A few more sermons are up, with more being set up. They are all coming, I promise!
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
We as a culture can’t get enough of two types of movies. We love our action flicks, like Die Hard, the Avengers, anything by Michael Bay or starring Steven Segal, Jean Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone or John Wayne. The kind of movie that gets our blood pumping, gets us all revved up, that surprises and shocks us with just how awesome they are.
Then, there’s the other type we can’t get enough of. We love our romances and loves stories. Stories of overcoming impossible odds to find the perfect man or woman, finding our one true love among the 7 billion people on the planet, and living happily ever after.
The secret to movie success, of course, is to combine the two. To make an action movie with a powerful love story woven in, maybe as the motivation for the hero’s incredible actions. To make a romantic movie with a suspenseful, action-filled climactic scene that really hammers home just how incredible this love is.
In our storytelling, the two are often combined. What makes a hero, if not love? Whether it is love for a partner, lover, or simply the human race, the deeds done by our action heroes are, for the most part, motivated by a devotion that far surpasses what we ourselves think we are capable of.
And why love at all, if one is not willing to go the extra mile, to beat the impossible odds, to rescue him or her when they are in distress, to sweep them off their feet, and to be their hero? The truest love, it seems, is forged in the heat of conflict, when life and death are on the line. If love can survive that, it can survive anything.
I confess that, while I am usually a sucker for these movies, they do make real life feel a little… inadequate. I try to imagine myself in some of the situations action heroes find themselves in. Not counting the situations that are clearly over-embellished for dramatic effect, I look at those situations, and I’m pretty sure I’d be dead. I couldn’t leap from a building to a helicopter, or swing on a rope across a fiery gorge, or beat up two dozen bad guys with just my fists, all to get to the person I love and save the day.
With such high expectations prominently displayed in our entertainment fantasies, it’s not too hard to understand why love and marriage can be disappointing for some people. Rarely does our romantic, movie-induced idea of love and what it can go through match up to the reality. We expect perfection, the ability to know perfectly what the people we love are thinking, and to be able, literally, to move mountains for love.
Love is connected to these grand ideas. Love is big. Flashy. Exciting. Dramatic. It is bold, catchy, larger-than-life. And yet, at the same time, this idea of love is entirely unrealistic. If love is to be defined in this way, by its glory and grandeur, then I suspect that most of us are in big trouble.
I like Jesus’s idea better. John says, “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1 NRSV).
This is the day before the crucifixion. Arguably, that event is one of the greatest ways God has shown love for all of creation. After all, doesn’t Jesus say a little later in John’s Gospel: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NRSV). That certainly is the case with the crucifixion.
The crucifixion is the centerpoint, the fulcrum of God’s action in the world. A good chunk of the Gospels is devoted to this very event. Hardly anyone familiar with the tiniest bits of Christianity does not know about the crucifixion. In some accounts, it was literally an earth-shattering event. Just like an action movie, it captures our imagination, wrenches at our hearts and emotions, and makes us really feel. Lots of movies have produced dramatic, glorious interpretations of this great act of love.
But that’s not our story for tonight. This is the first day of the Triduum, the Three Days, the most holy days in the Christian calendar. Our story is still about love, but about a very, very different type of love. Our love story tonight isn’t flashy. It isn’t glorious. It doesn’t get our hearts pumping or our adrenaline flowing. It’s not very big or exciting.
And it’s about feet.
For being such an important part of our body, we seem to be, as a general rule, really opposed to feet. We don’t like see them, we don’t like to touch them, and we certainly don’t like to smell them. Feet are relegated to the category of “Things that make you go, blegh”, better left hidden and out of sight.
So when Jesus gets down on his hands and knees with a basin of water and starts to wash the dirty, grimy feet of twelve men, the reaction for many is, “ewww”. I can’t say that’s an unreasonable reaction, given the time and place how those feet must have been.
I also think, though, that that reaction is part of what makes the story so moving. Jesus is about to die, be hung on a cross, and he decides to show his love for his disciples by getting down on the ground, in the dirt, in a humiliating and vulnerable position. He shows his love by degrading himself, touching people’s feet, providing a necessary, but unsavory service that would have most of us cringing.
