Death Stinks

Unbinding of LazarusMessage for Lent 5 on John 11:1-45 recorded on video worship on March 29, 2020 for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Death stinks. There have been so many times I have uttered under my breath, “I really hate death.” It is so final, so permanent, so irreversible, so out of my control. The person is gone, and there you are with a gaping emptiness you did not choose or want.

Our children never met Dan’s sister, Cynthia who died at age 35 of a congenital heart defect. We have told them stories and showed them pictures, but while memories are a comfort, it is not the same. They never heard Cynthia’s easy laugh or heard her play the piano which she could do by ear. Indeed, death stinks.

Which is why both Martha and Mary are angry at Jesus for lollygagging where he was for two more days before he came to Bethany. We too, would like Jesus to prevent death before it happens. But Jesus is four days too late to save Lazarus.

When Jesus sees Mary and all her friends weeping, he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. And when he arrives at the tomb, Jesus himself weeps and again is greatly disturbed. The people believe that Jesus, like them is expressing his own grief at the loss of his friend—and he is—but he is expressing much more than that.

Jesus is greatly disturbed not once but twice because he, like us, is angry at death, period. He is disturbed that death is fundamental to the human condition—that it is an inevitable part of being human which we cannot avoid nor control, and that death is often the source of our greatest fear and our deepest sorrow.

That is the deep-down difficulty with the COVID-19 crisis that we all are facing. It does not let us deny, ignore or push aside death—instead every day, we must come face to face with its inevitability for us and those we love. We are reminded that we do not know when or how or if it will come, that it is as unknown as it is whether or not we were exposed to the virus at the checkout counter at the grocery store.

It is because of this terrifying truth of human life that we face every single day—pandemic or not—that Jesus waits before he comes to Mary and Martha in their grief. Jesus joins them at the point where death really, really stinks—when death is irreversible, overwhelming and final—to show us unmistakably, that death is not final for God and therefore it is not final for us.

In a move that foreshadows his own death and resurrection, Jesus asks them to roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, and just as Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name in the garden on Easter morning—leading her recognize him as the resurrected Lord—Jesus calls Lazarus by name—a stinky man dead for 4 days—to come out of the tomb. Lazarus does as Jesus commands him.

Jesus calls each of us by name in this COVID crisis—calling us to life in him even in the face of death. The reality of a God who creates billions of galaxies, who loves us so much as to compress down into human form, entering the most painful part of our existence—death itself—to show us that death is not an end, not something to fear, but it is doorway to a new life, to greater love, to more complete union with God in Christ—that is the basis of our hope and our life right now, here today. The question for us is not to wonder about how or when will I die, but as one who hears Jesus call my name into life—how can I shine the light and hope of the risen Christ who is both my eternal destiny and my present reality?

Jesus gives instructions about that as well. Lazarus comes out of the tomb still bound up in the grave cloths in which he was wrapped at death. He tells Mary, Martha and their friends to “unbind him and let him go.”

To live in the light and hope of the risen Christ is to unbind people from whatever holds them back from fullness of life. There are many opportunities for such unbinding right now.

• Many of you are doing this already by reaching out to neighbors and church members with phone calls, texts and other ways to check-in.
• Many of you are sharing worship to help people feel connected to God and to a larger community.
• During our first Zoom happy hour on Friday, Carol Peterson shared a great idea of calling old friends she had not been in touch with for a long time. She thought she was doing it for herself, but she found she was really cheering up every person she called—and connecting with people she had not talked with in over 5 years brought real joy to both of them. Carol also said we need to think of the glass not as “half-empty or half-full but rather as re-fillable” and we all felt a little less bound after that! Unbound life in Jesus’ resurrection is to always hold life as a refillable glass!
• When this crisis passes, God will call us as the church to new ways of ministry to help unbind those who have been deeply hurt in this time—not just economically, but those who are grieving, those in need community and other forms of support.

And this unbinding always begins with us. We still feel bound by feelings of fear, disappointment or anger—we still find ourselves, through this pandemic, thinking “This stinks!” And that’s okay. For daily, God unbinds us from these feelings and attitudes so we can clearly hear Jesus calling our name back into life and love again. And when we hear our name, we again receive that Blessed Assurance that we are his.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life—and his resurrection life is alive in us here and now. Breathe deeply of the fresh air today, trusting that Jesus’s life in, around, and through you, is the sweetest smell there is!


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Four COVID-19 Takeaways from the Healing of the Man Born Blind

manbornblindMessage for Lent 4 on John 9:1-41 on March 22, 2020 given by video worship for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

In this time when we are so focused on our own health and the health of others, it gives me hope that the Gospel reading appointed for today is the healing story of the man born blind. As we worship for the second week by video and experience the first week of all of us being asked to “shelter in place” to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we all need to hear a story of hope in the midst of our very real fears. In this story, I hear Jesus calling each of us to a deeper faith in the following four ways:

1. Don’t waste time on blame. Blame has been our natural response to sin and human brokenness since the story of Adam of Eve. Whose fault is this virus, and can I escape the blame? Jesus lets us know in short order it is futile to expend our thoughts, time or energy on blame. Sin and brokenness are a fact of this fallen world, new diseases will continue to arise as civilization advances and humans continue to encroach on animal habitats.

