Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Like a Net


Preached for the 50th Anniversary Celebration with Advent, Charlotte - February 10, 2019.


They were in the fish business and Jesus called them to the people business. Apparently, fishing was a transferrable skill. If you could catch fish, you could catch people. It was all about the catching. 


Now, through the centuries, this has been a classic text for evangelism. Christians point to Luke 5 and say, “Just like Peter, James and John, we’re all called to fish for people.”


But that’s meant different things in different contexts. We live in a very different culture today than the twelve who followed Jesus or the first Christians who heard these words. In the United States we Christians are not in the minority, and we’re not being persecuted for our faith. We also have a global awareness that tells us there are other paths to God that make as much sense to their adherents as Christianity does to us. We have an awareness that, for the most part, religion is a product of our birth. So, within our context, what does it mean for us to catch people? 


For a long time, the whole idea of fishing for people got my hackles up. I thought of those who evangelized and kept track of the souls they saved like people who were competing for first prize in a fishing derby. I found this so offensive that I couldn’t bring myself to participate. If that’s what it means to catch people, count me out. But, as I’ve gone back to this text, I’ve been energized by one word in particular: net


Fishermen like Peter, James and John didn’t fish with a pole. They didn’t lure fish with bait, one at a time, until each fish got caught on a hook and they reeled it in. It would have been hard to make a living like that. They fished with a net. They put the net down into the water and waited for the fish. They didn’t really catch the fish with the net so much as the fish got caught in the net. 


That kind of catching people makes sense to me because that’s the way it worked for me. Some of you may recall that I didn’t grow up in a church family. It just wasn’t a part of my life. But there was always this net in my life. It was made up of the neighbors who took me to Sunday school with them when I was little, the girlfriends who invited me to tag along to confirmation classes at the Lutheran Church, the high school friend who talked about Jesus all the time as if he were her best friend, the roommate in college who said her prayers every night, went to church on Sundays, and was gentle and loving with everyone she encountered. The group gathered at the pond, baptizing a young woman, just outside my room at the dorm. The Christians singing hymns under a shelter at the park while I was taking a walk. The students engaged in a discussion about the Bible at the table next to mine while I was trying to study at the student union. (They had no idea I was eavesdropping.) The young man I came to care for deeply, before I learned that he was a Pentecostal Christian. The net was wide and I got caught in it. 


That’s the way it worked for me, and I suspect that that’s the way it works for most people. There’s a net in our lives. It may include our parents or grandparents, our Sunday school teachers, our friends, the stranger who offers a random act of kindness, an author who speaks to your soul, the person who stands on the corner asking for help with a cardboard sign in his hand that reads, “God bless.” 


The net may be invisible to you, but when you open your eyes to it, you see it everywhere, telling you that God is here, that God loves you, and that life in the net is life in all its fullness. And the net calls you to become a part of the net yourself, so that you too are a part of telling others that God is here, that God loves you, and that life in the net is life in all its fullness. 


That means that it matters how we live in the world. In our day, it seems that those of us who call ourselves Christians often do more to repel people than catch them. 


Once a day I skim through my twitter feed to see what folks are saying, and with each passing day I’m more and more troubled by the things Christians are releasing into the universe that are not at all Christ-like. In our super-charged political atmosphere, it’s a challenge to disagree while still loving one another. Instead, I see Christians attacking one another, cursing, and pronouncing eternal damnation upon anyone who disagrees with them. That’s not how to catch people. It’s not what the Reign of God is about. The Reign of God is like a net. 


And then, once you become a part of God’s people, the church, you learn something deeper about becoming a part of the net. Its purpose is for catching, to be sure. But catching is not about trapping someone or holding them captive. This net operates much like the net you see under a tightrope act at the circus. The net is here to catch us when we fall. 


I’ve experienced that many times in my life, but at no time more clearly than when I came to be your pastor at Advent over 20 years ago. When I arrived, I was a mess. 


I had been married for 20 years to another pastor who, it turned out, slept with other women who happened to be members of the church we pastored together. Although the last thing I wanted to ever be was divorced, I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. 


And then, while I was an emotional disaster, and in no position to make major life decisions, I became involved with an old high school flame, and I married him, only to discover that he was already married to someone else. 


You only knew an inkling of what I was going through when I came to you, but I really was in no condition to be your pastor. I wanted to start my life over, but that didn’t happen automatically when I left Ohio and moved to North Carolina. I left behind a church I loved, my dearest friends in the world, my entire support system, even my son, who had one more year of high school. I left it all behind and moved to a place where I was absolutely alone. 


