger had to dialogue, doing these things not by dictating orders but by conversation, with mutual trust, through 63 amazing years of marriage and your miraculous care through the end.

With that, we know that Alzheimer’s disease changed his mind, too, making him somebody he wasn’t and leaving him unable to do what he wanted. He recognized that and began to cope with those changes long before this end.

Still, overall we have the feeling from the Gospel reading: Roger was used to having people under him and being able to say “do this,” just like that faithful authority in the story.

And, to our larger point of this gathering, this faithful authority pairs with an expectation of Jesus and of God: the centurion, from his own experience, identified that God is in control, in charge, that when Jesus issues a word of decree, that word is effective, is trustworthy, is to be counted on. The reading Nancy chose from the Gospel of John certainly agrees with this sentiment, as Jesus says the Father “has given him authority over all people, to give eternal life.”

That is our word for today, a word we trust and count on as effective and powerful, as authoritative for Roger. Roger Duane was claimed in baptism as a child of God, a beloved son, and that word of promise is utterly and completely insistent. Nothing could or can change God’s mind being set on this promise and bringing it to completion. That word of love and life held Roger from old days of centering the football, on through the start of a young family establishing life in various homes all the way to bring him to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. The authority given to Jesus to abide as God-with-us went with Roger through the stresses and successes of work, directing his days and his deeds toward peace, amid changes and adaptations of retirement. It was a promise that nurtured him in service to congregation and community, in friendships and the love of family. This assurance of God’s strong presence is in pleasant pastures and beside quiet waters, in overflowing cups but also through the darkest valleys. So even when sickness seemed to interfere and interrupt, to change Roger from who he had always been, diminishing his big, bold personality and leaving us with him in terrible distress, still even then, nothing can separate Roger or you from this promise—neither death nor life, neither our firmest determinations nor deepest groanings, neither distractions of life nor disease, beginning nor end.

We do not lose heart, because in this very hour we hear again the strong word of God that claimed Roger extending to give eternal life. In that light, as our words from 2nd Corinthians observed, even the worst we suffer becomes like a slight momentary affliction. Jesus, the Word of God, speaks the word so that you may be healed, made whole, as he calls into being a new creation and out from death calls you into new life with Roger. “Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? In his arms he’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.” Alleluia. Amen

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Convivial Symbiosis

a newsletter article

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” – Isaiah 55:10-11

 

The obvious thing is these rainy days.

Yesterday I had shared earlier verses from Isaiah also about waters, rains, and springs in the desert, making the land rejoice and be glad. I’d shared those parched and longing words in early pre-surgery prayers, then was driving toward church through downpours of rain.

Yes, you read correctly: “driving.” Acacia later said I lucked out in needing the car, because she arrived at the library soaked through her raingear. Whether you’re trying to bicycle through it, walking with umbrellas, or awakened to hear night rains, the obvious thing is rain these days.

The proverbial “April showers” bring other things. Grass gushes with green growth, and trees unfurl miraculously. Rains bring forth splashing mallards and sidewalks of worms. Washing away the waste of winter, we may also say the showers bring beauty, in the abundance of tulips and the aroma of crabapple blossoms and the ghostly white of bloodroot.

The purpose of spring rains may be in bringing growth, to rejuvenate the earth. And it is life to be shared: green vegetation becomes food, pollen sustains our bees, the cycle of life is shed and given for you. It is symbiotic.

Symbiosis defines mutually beneficial partnerships to aid survival. From lichens to elephants and oxpecker birds, hermit crabs with sea anemones to you and your digestive bacteria, this is constantly proving the function of getting along together and not just a battle of nature’s fittest.

Or—in an exact parallel for the roots of “life together”—it is convivial. Though “conviviality” may seem less about details of being roommates, this same basis reminds us it’s not pure function but also joyful to share life.

So these verses from Isaiah 55 (it’s a lovely chapter; look up the whole thing!) envision the purpose of rain. That’s fairly obvious in these days.

Then they compare God’s Word to the rains, sent to accomplish its purpose. Can we say God’s purpose is also symbiosis and conviviality, sharing life together?

It seems fitting for MCC. We are in a symbiotic, mutually beneficial partnership. We are also in it for conviviality, for the delight of being together! We are formed inextricably into the Body of Christ, and breathed into new life proclaiming the Word “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

It seems fitting for our other relationships. God’s Word is forgiveness, is peace, is reconciliation, is love. That is what God strives for in our families, in our friendships, at work. Sometimes as subtle as the dew or as hidden as life from a snowfall, God’s purpose will nevertheless be accomplished.

