A Powerful Testimony!

krishen khanna doubting thomas with jesusMessage for Easter 2 on John 20:19-31 given on April 9, 2020 for St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas, which can be viewed on video here

When our children were preschoolers and making the transition from a baby car seat to a toddler car seat, I remember very vividly changing the seats in my minivan. I printed out a nametag to tape to the back of their new booster seat, so that if we were in an accident, and I were incapacitated, they could be identified. I had worked as a chaplain at a children’s hospital briefly, so I knew the importance of adding one more sentence to their nametag: “we support organ and tissue donation.”

But when it came time to actually tape the nametag to the back of the new toddler car seat, I could barely do it. I cried my fool head off. To do so was to acknowledge that raising children in this world and putting them in a car was exposing them to unseen forces and other’s choices I could not control. It was to admit that bad things happen to good people. It was to recognize that I could not always fix, manage or rescue them from harm. To tape a nametag at all to the back of their car seat was to acknowledge death and I so badly, did not want to do that.

I am reminded of this experience when I put on a mask and gloves to go to the grocery store, or pharmacy, or even up to church. To do so is to acknowledge that we are all exposed to unseen forces and other’s choices that we cannot control. It is to admit that bad things happen to good people, and that we cannot always fix, manage or rescue ourselves or those we love from harm. To don mask and gloves is to acknowledge death and we so badly, do not want to do that.

Perhaps this why the disciples remain in a locked room, sheltering-in-place—because they so badly do not want to acknowledge death. Mary Magdalene has already encountered the risen Lord, but it does not seem real to them, so they remain afraid and locked up inside. They fear that as Jesus followers, death will come for them as well—that those who killed Jesus will be coming for them next. They fear that to go outside and live without Jesus is to acknowledge that death won, and they must live a future they have no idea how to manage. They fear ever putting themselves out there again because the best thing that ever happened to them just went to hell in handbasket, and they are still reeling from the shock of it all. They fear that Mary Magdelene has gone back to being possessed by demons—going off about seeing Jesus alive—and none of them are yet prepared to go back to their old life the way it was before Jesus—no one wants a life without Jesus.

The disciples cannot step out of the house and acknowledge death, so Jesus—who did not need the stone rolled away and now does not need a door opened for him—steps into the house, appearing smack dab in the middle of their sheltered fear.

“Peace be with you” Jesus says. And he shows them his hands and side.

Imagine that moment as the grip of death begins to melt as Jesus promises come flooding back into their minds, washing over their whole being:

 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28 You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ …  And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.
 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.

Jesus’ peace moves over them, like rays of sun rising in the dawn, warming them, softening them, filling them with peace and sweet relief—and as everything he said falls into place like the last piece of a puzzle. Death is not the enemy nor even the end—Jesus is here—alive again—just as he said—meeting us and carrying us through to the other side. It really is Jesus—scars and all—holes in the hands and feet, a slit in the side. Somehow resurrection does not eliminate the past, it transforms its pain into life and peace!
We don’t know where Thomas was that day—perhaps he was out looking for Jesus upon hearing Mary’s testimony, or maybe it was his turn to risk going out to get some food from the market. But regardless of the reason, Thomas’s absence meant that Jesus had to return. How unfortunate that Thomas is branded as a “doubter”—especially because the word “doubt” does not appear in the Greek—a better translation is, “do not be an ‘unbeliever’ but believe!”

Thomas simply wants the same experience the other disciples had—what a compelling mission for the church—for each of us! To share such a moving story of our experience and relationship with Jesus that others come to God asking for the same experience of the risen Lord! Don’t we want all of our testimonies leading others to say, “I want that experience of Jesus, too! When I have that experience of Jesus, I will believe, too!”

That gives meaning to our suffering, and our scars. I believe that’s why Jesus’s scars are still visible after the resurrection instead of completely transformed. Because it is our scars and our suffering that gives rise to our testimony. Not to give us bragging rights about what we have survived, (which I sometimes want to do) but our scars give us a testimony of what God has brought us through. “Look what God has done for me—and God can do the same for you!” God has brought us from death to life, from suffering to victory, from pain to promise—that’s why Jesus still has scars in the resurrection. New life does not discount, ignore, bury, or disregard our pain or difficulty, it transforms them into new life which becomes the basis of our testimony to grow faith in others. “Look at my hands and my chest, my back, my hip, my broken heart—this is how God got me through, and I am here to help show you God will get you through as well.”

