Preparing to Die

Inspired by Mark 11:1-11 and Mark 14:1-16

Welcome to Holy Week. Each year we begin this most holy time of the church year with Palm Sunday, which always feels a bit juxtaposed with the rest of the season of Lent. In the midst of the heaviness of the season, Palm Sunday always takes on a different tone. In spite of the events that we will be remembering on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Palm Sunday takes on a more celebratory tone, one might even say a victorious tone, what with the reading of Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding in like royalty, with shouts of Hosanna in the air.

It’s almost enough to make you forget it’s Holy Week! Almost. For me it’s a welcome respite, from all those challenging Gospel readings throughout Lent, that have been hounding us for weeks now. Today we get to take one, last, deep, breath, before submerging ourselves in the holiness of this coming week. I hope you will all join us for The Three Days. If you don’t drive at night, it’ll be worth getting a ride. If you know of someone who doesn’t drive at night, be proactive and offer them a ride! Again, it’ll be worth it.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! Today is Palm Sunday! And we have some very beautiful stories before us today from the Gospel of Mark. Outside we read the story of Jesus riding a colt into Jerusalem, a very royal thing to do in those days. People laid their clothes on the ground before him, as well as branches, to make a sort of red carpet for Jesus, shouting “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”

From there we moved on to another reading from Mark that I just read a moment ago. While some corrupt religious leaders plan to arrest and kill Jesus, he is having dinner at a sick man’s house, and a woman anoints him with some very expensive perfume, which made a few people angry. And the story ends with Jesus giving his followers some very specific instructions regarding the upcoming Passover meal, which we will continue on Maundy Thursday.

I noticed a common thread that ran through all of these scenes in our Gospel readings, both the one we read outside and here. And that thread could be summed up in one word: prepared. Outside our reading began with Jesus giving his followers instructions on how to prepare for his arrival into Jerusalem: where to find the colt and how to go about acquiring it. Then, from our reading inside, the religious leaders are preparing for a calculated attack on Jesus.

Meanwhile, after Jesus is anointed by that unnamed woman, and some argue that the perfume could have been sold on behalf of the poor, Jesus corrects them and tells them that she has prepared his body for burial ahead of time. Then Judas begins to prepare to turn Jesus in to the authorities after being paid by those same corrupt religious leaders. And lastly, Jesus tells his followers how to prepare for the upcoming Passover celebration. There is lots of preparing going on throughout our Gospel readings today.

The one that really stood out for me, is the unnamed woman and her perfume that she anoints Jesus with, and the connection that he makes between that and his burial. I’m guessing that not even she knew that that’s what she was doing. She certainly understood who Jesus was, why else would she spend so much money on this moment. But preparing him for burial, while he’s still alive? I don’t think anyone would have understood that! In that day, it was common to anoint the body with strong perfumes.

This served the practical purpose of masking the smell of the initial stages of decomposition, especially for the sake of visiting mourners. However, it also became a way of honoring and caring for the dead, or in this case, the soon to be dead. I find her anointing of Jesus body ahead of time, to be very moving. Moving because she was able to have this moment with Jesus, to care for and prepare him, before he died—an opportunity that many of us have felt we didn’t get with our loved ones who have died.

But maybe that’s not entirely true. What if all our interactions with our loved ones are, in some way, in preparation for death, both yours and theirs! Bear with me on this one. Just in the two years I have been your pastor, I have had multiple conversations with people who were dying, who were so comfortable with the idea of death, so comfortable with their own looming death, so much so, that in some cases, it left very little for me to do as their pastor! Some people, are just so prepared for the end. And I don’t mean prepared in the sense that they are just tired of living, or that they are in so much pain that they just want it to end. No, I’m talking about people who really are at ease with death. And I’ve seen this in adults of all ages, not just the elderly or the dying. They have no fear, no worries, when their time comes, their time comes.