It seems fitting for the ELCA synod assembly this weekend. In these times denominations have reduced allegiance, with reactionary resentment against institutional religion. But assembly and UCC annual conference gatherings are reminders that the work of caring for refugees, feeding the hungry, addressing climate change, and celebrating God’s blessing is more than we can accomplish on our own. This is big work in the world, for God’s purposes of giving ourselves to share in life.

Amid God’s mission to stop harm and to spread life, we join convivially with each other and creation in celebrating God’s success:

For you shall go out in joy

          and be led back in peace;

          the mountains and the hills before you

          shall burst into song,

          and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. – Isaiah 55:12

 

 

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Lynne Schultzwis167399-1_20170418

23 February 1968 + 17 April 2017

Psalm23; Romans8:31-39; John14:1-6

 

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

I bring, first, apologies: I had been eager to be with you for the visitation, but instead spent an hour driving the wrong way out of Madison for some reason.

From Madison, I also bring greetings from sisters and brothers of Advent Lutheran and Madison Christian Community, from many who have loved and prayed for Lynne, including my colleague, Pastor Sonja Ingebritsen.

Amid that congregation, I’ve been stunned recalling that it was just over a year ago that I met Lynne in the hospital, as her new pastor. Though I knew her less than most of you and journeyed through health struggles more briefly than you who had been part of the long, long haul, I’ve felt so connected to her. Some of that was her openness in sharing, including her knowledge, that she was proud to be her own advocate and could understand and explain these strange procedures she was having to face. Her gratitude for care and support—both from professionals and family and friends—also exemplified her personality.

Most notable, though, was almost certainly Lynne’s exuberance and great big laugh. In the ups and downs of illness, they were great moments of relief when her laugh returned. In places of sickness, she was the infectious one. An unfortunate upside was that nurses, doctors, and more also came to love Lynne and delight in her and could enjoy being in her room for those few minutes.

Though she was stuck in hospital rooms so often and focused on her healing, she wasn’t confined there. I got glimpses of Lynne’s vibrancy as she eagerly talked about connections with friends and what was going on in their lives, as well as current political frustrations and life on the other side of the world in Palestine and books she was reading and music and new ideas for spirituality groups and—boy!—did she like to talk about the garden at church and what was growing and how she wanted to be back getting her fingers dirty among friends.

That also leads to some of my larger point, not about church so specifically, but about what Lynne was yearning for and wanting and how that fit into the shape of her life, including right up to this moment now.

See, amid each setback that Lynne faced, or as she continued to strive forward with each medical possibility, in struggling to be well, Lynne thought about what the next steps would be. I came into the scene not too long before she got the LVAD heart pump, which was already far along in the discernment and decisions of the process. And from there it was dealing with bleeds and the thought of bypass to get her closer toward the transplant list and on and on. In all of this, Lynne realized what the next steps were, what it would take to proceed and get back to the life she wanted to have. Typically for somebody with Lynne’s upbeat personality, we’d label this sort of focus on future possibilities as “optimism.”

But I don’t want to use that term for Lynne, because optimism tends to be a cheeriness with rose-colored glasses that ignores harder details. That wouldn’t fit Lynne. What Lynne was was hopeful, which is also important to say for us here now.

The week after I met Lynne, I referenced her in my Good Friday sermon. She said her experiences gave her a deeper understanding of Holy Week, of Jesus on the cross, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That may seem the opposite of hopeful, but in Lynne it wasn’t. Even then, she was longing, knowing, and trusting that God’s presence should and would be with her. Indeed, the forsaken feeling of God abandoning her directly paired with God’s presence for her, with a sense of reassurance, that every word of prayer was heard and embraced and responded to by God. Her Good Friday feeling was at a cross-section with the joy and delight of Easter, that separation was not the end.

Hope means even amid our Good Friday moments we’re not separated from God. That’s why Lynne cherished receiving Jesus’ presence in communion at those times. It’s also in a song she shared not long ago, a gospel song by Iris Dement. It’s a lovely, gentle song about Jesus confronting illness and suffering and need. The refrain goes like this: “Well he reached down, he reached down. He got right there on the ground. He reached down, he reached down And he touched the pain.”

