Sunday, April 30, 2017

Sermon for Easter 3: "The Gift of Presence"

based on Luke 24:13-35

            There are hymns that I associate with particular moments, for one reason or another. 
            When I hear “Children of the Heavenly Father”, I think of my Swedish grandparents, and singing it in Swedish to my grandmother on the phone. 
            When I think of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” I think of my dad’s funeral.  It was the closing hymn. 
            And when I think of the hymn, ‘It is Well with my Soul”, I think of a particular Sunday morning. 
            We had chosen it for the hymn of the day that day.  I don’t remember why. 
            It’s a hymn I never knew growing up, but it was requested for funerals, and so I got to know it, and especially loved that chorus, “it is well, it is well with my soul.”

            This particular Sunday while we were singing, I couldn’t help noticing a woman in the front row. 
            She was weeping.  At one point in the hymn I went down to stand alongside here. 
            Another person put their arm around her as well.  I remember people surrounding her while she wept during the singing of that hymn.

            This woman, I learned, had just returned from a trip to Phoenix.  She attended the funeral of her niece.  Her niece had been murdered by her boyfriend. 
            And they had sung this hymn at the funeral.

            I can’t imagine any time you would feel less like “it is well with my soul’, and yet she found some comfort in the words of this hymn, at this dark time in her life.

            So here we are, on the third Sunday of Easter – and we have this story.
            .that takes place on Easter Day.. probably in the afternoon, after the resurrection, but before most people believed or even knew it had happened. 
            And we have these two disciples – they aren’t well –known, but they must have been part of the inner circle – and these two disciples are leaving Jerusalem, and walking to Emmaus
            – and it is not well with their souls. 
            They are defeated.  They are hopeless. 
            Perhaps they are even yet terrified – having seen their friend die by crucifixion.

            It’s Easter, but they don’t know it. 
            And while they are walking and talking together and sharing their sorrows, Jesus comes and walks with them. 
            But they don’t know that either.

            I imagine that there’s something comforting for them in just being together. 
            When everything you knew or believed – just falls apart – having someone to walk and talk with – is something. 
            It’s presence, and it’s a gift. 
            Someone who shares your sorrows, shares your hopes.  But there was this other presence walking and talking with them too. 
            And they didn’t recognize him.

            It seems incredible, doesn’t it? 
            That they wouldn’t recognize their good friend, Jesus. 
            And, if you read and imagine the scene, it seems almost – funny – I mean, think about it. 
            Jesus approaches them and asks them what they are talking about.          They can’t believe that there is anyone in Jerusalem who doesn’t know what Just happened this past weekend. 
            But here’s the ONE GUY who doesn’t (they think). 
            And he proves it to them by asking this question, “What things?”  Seemingly innocent question.

            It’s Easter, and they don’t know it. 
            I mean, some women told them what THEY saw, but apparently they don’t believe the women. 
            So there are these rumors floating around,
            But they are on the way to Emmaus – and the risen Jesus – the one they don’t believe in – is right there with them.. 
            And they don’t recognize him.

            And there is this little detail – not just that they don’t recognize him, but that “they were prevented from recognizing him.”
             And I can’t help thinking that maybe this affliction they had – this affliction of the eyes – although it was bad for them – that it turns out to be good for us.  It is a promise for us.

            Because what it means is that it’s entirely possible – and it is even promised –
             that Jesus is with us – that Jesus is walking with us – that Jesus is in our lives, and working in our lives – even and especially when we don’t recognize him. 

            Maybe he’ll break the bread – and for a moment we’ll have a flash – and there will be this sudden realization. 
            He’s here.
            He’s alive and he’s here and he’s working in this world.
            Maybe we’ll catch a glimpse at another time instead – when we are at worship and we see comforters surround a grieving woman –
            -- and we see that he’s here
            -- or maybe it’s  when we are in a circle with a homeless family getting ready to eat and the youngest child shares the table grace – “God we thank you/God we thank you/ for our food/for our food/ and our many blessings/and our many blessings/Amen/Amen.” 
            And you learned a new prayer.
            Or maybe it was something you saw in the newspaper –
            Or maybe it was a moment of unlikely forgiveness
            And you think:  That’s got to be Jesus – doesn’t it?

            Maybe for a moment you’ll even wonder if it’s you
            – if it’s you who are the hands and the feet and the eyes of Jesus, when you go out from here.
             Because you know, he is risen and he is alive and he is here, but he is often unrecognized. 
            Maybe – at least sometimes – it’s you.

