Moving beyond locked doors

This is my sermon from the Second Sunday of Easter, based on John 20:19-31. We always read the story of Thomas on the Second Sunday of Easter, and it can be hard to find new ways to experience this text. In this sermon, I decided to focus on the ways the disciples have let their fear close out the rest of the world (and the way we sometimes do the same):

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

It is the day of resurrection, in our gospel reading. When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week—that day is the day of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene has run from the tomb to the disciples to proclaim that Christ is risen! The resurrection has happened, and she has seen the lord!

And what do the disciples do with that wonderful, miraculous news? Are they celebrating? Are they breathing sighs of relief? Maybe, just maybe, we might hope that they might be out evangelizing—that is, sharing that good news with others.

But no, they’re not doing anything remotely like that: When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week (the day that Mary Magdalene had proclaimed the resurrection): the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked out of fear.

They certainly had good reasons to fear. Now of course, it says that they were afraid of the Jews. Well the disciples themselves were Jews, so they weren’t really afraid of the Jews—they were afraid of the corrupt leaders who had conspired to have Jesus killed. Perhaps that was a good enough reason to stay locked away. Their leader, who they know was innocent, was brutally executed by the state—what’s to say the same wouldn’t happen to them.

But what I find most curious, is that even after Jesus comes to them—he comes through their locked door, and offers them peace and the Holy Spirit. Can you imagine? It says the disciples rejoiced, when they saw the Lord. He has kept his promises to them, not only to return, but to give the promised Spirit.

They proclaim to Thomas, who was missing, that they have seen the Lord! And Thomas, of course, wants to also see the Lord for himself. But what I find curious, is that even after this proclamation of We have seen the Lord, the next week, they are once again in that house, and the doors are once again shut.

Even after the encounter with Jesus, even after their joyous proclamation, the doors are still shut. The actions of the disciples do not match the good news that they have to share. Fear is a powerful thing.

When I was thinking about Fear, what kept coming to my mind was the Pixar movie Inside Out. It’s a movie where the emotions that a young girl experiences are personified, and we see the way they interact with each other. Fear’s job is to protect young Riley and keep her safe. Fear is constantly on the lookout for potential disasters.

This is an important job—fear is often a logical emotion, that keeps us from doing potentially harmful things, things that we really shouldn’t be doing. But, through the movie, we learn that there are very few activities and events that Fear doesn’t find to be dangerous, and usually potentially fatal. If Riley listened to fear all the time, she wouldn’t ever leave her house.

If we let fear rule all of our actions, we wouldn’t ever leave the house. Sound familiar? The disciples aren’t just experiencing fear, but they are letting that fear control their every action. They have literally enfortressed themselves—barred themselves away from interacting with others. They gather together so that they might be safe.

Which brings me to the question—why should they gather together, and why do we still gather. Like the disciples, sometimes it might be that we feel safe here. That’s good—I hope you feel safe here. But sometimes we take that safety to the extreme. When we sing Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” often what we might truly mean is, “a mighty fortress is our church.”

We may gather because it is safe and comfortable and familiar, but when we barricade ourselves in, we have missed the mark. So why do we come together, each and every Sunday, imitating those first disciples, gathering on the first day of the week?

Is it to make God happy with our presence, with our worship and praise? Not really, although I’m sure our gathering does please God. Is it to learn good morals and how to be an upstanding, Christian? No, although maybe you will. Is it to learn and educate ourselves about our faith? No, not even this, although hopefully it does happen from time to time.

These are all things that might happen when we gather, but they are not the reason we come together. We gather so that we might encounter, so that we might be encountered by, the Risen Christ. We, like Thomas, have heard the news, but we too want to hear it ourselves, we want to see, we want to touch and feel the fact that Christ is Risen and to know what that means for us.

This week we celebrate first communion with our second graders, Jack, Cole, and Graci. It is the tradition at St. Paul’s for first communion to be the second Sunday of Easter—the day we hear Jesus say to us: here I am, touch, see and believe. Just as he did for Thomas, in this meal, Jesus offers his very self to us, his body and blood, that we too might believe and be renewed. We receive as a gift his love, mercy, and gift of himself.

How might our encountering Jesus, how might our being fed and being forgiven and receiving God’s grace—how might it move us beyond fear? We have seen the Lord! Instead of closing and barring our doors, let us live as a church, let us live our whole lives, with open doors.

