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.”