Christmas children’s message

Do you know what I was doing this morning?

 

I was trimming my nose hair. My pocket knife has this little scissors, and I was thinking I needed to do it to look prettier and more like I should.
But then I stopped. Because it’s Christmas. And Jesus being born means that God loves our human bodies in all their shapes and forms and there isn’t something that I need to do to look different.

 

Know what else this morning?

 

It snowed. I heard the plow go by really early, while I was still in bed. And I was really excited. So I ran to look outside and saw that it was really pretty, but only a little bit of snow. I wanted more, for having fun outside and just for being the amount I think our world needs right now.

 

But it’s Christmas, and Jesus was born to set things right, including our winter climate and how we people think and live on the planet.
And so I was thinking about things that don’t quite go right and things on Christmas that we wish were different. Maybe you can think of some of those this morning, too.

 

Maybe you didn’t get all the presents you wanted.
Or maybe you got even more presents than you wanted.
But Jesus was born so that people can have the right amount of what we need.

 

And I was also feeling some sad this morning. I miss my dog who died this year, who isn’t around for Christmas. And maybe in your families, you’re missing some people or things aren’t always exactly right.
But Jesus was born to bring us new life, to hold us in God’s love when we’re sad, and to give us “great joy” as we’ll hear next in the story from angels.

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I AM and you will be

sermon on John 11:6-8, 14-27, 32-50

 

Life and death, death vs. life. It’s the defining struggle. And this is a crucial moment.

The narrative of Jesus’ life obviously is accentuated as we get to Holy Week—from Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday and on into Easter—and we live in realtime through the final week of Jesus’ life. Today’s story happens not long before that, maybe just a few weeks before the end.

Yet it’s halfway through the Gospel of John. That interesting note is not unusual to John, that half of the story of Jesus is this stuff right at the end. He lived for somewhere over three decades, but most of what we relate to are these final moments of his life.

John tells today’s story as a crucial moment, a turning point, causing the lead-up to the end. This is the final major sign of Jesus, and is the final of the I AM statements we hear in our series, and it all points toward his death. But also, then, to life. Those two ends challenge each other intensely.

Let’s start at the beginning and find our way forward, from death into life. The story started while Lazarus was ill but alive, with the detail that Jesus waited to go to him, two more days. He then arrived four days after Lazarus had already died.

In the story, this emphasizes that Jesus isn’t working mere bits of resuscitation, putting a bandage on or a small cure. His healing is for wholeness. God’s work is best made known, Jesus indicates, by him not being there in this case.

There’s no reason to take that detail as more broadly applicable. It isn’t that Jesus doesn’t care about wellness in smaller ways. It’s not that God refuses to help until things have gotten to be so bad that only a miracle would matter. It’s not that Jesus ignores everybody in need, failing to show up for a few days. No, that’s not God’s normal practice or standard operating procedure, but just a revealing detail here to highlight the larger truth.

So Lazarus is dead.

Thomas rightly observes that going with Jesus back to Jerusalem will mean more death. By the end of today, it’s clearer than ever that that’s what’s in store for Jesus. But he goes anyway, goes to the sisters of the dead man (as Lazarus is called in the story, to reinforce the difficult fact).

With one sister, Jesus talks theology. They have a mini-Bible study to help her faith. She is able to look past the dreadful present circumstances toward something more, toward hope.

The other sister, not so much. She only weeps. Jesus doesn’t try to lecture her or offer explanation, to whitewash over it and say everything will be okay. Instead, he weeps with her.

That’s the kind of Jesus many of us first need in such moments, not a distracting from our grief but dwelling in it with us, in empathy. I try to practice that myself when I’m met with tears, not to explain away, but to reside in the sorrow with the person. It’s not about right answers and certainly not just to cheer them up. It’s recognizing the validity of sorrow, and sharing it.

Of course it can’t end there, though. A Jesus who only was compassionate could be consoling but wouldn’t offer anything to end the sadness. We need more from him, especially in the face of death.

So he continues to the tomb of the dead man and calls him out. The unbinding and letting him go isn’t only about unhitching the fasteners on Lazarus’ coffin, but is about freeing him for life, taking away the deadly confines so he may be released back to live fully and abundantly, as it’s supposed to be.

In that way, the next time Lazarus appears in the story is at the family supper table, restored to his place with his sisters, to companionship and camaraderie, to the nourishing of life, to support each other.

