Monday, April 25, 2011

Tell it out with joyful voice!

Fairy tales have been much on my mind this week. That might surprise you, given the workload of Holy Week and the events affecting us. Naturally, the press has been trumpeting the upcoming nuptials of William and Kate. Now, I am old enough to remember the first fairy tale wedding. Like many my age or older, I got up in the middle of the night to watch Diana demurely stroll down the isle to meet her prince. Sadly, as is all too often the case, that marriage was anything but a fairy tale. There was not happy ending. They did not, as the story books claim, live happily ever after. Charges of marital infidelity, invasion of privacy, and a tragic death made sure that was no happy ending. Perhaps, part of the reason so many want this one to succeed is because of the image of the little boy trailing behind his mother's casket. Of course, such sad endings have been part of our life these last few days. . .

Earlier this week, one of our families buried loved one who was a husband to one, a brother to another, and an uncle/great uncle to many. The world would probably note that he had suffered for years with Alzheimer's, so his passing must have been a lifting of a burden. Plus, he'd lived a full life. The only real tragedy surrounding his death, by human standards, was the fact that he'd lived so long without his faculties. Of course, for those who loved him, for those who knew him as a lover, a brother who could get under one's skin, or an uncle who might spoil and tell tales about a parent, his passing is anything but good. There is a terrible sense of loss, a terrible sense of finality, a terrible sense of sadness. What kind of God thinks this is an acceptable ending to a life?

That alone would be tragic enough for one group of faithful people, but our sad endings were not to end there this week. Those of us that are active in the fight against Human Trafficking and those of us on the Prayer Chain know the loss suffered by one of our partners in ministry. Again, by human standards, his passing might not seem so sad. Like Johnny, Hovey was older. Like Johnny, Hovey had suffered from a lingering disease. He'd had a chance to say his good-byes, and he's certainly gotten extra time on earth after having been diagnosed with the big “C.” But, he too had a family. A widow mourns his passing and the loss of his support. Children have lost a father. Grandchildren have lost one of their biggest fans and spoilers. Business partners have lost a good partner. And, as evidenced by the number of people who turned out at St. Peter's for the funeral, the community even recognized someone valuable has passed. But some of us might wonder, did God notice?

And, perhaps a bit harder on more of us, we lost one of our youthful partners late last week and mourned his passing this week. Shawn Arnold, one of our partners in AFM, passed away from a long battle with disease. His story is a bit more tragic by human standards, and particularly so for our intercessors. It always seemed like Shawn would climb whatever hill needed climbing, fight whatever battle needed to be fought. Unlike the other two, Shawn was young, too young. He was only 24. Like the other two, he had a chance to say his good-byes. For 8 ½ months he fought the good fight. Just when it appeared that he had beaten the infections and was going to finally get the blood marrow transplant, the cancer cells returned. All the fighting, all the suffering had been for nothing. His end seemed cruel – such long fights are supposed to have happy endings. Yet, in a scene not dissimilar from our Lord's passing, Shawn gave up his fight and finally succumbed to the inevitable. What kind of loving God allows children to be taken from us?

And, as if those stories were not enough for us, we were given a final communal sucker punch to the gut last Sunday. Just as I was announcing that Dawn and Tony had run off and gotten married last Tuesday, Tony was being taken from her and from us. Tuesday, Dawn and Tony are thrilled and excited. Tony was so excited that he returned on Thursday with Alaska (his German Shepherd also known as “Snots”) and some paperwork he'd been gathering for the bishop. And as we were processing out on Palm Sunday, his heart was failing him. Unlike the first three deaths, there was no chance for good byes. Things were left unspoken. Dawn and many of us were left to wonder why. How was God present in this? Why would God allow a couple to get married on a Tuesday and take one of them the following Sunday?