This story about the unnamed woman anointing Jesus ahead of time, has me wondering, how do people get like that? How do people get to a point in their life when they are comfortable with their own mortality? This story has me thinking that there must have been people in their lives, that have somehow, helped to prepare them, helped to foster this sense of peace with death. Maybe it was in the way that they were cared for throughout their lives, the way that they were loved, the way that they were taught the promises of God’s unconditional love. I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine! I’ve never asked them. But I think it’s going to be something I start asking those people, because I think it’s a healthy state of being that we could use more of. And I think it’s something that we could be more proactive about.

What if we started seeing all our interactions with our loved ones, as little anointings, as little ways in which we prepare them to meet their end, without fear, without worry, but instead in peace, and confidence in God’s promises of unconditional love. In the way that we care for them, in the way that we love them, in the way that we share and exhibit God’s promises to them, in words and actions. I know, preparing our loved ones for death might sound a little morbid, but hey, it’s Holy Week! And, it’s me.

But I have too many conversations with people, who are dying, that are of the opposite nature. People who have not found that comfort with death, people who are filled with fears and worries at the end. And I can’t help but wonder, how they got there. And more importantly, what might have helped them, throughout their life, to find peace. I don’t have all the answers. I’ll admit that this is a new thought process for me, inspired by todays Gospel readings. But I think it’s something worthy of our exploration and conversation around. Because God’s promise of unconditional love is meant to bring hope and comfort, to alleviate fear and worry, and not just for the dying, but for all of us. May the holiness of this week bring you blessings upon blessings as we journey through The Three Days together. Amen.


The Transformative Power of the Gospel

Inspired by John 12:20-33

So, before we get into what is yet another challenging text from the Gospel of John, I want to take a moment and talk about the gospel. Not the Gospel of John, or any one in particular, but about the lower case g gospel, the gospel in general. From some recent conversations I’ve had with some of you over the past month or so, I feel like we need a refresher, a primer, of what exactly the gospel is. Many definitions and ways of describing it have been offered over the last two millennia. Because depending on the Christian scripture you are reading, you’ll get different views from different authors. So, in my own words, I define the gospel this way: Christ died and was raised for the sake of the world, so that we can die and rise with Christ, today, for the sake of the world.

Now the first part of that, Christ died and was raised, is pretty common among various theologies, but it’s where I think many of us stop. Christ died and was raised and now everything is going to be ok! Now let’s celebrate! And there’s certainly a time and place for that. Christ’s death and resurrection is certainly worthy of celebrating! But that’s only half the gospel, and we do a disservice to the gospel, to ourselves, to the world, and to Christ, if we allow ourselves to stop there. Not to mention the fact that stopping there, would not be true to our identity as Lutherans. For you see, the gospel is in its truest, most complete form, when it is allowed to become ingrained and alive in our hearts and minds.

The gospel is incomplete without you. It does not exist in a vacuum. It does not exist as a concept in a seminary textbook. If the gospel ceases to do its work on us, if it ceases to transform our hearts and minds, if it ceases to change our hearts and minds, then it ceases to exist. It’s like that age old question, “Does a falling tree make a sound in the forest if no one is there to hear it?” I’m guessing Jesus would say, “Who cares?” Because the fact that no one is there, is more of a concern than if it makes a sound or not! Jesus did not fall and rise for nothing. Jesus fell and rose to transform, to change, your hearts and lives for the sake of the world.

But there are many people who are coming to American churches, to feel better. Better about I don’t know what. Better about themselves? Better about their life? Better about the world they live in? And if that’s the only reason they are coming, to feel better, then they’re eventually going to end up disappointed because that’s only half the gospel. But if we can come to a point in our faith journeys, when we can be open to the transformative power of the gospel, for the sake of the world—always for the sake of the world, this is not just about you, this is not just about us as individuals, but always for the sake of the world—when we can be open to the transformative power of the gospel, that’s when the gospel flourishes, that’s when the gospel comes to us in its fullest.