That pairs well with an old hymn Lynne kept around on songsheets after a visit from Pastor Sonja. This one you might know to join in: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry ev’rything to God in prayer! Oh, what peace we often forfeit; oh, what needless pain we bear—all because we do not carry ev’rything to God in prayer.” That’s not wishy-washy optimism that things are turning out hunky-dory. It knows there are pains and panics, that we bear grief and our sin. But God reached down and Jesus bears it with us and for us.

So the word of hope isn’t that things get easier, but that God will bring us through it. That pairs with our Bible readings, that neither hardship nor distress nor death separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That is hope. As in the 23rd Psalm, God’s presence is with us in pleasant and refreshing times of abundant contentment, but also in valleys, when it’s so dark we can’t see a glimmer of light and feel so utterly alone. Even there, the Good Shepherd abides with you, bringing you through that to dwell in his house forever.

That word of being brought out of death to Easter life could certainly be sufficient today. You walked with Lynne deep in darkness through Holy Week last week, had to confront death you should not have had to, the cross, the suffering and loss in the story of Jesus and also in your reality with her. And beyond that, she leads you in hope into the promise of new life, of resurrection, of being reunited at a feast into the grand heavenly chorus.

But I want to conclude in offering one more scriptural metaphor that Lynne had been clinging to in these last months: that of wandering in the wilderness. Like when God’s people were led out of slavery in Egypt and spent 40 years unsure when—or maybe whether—they would arrive at the Promised Land, with delays and doubts and yet also constant miracles and the practice of caring community around them. That was Lynne’s metaphor. Again, this is not of optimism but of hope. As she was encouraging patience and persistence in the long journey for those around her, she began also to grow frustrated at how she wasn’t making steps forward, at least not in the way she’d originally been planning, for life to work out how she wanted. But she did expect to be led out of the wilderness and into God’s promise. It’s just that in recent months she became aware that that path might lead through death and into new life. That wilderness waiting is a terrible place to be, but now we gather together rejoicing in the promise for Lynne, clinging to it yet more dearly for ourselves. Even when our steps are unclear or troubled, we have hope in God’s love that there is a way to life: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

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Easter sermon

­­­­­(Matthew 28:1-10; Colossians 3:1-4)

 

I wanted to talk about that earthquake. It seemed exciting and supernatural and very particular to Matthew’s version of Easter. It has creation responding to the news of this day, making an earthquake somehow unlikely good news. It paired with an even more obscure tremor from Good Friday, when the splitting of rocks broke open tombs for dead saints to come out and wander around Jerusalem. Look it up! In this case, though, the earthquake tumbling away the stone wasn’t to let the dead out but breaking for witnesses to enter; Jesus is already gone from his grave, loose, alive and in life. Even for the metaphorical edge of this earthshaking news, of the risen Jesus altering the very ground we stand on, I wanted to talk about the earthquake.

But then I noticed another shaking, in verse 4: “for fear…the guards shook and became like dead men.” I must’ve always skimmed past that verse, but now it called out for attention. On this day when we’re gathered with Alleluias around a dead man who’s not dead anymore, I’m struck by those guards who, though quite plainly alive, are described as dead in the face of this event. It’s a stunning Easter reversal: those who seemed to have the power and armed might became impotent, and the one whom those guards killed—the executed corpse—is alive and free and able even to overcome death. Apparently without any violent struggle, death has lost its sting amid this shocking good news.

But those guards sure don’t consider it good news. And they had compelling reason not to. In the last words of Good Friday, the Gospel says the authorities conspired to have those guards make the tomb as secure as they could. At the very least, the stone tumbling aside takes them off guard duty; if they were hired as tough security bouncers, to be night watchmen, then this seems cancel their contract. I picture the JBM patrol that monitors our property at night with their flashlights and camouflage pants and mildly militarized SUVs. What if we shut off the motion detectors and alarm system, gave up on locks, and said the building was wide open for anybody who might need to use it, indeed, was a place of sanctuary? While from one perspective, it is liberation from fear, from another, having the tomb broken open places the livelihood and paychecks of those guards at risk.

More, they risk not only being fired from their jobs, but might have feared worse, since their bosses were such a ruthless and nasty sort. In punishing retribution, it wouldn’t have been unprecedented for them to get tossed in jail, a reversal from being guards to captives. Or maybe such fears already held them captive and the unstoppable Jesus somehow liberates them from that.

