Sunday, March 29, 2020

Dying and Rising in the Time of COVID-19

This is the third week we have had to physically distance ourselves from another.
And I am guessing this is changing for all of us.
It seems real now that we are entering our third week.
It really does seem that our "normal" life is changed.
And I am wondering how you all are dealing with it.
I imagine that like me it is becoming more sad.
That this reality we are currently in is unsettling.
It is not what we want from our lives at this moment.
I want to suggest this morning that what we are experiencing together is death.
We are losing so much of what we thought the world was for us.
Every day I have to learn to let go of something that I thought was "normal", and embrace what is now.
It is not easy to go through death.

I have to tell you that so far our assigned Gospel text have been perfect for what we are facing.
They seem to capture this moment.
From shock, to the initial acceptance of what is happening, to the grief that goes with knowing that things are no longer the same.
And that is what our Gospel this morning is about.
It is about a death that leads to a changing of the world.
One of Jesus' friends Lazarus dies.
And then Jesus brings his friend back to life.

Let us start with the death part.
One of my favorite things about this story is how human every one is.
All these people are crying, because they lost a friend, brother, or whatever.
And Jesus cries too.
And then the text acknowledges what we all know about death.
It stinks!
There is no way to say it other than that.
When we experience a death it is awful.
Most of the time when I meet with people going through the loss of someone they love I tell them, "This sucks! And that is my professional pastoral advice."
Any other way to see it just tries to dress up death in some mushy way that it doesn't deserve.
Death stinks.
For me this acknowledgement of the reality of death is helpful.
It is cathartic.
It is why we get together at funerals and cry together.
It is our way of saying that death stinks, and we acknowledge the pain that we are going through.

And let us be honest this COVID-19 stinks.
I preached last week about all the ways that we might see God at work in this time.
And all those things are true.
But this week I also want to acknowledge that this stinks.
If you are feeling sad, and lost, and anxious I want you to know that you are not alone.
There are lots of people out there feeling the same way.
And it is ok to think that this whole thing stinks.
And maybe it will be cathartic to know that others are just as sad, lost, and anxious as you are.

But you will notice in our Gospel this morning that is not where Jesus leaves us.
We are not left in death.
We are not left in that stinky place.
Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
And because he lives so do we.

And this is the other thing I get to tell people about their loved ones death.
Yes it does stink.
But it is not the end of the story.
Their loved one is alive this very day with God.
Their loved one is at peace, and wholeness.
As a pastor one of the things I love is to proclaim that promise when people are experiencing death.

I want to give you the same message this morning.
This is not the place we will stay in forever.
It is the time we are in now.
And when we come out of the tomb.
When we find ourselves on the other side of this things will have changed.
There will have been death, but also there is resurrection.

I can't say exactly what that will look like for any of us.
But I know it will be there.
I want to share something that one of our members shared with me this week.
It was about a woman who was talking to husband about not being able to get her hair colored during this time.
She told him that during the quarantine will be baring our true hair color as roots begin to grow in.

And her husband looked into his wife's eyes and she was reminded that the heaviness of this pandemic—financially, emotionally & mentally, has not escaped our family.

Because what he said next reminded her that it’s in the trials, in the troubles & in the tribulations, we’re gifted with a deeper experience of God’s surpassing wisdom — & that’s when he said it...

“I have a feeling it won’t just be hair roots — but our faith roots, too.”

Because that spiritual gray I’ve been bleaching with busyness...

And that job title I’ve been wearing as an identity...

And that stock number I’ve been depending on as my anchor...

And that social environment I’ve been using to fill voids...

And that place of worship I’ve been relying on as my foundation...

And those loud gatherings I’ve been trusting to drown out my thoughts....

And those non-essential shopping sprees to cover my pain...

Yep, they’re being e x p o s e d .

There’s no dying, coloring, highlighting, low-lighting, Balayage-ing, covering, hiding these roots.