And that’s why these Gospel readings during the season of Lent are so challenging! Lent asks us point blank, how we are doing with that! “How open have we been to the transformative power of the gospel?” That’s a hard question! Because nobody likes constructive criticism! Some of you may be better at taking it than others but nobody really likes it! We may appreciate the benefits of constructive criticism, but when we are receiving it, uh uh, no way, it sucks! Forget that. Take our Gospel reading for today. Some people came up to Jesus’ followers with this simple, benign request, “We want to see Jesus.” And then Jesus, out of nowhere, launches into yet another monologue about falling seeds, and death, and hating our lives. And by the end of the story we don’t even find out if they ever got to see Jesus or not!

Now, to be fair, this story takes place right after the events of Palm Sunday in John’s Gospel. Which, I know, is kind of weird because next Sunday is Palm Sunday. It’s one of the weaknesses of this lectionary, it jumps around the timeline a bit and doesn’t always line up well with our church year. But aside from that, tensions are heightening at this point in John’s Gospel. Jesus just rode in to Jerusalem, being hailed as the king of the Jews, which both the political and religious leadership did not take too kindly to. Jesus’ end was near, his days were numbered. Which probably explains his mood, as well as all this talk about death and dying and hate.

But behind all of that, is this same call of the gospel, to be transformed, by dying to oneself, and rising into something altogether new. In this scene Jesus uses the image of a seed to convey this message once again. He says that if a seed doesn’t fall into the earth and dies, it remains just a seed. But when a seed falls into the earth and dies, it sprouts and grows and becomes something altogether new. It ceases to be what it once was, a seed, ultimately bearing nourishing fruit. And he’s not just foreshadowing his own death and resurrection here because he goes on to say that whoever loves their life will lose it, and whoever hates their life will save it.

Now, this isn’t calling us to be a bunch of self-deprecating people with low self-esteems. But rather, it points back to what Jesus was just talking about, allowing ourselves to be transformed by the power of the gospel. Those who, as Jesus puts it, “love their lives”, are those of us who resist being changed, who resist being transformed, those who think, “I’m fine just the way I am!” They are the seeds that don’t fall into the earth to sprout and grow and bear fruit. They stay right where they are, becoming stale, and stagnant. That is not what Jesus fell for, that is not what Jesus died for.

With all that being said, I also find hope and comfort in this passage. After Jesus is finished talking about seeds dying and loving or hating one’s life, he says, “I’m deeply troubled. What should I say? ‘Father, save me from this time?’ No, for this is the reason I have come to this time.” In the midst of all the anguish Jesus must have been going through, the stress, the anxiety, the fear, as his end came closer and closer, he did not stray from his course.

Jesus was unrelenting, Jesus was unwavering, Jesus was committed as ever to his mission of salvation of the whole world! I find comfort and hope in that like no other. For I know how I can waver, how I can relent, how I can stray. I know how I resist being transformed. I know how I fight change. I know how I would rather stay safe and secure in the familiar. And so, it is comforting to know, that the one that we follow, is relentless in God’s commitment to us—no matter what. Thanks be to God. Amen.

God's Exposé

Inspired by John 3:14-21

Well, we are deep into the season of Lent now, and John comes at us with another challenging text. But before we get into all that, our passage also contains probably the most well-known scripture verse of the entire Bible, John 3:16. And as such, it’s probably the most misused scripture verse of the entire Bible. Misused, because it is too often used as a weapon to attack people with. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.”

That verse has been thrown in people’s faces as a way to judge, attack, and condemn. I’m sure in your travels you have seen many signs in front of people’s houses or sometimes in a field on the side of the road, or maybe a protest sign outside of a Planned Parenthood, signs that tell you where you’re gonna go if you don’t do whatever the sign says. And many times, whether it’s relevant to the sign or not, John 3:16 will be somewhere on that sign.