Open doors not just so others might come in—but open doors so that we can also go out. In our personal lives in our families, that we might be open, but also as a church. Church is not just something that we come to, but something that we take with us. We take that mercy, and grace, and forgiveness that we have received here with us—to let it shape our lives and share it with others. Most importantly, we take the love of God with us. It’s not something that can be contained by doors.

We have seen the Lord! May our lives live out that wonderful news. Amen.

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Easter Sermon

Below is my sermon from Easter Day. The Easter story is a familiar one that we hear each year, so for my sermon I decided to focus on a couple of the small details we don’t always pay attention to: the earthquake and the fear. The text I used was Matthew’s account of the Resurrection, found in Matthew 28:1-10.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

About six years ago, an earthquake hit the Northeast. Who remembers? It wasn’t big, or powerful, by earthquake standards, but they just never happen here, so it was still unnerving. It was August, and I and some friends were just moving into our new house at the seminary.

To be honest, I didn’t really know it was even an earthquake while it was happening. It just felt like couch I was on had suddenly become a massage couch, as it pulsed underneath me. I’m sure anyone from the West Coast or more earthquake prone areas would have laughed at how excited my friends and I got over such a tiny little tremor.

Because when real earthquakes come, they don’t feel like massages. They feel like the ground beneath you has given way, and nothing will set it right again.

Maybe the women in the gospel already felt that way, as they approached the tomb where Jesus lay that first Easter morning. As if nothing could be set right again. Their Lord and friend has been killed, his male disciples are in hiding, and they go to the tomb, much as they went to the cross, to keep vigil—to watch and to wait.

It doesn’t say it in this morning’s gospel, but we know from the other gospels, that they took burial spices with them, to anoint the body of Jesus. They are going to do a crucial task—to truly lay their teacher and friend to rest, and with him to bury their hopes and dreams for the future that now would never be. The past few days must have been heart-wrenching for them. To go from the fanfare and chaos of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a week earlier to the utter heartbreak of the cross. And they were there, watching and keeping watch over it all.

But then suddenly, with the stone still covering the tomb, with the Roman soldiers still guarding the body, there is an earthquake! When it is time for the stone to be rolled away, at the moment of resurrection—the very ground beneath them shifts!

And then there sits the angel, with the good news: Jesus, who was crucified, is no longer in the tomb, but has been raised! The earth has shifted once again. They leave quickly to do as the angel commands and tell the disciples about what they have seen.

And then suddenly there is Jesus, who greats them. Who tells them not to be afraid. The earthquake itself may be over, but I can only imagine that at this moment the women felt just as unsteady as when the ground was moving.

A great shift has happened in this earthquake. It’s not just the lives of the disciples that have changed. It’s not just that their friend Jesus was dead and is now alive. It’s not just that they mourned and now they rejoice. The whole earth has been shaken, the cosmos moved forever by this life-giving act of God.

Old ways of being and doing have been upended in the turmoil. Earthquakes are destructive forces, as anyone who has lived through a serious one knows. And this earthquake, this resurrection, did some destruction.

The forces of the empire, of Rome, forces of oppression and injustice and violence, literally fall down. God is stronger than them. Death itself is destroyed by God’s earthshaking power. Instead of death there is life. Jesus is risen! The grief and pain of the women are destroyed and joy and excitement take their place. Alleluia indeed!

And the women go to share this earth-shattering news with the other disciples, to witness to the fact that Jesus is risen! Did you notice what it said, though, about how they went? With great joy—that part we might expect, but also with fear.

With joy and fear. Fear and joy. How often do these two seemingly opposite things go hand in hand? We fear for the future that our children will inherit, fear about how to keep them safe, and yet we take joy in the blessing that they are to us, and we hope, to the world. We have fear about an illness of a loved one, and yet we rejoice about the gift they are to us right now. We fear the big things and the big problems in this world, and yet we can still find joy in the present moment even amidst fearful things. Fear and joy; despair and hope; doubt and faith—these are the sides of all of our lives.

Jesus’ resurrection does not bring an end to fear. It didn’t for the women at the tomb, and it doesn’t for us.  But what it does do—what that earth-moving resurrection does—it makes it possible for us to experience joy, to feel hope, to live our faith, amid otherwise crippling fear.

Of course the women were afraid. They couldn’t avoid it. We can’t avoid it either. We can’t avoid grief, and we can’t avoid heartache. They are a part of life. But we need not dread visiting the tomb. We need not dread the fear or the grief. They are, like the tomb, temporary. Jesus is risen!