If this were a fairy tale, we could arrive at that conclusion and say “they all lived happily ever after.” The good guy faced overwhelming odds, but somehow saved the day. Death was vanquished. Loving relationships were restored.

But this is not a fairy tale. This is the reality of our world. Life was endangered. But death was not the end. But life will not yet be the end, either. Lazarus is raised, brought back to life. And yet death will not give up so quickly. No sooner is Lazarus out of the grave than the authorities confirm their resolve to put Jesus into a grave. They argue it’s better to have one man die. The logic of scapegoating abounds, but is never so finely tuned as it claims to be. Within a few verses, they’ll have discovered that Lazarus is a popular attraction, so they’ll also want to get rid of him, too. The cycle of violence can never be satisfied with one death, but keeps churning through more victims, and fails anyway to add authentic life for those who are caught up in it and perpetuate it. It’s a vicious rhythm that needs to be broken.

So it stands that Jesus meets death with life while the world responds over and over by obstructing life with death.

Looking for other models around us of this perpetual pattern, I’d suggest not to presume to look outside as spring emerges. The back and forth of seasons can mischaracterize summer as life and winter as death. Since it’s God’s good creation, we should better see winter also as part of God’s work for life, not a separation from it. Always in creation, God is striving to bring life from death, newness from where there was nothing.

We may look elsewhere for the meeting of life and death, where our creative God is bringing life from death, even while the world tries to counter with more deadliness and destruction.

In these weeks, probably a clearest portrait is in school classrooms, places of life, of learning, of growth. We should recognize God’s work there, because caring and sharing of knowledge, discovering our place in the world, nurturing talents, assisting the little ones—this work of teachers and students is the work of God giving life.

We’ve witnessed again as that was countered with death, as a school for fostering life was met with bullets and all classrooms became filled with fear. Death trying to take the place of life.

But the students stood up on the side of life. We heard from our own young people last Sunday that this has gone on too long, that enough is enough, that it needs to change. Students paused Wednesday to grieve 17 deaths, and then walked out to demand that their lives be valued and supported. That is godly striving for life over death.

We’ll see whether that specific struggle for life can be sustained, or whether it is squelched and death again tries to prevail as authorities ignore young people and discourage them, indirectly and directly harming their liveliness.

We notice the pattern in other places, that roads are for fostering our connections and vocations, but news of a bridge collapse brings death, and so godly striving would lead to improved infrastructure spending and well-studied engineers and safer streets.

Or that weather patterns provide for life on this globe, but hurricanes enflamed by climate change bring devastation, but God responds for life through noisy offerings for relief efforts and striving to mitigate the worst of global warming’s disastrous effects.

Or I reflect on how 15 years ago I was an intern preaching against invading Iraq, that the “shock and awe” of our God isn’t about violence against enemies but persistently and quietly and even now is for life and freedom.

Or this is also in gradual gains against nuclear threats; in the hope of North Korea talks, God works life over death.

Or God’s work as protecting life-giving water sources and wetlands against perils from pollution or short-term profit.

Or in hard family conversations to talk through difficulties: that is God working through death for life.

We notice God’s work for life over death even within our own bodies, of God’s constant renewal in healing your injuries, in expanding your possibilities, continuing to create you anew within each cell and with every breath. It may seem as you age and feel decrepit and wearing out and await a looming funeral that death will have the final word, but then especially we look to God’s promise of life.

See, we may notice this struggle everywhere and always. But it’s not in the individual cases of whether life can conquer death. We are all Lazarus and Jesus is always Jesus. So we trust the outcome, even though we somehow wind up acting like we don’t know the end of the story. We pretend like there’s still a question of whether godly life will finally be able to overcome death. Or we dismally forget and declare with news stories and our sad days that life has lost.

And this time of year in church may even tempt us that way further, to doubt by pretending we don’t know the end. As the authorities threaten Jesus, we figure again the nastiest powers and biggest bullies will always get their way. Bittersweet Palm Sunday cheers a king who will be killed, executed before the week is out. Good Friday feels like the most emotional day of the church year. At Easter two weeks from now, we feign surprise at resurrection, (if it even matters,) as if we didn’t expect Jesus to rise from the grave and thought death does rule and life might not win, that God had been beaten, that the victory was not for us.

