a very little faith

sermon for 28 June 15 (Mark 5:21-43; 2Corinthians 8:7-15; Lamentations 3:22-33)
[Paul tries to encourage generosity, such a simple, benign detail it could get lost amid big stories of the destruction of Jerusalem and health calamities met with miracles. How do we attend to the day-to-day small stuff?]
We’re often told to “think big,” to “imagine a new world,” or to let our dreams soar. Instead today, let’s get small. Let’s for a moment stop dreaming so big and instead shrink our expectations. To say it more precisely, instead of painting in broad strokes, let’s do some fine-tuning of faith.

This idea is probably going to take some explanation. First of all, this is not to state that you cannot change the world but you can change yourself so do that instead. No. As Christians, we are indeed to be mindful and concerned about and working on changing the world, things like ending malaria and world hunger, like war, like billion dollar budgets and centuries old prejudices. And, biggest of all, that we need to reform our lifestyles which are changing the planet and threatening billions of people and the extinction of species. Yeah, this is huge stuff. But this is our territory, and it’s just plain not right to say you can shut off the news and shut out the world and be a happy little Christian on your own.

Neither, as we’ll see, is this getting small about lowering your expectations of God, of what God is capable of and is indeed up to in your life and for your sake. That all stays nearly unbelievably enormous.

Our task today may be to attend to the smaller, less dramatic stuff, too. As an example: we’ve been given terminology by the insurance industry that says natural disasters are “acts of God,” but in this week of Vacation Bible School, we also spent time exploring outdoors because Martin Luther reminded us that God was just as present in the “tiniest tree leaf.” If our eyes are focused only on huge catastrophes, what do we miss in the small scale of God’s presence?

Now, it’s true that the big stuff can open our awareness. Rather than the worst things driving us away from God, instead that may be when we most seek the connection. Sometimes faith finds you in the most frightful moments. In times of tragedy or facing death can be when we’re most likely to wonder where God is and what God means for us, to try to seek a blessing that speaks a strong word against the overwhelming tones of misfortune.

Our 1st reading did that in a massive way, facing the collapse of civilization.  But that scale seems to fit also with our Gospel reading, right? There are these two big, hard circumstances, the woman suffering in the crowd and the father of the sick little girl. It’s tough to say which person is more…well, the first word that comes to mind is desperate. But that’s not exactly it. See, the word “despair” means “without hope,” hopeless, but these two people somehow still do have hope. That’s why they’re seeking Jesus. Maybe this shows us what a fine line it is, between what we hope and where hope seems lost, that narrow cusp between the relief of good news that sustains our lives and the precipice of bad news that ends in sadness. But not needing to live by extremes is part of where we’re headed with all this, that God is not only last minute make-or-break worst-case-scenario deathbed conversion stuff.

At any rate, the two characters in the Gospel reading are both hoping in Jesus. More than the miracle, the focus is that Jesus is amid regular life, so probably best would be for us to notice that these are ordinary people, that there’s no special claim to blessing, nothing to make it earned. Yet we don’t let it stand as regular life; we have a bad tendency to label people by their brokenness. So, in the story one problem is chronic, with physical and social suffering that has persisted for twelve long years. The other is dramatic and acute, a new illness for a young daughter, a crisis moment, needing critical care.

We notice that Jesus responds, that he offers blessing and good news in the face of both of those tragedies. He overcomes suffering.  And this is just what we expect or anticipate or, again, hope for in our lives. When we’re at dead ends or facing death is when we’re accustomed to turning to God, seeking out Jesus, when we expect there might be a word for us at church.

And most definitely you should hear that that is true. The God who brought you into existence, who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead, will be at your side in every time of suffering or moment of dread, will never leave you, will never stop loving you, will finally breathe into you the breath of new life that will sustain you forever. That is the promise that holds you, the reality we are all heading toward. In those biggest and worst moments, certainly that word from Jesus has value: “Do not be afraid, only believe.” Life in God has the last word. The exuberant, powerful vitality of the Holy Spirit will always win out.