Instead, Jesus calls us to shift our sight to what God is doing in the midst of human pain. Jesus calls us to give up the blindness of blame and focus on the vision of what God is doing in our midst. Mister Rogers used to say that in times of crisis, we always see God in the helpers.

So today, we give God the glory for doctors, nurses, and hospital staff, for people sewing face masks to make up for the shortage, for first responders and people working in grocery stores, for people cooking for their elderly neighbors, for going to work in nursing homes and comforting those who can’t see their family, for those who are following the shelter in place orders to stop the spread, people with resources who donate to Network or homeless shelters, and for those who are praying with all their might. Any act that we do in consideration of our neighbor, the larger community, and the well-being of others, is a moment to give glory to God.

2. Healing is a process and requires our participation. Some of the Biblical stories of healing involve an instant change for the person healed, but not in this story. For the man born blind, healing took time and required his action, and his ability to follow instructions. I am sure it was uncomfortable to have a stranger’s muddy spit on his eyes. We are not exactly sure how the blind man found the Pool of Siloam—but someone had to get him there safely. Then he had to wash thoroughly—in an arid climate, perhaps the mud had already started to dry, so he probably had to wash for at least 20 seconds.

Healing our community and the planet of the COVID-19 is going to be a long process that requires all our participation in doing things we have never done before. It is uncomfortable and even sounds insane at times. But the health and well-being of ourselves and others depends on us each of us following the CDC and governmental instructions to participate in our community’s healing and recovery. Like the man born blind, we need to wash and follow directions.

3. Tell the story of what God has done for you. After his sight is restored, the formerly blind man becomes a walking talking miracle—but not everyone is ready to celebrate with him. Even the change that good news brings can induce fear and criticism. But this does not stop the man from repeatedly telling others what Jesus has done for him. He does not pretend to know everything nor have all the answers, he simply sticks to his own story. Jesus was accused of being sinner and he responded, I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.

We do not know everything about this virus and how long sheltering in place will last—but we each have a story of what God had done for us. For the blind man, it was “that though I was blind, now I see!” What is your “that?” What is it “that” God has done for you? “That” has changed your life? “That” Jesus has saved and healed for you? This is a time for us to share our story about what Jesus has done for us—remember with your family, share it with friends over the phone or Skype. When we remember God’s faithfulness to us in the past and share those stories, it gives us faith and confidence in Jesus’ presence and power for us in this present moment.

4. Finally, it’s our relationship with Jesus the Christ that truly matters. After all he has been through, the newly sighted man comes face to face with Jesus again. Jesus tells him that he is the living God, so the man confesses his belief, building a whole-soul relationship that will last him an eternity, no matter what happens, no matter what anyone else thinks, not matter what crisis befalls him in the future.

More than giving him sight, this is a life-saving relationship that will sustain him in all things. This is where our hope, our health, our well-being lies in this moment. Our spiritual gift is to remain centered in our relationship with Jesus the Christ and not allow ourselves to become blinded by fear or worry about tomorrow and instead, to cling to Christ and trust him.

We can imagine Jesus standing before us and join the newly sighted man in his confession of faith, “Lord, I believe!” We put our life in his hands anew each day, asking him to fill us with the power of his resurrected Spirit, giving us the wisdom to know the next right thing to do and the courage to do it for ourselves, our family, our church, and our community. It may be to stay right where we are and pray and meditate. It may be to make phone calls or write notes of encouragement. It may be to make donations to help others. It may be to fill our freezer with soup for neighbors.

Whatever it is God asks of you in this moment, remember that your greatest resource, your strongest hope, your widest strength, your finest skill, and your deepest courage all come from your relationship with Jesus who is always with you and never, ever fails you. With the man born blind who now sees, we also see and trust that Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. And with him we exclaim with our whole heart and soul: “Lord, I believe!” 

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Centered in Christ to Love in Crisis

doublerainbowpic.jpegMessage for Lent 3 on Romans 5:1-11 for March 15, 2020 recorded for video worship for St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas 

This is a hard and confusing time. We are living through a pandemic that none of us have ever experienced before and seems to be the stuff of Hollywood imaginations. Yet, here we are, recording worship, so that those who are most at risk are protected, and so that we can do our part to slow and hopefully stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This situation makes clear that we are one humanity, that our world is intricately connected, that what affects one community, easily affects all communities, and that our economies, health, and well-being as a global population rise and fall together.