And since God is not a God of condemnation, but of revelation from the One who is our safehaven; no shadow of shame will cover our face (or hair) ~Psalm 34.5

It’s here IN this time of stillness where God gently reveals the roots, exposes the gray & blankets us in His confident hope.
A hope saturated in a Love which enables us to whisper in the darkest of moments... “I do not fear bad news. I confidently trust the Lord to care for me!” Replay & repeat.

And that is what this is for us.
It is turning to God in trust.
It is us standing outside a stinking tomb, our friends, our loved ones inside.
And hearing God say, "Come Out"!
And living again.
This time will reveal to us that we can't trust in much in this life.
And that the things we have leaned on are going to die.
But in that place God will grow new things in us.
That is the continuing story of our faith.
Dying and rising.

In this time of that we are experiencing dying, I hope that you can trust and know that God is also rising new things in you through this time.
Trust in God's love to bring us through this.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

For God's Glory

I spent some time this week calling people in our congregation to check in and see how people are doing.
I am glad to say that most people are doing OK.
We are all a little befuddled about what is happening.
I heard a lot of people say something like, "It is really unbelievable".
I also heard some express concern about what is happening.
Some people are mad about what is happening.
They see the economic impact and are mad that we are taking such drastic steps.
Maybe we should have worship.
Maybe we should have school.
Maybe the restaurants and other business should stay open.
We are only talking about 1% of the population dying.
We don't have all the information.
The media is making more of this than it is.
Politicians don't know what they are doing.
Maybe all that is true.
I don't think it is.
I think we are following the advice of the CDC and WHO.
We are listening to science and medical people.

But my job is not to defend the media, politicians, science.
It is to bring good news.
And I want you to know that there is good news in this time.
First and most important we always have Jesus Christ.
Jesus reminds us that our lives are more than what we make, what our job is.
It is more than flesh and bone.
It is also Spirit and soul.
And that is what I want us to focus on this morning.
Because what good does it do to be mad about this.
We can't control it.
Well….that usually makes us mad when we can't control something.
This morning I want us to look at this from a the spirit and soul angle.

And our Gospel for this morning is a great guide.
I actually talked about this Gospel story last week, not realizing it was the assigned text for today.
But it is perfect for today.
Because Jesus reminds us that the man's blindness is not because of sin.
It is not caused by God, but it is for God's glory.
It is so those around him will realize a spiritual truth they have been missing.
I think the coronavirus can do the same thing for us.
It can be used for God's glory.
And that is what I want you to think about this morning.
How is it revealing God's glory in your life?
Let me share a couple of things I think it is doing for me.

I get to slow down.
I have not had any night time meetings.
It has meant more time at home with my wife and kids.
We have played games, made delicious food, watched movies, listened to music, and talked.
Of course, we have our moments of frustration with each other, but overall it has been a wonderful time to slow down and enjoy each other.

I have gotten to go on long walks with my wife.
We went out a couple of times.
On those walks we talk.
We also have gotten to see a couple of you along the way.
We have looked together for signs of spring.
We saw flowers starting to bloom, rivers running, sun shining, and people out and about.
When you slow down and walk you see things you never saw before.
I have heard from many of you that one of the things you miss most is worship.
What a wonderful insight.
One person told me they didn't know how much our worship together mean to them until now!
Indeed we are seeing when things are taken away just how valuable things are.

I am not saying that God sent the Coronavirus so that we could learn to spend more time with our families, so we could see spring springing up, or so we could see how much worship mean to us.
But since we are here in this time let us use it for God's glory.
Because this is the time we are in.
This is the situation we are in.
We might not like it.
We might not think it is right or fair.
But we are here so why not look for the ways that God is moving in this time?