For the first couple of years that I served you, at the end of every day when I got in the car, I cried the whole way home it continued through the night. You had no way of knowing, and I was too ashamed to tell you.


What I experienced at Advent was a net that was waiting to catch me. Every day and at every turn, I heard God telling me, “I’m here. You’ll be okay, You’ll get past this, You are loved, Nancy.” I heard it through you. In your words, in your actions, in faithful lives that taught me that the Reign of God is like a net. Thank you for being my net at a time when I needed it the most. I can say with all certainty that I would not be here without you. 


I know I’m not the only one. Through the years, Advent has caught many people in their net through your ministries in the community and world, through the people who have passed through your doors, through those who have gone on from this place to be a part of other nets on other shores. 


I’m honored to have been among you for a short time, and I’m deeply honored to be with you as you celebrate 50 years of ministry here at Advent. Your net has been strong. 


May you continue to catch people and show them that the Reign of God is like a net. 



Friday, January 11, 2019

Speaking of Circumcision, or How Garrison Keillor Stole My Joke

This week during confirmation class we got into the topic of circumcision. It’s always fun to break this news to a room filled with unsuspecting 7th and 8th graders. This year’s class did not disappoint me. Their faces revealed shock, disgust, disbelief, and, of course, embarrassment to hear their pastor speaking so matter-of-factly about something so grizzly happening the male penis. Yes, it’s always a special moment.

And it took me back to an episode from my life that I had forgotten about. I may not be getting all the details correct, because it was so long ago, but this is the way I remember it…

In one of my previous lives I was quite involved in Christian Education events for my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We were having a regional conference of some sort for educators. I was involved in the planning and all the educator-types from Chicago and Minneapolis were on the scene, as well. For some reason, I either offered or was offered up, I had responsibility for our entertainment one evening and ended up moderating a “Hollywood Squares” game with silly questions that only Christian Educators would appreciate.

One of the better questions I asked was, “What is the one question confirmation instructors are asked that they fear the most?” The answer, of course, was, “What is circumcision?”

It was a cute moment and I might have moved on to the next question, but I saw an opening for a big moment and I went for it.

“You know, I've been reading a lot about whales lately, and do you know how long the male appendage of a blue whale is?” This was before smart-phones, so no one knew the answer.

“Ten feet!" I announced with all the amazement in my voice I could muster. "The male appendage on a blue whale is ten feet long!” Reading the faces of my audience, I could tell that they were more puzzled than impressed. Why is this woman talking about whale penises at a big church event? I suspect they were a little worried about what I was going to say next.

“…so do you know how they circumcise a blue whale?” And now no one in the audience seemed to be breathing… “Well, it takes four skin-divers.”

The room expoded in laughter. They went nuts. Yes, it was a BIG moment.

Fast-forward about a year. I’m driving in my car listening to Garrison Keillor’s annual joke show on “A Prairie Home Companion.” It’s nothing but non-stop, rapid-fire jokes.

And then I heard it. Garrison Keillor says, “Do you know how they circumcise a blue whale?” and the punch line follows, “It takes four skin-divers.”

I nearly drove off the road. “He stole my joke! He stole my joke!” I’m yelling and pounding on the steering wheel.

Obviously, someone from that conference retold my joke and it made its way to “The Prairie Home Companion.” Garrison Keillor may not have known it was my joke, but he stole my joke. Without the lead-in, it wasn’t nearly as funny, but he most definitely stole my freaking joke!

I guess when you release a circumcision joke into the universe, it belongs to the universe.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Santa Claus Conspiracy


Tis the season of Santa Claus. Who doesn’t love to hear the man with the white beard, all decked out in a red suit, laughing, “Ho-ho-ho!”?


Despite the fact that the Santa narrative often overshadows Jesus’ birth narrative, the jolly old elf is so much fun that most Christians are hard-pressed to do away with him. (Christian cultures all around the world have some kind of a Santa figure.) So, we tell our children dueling dual stories and figure that, eventually, they’ll figure out the real meaning of Christmas for themselves. 


Before I proceed, please know that I’m not one of those religious types who are down on Santa Claus. You know, the ones who won’t allow Santa Claus to have any part in their Christmas celebration. These are the same kind of people who insist that Halloween is akin to devil worship. Nope, I’m not one of them. Santa Claus is okay in my book. So is Peter Cottontail. And the Tooth Fairy. I would never deny children the fun these colorful characters bring. But… 


I also would never be a part of the adult conspiracy that passes these fictional characters off to children as real. It’s deceptive. It’s wrong. And it’s damaging to the faith of children.