Each of us gathered here today has been touched by at least one of those deaths, and some of us have been touched by all four. And now, into this special community of faith, we are about to baptize our newest member, Maggie. Have we lost our collective minds? Who in their right mind wants to be a part of a group that knows so much suffering and death? Worse, where are the triumphal shouts of the righteous, as promised by the psalmist? We, better than most, know the true suffering in our midst. Ordinarily, you and I deal only with the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the abused, and the enslaved. On top of all that though, during the week we call Holy, we get these terrible endings. Where is the happy ending the fairy tale promised us? Where is our victory that He promised? Too often it seems like we are on the losing side. Too often, we have more questions than answers. Too often, we are mourning rather than celebrating. And we have the audacity to hope? We have the temerity to claim that we are loved by our Father in Heaven?

In a pastoral sense, these deaths in and on the periphery of our Parish could not have happened at a more appropriate time. While the world struggles with its realization that there are no happy endings, even for the rich and powerful, you and I are reminded that it was for things such as this that He came into the world. It was for this kind of suffering, this kind of mourning, this kind of hurt, this kind of pain that He became human. And, when we are each finally confronted with death, we realize the futility of our efforts. We may think we can provide for ourselves by making sure that we are eligible for a promotion at work; we may think that our doctors gave give us great health if we follow their regimens of medicines, vitamins, and hygiene; we may think that we can “fix” whatever we think is wrong with us through repeated visits to therapists. But death still stands as an unconquerable wall. There is nothing you and I can do to put it off, avoid it, or otherwise dodge its effects. Whether it comes slowly and expectedly or quickly and unexpectedly, its own advent in our lives is unavoidable. It was into that finality, it was into that area where you and I are most powerless that He came to act! And to make it possible for us to live with Him forever, He went willingly to the cross, stayed there when we taunted Him to come down, and finally gave up His life. He became sin who knew no sin that you and I might share His righteousness. And so, brothers and sisters, we stand at gravesides and make our alleluias. Those of us who gathered at these various funerals were reminded of the need for Him to work and walk this week so long ago. For us to have any hope, for us to be able to claim any sense of joy, that tomb had to be empty! And do not mistake it for those of you who have lost your faith or have never had the Gospel explained: this was not a mental resurrection. This day that we celebrate is not a celebration of a carpenter's ideas, his way of life, and some of his amazing insights. No, indeed! This day, 2000 years ago, taught us that God had acted finally and unequivocally to save His people. That great equalizer in the eyes of the world, death, was destroyed. True, unless He comes again before our demise, each of us will experience the death of our bodies. But none of us who die with Him as Lord will remain dead because just as we have died with Him in baptism, He will raise us with Him in new life.

What better offer then, what better hope in such a dark and painful world can Jason and Grace offer poor Maggie? Fully aware of our life together and the sufferings of their own lives and the sufferings that their daughter is likely to face, both Jason and Grace have committed to raise their daughter as one of His. In a few moments, they will promise to do their best, always in need of God's grace, to raise little Maggie to love what He loves and hates what He hates. Can there be a better gift for a daughter? And what a gift it has turned out to be for us! When both Jason and Grace began looking for a date to baptize Maggie, Easter was a time when the whole family and close friends could expect to get together. Who knew how much you and I would need to be reminded of the promise of Christ Jesus? Who knew how much suffering there would be in our lives and how much we would, as a group, need to reaffirm our willingness to go where He has led and to trust in His power and love? Who knew how much we would need to be reminded that He knows our crosses and always goes before us better than God?

Brothers and sisters, this week reminds us all that there are no happy endings, apart from the cross. Unless we are willing to die to selves and to our own plans and our own expectations, the fairy tales all end the same way—in death. This day, we gather as a community of believers, confident in His promises and certain of His power. Easter reminds us that the only happy endings are those that end in Him. To Him has been given power and authority to redeem all things, even our deaths. Thanks be to God that He calls us all to life, a resurrected life, in Him! And thanks be to God that one day, one day, when we have crossed over that great chasm between life and death, He will call to us like He did to Lazarus. Except this time the command will not be “come out” but rather “rise up.” And all of us who claim Him as Lord of our lives and of our deaths will once again obey the sound of His voice and enter into the kingdom He has prepared for us along with all those who, trusting in His promises, went before us. Together, we will take possession of our promised inheritances as first borns, and celebrate what He has done for us for all eternity. That, brothers and sisters, is a promise worth dying for. With that reward in mind and cognizant of His power even over our deaths, brothers and sisters, is how He calls us to live while we sojourn on earth!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A lesson in gratitude . . .