            Their eyes were prevented from recognizing him, but he was with them all the time. 
            And he was teaching them new things, and he was working through them, and he was making them new.
            That’s the promise.
            The gift of presence.  Jesus’ presence. 
            Look around you. 
            Look around you at the people in this congregation. 
            We are the presence of Jesus for one another.  And it’s important that there are all ages, all sizes, more than one perspective – here.          That’s one of the ways that God is renewing us, teaching us.
             It might be a child’s voice, which we suddenly realize is the voice of Jesus. 
            It might be the hands of one of the grandparents, that we glimpse for a moment as the hands of Jesus. 

            It’s important I think to try to see, to try to recognize his presence.           Maybe we can cultivate it – and learn even to point it out to each other. 
            Sort of like when we think we see a Northern Mockingbird out in the birdbath at the church. 
            Was that what it was?  What do you think? 
            “God-sightings.”  Point them out and ask each other- - what do you think – did you see Jesus there? 
            -- did you see Jesus when all of the children put the flowers in the cross on Easter? 
            Did you see Jesus in the homeless families who stayed with us last week?
            Or maybe in all of the people who brought food, and sat down to eat together?

            But it’s even more important to trust that – even when you don’t see God at all – even when you don’t recognize him
            – Even when it is the worst possible time, and your heart is breaking and everything is falling apart –
            -when it is not Easter and it is not well with your soul and it seems like it will never be will with your soul again-- that even then he is walking with you. 

            He is here.  He is risen.
            He is working in the world.  And in you.  And me.
Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Remembering after Five Years

I got a phone call yesterday.  I didn't recognize the number, but the area code was from the Minneapolis area.  I picked up the call and heard a voice I didn't recognize call me "Pastor Roth."

It was a warm voice.  He asked me if I had remembered his mother and his brother.  I remembered them both.  I remembered his mother, a tiny woman who used to sit in the back row of our small Saturday night chapel service.  I remember visiting her in the hospital a couple of times, and reminiscing with her and her family about the "old days" when her boys were in our church's release time and confirmation program.  (For some reason, I remember a story about her bringing a casserole to a Wednesday night dinner and dropping the whole thing in the church parking lot.)

I had a small memorial service for his mother several years ago.

I remembered his brother too.  I remembered how he called me a couple of years after his mother's funeral, and asked if I remembered him.  He told me he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  He had no current church affiliation, but would I visit him and talk with him, and give him communion?  I did.  I visited with him several times, talking about life and faith, the joys and regrets of his life.

I had a small memorial service for him a few years ago.  It was 2012.

The man with the warm voice called to tell me that his father was in hospice, had just entered hospice that day.  He did not know that I now live in another state, that I have lived here now for almost two years.  I gave him the number of the church and the current pastor.  He seemed to remember that his dad had a lay visitor, someone who came from the church to visit with his dad and give him communion.  I was glad about that.  I remembered helping to set that up.

A little while after I hung up, I thought a little more about our brief conversation.  I thought about how the brother's funeral was in 2012.  It is now 2017.  This brother still has my cell phone number, after five years.  And after five years, he called me up to tell me that his father is dying.

Now the lesson of this conversation might just be that I ought to get a new cell phone number.  And that may be so.  But I can't help thinking about the fact that the only way this man knew me was because of two funerals, and a couple of hospital visits.  Yet, after five years, he called me up to let me know about his father.  Perhaps I am the only pastor he knows.  Perhaps those small actions, the words, the prayers, the presence -- meant something.

They say that the church is in decline.  It surely is.  They also say that faith is in decline.  I believe that is true as well.  But there are sparks, small signs, or openings, times when people feel brave enough to call someone they haven't spoken to in five years, and tell her that their father is dying.  They want someone to say the words, to walk with them, to tell them that there is more to life than what they see, to help them through the mysteries of life and death.  They think they want a pastor.  But what they really need is the church.  What they really need is the body of Christ, a sign of the resurrection.

As a pastor, I always feel privileged to be able to say that I remember.  I remember your brother.  I remember your mother.  I remember your father too.   Maybe that is part of my job.  Maybe that is why someone will dare to call me after five years:  they hope that I will remember.

But it is not just my job.  It is the church's job, as well, to remember.  It is the church's job to remember, to say the words, to walk with people, to tell them that there is more to life than what they see.  We are the body of Christ.  Signs of the resurrection.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Holy Week

There are just a few things I want to remember, from Holy Week this year.

