Who Is This Jesus?

Palm Sunday Picture with donkeyMessage for Palm Sunday on Ephesians 3:13-20 and Matthew 21:1-11 recorded on a worship video on April 5, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Sometimes when I am alone in the house, I yell at God—I did so just last week when my husband, Dan and my daughter, Leah were out on a walk. Life is not at all how I want it—people are suffering, and I feel powerless to help. I am trapped in the house, concerned about the church, and everyone I love who live in far away places, and nothing I do feels like enough. So, in those rare shelter-in-place moments where I am in the house alone, instead of taking a much-needed nap, I let God have it. For our souls are being ripped apart. I hope you will forgive me for saying, that if there were ever a Palm Sunday that I wanted to tell Jesus to get off his ass and do something, it is today!

The question on my mind as I rant at God is the same question on the minds of the people in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday as Jesus rides into town under shouts of “Hosanna!”—“Who is this? Who is this Jesus? All of Jerusalem is in turmoil over this question of, “who is this Jesus?” And what kind of God does this Jesus, this prophet, bring? What will he do for us? What comes after the parade?

We, too are in turmoil—who is Jesus and what will he do for us? We know what want—we want the Jesus who will fix this mess. We want the Jesus who will end the suffering, who will find a cure, who will stop the spread, who will save the children and the old people, and who will help us procure a vaccine in weeks instead of a year. We want Jesus with a God who will sweep in and wipe out the virus with a mighty hand an outstretched arm—a God who will save us, and protect our family, and free our country, and release our world from suffering.

This is the God I want today, this Holy Week, but the headlines in the morning and the news at night remind us that, like many faithful people before us, we are not getting the God we wanted.

Jesus does get off his ass, but not in order to take away the pain and the suffering, which after 2000 years, still puzzles us, and causes us to yell at an empty house. Instead he enters suffering, he accepts pain, he knowingly and willingly walks right into the pandemic of death to say to us, “this is where you will meet your God face to face, so fear not. I am here to take you by the hand in a life-long relationship so you know—in your own soul—the breadth and length and height and depth of God’s love for you, and my presence in you. It is greater than your suffering and stronger than death. You will experience it more and more as you let go and trust me, especially in suffering.”

God is not going to zap things and change things out there—God sent Jesus offering a relationship of love that changes us in here. And that is how God is working in us together to change the world out there to relieve suffering—by changing us from the inside out.

But suffering is never the end of the story—God’s movement is always to transform pain and death into new life, new joy, and indeed, resurrection. The question is not, whether we are we going to suffer, but “how are we going to deal with it?” Jesus enters Jerusalem—to transform suffering into new life.

We are living through Jesus’s Passion this week as we, and the world suffer together—how do we enter into suffering, enter the Passion with Jesus, enter this current crisis, open to the transformation of our suffering God to bring new life?

I have a simple prayer prescription for Holy Week and beyond:

First, be honest about the pain—yell at God like I do if you need to. Have a good cry, (which I have also done), go on a walk to relieve stress, write in a journal—find a way to get it out and give it to God. Know that God knows you and your suffering. Jesus is with you—he goes before you and behind you, above you and beneath you, beside you and within you. You are never alone.

Second, admit we have no control—that we are powerless over the Coronavirus and the effects it has, how much it will change our life, our routine, even our finances—and tell God, how much we hate that feeling of being out of control. Wait for the peace that comes when we stop trying to manage, control and fix it all. You can try the Peace Prayer—cup your hand and speak all of your troubles into them, and then lift your cupped hands, offering your troubles, yourself to God. Keep breathing deeply until you feel your body begin to relax and unclench.

Third, even though you may have done it before, turn your life over to Jesus anew every day. Raise your palm and say, “Jesus, I turn my will and my life over to you—all the way through to the cross—shape me through this suffering, into who you want me to be.”

Finally, continue to look for ways to turn Jesus’ passion into compassion for others who need to meet the God who suffers with them through you. Trust that God never allows the cross and its suffering to be the end of the story—it always leads to new life, it always leads to hope and it always leads to resurrection; Jesus leads us to let others know of the God who suffers with and for them and for whole world.

Who is this Jesus? He is God’s love meeting you in the breadth and length and height and depth of this moment of suffering and life, embracing us into renewed faith, greater hope, deeper peace. As it turns out, that is a God I want.