At any rate, whether they were trying to keep others out or keep Jesus in, neither the authorities nor those guards could do anything to stop God’s spread of life, couldn’t keep this good news shut up. As Jesus breaks loose, their remaining options are confined and they are as bad as dead in comparison.

There’s probing parallel here for us, that Jesus and his resurrection put at risk some of our old ways of life, some of the roles in which we’re used to functioning, and some of the structures of our relationships. That should likely be a bit nerve-wracking for you this morning, too. Easter isn’t simply a holiday to give you some leisure and luxury. There are good and vital reasons to feast on eggs and chocolates and spread big tables and enjoy the delights of life, from music to company to wine to the spring sunshine. Such joys have basis in also having to confront that things are not the same as they used to be, and if you’re pretending that life should or even can go on as it would have otherwise, then those guards who shook like dead men must have a better understanding of Easter than you do.

But that’s another striking edge of the story. It’s astonishing to picture those guards as eyewitnesses to the resurrection. They have a firsthand view and should have been able to recognize God’s reversal of death for life, but there’s something of it they still don’t get. Even though they see it, they don’t believe. It doesn’t create faith in them. Unlike the women disciples, they aren’t rushing on to proclaim the good news and spread the word.

We might want to write that off as them being bad guys and that’s why they weren’t on Jesus’ side, but that’s too hasty. It requires a finer distinction. After all, from start to finish the story of Jesus is about forgiving sinners and befriending the bad dudes and loving enemies. There are insiders who fall away and outsiders who are brought in. Dualistic thinking in categories of good vs. bad can’t actually fit into the story.

So it wouldn’t be a foregone conclusion for those guards to be dead in the face of resurrected life. A reverse example was portrayed in the previous chapter, where one of their leaders, a centurion, reacted to the death of Jesus on the cross by saying “Truly this man was God’s Son!” If he could come to that conclusion by witnessing only death, then certainly these guys should have theoretically been able to arrive there in witnessing new life.

So why didn’t it turn out that way for them? Maybe they were stuck in the rut of all-too-human reasons. The mundane stuff. Supporting families. Forced to, by pressure—either from peers and what seemed acceptable or the fear of the powers-that-be (or maybe better from the view of Easter’s reversal, “the powers-that-were”). The verses after this reading say the authorities offered bribes for those guards not to tell what they had seen. Maybe they were compelled by sad reasons of trading their dignity and integrity for a payoff. Whether with good intentions or not, regular existence can interfere.

Maybe it’s simpler and more human even than that. Beyond awesome jaw-dropping amazement, this is just dang unbelievable. That has implications for us, too. We expect that the forces of death are the strong, fierce ones, that we win by launching missiles and fighting back. But here it is a no-megaton bomb with the power of love and peace. That death is not the end can stop us in our tracks as confounding. A victory for life can be incomprehensibly miraculous to us.

Though we might even yearn to trust that possibility, we also recognize that in spite of being part of church and hearing the same message as others, there are times it doesn’t seem to stick, just as somehow it didn’t work for those guards witnessing firsthand. You may be trying to believe, wishing to hear it as good news, but for some reason you can’t. It’s a confounding and frustrating feeling, that “the Holy Spirit creates faith when and where she chooses” in the explanation of Lutheran theology (which manages not really to explain anything) (Augsburg Confession V).

But. If you happen to be here this morning feeling like you’re left out, like the wind of the Holy Spirit blew right past you, like you so desperately want some good news and new life to live into, are longing for a change, crave other possibilities than what currently exists, to be rejuvenated and energized, to have the rotten stuff taken away, not to be trapped by so much bad news and death, if you need the Easter reversal—if you can relate to these guards who were afraid and incapacitated and didn’t seem to have any way out of it and were as good as dead, then you should know that the Holy Spirit’s work is always to bring new life out from death, to call us from our stinking tombs, to break barriers, to breathe new life into dried-up bones and worn-out bodies.

And if with these guards that feels like you, you should know that this Easter morning is especially for you, just as your own stunning reversal is proclaimed in Colossians: You have died, and you have been raised with Christ. Even as that is often much too hidden, too mysterious, so unknown, you may trust that your life is secure and free with Christ. Since you are dead, you are given new life. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

a new hymn, “The First,” for today

First (Easter2017)

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sermon for Easter Sunrise

­­­­­John 20:1-18

 

Let’s flip to hymn 237 and sing a couple stanzas of “I Come to the Garden Alone.”