I was thinking this week about when my mother was diagnosed with cancer.
It was about 8 years ago now.
And of course I would have preferred that she never got cancer.
But because of that I have experience so many blessings that I would have missed otherwise.
For example, when my mother went for her first chemo treatment, my two sisters and I went with her.
We had a lovely day.
Talking, laughing, reliving old times.
And it dawned on me that this never happens.
Whenever we are together it is a big family moment.
There are cousins, aunts, and our significant others.
There is normally no time in our busy lives for just the four of us to be together.
And it probably wouldn't have happened without this moment.
It was a day I will always treasure.
It was a gift from God, and it came among a really horrible thing that was happening in our family.
I encourage you to look for these moments in your life during this time.
I know you will have moments that are disheartening.
There will be days when you hate the coronavirus (actually I have already had this day).
I hope for you days when amidst this awful time you will see the glory of God.
I hope for you to see the opportunity we have been given to slow down and appreciate life.
An opportunity to take a walk and see flowers budding up.

Because in John's Gospel being blind isn't only about not being able to physically see, it is also about missing the spiritual truth that is in front of you.
The blind man is not only cured of his physical blindness, but is able to believe in Jesus.
During this time of physical difficulty may we be able to spiritually see all the things that God is doing in our midst.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Some Thoughts on the Coronavirus and Our Faith

I was going to preach about something else today.
I had a really good sermon prepared, but I scratched it because I knew I had to talk about the Coronavirus (COVID-19).
It seems that times like these make us seek out council from God.
And in times like these there are always some who offer what I believe they think is good advice but ultimately not helpful.
Here are some of my thoughts on what all this means.

First of all we should get rid of the idea that God is punishing us for something.
I know after 911 some preachers said that God was punishing for our sin of being too accepting.
You hear this a lot after some disaster.
I don't see any Biblical evidence that the way God punishes us is by sending some sickness.
In fact, Jesus tells us that these things that happen are not because of our sin.
I am thinking of the blind man that Jesus encountered in John's Gospel.
Jesus disciples ask him, "Who sinned this man or his parents, that he was born blind"
Jesus rebukes them saying, "neither sinned".
It isn't about that.

Maybe this gets to a core understanding of what it is to be human and that is to be human is to suffer.
There is no way around it.
There is no way to avoid being hurt.
There is no way to avoid getting sick.
There is no way to avoid dying.
That is what it is to be human.
It is what makes being human so scary.
We have done a lot in our modern times to give us the impression that these things don't apply to us.
I never imagined that we would be living with an international pandemic.
That seemed like something that used to happen a long time ago when people didn't have better medicine and sanitation.
I thought we were safe from such things.
But the truth is that we are really fragile people.

This is why we need faith.
We need faith to deal with this fragile state we find ourselves.
Because we don't like it.
We want it to stop.
We want to feel better.
We want to feel secure.
Maybe the only thing I have found that is secure in my life has been God.
God is always there.

The second thing that needs to be said about our faith and the Coronavirus is that it is not an unfaithful response to be scared.
It is not unfaithful to be sacred about what is happening.
I have seen a lot of things like, "God is our stronghold and we shouldn't fear".
But what we are talking about here is a virus that is spreading rapidly in our community and our country.
And fear is one way that God tells us to stop something.
I cancelled church this morning out of fear.
Fear that I might put you in harm's way.
Fear that we might continue to perpetuate this virus.
Fear is something that comes from our gut and tells us something is wrong and we should do something else.
However, even though I might have fear I am not afraid.
I know that seems like a contradictory statement.
Jesus tells us all the time to not be afraid.
Fear is my gut telling me to avoid certain things.
It is what tells me not to jump out of a plane, pet a snake, or try to ride a lion.
Being afraid is a state of eternal worry.
I trust God.
I trust that things will work out somehow.
It may not work out in the way I want, or expect but that it will work out.
It may not even be that "everything will be ok".
Maybe some bad things will go down, but with God I know I can deal with whatever comes my way.
I can deal with all of my complex emotions that I don't really want to deal with.
I can deal with fear, sadness, feeling anxious and uncertain.

