When’s Easter?

sermon on Luke 24:13-35


This Bible story set on Easter evening fits for us a week out from Easter. We may ask ourselves what difference it has made in this week. Has the resurrection changed anything and helped us in these days? Has it redeemed anything? Saved us? What of that good news has gone with us, or what has gone away? Did you wish it would mean more, would do something better for you?

Those two people in the reading heard the same report we did: Jesus is not in the tomb. The proclamation is he’s been raised. They also had that message in their ears: Alleluia. Christ is risen.

But it didn’t help. They remained confused. They were still overcome with sadness. They kept trying to figure it out, to analyze it—to theologize or psychologize or mythologize or even eulogize the meaning as they went back on the slow, sometimes painful journey into regular old life, the life without Jesus.

They could repeat what had happened in those days. They even knew it would happen: Jesus had said he would die and on the third day rise again. They’ve got the creed right. But it didn’t seem to help those two disciples: After everything else, we thought this was it, this was the time, this was the solution, this was the way out.

It’s marked by maybe the saddest phrase we can speak or feel: we were hoping. We had hoped. It holds the bitterest of endings, the completely collapsing disappointment, utterly lonely lost-ness of all that could have been, was supposed to be.

It’s a phrase that glowers in our lives, when there is simply no more chance, no way, that the feeling of good is in the past: I had hoped to be able to have children. We had hoped the test results were not that, that the treatment would work. I had hoped to get into that school, to make the team, to make friends. I had hoped that this job was a good fit. We hoped our efforts could’ve been effective. I had hoped to avoid the accident. We hoped the election returns would come in with a few more votes to count. We’d hoped we were done with snow! I had hoped to live long enough… We were hoping this relationship would work out. I’d hoped I made the right decision. I hoped I’d get help. We were hoping, we had hoped. We used to have hope, but the hope is gone, has left us with only despair, an unhappy ending.

So sad and shut up, such past tense hope. There aren’t back-up possibilities then, and plan B’s and ready alternatives and second-best choices. With Everything pinned on it, when hope is gone, there’s nothing left. All is lost except hollow tears, aimless steps, disenchanted thoughts. I’m sorry even to mention it, to call them to mind. I grieve with you in each overwhelming, all-encompassing instance.

So Easter certainly ought to speak to that. Jesus needs to make a difference.

That is what we proclaimed last week: death itself is undone, so all the other dead endings have pathways out. It’s the start of a whole new creation, beyond all the old, a new 8th day that makes a difference, a new thing, a new hope. We celebrated not just for a pleasant little diversion, not just observing tradition. It wasn’t to spice up death, to dress it up, to put roses on a grave, make believe that things could be cheery and pretty, while ignoring the reality we really knew.

No, we said this changed everything. God’s blessing totally unleashed to set us free from all that had trapped us, all that held us back, all that left us in despair. We said that. Maybe even momentarily believed it, right?

But then we went out, back into the other existence, the normal rhythms, the close encounters with stuff that saps hope. From the blahs to frantic, from mild uncertainty to drowning despair, if you had a week at all like me, you could feel hopes slipping out of your fingers, unable to be gripped and held close to your heart. It wasn’t that I forgot. It was just that Easter didn’t eventually seem to matter much. I felt like I was facing it all without inspiration from the Holy Spirit, without God’s love, without the unstoppable Jesus.

In such moments, I go on the hunt. I don’t want to give up. I want to present-tense-hope it can and will be better. Because I’m desperate, I want Jesus. Feeling hopeless, I all but beg for hope.

Those two disciples were trudging along, trying to figure it out. It may be hoping against hope, but they’re still talking it through, looking for answers. It’s over, seeming there’s nothing possible, but they keep looking.

I want to share a bit of a companion who walked along on my hunt this week, from the autobiography of Catholic monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton. I was reading it as one of my Lenten disciplines, but I’m not very disciplined and not all that diligent at devotion; even those good things can be too much and fall by the wayside. So I am only a third of the way through the book even though we’re beyond Lent. This week in a few pages before bed I read this passage on looking for God and goodness and direction and meaning but not being able to see it. I’m going to share an extended chunk. It’s also beautiful, as we’re celebrating Earth Day Sunday. Writing about when Hitler came to power, and when he himself wasn’t a believer, Merton said:

People seem to think that [horrors of war are] in some way a proof that no merciful God exists… On the contrary… There is not a flower that opens, not a seed that falls into the ground, and not an ear of wheat that nods on the end of its stalk in the wind that does not preach and proclaim the greatness and the mercy of God to the whole world.

There is not an act of kindness or generosity, not an act of sacrifice done, or a word of peace and gentleness spoken, not a child’s prayer uttered, that does not sing hymns to God…

All of these things, all creatures, every graceful movement, every ordered act of the human will, all are sent to us as prophets from God. But because of our stubbornness they come to us only to blind us further…

We refuse to hear the million different voices through which God speaks to us, and every refusal hardens us more and more against [God’s] grace—and yet God continues to speak to us…

God, how often in the last centuries have you not come down to us, speaking to us in our mountains and groves and hills, and telling us what was to come upon us, and we have not heard you. How long shall we continue to be deaf to your voice?

