“At an end your rule is, and not short enough it was.”

Inspired by Matthew 28:1-10

Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! A lot can happen in three days. That phrase has been ringing in my ears since Lisa King, our children’s ministry director uttered it a few days ago. For those of you who took advantage of the entire Holy Week journey, which included services on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter, well, let me first say thank you.

Thank you for coming to experience what took many, many hours to prepare, what I hope were meaningful worship experiences for you, by our amazing staff, our music directors Owen Myers and Jeff Riswold, our office manager Callan Greason, along with many volunteers. It could not have been done without any of them. So, those of you who have been here through it all and have experienced the fruit of their labors, know that, indeed, a lot can happen in three days!

But aside from some amazing worship experiences during the most holy time of the church year, there are some even bigger things that happened during the Three Days, bigger than anything we could ever do or even imagine. For Jesus, he went from having one last meal with his closest friends, being arrested, brutally beaten, having said friends abandon him, well, the men anyway, to finally being horrifically executed, to show the world how much God loves us. But of course the story doesn’t end there. As if that wasn’t amazing enough, Jesus is raised from the dead! Why? That may sound like a silly question, especially on Easter Sunday! But what more needed to be done that the crucifixion didn’t accomplish? What more needed to be said? Why was Easter even necessary and what happened on that day?

Well, a lot happened! The church has been processing that for two thousand years now! Too much to cover in any one sermon, but what I would like to highlight right now is this, that first Easter Sunday had cosmic implications. That first Easter Sunday was about more than you, or you, or even you! That first Easter Sunday was about more than any individual, it was about more than Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Auburn California. It was about more than the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, even more than the United States of America! That first Sunday was about more than Earth or the universe or the biggest thing we could possibly imagine! Because that first Easter was about changing the rules.

Jesus looked death square in the eye and said, your rule here has come to an end. Or in the words of Yoda, “At an end your rule is, and not short enough it was.” Death no longer had the final say in the universe! Death no longer had the power it once had! Death had lost its grip. The rules of the game had changed forever, everywhere, and for everyone. Yes indeed, lot can happen in three days, especially, on the third day.

All this, Jesus was doing on that first Easter, which makes his interaction with the women at the tomb all the more endearing. The angel appears to the women, the guards faint, and then the angel tells them, that Jesus was raised, go tell the disciples, and Jesus will meet you in Galilee. The angel ends with, “I’ve given the message to you.” Like a cosmic mic drop. Or like he just served them papers!

So, as the reader you’re thinking that the next scene is going to be in Galilee right? That’s what the angel just said! But no, Jesus does what Jesus wants to do. After all, he just changed the rules of the universe that day! He’s on a roll! So he appears to Mary Magdalene, and Mary, as they are leaving, before they can even get to the disciples. And I can’t help but see that as an act of love and compassion. This scene started with mourning and sadness at the grave of their friend and rabbi. And then, as if that wasn’t enough to handle, after the angel appeared to them fear was added on top of it all. And I can’t help but wonder if that was why Jesus decided to ignore what he had previously told the angel, and appeared to them, when they needed it the most.

And what makes this all the more astonishing, endearing really, is that Jesus interrupted all the cosmic work he was doing that day, to have a personal, intimate moment with them. Now we may be tempted to say, this is Jesus we’re talking about! He can do anything! He’s going to be walking through walls next Sunday! Well, yes but I really don’t think we should dismiss this simple but compassionate act of Jesus here. Because in this loving act, to take the time, to spend quality time with them, Jesus shows us something of how he relates to us. Amid all the work that Jesus is doing in the world, Jesus still takes the time to think of us, and to make this journey of faith that we are on, as personal as possible. Sending an angel of the Lord to us just won’t do. Jesus comes to us himself.

And what a beautiful model for us to emulate. I don’t have to tell you how meaningful it is when someone takes time out of their day to spend with you, or to even think about you. For me, it’s like when a parishioner goes on vacation and brings something back for their pastor. Just the fact that they thought of me when they were on vacation astounds me! And then I feel guilty because church is the last thing I want to think about when I’m on vacation! Or like when a friend sends you a card just to say thank you for being in their life. Or when a parishioner takes the time out of their busy life to have lunch or coffee with me. Those personal touches are what make this journey worth it, as well as manageable.