Adults often go to great lengths to make sure their children believe in Santa Claus. Should a child dare to question the logic of it all, the adult will resort to piling the bullshit on even deeper. All this seems to come from some perverse need to protect the child from the harsh reality of a world without mythical characters who see everything you do and keep track of it all so you can be rewarded or punished for your deeds. 

Just think about that for a moment. Does it not teach a twisted world-view to children? At best, it’s bribery. At its worse, it teaches children that love is, in fact, quite conditional and, whether or not you receive cool stuff, all depends upon how good you are. (You might also want to consider the implications this way of thinking has for children of poverty.) In recent years, many have added the creepy Elf on the Shelf to the myth, and the deception has only multiplied.  


What may seem like harmless play to adults is not so harmless from a child’s perspective. I remember well the angst I went through as a child when I started detecting holes in the Santa Claus story. It just didn’t make sense that a guy could carry enough presents on his sleigh to bring presents to all the kids in the world. The number of presents under my family’s Christmas tree alone would fill one very large sleigh. And how could he possibly deliver all those presents to everyone in the entire world in one night? I wasn’t very old when I realized that it was a preposterous premise. 


This happened to be right around the time my father died, and it created a real crisis of faith for me. I remember feeling deceived by adults. I had no idea what a conspiracy was, but that’s clearly what was going on. I felt betrayed by people I thought I could trust. They were all in on it together, and I wondered what else they had lied to me about. 


Perhaps God, too, was something adults made up to get us kids to be good. After all, grown-ups seemed to go to similar lengths to convince children that their far-fetched stories about God were true. And then there were the threats that if I dared question the existence of Santa, I wouldn’t get any presents on Christmas morning, so I’d better play along and keep my doubts to myself. Yes, the God stories seemed to follow the same pattern. 


When my kids were born, I vowed that I would never lie to them, especially about matters of faith. (Yes, to a child, for the above reasons, the existence of the Santa Claus is a matter of faith.) So, I was always up front with them about Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. 


From the get-go, I told Gretchen and Ben, “Santa is pretend." And it didn’t ruin a darn thing for them. Of course, in their earliest years they had no idea what pretend meant, nor did they care. The line between pretend and real to a four-year-old is non-existent. 

All these pretend characters still visited our house, and we’d play along, because it was fun. During December we visited Santa and they told him what they wanted for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we put out cookies and milk for him, and then, as they got older, on Christmas morning, the kids would ask their father and me, “Which one of you ate the cookies?” (wink wink)


As they grew, they came to understand the difference between what’s real and what’s pretend, and it just wasn’t a big deal. They never had to face the harsh truth about Santa Claus because it had never been hidden from them. Best of all, they never had to wonder why their mother had lied to them. 


I wasn’t a perfect parent, by any means. I messed up a lot. But to this day, I feel especially good about the way I handled this, and I encourage new parents to consider taking a similar approach with their kids. You don’t have to banish Santa Claus from your home. Just be up front about him with your children. Let them know that Santa is pretend. At the very least, when they start to question the veracity of Santa, come clean with them. Then, when it comes to matters of faith, they’ll be able to trust you.


(As a footnote, to parents. Be assured that I will not be exposing the Santa Claus conspiracy to your children. If they believe in Santa, I will respect that. But please know that I will not reinforce it.)


Wednesday, December 5, 2018

"My life of education hasn't hurt me none"... but has it helped me?

In his song, "Kodachrome", Paul Simon sings, "...my life of education hasn't hurt me none." I’m thinking back on my formal education this morning and wondering if that's true. I suspect it hasn't hurt me. But has it helped me? I have to wonder, what was the point?

After high school, I spent over 14 additional years in school. For the past 26 years I’ve been able to put Ph.D. after my name, although I rarely do. It’s not necessary for my job, or my life either, for that matter. When I went for it, I thought I would one day teach in a college or a seminary, but my timing was off and life got in the way, so it didn’t happen. Now I don’t feel any calling whatsoever to the academic life. What was the point?

Honestly, after I successfully defended my dissertation, and my advisor told me I was officially in the club, I felt a let-down. It seemed to prove little. I knew better than to believe it was a sign of my superior intelligence. If anything, a doctorate is a reward for perseverance after jumping through what seem to be a never-ending series of hoops. When it was all over, if I had any pride over what I had accomplished, it was that I had hung in there and finished what I started. I made it all the way through the last hoop! 