At the bottom of my faith is the God I know in Jesus Christ.
It is the God that Paul tells us about in his letter to the Romans.
Paul tells us, "Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through Our Lord Jesus Christ."
We know that God is on our side.
Paul tells us that this doesn't mean that our lives will be with suffering.
Paul knows that to be human is to suffer.
Paul knows we will experience all those range of emotions we feel as humans.
But then Paul says something remarkable.
Paul tells us that God transforms our suffering.
God turns our suffering into hope.
God turns it into faith.
"…We 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."

God takes things in our lives that are painful and turns them into things that give us hope.
Put another way, God takes our deaths turns them into resurrection.
We know this through Jesus Christ.
Because that is exactly what happens to Jesus on the cross.
Through his death and resurrection Jesus transformed suffering into hope.

So it is OK to have fear about what the Coronavirus will do.
But do not be afraid.
In faith I trust that God will turn it into something else.
I don't know what.
I just trust that every day I am dying and rising to new life in Christ.
That is what is my foundation of life.
It is what keeps me going.

That is what I hope for all of you to.
That this time we will learn endurance, character, and hope.
That this virus will bring us closer to God and each other.
It seems like a silly thing to say, because we are far apart today.
We are not in the same room.
And in this time what do we need more than anything it is to be together so that we can give each other comfort.
It doesn't seem possible for us to grow closer together, but I trust that we are learning new spiritual truths through this ordeal.
And that we are learning them in ways that we wouldn't have without it.

I am not saying God gave us the Coronavirus so we could learn deep spiritual truths.
I am saying the Coronavirus is part of our human life, and through living in faith with God we grow in our faith.
We come to have hope in God.
I know this has been true for me.
I have learned so much through some of the most horrible times in my life.
Every time I grow closer to God, and I learn to trust God more.
I hope the same for you during this time.

So as we deal with the Coronavirus I am praying for each of you that you may come to have endurance, that it may grow your character, and that you may continue to live in God's hope.


Thursday, March 12, 2020

I Don't Want to Be Part of a Liberal (or conservative) Church!

This week I was in Market Basket grocery shopping.
I ran into a bunch of people from the community and church.
And one of the people I ran into was a former member of Concordia Lutheran Church.
He said something that really irritated me.
I had to challenge him on it.
He called our church, "A liberal church".
It made me upset.

Because I don't want to be a part of a liberal church.
Not that I have anything against liberals.
I don't want to be part of a conservative church either.
Not that I have anything against conservatives.
It pains me to think that we have let the world's dividing lines define churches.
Because I want our church to be a Church of Jesus Christ.
I want it to be a place where we come together to know the love of God given to us in Jesus Christ.
That is my only purpose here.

I didn't become a pastor because I had lots of liberal views and I wanted to impart them on people on a weekly basis.
In fact, for a long time I didn't want to be a pastor at all.
I fought against it.
But God's will is stronger than mine.
And here I am.
I became a pastor because Jesus Christ saved my life.
Jesus Christ changed my life.
I don't mean that in some Jesus saved me so I can go to heaven some day kind of way (although that is true too).
I mean it literally.
That my life was a mess.
It wasn't going well at all.
I was lost and out in the wilderness.
I was headed for jail, or something worse.
And then God found me.
In the lost place.
God's grace came to me and lifted me out of the miry bog. and set my feet upon a rock.
And my life hasn't been the same since.

The way that I see the world, the way that I understand people and myself, comes from God saving me.
Part of that story is about John 3:16.
I remember the moment I first heard these words.
I was in a cabin at Camp Calumet.
I was a counselor in training.
I was there that summer against my will.
My parents were making me go.
It was devotions at the end of the day.
It was dark.
The counselor stood in front of the cabin with all the lights out and only a candle.
He read the text and said, "God loves all of you here more than you will ever know."
And the Holy Spirit in that moment touched my heart.
I saw God for the first time in this way.
I had other experiences that summer that only cemented for me this relationship with God.