I’ve never sung that in a Sunday service, much less given it pride of place amid Easter. But it reflects John’s telling of this early morning, of Mary Magdalene who begins alone, who has some strange encounters, fetches friends and fellow followers of Jesus, and then again winds up alone in the garden after the others leave.

Certainly that first feels fitting for sunrise service. Though you may not have Mary’s tenacity to linger after the rest of the congregation has come and gone, the early, solitary aspect feels applicable. We’re not quite alone, but it is a small gathering. We brave the early hours—even if not while it was still dark like for Mary Magdalene. But I do believe braving it is the correct term for our early, lonely trip to this worship service. Though (unlike Mary) we come expecting resurrection, expecting life, still there’s the challenge of what that’s going to mean. Those difficult reflections can require courage and bravery to address how this story could possibly fit into our lives. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So this early, quiet worship service may feel somewhat like Mary’s coming to the garden alone.

I want to disagree with that opening line from the song, though, and also with the refrain. First, it’s vital to note that she didn’t—and you don’t—actually arrive alone. There are others. You have a congregation, a set of siblings here who abide with you in figuring out this faith. But let’s press beyond that. The song gets some of my point, even while not appreciating it: Mary Magdalene wasn’t alone if there were dewy roses there in the garden and the birds who hushed their singing. As we’re in the garden, our eyes also awaken to faith’s expanding horizons and expectations of sharing in this wide community.

For simple starters, we are community with the birds, who don’t need our preaching to know the good news because—far from hushed—they were singing their Alleluias while it was still dark, before the sun had risen. In the breadth of garden community, there are also bees. Even as 30,000 ladies have recently repopulated our hives, bees help share the good news—in the words of a 1600 year old Easter prayer—as God’s servants who provide the wax for the resurrection paschal candle flame in the darkness.

And for another sense of how good news spreads, we gather this morning with lilies and tulips and daffodils. Their color is the vibrancy of new life, proclaiming the resurrection to us. More, their sweet aroma is the fragrance of Christ. That phrase comes from 2nd Corinthians, a delightfully unusual passage which says “thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2:14-16). Maybe as we worship with this Easter garden this morning, we have a sense of this scent, a notion of what the aroma is about. We can smell what Jesus smells like, smell what salvation means, smell new life.

But to ponder that differently, might it also be in the smell of cooking ham, which may be a specific Easter fragrance in your household or memory? Even though it meant the death of the pig, it could be a smell “from life to life,” of sustenance, of community, of giving ourselves for the sake of another’s wellbeing.

I don’t want to force that to make the pig seem overly generous; after all, it didn’t have much choice. But to draw the connection for us, I suspect some of our aroma of Christ would have to smell like sweat, like BO, like we’ve been hard at work, toiling, serving and giving ourselves to each other for each other. We may not come out smelling like roses, but that would have to embody how Christ would smell.

You are sent with Christ’s scent. Our relationship with Jesus, as Jim Wallis reminds, is personal but not private. If we tarry alone with Jesus, we’re missing the point of our faith and the spread of new life. We don’t come to or remain in the garden alone, but always join in the ever-expanding triumphal procession, bearing the aroma of life from God to every place.

On the other hand, the song seems to overlook another aspect of loneliness. The refrain went “and he walks with me, and he talks with me…” But that was only very briefly true for Mary Magdalene. She couldn’t claim “the joy we share as we tarry there” since she barely had a chance to identify Jesus with her before he said “don’t hold onto me” and then was again gone.

That is harder still for us arriving this morning. We don’t get to see him to believe it. He neither walks with you nor talks with you in any tangible way. What we have largely is feeling of absence. That fits with actual Mary more than the version from the song. This reading is most embodied in her uncertain tears. Even when surrounded by angels and gardeners and flowers and birds, her grief is isolating. Nobody knows the troubles and sorrows you’ve seen. They are your own.

