Mother’s Day

As I’m sure everyone is aware, this Sunday is going to be Mother’s Day. My family will be doing what we do most years—gathering at my parents’ house for dinner and trying to make sure my mom doesn’t do too much of the cooking and cleaning up. A lot of us have tried and true traditions for Mother’s Day, as do a lot of churches.

As far as secular holidays go, Mother’s Day is well established in churches. Maybe that’s because families make a point of going to church together then. It can sometimes be a very high attendance Sunday, just after Easter in terms of numbers.

At St. Paul’s, we will recognize Mother’s Day, including special petitions in our prayers for mothers, but it won’t be the main focus of the day. Mother’s Day can be a challenging time for many, and it can be isolating and deeply saddening to sit through a service all about mothers.

As much as we celebrate and give thanks for the women in our lives who have nurtured, raised, and loved us, there is also heartbreak and distress on this day. For those who have strained or harmful relationships with their mothers. For women who desperately wish to be mothers, but have faced disappointment. For mothers whose children have died. For those of us whose mothers have died. In our prayers on Sunday, we will give thanks for the ways mothers show us God’s love, and we will also acknowledge the pain and grief that can be felt on this day.

There is no “right way” to feel on Mother’s Day. I hope that in church all feel accepted, no matter their emotions or backgrounds. Scripture is such a wonderful example to us, of all the ways that God uses women, mothers, and mothering figures, to show love, fierceness, and grace in this world.

I think of Hannah, who longed for a child and was disappointed for so many years. Of Ruth, who demonstrated the bonds between women—whether they are blood relations or not. Or of Martha and Mary, who show us there is no one way to be a woman or to be a disciple. Of Dorcas, who was a leader in the early church, showing that strength and compassion are not conflicting gifts. Of Eunice and Lois, whose gifts of motherhood (and grandmotherhood) teach us how to share God’s love with our children.

Mother’s Day can be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate and give thanks for the women in our lives who are mothers to us. It is also a time to keep in prayer all those for whom this day is difficult. May we show each other the love and compassion of God, who is Mother to us all.

A blessing for mothers:
Gracious God,
in love you have given us the gift of mothers.
Grant to each of them your power and grace.
Strengthen them in their mothering
with tenderness and understanding,
with compassion and joy.
Endow them with wisdom and knowledge
so that they might teach their children
how to live and how to love;
how to seek and pursue that which is right and true;
how to turn away from all that is hurtful and wrong.
Deepen their own faith
so that they might instill in their children a love for you
that will sustain and keep them their whole life long.
We ask this in Jesus’ name.
Amen.

On Sheep and Shepherds

Below is my sermon from Sunday, May 7th, the 4th Sunday of Easter. This week every year is dedicated to readings all about the Good Shepherd. Full disclosure, this has never been my favorite Sunday of the year. Maybe it should be, because I was baptized at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. But the imagery has never truly caught my attention or imagination the way other of Jesus’ parables do. In writing this sermon, I took a chance to push myself into the passage and see what things I could relate to.

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

It is, once again, Good Shepherd Sunday. Always, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we hear lots and lots of shepherd imagery. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we are his sheep. And to be honest, I’ve always kind of bristled at that, because, as we also hear again and again every Good Shepherd Sunday: sheep are stupid. And I’ve never much liked being compared to a sheep.

But it’s true—they’re really not the smartest animals in the bunch. They wouldn’t be able to find food or water without help, and the whole flock of them might wander into danger if someone isn’t watching out for them.

One thing really stood out to me in this passage, though. Jesus says, “the sheep know the voice of the shepherd.” They may be dumb animals, but they have this much going for them: they know who is good for them and who isn’t.

I never been around sheep much, except at a petting zoo, but I do know dogs. And my parents’ current dog, in all fairness, is not much smarter than a sheep. This would not be the dog you want to put in charge of the sheep. Even though she’s a little dimwitted sometimes, she knows who feeds her. It’s my mom. I could be petting her, playing with her, in the middle of giving her a treat—if my mom gets up and leaves the room, all of the dog’s attention has left the room, too. Because she knows who actually takes care of her.

