It’s Hard

We are a people of hope. Our God is not silent, and neither are we.

This post originally appeared as an article in Faith’s Foundations, the monthly newsletter of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

It’s hard. I know it is.

It’s hard to experience what we all experienced these past couple of months and still remember that we worship a God who is Sovereign and Lord.

We watched in horror as 49 people were killed and 53 more were wounded in a shooting spree at a gay night club. We couldn’t believe our eyes when two black men were shot to death by police, one with no real motive at all. We cried in sorrow and in fear when five brave police officers were assassinated in the line of duty during a peaceful protest, and again when three more were killed just a few days later. We kept a tight grip on our seats as bombs continued to go off in France and the middle east, including more than one that killed over 80 people, and one wounded over 300 more. And we sat in shocked silence when we heard that a priest had been stabbed and had this throat slit during morning Mass in France, which brought up comparisons to the murder of Archbishop Óscar Romero.

I also know it’s been hard to hear me preach on these events. Oftentimes I think we wish preaching in church could be all about love and happy things, how great God is, how wonderful it is to be a Christian, and all that.

The past few months have been a stark reminder that we live in a broken world in which, for some, God feels so very far away. It’s important to know that. It’s important to acknowledge that. It’s important to wrestle with that like the psalmists do, who ask God, “Why do you sleep, O LORD? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (Psalm 44), and “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalm 13). Not everyone’s experiences are the same, and we do injustice when we filter or judge another’s story or experiences through our own to determine their validity.

And yet, we are a people who are bound by something else. A few weeks ago I presided over a funeral for a woman who died suddenly and without warning. I sat with the family in their numbness and shock, trying to figure out what they needed to do next and how they were going to move forward. And then we read from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

This is what makes the Christian life livable, even in the face of national tragedy, international terror, martyrdom, and sudden loss. This is why those same psalmists who cried out to God in lament could end their psalms, “Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love,” and “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” This is why we as children of God can confront the evils we see and experience in the world around us. We have the courage to both wade into the pain of people suffering—including ourselves—and bring not a message of woe, but a message of hope. That God is present during our sufferings. That God hid with the hostages in Orlando, and was there to care for the wounds of Alton and Philando, and held the officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge in God’s arms after they were shot, and dug through the rubble after the bombings across the world, and wept as Father Jacques Hamel took his last breath.

We are a people of hope. Our God is not silent, and neither are we. In this newsletter you’ll find letters from the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You’ve heard me mention her many times over the past few months, and there’s a reason for that. I want you to know something else about us as Christians: that we never face life’s trials alone. We are part of a wider community than just our congregation. We part of a regional synod and a national church. We are part of a global tradition of Lutherans and a community of saints that extends into the past and will live on in the future. When the world groans in pain we groan with it, together. When tragedy strikes, we respond together. When any one of us is in need we act out of love together.

And when it seems like we can’t go on, when the weight of the world crushes down on us, we lift each other up together.

It’s hard. I know it is. But we will face the evils in our world together, and together, the message of hope will be shared for and through us.

The letters and messages from the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, can be found here.

Featured Image: “Mystic Still Life – Tribute to Fr Jacques Hamel” by Daniel Arrhakis is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Reign of God

“The reality of the reign of God coming near has always been difficult to comprehend because we understand it as a “already/not yet” reality. The reign of God has absolutely come near, and it’s effects are felt in the present. But it hasn’t yet been fully realized–there is still more to come. We’ve only gotten a taste of it.”

I am fond of Jesus’s first preached words in his ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15 NRSV). It’s the heart of Jesus’s message, and through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus demonstrates that the reign of God has truly come near.

The reality of the reign of God coming near has always been difficult to comprehend because we understand it as a “already/not yet” reality. The reign of God has absolutely come near, and it’s effects are felt in the present. But it hasn’t yet been fully realized–there is still more to come. We’ve only gotten a taste of it.