But the question for today, for our expectations and honing our focus, is what else this means. What about when you haven’t been suffering for twelve years, or when your daughter is not at the point of death? What if the woman approached Jesus because she’d been ill for only six years instead? Or if she occasionally got migraines? Or if she had chronic bad breath? Or if her skin was the wrong color, or her sexual identity was unusual? What if she generally felt unlikeable and awkward in social settings? And what if the father came begging at Jesus’ feet because his daughter hurt her leg, or had a runny nose, or because she wasn’t very good at reading, or because she was scared to get in the swimming pool? Or what if he was concerned about his nephew, or a coworker’s grandkid, or somebody else he’d heard about?

The point is, Jesus isn’t only waiting for the most horrible thing to strike closest to your heart, weighing whether you’ve suffered enough for a miracle. Jesus is not dallying off in heaven through catastrophes and disasters, figuring he’ll take care of you later on and that will redeem the rest of this mess. Instead you may know and trust Jesus is with you through every moment, nearer and striving on your behalf more continuously than the respiration and pulse of your body.

Church, then, is not just another commentator to explain the latest gory terror or civil unrest or personal misfortune. Church is where we’re assured that all is indeed held together in God.

And that has meaning for all the non-crisis times of your life; for nice summer days, for the blah of a work-week, for little frustrations, for all the details of life on this planet, not only at the hospital but also the grocery store. It’s not that everything is petty compared to the immense extremes. We need faith for the small, regular moments, as well, since the whole identity of God in Jesus is that the regular is not petty; ordinary life is important, is blessed, is held in God’s embrace. He came to know simple birth and poverty and lakes and hunger and celebrations and friends and strangers, for a sick woman and a common daughter today, for all the crowds. This is what the life of Jesus was, being there in our very regular moments, with the miracle that life should go on.

This is where Paul hones our focus, refines our attention, directs the living of our faith. This faith is not only for going to heaven when you die. It is also for all the days that you live. So Paul reminds us that for genuine love, Jesus embodied generosity, giving everything for your sake. Held forever in his gracious generosity, filled with his abundantly loving life, this shapes what you’re capable of, what you can do, what fruit you will bear, what is so vitally important. For the Corinthians, it meant the ability to contribute more generously and abundantly to the offering collected to support poor people far away whom they’d never met. That blessing flowed naturally from their connection to Jesus.

For you, I’d expect it would reorient your days, that you have life to share and yourself to give away. It enables you to be patient and diligent, not only briefly relieved or else morose as you’re caught up in the sensationalism of the moment’s news story, not only dawdling after some grand miracle hypothetically to erase the problems, but seeing the kingdom of God breaking into our world and your lives in myriad ways, amid times of excitement and enjoyment, of forgiveness and compassion, of creativity and beauty, of encouragement and trust.

Yes, it is most certainly true that Jesus is your savior in the worst times. But he’s also there for you tomorrow, and also for your children, and for your neighbor, and your dog, and people you’ve never met, and the tiniest tree leaf. This is the lavish abundance of our God whose giving knows no ending.

Hymn: God, Whose Giving Knows No Ending (ELW #678)


Absentee Jesus on Easter

Mark16:1-8; 1Cor15:1-11; Acts10:34-43
There are four gospels, and three of ‘em have great stories with the resurrection: Jesus shows up to make huevos rancheros with blackened tilapia for a beach barbeque breakfast. Or he goes for a stroll incognito with a couple of friends, chatting and telling stories until—voila!—he is unmasked during supper’s “this bread is my body, given for you.” Or, in stuff we’ll hear next week, he suddenly appears behind locked doors blowing on his friends and letting them poke at his wounds, not to say “ew” but “wow!” Those accounts of meeting the risen Jesus are on the mark for our fleshy faith. We’re not just about angelic holograms or souls floating off to heaven, but about the here and now.