The sheep follow their shepherd, but will not follow a voice they do not know. When I looked at it that way, I thought this comparison to sheep might actually be more insulting to the sheep than it is to me. There are a lot of voices competing for our attention nowadays, many of them promising the abundant life that Jesus speaks of.

You can have the way, the truth, and the good life, all for the price of a book or a DVD. Every new diet or health fad promises that it will make you into a brand new person—and obviously a much a happier, more fulfilled person. You just have to do what they tell you.

It’s inescapable; everywhere you turn there are voices—politicians, celebrities, bloggers—telling you that they can and will solve your problems for you, that they have the answer to find abundant life. Which begs the question—what does abundant life really look like?

The answer: it depends on who you ask.

Society and mainstream culture tell us that having abundant life is found in stuff: having more stuff, having the right stuff, doing the right stuff. Our happiness is dependent upon our possessions and our status. That’s the message of so many self-help books, infomercials, TV shows and movies.

But we have in our readings from today, a couple very different views of what abundant life looks like. The first is from the twenty-third psalm. What does this most famous psalm present as the abundant life? Life with God, recognizing who is truly your shepherd. It provides a secure, supported, and loving relationship that lasts through trials and valleys, and in good times as well.

This abundant life does not have everything, but it does have everything we need. It’s not a perfect life—there are trials and valleys—but we are never alone when we encounter them. The shepherd is there the whole way. The abundance is found in the love and support of God.

The other vision of abundant life in our readings is from the book of Acts. Here we have the early Christian community, gathered together in Jerusalem, fifty days after Jesus has risen from the dead. Here abundant life is found in community, in fellowship and in worship, and in relationships.

“They devoted themselves,” it says, “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers…All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and good and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”

This view of abundant life is not rooted in having things in abundance, but in having relationships in abundance. We cannot have abundant life in isolation—we also cannot have abundant life if our neighbors do not also get to participate. If I’m doing fine and my neighbor is hungry, or sick and uncared for, that is not abundant life. Everyone has as much as they need. And that is enough.

The hardest step for us, and where we might become quite jealous of the sheep, is in differentiating between the world’s view of abundance and God’s view. Between the allures of having or being or doing it all and the true abundance of relationships, and the love of God, and meaning in our lives.

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly, says Jesus. So often we talk about how Jesus saves us from things: from sin and death, from our own worst natures. And while that is true—we are also saved for. We are freed from those things in order that we might have life, and have life abundantly.

Jesus came that we might have life, dying on the cross to demonstrate God’s profound love for us, to assure us forgiveness of sin, and to free us to live in the here and now—abundantly. To live lives marked by love and relationships, by having enough (not more than enough), and by serving our neighbors to make sure that they also have enough.

It is a gift from God, from our Good Shepherd, that we know the difference between true abundance and the mere accumulation of stuff—money, things, prestige, power. That is not where we will ever find abundant life. Abundance comes to us through the love of God who wants us to have it. Abundant life is not something we can acquire, but rather something we receive from the loving God who gives it to us. Life together. With one another, and with God. Amen.

The Road to Emmaus

Below is my sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 30. It is focused on the Gospel passage for the day, the Road to Emmaus. This is definitely one of my favorite passages in the Bible, and it is tempting for me to go on for hours about it. To save everyone from that, I focused on one particular line: “But we had hoped.”

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

For my internship when I was in seminary, I was matched with a Lutheran church in downtown Easton, PA. It was a great historic church, founded in 1740. I really enjoyed my year there, especially getting to know a lot of the young people well—I taught the first through third grade Sunday School class for most of the year.

And one of the most fun things was always the kids’ confusion about biblical place names. Growing up in the Lehigh Valley, with towns named mostly by Moravians, reading Bible stories could have some comic results. For instance, when we were rehearsing our Christmas pageant, the young man playing Joseph just couldn’t understand why it was such a big deal to have to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. He’d been to both of those places loads of times.