Winston Churchill, for his funeral, planned a great and fitting farewell. When the service was over, a bugler played Taps from the west end of the church, the song signaling that the day is over and it is time to rest. But as the last note of Taps rang in the air, from the east end of the church came the answering call. Another bugler sounding Reveille. Arise, for the day is just beginning!

We cannot live our lives without the sounds of Taps in our ears sometimes. Violence, injustice, hatred, grief. These are inescapable realities, and we should not pretend they don’t exist. But always, always God is there with the answering call of Arise! Get up! For Taps is not the end of our story.

That earthquake, that massive shift in the way things were, means that ultimately life is stronger than death. It means that joy and hope and faith will prevail in the end. Despair is a temporary thing, but our hope—our hope is invincible because God has never forgotten how to breathe life into piles of dust.

Encountering resurrection is to endure an earthquake. Encountering the risen Christ is the feel the world shaking. The ground has moved beneath us and nothing is the same as it was. Death is overthrown, injustice does not get the final word, and joy wins the day. In the midst of fear, in the midst of anxiety, in the midst of grief—Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

May the God of the earthquake, the God of the surprise, shake the ground beneath us so that we too will experience the resurrection hope and joy. Amen. Alleluia!

Holy Saturday

Can you imagine what it was like that first Saturday, when Jesus was in the tomb? His disciples and friends didn’t have the benefit we do, of knowing the end of the story. Nowadays, we spend Holy Saturday preparing for the feast we know is to come: arranging flowers in the sanctuary, baking special treats for the family dinner, planning or participating in egg hunts. We know the joy that will come tomorrow, and so it is hard to imagine what the disciples must have felt.

It wasn’t just Jesus that died on the cross–it was their hopes and dreams as well. They didn’t just mourn their friend and teacher, they mourned for a future that now seemed impossible.

I am always drawn to the women who followed Jesus. When the male disciples scattered or hid, the women were there. They were the last at the cross, and the first at the tomb. What did their Saturday look like? Was it spent gathering the spices and oils they would take to the tomb in the morning?

While it is hard for us to forget that resurrection is just around the corner, we do know, I think, the feelings of this Holy Saturday. It is the feeling after the funeral, once everyone has gone home, and you are now left in the quiet of an empty house. That stillness, that trying to figure out what life is going to be like now–that is Holy Saturday.

Many Christians, tonight, will celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter. It is a service that begins in darkness, spends time reading (quite a lot) about God’s saving actions throughout all of history, and then culminates in the news of the resurrection. This news is greeted with the Holy Noise–bells, tambourines, voices–all rise together to share the good news! And then together, the first Eucharist of Easter is celebrated.

If you’d like to take some time in quiet today, pause and read one (or more) of the readings assigned for the Easter Vigil. There’s a lot, because God’s story of salvation has been going on for a very long time. The readings marked with an asterisk are especially helpful in telling the story:

*Genesis 1:1-2:4a (Creation)
Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13 (Flood)
Genesis 22:1-18 (Testing of Abraham)
*Exodus 4:10-31; 15:20-21 (Deliverance at the Red Sea)
*Isaiah 55:1-11 (Salvation for all)
Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21 (The wisdom of God)
Ezekiel 36:24-28 (A new heart and a new spirit)
Ezekiel 37:1-14 (Valley of the dry bones)
Zephaniah 3:14-20 (The gathering of God’s people)
Jonah 1:1-2:1 (The deliverance of Jonah)
Isaiah 61:1-4, 9-11 (Clothed in garments of salvation)
*Daniel 3:1-29 (The fiery furnace)

Good Friday

What Abides by Jan Richardson
For Good Friday

You will know
this blessing
by how it
does not stay still,
by the way it
refuses to rest
in one place.

You will recognize it
by how it takes
first one form,
then another:

now running down
the face of the mother
who watches the breaking
of the child
she had borne,

now in the stance
of the woman
who followed him here
and will not leave him
bereft.

Now it twists in anguish
on the mouth of the friend
whom he loved;

now it bares itself
in the wound,
the cry,
the finishing and
final breath.

This blessing
is not in any one
of these alone.

It is what
binds them
together.

It is what dwells
in the space
between them,
though it be torn
and gaping.

It is what abides
in the tear
the rending makes.

—Jan Richardson
from Circle of Grace

Why do we call Good Friday good? Some simply call it Holy Friday. In Germany, it is known as Karfreitag, or “grief Friday.” Silent Friday and Black Friday are also used around the world. Some say that “Good” is simply a distortion of the original “God’s Friday.”