 

 

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Death Stinks

Unbinding of LazarusMessage for Lent 5 on John 11:1-45 recorded on video worship on March 29, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Death stinks. There have been so many times I have uttered under my breath, “I really hate death.” It is so final, so permanent, so irreversible, so out of my control. The person is gone, and there you are with a gaping emptiness you did not choose or want.

Our children never met Dan’s sister, Cynthia who died at age 35 of a congenital heart defect. We have told them stories and showed them pictures, but while memories are a comfort, it is not the same. They never heard Cynthia’s easy laugh or heard her play the piano which she could do by ear. Indeed, death stinks.

Which is why both Martha and Mary are angry at Jesus for lollygagging where he was for two more days before he came to Bethany. We too, would like Jesus to prevent death before it happens. But Jesus is four days too late to save Lazarus.

When Jesus sees Mary and all her friends weeping, he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. And when he arrives at the tomb, Jesus himself weeps and again is greatly disturbed. The people believe that Jesus, like them is expressing his own grief at the loss of his friend—and he is—but he is expressing much more than that.

Jesus is greatly disturbed not once but twice because he, like us, is angry at death, period. He is disturbed that death is fundamental to the human condition—that it is an inevitable part of being human which we cannot avoid nor control, and that death is often the source of our greatest fear and our deepest sorrow.

That is the deep-down difficulty with the COVID-19 crisis that we all are facing. It does not let us deny, ignore or push aside death—instead every day, we must come face to face with its inevitability for us and those we love. We are reminded that we do not know when or how or if it will come, that it is as unknown as it is whether or not we were exposed to the virus at the checkout counter at the grocery store.

It is because of this terrifying truth of human life that we face every single day—pandemic or not—that Jesus waits before he comes to Mary and Martha in their grief. Jesus joins them at the point where death really, really stinks—when death is irreversible, overwhelming and final—to show us unmistakably, that death is not final for God and therefore it is not final for us.

In a move that foreshadows his own death and resurrection, Jesus asks them to roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, and just as Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name in the garden on Easter morning—leading her recognize him as the resurrected Lord—Jesus calls Lazarus by name—a stinky man dead for 4 days—to come out of the tomb. Lazarus does as Jesus commands him.

Jesus calls each of us by name in this COVID crisis—calling us to life in him even in the face of death. The reality of a God who creates billions of galaxies, who loves us so much as to compress down into human form, entering the most painful part of our existence—death itself—to show us that death is not an end, not something to fear, but it is doorway to a new life, to greater love, to more complete union with God in Christ—that is the basis of our hope and our life right now, here today. The question for us is not to wonder about how or when will I die, but as one who hears Jesus call my name into life—how can I shine the light and hope of the risen Christ who is both my eternal destiny and my present reality?

Jesus gives instructions about that as well. Lazarus comes out of the tomb still bound up in the grave cloths in which he was wrapped at death. He tells Mary, Martha and their friends to “unbind him and let him go.”

To live in the light and hope of the risen Christ is to unbind people from whatever holds them back from fullness of life. There are many opportunities for such unbinding right now.

• Many of you are doing this already by reaching out to neighbors and church members with phone calls, texts and other ways to check-in.
• Many of you are sharing worship to help people feel connected to God and to a larger community.
• During our first Zoom happy hour on Friday, Carol Peterson shared a great idea of calling old friends she had not been in touch with for a long time. She thought she was doing it for herself, but she found she was really cheering up every person she called—and connecting with people she had not talked with in over 5 years brought real joy to both of them. Carol also said we need to think of the glass not as “half-empty or half-full but rather as re-fillable” and we all felt a little less bound after that! Unbound life in Jesus’ resurrection is to always hold life as a refillable glass!
• When this crisis passes, God will call us as the church to new ways of ministry to help unbind those who have been deeply hurt in this time—not just economically, but those who are grieving, those in need community and other forms of support.

And this unbinding always begins with us. We still feel bound by feelings of fear, disappointment or anger—we still find ourselves, through this pandemic, thinking “This stinks!” And that’s okay. For daily, God unbinds us from these feelings and attitudes so we can clearly hear Jesus calling our name back into life and love again. And when we hear our name, we again receive that Blessed Assurance that we are his.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life—and his resurrection life is alive in us here and now. Breathe deeply of the fresh air today, trusting that Jesus’s life in, around, and through you, is the sweetest smell there is!