So I’m not saying that he was a live-fast-die-young kind of rebel, or that high cholesterol would’ve gotten him if the cross didn’t, but Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, of hanging out with sinners and partiers, which may sound familiar, like your kind of people. And that makes it only right that we enjoy lots of sweets today, ham and deviled eggs, good times with loved ones.

Coming at it from the other side, in harder circumstances we pray so fervently around hospital beds not because life is so miserably ungodly, but because with God we recognize how very good it is. Our Christian faith is nothing if not an affirmation of that. If we’re Jesus people, then sterile, bland, monotony won’t cut it, nor will disembodied escapism. We’re vivacious. We need good music (like we’re getting this morning!) and beauty (like the artwork of our new cross!) and delight. And we need it not to hoard, because trying to keep happiness to ourselves would just stifle it. We’re people who find our identity in sharing the love, in spreading the wealth.

Easter is that kind of holiday, the absolutely central mark that even when death tries to interrupt, when we’ve given all we can to our last breath, when obstacles try to deny its spread, even when sin threatens the worst, still God’s goodness breaks through for another beginning, for forgiveness, for new life. That’s not just going someplace when you die. In Jesus we see God’s commitment is not primarily otherworldly, but this-worldly. God cares for, loves, glories in, strives to preserve, and will tenaciously cling to this creation, and your place in it.

So resurrection stories of this being a bodily thing, details like dawn at the lakeshore, of close companions and compassion sharing tears, of being able to touch Jesus and eat with him and shoot the breeze and breathe the same air and getting fishing tips from him all are really true and valuable and essential for our faith.

Yet for those great stories in the other three gospels—one even with the promise “Remember, I am with you always”—today with the resurrection according to Mark, Jesus is not there on Easter, much less apparently with you always. In this version, Jesus is notable in his absence, where he doesn’t show up for repartee and hors d’oeuvres and there’s no gabbing with God moment, nor even the simplest reassurance that what has happened has indeed happened, that this whole resurrection business isn’t a figment of your imagination or a pious wish or a collective fiction. That’s the big benefit of those other versions, right? The crucified one shows up with a “Hello my name is Jesus” nametag and says, “Remember me? I’m back and better than ever!” We can grab him, take his pulse, fingerprint him. It feels like fact-checking, a verification, proof.

But Mark has emptiness, absence, vacancy. You go looking for Jesus where you last left him and instead find duct-taped to the tomb a sign that says “Room for rent.” He’s not there. We might, then, ask, “Well, where in the hell is he?” But that’s a question for yesterday, as our tradition has held it, when he descended to the dead, to preach to the spirits in prison. So instead we might now ask where in the world is he? We’ll get back to that shortly.

First, let’s consider what faith is. It says in one place, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb11:1). Or, in a similar vein, “who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom8:24-25). That’s plenty logical, if not festive or exciting or spectacularly triumphant. Compared with this missing person today, it’s much more appealing when the resurrected Jesus pops up behind locked doors or floats off the ground than this disappearing act in Mark. Or, to be accurate, I guess Jesus would first have to appear in order to disappear. Instead he’s just not there. No proofs. No tangible evidence. No CSI action on a shroud of Turin.

Yet this is what faith is about: the unseen. It’s about Jesus who doesn’t exactly show up when and how you want him. About a God’s blessings that don’t work like magic tricks or secret potions. Something that too often is quiet and unnoticed and, yes, unfortunately involving patience. This makes Mark’s version of the story a fit with our reality, leaving room for doubt, for this all being pretty unbelievable, and awfully uncertain.