Pastor Katherine Finegan, in her article for my synod’s newsletter, gave me the perfect way to describe the reign of God: Spring in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.

According to astronomical/solar reckoning, the Spring Equinox (March 19-21, depending on the year) is, in many northern-hemisphere cultures, the start of the Spring season. In some cultures, it is the mid-point of spring (which makes more sense to me). Either way, at the Equinox, Spring, the season of new life, of growing plants, flowers, and warming weather, is definitely here.

On the other hand, even as I look out my window today, there is still a tiny bit of snowdrift left from last week’s snow. Yes, up here, it frequently snows in late April. There isn’t a lot of green yet. The temperatures only just got out of the freezing range. The calendar said it was Spring–and it was. But the ground, the air, the water, it all said that we were stuck in winter. It was, in a sense, “already/not yet” Spring.

Oh, there were signs–now that the snow is nearly entirely gone, even in the shade, the grass has gotten greener. It’s been in the 50s and 60s this week. But, it was easy to look at the snowy April ground and believe that Spring had missed the memo and forgotten to arrive. But it was here. Under the snow, things were starting to stir. Warmer air was blowing in. The presence of Spring was being made known even as Winter clung to the ground.

So it is with the reign of God. It is here. It has come near. But it doesn’t always look like it.  Take a cursory glance at our nation’s news for the past couple weeks and you’ll definitely feel like the reign of God is nowhere to be found.

But it is here. The reign of God has certainly come near. It is already here, but not yet fully visible. Even in the snow, flowers grow, when Spring has made its mark.

Featured Image: “SnowFlowers-3” by nelgdev is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sermon–March2, 2014–Transfiguration A

Transfiguration of Our Lord A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

In January of 2013, I and a group from Trinity Lutheran Seminary traveled to Israel and Palestine to spend a couple weeks touring the countries, seeing as many tourist and holy sites as we could, and also spending some time learning about the deep conflicts that happen there.

We had the joy of visiting a TON of archaeological and religious sites. Of course, wherever an important (or even semi-important) event occurred, somebody built a church. At various points in history, Christendom ruled the holy land, and they built church after church on these sites.

Many of the sites we visited were the very places in which Jesus walked, talked, and preached. We visited the Mount of Beatitudes, where the words we heard preached the last few weeks were spoken. We saw what is believed to be Simon Peter’s house in Capernaum. We walked Nazareth and Cana, Jesus’s hometown and the place where the Gospel of John records his first miracle.

We saw the house in which Mary lived, where she heard the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she was to be “theotokos”, the “Mother of God”. We sailed on the Sea of Galilee. We stood in the place where Jesus fed the 5000. We dipped our feet in the water in which Jesus was baptized. We even visited Mt. Tabor, where the transfiguration was to have taken place.

These are just some of the sites we visited on our trip. Ask me about them some time—I have over 850 photos all tagged and organized from the trip. It is one thing to hear these stories read on Sunday morning and to try to imagine what it looked like. It is another thing entirely to actually visit the places. I know what it looked like now. I have those pictures frozen in my memory. I can’t hear the stories the same way anymore.

And yet, as I walked through the many cathedrals, shrines, and national parks, and while I was immersed in wave after wave of history, it began to occur to me that that’s all it was—history. Everything we saw was an attempt to carefully preserve the past. God had been made known in these places, and we clung to that experience, never letting go.

At Mt. Tabor, the mount of the transfiguration, I couldn’t help but laugh at our own silliness. If you recall from the story, when Peter sees Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus, his first instinct is to build some booths, some dwellings, for everyone to stay in. He wants to keep this experience on the mountaintop and preserve it. He wants to memorialize and remember it.

Well, God steps in, interrupts him, and gives some different instructions. When Mark’s Gospel tells this story, Peter is even chastised for his idea. Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t go quite that far, but the point is, Peter’s first reaction is preserve the event. He has just experienced God in a way he’s never done so before. He has had an encounter with the Almighty that he knows will never happen again.

