Archive for November, 2018

This I Know 11-25-18

In this sermon, based on John 18:33-37, I explore the odd encounter between Jesus and Pilate, as Pilate tries to wrap his head around Jesus. Its a mystery…and that’s okay.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/this-i-know-11-25-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

The grace and peace of our Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

Thursday afternoon, I was lounging around at my parent’s house, enjoying that low-key feeling post Thanksgiving-feast, when my brother grabbed me and hauled me downstairs into the basement to shoot a game or two of pool on our dad’s pool table.

We weren’t very far into our first game, when we noticed something strange happening. An odd tendency for a slow moving ball to begin curving towards the side pockets…and one of them in particular. We weren’t quite sure what was going on…only that this behavior was unexpected…but as confusing as it initially was to witness…we went into some investigation mode…and we came up with the following insight…

The temperature in my parent’s basement fluctuates pretty dramatically…and as it’s a wet basement, there are times when the air is quite damp and times when its quite dry.  We also realized that the pool table has been down there for several years now…and our final observation is that the table itself is wood, and not slate.  Perhaps you’ve already begun to realize what ultimately dawned on us…the table top has warped, creating slight downward angles towards the two side pockets…which itself results in a slow moving billiard ball curving in towards the pocket…which is great in every way, except if it happens to be the 8-ball…and so, once we figured this all out, we kept on playing, and simply adjusted our shots accordingly…in the end, this mystery was something we were able to figure out.

But thinking along those lines reminds me of an important bit of self-awareness that I have reached in my life…an awareness that there are some things I understand…some things I can figure out…and then there are things that will remain a mystery.

For example…I understand that anything that has mass will create a gravitational pull…however some things, like each of us for instance…is small enough that that gravitational pull our mass generates is so infinitely small, that it might as well be non-existent…but on the flip side…I also know that the earth is large enough and contains enough mass that it creates a gravitational force strong enough to keep us all firmly planted…and we don’t need to worry about floating off into space…I get all that…but what I don’t get, is how it works…that is, as they say…above my paygrade. (pause)

Now interestingly enough…this same sort of sense seems to be on display in today’s gospel. Christ the King Sunday…the final Sunday of another church year…and we wrap things up by acknowledging the kingship…or the reign of Christ in the kingdom of Heaven.

Now this year…our scripture lesson features an odd little back and forth between Jesus and Pilate…a setting found in the larger story of his betrayal and arrest at the hands of the religious leaders…just before his torture and eventual execution on the cross…an event commonly understood as his trial before the Roman authority. (pause)

Out of the 4 gospels…I do have to say that I appreciate John’s take on this whole deal…because when compared with the other three, John really does a good job of revealing the sneakiness of this whole situation.  Jesus is arrested for blasphemy…for daring to claim that he is God…and yet, the religious big-wigs know that they can’t order his execution on these grounds…the Romans may have cut them a lot of religious leeway…and they did…but that leeway didn’t extend to the point of allowing them to pick up a bunch of rocks and stone someone to death for claiming to be a god.

And so, if they want Jesus dead…and its seems that they do…they’ve got to ship him off to the political authorities…Pilate.  Now at this point, Pilate’s already asked them what he did…and he doesn’t really get much of an answer beyond Jesus being called a criminal…and with that…he’s got to try and figure things out.

Are you the king of the Jews? (pause) Now logic probably tells us the same thing that Pilate was thinking…this is a pretty simple question…yes or no answer.  If he says yes…that he is the Jewish king…well that means he’s in the midst of a political uprising…and crucifixion is the answer…if he says no…well then this whole deal is pointless.

But it seems like Jesus never gives a straight answer does he?  Are you king?  Why do you ask, are you curious or did someone say something?  And then we go back and forth…several questions countered with more questions…until Pilate seems to arrive at the conclusion “So you are the king.”  Only to get an equally confusing answer “You have called me king.” (pause)

I can only think that Jesus is revealing something important here…that whatever it is that God is up to through the Christ event…through the life and the death and the resurrection of the one who is the living Word of God made flesh…the one who existed with God and is God…the light which shines in the darkness…whatever God is up to in bringing about this whole kingdom of heaven which has already come near to us and at the same time is not yet fully realized…whatever it is…we just can’t grasp can we?