Mark seems intentional about leaving such ambiguity and mystery, at least if we can trust the messenger dressed in white there at the tomb. And, as we’ll say again, we can only trust him. There’s nothing else to do. So that young man calmly explains where Jesus is off to. One commentator equated him with an administrative assistant greeting your arrival for an appointment by saying, “You’re looking for Jesus? Sorry. You just missed him. He’s got better things to do besides hanging around a tomb all day.”*

So what’s he got that’s so important? Where did Jesus need to rush off to so early this morning? Well, it’s not that he was avoiding you. Neither is it heaven, at least not yet. It’s not that Jesus was sick and tired of this boring old world and wanted out. Just the opposite. In fact, Jesus goes rushing right back into this world he and his Father so love. The messenger boy declares that Jesus is going back to Galilee, back to his home turf, back to where it all began.

To be clear, though, he’s not just back from the dead and headed for his old haunts. It’s not homecoming at his old stomping grounds. This isn’t revisiting the good old days, only with them being the new better days.

What this is saying, what it is pointing you toward, is that Jesus is active in your life, in your everyday world, in all the regular places you find yourself. His resurrected presence is at work when you’re at home, when your family is dearly annoying you, when your friends fall apart, in the drudgery of daily work, in strivings and successes and failures, when your doctor shows up with bad news, and when all the news seems to be bad news. That’s where Jesus is headed and already at work. With this business of eternal life and abundant grace and unconditional love, he’s taking this show on the road.

Except, as we’ve said, it’s not much of a show. It’s not so much glitz and glamor as it is mostly quiet and patient and subversive. It’s in persistent love, in rampant care, in gradual healings of brokenness. With those life-giving creative blessings, Jesus is also destructive—in destroying death, in undermining hatred, in eroding the old barriers of trespassing, in shutting up former standards that said you were no good, or that said you could exclude others of your choosing. If anything, your religion isn’t about freedom to discriminate, but binds you to neighbors who are least like you or least liked by you. That’s the kind of strange work that Jesus is up to out in the world.

And that’s also why you’re here, to hear about it. Our typical phrase is that you have to see it to believe it. But with this tomb-abandoning, already-on-the-move, not-showing-up-where-you-try-to-pigeonhole-him kind of Lord Jesus, you don’t get the stunning revelations first, only to let you believe it afterward. Instead, the way our God works is the reverse: you have to believe it to see it.

Again, that’s why you’re here. Because faith and hope come from hearing. You gather in church, tuning in your ears so that your vision may be focused on finding Jesus active in the world around you. It’s the only way for it to work. The message came in that delivery boy sending the disciples back home to find resurrected Jesus. It came in Peter hanging out with those he wouldn’t have even looked at, declaring to them that Jesus is Lord of all, not just of some. It came in Paul’s preaching that this news is of first importance, the most vital thing not just for eternity but for right now. It comes even in my words for you: Jesus is up and on the loose, already ahead of you. He is at work, spreading life at all times and in all places. That’s what you’ve got to look forward to. Alleluia! Christ is risen!



Waiting on Good Friday

(a sermon for Easter people)


Before we get too overwhelmed by the depressing, deadly seriousness of this, can I pause and ask: Doesn’t that point of the story seem like an annoying commercial break? They put Jesus there…for now. You can probably picture it, in part because of bad made-for-TV adaptations of the Bible, when we’d find more drama and more value in sticking to the book version. But there’s also the feeling because this break toys with our emotions, like producers and advertisers on television do. It’s not an ending, but leaves you in suspense for what comes next.

That’s in spite of this point in the story of Jesus being presented with so much tragic finality. He’s expired, dead, buried. And yet we can hardly help but hear it as a cliffhanger. As the big stone slams shut, sealing closed that new tomb, we can envision the camera angle panning backward. We know there’s something more to come, even before the screen goes black and switches to ads for cell phones and shampoo and all those other things that try to claim our interest.