Bravo to Peter for recognizing, in this extraordinary moment, that God is breaking into the mundane around him. But the disciples, Peter included, aren’t always known for their ability to grasp the finer points of their walk with Jesus. For them, the transfiguration event is something that draws them in, that pulls them up away from the world into the realm of God. Is this God’s intent?

Jumping back to our visit to Mt. Tabor for a moment: Like most other sites, there is a massive cathedral built on the location to, you guessed it, memorialize and preserve the occasion. The best part is that there are two side chapels—one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Exactly what God told Peter not to do.

We just can’t help it, can we? We are just like Peter. I mean, this is our instinct. We know that things don’t always last, so we need to quickly find ways to preserve the memory. When we have these encounters with God, our natural response is to put that experience in a box and store it. We want to hold on to God, especially when the experience is profound, deep, and meaningful. It doesn’t get much more profound than God appearing in a fiery cloud with a booming voice. These past few weeks have been full of ways in which God is made known, but this one tops them all.

Today, the church season of Epiphany comes to a close. For the past few weeks, we’ve heard stories of these amazing encounters with God.

It starts with day of Epiphany itself, the day on which we celebrate the wise men from the East coming to visit the toddler Jesus at his house. They recognize in Jesus that something important is happening—a new reality is upon them.

Then we hear the story of Jesus’s baptism by John, in which the heavens are opened up and the spirit descends on Jesus like a dove and a voice from heaven declares: “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (hold that thought).

We move into Jesus’s ministry, hearing his first prophetic words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”, and listening as the call to his first disciples is extended to us as well: “Follow me.”

For the last few weeks, we’ve heard parts of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, one of his most famous blocks of teaching, which radically altered the interpretation of God’s intent for humanity.

And finally, we come to today, the Transfiguration, in which everything about the season comes together in this moment of glory. Can any other encounter with God be as awe-inspiring as this? Christ literally glows as he reflects a taste of the coming glory of God. The scene is eerily reminiscent of Moses speaking with God in the cloud on top of Mount Hebron, after which his face literally glowed (actually, I think the similarities are absolutely intentional).

In the transfiguration, Jesus shows himself to be the place at which heaven and earth intersect, where God and humanity come together. We get to see both the awesome, awe-inspiring, mighty God of legend, whose voice shakes the earth and whose presence lights up the sky; and we get to see God incarnate in a lowly human being, the gentle, loving God, who, with a gentle touch on the shoulder, causes fear and doubt to vanish into thin air.

I suggested a few minutes ago that, for all of its attractiveness and awesomeness, the purpose of the transfiguration was not to draw the disciples in and keep them there. No, God tells the disciples, “Listen to him!” This is no ordinary listening—Jesus didn’t just say nice things, he called people to action. The disciples—and we—need to be send out, because if they never leave the mountain, if they never open their little boxes of glory and let out the reality that is the transfiguration, the meeting of God and humankind, then what good is it?

What good are we as disciples if we never leave our mountaintop? How is the good news good if it is neither spoken nor heard by others? How does God coming to us in Jesus Christ matter if only three other people know it?

We come to worship to meet Jesus, for our own little transfigurations. We come to where God most assuredly comes and finds us, in the hearing of the Word, in the waters of Baptism, and in the breaking of bread. We know this to be true.

When Christ was baptized by John, a voice from heaven said, “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Those same words are spoken to us in our own baptisms. We are adopted as daughters and sons of God, we are God’s beloved. Even before we know how to respond to God, God is pleased with us.

When we were baptized, we encountered God coming to us and claiming us. When we gather for worship, we encounter God coming to us through Word and Sacrament. When we come to the table to be fed with the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, we encounter God coming to us in the most mundane of form, bread, wine, the body. This is our good news, and our gift to share.

So come: come to the table and be transfigured.