But we know the end of this story. Like a favorite movie, we may still be moved as it continues on, still be swept up in the action. We know the struggle is real. We still take time to grieve together. We weep at death. But we also laugh in its face, because we know the end. We know Alleluias are waiting to burst forth. We know tears will be wiped away. We know it is not just Lazarus who will be restored, but all our relationships, all our fractured pains healed, all creation renewed.

I AM the resurrection and the life”—yes, we know this, Jesus. You are always and fully life for us.

We trust it.

We remember it.

We celebrate it.

We already live, alive, freed from what would bind us, freed from what confines us, freed to live abundantly, ceaselessly, boldly with love.

We are called out from death.

And we keep living into it, now and forever.

 

Hymn: The Word of God is Source and Seed (ELW 506)

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Chicken Citizens of Heaven

sermon for 2nd Sunday in Lent
(Philippians3:17-4:1; Luke13:31-35; Genesis15:1-12,17-18)

For three of the required merit badges to become an Eagle Scout, I had to do tasks like learning about types of government and organizations like Unicef and Amnesty International, reading the Constitution and a newspaper, examining how security, climate, and economy affect current events, reading historic speeches and writing to elected officials, discussing the importance of taxes and volunteering for a charity, attending a school board meeting or court session and multicultural events celebrating various heritages. These were aspects, then, of Citizenship in the Community, Citizenship in the Nation, and Citizenship in the World.

That’s a good list, and we might go far to continue engaging such practices. However, besides community, nation, and world, today we have an additional “citizenship” in front of us: the reading from Philippians declared that we share Citizenship in Heaven. It’s a great phrase that Paul uses, and beneficial for us to spend some time examining and pondering what it means and—in the words of the Scout merit badges—“what it takes, the rights, duties, and obligations of a responsible and active good citizen.”

Perhaps one of the first important things to note is that your citizenship in heaven is not about location exclusively. Just as you simultaneously serve as a citizen of the community, nation, and world, your citizenship in heaven is also an overlapping category. That’s worth saying to counter a belief that would claim faith is mainly about going someplace else. When that becomes the case, then how you live here doesn’t really matter, much less what happens to others. Why bother to care for the earth if you’re destined to fly away to heaven?

So if this being a citizen of heaven isn’t about ending up elsewhere, not just for after you die, but is about engaging life here and now, rather than location maybe we think about it in terms of loyalty or values or practice. Along those lines, we might well say that heavenly citizenship is exactly what leads our children to be guiding us with “change for change” and concern for water resources around here, and in Michigan, and internationally. They aren’t mutually exclusive.

That also highlights another factor. If heaven were mostly about where you went when you died, then that’s a fairly inactive enterprise. If it’s about later, for the time being, you can just passively wait for it to happen. Perhaps it’s possible to be uninvolved, a citizen without laboring at it; indeed from voter turnouts and factual awareness of issues and time spent working on our democracy, we know there is all too much apathy and lack of involvement for our more typical types of citizenship.

Yet this citizenship of heaven as Paul envisions it is entirely active and engaged. It’s not just for later but for now, and it makes a difference for your life. In fact, this is so dynamically involved that it’s got the “energy of dynamite.” That is the actual Greek phrase in our text; our words energy and dynamite come from these words that are more blandly translated in our version as “power that enables.” Sure, that’s already saying something pretty great, that Jesus is enabling your citizenship, that he activates your capabilities and triggers your powers. But it conveys the whole experience for us so much more dramatically with those explosive original words: Jesus is changing you to be an active heavenly citizen. To live into this role, he’s not just recommending concern or repeating obligations. No, he is filling you with the energy of dynamite. Wow!

You might wonder just how thunderously grand or motivationally invigorating this could be, though, if in our first reading Abraham was brought into his role of citizenship by sleeping through it. Well, we’ll explain some of that with the peculiarities and mysteries of faith, with the paradox of Jesus.

But it doesn’t need to be a category unto itself. If you consider yourself a citizen of Madison, you have to trust a sign that would tell you you’re crossing into Middleton. You’d trust flags hanging around to convey that you are in your nation of the United States. You may consider yourself an engaged citizen of this world though you haven’t tasted the water of Flint or traveled to villages receiving wells or maybe even know the source that delivers to your own tap.

