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Waking Up Before You Die

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep BlueMessage for the All Saints Sunday on John 11:32-44 for November 7, 2021 given at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

I apologize for being remiss in posting this fall! I will catch up with November sermons and post Advent as well. If there are any particular Sundays you would, like please email me and I will send them to you!

My mother-in-law Joan, who is one of the saints that I remember today, died in 2007 and I still remember the sermon the pastor preached at her Memorial service. He told a story of a little girl being tucked into bed at night by her dad—a job usually done be her mom. It came time to say the prayers and her dad said, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I wake before I die ….wait minute, that’s wrong—isn’t it If I die before I wake?” And the little girl said, “no daddy—you’re right, I think we are supposed to wake up.”

The pastor went on to describe Joan as someone who had woken up in her life before she died—that she had woken up to what God was up to, and how God wants us to live. Joan woke up to compassion, and justice for the marginalized; Joan woke up and championed LGBTQ inclusion way before anyone else in the church was even thinking about it.

A few verses earlier than our passage today, Jesus describes raising Lazarus from the dead as “awakening” him from sleep. Theologians like to argue about whether he was really resurrected or resuscitated-–but I am not sure it really matters—the point is that he is sealed in a tomb wrapped in the grave cloths of death for four days. He is not serving, working, loving, providing, speaking, or doing anything. The grief and mourning rituals have begun, and Lazarus is as good as gone. He was dead long enough to stink.
But for Jesus and his power, he is only sleeping. And it is time to wake him up. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I wake before I die…” First, Jesus thanks God the Father for listening to him always, and to clue in the crowd that what is about to happen is through God’s power, and that Jesus is sent from him. Then all it takes for Lazarus to wake up from the grips of death is for Jesus to call him by name, “Lazarus, come out!”

The Word that called creation into being in the beginning—"let there be light”—this Word that became flesh—now speaks life and creation again—"Lazarus come out!” Jesus has to call Lazarus by name because there is so much power in his Word that if he would have said, “dead man, come out” all the tombs would have opened, and the saints would have arisen as if it were the last day.

So, Lazarus wakes up! And out he comes, still wrapped in the cloths and the bindings of death–but Lazarus is awake to what God is up to and the extent of God’s power in Jesus! He has power over death, even before Jesus’ own resurrection—God has power over death, and he changes it into life—real life!

But we know that already, don’t we? God has shown us that death is transformed into life over and over again—in the cycle of the seasons, in the spring that comes after winter, in the butterfly that emerges from the tomb of the cocoon, in the seed that falls to the ground and dies before it becomes a new stalk of wheat, in the painful breakup that prepares us for a successful marriage, in the loss or grief that brings new growth or positive change over time. God is in the business of bringing full and abundant life even in the face of death, even in the midst of hardship. This is the core of faith in Jesus Christ—we call it the paschal mystery—out of death, life.

Jesus invites not only Lazarus, but Mary and Martha, and the whole community gathered around them—to stop grieving, and to wake up before they die—to wake up to life, to God’s power over death to bring life! Wake up to love, wake up to service, wake up to belief in Jesus’ power, wake up to what matters to God and what matters to building God’s kingdom on earth.

The saints that you remember today are no doubt, people who woke up before they died—people who’s life and faith testified to something bigger than themselves; people who gave love, and hope, and meaning to your life because they shared God’s gifts and calling on their life.

We have been in our own season when Jesus has called us to wake up. In the last year and half, we have woken up to how interconnected the world is, how our behavior affects others’ health and well-being; We have woken up to the effects of climate change and the impact of our own carbon foot print. And we have experienced as a community how God can bring life out of death—we have experienced worship online, outside, inside, amazing music, and the expansion of our technology and worship in community in so many creative ways. Instead of shutting down we have started new ministries like the free community breakfast and Luke’s Learners—that is waking up to what God is doing to bring life out of death.

As a church we have woken up anew to the fact that we have a really desirable location and building that other congregations want, and we have renewed energy and interest in caring for our property and growing our mission. The beginning of our Capital Campaign is a testimony to this. Our stewardship emphasis for 2022 highlights that we are the Body of Christ together, which calls each of us to wake up to how God calls us to serve in order to grow our mission and outreach as we contribute our part.

Like Lazarus, Jesus calls each of us by name, so we can serve him with the gifts and talents he has given us. For us to fulfill our mission and grow, we need everyone to wake up to their gifts and find one new way to serve.

One of the ways I am waking up is working with a church growth coach who has instructed me to give a behavioral task at the end of my sermons. So, I want you to look at the Capital Campaign Teams listed in the Gathering Area and sign up for one Team—because we need you to wake up anew and join in to succeed in securing our future in this place. If you are hesitant because you do not know what’s involved, then sign up anyway, with a note that says you need more information. There will be lots of training with every Team on the Capital Campaign starting this Saturday, so everyone will know what’s involved. If you are on streaming, you can call Carol Rizzo or Carol Brant, or the office to find out how to sign up.