The true love of Jesus is shown not with bells, whistles, trumpets, Oscars and Emmies, but through the simple acts of compassion that others feel are below them.
How often do we as Christians seek to emulate Jesus on the cross? We want to be the center of attention, to have our deeds shown before others, to go out in a blaze of glory that has onlookers saying, “Truly, these people were children of God.” The theology of glory pervades our sense of self. It makes us important, and we like to be important.
What would it look like if we emulated Jesus in the dirt? Washing feet is uncomfortable. It makes us cringe. It makes us dirty. It is not an activity most of us would see ourselves doing. But precisely because of its simplicity, it’s degrading nature, it’s discomfort, it also makes us like Jesus.
For tonight, this is how Jesus chose to show love—by getting on his hands in a simple, intimate act of compassion.
Tonight, this one time during the year, we are invited to participate in that same act of love and compassion. “Just as I have loved you,” says Jesus, “You also should love one another”. It can be uncomfortable. It can make us vulnerable. It may offend our normal sensibilities. But in it, we find the heart of Jesus before the storm.
Palm/Passion Sunday A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
As kids, one of my cousins was known for being particularly competitive. I don’t feel bad telling this story, because he admits this himself, and we can all look back on it and laugh. He knows I love him.
His house had all the fun games and toys, and, especially, the video games. He had a Super Nintendo! For us kids, that was a big deal. He played that thing over and over, trying to master as many of the games as he could. He was good. Very good. But he wasn’t perfect.
Every so often, we could beat him. There was no small measure of satisfaction watching his face as the realization dawned on him that he was going to lose. He would get so angry, his face would get all red, he’d get all stiff trying harder and harder to beat us, but eventually, he’d finally admit that he wasn’t going to win.
And then, the strangest thing would happen. He’d throw his controller down, rip the game out of the machine, turn off the TV, and start yelling at the top of his lungs how badly he beat us, and he didn’t lose because the game didn’t end. No amount of logic could convince him that ripping the game out before it was over didn’t mean he didn’t lose.
He hated losing. Still does to an extent, but has since learned how to lose graciously. But not back then. He had to be in total control, and if he wasn’t going to win, no one was going to win.
I like to try and convince myself that the way he acted back then was abnormal, was somehow in the minority. Now that I’m adult, I am sad to report that his behavior was not in the minority—for adults. I’m telling you, go look up the website notalwaysright.com for examples of people placing themselves in a position of delusional absolute power—the “customer”–who then have subsequent meltdowns when their tiniest demands are not met.
We have this curious relationship with control. As long as things are going our way, we are perfectly content to let someone else do all the work and take all the credit. But the moment things are no longer to our liking, well, that’s different. The results can be harmful, even deadly.
The story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, and his death, is a story of control. On one level, it’s about the control of the crowd. Jesus enters the city on their terms, to their expectations. They are happy to welcome a new king.
Except that Jesus is not the king they expect, nor the king they want anything to do with. So they turn on him, sentencing him to death by state-sanctioned lynching. They lay charges against him so that, through deceit, they can convince the state to carry out their vigilante justice.
But there is more to this story than one crowd sentencing one man to death. On a whole separate, deeper level, this story is the story of humanity. It is our story. It is how we react to control and trying to make things go our way. The pattern goes like this:
We think we have control, and when things go our way, we are content with the illusion. Things start to change, and not in ways we like. We attempt to assert our control and “make things right”, only to find out we have no control at all. We use any means at our disposal to assert some sort of control over the situation.
We do this all the time. There are the customers who throw a fit just so they can get free food when they are unhappy. When political votes don’t go our way, we attempt to replace those who voted with people who agree with us instead. In the church, when things don’t go our way, we threaten to walk out and abandon the community, especially if we think we can use our weekly offering amount as leverage. Or we give our money to a cause, but stipulate exactly how it can be used, refusing to let go of it.
What happens when the other force we run up against is not a restaurant manager, politician, or pastor? What happens when it is God?
Ah, things are a little trickier then. How can we control God? We can’t threaten to take our lives and business elsewhere; this all belongs to God. We can’t refuse to play the game of life, since we don’t have any other game. There is nothing we can withhold from God that God does not already have.