I have much to be thankful for—I affectionately call him “horseradish man.” “Ray” is one of the regulars at the Community Meal. His is one of those faces and voices that I see and miss when he is absent. Still his words humble me. To put them in context, let's go back to Wednesday night. . .
Ray grabbed me and asked me if I had a second for him. It happens fairly frequently when we go to feed the homeless, so I had no expectation of what was about to happen. “Sorry I missed you guys last month.” I remembered that he was not there, and when it is freezing and one is dealing with the homeless, a missing familiar face can cause some worry.
“I wondered if you were ok,” I let him know.
“I figured. It's cool to be missed, but I wanted to let you know that I was not ungrateful.” He said.
“Ungrateful?” I asked.
“Ya. I just wanted you to know and for you to let your people know that I can't begin to thank you all enough for what you do for us.”
“Thank you. I will let them know.”
“It's just that the last time you guys served, it was Ash Wednesday.”
I thought about it and remembered my conversations with a few of the hungry back then. There was some genuine concern that we might be late for our church that night because we were feeding them. Some went the extra step of suggesting that we should not have served seconds, for fear of the time.
“You know, Ray, you're right. I had a bunch of people here worried we would be late for church.”
“Yeah, well, we are so grateful for what you guys do, and everyone wants to make sure you don't get in trouble with your people or your bishop by being late on such an important day.”
“I appreciate that, but the same people who make that food for you are the same people who show up for that service. They aren't going to complain too much, as long as I show up.”
“I suppose that's probably right. Anyway, I wasn't here because I realized it was Ash Wednesday and I had a lot to be thankful for and I need to go thank God. So, I went to the night service at that Catholic church over there where Big Paul was killed. You know the one? And I went to church and got ashes. I didn't eat, but the priest said it is a day of fasting. Do you fast on Ash Wednesday?
“And you still come here and serve food? Doesn't that make you hungry?”
“A bit. But I needed to be fasting.”
“I was being pulled in a bunch of different ways, and I needed to be reminded who it was that I served and to slow down and rest in Him. Sometimes I forget that it's not up to me.”
“I suppose that makes sense. You priests can get really busy, I guess.”
“You know what does not make sense?”
“What do you have to be thankful for?”
“Lots! I didn't catch pneumonia this winter, so I am healthy. I didn't have anything stolen. I still have my life—Big Paul lost his. I have been well fed. Heck, you guys gave me a meal I will never forget as long as I live. You even let me criticize it and defend me with all these guys when they thought I was being ungrateful. And you took the time to explain that your meal was nowhere near as good as the one He is making for us. I suppose you could say I still have my dignity, and many of us down here don't. Understand what I am saying?”
“Yes. Now I do. But I have a question for you. Why don't you share these insights with the others here?”
“They might think I was bragging and not be willing to list. What is it He says? 'Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing?' By the way, we read that on Ash Wednesday and then we all got marked with ashes. Why do we do that after reading that?”
“Yeah. Sometimes we don't pick readings to go with our services very well. Sometimes there is a bit of a disconnect. But I don't think you need fear that you are bragging. In fact, I think you should share your story to encourage others, particularly the ones who serve here and the ones who live like you are forced to. Maybe some of the servers will come to realize the impact they have made for His kingdom, and maybe the others here will begin to remember that they are loved by God as well.”
“I couldn't teach anybody anything about God.”
“You reminded me of some of His teachings tonight, Ray. And maybe that is the lesson He has given you to share with others.”
“Whaddaya mean?”
“Maybe it is your job to remind everyone here that they are loved by God and that everyone else is, too."
“I dunno about that, Father. I think I'll leave the teaching to you. Now, about that sharing, gotta Pepsi for a latecomer?”
Brothers and sisters, we gather this week to remind ourselves about Jesus and His Kingship. You and I would have picked an Adonis-like figure such as Saul, someone who looked the part of a king. But God had someone else in mind. Specifically, God had in mind a king never before seen in the world! His king would study His word and engage in the instruction of His people. His king would listen to and be guided by His prophet. His king would strive for justice and champion the cause of the widow and orphan. His King would serve His people. And His service of His people would cost dearly.
Our reading this week begins with a triumphal entrance. It ends, however, with a reminder of the cost of our freedom and our salvation: His body and His blood. Brothers and sisters, many of us realize that cost and offer our lives and our possessions in service of that wonderful King who came to save us. That fact is born out by stories such as Ray. Think of this for just a moment and give thanks to God that He would use you in His plan of salvation: your faithful service and loving creation of meals reminded at least one individual that he was loved by God and that, even in a homeless state, he had reason to thank God. Better still! Those of us who know Ray know that He will continue to share his stories and his thankfulness. Your fluff, your bread, your casseroles, your meatballs, your smiles, your ears were used by God to proclaim release to some of those around us who most needed to hear it!
Yet, some of us gathered here may only be waving palms because it is the thing that we do this day. For some of us present, this day is little more than when we line the streets to celebrate a Packers Super Bowl victory or a Chicago Bulls championship. It’s fun. It’s different. It’s even a great excuse to “tie one on.” But it really does not impact our life. Brothers and sisters, the events which we remember this week are the most important and significant events in human history! God’s messiah came. He taught us and loved us even when we refused to believe Him. And still He walked that road to Calvary. His love for us and His recognition of our need for Him was such that He went to the cross knowing that many of us would refuse His offer, would reject the door He created. Is He your King, just as He is Ray’s? Or is His story just an excuse for a meal and a party and not the way to eternal life?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