I don’t know for sure how this name came to be, but one thing I do know is that when we call this day “Good,” we surely mean it. This day is good because it is the day when God’s deepest love for us is revealed. What we see displayed on the cross is a God of love, a God who desires the salvation of humankind. God comes to us in Jesus and identifies with us. On the cross, we see God at work for us.

And so we call this day good. Not because suffering is good, or because death is good. But because in the midst of suffering and death, God is still there. God will always be there.

A prayer for Good Friday (ELW): Merciful God, your Son was lifted up on the cross to draw all people to himself. Grant that we who have been born out of his wounded side may at all times find mercy in him, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Maundy Thursday

Holy, or Maundy, Thursday, is the first of the Great Three Days of Easter. It is on these days specifically that we remember the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. More than remember, we consider how these events, which happened 2,000 years ago, matter to our lives today.

Maundy Thursday receives its name from the Gospel reading assigned for today. Jesus says to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment. That you love one another, as I have loved you.” The Latin word for commandment, mandatum, is transformed into Maundy. And so, we could rightly call this day, “Commandment Thursday.” Perhaps not as many people would be interested in coming to church, though.

The night is filled with ritual actions, some from scripture, some from church tradition, and all which beg a closer examination. We begin our service—which marks the end of Lent—the way that Lent began, in repentance. We confess our sin and are met with God’s flood of forgiveness. At the end of the day, all of Lent—our self-examination, fasting and prayer, giving and love—is washed away in God’s grace. This grace alone carries us, reconciled to God into the Three Days. Some churches have the practice of individual words of forgiveness to each person, the inverse of Ash Wednesday statement, “remember that you are dust,” we instead hear, “remember that you are forgiven.”

Some churches will also, after the sermon, follow Jesus’ command to serve one another by washing one another’s feet. The very thought of this can make us squeamish. But then again, it should. Jesus’ act, washing his disciples’ feet, was an offensive act. It was something meant for a slave or a servant, not a decent person. The act is a sign, a symbol, of Christian service and love, found in many, many unappreciated, undignified acts: the love that is known in nursing homes, in hospitals, on city streets, and all the needy places of the world.

At Christ’s invitation, we then move to share in the bread and wine which he proclaimed were his body and blood, broken and poured out for all. And then comes the final actions of the night—the stripping of the altar. As piece by piece the worship space is cleared away, darkness fills the room. This act is reminiscent of preparing a body for burial. We are left with a bare, unembellished space, and we ourselves are left open and vulnerable to God.

Perhaps one of the most important things that happens on Maundy Thursday is what does not happen: there is no benediction, no dismissal. Because the worship is not over. It continues on Good Friday. And even then, we hear no final blessing. The service is not done, but will be picked up on Saturday (or Sunday). It lets us know that the story does not end here. Although we may sit with the bare and barren room for a time, there is more to come. Because ultimately, the end of our story is not death, but life.

Prayer for Maundy Thursday (ELW): Eternal God, in the sharing of a meal your Son established a new covenant for all people, and in the washing of feet he showed us the dignity of service. Grant that by the power of your Holy Spirit these signs of our life in faith may speak again to our hearts, feed our spirits, and refresh our bodies, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Holy Wednesday

Wednesday in Holy Week is sometimes referred to as “Spy Wednesday,” because it is thought to be the day when Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the authorities. Fittingly, the assigned text for today is John 13:21-32, the story of the betrayal.

A lot of time and thought throughout the years have been given to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot. What were his motives? Did the devil make him betray Jesus, or did he decide to on his own? What does that mean as far as his guilt? Was he repentant?

For his act of betraying Jesus, Judas has been demonized for 2,000 years. He is portrayed in art as an anti-Semitic stereotype, furthering racism towards Jews. He has been scapegoated by Christians and demonized, which lets us think that we are so much better than that terrible excuse for a human being who betrayed Jesus!

Yes, Judas betrayed Jesus, it is true. But so did Peter, who denied him three times. So did the rest of the disciples, who abandoned him to suffer alone. When we single Judas out for our hatred, we miss the bigger picture: all of the disciples ultimately fail Jesus.

But where there is failure, there is also redemption. At that same supper when Jesus predicts Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial, he also tells them that his life will be poured out for the forgiveness of sins. Thanks be to God!

The New Testament lesson assigned for today is from Hebrews 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” We often look to the saints, that great cloud of witnesses, as paragons of virtue to be imitated. And while they are to be imitated, let us imitate the fact that following Jesus doesn’t require perfection.