Pilate was a political dude…that’s what he knew…that’s what he understood…and so he was trying to apply this knowledge…this understanding on Jesus and whatever it was he was up to.  The religious leaders…his own people…they’re cranky with him…so clearly something is going on right?  And Pilate tries to put in terms that he can comprehend and deal with.

God bless him, he’s trying isn’t he? But clearly…he’s failing.  Just like my inability to understand what makes gravity…the kingdom of heaven, whatever that means…well that’s above Pilate’s pay grade isn’t it?  Honestly its above everyone’s pay grade…because God is just so much bigger than we can wrap our heads around…and that’s okay.

But if that’s the case…and we’re gonna leave things ambiguous and I guess we can say unanswered…then what do we do with this passage?  And as I ponder on that question I’m drawn to the very last thing that Jesus says today. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world…to testify to the truth…Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

I thought about this idea of truth…and it’s a concept that’s scattered all over John’s gospel…but perhaps no more importantly then when Jesus himself declares “I AM…the way…and the truth…and the life.”

Jesus himself is the truth…and he reveals so much about this life…a new way to live…a new way to be in the world…a new way to live in harmony with God and with our neighbors…not a perfect life, for Jesus knows that none of us are capable of that…but rather a life where confession and repentance and forgiveness is also a possibility. A life in which we live as if the kingdom is already here…because…it is…Jesus told us that.

And maybe, just maybe as we live our lives in a way that reflects the reality of this kingdom of heaven…and whatever that will ultimately look like…maybe that’s how we participate in God’s ongoing action of bringing that kingdom into existence.

And we do this because this is what Jesus has told us to do. He has shown us a new way…he has illuminated a new way for us…and through the ongoing action of the Holy Spirit which Jesus has sent upon us all…he continues to reveal more and more and more about what life in the kingdom looks like.

And one of the commands that he has given us also serves as signs for us…and that is the sacraments. When we receive the bread and the wine, we are reminded that his body and blood were broken and shed for all people to make forgiveness possible…and in the waters of baptism, we are washed both literally and figuratively as we hear the promise of God’s claim upon each of us.

That’s the amazing thing about this whole deal…its always about what God has said about you…the action is accomplished by God through Christ…and while we respond to it…our salvation…our acceptance…our invitation to the party is never dependent upon us…something that I think is revealed when we consider that age old parable of the prodigal son.  The father goes searching for both brothers…and brings them in…doing so with an assurance that you’re already at the party.

Isn’t the joyful thing we realize through the gospel…that whatever it is that this kingdom looks like…that whatever this heavenly party is…we’re already at the party…and God’s ongoing action within this world seems to be aimed at reminded us of that.

But that doesn’t really fit into our rigid, rule laden reality does it?  And those who so strictly adhere to “the rules,” well they have a really hard time accepting this reality of Christ don’t they? And so they try and put Jesus in a box…that’s what Pilate was up to…and I can’t help but think that’s what the religious leaders were ultimately up to as well.

But the good news remains…that God will not be limited to a box…and God’s love and grace for each one of us will not be limited either.  The gospel tells us, we’re already welcome…we’re already accepted…we’re already at the party…some of us just haven’t realized it yet.

And that right there…that’s why God invites us to join in this ongoing work of reconciling the world…to be the hands and feet, carrying this good news…that you’re already at the party…not because of anything that we do…that’s not the way…He is the way…and his way reveals the truth…and this truth to hold onto is not who you are or what you have done…its who’s you are through what he has done. Amen.

Only the Beginning 11-18-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 13:1-8, Jesus gets apocalyptic. This is normal at the end of the church year. Unfortunately we’re only given little glimpses but we are given the promise that we will never be left alone in it.

You can listen the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/only-the-beginning-11-18-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

The Grace and Peace of the Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

Just out of curiosity…how many of you out there were raised in the city? Any city…doesn’t matter which one? (Pause) Okay now on the flipside…how many grew up in a small rural town, or even out in the country? (pause) Okay, now I know what I’m working with.