I am wondering about you today.
What was that moment when God hooked you.
When you realized how much God loves you.
When you changed, or saw something from a different perspective?
It is that I want us to see every Sunday.
That is why I am pastor.
I want to share that with everyone.
And it doesn't matter what your politics are.

I want you to understand what Nicodemus doesn't.
I want you to be able to see the world from above, or new, or again.
I want you to see it through God's eyes.
And what God sees when God sees us is beloved.
God sees us as people needing saving.
Jesus tells us that God doesn't come to judge us, but to save us.
That is grace.
That is God.
That is what our church is about.

Isn't it sad to any of you that merely to say that God loves everyone without condition is somehow a liberal idea?
Why is being pro LGBTQ+ a liberal idea?
Where in the Bible does it tell us that God loves LGBTQ+ people less than any of us?
Where does it tell us that we should love our gay neighbor less than our straight one?
To me that is not a liberal or conservative idea it is merely the Gospel.
We have let the world infect our brain.
We have let greedy politicians tell us that we should somehow like people who we don't agree with less.

I spent some time this week thinking about when this started.
And I realized the answer.
November 1970.
That is when Lutherans in America ordained the first woman, Elizabeth Platz.
That is when the division began.
According to the former member the beginning of our liberalism was that our denomination allowed women to be pastors.
Because according to him that is also when we started to accept homosexuals.
Women ruined the church.

I want to ask again.
What is so liberal about having women preach the Gospel?
It was women who were the first to preach the resurrection.
(To men who didn't believe them!)
It was Phoebe, Prisca, Aquilla who St. Paul calls a fellow preacher of the Gospel.
Why does it matter what gender you are?
If you can tell the good news of Jesus Christ who cares?

You see the world in John's Gospel is anything that is against God.
It is anything that is hostile or hate filled.
It is anything that isn't full of grace and forgiveness.
It is anything that isn't full of love.
And I want to suggest this morning that we have let the world infect the Church.
We have let it tell us that God's love isn't for everyone.
It is only for a select few.
I reject that interpretation of the Bible, or any theology that is exclusive.
I suppose that is what makes us liberal.
I don't think that is a liberal point of view, unless you want to make it one.
It is a God's point of view.

I want to end this morning with an apology to all of you.
This isn't the first time I have heard someone who used to attend here tell me they left because they thought our congregation was too liberal.
I apologies if I let my personal political beliefs seep into my preaching or teaching of the Gospel.
I hope you will forgive me.
I also want you to know that it was never my intention.
My intention is only one thing…preach the Gospel.
To help us every week have that same experience I had that night at Camp Calumet when I heard John 3:16 read.
I want us to grow in our faith in Jesus Christ.
I want us to change so that we are filled with the Holy Spirit and ready to share God's love with the world.
That is what I want our church to be known for God's love for the world.
I don't believe that is a liberal message.
It is God's message given to us through Jesus Christ.   

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Space Between

When I was in Long Island I had a shut in named was Irene who lived about six houses down the street from the Church.
I would visit with her often.
She wasn't really in that bad of shape.
Mainly she complained about the arthritis in her hands.
And every time she would say, "You know pastor that is just the way it is".
She lived in the space that many of us find ourselves.
It is in the space that Jesus' finds himself in today's Gospel.
It is the space between assurance of faith and when trusting God is the hardest.
It is the space between knowing for sure that God is with us, and wondering where God went.
It is the space between having all the answers, and not knowing at all what is happening or what will happen.

When we read the temptation of Jesus it is easy for us to think of it as simply a test of Jesus being offered sin and Jesus rejecting it.
But the story is about more than that.
It is about identity.
"If you are the Son of God…"
Jesus is offered assurance of who he thinks he might be.
Jesus is offered easy answers in a more complex world.
Because many of us think this is the way faith works.
If I do this thing than God will give me this.
If I say the right prayer, or do the right deeds, then my life will all be fine.
And the truth is that it doesn't work that way.
Even the Son of God suffers for the world.