My Ph.D. does not leave me feeling better than less schooled people. Not only is the sheepskin missing from my office wall, I couldn’t even tell you where it is. I actually am a little embarrassed by it because it seems so pretentious to me. Yes, for a short while, I knew a whole lot about a little. But now I am only too aware of the fact that I know very little about a whole lot.
Through the years, I have had this recurring dream where, for one reason or another, it’s discovered that I never actually fulfilled the requirements to graduate from high school. So, they take all my degrees away from me and I have to go back to finish. The problem is, I can’t pass any of the tests in order to graduate. This isn’t far from the truth. I suspect that I really wouldn’t be able to pass the standardized tests to graduate from high school these days. Especially the math. Oy! Knowing that leaves me feeling like such a fraud. Yes, I’ve spent more years in school after high school than it takes most people to get to high school graduation. And, what was the point?

There is much about our educational process, in general, that leaves me asking this same question. In our culture, we encourage kids to go to college so they can get a good job someday; many recent college graduates are still waiting. But then, even when it happens according to plan, even when you find yourself in a position where you get paid more because you have a college degree, how much of what you learned while working toward that college degree do you actually use in your job? The percentage has to be miniscule. I sometimes wonder if we just reward people for playing the game and going along with the system.
What do I know? I took Latin in high school, and what was the point of that? At the time, the draw was that it would help you on your SAT because it’s such a great vocabulary-builder. What a crock! Since English borrows heavily from the Germanic and Romance languages, any one of those is a great vocabulary-builder. And the thing about German or Spanish is that you can actually go someplace where people speak the language! I can see absolutely no point in learning Latin or Klingon or any other language that no living person on earth speaks.

Maybe I’m just a slacker. Back when I was in seminary we had to learn Greek so that we could read the New Testament in its original language. (By the way, it’s also a language that no one speaks anymore as modern Greek is only remotely akin to biblical Greek.) I went to classes and crammed it all in so I could meet the requirements. But that was forty years ago. I have colleagues who turn to their Greek text every week as they prepare their sermons, but not me. It’s been decades since I’ve cracked open my Greek New Testament. So, what was the point?

Was it all a waste of time? Although I’m sure I must have gained something from my schooling, I have trouble pinpointing what that something is. It certainly wasn’t about accumulating information, because that seems to leave my head as quickly as it enters, which is why my best friend these days is someone named Google. If anything, I learned how to learn. I learned a way of thinking critically, with my mind open to new possibilities. And I learned a way of organizing and processing stuff that I might not have figured out otherwise. Or maybe I would have. I’ll never know, because I can’t go back and un-school myself.
Perhaps the best I can say is that my formal education hasn’t hurt me. Maybe it’s even made me a better person. I'm not sure. But it seems that the most important things I’ve learned have had little to do with school. Things like forgiveness, and compassion, and joy. And I've learned about them in a multitude of ways: through my relationships with other people, through losses, by making mistakes, by venturing outside my comfort zone. Of course, that’s learning that continues to this day. There are no hoops to jump through, no papers to write, no exams to take at the end. Instead, this learning simply leads me into a deeper, fuller understanding of myself and the One who is Love. And that, I know, is really the point.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Rejoice in the Lord... always?

Preached for Ascension on Harvest Home Sunday, November 18,2018.

In today’s second lesson we hear Paul admonishing the Philippians to "Rejoice in the Lord always."  

It’s easy to rejoice when you get that job promotion. Or you pass your final exam. Or you find out that lump that was biopsied isn’t cancer. Yes, rejoice! 

But what happens when you lose your job? Or you fail you exam? Or you find out that the lump is cancer? Rejoice in the Lord, always? Seriously? 

Is this just some Pollyanna advice that encourages us to bury our head in the sand and ignore reality when our lives are ready to be flushed down the toilet? Or does it mean that we have good reason to rejoice in the Lord, even when it looks like our lives are ready to be flushed down the toilet?

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. For several reasons. First of all, there’s the opportunity to be with people I care about. And then, there’s the food. I love the turkey and the stuffing and the gravy. 

But the older I get, the more uncomfortable I feel when I sit down to a huge feast surrounded with people I love. Although, it’s easy to give thanks for blessings like that, I’m increasingly aware of the fact that life isn’t all about me. And it’s hard for me not to think about people who aren’t sitting down to a huge feast surrounded with people they love. Where is the blessing for them

I came across a Thanksgiving message from another Lutheran pastor that listed some of the reasons we may have to be thankful. It goes like this…
·        If you woke up this morning with more health than illness, you are more blessed than the million who will not survive the week.