So it was with Abraham. Even asleep he came into his role as a heavenly citizen because of trust. In language that resonates throughout scripture but nevertheless may sound antiquated in our ears, he reckoned it was right. There wasn’t proof. In fact, just the opposite: he was asking about an heir, about having a child. God promised that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars overhead and the sands of the beach. But no proof. Not even a downpayment or head start on that solution. Even if they’d had ultrasounds, Sarah wouldn’t’ve had anything to show. All they could do was trust, even in spite of the evidence. They reckoned it was right.

This is, perhaps, among the difficult things about this heavenly citizenship, that it is somehow not dependent on the statistical quantifications or factual evaluations to which we’re accustomed. It turns out—just the reverse—that this is more usually found under the sign of its opposite. We may glimpse some of that with Abraham, that his deliberation and acceptance came while he was unconscious and unaware, and that Sarah encountered this serious matter with a laugh which she came to embody and birth. We could see it in this declaration of a mighty and multitudinous nation which was for generations unpopulated, in slavery, and without a homeland.

Yet, as always, the center of this faithful understanding comes to us in Jesus. The energy of dynamite that is unleashing transformative change on our world is embodied in Jesus whose way of life is so much about dying. It’s even striking in the imagery he uses for us today, of fox and hen. A couple weeks ago a red fox had trotted through the parking lot here and I posted on Facebook, excited about it, thinking how it had habitat in our prairie. But Emily Wixson was quick to reply in concern for our chickens. We know in a fight who is going to win. Yet in contrast with typical images of control and power and what it takes to be in charge, Jesus picks the wrong part. He claims to be a chicken.

And he calls King Herod a fox. Now, the first impression would be that the fox is going to kill the chicken, that if there’s a competition between them, between this political ruler and Jesus, that Jesus is going to lose every time. And, indeed, we know that’s exactly what’s going to happen: Jesus is going to die at the hands of the authorities.

Yet there’s also maybe a hidden twist in Jesus calling Herod foxy, so to speak. In our Old Testament portrayals, foxes show up when places are deserted or abandoned. Their realm is amid desolation. So maybe when Herod thinks he’s so in charge, Jesus is playfully suggesting that this rule is not so grandiose or powerful as he may think, and that indeed the chicken’s time has come home to roost.

This is the question or the challenge for those of us who trust Jesus, who trust his vision for the world and trust our lives under his caring wings, those of us who seek to live faithfully as citizens of his heaven. The way of love that Jesus revealed and embodied does not seem to be the winning way. It sure seems that the violent and ruthless and powerful and deceptive are able to win control. Even if you are held under the protective wings of this chicken Jesus, that may seem of little value if foxes can show up and again rip you to shreds.

But Jesus’ words to the fox Herod are not to give into to those appearances, not so quickly to try to claim glory and triumph and victory. “On the third day,” Jesus says. That third day makes all the difference for this chicken way of love, this heavenly citizenship that is dedicated in giving itself for the life of this world. “On the third day,” Jesus says, “I finish my work.” As we say again today in words of the ancient creed, it is on that third day that he rose again. On that day, Easter. On that day, resurrection. On that day, death is invalidated—it has lost its strength. The energy of dynamite is no longer with the foxes with the fiercest gnashing teeth. The energy of dynamite, the fullness of God’s investment and power is in our abilities to love, to gather under warm wings and to cradling bosoms and to nurturing hearts. It is not in taking life away but in giving life for each other.

Two last words from Philippians. One is “conformed.” On Transfiguration two weeks ago, we mentioned the Greek word “metamorphosis,” on taking on a different form. This word is “symmorph,” just like “conformed” meaning to take on the same form. This sort of conformity is good news as you are being transformed to be the same shape as Jesus. Look at his pierced hands as he gave up his life on a cross, but also those hands that bleed no more, where the injury cannot hurt, where death has no power because life reigns. As he gives you the energy of dynamite, it is so that your life may be given away for the sake of this world he so loves, and that his work may be finished, complete in you.

That is a word of hope. The other is a word of challenge for us in these days. Jesus laments over Jerusalem, over the capital city, the seats of power, the place of the foxes. He laments knowing it deals in death. And it is that place of foxes that he loves and wants to gather under his wing like the mother hen. In our own environment, the culture much too malicious in these days, it is vital to know that Paul’s word for citizenship is exactly what becomes our word “politics.” When politics is embodied only as a bad word, an ugly thing, you are called and invited to trust and live into the politics of heaven.

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