What’s odd to me is what comes after that verse. Not only is it not what you’d expect but you find that it really doesn’t fit the context of all those judgmental signs that it gets attached to. And what follows of course is this, “God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Why isn’t that the verse on every sign and billboard in America? I mean if Jesus isn’t here to judge the world, should we be? And maybe that’s why we never hear about John 3:17. What good is your religion if you can’t judge other people right? That’s no fun! You mean we sharpened our pointer finger for nothing Jesus? We had this ready to go! We’ve been practicing and everything! Jesus then goes on to say more about judgment, but it’s nothing we want to hear of course, which is why most stop at 3:16.

Jesus speaks of a judgment as something that has already taken place, not one that is coming at some future time. And to illustrate how that works Jesus speaks of light and darkness in a very different way than the light and dark motifs that we are used to hearing in the seasons of Advent and Epiphany. The light and darkness that Jesus speaks of here, is about exposing the evil in the world. People love darkness, Jesus says, more than the light. Why? Because their actions are exposed by the light.

And who is that light? According to John, it’s Jesus. Jesus’ presence, Jesus’ teaching, Jesus’ care for the world, is what exposes the world’s actions, for good or bad. So, in a sense, John presents Jesus as the great whistleblower. God’s great exposé of the world! Keeping in mind, that according to John 3:16 and 17, this is not about who is going to hell and who is not. This is about the here and now, and how well the world is following the light, Jesus—how well we are following Jesus’ lead and taking care of each other and the world—how well we are bringing new life into the present.

And that’s what this is all about, if we keep this passage in context. This reading from John’s Gospel, is the ending of his conversation with Nicodemus. And you may remember that Nicodemus was really struggling with Jesus and his teachings. He wanted very badly to buy into everything that Jesus was laying down but some of it was just too hard for Nicodemus to swallow. This is the same conversation where Jesus tells Nicodemus that he needs to be reborn if he wants to see God’s kingdom. And naïve Nicodemus was like, how can a person enter their mother’s womb again? It went right over his head. But this new life that Jesus was talking about was the ability to see, clearly, the world around them, and identify if it’s God’s kingdom, or something else they see.

Let me give you some real world examples of what Jesus is talking about here. In the not so distant past we have seen our share of whistleblowing and exposés, from Watergate, to Edward Snowden exposing NSA activities. But let’s go way back, over a hundred years ago, to an exposé that we are still reaping the benefits from, Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle. Around the turn of the last century, Upton Sinclair, a follower of Jesus but very critical of organized religion, went undercover as a worker in one of Chicago’s largest meatpacking plants, in hopes to uncover the poor working conditions of immigrants there, only to uncover the horrific health conditions and unsanitary practices of the meatpacking industry.

Soon after the publication of his book, the government passed the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act. You can thank Mr. Sinclair for our ability to have a medium rare steak without fear! However, as a follower of Jesus, he was disappointed that the real reason for his work, the welfare of immigrant workers, fell on many deaf ears. But it was his faith in Jesus that allowed him to see their struggle, exposed by the light. Because we cannot address a problem until we can see it.

Fast forward to modern times and there has been a lot of things that have been exposed by the light in recent years. Matthew Shepard, a college student who was brutally beaten, tortured, and tied to a fence in near-freezing temperatures, left to die,  because he was gay. Now, it was already known that homophobia was a real problem in American society when this happened in 1998, but it took the widespread media coverage and investigation for our nation to realize how violent homophobia could be. This was not news to the LGBTQ community, they live it, each and every day. It was the rest of society that was in the dark, until brought out into the light. Though it took 11 years, hate crime legislation was finally passed, in the hopes of minimizing this kind of violence. Because we cannot address a problem until we can see it.

Let’s take racism as another example. After the election of President Obama, many Americans were feeling pretty good about our fight against racism. Only to find out how alive and well it really is here. To you of older generations, did you ever think you would hear the word Nazi in the news as often as you hear it today ever again? So many things that we thought were behind us have reared their ugly heads again. Why? Because of the light, exposing the actions of all, and giving us the ability to recognize that certain behaviors, certain language, are simply not ok. But we cannot address a problem until we can see it.