Yet unlike the televised word from the sponsors, within the Gospel reading, we don’t have the benefit of distractions to fill the pause. Yes, I said commercials can be beneficial, for passing the time, even for making us believe that other things are more important. Instead, in this reading we’re left with no pleasant disruptions or musical intermissions. Just a long hard pause. From this whole huge reading today, the last words we hear are “the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” The next verse would resume “Early on the first day of the week.” So the crucifixion, the death, the burial of Jesus take place before sunset on Friday. It’s not until early Sunday morning (“while it was still dark”) that the time out is finally over and we get back to the story, to wrap it all up with the dramatic conclusion. That’s a terrible, miserable wait, if we were on the edge of our seats, holding our breath for how it would be resolved.

Now, we have seen this movie before. We know what’s coming. We may really like the ending, even if it’s not a surprise. But we don’t get to skip to the end. We have to suffer through the long wait, albeit with all kinds of nice distractions of real-life channel surfing to divert our attention instead to spring weather and yard work and family gatherings and fish fries and spring break vacations and, of course, a basketball game.

I’m not arguing against those other points of life. We believe the God-given-ness in daily details are exactly the reason why Jesus lived and died among us and for us. So it’s not that we should be sitting here quietly in the sanctuary waiting for Easter finally to dawn. Neither should we pretend amnesia. We do indeed wait to celebrate the resurrection, but it’s not like we don’t know that that’s coming. As important as Good Friday is, and central as the cross is for our symbols and the shape of our faith, still if Sunday hadn’t come then we wouldn’t be gathered on this Friday. This dark day can only be called Good in the light of what’s coming. The filled tomb is worth our attention because it will be emptied. We don’t need to ignore those outcomes today, or to act as if we don’t know what comes after the commercial break.

Yet here in this moment, we are confronted with the pause, with a moment for reflection. We might even say it forces us to ponder this part of the story, to face it and accept it. We can’t just quickly skip on to the resolution of a happy ending. We are Easter people always stuck on Good Friday. We believe and trust that we’ll be part of what’s coming, but we don’t have it yet. We’re still waiting.

In the meantime, in these last verses are two characters, one as a guide for us, the other as a model of what not to do. The first is Joseph of Arimathea, who takes the body of Jesus down from the cross. In that, we might notice that he obeys the law. He goes to Pilate and asks for permission. It’s an interesting detail, and an ongoing struggle for us. Pilate, after all, was the one in charge who executed Jesus. We mark him in infamy each time we say in the Creed that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” He himself said he had power to release Jesus, but didn’t do that. And yet Joseph of Arimathea obeys him.

So we Christians who say that Christ is King, that Jesus is Lord, that we have no God but God and not Caesar, not the rulers and powers of our age, we who expect that our citizenship is in heaven and seek to dwell in the kingdom of God, we’ve got this ongoing struggle of how to respond when governments and authorities and society don’t live up to our standards, when they may be corrupt and do the wrong thing.

If we’re picturing this like a modern movie, it’s easy to imagine that when the hero gets killed—when the villain takes out the good guy—it could create an insurrection, a rebellion, an uprising, that all his followers would seize that moment of martyrdom, trying to avenge their fallen leader—what we might call “pulling a Peter.” Yet with the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, doesn’t pick a fight with the bad guys. Surrounded by wrong, he tries to do right. That may guide how we react and interact, in advocacy, or in trying to make bad situations better.

The other character and example for us may be more about our relationship with God in Jesus. Nicodemus first showed up on a Sunday in mid-March. As we were reminded today, he had come to Jesus by night. He was a leader of the Pharisees, a consummate religious insider, but he was in the dark, still questioning, wondering what Jesus was up to, trying to figure out how Jesus was making God’s presence known.

He’s still unenlightened with Jesus’ death. He’s trying to do the right thing and show extraordinary devotion, but he’s got it confused. He’s treating Jesus like a king, but like a dead king. This funeral ceremony that Nicodemus has planned is more lavish than the re-burial of King Richard III, who had to linger half a millennium for the honor. Nicodemus shows up with all kinds of embalming spices and a hundred pounds of ointments. He’s going to bury Jesus, and—by God—it’s going to be in style. It’s ridiculously elaborate.