The Capital Campaign is short-term, so part 2 is this week, I want you to get out your Time and Talent Sheets for 2022 and find one new way you are going to wake up anew and serve our on-going mission here. We need more volunteers for the community breakfast! If Rita Humphrey can stand and roll burritos on crutches, you probably can, too! Or you may not be able to get out of the house much—that’s ok—we need pray-ers; we need phone callers, card writers, we need a Weekly Word editor, and we have more tasks than are even listed on the Time & Talent sheets.

If there’s not something listed you feel you can do, Lyn and I can find a way for you to serve—we are very good this! If you do not know how to do something—great, someone can show you because we are the Body of Christ together. So that’s two tasks—one for the Capital Campaign, one for the Time & Talent Sheet, because we are the Body of Christ with all members working together.

The saints that matter to us woke up before they died and we remember them because of their faith, their love, their service. One day it will be you and me for whom the bell tolls and the candles are lit—what do you want people to remember? I want people to look back at this moment in the life of St. Luke’s and to say we woke up.

Jesus calls us to wake up before we die, to believe in Jesus’ power to call forth new life, and to participate with him in bringing life out death, so that we, like the saints before us can leave a legacy of love, hope and mission for those who come after us.

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I WAKE before I die, I pray the Lord my life be thine. Amen.


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Immerse Yourself in God

Van Gogh Immersive PicTwo weekends ago my husband and I went to the Immersive Van Gogh art experience. Using 90,000,000 pixels and 500,000 cubic feet of projection, Van Gogh’s paintings covered all four walls and the floor. They manipulated the paintings with video while set to beautiful music. We were truly immersed in moving art—it was all around us, on our bodies and even covered our shoes.

It was captivating and deeply spiritual, personal and communal.

This is how we live in God, in Spirit—every second of our life we are immersed in God. At the burning bush with Moses God said, “I am that I am”—God is life and breath itself. We have been breathing in God unconsciously since we were born. Acts 17 says, “in God we live and move have our being.” This is why we feel close to God in nature—because God is projected everywhere in creation, the very first Bible with more pixels and cells than we can possibly conceive!

Go outside, listen to the birds, feel the music of the breeze, and breathe deeply today. Immerse yourself deeply in God.

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Getting Our Hands Dirty Sharing God's Heart

B15year40gcMessage for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost on Mark 7:1-13 for August 29, 2021 given at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

In the first congregation I served in Detroit Michigan, there was a member—I call her Monica since there was no Monica there. She was a dedicated church person and leader who served on Council, participated in Bible study, cooked for church meals, and volunteered in whatever she could to help the church. She did all the right things in her mind, to be right with God—she was a servant and worker bee, committed to the church of Jesus Christ. But Monica had one thing that “stuck in her craw,” as the saying goes, and she mentioned it frequently.

It bothered Monica that some people would receive God’s grace and forgiveness at the end of their life, even if they did not deserve it. “Those death-bed conversions are just not fair!” she would exclaim. “They can live however they want, and then at the last minute, believe in Jesus and get into heaven. Here I have been in the church, serving my whole life, and they have not done anything.”

Monica often experienced her service in the church, and doing the right thing, as a duty and obligation, which did not bring her much joy. Her work in the church become a source of judgment on others rather than an activity that expanded her heart with love.

Deathbed conversions may not be the issue that sticks in our craw, but all of us are Monica, are we not? We hold to a standard of behavior—what is good and right and meaningful to us, and judge others for not holding to these same standards. We see it played out in each political party, in the “cancel culture” of some progressives, and the news and talk shows that delight in catching someone behaving badly. Our social media culture reinforces our own opinions as the ultimate measure by which we judge others, asking us to “like” or comment on every picture, activity, event, or pronouncement posted.

This human predicament is nothing new: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” the scribes and pharisees ask. The religious leaders have built their life around following the Jewish law, holding it as the sacred gift of God, and modeling for others how to live with this gift at the center of their lives. Their intentions are actually quite good—they are trying to preserve the Jewish faith and way of life during Roman occupation. This washing tradition developed over time as the priestly cleansing ritual at the Temple, expanded to include everyone before mealtime, bringing all areas of daily life under the canopy of God’s law. But rather than bringing joy and expanding their hearts with love and gratitude for God, the religious traditions became a source of judgment on others. Even worse, they used it to accuse and discredit Jesus as one who disrespected and undermined God’s law.

Notice Jesus, in his response, expands his audience to include the crowds and the disciples. This is not a problem with religious leaders or the committed faithful, but it is within the hearts of every single person, including us as disciples of Jesus.

“Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Rather than drawing them closer to God and to their neighbors, the religious leader’s efforts at remaining faithful built walls of alienation. A spiritual hierarchy developed between the “clean” and the “unclean;” or between “right” and “wrong.” Rather than expressing the holiness of God, their ritual purity became a tool of exclusion, distancing them from those considered contaminated or unworthy. How easy it is to slide from our own efforts at faithfulness into judgement of others, and the sense that we are more deserving of God’s grace and mercy than they are. When our piety separates us from others, it separates us from God.

In so doing, we have lost the whole point of faithfulness and the heart and purpose of the law: “to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus is not disrespecting the law at all; he is rebuking the religious leaders and us, for not upholding its true purpose of loving God and neighbor.

So, Jesus grabs the attention of the crowd and all of us to underscore his teaching that it is time to stop judging others and instead, pay attention to the condition of our own heart, for that is where the real problem lies.

“Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Jesus shifts the whole notion of ‘consuming something that defiles’ on its head. Notice that most of these vices are sins of consumption in some way—theft, adultery, avarice, envy, pride—they all spring from a desire to take, to grasp, to own or to devour. Unbridled desire and self-satisfaction corrupt our heart towards harm and judgement of others. When we let such self-centered desires run rampant, we become insatiable consumers of things, of pleasure, even people and our own energy. We use people and God’s gifts instrumentally for our own purpose, moving our heart far from love of God and neighbor.

Think of your thoughts and conversations this past week—how many were laced with criticism of others? Think of your attitude toward those who felt differently than you did on the unsolicited offer to purchase our building—how many times did your belief in the rightness of your own views diminish your expressions of love toward God and your fellow members?

I ask these pointed questions because even as I wrote this and know this sin is absolutely true for me, there was a little part of my ego protesting—"well, others might do that, but I don’t!” Which is a perfect example of the sin Jesus points out in all our hearts. (I can’t tell you how bothersome it was to commit the very sin I am preaching against while I was writing it!—this is truly a pernicious sin!)

I remember Monica vividly after thirty years, because I know her desire to have others “earn” grace like she does, and judging them accordingly, lives in my own heart as well.

But Jesus does not leave us in sin and walk away. He sees clearly and directly into the corruption of all our hearts but does he not abandon us. As professor Elizabeth Johnson says, “Jesus sees right through our highly edited versions of ourselves, knows what lurks in our hearts, yet loves us still.” He loves us all the way through death into life—sending his Holy Spirit to dwell within our hearts, empowering us to love as God loves, to see as God sees, to desire what God desires.

He washes us clean each week and welcomes us to the table of grace, giving us a tangible taste of love, and drinkable form of forgiveness, so that we might consume Jesus’ love into our being. Jesus fills us with his heart, his love, his power to live out God’s desires in our daily life. Shaped by God’s desire for all to know and experience the grace of Jesus, we listen, embrace, and pray for those we want to judge, asking Christ to cover them in love and to cleanse our own hearts anew.

Then Jesus sends us into the world to share God’s heart, God’s love with those deemed unclean or wrong in our society. Jesus shows us what true faithfulness is by daring to touch those considered unclean, by risking to love those who are social outcasts, by healing those who were untouchable, by serving and giving his life for all people—lepers and tax collectors, sinners and Pharisees, the homeless and the hungry, the deathbed convert and our political adversary, you and me.

The indwelling Spirit and Jesus’ claim on our hearts, calls us to follow him in getting our hands dirty serving others, caring especially for those whom the world has cast aside. Our passage from James exhorts us to be “doers of the Word,” who live our faith in loving action toward others. Filled with Jesus’ undeserved, yet complete and total love for us, we live with joy however and wherever God has gifted and called us to serve.


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All of Life is One

20210726 092433Dan and I had a wonderful two-week vacation of rest, relaxation, reading, and then time together with family. While in Cancun for the first week, I read a novel called Driftless by David Rhodes which features a female pastor who has a transcendent spiritual experience standing on a bridge over a stream outside a small town in Wisconsin: "The light glowing within the grasses and the sumac glowed within her, within everything. They sang with her through the light jubilantly, compassionately, timelessly connecting her past, present, and future. Where she left off and something else began could not be established. Everything breathed....The whole world participated in awareness." This spiritual renewal is why rest, reconnecting with nature, and even the Sacraments we celebrate at church are so vital to our well-being--they are moments that affirm and remind us that all of life is one--that we all come from the same source and Creator, and we will all return to the same source and Creator. I felt this moment of spiritual union swimming with a dolphin on Isla Mujeres north of Cancun. I swam out about thirty feet, made a T with my arms and waited. Gandalf, the dolphin, swam up beside me and turned on his back, inviting me to hang on to his two flippers and relax while his powerful body pulled me back to the group. It was thrilling and unifying. God is in all things. All of life is one.

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The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.