Following Jesus requires forgiveness and grace. There will be times when we betray our Lord with our words or actions. There will be times when we deny Jesus in our lives, and times when we abandon him for more worldly pursuits. Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us remember their witness to the endless possibilities of redemption and new starts.

Prayer for Wednesday in Holy Week (ELW): Almighty God, your Son our Savior suffered at human hands and endured the shame of the cross. Grant that we may walk in the way of his cross and find it the way of life and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Holy Tuesday

(This is the second post in my series of Holy Week devotions.)

This morning, like I have for the past two Holy Tuesdays, I attended the synod’s Chrism Mass. The Mass of the Chrism (traditionally held on Maundy Thursday morning–but we’re all super busy then), is a service in which the bishop blesses the oil which will be used at churches throughout the synod.

We also offer a time to renew our vows to ministry–pastors, deacons, assisting ministers, and the bishop all reaffirm their calls and ask for God’s help in carrying them out.

This service takes a while–between the affirmation of vows, blessing the oil, anointing, communion, and everything else, it usually lasts almost two hours. Add to that the commute and the lunch afterwards, and it becomes tempting to pass on the Chrism mass and simply pick up some olive oil yourself. After all, it’s Holy Week, and you could really use the better part of the day to get things done.

But sometimes I think that’s why this service is scheduled during Holy Week. To remind us, even during our busiest seasons, to take time for rest and renewal. To remind us that everything does not rest upon our shoulders.

Bishop Burkat’s sermon focused on this. In a season of the church, in a time in the world, when we can feel as if we are rushing from one thing to the next, never catching our breath: we must stop and breathe, for the breath is the very gift of God. In the act of creation, God breathed God’s spirit into human beings, to give them life. That same breath, and that same Spirit continue to sustain us to this day.

We must take time to attend to breathing. To catch our breath. The bishop used the analogy of how musicians use “staggered breathing” in order to hold a particularly long note in a piece. The flute section, for instance, takes turns breathing, so that the overall note can be sustained.

When we feel out of breath and world-weary, we must remember that we are not alone. We are part of families, part of churches, part of communities, who can sustain what must be sustained in order for us to stop and breath. But, the bishop reminded us, when we are ready, we need to come back and play again, for there are others waiting for their chance to stop and rest.

It was a very fitting sermon to give to a bunch of church professionals during Holy Week–but it is important for all of us to remember: take time to breathe and pause in the midst of God’s spirit. Remember that not everything depends upon you; you are part of a much larger community. Take time to be renewed, for there is still much to be done–Together.

Prayer for Tuesday of Holy Week (ELW): Lord Jesus, you have called us to follow you Grant that our love may not grow cold in your service, and that we may not fail or deny you in the time of trial, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Holy Monday

(This is the first in a series of posts providing a short daily contemplation for Holy Week.)

On Holy Monday, the tradition in the church has been to read the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple. The story can be found in Luke 19:45-48. Many attempts have been made to recreate Jesus’ last week based on the gospel accounts, and some believe that the cleansing of the Temple took place on Monday of that week. Whether or not it happened on Monday, what is clear is that Jesus’ disruption of the Temple was a turning point. From this moment on, his enemies are looking for ways to have him killed.

So what was it about that prophetic action that was so dangerous? Jesus was calling into question not only the way the religion had been commoditized, but also the inequality and social problems that system exploited. Making ritual sacrifice was an important part of Judaism at that time. Jesus was an observant Jew who would not be opposed to sacrifice on its own. But, the money-changing and marketplace that had grown around the temple made it so that the poor were cut off from practicing their religion. It was a system that benefited the elite, the people whose positions and hold on power Jesus presented the most direct threat to. It is reminiscent of the proclamation of the prophet Amos, who says in chapter 5, “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies, I will not accept [your sacrifices]…but let justice roll down like waters.”

It is worth noting that yesterday, April 9, is also the day the church recognizes theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A pastor of the Lutheran church, Bonhoeffer lived in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party. His moral resistance to Hitler from the start led him to participate in the Confessing Church, those who would publicly oppose Nazism. Bonhoeffer would eventually be executed on April 9, 1945.

Taking a stand against social injustices is seldom popular and can be a dangerous act. Yet, in our baptismal calling, we are sent to bear God’s redeeming word to all the world. Today, on Holy Monday, let us be thankful that our God is a disruptive God, seeking justice for all people.

Prayer for Monday of Holy Week (ELW): O God, your Son chose the path that led to pain before joy and to the cross before glory. Plant his cross in our hearts, so that in its power and love we may come at last to joy and glory, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.