We can yell at God, and we have good examples of that in the Psalms. But other than that, we can’t really touch God. We can’t affect God too much.
Then, there was Jesus Christ. God incarnate! For the first time, we, humanity, could look God in the eyes. We could touch God with our own hands, hear God in words and language we could understand. We could shout praises to God coming through the gate to Jerusalem and know, without a doubt, that God heard us. What a gift, and what an opportunity!
At the same time, we realized that gift could be used to our advantage. Finally, we had some leverage. We had some control, because, for the first time, we could kill God. And that is exactly what we did.
In one day, humanity focused all of its anger, all of its rage, greed, malice, and our desire to be the ones in control. We exerted our will over God, and we won. We killed God.
Palm Sunday is not the end of the story. We have entered into Holy Week, the most sacred week in the church year. The story spans the whole week. If you think you know the ending, let yourself be surprised.
Fifth Sunday in Lent A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
When I was at First Lutheran Church in Muskegon, MI, the church participated in a program with the local school to bring in high school kids to do odd jobs and give them some experience.
JD was a special kid. He was 18 years old, and had some special needs. He got into fights at school, which was one of the reasons he was a part of this program, yet around the church, he was nothing but respectful and friendly. He would help us schlep recyclables to the dumpsters, take out the trash, and clean some of the rooms in the church, and never once complained or talked back. We looked forward to the days when he would come around.
It wasn’t long before our version of Mr. Pickleball convinced him to try the sport when he was finished with whatever jobs we had for him. He caught on quickly, and man, that kid had a few surprises up his sleeve. Then we accidentally broke his arm, and he was given a note from school that said he was not allowed to play pickleball with those “old people” anymore, a title to which the players took exception.
The summer before my internship ended, JD and a friend tried to swim across one of the small lakes around Muskegon. Half way across, they started to have trouble, and panicked. The other boy managed to get back to shore, but JD didn’t make it.
The news shocked the church and the community. Death is never easy, but when it is the death of a school kid, it affects a lot of people. The way in which he died was particularly hard to imagine. Drowning is not a pleasant or easy way to die. Water fills the lungs, choking the person as the breath is literally forced out of them. Once that happens, there’s not really a lot of hope.
Without our breath, we cannot live.
The Bible makes a big deal out of breath. It is the breath of God that gives the first human being life, without which, the human being is just a sculpture of dirt. Divine words and prophecy were carried on the wind, on the breath of God. In fact, in both Hebrew and Biblical Greek, the same word is used for breath, wind, and spirit, so closely connected were the concepts.
Breath is also important in Ezekiel’s vision. It is fantastic enough that Ezekiel sees in this vision a valley full of dry bones. These are bones that have been there a long, long time. At the behest of Ezekiel’s words, the bones come together, and sinews and muscles and organs and skin wrap around the bones until they form human beings. But it isn’t until God summons the winds, the breaths, that the human beings are again made alive. Without that breath, they are but skin and bones.
At first, this story sounds like a story about the resurrection of the dead, but God explains the vision to Ezekiel. The dry bones are the people of Israel in exile. They have been there so long, they have dried out. The community as a whole has no hope for a life back in their homeland with God. They’ve given up, resigned to stay forever on the floor of a valley, withered and dried up. Their spirit has gone out of them.
They aren’t the only community who has ever had the breath knocked out of them. When JD died, it was like the community took a collective punch to the gut. In one moment, the life of the community was forced out. We just had a funeral here a few days ago, and I know the feeling was the same.
Sometimes, though, the feeling is slow.
There is a lot of apprehension in the church about the state and future of our congregations. For decades, there has been less money and less people. For some, that’s a frightening thought. Without money, how can the church serve the community? Without people, how can the church perform the mission it was sent to do? And worse, if there aren’t people in the pews, does that mean that they aren’t saved?
Ignoring that last one for now, and the many, many things wrong with it, do the other concerns sound familiar?
We are a congregation, like thousands of congregations across church lines, that can feel the way things used to be coming down around us. How do we respond to the reality of losing our privileged place in society? How do we respond to being plucked out of our ways and placed somewhere different?
If God were not here, I’d have cause to be worried. But thankfully, we know that God is here in this place. The spirit moves through it. There is life in it.