As much as the church needs your money, and Lord knows we do, it’s in those many ways that you personally join someone else’s journey that really make an impact on this world. Whether it’s a fellow church member, or family or friend, or complete stranger, when we take the time out of our busy lives to connect with people, that’s when magical, holy things happen. That’s when lives are changed, when lives are transformed, when we go from death to life. You see, the victory of the empty tomb was not just for Jesus, but for all of us. Like a cosmic transaction, Jesus transfers his triumph over death to us—allowing us to say to death, “At an end your rule is, and not short enough it was.” For Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

The Three Days - Making a Case for Love

Inspired by John 13:1-17, 31b-35, 18:1-19:42, and 20:1-18

Maundy Thursday

One of my favorite songwriters, Martin Gore, wrote a song called Light that really sets the tone for these Three Days. Here are some of the lyrics:

Take my hand
And walk in the light
Understand, there's a fire to ignite
You know we have a responsibility
It's true we've been chosen
And now we have the possibility
Of melting what's frozen

Walk with me with the rapture inside
Can't you see it's not our place to decide
You know we have to make a case for love
It's more of a duty

It's clear we have a mission from above
A mission of beauty
Take your place here
With love in your heart
Just embrace what you've known from the start
We are fulfilling our only destiny

Surprisingly, the author is not a religious person, and this is not a religious song. But from the images of light, fire, being chosen, and our mission, I couldn’t help but think of these Three Days when I first heard this song a few weeks ago. But the line that first caught my ear was this, “we have to make a case for love.” On this night of the Three Days, we celebrate Maundy Thursday with footwashing and communion but at the heart of it all, the sole reason we do these beloved rituals, in fact, the only reason we do any of the things we do in church, is love. On this night two thousand years ago, Jesus gave his friends a new commandment, “Love each other. Just as I have loved you.”

And of course, as is always the way with Jesus, there is this outward focus to this love. Jesus says, “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” We are not called by God to love each other just for the sake of love, because it feels good, but so that it will be noticed by the world. And though neither John nor Jesus say this explicitly, I believe it’s so that it will catch on, so that it will become infectious, because God knows how contagious love can be. And maybe, if the world sees love within the church, people will not only take notice but they may even inquire about it, be curious about it, and maybe even, want in on it.

However, that may be too simplistic a view of this love culture that Jesus calls us to. And maybe even too passive of a perspective. I’m wondering if Jesus had more in mind than just us loving each other so that the world will see it. I’m wondering if Jesus is somehow calling us to make a case, to make a case for love in this world. That might sound strange at first but take a look at the world that we live in. Take a look at the headlines, take a look at what is going viral on social media.

From the person who took a video of a maid who was dangling out her window 8 stories up and instead of putting down her camera and helping her she took a video of her falling. To James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, writing about transgendered women using men’s restrooms, he writes, “If you are a married man with any gumption, surely you will defend your wife’s privacy and security in restroom facilities…If this had happened 100 years ago, someone might have been shot…Where is today’s manhood? God help us!” End quote.

I think a better question Mr. Dobson is, “Where is today’s love?” He goes on to compare their use of the restroom to inappropriate acts that I cannot repeat in a sermon. And I won’t even go into the details of the recent bombings in Syria, or the church bombings in Egypt. It is clear to me that we live in a world where a case needs to be made for love. That is going to be our theme over these Three Days, especially in this one sermon over the course of Three Days. And the question we have before us tonight is, “Whose responsibility is it to make this case for love?” Who will stand up in this world and say no to the kind of behavior and thinking that I just shared with you?

Who will tell the world that’s it’s not ok to stigmatize certain groups of people because they are different than us? Who will show the world that there is an alternative way, a better way, than hate and prejudice? I think Jesus says pretty clearly in today’s gospel reading, that it is our responsibility to make a case for love, at least now, on this side of the cross. In the washing of his disciples feet Jesus shows us what love looks like—made all the more poignant when these same disciples abandon and betray him. In the Last Supper, their most holiest of meals that he feeds them with, Jesus shows them what love looks like. But he was just getting started. He was on his way to showing them, showing us, showing the world, what love looks like…

Good Friday

On Good Friday Jesus makes a case for love like the world had never seen. For three years Jesus had been talking about love, preaching about it, teaching about it, but as we all know, actions speak louder than words. And for three years there certainly had been a lot of actions on Jesus part, showing just what love, the kind of love that he was bringing, looked like.

He was healing the blind, the lame, the sick, he was restoring people back into community who had been abandoned, he was visiting those in mourning, he was raising the dead, casting out demons, protecting those whose lives were at stake from unjust laws, even biblical ones. To tell you the truth, all of that should have been enough! Uh uh, says Jesus. We’re going to take this even further. We’re not going to leave anything to chance. The world will know, how much God loves them, even if I have to die to prove it.

And so he did just that. The cross means many things to many people. Only you can determine what it means for you. And it doesn’t have to mean only one thing. I believe God is big enough and flexible enough to allow for it to mean whatever it needs to mean to you right now. For me, I look at the cross differently depending on my emotional state, my mental state, even my physical state. God is big enough to handle that, to handle me.