and He wept . . .

I often rejoice when my sermons are done early in the week. For the past two weeks I have been especially blessed. Each sermon has come in the beginning of the week, and many of our conversations confirmed what I was supposed to teach. During these past few weeks, as we have focused our attentions on the unfolding tragedies in Japan, the unrest in the Middle East, soaring commodity and food prices, continuing unemployment, the tremendous miracles of Fr. Jeremy, and any number of “big events,” individuals have wondered whether their problems are even worth mentioning. Cancer, although a horrible disease for us individually, might seem to us to pale in comparison with those that will be suffering from radioactive poison and whatever cancers that spring up. Our financial shortfalls might be really important to us, but they might seem to us to pale in comparison with 10-17% unemployment nationally. Our fights with loved ones may hurt us terribly, but they may seem to us to be small compared to what is happening in Libya or Syria or any number of countries around the world. Thankfully, and mercifully, our reading from John’s Gospel speaks against such thoughts. I am often amazed at the ingenuity and, let’s call it deviousness, of children. Who among us, when we were kids, had to memorize Bible verses for rewards or recognition at church or VBS or Sunday School? Who among us thought we were geniuses when we discovered John 11:35? We figured out something no one else ever had. You could get credit for a whole verse with only two words! Ever grow up and watch your children go through the same “discovery?” How many of us have watched our grandkids figure it out for themselves? Yes, it is a verse well known among the youth in churches all across the country. Jesus wept, or as our translation renders it this week, Jesus began to weep. It is the shortest verse in the entirety of the Bible. It is, therefore, the easiest to memorize; yet how many of us forget the lesson it imparts as we age? The discussions which many of us have shared the past couple weeks have fancy names in theological circles. What we have been struggling with is the transcendence of God and the immanence of God. Transcendence we can understand. God is so big, so powerful, so mighty that He can accomplish whatever He wills. Nothing is beyond His power. Nothing can escape his designs. An image often used by the Bible is one of a potter and the pot. If you are an artist, you may understand this image better. When we fashion a pot on a wheel and bake it in a kiln, we create something. If done well, the product is not only functional but also pleasing to the eye. As an artist transcendent to the pot, we can notice a smudge on the pot and smooth it out. We can see dirt and cleanse it. We can even see that the same pot meant to hold coffee can hold milk or kool-aid or whatever we want it to hold. The created object cannot do or see these things. So it is, by analogy, when we think of God and His creation, this universe. When He effects cleaning or changes, we may think of them as miracles, but you get the idea. Somewhere along the line, however, as we grow into adulthood, many of us forget the immanence of God. Somewhere along the line we begin to think of ourselves as “not really special.” My needs are so small when compared with the enormous needs of _________. Yet, that shortest of passages speaks against that very spirit. Make no mistake; Jesus knew what He was doing when He delayed when the messenger arrived. Had He answered the ladies’ summons right away, He might have arrived in time to heal Lazarus from whatever malady that killed him. Certainly, those who knew Lazarus and Jesus would simply have had their faith confirmed: Jesus is a healer. But look at what would have been missed. Jesus goes to the villages and encounters Martha. Had you been here, my brother would not have died. When Mary is brought to Him, she repeats the same thought. Had you been here, my brother would not have died. Jesus’ response is certainly not what they expect, but it probably is not what you and I expect either. We are told that He was moved by those mourning and began to weep Himself. Think of that for just a second. The Lord of the