It wasn’t enough for the bones to become people in Ezekiel’s valley. They needed to have the breath of God in order to live. Without that breath, they were nothing but sculptures of dirt and clay. Without the word and breath of Jesus shouting forth, “Come out!” Lazarus would still be in that tomb the first time, with neither breath nor spirit nor life within him.
The problem with resurrection, of course, is that one first has to die. The bones in the valley were dead dry. Lazarus had been dead for four whole days. For new life to occur, we must first die.
This is the challenge for the church. What must we let die in order to have new life? What must we let go of, before our tightly gripped hands become nothing more than bones? Do we trust the baptismal promise that, when we die with Christ, we, too, will be raised with him to new life? These are difficult questions, and questions that we would rather avoid. We’d rather die holding on to our pride than letting go of it.
It is time to let go. It is time to open the windows, fling open the doors. Let the wind blowing outside come in. Give the Spirit already moving among you the room to make you grow and fill you with new and abundant life.
We cannot stay in the valley. We cannot stay in the tomb. God’s spirit, God’s breath, blows through here.
Lenten reflection for April 2.
Andy* is an energetic, inquisitive little boy. He would come into my office and play with my stuff while I tried to work on a sermon or prayers. He would sit on my bike and see if he could touch the pedals. His mom works for the church, so the building is like a second home to him. He knew that I wouldn’t be at that church long, but that didn’t stop him from becoming my friend anyway. He has that smile and glow about him that makes you wonder what happened to your own youthful energy.
Andy also has ITP, or Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura. ITP is a condition in which the body’s white blood cells become confused and begin attacking the blood’s platelets, killing them off. Platelets are the cells that clot bleeding, so as their number drops, the body is not able to stop bleeding if it occurs. If the number of platelets drops too low, spontaneous bleeding can occur.
Most cases of ITP are either mild enough that only some treatment is required, and in most cases, it fixes itself on its own in a few months. Andy is not one of those cases. Andy’s platelet counts had, at times, dropped to the point where he was at risk for internal bleeding. While he responded to treatment, it did not last, and his count would plummet again. The use of steroids, another form of treatment, made him violently ill. It has been two years since he was diagnosed, and it looks like he may have this condition for the rest of his life.
It is hard to look at Andy and wonder why God doesn’t just heal him. God could. It is certainly not from a lack of faith or prayer—his family and the church pray for him all the time. In our story tonight, Jesus says that faith can heal. So when it doesn’t, what does that mean?
Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, tells this story about a trip she took to Rome and the aftermath:
“The last day in Rome I caught a lulu of a cold. As I lay in bed the Friday after we returned searching the TV for a football game, I came across a televangelist. I was mesmerized. He was preaching to a packed house in a converted NBA coliseum. His text was from Matthew 21, the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree, the disciples’ wonderment at Jesus’ authority and Jesus’ teaching about faith being able to move mountains.
The televangelist’s exegesis (explanation) of the passage led him to conclude that Jesus said we must “speak to the mountain” — prayer was not enough. If we wanted a better job we needed to “speak to that mountain” and all the heavenly forces would be set in motion. Poor health? Fear of foreclosure? Troubled marriage? “Speak to that mountain” and get it fixed.
Wow. When my father was dying why didn’t I speak to that mountain? When Paul prayed three times that the thorn in his flesh be taken away, why didn’t he speak to that mountain? Here it was, the “Name It and Claim It Health and Wealth Gospel.” The people in that arena were cheering.”
I don’t know why God hasn’t answered our prayers and healed Andy. It can’t be because we never “spoke to that mountain”. I know his family has. I know his church has. They’ve put all of their faith into loving and supporting him and his family. Maybe there is no easy answer. Maybe prayer answers don’t I don’t know.
But I do know this: when Andy is in the hospital, it is God holding his hands, whispering, “I’m right here—I’m not leaving your side.” When Andy has to sit out in gym class because any hard hits could cause him to bleed internally, God sits next to him and says, “That’s okay, they never let me play, either.” And no matter what happens to Andy, God will be there with him, walking with him, caring for him, as God does with all of us who love Andy dearly. That is where God is in suffering and pain–right there with it.
*Name changed to respect privacy.