We are witnessing all kinds of responses to this pandemic and we feel them within ourselves to varying degrees. At one extreme we see fear and panic, leading people to stockpile resources, wear face masks even when they are not ill nor working in healthcare, posting worst-case scenarios on social media, and proclaiming the end of the world as we know it.

At the other end of the extreme, I have seen flagrant disregard of reason and facts, leading some to scoff at warnings, mock those taking precautions, disregard social distancing, hand-washing and other health advice, and act as if they are somehow detached from the world of which we are intimately a part. Sometimes I feel both of these extremes inside in the span of an afternoon, even as I seek not to verbalize or act on either one.

Paul’s letter to the Romans invites us into a different way of living and a new response to a situation of uncertainty and suffering. Paul was addressing Christians who were persecuted for their faith, but his words apply to us in this unprecedented moment of a global pandemic that is affecting all of our lives. How do we navigate this new world as followers of Jesus?

Paul, who intimately knew hardship and suffering, immediately pulls us back to the center—the center of our faith, the center of our life, our heart, our mind, our soul—which is our relationship with God in Jesus Christ who defines our hope and our way forward.

Paul proclaims that “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us… for if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”

In this time of pandemic and in every time, our life has already been saved by Jesus, who has reconciled us to God! The good news is we do not have to do this ourselves! Out of love for us, God has already saved us. Jesus has conquered the power of death in whatever form it comes at whatever time and joined us to the life of Christ. Our life is secure, and no one, nothing, not even death, not even COVID-19 can take away our life in Christ. We are free! Freed from worry or anxiety about illness or death or any of it. We are joined to Christ and that’s a fact, so whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.

This is our promise: “God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

God has not left us to our own devices, but through the resurrection of Christ, God fills us with love—making our “Spirits come alive” with love for the world. So, in this challenging time, God pulls us in from extremes to our heart center, filling us with the Spirit to live and to act with love—love for each other, love for our neighbor, love for our community, and love for the world God made and sent Christ to save. God’s love poured into us helps us focus on how God calls us to love our neighbor, our fellow church members, our co-workers, and others during this time.

NBA player Zion Williamson has given us a great example of love, as a 19-year old, who was one of the first players offering to pay the salary of hourly workers who will lose income from canceled games. What might receiving this blessed assurance of love, and extending the reconciling power of Christ look like in your arena? It may look like doing grocery shopping for your neighbors, making phone calls to our homebound, or setting up an elderly neighbor on Facebook to see worship on-line.

Paul promises us that no matter the suffering this current crisis may cause us, God is working through us to bring spiritual blessings to us and our whole community. In fact we can “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.” Lent calls us to deepen these gifts of the Holy Spirit in us and we now have a global situation where we can put our faith to work like never before.

We close today, where Paul begins, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.” Paul doesn’t command us to have peace or give us a wishy-washy maybe that we might get it. It’s already done. “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” You have peace, you are peace, so we can live Christ’s peace and be at peace. We live as loving ambassadors of peace for others, trusting the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our life now and to the end of the age. 

Image: Dan, Leah and I saw this double rainbow on a walk earlier this week

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Spiritual Rebirth

Spiritual RebirthMessage for Lent 2 on John 3:1-17 given on March 8, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

I have given birth three times, and I have never known it not to hurt. You do receive the most amazing gift of life at the end of it—but it is no picnic getting there. It takes a lot longer than you want you it to—both the nine months and then the birth process itself. Then you are left with all manner of scars, tears, marks and parts that don’t quite go back where they used to be when it is all said and done.

When each of us were born the first thing we did was cry—naked and screaming about what God-awful thing just happened to ruin our peaceful, womb-bliss. It is a loud, messy ordeal and you are never the same person coming out of it—whether you are the parent or the baby—as you were going in.

If Nicodemus knew he was going to get the spiritual version of the birth process by sneaking out at night under the cover of darkness to talk to Jesus, I am not sure he would have gone. Nicodemus was looking for simple answers—ones that fit into his religious system of laws and rules that ordered his life and diet, structures that determined his schedule and that of his community. It is not that being Jewish was bad—we want to be careful not to be anti-Semitic in our reading of the Gospel of John.

But the problem is that Nicodemus was so set in his religious ways, so sure of himself, so over-confident of the rightness of his position. He was so comfortable, in control, sure that he had mastered his religion, its practices and that all his understandings were clear and correct. Such arrogance can be true of all of us, no matter our belief system.

But Nicodemus recognized in Jesus, a holy man sent from God—whose behaviors were not fitting into to his pre-conceived ideas and systems, and this made him curious. Clearly, Jesus was a powerful agent of God—otherwise how could he change water into wine? How could he have the authority to turn over the tables of the money changers at the Temple? How could he have accomplished the other signs of healing? How was Nicodemus going to fit Jesus into what he already knew was right?
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

I don’t think it’s a mistake that Jesus uses a birth image when he talks with Nicodemus about his spiritual transformation—even though it makes us uncomfortable. Not a single commentary I read about this passage talked about birth—even by women writers—because it is so feminine and messy and vulnerable. But you already know that if it is uncomfortable, I am probably going to talk about it.