·        If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the  

·        agony of torture or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of 500 million people around the world.

·        If you have food in your refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of this world.

·        If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.

And the list goes on…

Is this the way God blesses us, by giving us stuff that other people don’t have? Do we thank God because we don’t have to live the wretched lives some people do? That sort of list doesn’t make it for me. God isn’t just my God. God doesn’t exist to give me all the stuff I want at the expense of others. How can I give thanks that I’ve been spared when others suffer?

In the play, Angels in America, Prior, a character living with AIDS, tells a story on his sickbed about one of his ancestors, a ship captain who made his living bringing whale oil to the Old World and immigrants to the New World.

When his ship sank off the coast of Nova Scotia in a winter storm, Prior’s ancestor, the captain, went down with the ship. But the crew escaped and took 70 women and children with them in a big, open rowboat. As the weather got rougher, the crew started to look around at the overcrowded boat. In an effort to stay afloat, they picked up survivors and tossed them into the icy sea. The boat was leaking, and as it sank lower, more people were sacrificed. By the time the crew arrived in Halifax, only nine people remained on board. 

As Prior tells the story, he’s a throwaway person suffering from AIDS and, of course, he identifies with those being thrown into the sea.

But, I’m not a throwaway person. And my mind goes to those nine people who are in the boat and make it to shore. I wonder… did those nine survivors give thanks to God for delivering them? 

Sometimes, when I look at the way I live as a middle-class American, and I consider the way other people live, I feel a lot like the nine men who made it to shore in that boat. And that’s nothing for me to celebrate. 

And yet, the story from Angels in America reminds me that I do have reason to rejoice in the Lord always because it brings to mind another story that I heard.

It’s about a man named Michael Plant, who set off on a solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1992. He was an expert yachtsman and had made the trip several times before. His brand-new sailboat, The Coyote, was very high tech; there were few like it in the world.

Plant’s support team monitored his trip by satellite and radio. Everything was smooth sailing. Even when a storm disrupted the communications, no one worried about it. After all, this guy was one of the best sailors in the world. His boat was equipped with state-of-the-art navigational equipment. They figured Plant would resume radio contact when everything settled down. 

When they didn’t hear from him, they tried repeatedly to reach him by radio. Still nothing. So they sent out Coast Guard helicopters to search for him. 

They found The Coyote floating upside down. Its captain and sole passenger was never found. 

People wondered how this could have happened. Everyone knows that sailboats are very hard to turn over. Their deep keels and massive rudders right themselves. But as the boat was examined, the cause of the tragedy became clear. 

For all its beauty and technological advances, The Coyote didn’t have enough weight beneath the surface to outweigh the fancy gadgetry above. And so, it flipped over as it lost its ability to balance in the water.

The more fancy stuff we have in our lives and the better they look on the surface, the more we believe we’ve been blessed. But God’s blessing is found beneath the surface. The relationship we have with God is what blesses us. 

We’d do well in our lives to work at developing that so more weight is given to our lives below the surface and less above the surface. For when we find ourselves in a time when we’re struggling to stay afloat in a storm, it will become apparent to us how blessed we are. We’ll understand that being blessed is not about having everything go our way, but being blessed is experiencing and knowing that no matter what happens in this life, God will see us through it. 

Our blessings are not measured by the piles of food we display on our tables, or by the number of friends who surround us for the feasting. Our blessings are measured by the depth and weight of the relationship we have with God. 

There’s an old Celtic fisherman’s prayer that says: “Dear God, be good to me; the sea is so wide and my boat is so small.” It’s so true. The sea is so wide and our boats are so small. And our boats are blessed, not because of what they carry inside them or how they look above the surface, compared to other people’s boats. They’re blessed because of what’s happening below the surface, the part no one can see. It’s the relationship we have with our God that blesses us. And so, yes. We can rejoice in the Lord… always.  


 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Unbind him!

Preached at Ascension on November 4, 2018 (All Saints Sunday). The text is John 11:32-44, the raising of Lazarus.

When I speak of the family I grew up in, I often tell people about my father, who died from ALS when I was in the 1st grade. He was well-known and admired in the community where I grew up. And as a child so often sees a parent who has died, he was a hero to me.