When I [traveled], your love went with me, although I could not know it, and could not make myself aware of it…

I was not sure where I was going, and I could not see…But you saw further and clearer than I…and you were even then preparing for me…my shelter and my home. And when I thought there was no God and no love and no mercy, you were leading me all the while.

(Seven Storey Mountain, p128-130)

In front of our eyes, through our lives is God’s tireless relentless effort for the good, the constant loving pursuit of life on your behalf. Yet we don’t know, don’t understand. For all of our searching and trying to figure it out, for all the truth that is right around us, we remain lost and despairing.

The two followers of Jesus walked the road with Jesus, with him right next to them, with the solution to their sadness, the very constant presence of hope, but didn’t (or couldn’t?) even know it.

We wander into here today, still looking, for what God would have to say, for reassurance, for some sort of possibility when in way too many ways it seems there isn’t anything left. We look and listen and ponder and still don’t see.

But Jesus walks in with you. He walks along as the Scriptures are opened and reveals himself in them. And he sets this table, an unknown stranger in our midst, and vanishes and isn’t visible as himself even as soon as you’d come to know that he was here. But in the breaking of the bread, as he himself takes it, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to you, he is here for you.

That is why we do these things week after week. This isn’t just a week later, gone by. As every Sunday, this is a celebration of resurrection, of the new creation, of Easter all over again. We gather with opening the Scriptures so Jesus can be illuminated in them. We gather at this table, because it is here he might be made known.

I can’t guarantee that you’ll see. I can’t make it happen. You can’t make it happen for yourself. But still more than in sprouting flowers or acts of sacrificial kindness or the path ahead that leads homeward, in this small and simple practice of ongoing Easter, this preaching and communion, this Word and Sacrament come to be reliable places where when all is lost, you may be found again, where when you’re wondering where Jesus is he may be revealed, where your hope may be restored, and life itself.

I can’t pull back the curtain. I can’t offer explanations. That would go back to theologizing and the fruitless trying to figure it out on our own. I can’t say how it functions to restore you, can’t detail what it means for Jesus to encounter your despair, how he deals with that to overcome your sadness.

But I trust he’s here. And I pray that once again you can go out with joy, with confidence, with hope, at least for another week.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.


Word and Sacrament

sermon on John6:35,41-51; 1Kings19:4-8
This week, as four-year-old Henry Brezinski and I biked past each other, he said he wanted to come up on the stage and dip a pancake in the syrup. Maybe this sounds strange to you, but I realized he was talking about communion.

Young Henry’s reflection about this bread that looks like a pancake seems far from this reading with Jesus generating complaints by proclaiming, “the bread that I will give for the world is my flesh.” It begs that we slow down and approach this more cautiously.

This is a strange Bible reading. This stuff about eating flesh is just Jesus trying to point you to faith in God. Yet it’s a hard nut to crack, so we’re going to peel off the shell to examine the basic kernel. It gets at the same message Jesus shares, but maybe as spiritual milk instead of having to gnaw at the gristle.

To start, here are two terms: Word and Sacrament. In our understanding, this is how God gives you faith, how God communicates with you, how you know God’s will and receive God’s own self. I should probably say more often how important this is. It is essentially why I’m here: I was ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and you called me here and pay me to be your pastor so that you can receive Word and Sacrament, so that you’ve got a constant source of this connection to God. It means that even if you don’t like me or if you’ve done something truly awful or you have to be at the hospital ghastly early, you can still insist that I remind you of God’s forgiving grace and abundant life.

That’s also why it’s utterly vital that you should be here for worship. We don’t gather just to sing or chat together. This is our central gathering of Word and Sacrament. This is the fountain of it, the buffet’s feedtrough, the celebration just oozing gloriously with it. Nothing else can fully replace what we accomplish—or, better, what we receive—here in an hour. This is why it is also so disheartening that the past three weeks have had the lowest attendance of any non-blizzard Sundays in my time here. That hurts. It’s painful for me; it hurts us.

Aside from that, for my job and our identity as church, everything else is measured by or should be connected to Word and Sacrament—from shut-in visits to confirmation instruction, social gatherings to committee meetings. If this is what brings God to us, this is what we’re most supposed to be about.

So what is Word and Sacrament? What do we mean by it and how is God using it in your life?

First, the Word. This is God’s voice to you. In our understanding, God speaks in two ways: in Law and in Gospel. The law is how God wants you to live. Chances are, you hear that loud and clear enough that you feel guilty for not living up to it. The gospel, then, shouts over the top of that deafening voice with even more important good news: God forgives you, loves you unconditionally, sets you free from your bondage, breathes into you new life. The Word fills you with Jesus.

This voice of God speaking the Word we connect to Bible readings. But you should also be listening for God’s voice in each sermon. It’s in the declaration of forgiveness that starts the service. We sing it to each other in hymns. And it happens in “mutual conversation and consolation,” as Luther termed it, as we listen and reassure and forgive each other, which is one of the possible ways this happens outside of worship.