I believe Jesus uses this powerful image of being reborn—because in order for Nicodemus to engage in a deeper relationship with God through the person of Jesus—he has to go through a painful, messy and vulnerable process. When he comes out on the other side, he is going to be marked by what he has had to let go, and torn by what he has had to give up, and scarred by relationships that have changed because they do not agree with him anymore. He may even cry out, feeling naked and exposed at these changes.

In the end Nicodemus will have the most amazing gift of life and love in his relationship with Jesus—but when the Spirit blows and moves him through transformation—he can count on the fact that his pre-conceived ideas, his control, and his comfort will be wrestled out of him with labor pains. Encountering Jesus and being spiritually reborn in his relationship with God means he will change and become different. Everything will not be put back where it once was.

Because finally that is what belief in Jesus does to us—and if it does not change us inside and out then it is not belief according to the Gospel of John—then we have remained with visits in the night, in the shadows where we refuse to change and be born anew. But Jesus wants Nicodemus to come to him in the light of day and deepen his faith, not by clinging to his own convictions, but instead, by being transformed in a relationship with Jesus in which he is daily made new.

And that’s what birth does, does it not? It changes our relationships—with the person being born, with ourselves, with everyone else in our life. We cannot be the same person on the other side as we were going in. And that’s true in our relationship with Jesus, too. Labor pains are part of the re-birth process.

Our relationship with Jesus that transforms our spirit from the inside out, transforms our relationship with God—not as one based on our own convictions of what is right, but rather as relationship based on love with the One who so loved the world he sent his only Son so that all those who believe in him might not perish, but have eternal life.

Jesus then shifts the question from Nicodemus to all of us. “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

We cannot hear it in English, but the “you” in these verses is plural—it shifts from a one-on-one conversation with Nicodemus to the plural “you” meaning all of you—all of you who know Jesus, all of you who are reading this story, all of you are hearing this testimony.

Are we going to recognize ourselves in Nicodemus—our desire to fit Jesus into our beliefs and our control—and then, are we going to allow the Spirit of God in a relationship with Jesus to birth us into a deeper connection, a new faith, a profound sense of love—that will cause us to let go, and mark us and change us through the pain of growing in an amazing new life in Christ?

Are you ready for that birth process St. Luke’s? The Council met yesterday for a strategic planning retreat for this year. We started out imagining what we would love to see at St. Luke’s 5 years from now, and this is what we started to envision:

• 150 people in worship representing much greater diversity
• Second worship service in another style-maybe in Spanish
• 20 kids coming up for the Children’s Message
• A thriving family ministry
• Supporting a seminary intern
• Personal outreach into the community
• A Financial plan with the budget in the black
• To be a church known for its outreach ministry
• A place where facilities are used even more for Community groups

In order for the Holy Spirit to blow through us and give birth to these dreams and goals, we will need to let go of some of our ideas of how the church should work, and some systems and assumptions will change for these new ministries to grow. It won’t always be easy and there will be labor pains. But the Council and I deeply believe God is giving birth to something new in us and through us as we each deepen our relationship with Jesus our Savior and commit to our life together as the church in this time and place.

We read this passage about Nicodemus yesterday and asked the question, “What is God giving birth to in and through us at St. Luke’s? We discovered through our conversation that:

• God is giving birth to a desire for expanded mission in our community
• God is giving birth to a trust in God’s growth here
• God is giving birth to a faith in a bigger future
• God is giving birth to hope in God’s dream for St. Luke’s
• God is giving birth to dynamic goals and analytics to measure our progress on our goals
• God is giving birth to incorporating new members with new gifts
• God is giving birth to expanding gifts of the Holy Spirit among us

We trust that through Christ, we can do this, for we follow our Lord who himself had to go through birth as a human being, but that is not all.

He suffered on the cross, which is itself, its own kind of birth. That’s where Nicodemus finally came through for Jesus. He was all in, having been changed by a relationship with Jesus; he came in the daytime toward the cross, carrying the aloe to anoint his body.

That cross, for all of it’s messy, vulnerable pain, led to the most amazing gift of life and love in the resurrection, that lets us know beyond the shadow of a doubt that death is never final, but rather, a birth into a new life with God. Yet, there are scars and marks on Jesus body to show that in re-birth we need to let go of who we were in order to become who God is creating us to be.

I’m all in, St. Luke’s! Your Council is all in! And, by your “Amen” we ask that you are all in—labor pains and all—as we are re-born in Christ!


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Quotation of the Week

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