And when we read our gospel story from this morning together, usually called the Road to Emmaus, a little girl in my class proclaimed, “I’ve been on that road, it’s the road my mom takes to get to work!” Of course, the road to Emmaus I was talking about was nowhere near Easton, Pennsylvania.

It was the road to the ancient city of Emmaus, from the equally ancient Jerusalem. It’s about a seven mile stretch of road. It’s an interesting scene. This story takes us back once again to Easter day, the day of the resurrection. The news hasn’t spread yet and these two dejected disciples, still living in a Good Friday world, are leaving Jerusalem, and beginning that seven mile walk towards Emmaus.

We don’t know if Emmaus was their final destination. We don’t really know who these disciples are, except that one is called Cleopas. But we do know that they have had enough of Jerusalem and all its empty promises, and so they are making that seven mile walk away.

If we’re honest, though, the real path they were walking was vastly longer and more difficult than seven miles. They were walking through the valley of disillusionment, a walk taken with hopes in shambles.

It’s always been one of the gloomiest verses in scripture to me, when these unknown disciples talk to the unrecognized Jesus on the road, and confess these words: But we had hoped. We had hoped. The past tense of the word hope has to be one of the saddest words there is.

The disciples on the road had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel—that he would bring salvation and redemption and freedom to the land and its people. To them. But we had hoped.

What are our hopes? What are our past-tense hopes? We had hoped…that our loved one would recover. We had hoped…the relationship would get better. We had hopped…the cancer would be in remission, this job would last, this school year would be different than the last, this ministry would grow. We had hoped our children would not have to live in a world still marred by war, racism, and prejudice. But we had hoped.

We like to live our lives in the future tense—things will get better, the sun will always come up tomorrow, keep on keeping on. But this unguarded moment on the road reveals a deep truth about life: it’s often imperfect. Imperfect in tense, and imperfect in reality.

And into that imperfection, right into the middle of those dashed and defeated hopes, comes Jesus. To share in that disappointment and grief. He could have revealed himself right away. That’s always been a question of mine, experiencing this story: how could the disciples not recognize him? Why didn’t he tell them who he was immediately? He could have. He could have moved directly to the moment of resurrection, but he didn’t.

Resurrection and the new life it brings is wonderful, and it is certainly the future that God promises each of us. It is the future that God has in store for each of us. But we can’t avoid acknowledging that for resurrection to be necessary, there is already a deep pain and loss. And the road from pain and loss to resurrection can be a tough one to walk.

Most of us are on that road sometimes: the road between distress and belief, between dashed hopes and promises fulfilled. We’ve been there. And we know that it can feel a lot further than seven miles.

But the thing I love most about this passage, is that God is not just waiting at the end of the road. God is not only there for the moment of resurrection, the moment of revelation, God is there for the whole journey: consoling, comforting, and yes, promising a new future.

The disciples do come to that moment of resurrection; they do come to recognize who their companion has been. When they reach Emmaus, they implore him to stay with them, for the day is almost over. And they realize who their companion has been all along, in the breaking of the bread.

Their eyes are opened. It makes sense, because did you know the word companion literally means, one whom you share bread with? And this is the way, this sharing of bread and of meals, is how Jesus had made himself known throughout his ministry—breaking bread with those who had no hope: the hungry, the poor, the outcast, and the sinner.

And so when Jesus sits at table with them, and breaks the bread, their eyes are opened. They are able to see who has been with them all along. Through this act of companionship, this act of brokenness, they find their hope restored again.

And they set off running, back down that same road. Those seven miles that felt so long, so impossible, only hours before, go by in a blur. Because they know that their hope is not past-tense, but rather a very real, present, living thing.

It can be a long road that we travel sometimes, this road from despair to hope, from the past tense to the future. In one sense, my Sunday School student’s declaration that she knows the road to Emmaus was spot on! We all know the road to Emmaus, because at one point or another we have all walked it. It can feel long and despairing, but it is truly a holy road.

And it is a road we never, ever, walk alone. Whether we recognize him or not, whether he appears as himself or merely a friendly companion, Jesus is there, walking the road with us. Telling us the story and breaking our bread, that our hope may once again be a present reality. Amen.

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.

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.