But that isolation, while a hard reality, is the past struggle and death of Good Friday. A dead end. Today, the resurrection moves us beyond grief and Jesus moves to new beginnings. Yet that’s not easy; in the culminating moment of this Holy Week’s theme of “God’s passion to liberate the oppressed,” this still involves risk, the risk of new life. There is risk since we often define ourselves by the old ways, by what we lost. Mary was a follower of Jesus, but could follow him no longer. She knew traditions and liturgies for funerals, had practices of how to mourn the dead. But she also had to relinquish those as she was sent with new life. She is sent to see the community around her in the instruction to take the message to her fellow disciples. It may be spoken in tears, but also is part of the practice of breaking through them.

The riskiest part of this freeing proclamation is almost certainly that we still feel defined and confined by death, isolated from God. The resurrection can hardly seem to apply to us when we still know way too much of the old life and have far too few glimmers of new.

But breaking out of that deadly isolation, the good news confronts us with another gardening metaphor of abundance: Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single [isolated, lonely] grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Bursting with Jesus from cold, dark, confines we join together: “Now the green blade rises! Love is come again!”

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Intro to Palm Sunday

In finding our place in the story for this Holy Week and this service in particular, I want to help you know some of what to expect in the experience. Though it’s the same old story, we approach it freshly as time goes by. Jean and Fred Loichinger have a different view of marriage, I’m sure, celebrating their 64th wedding anniversary than when they were first married. Cubs fans enter this baseball season unlike the past 108 seasons. And this Holy Week centered on the same story is not the same for us as it was a year ago. I’m not going to enumerate what has changed, but to press ahead with this brief introduction, offering a little roadmap, a guide, to illustrate the frame we set around the story this year.

The overarching lens for us is that “Jesus incarnated God’s passion to liberate the oppressed.” That indicates a specific moment of God always striving to overcome bonds of captivity, to break the yoke of burden, to address our afflictions, to repair the breach, and bring light to dark places. That should be obvious standard framework of our faith; when some say “God helps those who help themselves” or that wealth is a blessing or troubles are part of God’s plan—those are fundamentally lies. They may fit our human imaginations, but aren’t the shape of things for followers of Jesus.

Still, although we might observe that liberating from oppression is the story of scripture and is God’s desire, God’s will in our lives and much more broadly in the world, it remains to continue addressing how exactly that might be lived out or achieved, what God does to unshackle from tyranny.

So as we live into the story this week, the very core in the faith of Jesus, we will be focusing on the fact that God’s passion to liberate the oppressed involves risk. Most truly it means risk for God. It isn’t easy. It’s messy and complex and dangerous and so, so heartfelt. “Passion” is the term not only for eagerness, but for an arduous love, and most specifically in suffering. God’s desire, this yearning, is embodied in a story of emotional impact. And since it’s com-passion, it’s catchy. It begins to sweep you up into further embodying the passion, sharing the risk.

In that way, the story approaches us today with the risk to confront power. Fredrick Douglass understood in struggling against slavery that “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and never will.” If Jesus was—and we are—meant to live in resistance to the oppressive and destructive powers controlling this world and our lives, then we have to face them, own up to them, understand their warped influence, have to have an intervention, have to risk confronting power. That is where our story begins as Jesus rides up into Jerusalem, moving from his lakeside homebase for an incursion against the temple and the military headquarters, against the high priest and the governor, in the face of rulers, as this cannot be done from afar.

Yet, also for our sake, today reminds us it isn’t just scary or intimidating to confront persecutors. Faith is also…fun. With exuberance and the humor of satire, with a parade and multitudes cheering hosannas, with our delights in being together around rousing music, with practice offering and reconciling, with eco-palms that insist on collaboration and refuse exploitation, with little children who shall lead us by their example, we catch the wind of God’s passion, and—we hope—are caught up in the risk for good.

 

God of liberation,

we confess that we too often strive against you as captors, because we are captive to ways that are easier, are convenient, to self-serving benefits to our way of life.

When we think we’re in charge,we forget our neighbors, your creation.
We offer ourselves to oppressive human powers rather than risking our trust in the freeing power of your love.

Encourage us. Reinvigorate us with your passion, for our own wellbeing and that of all life around us. Amen

In the gift of baptism, you have received the spirit of the Lord GOD upon you. The LORD has anointed you in Jesus’ name; sending you to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor; to comfort all who mourn—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. You are blessed to be a blessing. For freedom, + Christ has set you free. Amen!

 

Raising voices of resistance in prayer

Each petition ends with a shout of “Hosanna!” (“God save us!”) as we wave our palm branches in confronting powers.