I want to remember how windy it was, while we were standing outside, waiting to go in on Palm Sunday.  I want to remember how everyone sang and waved their palms.  I want to remember how it struck me that we looked bigger in number than we were, simply because we were standing there waving our palms.  I want to remember the children who were sitting in the front during the message.  I want to remember them saying "yes" when I asked the question, "Did Jesus forgive you?"  I want to remember how several adults put their hand out to receive a bit of oil, to remember Jesus' healing ministry.   I want to remember how everyone got into the action and shouted out, "Hosanna! Blessed are you King Jesus!"

Then, suddenly, it was Thursday.  It was Thursday evening.  It was the night that Jesus' was betrayed.

There was a bowl, and a towel, and a pitcher.  I had asked a couple of children if it would be okay to wash their feet, as part of the sermon.  They said yes.

In the middle of the sermon, I walked down, and invited them up.  Two tiny children.  They took a turn sitting in the chair.  Their feet did not touch the ground.  They agreed to have their feet washed.  I lifted the bowl up and poured a little water from the pitcher on their feet, and then dried them.

And then, I asked if anyone else would let me wash their feet.  Another little girl scampered up.

I want to remember that.

After communion, during the stripping of the altar we heard the mournful beauty of the guitar, playing along to suffering and betrayal.

Too soon it was Friday evening.  It was a simple service, simpler than I have done before.  A short meditation, music, and nine readers from my congregation.  Nine voices telling the sorrowful story.  Everyone told it in their own voice.  Everyone's voice was strong.  A soloist sings Mary's sorrow.

I want to remember that.

Someone said that this simple service was the most moving Good Friday he had attended.  Other people said they were honored to be asked to play a part.

On Sunday we heard many kinds of Alleluias.  But what I want to remember on Sunday is the children, and how they put the flowers on the cross.  There is always chaos.  It always takes longer than I think it will.

Holy Week.  It belongs to all of us.  The children with their flowers, the soloists, the choir, the readers, the prayers, and all the rest of us.  His resurrected life is in our lives, our feet, our hands, our voices.

I want to remember that.

Friday, April 7, 2017

A Day

It is a beautiful day here.  Everyone says so.  On my local Christian radio station, they are singing the praises of this day, with its mild temperatures, blue skies and low humidity.  It is a day to take long walks with your dog, to take your coffee or your iced tea and sit outside, to revel in it.  Really beautiful days are rare.  This seems to be the case almost everywhere, although I have only lived in a few places.

Meanwhile, across the world, in Syria, a civil war rages.  I don't claim to understand everything about this, except that it is not beautiful.  There is so much horror and pain and people are fleeing but finding nowhere to go.  Just this week there was a chemical attack in Syria, across the world, and last night the United States sent Tomahawk missiles in retaliation.

When I was a teenager, it was popular to predict the imminent demise of the world.  All of the signs pointed to it.  Some people seemed to look forward to it.  But I didn't.  I just didn't understand that desire.  I loved the world.  I looked outside and saw it was a beautiful day.  I wanted a chance to grow up and have children and write books and see the world, or some parts of it, anyway.  I loved Jesus but I did not want him to come back, at least not right now.

Today, though, as I feel the sun on my face, I understand, a little.  I still love the world.  It is a beautiful day.  I love the parts of it that I have seen:  the Canadian Rockies, the streets of Paris, Mount Fuji and Galveston and Minnehaha Falls.  I love the faces of the children in my congregation and our school, and how they all want to pray for their dogs and their cats,  their dads and their moms.  I love the people at the assisted living center, especially the woman who told me that on the song, "Love Lifted Me" I could replace the word Love with God because God is love.  I love the world, but I feel the weight of all of the misery in it, too, and I want Jesus to come back and heal us, because I just don't believe we will ever figure it out.

I still want to make it better.  I think we need to do things to make it better, even if I don't know if they will help much, or at all.  Maybe bombing will help.  Maybe it won't.  I would take in a refugee family tomorrow.

Meanwhile, it is a beautiful day, and I still love the world.  And at the same time, I catch myself in a one-word prayer.


Come, Lord Jesus.

Save us.

"Hosanna!"  It is the shout of Palm Sunday.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Close Encounters with Jesus: Lazarus (and his family)

Sermon for Lent 5, Year A
John 11:1-45

            “Do you believe this?”

            This is the heart of it, isn’t it?  Everything that comes before, and everything that comes after leads directly into this central question, the one Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?”   
             Jesus has finally come to Bethany, finally, four days late for the funeral, even though Lazarus is his friend, and even though Mary and Martha beg him to come.
             Jesus has finally come to Bethany, has come to Mary  and Martha, and Martha comes to Jesus with this statement of faith, or doubt, or grief, or all three:  “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 
            And it is hard not to read many many things into this sentence.  Real things.  We can read her faith and her hope.  “You are so full of love, and you have so much compassion and power, I know that if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
             But also, can you possibly  hear some grief, and a question of her own.?  “If you had only been here… but you weren’t here, Jesus.  Why weren’t you here?  Why didn’t you come?” 