Let’s take sexism as our final example. These past couple years have been fraught with example after example of the sexism that runs rampant in every corner of our society, as man after man is exposed for sexual harassment or worse. For most of us, the names have been real shockers: Bill Cosby, Garrison Keillor, Matt Lauer, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, just to name a few.

We live in a world where I have to make sure that my daughters know that it is not ok for men to touch you like that, or speak to you like that, or look at you like that, no those behaviors are not normal. We live in a world where we have to tell our boys, out loud, that it is not ok to talk about women in ways that are dehumanizing, or degrading in any way, not even amongst yourselves in the locker room! No, not ok! That’s not normal, in spite of what you may see on TV or in the news!

The strange thing about all these examples is that in spite of how painful the process has been for people in the exposing of the evils and sins of our world, the mixed blessing in all of them is that we can now see them more clearly. And we can’t address a problem, we can’t address sin and evil, unless we can see it. But by addressing the problems of society, we can bring new life to a hurting world, to hurting people, to hurting family members and friends who have been effected by the evils of this world.

And isn’t that why Jesus was lifted up on the cross, to bring new life into the world? To shine a light into the darkest corners of our world for us, as if to say, Look, people are hurting there, someone needs help there, God’s children are crying over there. Go. May we not be afraid of the light, but welcome it. May we be courageous enough to step into it, and serve the world with the unconditional love that we have already experienced through Christ, the light of the world. Amen.


Takin' It to the Streets

Inspired by John 2:13-22

So we are taking a detour from the Gospel of Mark this month, as every Sunday’s Gospel reading this month except for one will be from the Gospel of John. But don’t let that fool you. Remember that we are in the season of Lent, and so these passages from the Gospel of John that we will be exploring are some pretty tough, hard-hitting passages; like the one for today. Also remember that Lent is that time of year when we shake out the cobwebs from our souls, in preparation to recommit our faith journeys at the Great Vigil of Easter service. And so in order to do that, we are provided some Gospel readings that really cause us to take that long hard look at our inner most selves, take stock, refocus, so that we can move forward again as the Easter people we were made for.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Today we have this story from John’s Gospel, that has left many a Christian scratching their heads in confusion. It’s a story that has caused scholars and theologians to debate over for centuries. Like you, I have heard many different takes on this story over the years in sermons. I’ve heard sermons about how if Jesus got angry then it’s ok for me to get angry. I’ve heard sermons on righteous indignation.

I’ve heard sermons on the corruption in the temple or how the money changers were cheating people, or what first century Roman coins looked like. And they weren’t necessarily bad sermons, but those messages just weren’t speaking to me this time around. However, I did hear a preacher say that in this passage Jesus is saying that the Jewish religion was being replaced by Christianity. And just so we’re clear, I wholeheartedly do not believe that for a second.

So, what are we to make of this story? I really don’t think Jesus was overly concerned with people being cheated out of their money in the temple. I also don’t think that Jesus was overly concerned that these transactions were taking place in the temple. And I don’t think that Jesus had anything against cattle and sheep in the temple either. But don’t get any ideas, if you have cattle or sheep at home, and I know some of you do, please leave them there. I think Jesus’ mind was on much bigger things than money transactions, or corruption, or animals in the temple. I think Jesus’ concern was more about why they were there in the first place. They were there, not just to make a transaction with those money changers, but to make a transaction with God in the temple.

Now there’s at least two problems with this: one, because they were operating under a sacrificial system, they believed that blood had to be shed, that some kind of transaction had to be made, in order for God to love them, in order for God to want to have a relationship with them; and two, and even more importantly, they believed that could only take place in the temple, in one temple in the entire world, in one geographical place. And for Jesus this was a ludicrous idea at best, if not outright heretical!

For starters, Jesus knew that God couldn’t be contained by bricks and mortar. But more than that, God now resided in him, in the flesh and bones of Jesus, and getting the world to see that, was a huge job! But he knew it was something worth fighting for, because he knew how badly the world needed God outside of the temple. He knew how badly the holy was needed outside that holy place. And he knew, it was something worth dying for.