Now, I rarely share this part of my story, mainly because it’s hard to tell. A few years after my father died, my mother remarried. She married a man named Jim. He lived a tragic life. As a kid, he spent a lot of time in an orphanage. When he was in his twenties, a man hired Jim to drive a truck for him, and the man had no intention of paying him. Jim came across the guy at a grocery store, and he was so angry that he punched him, and the man died. As a result, Jim spent the next 20 years in prison. (laws were different back then)

As a child, I was afraid of Jim, and as a teenager, I grew to despise him. I don’t want to get into the details, but let me summarize by saying that he was inappropriate with me on many levels, and I was traumatized and damaged in ways I couldn’t begin to face until much later in my life.

I was a seminarian on my intern year in Michigan, when I got a phone call telling me that Jim was in the hospital dying. He had a hole in his heart and wasn’t expected to last much longer. It was nearly a six-hour drive to get home, so I figured Jim would be long gone before I got to him.

Well, he wasn’t. When I arrived, I found my exhausted family gathered in the hospital waiting room. They all had spent time with Jim, and for some reason, he was holding on and couldn’t let go.

Now it was my turn to see him. I went into Jim’s hospital room, sat beside his bed and spoke to him. Shortly after that, I returned to the waiting room to tell the rest of the family that he was gone. They had been with him for hours and he couldn’t let go. I spent about two minutes with him and, just like that, he died. “What did you say to him?” they asked.

Jesus hears that Lazarus is on his last leg and he takes his time going to see him. By the time he gets there, it’s too late. Lazarus is already in the tomb, the mourners are wailing, and Martha and Mary are wondering if Jesus might not have been able to save their brother had he come right away. Jesus joins them in their grief.

And then he offers a word of hope. “Lazarus will rise again.”

Jesus makes his way to the tomb. “Roll the stone away,” he says.

“That’s not such a good idea, Jesus,” they say. “He’s been dead for three days already, and by now the body really stinks.” But they do as he asks. They roll the stone away.

Jesus, standing at the entrance to the tomb, commands, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus stumbles to his feet and slowly emerges from the tomb. He’s wrapped up in strips of cloth, like a mummy.

The new life for Lazarus can’t begin yet. There’s one more thing that needs to be done. And it isn’t Jesus who will do it. Instead, he calls upon the community to finish it for him. “Unbind him, and let him go.”

There are deep truths in this story for all of us. When we cry out from the depths, God hears. When Jesus seems slow in coming, he is coming nonetheless. And if we lament that it’s too late, Jesus shows that it’s never too late. After we’ve become convinced that all is lost, when we’re ready to concede to death, and we’re seeking only to contain the damage or bury it, Jesus shows us that there’s no loss, no death, no tragedy, no power that can place a person, a situation, or a world beyond God's reach of infinite love and abundant life.

This is a story about the power of Jesus. And then, at the very end, it becomes a story about the power of Jesus working in us. Jesus literally tells the community gathered, “Destroy what holds him down. Free him.” It’s the work of Jesus to bring life. And it’s the work of the community to unbind people from the trappings of death.

My family wanted to know what I said to my stepfather Jim when I sat beside his hospital bed. I told him, “I forgive you.” And then I said, “We all love you.” It was all I could do to say either of things because on a very human level, I didn’t really feel them. But in the me that belongs to Jesus, in the saint me, I did forgive him, I did love him. These were words that he needed to hear from me, words to unbind him. After I told him that I forgave him and we all loved him, he took his last breath, and he was free.

When we’re all tangled up in burial clothes, when we bear the coverings of death binding us like bands of cloth wrapped around a mummy, new life, resurrection life, comes to us through community.

God calls us to resurrected life, not just at the moment of our death, but more importantly, while we continue our journey on this earth. We can never experience the new life Jesus calls us to be a part of without being freed from all that binds us to the old life. Perhaps you’re someone who lives with regret or shame. There are things you wish you could change or erase. Maybe you struggle to love or be loved. Or you cling to resentment. Or sorrow follows you wherever you go. You’re in bondage to sin and cannot free yourself.

Death is the ultimate unbinding for us. We’re released from all the sin and sorrow and struggle of this life and we’re finally truly free. All the saints who surround us today know that in a way that we can only imagine. I’m thankful that they surround us and cheer us on as we make our way through this life.

Because while we’re on our life’s journey, we don’t have to long for death as the only way to be free. Thanks be to God, we can bring life and freedom to one another through words like: You are forgiven. You are loved. There is no greater gift we can offer one another than that.

There is nothing you have ever done that God can’t forgive. Because you have always been and will always be loved by God. You are forgiven. You are loved. We need to hear that from one another. We need to experience that with one another. That’s what happens in community when we respond to Jesus’ command, “Unbind him and let him go.”