As many of you know…I was a farm kid growing up…living a few miles outside of a town about the same size as Underwood…roughly 800 people. Now one difference was the proximity to urban areas. Around here we’ve got the Omaha/Council Bluffs metro just a few minutes down the road…but we often joked that my hometown was 3 hours from everywhere. The Twin Cities…three hours.  Des Moines…about three hours…Omaha, yep, that’s three hours. Sioux Falls…OH!!! That’s only 90 minutes. (pause)

It probably goes without saying…that in my normal day to day life growing up…I was pretty used to open fields…and the tallest structures out there were usually a silo or the local elevator if you happened to be in town.  And because of this…the rare times when I ended up in the downtown area of a city were eye opening.

I can remember being in downtown Des Moines during high school for state FFA convention…and thinking how crazy busy it was as we small town boys made our way around the skywalk.  And maybe even more memorable…my freshman year when we traveled to Chicago for a music trip…and I found myself standing on the sidewalk beside the skyscraper known then as the Sears Tower…just staring up at this monstrosity of architectural and construction achievement.

It was just so huge…I couldn’t even begin to understand how anyone would make something like that…and on the flipside…now that its there…I couldn’t imagine anything ever bringing it down. (pause) Anyone know what I’m talking about?  Standing there looking at something, whether man-made or something in nature…that is just so huge…so grand…so massively immovable, that you find yourself in awe? (Pause) Well, as we consider today’s gospel lesson, you are in good company…as Jesus and his disciples go walking out of the temple courtyard in Jerusalem.

As we start to think about this…remember that the 12 disciples were likely pretty young…maybe in their teens or 20’s…and most of them, perhaps not all, but most of them were from small towns or communities…particularly the small communities from the somewhat backwater region of Galilee…communities where the biggest structure they would ever see was the local synagogue.

But now they find themselves in the middle of the city…staring up that enormity of the temple…which by every description we have available…must have been impressive.  Keep in mind this is the 2nd temple…completed by Herod the Great a generation before…and it was comprised of many different structures and courtyards and staircases…all surrounded by a giant wall, all built over the course of decades…it must have been a site to see…and for these small town boys…I can only imagine how overwhelming it must have been…and we hear it from them…Teacher, look at these enormous, magnificent stones and amazing buildings.

I bet it was impressive…I’ve seen first-hand some of those stones that are still standing today in what’s called the Western Wall…or Wailing Wall…the only part of that entire enormous structure that is still standing…and those stones alone are huge…roughly 4 or 5 feet cubed…and solid rock…can you imagine trying to put those into place? We’d need a crane of some sort now, but they did it with basic human labor…and even more amazing…those were the smaller stones…recent work in Jerusalem has uncovered massive foundation stones that were upwards of 20 feet long and 10 feet high. (pause)

Starting to see why these simple farm boys and fishermen were so impressed? (pause) But here’s the thing…no sooner does this one random disciple make his wondrous statement to Jesus…then Jesus makes a prediction that must really rain on his parade.  You see these stones…the day will come when not one will be left on another…and then apparently with no other explanation…he walks away.

With that, we find a scene change, as Jesus and the disciples have gone out of the temple area and crossed the Kidron valley to the east…and then plopped themselves down on the Mount of Olives…a vantage point where they can see the glory of the temple mount from a distance…and the first four disciples that Jesus called…Peter and James and John and Andrew…the epitome of the backwater country bumpkins…they figure its up to them to figure out how this is all gonna happen.

Master…what will be the sign that this is about to take place? (Pause) It seems that they want to know what it is they better be looking for…because anything that is massive enough or strong enough to destroy the utter gloriousness of the temple mount…well that’s probably gonna be a bad thing isn’t it?