Picture1

From the Mount of Olives, dear Jesus, you wept over Jerusalem,

lamenting that the city knew what would make for peace

but instead chose to keep killing the prophets.

2

Awaken us to confront the powers of violence,

risking our own sense of safety and security

on behalf of others who live in fear and danger.
Hosanna!

 3

Near that same Mount of Olives in these days,

you visited Bethany to confront death in the community,

weeping at the death of Lazarus and calling him to life.

4

Call us out to confront the powers of illness,

to risk contagion and sorrow,

to fight on behalf of health care and the wholeness of community.

Hosanna!

5

The following day, you gathered at a communal meal,

celebrated Mary’s extravagant devotion in anointing your feet,

and reminded us that the poor are always with us.

6

Anoint us for confronting the powers of greed,

even when it means risking our own money and resources

so that we may share extravagantly with those in need.
Hosanna!

 7

When the authorities sought a distracting scapegoat

and declared it was better to kill one man than to face an uprising

you prepared to challenge them and lose your life.

8

Encourage us for confronting divisive powers of prejudice,

to risk the renewing and transforming of our minds

that we may see our connections and inclusion in your family.
Hosanna!

9

You rode a donkey down the Mount, prayed underneath ancient olive trees,

held children in your arms,

and announced that the stones themselves would shout good news.

10

Enliven us to confront the powers of abuse and destruction

to risk standing on the side of life

for the sake of all creation, now and in generations to come.

Hosanna!

 11

You set your face to Jerusalem to rouse your people

against the injustice of an oppressive government

and the complicity of a religious establishment.

12
Rouse us to the risk of confronting powers

and seeking to reestablish your kingdom of compassion and mercy.

13

Amid these prayers for your will of resisting evil in our world,

we hold prayers also for our daily lives together in this place,

for our vocations in family, in work, in volunteering.

We pray for MCC members …

14

We pray for those who have been hospitalized or are ill . . .

We rejoice in new births among us . . .

We rejoice in well-lived lives . . .

15

And we gather all these prayers for your embrace, as a mother hen gathers her chicks, as we pray the words you taught us in these words or the language of your heart.

 

Our Father/Our Mother, who art in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen

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The Verb Became Flesh

 sermon on John 11:1-45
This is a hard Lent to preach with these lectionary Gospels. It feels like getting up after Shakespeare at a talent show and saying, “um, I wrote a love sonnet to my toothbrush but could only come up with 13 lines.” I mean, just what’s one supposed to say after these amazing dramatic passages? With today’s grand finale, I’m not going to touch the Psalm or valley of dry bones or God’s life-giving Spirit dwelling in you, though they’re plenty sermon-worthy. It’s just they end up as background compared to this Gospel.
 
And for the focus on John, again since there’s no way to hold onto all of it, I’m going to try approaching it by focusing on Jesus’ actions. Partly I’m recalling a classmate pointing out that in the Spanish version of this Gospel of Juan it is “el Verbo” that becomes flesh—the verb, an active God at work in our bodies, our lives, this world.
 
In spite of that activity, though, the first verbs with Jesus in this reading are passive. He listens to hear the message the sisters send. That’s a decent beginning, with the assurance that God hears our prayers and requests.
 
Much harder is his lack of response. Jesus waits. He does not go. Last week, we observed the longest absence of Jesus in the Gospel, 28 verses where the story continued without him. Now comes this longer timespan. In fact, deathly long. The two days Jesus remains and doesn’t go help can only makes us fret and feel frustrated. He said the illness wouldn’t lead to death, but—unless he means something very different from the reality we understand and experience—death came.
 
Maybe this two-day wait is preparing us for an even more difficult three days beginning on Good Friday, fearfully fretting whether we lost our bet, lost hope, if God is a loser, a failure, if we’re forsaken. Or maybe on those three days Jesus is busy conquering death and hell. More still, the wholeness of our lives can feel these long waits seeming too separated from Jesus, with no help we yearn to receive, just deafening silence.
 
The next verb might interrupt our discouraged isolation, even in the face of death: Jesus goes. His disciples warn that he’s probably going to get himself killed (which is precisely the truth), but he goes charging into danger to confront evil powers. He has courage, and he encourages his followers. Whether you heard and spoke it as ironic resolve or the battle cry of being outgunned in a Western, Thomas says, “Let’s go die with him.”
 