But this was foolishness to them! The idea that the God of heaven and Earth could love us unconditionally, without sacrifice, without bloodshed, without some kind of transaction being made between us and God, and all without a temple, a holy place? Preposterous!  But not for God. You see, God loved the world so much, that God gave up a place in the heavens, to become flesh and bone like us—to be closer to us than they could have possibly imagined. But the world didn’t understand. And this foolish Jewish carpenter turned preacher quickly went from being an annoyance, to being public enemy number one. And the only way they knew how to deal with him, the only way they knew how to shut him up, for good, was to have him executed. And so that’s what they did, thinking that their troubles were over, the problem of Jesus solved.

And that’s where you come in. Wait pastor, aren’t you forgetting the resurrection? No, you are the reason Jesus was resurrected! You are the ones called to continue the work that Jesus begun! You are the holy place where the Spirit of God now resides! When Christ ascended out of this world, Christ did not abandon the world but instead sends you out those doors, week in and week out, to proclaim to the world that God cannot be contained by a temple, God cannot be contained by a church, God cannot be contained by a theology, God cannot be contained by human decisions, by human behavior, by human weakness! God cannot be contained by human sinfulness! God’s love for the world is without condition, without requirements, it is free, and it is meant to be proclaimed by each and everyone one of us, to the entire world, in thought, word, and deed!

All because Jesus now resides in you. And I don’t just mean in this church, or any church for that matter, I mean that Jesus now resides in you, in your very bodies, in your flesh and bone, because God knows how to do that better than anyone—which is why we call ourselves the body of Christ for the world. And also why we come here, each and every Sunday, week in and week out, to be nourished, at that table, for the work ahead. Now, there are probably a lot of different understandings of communion among you, and that is totally ok.

You won’t get any judgement from me if we believe different things about what really happens at that table. Depending on the day I may have different beliefs about it! But one of the things that I have really come to appreciate about traditional Lutheran theology concerning communion is the belief that somehow, someway, Jesus is present in the bread and wine. No idea how that happens, it is a beautiful mystery.

But what I love about that belief, is that somehow, in someway, we take in the very presence of Christ, in our physical bodies, as we consume the bread and wine. The holiness of what happens at this table, becomes a part of you. You become the holy place where God resides. And you, get the opportunity to take that out into the world—in the way that you love people, welcome people, forgive people, care for people, protect people, do all the things that Christ calls you to do.

The streets of Old Town Auburn, CA
As I was writing this sermon, I couldn’t get a certain song out of my head, Takin’ it to the Streets, by the Doobie Brothers. It was really bothering me because I was trying to concentrate on my sermon, so I finally thought, I’ll stop and listen to it so I can just get it out of my head once and for all. And so I’m sitting there listening to this song, singing along, cuz how can you not sing along to that song right? And maybe for the first time I really payed attention to the lyrics and thought, wow, these really speak to what I’m writing about!

These are some of the lyrics: “You don't know me but I'm your brother, I was raised here in this living hell, You don't know my kind in your world, Take this message to my brother, You will find him everywhere, Wherever people live together, Tied in poverty's despair, I ain't blind and I don't like what I think I see, Takin' it to the streets.” Another reason this song may have been on my mind is because of the news lately, and seeing all these amazing, awe-inspiring teenagers, pleading to our lawmakers to do something about gun violence, literally taking it to the streets. Or the many peaceful protestors pleading for equality and justice for women, or our brothers and sisters of color, or our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community.

In this crazy story from the Gospel of John, I hear a call to take it to the streets. And from our perspective, it is the love of God, who is Christ. Because God refuses to be contained by these four walls, God calls us to take Christ out into the world, in flesh and bone for the world to see and experience. In your flesh and bone. May we be ever thankful that we have a God who cannot, who will not, be contained, in any one place. And may that thankfulness drive us to take it to the streets. Amen.