But Jesus doesn’t really give them a straight answer does he? He starts off with a warning that they not allow themselves to be led astray…and then he gives warnings about wars that will come and go…and nations rising up against nation…and natural disasters…and all kinds of stuff. Stuff that sounds…REALLY BAD…stuff that if we found ourselves on the receiving end of it…would be something we’d call “the end of the world.” And, to be honest…isn’t that type of thing what we all hope we’ve got a little advanced warning for? (pause)

Now…this first portion of chapter 13 is actually part of a larger account of Jesus teaching the disciples about (air quote this) “the end times.” And the fact that we run into it here in late November is quite normal…as we come to the end of another church year, we always run into these texts…texts often described as “apocalyptic” in nature…texts which we all commonly think of as describing those end times.

And after many different conversations with people based on this type of text over the years…I know its pretty common for all of us to hear them and think “well that doesn’t sound good…but it also doesn’t give us a whole to go on either.” And isn’t that true? I mean, its so true…and fairly universal interest in it is so real…that many people have made attempts to explain it away…even “read the code” to uncover just when it’ll happen…and how all the bad stuff that happens in the world…whether natural disasters or human centered misery…is actually a roadmap that points to just when “the end” often called the rapture…is going to be.

I always chuckle and shake my head when I hear these predictions on the news…and then I flat out laugh when the day comes and goes and the person who made the prediction in the first place sheepishly reports “We may have misread the signs.”  DUH!

But all sarcasm aside…I think it is human nature to look at the state of the world…to see horrible event after horrible event and think…Well this must be the end.  Oh no…well now this one is it…Oh I guess not, but THIS time is it right? (pause)

Maybe, just maybe, we humans have a really hard time seeing beyond whatever is staring us right in the face…whether its marveling at giant buildings or natural features like mountains or cliffs that we think will never be knocked down…or on the other end of thing to see forces at work which we are powerless to stop…like category 5 hurricanes or tsunamis or even the apparently blind hatred expressed by one group for another group.  And as we witness these different things we can only think “this is it” and nothing I can think or do or say is going to change it.

And that’s daunting isn’t it?  And maybe, just maybe, if we bring things down to a smaller scale we begin to realize that sheer size or magnitude isn’t the sole factor either.  Think about the lost job.  Or the cancer diagnosis.  Or the balance due notice…or the family standing at a graveside to bury their loved one…those moments when it feels like life is over, even as the rest of the world is going on about their business.  Are the dire feelings that come with those moments any less real than the sense the disciples felt when Jesus tells them the temple will be destroyed? (pause)

So are we in “the end times?”   Is Jesus about to come back? Well…I hope so…but honestly I don’t think so…and I don’t think that’s the point of all these different apocalyptic texts in the first place. Something that we especially see if we pay attention to Jesus’ final statement in today’s little section of this larger teaching.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. (pause) This is the beginning.

I am, as you may have noticed…a guy…and I will never ever know the pain and agony of childbirth…and honestly, as my two kids were born by c-section I’ve never really been adjacent to it either.  But I do remember a mom being induced at 6am the day after my son was born…and she walked the halls of that OB ward in the hospital for more than 25 hours before finally going to delivery…and then spending 2.5 hours pushing before her baby was born…and I can only imagine that for her…or for any of you moms out there that went through labor…that in the midst of it…it must feel like an eternity and that it will NEVER end.

And yet it does…and at the end…there is new life in that child…and maybe, just maybe…that’s what we need to remember as we consider these troublesome texts that point towards something unknown, but seemingly pretty earth shattering…just as labor pains leads to the joy of new life…it would seem that there’s new life on the other side of this unknown future that’s coming…and the idea of looking for something good and wonderful and joyful on the other side of things…there’s a name for that…Hope.

Now as followers of Christ…we’ve been given a promise…an assurance that the kingdom of heaven has come near to us…that it is here now and that we are invited into it…and at the same time we are also promised that there are aspects of this kingdom that haven’t come around yet…and that whatever they are…they lie out there on the other side of that unknown future…and for many of us, they lie on the other side of the boundary of death…and because of these promises of Christ…we hope…we are united by our common hope in this promised but unrealized future.

And there’s one more little detail from today’s story that points us in this direction. Jesus and the disciples are sitting on top of the Mount of Olives, looking across the valley at the Temple…now the temple pointed them towards God…it was the place where God is…the sign of God’s presence and God’s promises…that’s what they were looking at.