But no matter my state of being, I always seem to come back to the cross, and Jesus actions on the cross, as being something that I should honor, remember, process, and reverence. And also that it is bigger than any theology we may attach to it, any doctrine or dogma that we may attach to it, the cross is bigger and farther-reaching than any words we use to describe it. So much about it is mystery. How much can we really fathom about what Jesus did on the cross and why?

However, I feel confident enough to say this about it. It is the clearest demonstration of God’s love that the world has ever seen. And that’s saying something! At the Vigil of Easter, we will hear some of the most amazing stories the Bible has to offer concerning God’s love: the crossing of the Red Sea, the valley of dry bones, Jonah and the great fish, to name a few. And again, after all the great stories of God’s love throughout the Bible, they should have been enough! I mean, how big of a case for love does God have to make?

These amazing acts of love should have been enough? Uh uh, says God. I have more to show you. On Maundy Thursday Jesus urged us to go out into the world and make a case for love because he knew how badly the world needs to see it. But just to make sure we are clear, the next day he showed us the kind of love he’s talking about, and what it looks like. It looks like sacrifice. It looks like abandonment. It looks like pain. It looks like a broken heart. It looks messy, even bloody at times. It’s the greatest case for love the world has ever seen…or was it?

Vigil of Easter

Depending on the Gospel that you are reading, Good Friday may not be the greatest case for love the world has ever seen. For Mark, the first Gospel writer, it was. The resurrection only gets a few verses at the end of his gospel as the disciples flee in fear, telling nobody of what just occurred. It’s almost an appendix for Mark. It ends on a bit of a downer really. But for Mark Jesus death was the climax of the story, not the resurrection. In his death was where Mark saw Jesus making the strongest case for love. This was not good enough for Matthew and Luke who wrote their Gospels after Mark. Rather than just presenting the facts the way Mark did, Matthew and Luke do more of the interpreting work for you. They have a much clearer path and goal in mind of where they want to take you with their book.

And in their Gospels there begins to be this shift from Jesus death, to his resurrection as being the highpoint. One of the ways you can tell this is by how much they write about it as well as their inclusion of some post-resurrection stories. And then we get to John, written much later, and though wordy and very deep, John is bold with his proclamation of who and what Jesus is. If you don’t believe Martha by the end of his Gospel, that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, the one coming into the world, then John would probably say he failed. And for John, it was the resurrection, where Jesus is making the strongest case for love the world has ever seen.

And this is how we got there. On Maundy Thursday Jesus commanded us, and let me be clear here, this is not a request, not a suggestion, not a helpful hint or life hack, this is a command, to love one another as Jesus has loved us. With this command Jesus sends us out into the world to love, knowing that we will have to not just love but make a case for it, defend it, debate it, make an argument to the world that this is a better way—in the face of so much hate, evil, indifference, and apathy in the world.

And then after giving this command, on Good Friday Jesus says, I’ll go first. I’ll go first. In the way that a parent steps in harm’s way so their child can live another day and carry on the legacy.  That, in and of itself, is powerful! But God says I’m not done! Stop the presses! Hold the phone. This is not the end of the story!

What makes Jesus’ command on Maundy Thursday, and his demonstration of it on Good Friday so powerful, so compelling, is that Jesus doesn’t leave us alone to live out that command. Jesus comes back to do it with us. Not even death could keep him from us. Not even death could stop him from making a case for love.

And as the lyrics that I began this three part sermon with reminded us on Maundy Thursday, that is our responsibility that we have been chosen for, that is our mission from above, that is our only destiny to fulfill, to make a case for love in this world, a world that so desperately needs to be reminded, so desperately needs to be convinced, that there is a better way—love. It’s not easy work, just ask Jesus. It’s challenging, frustrating work, even dangerous sometimes. But we don’t do it alone. Never alone. For Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Here is the song that this three-part sermon was based on:


Who is This Guy? - or - Welcome to Holy Week

Inspired by Matthew 21:1-11, 26:1-19

Welcome to Holy Week. As usual we begin with Palm Sunday with all its triumph and victory and praise, which of course always seem a bit juxtaposed with what we know is right around the corner, the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. However, over the past 25-30 years or so there has been a movement away from Palm Sunday and towards changing it to what they call Passion Sunday. The church started to realize that people weren’t showing up for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter.

And so, many thought that this day should focus more on Jesus death rather than his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, hence the name Passion Sunday. However, these things are often cyclical, so in recent years there has been a realization that maybe it’s not all that healthy to cater to people’s lack of desire to attend Holy Week services, and also that something is lost when we forgo the events of Palm Sunday.