 

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Four COVID-19 Takeaways from the Healing of the Man Born Blind

manbornblindMessage for Lent 4 on John 9:1-41 on March 22, 2020 given by video worship for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

In this time when we are so focused on our own health and the health of others, it gives me hope that the Gospel reading appointed for today is the healing story of the man born blind. As we worship for the second week by video and experience the first week of all of us being asked to “shelter in place” to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we all need to hear a story of hope in the midst of our very real fears. In this story, I hear Jesus calling each of us to a deeper faith in the following four ways:

1. Don’t waste time on blame. Blame has been our natural response to sin and human brokenness since the story of Adam of Eve. Whose fault is this virus, and can I escape the blame? Jesus lets us know in short order it is futile to expend our thoughts, time or energy on blame. Sin and brokenness are a fact of this fallen world, new diseases will continue to arise as civilization advances and humans continue to encroach on animal habitats.

Instead, Jesus calls us to shift our sight to what God is doing in the midst of human pain. Jesus calls us to give up the blindness of blame and focus on the vision of what God is doing in our midst. Mister Rogers used to say that in times of crisis, we always see God in the helpers.

So today, we give God the glory for doctors, nurses, and hospital staff, for people sewing face masks to make up for the shortage, for first responders and people working in grocery stores, for people cooking for their elderly neighbors, for going to work in nursing homes and comforting those who can’t see their family, for those who are following the shelter in place orders to stop the spread, people with resources who donate to Network or homeless shelters, and for those who are praying with all their might. Any act that we do in consideration of our neighbor, the larger community, and the well-being of others, is a moment to give glory to God.

2. Healing is a process and requires our participation. Some of the Biblical stories of healing involve an instant change for the person healed, but not in this story. For the man born blind, healing took time and required his action, and his ability to follow instructions. I am sure it was uncomfortable to have a stranger’s muddy spit on his eyes. We are not exactly sure how the blind man found the Pool of Siloam—but someone had to get him there safely. Then he had to wash thoroughly—in an arid climate, perhaps the mud had already started to dry, so he probably had to wash for at least 20 seconds.

Healing our community and the planet of the COVID-19 is going to be a long process that requires all our participation in doing things we have never done before. It is uncomfortable and even sounds insane at times. But the health and well-being of ourselves and others depends on us each of us following the CDC and governmental instructions to participate in our community’s healing and recovery. Like the man born blind, we need to wash and follow directions.

3. Tell the story of what God has done for you. After his sight is restored, the formerly blind man becomes a walking talking miracle—but not everyone is ready to celebrate with him. Even the change that good news brings can induce fear and criticism. But this does not stop the man from repeatedly telling others what Jesus has done for him. He does not pretend to know everything nor have all the answers, he simply sticks to his own story. Jesus was accused of being sinner and he responded, I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.

We do not know everything about this virus and how long sheltering in place will last—but we each have a story of what God had done for us. For the blind man, it was “that though I was blind, now I see!” What is your “that?” What is it “that” God has done for you? “That” has changed your life? “That” Jesus has saved and healed for you? This is a time for us to share our story about what Jesus has done for us—remember with your family, share it with friends over the phone or Skype. When we remember God’s faithfulness to us in the past and share those stories, it gives us faith and confidence in Jesus’ presence and power for us in this present moment.

4. Finally, it’s our relationship with Jesus the Christ that truly matters. After all he has been through, the newly sighted man comes face to face with Jesus again. Jesus tells him that he is the living God, so the man confesses his belief, building a whole-soul relationship that will last him an eternity, no matter what happens, no matter what anyone else thinks, not matter what crisis befalls him in the future.

More than giving him sight, this is a life-saving relationship that will sustain him in all things. This is where our hope, our health, our well-being lies in this moment. Our spiritual gift is to remain centered in our relationship with Jesus the Christ and not allow ourselves to become blinded by fear or worry about tomorrow and instead, to cling to Christ and trust him.