But the valley that lies between them…even back then…was a graveyard…and it still is today…they sat on one mountain…looking across the literal presence of death…and beyond it was the embodiment of hope.

I can’t tell you what that embodiment is for you. Maybe it’s the cross…or maybe it’s a song that’s especially meaningful for you…or maybe it’s the truth that is revealed to you in the scriptures…or maybe it’s the sacraments…the washing in the waters of baptism and the shared meal of holy communion…those physical elements that combine with the promises of God to reveal the reality of God’s grace and love for you…made real through the life death and resurrection of Jesus.

Remember these promises are made for you and TO you…not just once, but always…and we are given these blessings and mercies…new every morning.  No matter what the situation is…remember…this is only the beginning.  Let us live out this day…let us live out every day which will follow…and let us experience whatever it is that lies on the other side of this existence as we know it…secure in the hope given to us through the promises of Jesus Christ. Amen

You Are Seen 11-11-18

In this sermon, based on Mark 12:38-44, I explore an odd little passage including a warning from Jesus and the Widow’s mite.  This passage seems to offer a rebuke to a system that exists in order to perpetuate itself, but there is good news to be found here as well.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/you-are-seen-11-11-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

The grace and peace of the Triune God be yours, now and forever. Amen

Anyone out there have catch-phrases or words that you still use that have gone out of style?  I know I’m guilty of that…Groovy is a big one…I say that a lot…Awesome…which is probably still acceptable although whenever I say it I’ve got the early 90’s version of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the back of my head.

On occasion cool-beans comes out of my mouth when I like the sound of something…and on the flip side I call things Bad-chicken, which is a throwback to lingo at a job that I worked more than a dozen years ago. But perhaps the one that is looming most prominently in my head happens when I’m with my buddies that I grew up with…especially if we’re playing a game of some sort…when one of us pulls off something impressive…we’ll boastful ask “Who’s the man?” to which the other guys have to respond “You the man.”  (pause) You are the man.

Now that statement is interesting…because it just came up in the confirmation class a week ago as we’re making our way through the Biblical Narrative…and we were talking about King David and his story that take place about a 1000 years before Jesus.  There’s a encounter, following some of David’s less than stellar moments, with the prophet Nathan, who tells David a story about a rich guy who’s got everything and his poor neighbor who only has one lamb that he loves more than anything…and the rich man takes the lamb and serves it in a banquet for his friends.

Now when David hears this story, he gets riled up and curses the rich man in the story…only to have Nathan look him in the eye and say “you are the man.”  David realizes the depth of his mistakes…the impact of his sins and he mournfully repents. (pause) Ever had a moment like that…when someone points out something significant that hits close to home…something that was sitting in a blind spot…but the moment they point it out, its convicting?  It’s a humbling feeling isn’t it? (pause)

I imagine though…you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the gospel lesson we’ve shared today…because the story of Jesus warning his disciples about the scribes leading into the story of the poor widow placing her last two coins into the treasury doesn’t really seem to have much to do with King David or random phrases…at least not at face value, but bear with me for just a little bit.

Beware the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces…and have the best seats in the synagogue and places of honor at banquets…they devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.

Now…who do we know that tends to wear specialized outfits…and has a bit of an abnormal title connected to their name…who do we know that has a specific, perhaps considered “special” spot in the sanctuary…and even rattles off lengthy prayers during worship each week? (Pause)

I’ll admit it…the more I read this passage in preparation for today…especially this first portion…the more I heard “You are the man” in the back of my head and not in the positive “I just did something cool on the basketball court” kinda way…but in the “I’m King David and I screwed up” kinda way.

Because in the interest of full disclosure…I have my moments when this is pretty spot on…moments when I get a big head, or when a sense of entitlement creeps up because of the role that I’ve been given. I’m not proud of it…but it does happen…that crazy thing known as pride that’s evidence of my brokenness and my sinful nature.