Thomas had the courage to ask for what he needed, and Jesus came back and found him, and gave him what he needed. Jesus will use our scars to help find the Thomases of the world who are locked up and afraid, asking for God to show up, and they need someone to share their story.

But Jesus does not leave us to our own devices in this new life and future. Jesus breathes on the disciples and us the Holy Spirit—another one like Jesus—the Paraclete—which literally means the one “called alongside” us. And Jesus does not breathe “on” them—Jesus breathes “into” them the Holy Spirit—like a divine respirator! It’s just like God giving breath to the first humans in Genesis, or Ezekiel’s image of God’s breath into the dry bones—the Holy Spirit is divine respiration and life itself and Jesus’ power all in one! This is why I am always saying that God is as close as our own breath!

It is only with divine respiration and Holy Spirit power that sends the disciples into a new future to share their belief and living relationship with risen Christ. The church is sent to witness—to embody the peace, the hope and the life of a living, breathing relationship with Jesus the Christ—that causes other people to react like Thomas, and say, “I want that too!” The church is wherever God’s people gather, and right now which is in our homes, among our family, on the internet, and when we go out occasionally for work and supplies—the Holy Spirit is blessing us with the peace and power of the risen Christ to be the church where we are and to be sustained by our relationship with the risen Christ, scars and all.

The Holy Spirit who gave them breath and power, equipped the disciples for a new future they did not know, and could not predict or plan. We do not know what the future will look like and how exactly our lives, work, or church will change, but we are already equipped to live into the future. The risen Christ sends us with the power of the Holy Spirit who never leaves us, and like Thomas, always finds us when we ask for his presence with us.

I finally did get those name tags taped to the back of the car seats with a message of support for organ and tissue donation, but not by my own strength. I finally trusted in the risen Christ for my children and me, knowing that no matter what happened, we would never be alone; I would be equipped for the future with what I needed through the Holy Spirit, when the time came. That peace helped me be clear about the values I wanted to live by that day.

That’s the most we can do today—trust in the peace of Christ and the breath of the Holy Spirit—and let that peace guide our highest values and choices today, trusting the risen Lord and his Spirit will be with us in the future we cannot yet see.

Image: Krishen Khanna (Indian, b. 1925)

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Easter and the Bonus Miracle

Easter2020 MatthewMessage for Shelter-in-Place Easter on Matthew 28:1-10 on April 12, 2020 for St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas and can be viewed here
(with apologies for late postings while we refigure new ways to be church!)

The two Mary’s pick their way to the tomb at dawn; they have no spices in hand because the tomb is well-sealed and armed guards stand watch. Like many of us after a particularly grievous death, they go to the tomb to mourn. They do not expect to see anything but death—a tomb, a stone, and powerlessness. Their future, their hopes had been snatched away while they could only stand at a distance and watch. At least now they can get closer to Jesus—they can be near the tomb and release their anguish. The crowds and their shouting are gone. They can be alone with their thoughts and the body of their Lord for a quiet a moment.

But when they arrive, they are shaken loose from their despair by the ground quaking beneath them. An angel appears like lightening and rolls away the stone in front from the tomb. The soldiers fall out like they are dead!

I love that these strong, armed soldiers, trained for war, fall out at the first sign of trouble! But the women—the women who are also afraid—stand their ground to see what happens next. What the angel really says to them is, “Don’t YOU be afraid”—as in, “don’t shake and fall over like those big, brave soldiers do! You are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here for he has been raised—just as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”

The angel does not roll away the stone in order to let Jesus out—God has already raised him! The angel rolls away the stone to let the witnesses in! God raises Jesus from the dead to let us in on the fact that God can roll away every stone, every obstacle, every fear in our life—so that WE know that God has power over even death itself. Come and see that death has no power! Illness has no power! COVID-19 has no power! It may take the body for now, but not forever. It cannot kill the soul; it cannot overpower God. Death is not final! Death is never final in God!

Once the women see the empty tomb—they cannot linger or bask in the angel’s glow—they have a mission to fulfill. The angel immediately gives them instructions: “Go quickly and tell his disciples, "He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you." The angel goes from miracle to mission. See the miracle, fulfill the mission!