There is something to be said for the juxtaposition, the out of place nature of Palm Sunday. For those of us who have given up something up for Lent like alcohol or sweets or bread, especially for those of us foolish enough to give up all three, and who are in the home stretch and yearning for those things they gave up, and who may be miserable at this stage in the game, are not feeling very celebratory right now! We are not feeling very triumphal or victorious right now are we? In fact, we may be feeling like Lent is getting the better of us, and celebrating today is a bit of a slap in the face, like being kicked while we’re down! And Jesus chuckles and says, yeah, I know the feeling—welcome to Holy Week.

So, as a bit of liturgical purist, or liturgical nerd, I adhere to the traditional Palm Sunday theme for this day, keeping the events for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday for those days this week. Even though I know our lives are very busy and asking people to come to church four times in one week, most of which at night, is a lot to ask. But is it really? Out of 365 days of the year the church asks for literally a handful of days to go above and beyond the usual once a week routine.

What kind of a Lutheran pastor would I be if I didn’t throw in some good ol’ fashioned guilt every once in a while? But it’s even less of an imposition when you consider the holiness of these Three Days. It’s called Holy Week for a reason. The Three Days are the most holiest of the church year, with the Vigil of Easter being the pinnacle, the apex, the climax of the entire church year! I cannot encourage you enough to attend these three services, when we journey with Christ as he passes from death to life. If you don’t drive at night, it is worth asking for a ride. I have a hunch, there are people willing to pick you up.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today is Palm Sunday! Today we celebrate! Today we remember Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey like a king of old. Today we remember the crowds welcoming Jesus into the city like a victorious ruler, rolling out a red carpet of palm branches and clothes. Today we celebrate, even though we may not feel like it at this stage of our Lenten disciplines.

And maybe, in part, that’s the point. Maybe this is an exercise in celebrating when there doesn’t seem to be anything to celebrate. Especially because, we know, where this story is headed. We know, of the impending darkness that is about to befall us on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. In the midst of our hungers, and for some of us that is quite literal, in the midst of our yearnings, cravings for grace, for light, for peace, for love, in the midst of the fatigue of Lent, Palm Sunday pushes us to celebrate.

Why? Because we are the blessed ones to be on this side of the cross and the empty tomb and therefore know who Jesus is. Before we processed in with our palm branches we read the triumphal entry from the Gospel of Matthew, and that ended with the crowd asking “Who is this guy?” I’m paraphrasing. And they answer, “It’s the prophet Jesus.” And while that’s not a false statement, they clearly do not get it, they clearly do not know who Jesus is.

After reading the accounts of Jesus’ final days on earth, many have been confused by the events of the triumphal entry and Jesus’ trial. Many have asked how could the crowd turn on him so quickly? How could the crowds go from singing his praises with “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” to “Crucify him?” Well, this is why, because they didn’t know what Jesus truly was.

And neither did Judas. Oh poor Judas. History has not been kind to him. I’d argue that history, as well as the Gospel writers, have been too unkind to him. The decisions he made were because he still didn’t get it, he still didn’t understand who Jesus was. If he did, I think he would have made different decisions. I think things would have turned out better for him. I don’t think things would have turned out better for Jesus, but I don’t think Judas would have had to go through the hell that he did after that fateful decision to hand Jesus over to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver. And to be fair, I’m not sure how well any of the twelve disciples really got it, really knew who and what Jesus was.

But some did. The woman at the well figured it out. The man born blind knew. Lazarus knew. Martha knew. I believe Nicodemus eventually connected the dots, as we will hear on Good Friday. And I think this unnamed woman, who anoints Jesus’ head with expensive perfume, got it. In those days, it was common for a family to save an item such as expensive perfume, the way we would use a savings account for a rainy day.

When times were tough, the item could then be sold to help you see you through. There’s a good chance this was that kind of savings that this woman sacrificed in honor and devotion to Jesus. Yes, I think she understood who, and what Jesus is. In the words of Martha, “the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”

Today, the crowds are still asking that same question, in one way or another. Who is this guy? Who is this Jesus that you all follow? Who is this Jesus that you all love so much? Who is this Jesus that you all sacrifice your Sunday mornings for? Who is this Jesus that you all sacrifice three evenings for in one week? Who is this Jesus that you sacrifice so much of your time for? Who is this Jesus that you sacrifice so much of your money for? Who is this Jesus that you sacrifice your skills and talents for? Who is this Jesus—the crowds still ask two thousand years later!