But it’s also ridiculous because it shows Nicodemus absolutely doesn’t get it. The fool is squandering devotion on the past, while entirely failing to recognize what is yet to come. For him, this is the sad fanfare of the closing credits and not a commercial break before the real excitement resumes.

If we think that’s all she wrote for God’s story of blessing in Jesus, then we’ve got another think coming. We’ve underestimated God’s insistence on righting our wrongs, on persisting through our failures, on loving us beyond hatred, on renovating our brokenness, on showering grace on the tragedies of our sinfulness. We fail even to see that our sinfulness isn’t so much in being evil like Pontius Pilate instead of obedient like Joseph of Arimathea. The rotten core of our sin is that we don’t expect more from God. We misbelieve. We try to spray some air freshener in a tomb and perfume on the dead guy and say, “Oh, doesn’t he look so natural and peaceful.”

Jesus won’t put up with that, though, won’t lay in a casket, dressed up by an undertaker. And he sure won’t just rest in peace. So we’d better reset our expectations and keep our eyes peeled for more to come from him and for us.

There’s a phrase that fits well for this moment, for this long tragic pause, with uncertainty of what comes next and how to deal with it. I learned it at Dan Banda’s funeral last autumn. His mantra was, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried. But somehow it wasn’t goodbye, not the end. It was tragic and wrong, but the story wasn’t over. There’s more to come.

That seems easy enough to gloss past heading toward Easter morning with this old story. But even more, we should be expecting more of God right now. Because this is Jesus’ story, it is also ours. This message is hardest for us, in moments like for Dan Banda’s son. Josh was in college in upper Michigan when he was told his dad had died suddenly. It’s hard enough to see his own story continuing well after that terrible break. It’s a time when we’d content ourselves with looking back, with getting on with distractions of life. It is a miserable interruption.

Yet that pause is even more unsettling and breathtaking since the move with Jesus from Good Friday toward Easter means that sickness, separation, death, despair, resentment, injustice, the shattering of hopes—these may be terrible fractures and fearsome pauses, but still they are only commas. God in Jesus has more to come.

Waiting with that vision is how this time may be called Good.


Ashes and New Life

sermon for Ash Wednesday        (from Matthew 6 & Joel 2)

I like Ash Wednesday. Maybe like you, I find it moving, though—also perhaps like you—I don’t really understand it.

For starters there’s even the simple question of whether or not you’re supposed to keep wearing the ashes after worship. I mean, Jesus warns about practicing our piety before others on the street corners. That would seem to say that if you’re headed to the store after worship or back to work, then maybe you shouldn’t be a show-off with your ashy forehead, acting dismal and disfigured and unwashed. But on the other hand, clearly we must be putting it on, wearing that black stain for a definite reason, right? So if we’re immediately wiping it off, then why bother being marked in the first place?

That’s even more difficult to answer when we realize the external isn’t what we’re focusing on, but the internal. The prophet Joel said that it isn’t our clothing we tear to lament, but rend our hearts. Not so much our appearance but our attitude, “with weeping and with mourning” he says.

That goes with the confession of sins, which raises more conflicting questions, since this strong repentance can seem like we’re dwelling on our faults. It can seem depressing, or maybe even masochistic. In our society, you don’t admit any weakness or shortcoming. We’re trained to put on a strong face and act as if everything is okay and be tough enough to pull ourselves up as individuals. When my sister was doing job interviews, there was always a question “what’s your biggest fault?” She joked about responding with back-handed self-congratulatory compliments, “I’m a perfectionist” or “I spend too much time at work.”

And yet, counter-culturally, we gather here confessing our actual sins, owning up to what we’ve done wrong, acknowledging brokenness. So is this just about being pessimists or losers? Are we trying to feel ashamed, to rub in a sense of unworthiness or guilt?