After Jesus goes, then he finds. That’s an important part of his engagement with our worries and suffering and our existence. Later details will be closer and more emotional, but first Jesus comes and finds us where we are.
 
Following that isn’t a direct verb, but is a question mark in the dialogue as Jesus inquires, prompting our response. “Do you believe this?” he asks. Do you trust me with life? Do you expect more than what you see right now? Do you know where to look for help? He challenges us with Martha to work on our theology, to keep pondering, to figure out what we believe, since that makes a difference.
 
That’s his encounter with one sister, but with Mary, it’s something else. He calls her, and she needs that beckoning into relationship. She needs maybe the chance to complain, to lament, to launch questions back. After all, our theological preparations involve practice trusting, but we trust in God and not in our explanations. It’s God who saves us, not our beliefs. And Mary needs that deeper, core moment. I don’t like head/heart contrasts, but she does seem to be operating at a gut level, maybe in grief of not being able to think straight. So Jesus doesn’t test her faith or question her theology. He sees her weeping and is also greatly disturbed. We, too, need this emotional God, a God who can be moved, who isn’t passionless but enters our pain, with empathy and compassion, knowing our hurt by having experienced it. Here, at last, is a God who responds to us.
 
The next verb is famously identified as the shortest verse in the Bible. Two words. Jesus wept. Maybe it’s the shortest because it says it all, that a God of constant sorrow is so remarkable there’s no more to say. Or maybe it’s so miserable, so tragic that we don’t want to dwell on it any more. (A side note: it portrays the paradox of our faith that a similarly brief verse of two words says, “Rejoice always” (1Th5:16). Somehow our heart, our very being is in joy even though and through weeping. Both are with God.)
 
To continue, the crowds rightly question how the tears of Jesus matter. On the one hand, having One who understands your crying and abides with you is such good news. But we desperately need God’s love not just to be sad with us, but to do something about it, to be able to bring us past it, to change things.
 
So change things Jesus will. He comes to the grave and commands that the tomb be opened. Even in her faithful trusting, Martha is resistant and protests the idea, warning (in my favorite verse of the King James Version) that “he stinketh.” That shows this is a closer encounter still. Jesus had been present with theological questions, pointing toward truer belief. He’d been present in groaning and weeping and sorrow. But now he will face death and will not be repulsed into giving it the last word.
 
Standing firm, the next two verbs are conversational. First, Jesus prays. Though there’s the odd sense of God talking to Godself, it reminds us that God isn’t defined by independence, as the highest authority, but is always God in relationship, in communication. The next obvious step, then, is that Jesus speaks to the dead man. Even death will not sever relationships with him. His voice, this Word of God, the active Verbo-in-the-flesh calls one he loves into new life.
 
Perhaps the summary is in his last command: “unbind him and let him go.” The work of Jesus, present in our bodies and active in our lives, the task of God is love and compassion, understanding and encouragement, is constantly creating and undoing all that binds and confines you—the sin and harmful relationships, the despair and lack of understanding, the grief and trauma, the injustice and illness, the identities and histories that held you captive.
 
As a last word of this Lenten season, he reorients you, renews your head and heart, your gut-feelings and physical potential, assures you of his presence and promise in baptism, overcomes death, and sets you free with his love. That’s more than I can say; it can only be enacted in your life.
 
 
J — The holy gospel according to John.
 
ALL — Glory to you, O Lord.
 
M&M — Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
 
J — But 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.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
 
ALL — The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”
 
J– Jesus 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. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” ALL — 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”
 
ALL — The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”
 
J — Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
 
ALL — Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
 
J — When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
ALL — Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.
 
M1 — When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him,
 
M2 — while Mary stayed at home.
 
M1 — Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
 
J — Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
 
M1 — Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
 
J — Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
 
M1 — She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When 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.”
 
M2 — And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.
 
J — Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.
 
ALL — The 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.
 
M2 — When 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.”
 
J — When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?”
ALL — They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
 
J — Jesus began to weep.
 
ALL — So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
 
J — Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
 
M1 — Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
 
J — Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
 
ALL — So they took away the stone.
 
J — And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I 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.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
 
ALL — The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.
 
J — Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
 
ALL — Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
J — For the Word of God in scripture,
M1 — for the Word of God within us,
M2 — for the Word of God among us,
 
ALL — thanks be to God.
 
 
 
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