The miracle of God’s power over death is never a mission we can keep to ourselves—it must be shared! Everyone must know—for they, too have been standing, staring at an immovable stone like death, believing it is the end of the story. Because in Jesus Christ, death is never the end of the story—we have a mission to tell others that God is more powerful than death or any other power on this earth!

So, Mary and Mary go and do as they are told. Not expecting to see Jesus themselves—they do not even ask for glimpse—instead, they trust that with the other disciples, they will see Jesus in Galilee.

But even though they don’t ask, Jesus does appear to them on the road as they follow the angel’s instructions. Jesus is going off-script here—and we are not sure why. Did he and the angel miss signals, or did he just decide to give the women a bonus miracle? During this pandemic, I am going with “bonus miracle.” Many of the women traveled with Jesus ministering to him by preparing food, offering hospitality, getting water and attending to daily needs. I imagine Jesus’ unscripted appearance on the road is Jesus’ way of ministering back to the women, so their role in the Gospel mission is sure to be acknowledged and recorded.

All of us are learning to live life in a different way, following new instructions, and providing for our families, neighbors and each other with new patterns. Jesus “bonus miracle” on the road reminds us that the risen Christ appears to us in our daily life, ministering to us and acknowledging the importance of our small acts of love, preparing food, offering care, hospitality, and service to one another.

We meet Jesus in each other: I have seen Jesus in the people of St. Luke’s making masks, delivering food, making calls, praying, cooking soup, teaching Spanish, doing essential work, making worship videos, giving generously, taking care of the church yard, paying bills, caring for family and neighbors. I have seen the risen Christ in my own daughter, Leah, cooking and managing quarantine for my son and husband, while I, as a high-risk person, stay safely at my dad’s house, I am sure you have seen the risen Christ in your own family and neighborhood. We all certainly see Jesus in medical staff and first responders, and all people working to bring life to others—signs of the risen Christ, who are living emblems that death has not and will not win.

The women’s response to their “bonus miracle” of beholding Jesus on the road is to worship at his feet. On Maundy Thursday, Jesus knelt at the disciples’ feet; the women, in response to seeing their risen Lord, fall on their knees in worship. This is one gift of the church during this difficult time—we are expanding and growing in new ways! Using every possible vehicle—YouTube, Facebook, Zoom—the global church of Jesus Christ is worshipping and praying together, and connecting like never before! We are expanding our audience and increasing our worshipping attendance through the miracle of technology! Only the risen Christ can increase our hearts for worship like that!

Again, the women are not able to linger in the glow of resurrection on the road with Jesus—worship moves toward ministry. See the miracle, fulfill the mission!
Jesus repeats the angel’s words and tells the women that their future will be forever different. "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me." They are not to be afraid now or in the future—for Jesus is going ahead of them and will always be there!

Life will be different after this COVID-19 crisis and our temptation will be to look at the future in terms of grief and death, what we have lost. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ calls us to look to the coming months and the rest of 2020 with Easter eyes and to move forward with Easter feet.

The future was different for the first disciples after Jesus death—because after the stone was rolled away revealing God’s power over death, they always knew that Jesus went into the future before them. The future is always about where the resurrected Christ meets us, calls us, and blesses us with new gifts.

Yes, the future will be different—and we can look at those differences with Easter eyes—

• we will re-prioritize what truly matters,
• we will understand the interconnectedness of the world and its well-being,
• we will take greater care in how our behavior affects the health of others,
• we will know when to rest and be still,
• we will be more flexible and adaptable, we will appreciate small blessings,
• we will more deeply value community, hugs, and shared meals with friends and family,
• We will worship and sing together even more joyously.

And not only that, we go into the future together on Easter feet, as the family of Christ. Jesus gives us our mission: “tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me." The disciples who denied and abandoned Jesus are now called, “brothers”—we are all sisters and brothers of Jesus Christ, the family of God, joined by love and bound in the same body to enter the future God has for us as one community in mission together.

Jesus has a miracle and a mission for us at every turn of the Easter story, and he will continue to appear to us with love and power at every turn of our story. Look to today, tomorrow and the future with Easter eyes, moving forward as a family on Easter feet; for Christ is risen, and Jesus goes before us into the future filled with life.

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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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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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