Probably it is better labeled as sincerity that peels back our masks and false pretensions, that won’t permit our claims to self-righteousness, to labeling ourselves as alright and calling others the problem. It may be a healthier way of seeing the world and interacting with others not to claim a place of privilege as so wholly self-sufficient, but to recognize our need, that we require assistance from others. Then we’ll see how it is met as a gift, as the sharing of community, whether in church or as a creature on earth.

And if we’re following Jesus’ instructions and guidance, to live lives of concern for others, to be generous and caring, then we need that re-orientation, that motivation. We’d have to acknowledge we could always do better at it, and that it is indeed worth trying.

That’s a positive explanation, a good way of talking about what we do in confession. Even more so, the word of forgiveness, of an entirely fresh start where you are not liable for the wrongs you’ve committed, is just about the most stunning word you can receive. More miraculous is that it comes not because you’ve earned it through restitution or retribution but only because God declares it, speaks that word to you.

Yet that positive, gracious side again doesn’t quite seem to fit with your smudge of ashes. If confession of sins is not to be depressing or dismal or disappointed, can we say something similar about that black cross that will be a stain on your forehead? Can it possibly be good news? As Tim and I are besmirching you, young and old alike, we’ll proclaim that reminder, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” That’s the dark heart of my struggles with this day. It feels mostly morbid, like an insistence on or fascination with death. I love you so much that it’s heart-wrenching to say to the youngest of you, and is miserably sad in other, older instances.

But we should admit remarkable miracle even in those words. It isn’t only about finitude, the too-sudden endings of death. Certainly it has nothing to do with you being worthless; after all, you are God’s good creation. And that God formed you from the dust is worth considering, in part since our food is from the soil and cultivated land is what gives us culture. We are indeed humans formed from the humus, we are earthlings, part of this vast system of relationships God established.

Still more, that you are dust is so much more than an earthling. The elements of your body were formed in the fusion of stars that have exploded, gone supernova, over the 13.8 billion years of this universe. You are stardust, and you yourself are the fruition that would not be possible without that vast history. That’s a stunning reminder.

The other side of it may feel somewhat less romantic, that you also return to dust. And yet it is a truth that our death sustains future life. Our excrement is tomorrow’s fertility. Our waste is recycled and becomes a recreation of God in fresh beginnings. As dead dinosaurs facilitate your lifestyle with fossil fuels, you’ll also find your way into God-knows-what kind of future. Perhaps that’s symbolized as last year’s Palm Sunday celebration returns today, the ashes of our past becoming a blessing for this moment.

But that also points toward something more. This isn’t only about death being an opportunity for other life or about the conservation of matter or ongoing usefulness of what had seemed exhausted and dead. As the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton said, “It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity.”* See, this day and the ashes also tie in with Jesus. Maybe that should be obvious, since we’re gathered in church. Yet those marks on your forehead make us need to ponder what we believe and why.

The odd puzzle in this part, the ongoing question it seems to raise is the triangle of our relationships with death and with Jesus. You return to the earth, but your future is not just in having your atoms recycled. In faith, we trust that your death is not the end, that our wrongs or sins or spiritless separation of death do not have the final word. Jesus is the final Word. We’re people who confess in the creed that we believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” But then why bother to be reminded today about death? Why dwell on that, if that’s not where our hope lies or our remains remain?

In our funeral services, the graveside committal says, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our sister and we commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Then right after that we pray to God, “Strengthen us in our weakness, calm our troubled spirits, and dispel our doubts and fears. In Christ’s rising from the dead, you conquered death and opened the gates to everlasting life.”

Just as when in a cemetery we are saying those temporary but still-too-long farewells to loved ones, encounters with death and mortality remain hard and sad. It’s still a problem. It’s not right and not okay, even if it’s not really final. We always need hope renewed and calm for our troubled spirits, not just at a graveside or deathbed, but even in the midst of a bleak, cold winter night.