            There is so much reality wrapped in this simple statement, in the middle of a story that – let’s face it – has so much that is strange about it.             The late scene, the one on the other side, could be from a horror movie – with Lazarus coming out of the tomb, still bound in graveclothes. 
            How spooky is that? 
            But Martha’s words could be our words.  “If you had been here…..”  All of our whys are wrapped up in Martha’s words. 
            There is the why of the woman whose husband has died from cancer.  There is the why of the children who saw their mother fade away with Alzheimers. 
            There is the why of the husband whose wife died during heart surgery, leaving him alone with two small children. 
            You have so many more whys of your own.  And all of our whys start with faith:  we know you are loving and gracious and powerful, Jesus.  Why weren’t you here this time?

            And Jesus replies to Martha’s statement with these words, “I am the resurrection and the life.   
            Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
             This statement --- and a question, and I think the question is as important as the statement.  “Do you believe this?”

            Do you?

            It’s the question to Martha, and to the people gathered with her, and to you and me, too.

            I recently learned that this particular Gospel reading was one of those used when preparing new Christians for their baptism and confession of faith.
             In fact, all of the gospel readings we have heard during Lent – Jesus’ close encounters with Nicodemus – the woman at the well – with the man born blind – and with Lazarus and his sisters – all of them were part of the preparation of new Christians for baptism. 
            And so I was struck by this question – “Do you believe this?”  -- a question I suppose each and every candidate for baptism was asked. 

            Do you believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life?
             Do you believe that those who believe in him, even though they die, will live?  Do you believe that he is the light of the World, the living water, the Word made flesh? 
            Do you believe, even though you see evil in the world, even though there is danger, even though there is grieving and pain, do you believe that God’s love is stronger, that Jesus is working among us and in us and in the world?

            Do you? 

            Martha said yes.

            And so they went to the tomb, where Jesus wept, and where the people marveled.  “See how he loved him!”  And then Jesus said, Roll away the stone.

            Wait a minute, Martha said (the one who said that she believed).  “Are you sure you know what you are doing?  He’s been dead four days, after all.”  

            It is so with us.
             We believe that Jesus will raise us to new life – but later.
             Not right now. 
            But Jesus says that resurrection life starts now, in the world, with us.  They roll away the stone and Lazarus comes out, still bound up, but walking and living.

            And here is where Jesus says something interesting.
             He tells the people gathered, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  He tells them that they have something to do with Lazarus’ new life, with his resurrection life.
             They can help him to live right now. 
            They can help him off with his graveclothes, and on with the new life he has been given.

            It’s still that way.
             It’s why we like to have baptisms in church, where we can promise to support the person baptized, whether they are 4 or 40 or 80.  We want to be there to say – we will help you to live this new life you have been given. 
            In fact, you can’t do it alone.  None of us can. 
            We are here to help each other stay faithful, to pick each other up when we fall, to set each other free when we are bound in sin, to remind each other who we are, and the great mission God has given us.  
            We are here to comfort each other when the world gets too heavy, and to show each other the truth when it is so hard to see.

            Jesus is the resurrection, and the life right now.  He is making all things new.  Those he believe in him, even though they die, yet they will live.  Do you believe this?
            I remember one Sunday morning when I had to announce the death of a young man from my congregation.
             He had battled cancer for many years.
             I remember where he and his wife sat, every week, at our traditional service. 
            They were quiet people, but she loved to sing, and they attended a couple’s group. 
            When I announced his death, I thought I heard sighs too deep for words.

            Afterwards, I saw people from the community surround his wife, bearing her up, encouraging her. 
            This is what a congregation is for, I thought.
             We gather to remind each other of the truth, because we can’t always see it.  We gather to remind each other of the love that never ends. 
            We gather together to release each other from the power of death in our lives.

            Do you believe this?

            Jesus’ power over death was and is real.
             He is the resurrection and the life.  The raising of Lazarus tells us that.
             Like those who came out to console Martha and Mary, we care for each other, and remind each other of the promise – that Jesus will bring us out of death into new life – not just at the end of time, but now, and every day.  
            We are the people who take  the graveclothes from the dead and offer them the baptismal garments of their new life. 
            That’s what we do for one another.  That’s what our congregation is for

            Do you believe this?