We can imagine Jesus standing before us and join the newly sighted man in his confession of faith, “Lord, I believe!” We put our life in his hands anew each day, asking him to fill us with the power of his resurrected Spirit, giving us the wisdom to know the next right thing to do and the courage to do it for ourselves, our family, our church, and our community. It may be to stay right where we are and pray and meditate. It may be to make phone calls or write notes of encouragement. It may be to make donations to help others. It may be to fill our freezer with soup for neighbors.

Whatever it is God asks of you in this moment, remember that your greatest resource, your strongest hope, your widest strength, your finest skill, and your deepest courage all come from your relationship with Jesus who is always with you and never, ever fails you. With the man born blind who now sees, we also see and trust that Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. And with him we exclaim with our whole heart and soul: “Lord, I believe!” 

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Centered in Christ to Love in Crisis

doublerainbowpic.jpegMessage for Lent 3 on Romans 5:1-11 for March 15, 2020 recorded for video worship for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas 

This is a hard and confusing time. We are living through a pandemic that none of us have ever experienced before and seems to be the stuff of Hollywood imaginations. Yet, here we are, recording worship, so that those who are most at risk are protected, and so that we can do our part to slow and hopefully stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This situation makes clear that we are one humanity, that our world is intricately connected, that what affects one community, easily affects all communities, and that our economies, health, and well-being as a global population rise and fall together.

We are witnessing all kinds of responses to this pandemic and we feel them within ourselves to varying degrees. At one extreme we see fear and panic, leading people to stockpile resources, wear face masks even when they are not ill nor working in healthcare, posting worst-case scenarios on social media, and proclaiming the end of the world as we know it.

At the other end of the extreme, I have seen flagrant disregard of reason and facts, leading some to scoff at warnings, mock those taking precautions, disregard social distancing, hand-washing and other health advice, and act as if they are somehow detached from the world of which we are intimately a part. Sometimes I feel both of these extremes inside in the span of an afternoon, even as I seek not to verbalize or act on either one.

Paul’s letter to the Romans invites us into a different way of living and a new response to a situation of uncertainty and suffering. Paul was addressing Christians who were persecuted for their faith, but his words apply to us in this unprecedented moment of a global pandemic that is affecting all of our lives. How do we navigate this new world as followers of Jesus?

Paul, who intimately knew hardship and suffering, immediately pulls us back to the center—the center of our faith, the center of our life, our heart, our mind, our soul—which is our relationship with God in Jesus Christ who defines our hope and our way forward.

Paul proclaims that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us… for if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”

In this time of pandemic and in every time, our life has already been saved by Jesus, who has reconciled us to God! The good news is we do not have to do this ourselves! Out of love for us, God has already saved us. Jesus has conquered the power of death in whatever form it comes at whatever time and joined us to the life of Christ. Our life is secure, and no one, nothing, not even death, not even COVID-19 can take away our life in Christ. We are free! Freed from worry or anxiety about illness or death or any of it. We are joined to Christ and that’s a fact, so whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.

This is our promise: “God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

God has not left us to our own devices, but through the resurrection of Christ, God fills us with love—making our “Spirits come alive” with love for the world. So, in this challenging time, God pulls us in from extremes to our heart center, filling us with the Spirit to live and to act with love—love for each other, love for our neighbor, love for our community, and love for the world God made and sent Christ to save. God’s love poured into us helps us focus on how God calls us to love our neighbor, our fellow church members, our co-workers, and others during this time.

NBA player Zion Williamson has given us a great example of love, as a 19-year old, who was one of the first players offering to pay the salary of hourly workers who will lose income from canceled games. What might receiving this blessed assurance of love, and extending the reconciling power of Christ look like in your arena? It may look like doing grocery shopping for your neighbors, making phone calls to our homebound, or setting up an elderly neighbor on Facebook to see worship on-line.

Paul promises us that no matter the suffering this current crisis may cause us, God is working through us to bring spiritual blessings to us and our whole community. In fact we can “also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Lent calls us to deepen these gifts of the Holy Spirit in us and we now have a global situation where we can put our faith to work like never before.

We close today, where Paul begins, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” Paul doesn’t command us to have peace or give us a wishy-washy maybe that we might get it. It’s already done. “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” You have peace, you are peace, so we can live Christ’s peace and be at peace. We live as loving ambassadors of peace for others, trusting the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our life now and to the end of the age. 

Image: Dan, Leah and I saw this double rainbow on a walk earlier this week

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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