And so this passage really makes me sit up and pay attention…but, the passage doesn’t end with that warning from Jesus does it? We hear following this brief teaching moment, he sits down across from the offering box in the temple…watching as people walk by and toss in their offerings.  Apparently some of the rich are pulling out their money bags and are tossing in healthy amounts…but then a woman walks up, takes a look at the two tiny coins in her possession…and drops them in the box.

Now this is one of those moments when I wish I was Jesus…because he seems to know a lot about this woman and her situation…information that we just aren’t privy to.  He seems to know that she’s a widow…she’s alone…and these two coins are the entirety of her finances…and she drops them in the offering plate.

The thing about this story…is that its become synonymous with the idea of sacrificial giving…often times featured in stewardship drives because of the way that, at face value anyway, Jesus SEEMS to praise her gift above the much larger sums also being given by the rich.

But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. I think Jesus is pointing out a flaw in the system…that this poor woman, seemingly with no other way of supporting herself…gives everything…essentially giving her life…making herself a financial martyr to the temple…if not an actual one when she starves to death.

Here’s why I wish I knew what Jesus knew…because I wish I knew what the widow’s motivation was to place her last two coins into the treasury.  Was she giving joyfully?  Or was she feeling shamed by seeing the large amounts given by others?  Or was she giving out of a sense of obligation to a system that demanded it? A system that was supposed to protect and provide for her…but as we heard in the first portion…a system that enables those with power and authority and prestige to take advantage of the powerless, just like this woman. (pause)

I thought a lot about that this week…the idea of a system, which seemed to exist only to perpetuate itself.  Many scholars have written at great length about the flaws of the temple system in Jesus’ day…something that he himself butted up against in many moments of debate or teaching or even violent outbursts like the cleansing of the temple.

Any funny enough…we’re given just a tiny glimpse of the eventual outcome of that flawed system in the very next portion of the story that follows this…a story that we’ll hear next week…as Jesus dashes the wonder of his disciples who are marveling at the glorious nature of the temple when he tells them that the whole thing is destined for destruction.

And so let’s think about the woman again…what’s she doing? What’s her motivation? Is she giving to a system that has hammered this obligation into her that’s destined for destruction?  Or is she giving cheerfully to something that she believes represents the ongoing action of God within this broken world that she’s a part of? We don’t know.

Now, I’m not trying to turn this into a stewardship sermon…I’m really not…but what I will say is this…there’s a big difference between giving anything to a broken system that will only exploit you to perpetuate itself even though its dying, and giving to the living embodiment of God’s action in the world.

And as I say that, I wonder if anyone else is hearing a little voice in the back of your head saying “You are the man.”  Because in many ways…we are that broken system.  The church is facing a tough tough reality…both the church as a whole, particularly here in North America…and even our congregation. I don’t say this to be a downer…but I think its true. I think the church, as it has existed in the past century or so…is dying.

But even as you hear me say that…hear this as well…we have a God who specializes in bringing new life out of death…and I believe that this is the case for the church as well…because the church IS the living embodiment of God’s action in the world…broken and flawed to be sure…because it is made up of broken and flawed people…and yet…God has continued to guide and use the church over the course of the past 2000 years…and I’m pretty sure its going to continue on long after every one of us in this room is dead and gone.

Just as the Jewish faith and culture continued on after the Temple was destroyed…the church will continue on as well…its just gonna look different. And we don’t know what its gonna look like. (pause)

Now in the meantime…as we consider this rather sobering reality…perhaps you’re wondering if there’s any good news to be found within this gospel today…because while we expect the scriptures to convict us, we also expect them to give us hope…and maybe here’s where we find it.

In the midst of the whole situation that happened that day…and even in the midst of the entire ongoing, broken and flawed system of the temple that Jesus witnessed that day…even if no one else noticed…Jesus saw the woman. He…sees…her.

The man, who is also God, took notice.  She is seen, even as every other cultural and systematic detail pushes her to the side and makes her invisible…she is still seen.  And so are you.

Maybe this text is troublesome…and maybe the message that I have shared today is also troublesome…and perhaps you find yourself in a state where things feel like they are going wrong and you wonder if anyone notices…and if that is the case, then remember that you are seen…and that no matter how insurmountable the situation…you will never be abandoned by the one who has acted out of divine love for you…and in everything, remember that there is nothing in all creation…not poverty…not brokenness…not our flaws and failures…not the powers that seem to stack the deck against us…not even death can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  In the midst of it all, even when it doesn’t feel like it…you are seen by one who loves you. Amen.