So the cross on your head: is that a visible reminder that you’ve been claimed by Christ? That God is with you not just for afterlife, but even now in your dirtiness and difficult decisions? Is it the mark of death that can only be cleaned and washed away in the waters of baptism, where you were marked with an invisible cross for eternal life? Is that black smudge in the shape of Jesus’ cross not marking your death so much as that in his death he defeated death, that in him death dies?

What’s this all about, and why is it important for you, not only now but in these weeks until Easter, and long beyond?

Hymn: Ashes and New Life

Ashes and New Life

* In Lent Sourcebook I, pg18


My Neighbor Mark

      a newsletter article

My neighbor died last week. I’ve confessed occasionally that—in spite of Jesus admonishing us to love our neighbors—I’m not a very good neighbor. I don’t interact much with those who live next to me. Mark had been an exception.

He grew up in that house. He had a philosophy master’s degree and played jazz saxophone and had taught for a while. After his schizophrenia got bad, he moved back into his parents’ house and continued to live there until last week. The house was yellowed from his cigarettes and the smoke shut inside; he never opened windows. Either the heat was on or the air conditioning. With the help of the police, on Friday we discovered that he’d died there.

Life was pretty small for Mark. Because of tremors from medications, and paranoia, and obsessive/compulsive tendencies, he hardly got out. Trips to Woodmans. Phone calls from his psychiatrist. Otherwise the shape of his life was NPR, Turner Classic Movies, and the Milwaukee Bucks. He shared rhubarb and jokes and sardines and music books and weed-killing advice and movie suggestions. I used to pet his Boston terrier, Sammy, who helped fertilize my flower garden.

After Sammy died, Mark was especially grateful for chances to pet our dog, Doug. From time to time, I got to be helpful to Mark by changing the oil in his lawn mower, staining the trim on his windows, cleaning out his basement, or helping him buy and install a new CD player.

Mostly Mark wanted to talk theology. He fretted over the sins of his earlier life, and also fretted that he still enjoyed the memory of those indiscretions and so wasn’t repentant enough. He longed to die, but also worried that killing himself would exclude him from God’s love. It might be argued that Mark took all this too seriously, either because of the time on his hands or because of the illness in his head. It probably could be better argued that he gave theological questions their just weight, as matters of life and death. Or, in the terms of a good Lutheran theologian, as matters of death and life, the end of our old selves and rising to new beginnings.

Mark seems to have had a heart attack while asleep. It was before he had to move into a nursing home, so his estate will go to charity, just as he had carefully planned in his will and often described longingly. Again, I’d say Mark was more charitable to his neighbors than I frequently am. He was also, by any account, more loving than the God he seemed to believe in—the strict one of his Catholic upbringing, the angry one from the Billy Graham magazines and Chuck Swindoll books he insisted on reading.

People often say that all religions lead to the same place. Well, Mark and I were both talking Christianity, but not with much similarity at all. His outcome was fear and exclusion, that left out certain politicians or homosexuals or other creatures. Once, he tried giving out booklets on the Bible, fearing that a lack of conversion would damn them, and maybe him for lack of effort as well. This religion was about the individual mustering fierce certitude and how insistently they could banish doubts.

It didn’t really work for Mark, which is why we kept talking about it. He would ask what my sermons were about, never quite satisfied that my content and the core truth of the Bible is basically a repetition of “Jesus loves you.” Mark couldn’t go to a worship service, and so in some way our discussions were the most church he got, an example of Jesus coming to find us in our “mutual conversation and consolation” (in the words of Martin Luther), of community that encourages and supports each other.

Through it all, Mark remained skeptical of the good and gracious God in Christ that I was trying to preach to him, one who was more ready to love than we are to accept, whose life stretches long past our faults and brokenness. From early conversations, when I was less than a year out of seminary and these theological arguments were still at the front of my mind, to his last weeks when I’d gotten too distracted to find time to be so insistent. In the end, because I couldn’t convince Mark and couldn’t save him and have to say goodbye, all I can do is commend him—and myself—to this God of love, hoping in grace and trusting in mercy.