Monday, May 12, 2014

He is risen indeed. Now what?

1Peter 1:17-23
A sermon for the people of Holy Cross Lutheran Church
May 4, 2014

Pray with me as we begin.  May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

Two weeks ago, we sat in this very room and proclaimed, “Christ is Risen!”  Then, last week we heard about poor Thomas who had such a hard time believing the unbelievable until he saw it for himself…then he, too, proclaimed the risen Christ as “my Lord and my God!”  Amen.  Today we are here again…the sanctuary is still dressed in its Easter finery, and we still shout gladly “Christ is risen!”  But, maybe by now the new has begun to wear off, the chocolate rabbits are gone, the lilies are wilting, and some of us are beginning to think, “He is risen indeed…Now what?”
Our epistle lesson (epistle means letter, by the way…we’ll demystify that a little bit)…our epistle lesson for today comes from 1 Peter the 1st chapter, and it largely answers the question “now what?” 
Peter reminds us it is precisely because God raised Jesus from the dead that we are truly able to trust God.  We know that God promises us a future, and we put our faith and our trust in God’s promises. Peter tells us since we have “purified our souls” or “cleaned up our lives” by following and being obedient to the truth (which is Jesus who is the Christ), we are to love one another from the heart, as though our very lives depend upon it. 
But what does that mean?  What does it mean to love someone? 
It’s important to recognize that love is a verb…an action verb to be precise.  In the immortal words of Fred Rogers, everyone’s favorite neighbor, “Love doesn't mean a state of perfect caring….To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is right here and now and to go on caring through joyful times and through times that may bring us pain.”  It can be a process, and it’s work.
We lived in Hanford, California, a smallish Navy town an hour south of Fresno, about eight years ago.  While we were there, we attended the Presbyterian church in town…this congregation was very kid friendly with lots of things for kids to do: a large VBS, multiple Sunday School classrooms, two different nurseries…you get the idea.  Well because it was so kid friendly, many of the aviators with whom James worked at the Naval Air Station also attended worship there.  One of the pilots was Carter’s Sunday School teacher LCDR Frank Wittwer.  Frank was a truly truly wonderful man.  He was smart, funny, incredibly patient, and positive.  He was the kind of man that could make you feel important to the whole world just by smiling at you, and Carter thrived under Frank’s attention especially when James left for a 12 month unaccompanied overseas tour.  Frank and his equally incredible wife Mendi had three children more or less the same ages as my oldest three.  With God, country, and kids in common, I spent a whole lot of time in the same room with the Wittwers (even if the kids never let us really talk to one another). 
They say the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, and that was certainly the case with Frank and Mendi’s daughters.  Erin and Abby (who were about 7 and 5 at the time) were sunny, loving little things prone to fits of giggles, and they played with and accepted my boys as one of the gaggle of kids who gathered regularly for crafts or tag or a dip in the pool.  I relished those days because it meant I got to relax just a bit and rely on the goodness and love of my friends to tend to my spirit and to keep those boys (especially Carter) out of trouble. 
Now, my Jackson back then was really shy and very, very quiet.  He spent a lot of time with his thumb in his mouth, wishing that I would pick him up and just hold him.  But little Abby Wittwer would inevitably come along and grab him by the hand and drag him into whatever she happened to be doing…loving him in and through the joy of childhood and of being together.  This sort of unconditional acceptance is God-given, and little children who are loved offer it well.  These carefree days of playdates and Christmas parties were such a blessing to my boys and to me.
But then, in January of 2006, Frank’s plane went down during a routine training mission.  And all of that changed.  The community and the church were devastated.  As Mendi and her children adjusted to their “new normal” (if you can even say something like that) they were noticeably absent from gatherings.  And the rest of us were heartbroken, too. 
A month later for Valentine’s Day, a friend of ours decided to host a party for all the kids that Erin and Abby knew from church.  Their mom dropped them off as she was just not quite ready yet for a public appearance.
The house was swarming with happy kids, and chatty moms, and every surface was draped with red and white and pink and purple banners and hearts and the word “Love”.  The Wittwer girls entered our friend’s home with downcast eyes.  Their anxiety was palpable.  Then, an older boy waltzed up to them and said, in that nasty, sing-songy way that bullies seem to perfect, “Nice of you to show up since your dad died.”   Erin burst into tears.  There was stunned silence, then a flurry of activity as mothers rushed to discipline the one and comfort the other.
In a heartbeat, I found myself alone with grief-stricken, abandoned little 5-year-old Abby and silent, wide-eyed Jackson.  I wanted to walk over and console that beautiful little lonely girl, but I was afraid that she wouldn’t recognize me.  She was so little and had been through so very, very much.  I remember feeling as though the world had frozen around me, and I couldn’t move to help her.
And then, and then…I watched as my child, my sweet little boy walked over to her, put his arm around her shoulders and whispered, “I miss my dad, too.”  They stood there in the kitchen holding onto each other with thumbs in their mouths, heads together, loving one another through the pain of separation and the sting of death.
The love written about in Peter’s epistle is the same as the love shown to me by Frank and Mendi when they taught my children and invited me alongside their family; it’s the same as the love shown to Jackson by little Abby when she included him in her fun;  it’s the same as the love shown by our friend who would open her home to welcome grieving girls and offer them a taste of “normal”; it’s the same as the love offered to that bully of a boy when those moms stepped in to tell him his behavior  and his words were not okay;  it’s the same as the love shown to Abby by little Jackson as he affirmed her pain and held her through it.   This is the love found in a life of obedience to the truth of Christ and it is amazing …it’s welcoming…it’s teaching…it’s giving…it’s accepting…it’s dwelling in the hard times; this love is life-giving, and it is a way of life. It’s a verb of profound and prolific action!  It is work!  Sometimes it’s a whole lot of work…roll-up-your-sleeves-and-prepare-to-sweat kind of work.  Love one another from the heart, as though your lives depend on it! 
What does it mean to really, really love one another?  It means to care for the other person with the same concern and care you give to yourself.  It means you put the other’s needs and desires at the top of your list.  It means being patient.  It means that you allow the other person to be exactly who he or she is in that moment.  It means that you bear one another’s burdens.  It means sometimes dwelling in sorrow or longing or loss with the other.  It means that you take care of the other person, but it also means that you allow them to take care of you. It means recognizing that the other person is as valuable, and meaningful, and worthwhile to God as you are.  And it can be painful.  And it can be messy.  But it is a beautiful mess, and it is what we are called to do!
Loving and being loved in this way is life-giving, and it is life-changing!  So roll up your sleeves.  Get sweaty.  Get messy.  Get hurt.  Love your neighbor as yourself. 
Christ is risen!  So, love one another from the heart.  As though your lives depend on it.

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