Where Were You Lord 11-4-8

Candlelight

In this sermon for All Saints Sunday, based on John 11:32-44, I explore the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  We are given a unique glimpse into the grief that even God has experienced in the face of death.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/where-were-you-lord-11-4-18

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

The grace and peace of the Triune God is yours, now and forever. Amen

There are times when I like to joke around that I’m turning into a hipster…but then I really got to thinking about it, and I realized that there are 5 signs that you are, in fact, a hipster.  Number one, you are a fan of facial hair…check.  Number two…you love craft beer…check.  Number three, you tend to wear baseball caps at an odd, ironic angle…which I do not do. Number four, you have a preference for wearing skinny jeans…nope.

And finally…the deciding factor…you have tattoos…which I don’t…so I guess I can say, for the moment anyway…that I’m only 40% hipster…but, someday that might shift…because I’ve always thought about getting some ink…so much so that I even know what I’ll get, if I ever decide to take the plunge.

There’s an image that I love…2 hands coming together…grasping each other at the wrist.  Now the first time that I saw this image was at the very end of the first Lord of the Rings movie back in 2001…(demonstrate the image) one of the characters, who can’t swim, has sank in a river, when another character reaches down from a boat…grabs his wrist, and after a brief second, they are both holding on as he gets pulled up out of the water.

This image is meaningful for me for a couple of reasons…one probably being because I’ve been pulled out of the water…many of you sitting out there have heard me tell the story of a time when I foolishly tried swimming out to a buoy in rough water and my brother in law had to pull me back to shore.

The second reason stems from that…when another impulsive decision on the part of Peter resulted in Jesus reaching out and taking him by the hand, lifting him up out of the water. And interestingly enough…this action of Jesus…grabbing another person by the hand…its something of a regular occurrence for him…especially in terms of the miracles that Jesus is famous for. Several different times…in different circumstances, we hear of Jesus grasping another person by the hand.  He heals several different people, including Peter’s mother in law, through his words combined with the action of grabbing the individual by the hand.  And in one instance…he even raises a young girl from the dead in this same way. And that’s worth paying attention to.

There are only three instances in the gospels of Jesus raising people from the dead…the young girl…a widow’s son when he walks up on the funeral procession…and today’s story of Lazarus. I can’t help but think that’s eye opening to consider, knowing how much stock we place on Jesus and his action of overcoming the power of death in the world…its strange to think that only 3 people are actually raised from the dead.

But today’s story is one of those times…but to be sure…the story of Jesus and Lazarus is an odd one.  For starters…I wish we knew a little more about the relationship between Jesus and this family…for he was close to Lazarus but also his sisters Martha and Mary…we hear about these three siblings in quite a few different instances….but we never really hear about the basis for their ongoing relationship, beyond the love that is expressed between them.

But regardless of their history…it would certainly seem that there is a sense of extreme familiarity, perhaps even a sense of duty that lies between them…evidence in the details within this greater story…a portion of which takes place before our action begins today.  Because for starters…Lazarus gets sick…we don’t know his ailment…but its serious enough for Martha to send off for Jesus…who’s hanging out somewhere in the region in the midst of his ministry.

Now keep in mind…Martha can’t just pick up a cell phone and shoot him a text…she had to send someone to look for him…and who knows how long that took…but when word finally reaches him…Jesus acknowledges that Lazarus is sick…and promptly stays put for a couple more days before finally meandering his way to Bethany…in fact he takes so much time in getting there…that by the time he approaches the village…Lazarus has been dead and sealed in the tomb for the better part of a week.

I can only imagine how frustrating this must have been for the sisters…and maybe you can too…ever been in a situation like that…one where duty or personal obligation dictates that you should put some hustle into the situation…or vice-versa that you expect the person you’ve reached out to to do the same?