That’s a fast intro. Before we move on to Sacraments, let’s pause and see if there are any brief questions on Word…

Next, Sacraments. Sacrament, first of all, is a word that means “sacred thing” or “holy stuff.” The point of sacraments is an intensification of the Word. Instead of a blanket statement like, “Well God loves everybody,” sacraments give absolute confidence that God is talking to you. In this, we have two sacraments, fitting three criteria:
1: It needs stuff, an earthly element
2: It has the promise with it, it is embodying God’s good news
3: Jesus told us to do it

So let’s try out a couple of near misses:
Offering is not a sacrament. It has a physical sign, in your envelope or the offering plate. Jesus told us to give away our money. But it doesn’t have good news; it’s more of the law and what you’re supposed to do than what God is doing for you.
Again, being anointed with oil for healing is not a sacrament. It has a physical sign. It’s good news, a reminder that God strives for wellbeing and works healing in your life and relationships. But Jesus didn’t tell us to do it.

Once more: forgiveness or sharing the peace is not a sacrament. Jesus told us to do it and it shares his good news, but there’s no tangible thing along with it.

So what are our sacraments? Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
First they have stuff, the earthly sign. In baptism, that’s water. In communion, it’s bread and wine. (As a side note: these things are holy only because they go with the Word. Otherwise the water is just tap water and it could be a puddle or scummy lake water or from the toilet. The wine comes in a cheap ol’ grocery store jugs. And our breadbakers are sinners, just like the rest of us.)

Second, Jesus told us to do it. At the Supper, we repeat the story of Jesus instituting this meal, telling us, “Do this for the remembrance of me.” For baptism, it’s the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

Third, these are good news. In communion, you are ingesting the embodiment of forgiveness. In baptism, you are washed clean as God’s beloved child. So the water carries the holy promise directly and solely to Annika Ellen in her baptism this morning. As you swallow the promise in bread and wine, you may know it is for the forgiveness of your sins. It comes to find you exactly where you need it. As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you have the assurance of Jesus’ forgiving presence with you, of his death and resurrection for your sake.

That maybe addresses a question of who or what the sacraments are for. They are for you. Yet maybe we could also see that if it’s for forgiveness, then nobody should be excluded. This isn’t dependent on how well you understand it or how good you’ve been or how much a part of things you feel like you are. Jesus is offering himself for you. Although we excommunicate ourselves when we avoid the meal or don’t come to worship, it’s tough to imagine that Jesus would kick anybody out of communion.

That also raises a point that we may choose for children to be older before they receive communion, hoping that they understand it a bit more. But that’s our rule and not from Jesus. Again, he promises to be here for you no matter what.

So Henry asked about pancakes and syrup. He realizes this meal is special, and it is for him, even if he doesn’t understand everything that’s happening. But do any of us? That’s the point that got us started, that Jesus said the one who “eats the bread that comes down from heaven will not die.” Do we have any idea how to explain that? I don’t. But we trust it, we keep receiving it, we hope in it, we use it because it’s from God and for us.

That parallels baptism. We baptize infants. Annika will have no recollection of this day, but that doesn’t change God’s promise for her in those waters. The point will be that it’s there as a resource for her, a bedrock for her faith for every moment and situation to come. It’s for when she gets sick with an ear infection or when she says her first word or when she frustrates her parents or when she graduates from college or when she robs her 27th bank or when she has her own baby or when she’s in hospice.  She’ll have the resource of baptism to trust that no moment is separated from God’s blessing, that she’s always held in God’s embrace, that the Spirit of Jesus is constantly working for life.

Before we turn toward that baptism, any quick questions on sacraments?

Hymn: Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters (ELW #445)

some great interjected questions:
–How do you think Jesus was received with the hard language of “eat my flesh?” (He was often provocative and pushed against us. By the end, the 5000 who enjoyed eating bread were gone and only the disciples left. He asked them if they wanted to leave, and they said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” So we also get provoked and pushed against at church. If we’re only here for cake and snacks, we’d not like to be challenged in how we live. But if we realize we need this good news for our life…)
–We give Sunday School kids good news, but shouldn’t adults hear more law on how we need to act differently and reform our behavior? (Too often Sunday School is law and telling kids what they need to do to be like Jesus. They need more gospel. Also, we don’t control how the Holy Spirit uses law and gospel. If I say, I forgive you, you may hear it as relief or else an accusation that you did something wrong. If I say you are loved, you might rebel against that and say your aren’t loveable. If I say that you should stop oppressing your neighbors, that could be law if you were the abuser or it could be gospel, that God is on the side of ending oppression.)
–Sometimes I don’t understand this right away, but God reveals the message to me later. (Yes, there’s a lot of mystery on this, on how we hear it differently and it doesn’t have the same impact on all of us. And there’s a trajectory there, that somedays I’m just a lousy preacher and you’ll need to hear the next week.)
–What about re-baptism? (We don’t rebaptize. Once is enough. A verse in Ephesians talks about One Lord and One Baptism. Plus, this is God’s work. If we try to say, oh but I’m in a new denomination or I sinned since then or the pastor was a jerk or the water wasn’t the right temperature, if we claim the baptism wasn’t valid or good enough, that undermines God’s promise that you are already forgiven and nothing will separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.)