universe, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, weeped over the death of one man! Wars were occurring all the time back then. Life was cheap. Natural and man-made disasters happened all around the world in those days. Nature seemed violent and unpredictable. Life was cheap. And God was moved to weep over the death of one seemingly insignificant man. As Creator, Jesus knew what He had planned in the Garden. Death was not meant to be. And yet, through our own folly, we had come to experience it and all the other consequences of sin. What He intended for beauty; we had marred with our sinful ways. What He had intended for provision, we had decided to take as it suited us. And life was cheap. Brothers and sisters, John 11:35 might be short, but there are few verses as important throughout the Bible. You and I are reminded by God that He is ever-present with us. Just as He knows and numbers the hairs on our heads, He knows our joys and sorrows, our fears and strengths, our determination and cowardice. As fully human He knows what it is to be a two year-old and scared of a storm or dark. He knows, absolutely knows, the fear we have when faced with peer pressure. Most amazingly of all, though, He knows our pain when we mourn. He knows the fear we have when confronting death. And rather than judge us, as we do when we tell one another “I told you so,” He mourns with us. When we hurt, so does He. Just as many of us hurt when we see a child diagnosed with disease, as we have watched Shawn these past months, how much more do the parents? Just as we hurt when we see someone victimized by bullies, how much more do the parents of the victims? Just as we stand over graves and wail that a loved one will never be seen, never be heard, never be there again, how much more do the parents of a deceased person? We are reminded, over and over again, that He is our Father in Heaven. Who, more than He, should grieve at our pain? Were the story to end with His weeping, it would be cold comfort, indeed! It might seem nice that the Lord of all things mourns with us, but where would be the Good News! Here, in the midst of death and hurt, in the midst of pain and suffering, Jesus reminds Martha, Mary and us of His eternal promises. And, to demonstrate His power to overcome all things in our lives, He calls Lazarus forth from the grave, even after Lazarus’ body has begun to decay and stink! Brothers and sisters, we are no different than Lazarus. You and I are just as beloved by God. In a couple weeks time, we will remind ourselves of that truth. But the story of Lazarus serves, among other things, to remind us that our Lord hurts with us. When we cry, so does He. He knows our hurt when we face cancer. He knows our pain and humiliation when we are bullied or abused by others. He knows what it is to be tempted. He knows how we fear whether we will be able to provide for our families. He knows how we even fear death. He knows each one of us intimately, and all our failings, and still He chooses to be there ever-present with us. And the story of Lazarus reminds us that He alone can accomplish what He wills. In a few minutes, we will anoint with oil and lay hands and pray for healing. All of us will pray for what we want to happen, but He alone will make healing happen. And the healing for which you and I ask may not be the healing that He gives. But, because He loves us as He did His brother, we know that our suffering, our privation, our humiliation, our whatever it is we want covered will be redeemed for His glory. Even if that suffering, that privation, or that humiliation leads to our deaths, He promises and reminds us this week as well, that such things are already oversome by Him for the glory of God. And while we face these pains, while we face the hurts of life, we know that He stands with us and cries with us and for us. This was not what He intended for us. But neither will it be the final words in our lives. No, indeed! One day, He will stand before each one of us, either living or dead, and He will command us to rise up! And you know what? We will! And for all eternity, we will enjoy His promises and the balm of His healing. Thanks be to Him that He chooses always to be with us and to comfort and to redeem us most especially when we hurt. Peace, Brian†