That seems to be the case here as well…because before Jesus even makes it to the village, Martha hears he’s coming and she marches out to give him a piece of her mind…and in the midst of a back and forth between Jesus and Martha…one that I imagine was a touch on the heated side…she says “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (pause)

Now this isn’t the only time we hear it…because pretty soon Mary…who had stayed in the house when Martha stomped off the gates of town…Mary follows suit and heads out to find Jesus as well…and when she does…she says the exact same thing to him. “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  I can only think that both sisters are placing blame…casting some shade…seeking out a target for the grief and sadness and anger that they are feeling in the death of their brother…in the death of someone that they love. They might as well be saying “Its your fault he’s dead” or even asking the question “Where were you on this one Lord?”

I can’t help but think that we’ve all been there at one time or another…because death is a reality isn’t it? One that we’ve all encountered…and death’s a funny thing, though perhaps that’s not quite the right word for it…because sometimes death feels almost okay…but other times everything about it is wrong.

Circumstances can alter how we look at death…the life of the individual…how old they are…if they’ve battled a long illness…or if its an accident that comes out of nowhere…all of these things factor into our response…but if there is one thing in common, regardless of the circumstances…it’s the pain and the sorrow that we feel when death enters the picture.

Now here’s the thing. We’re not the only ones who feel it.  Because not just once…but twice in today’s story…we hear how deeply Jesus is moved…he is shocked…angry…deeply agitated within himself. Our English translation doesn’t do justice to what Jesus was feeling…and not only that but we hear that Jesus weeps openly when he come face to face with the death of a loved one.

And as we recognize the response of Jesus we begin to see that we are not alone in grieving…but that we have a God who mourns death just as we do…in fact I believe that the first being to mourn every single death is God…and that God is weeping before the reality even begins to take hold in our hearts and minds when something like this happens.

God is no stranger to the pain of loss…the emotion that comes with it…because God has experienced it first hand when the Word became flesh and dwelled among us…and this is why God has made us a promise over and over again in the scriptures…one that we heard today out of Revelation…now I don’t know if you are familiar with Revelation, but it’s the last book of the Bible and the reading today was one of the last parts of it. And this promise says that once this crazy broken-down messed up reality is over…that God will make everything new…somehow, someway…and not only that, but God will dwell among us…and he will wipe away every tear from our eyes…death will be no more…mourning and crying and pain will be no more. (pause)
I’ve often said…I have no idea what things are going to look like in the life to come…but somehow it seems that the pain that we feel now…the pain that gives us sorrow and tears…and the pain that makes us angry enough to scream out at God “Where were you on this one?” That will be no more.

And that gives me hope…even in the midst of times when everything else gets cloudy in the face of the pain…and this is a place that, perhaps, you find yourself in today…I’m guessing many from our community are still in this state…still feeling that anger and loss…still asking those questions after the tragic death of a high schooler just a couple weeks ago…a sense that we’ve felt before in our community in the face of tragedies that just don’t make any sense.

But we remember in these times, that not only do we have a God that mourns along side us…but we have a God who has done something about it…even in those times when we might be a little too sad or angry to see that hope clearly…that hope remains…and in these times, we look to each other for love and support.

We look to each other because together we are the hands and feet of God…together we are the body of Christ here on earth and we are called to lift each other up…because sometimes the immediate answer that God gives us when we ask “Where are you on this one” is to point us to look around and see those that are here to share our burdens with us.

There’s a painting that hangs up in the high school. Admittedly I don’t know what the story is behind it, but sometimes I wonder if its actually based on the same image from the movie that I talked about before…two hands grasping one other by the wrist…one whole and strong…the other bruised and scarred…and that my friends…is life…we do this for one another…knowing in the next instant that our strength might fail and we’ll need someone to take us by the hand…to mirror that love and that strength and that power to comes from God in the first place…that’s how we get through these times…holding onto the promise that one day…one glorious day…we like Lazarus, will hear a voice calling our name…a voice that is bigger…louder…greater even than death and the separation that it causes with those still living…a voice of one who knows the pain of mourning…and who will always be there to take us by the hand…in one way or another…and lift us up to new life. Amen.