And if we are the body of Christ in the world, if we are the hands and feet and eyes and ears and lips of Christ in the world, then that question turns from “Who is this?” to “Who are you?” How will we answer? Is it enough to simply say those words of Martha, that Jesus is “the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world?” Or do we also need to show them who Christ is, who we are? Whether we do or not, thank God almighty that Jesus did. On the Three Days, Jesus showed the world who he is. Welcome to Holy Week.


Come Out!

Inspired by John 11:1-45

Today we have our last of four readings from the Gospel of John in a row. We will return to John at other times of the year, especially during Holy Week and Easter, but these four readings of John really stand out as some of the greatest and most foundational stories in all of scripture. In spite of my love/hate relationship with John, I really have enjoyed these four stories and look forward to them every three years when they show up in our lectionary.

This last story, the raising of Lazarus, is not only a great story, but it is also an important one in the Gospel of John. It is a pivotal story for John, a hinge if you will, that marks a shift in his overall narrative. And here’s how, I’ve said many times just how crafty of a writer John was. Every detail, no matter how big or small, is intentional and meaningful for John, which means that there’s a lot of hidden stuff that may go unnoticed after a surface reading.

Now I’m not saying that John intentionally hid things in his Gospel, but that his mind and writing skills were so complex that it takes a more complex reading. Which is one of my misgivings about this Gospel, you almost have to be a Bible scholar to get the most out of it. However, with a Gospel like Mark, the best of the four Gospels, it is more straightforward, direct, no frills, no bells and whistles, what you see is what you get.

Not so with John, John is going to make you work to get what he is laying down here—and this story is a good example of that. So I mentioned that this was a pivotal story for John. This story literally occurs smack dab in the middle of the book, chapter 11. There are 10 chapters before this and 10 chapters after this. Now, before you dismiss that, keep in mind that everything else about this book seems very intentional, from the order of the stories, to its content and flow, and that John is a big picture kind of thinker.

This leads us to believe that this story is important for John and therefore should be to us. So let’s keep going on this trajectory. Stay with me now. This story, that appears in the 11th chapter, is 54 verses long, I know, another long one, and again, we didn’t even read all of it. And the center of this story, which is at the center of this book, is found at verse 27. And what do we find there?

Martha, boldly proclaiming, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.” That is the Gospel according to John in one sentence. Guiding people to believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s son coming into the world is the whole point of John’s Gospel. Unlike Mark, who was content to leave that up to you to discover, John is going to try his hardest to take you to that conclusion himself.

And John does this by showing us what that looks like with story after story of Jesus ministry during his time on earth. Stories like a conversation in the dark of night about being born anew, or a conversation with a woman at a well about living water, or the healing of a man born blind, or a story about the raising of a dead man, just to name a few of the many stories that John used to not only proclaim that Jesus was indeed the Christ, God’s Son coming into the world but also to show us what that even means, and what that even looks like.

And the reason why is because what that means and what that looks like turned out to be quite surprising, turned out to be nothing like the world had imagined or expected. They thought they knew God, and then they met Jesus, and realized they did not know God as well as they thought they did. This Jesus spoke of God’s sacrificial love for the world! This Jesus welcomed outcast women back into community! This Jesus broke the law and worked on the Sabbath! This Jesus raised the dead to life! This Jesus is the Christ, God’s son, coming into the world.

And this particular story found in the center of the book is pivotal not only because of this foundational revelation about Jesus but also because it was the last straw for the Pharisees that were out to discredit and destroy Jesus ministry. The effort to destroy Jesus ministry now turned to an effort to destroy Jesus.

In this miracle of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus boldly showed the world that he could not be contained, he could not be held down, try as they might, there was nothing that God could not do through Christ—and that was too much of a threat to them. It was in this miracle that they realized they were dealing with a power greater than they could have imagined, and it had to be stopped. Because if Jesus could breathe new life into a dead body how much more could he breathe new life into the living!

Into you and me. When life throws us it’s most challenging hurdles, it’s most devastating obstacles, it is at those moments when we cling to the promises of God, promises of sacrificial love, promises of living water, promises of healing, promises new life. And those promises of God come when we realize that we are in need of them, that we are in need of a love that only God can give, that we are thirsty and in need of living water, that we are blind and in need of healing, that we are dead and in need of new life—which is why we begin most services with confession.

Lazarus, the man born blind, the woman at the well, and eventually Nicodemus, all were blessed enough to experience this new life in Christ during their time here on earth. After their encounter with Jesus they walked away  a new creation because they recognized their need and saw Jesus as the one who could fulfill it. And so it can be, for us. Because John wants you to hear Jesus calling from outside your tomb, “Come out! Be untied, and go.” Thanks be to God. Amen.