When I would visit Irene I would have loved to tell her that all she needed to do is have faith and her arthritis would be cured.
But it was like she said, "It is just the way it is".
There was no prayer for me to offer her.
There was no magic Bible passage to make it all better.
There was no magic potion.

And this is the hardest thing about our faith.
Is that there are no easy answers.
When we find ourselves in difficult times there is no way to get out of them that is fast and easy.

This week I talked to the husband of a woman who I did the funeral for a couple of weeks ago.
Bob's wife was only 34 and she died while giving birth to their son.
He called because he was upset.
It is natural to be upset after losing your wife.
I told him that I wish there was some easy solution for him.
But the truth was there is no easy answers.
There is only going through that painful process we go through when someone we love dies.
There is only the living day to day and feeling the full weight of that loss.

Jesus knows this.
He knows that the devil only offers easy answers to a faithful life.
You can't jump off a building to prove that God is mighty and powerful.
You can't just turn stones to bread.
You can't just claim power for yourself.
The only way to really be the son of God is to live a faithful life.
To trust God in all things.
To know that not everything has some easy answer.
Jesus will know this most of all on Good Friday.
And Jesus today gives us a great gift.
Jesus reminds us that there are no easy answers to our lives.
There is only the space that we live in between the assurance of faith and trusting God in really hard times.

That is the good news for us.
We too are children of God.
Our identity is not caught up in the idea that in order to be loved by God everything has to be great in life.
That God's love for us is not proved by how well our life is going.
This is an idea that is sometimes floated in the Bible.
That God's love is shown by your health or wealth.
If you are a good person than God rewards that goodness with health and wealth.
If you are bad person than God makes you suffer.
One thing I love about Jesus is that he does away with this simplistic view of our lives.
Because Irene hadn't done anything to deserve her painful arthritis.
Because Bob doesn't deserve for his wife to die in child birth.
These are just things that happen to people.
They are just part of being human.
And what we as Christians know is that God is with us in those times, as well as the good times.
Jesus taught us that faith is part of life.
It is the part that helps us get through the hard things that we suffer through in this life.

The real temptation that Jesus faces and the one that we face is offering up platitudes and easy answers.
Instead of acknowledging that indeed people do suffer and are suffering, we try to solve the problem with an easy theological idea.
The thing we have to remember is that we are human.
And no theological idea will solve the problem.

Jesus seems to know this.
And he knows that what will save us is his living our life.
That he has to go out and actually be with people.
He has to live among people that are suffering.
He has to go to the poor, the lame, the blind, the lost.
He has to be among them and let them touch him, hear him, be with him.
Because that is how real healing happens.
It doesn't happen in an instant.
It happens in time.
It happens when other human being acknowledge our pain and suffering.
It comes when we are able to name it for ourselves to other people, and feel heard.
There is no other path for Jesus.
Just as there is no other path for us.

It is as if the devil says to us on a daily basis, "If you are believer in Jesus Christ than you should be cured of your arthritis."
"If you are a believer in Jesus Christ than you should just be able to get over your wife's death."
"If you are a believer in Jesus Christ than nothing bad should ever happen to you."
"If you are a believer in Jesus Christ than you should have perfect health and lots of money."

Today is our day to resist the devil and all his empty promises.
We all have a story like Irene and Bob, a story of when the world was what it was.
A story of when trusting God seemed really hard.
We should know that there are no easy answers.
We should acknowledge that we live in that dessert space between assurance of faith and when trusting God is the hardest.
And we should live in faith.
Because we are children of God.
We know that it is when life is the hardest that God is at God's best.
It is there in the dessert when see that faith is what keeps us going through all of the hard things we face in this life.
If you are a believer in Jesus Christ know today that there is no easy answers only trusting in God to send angels that will care for you.