Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Have You Heard the Good News?

Matthew 28:1-10
A Sermon for the people
Of Abiding Presence
April 16, 2017

In the early 90’s, I was fortunate enough to attend an ELCA Global Mission Event.  Several thousand Lutherans gathered in Atlanta for a few days to hear about the kinds of work our denomination was doing to participate in God’s mission across the globe.  The keynote speaker that year was a woman named Mudzunga Farisani.  She was beautiful.  The kind of woman who could walk into a room and command it with only her presence.  She was from South Africa and had escaped, just barely, with her life.  She and her family had been detained and tortured more than once by the government because of her (and her husband’s) refusal to accept the evil of Apartheid.  As she spoke, we heard the pain and suffering of that time in her life.  It was palpable.  We could see the rooms she described.  We could feel some of the suffering she felt in her body as she hid from the police. She was so good at her descriptions, we could almost hear the voices of those who came for her and for her family with the intent to harm.  We were so wrapped up in her story that some folks were weeping as they imagined the scenes that Mrs. Farisani described.  Others of us were terrified, but all of us were riveted to what she was saying.  We were absorbed in her story.  We were feeling her sorrow.  We were feeling her fear.  And she told us how her absolute belief that God was with her in those rooms kept her from despair.  Kept her from grief.  How her understanding that God would keep God's promise to use evil for good kept her alive.  Kept her from giving up and giving in.

At some point, she stopped abruptly and asked us, “have you heard the Good News?”  The room murmured, most folks nodding in agreement.  So, she asked us again.  “Have you heard the Good News?”  The room answered a little more audibly.  Instead of a murmur, the response was more of a buzzing and more folks began to answer “yes” and to nod their heads a little more vehemently.  At this point, Farisani drew herself up to her full height and shouted in a loud voice, “I said, ‘Have you heard the Good News?’”  By now, the room full of Lutherans got it, and we shouted back “Yes!”  And she said the only thing that I have ever inscribed in my Bible:  “if the Good News of Jesus Christ has reached your heart, please inform your face.”

I think of her often, but I especially remember her on Easter.

Christ is Risen!  (He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!)
Christ is Risen!  (He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!)
Christ is Risen!  (He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!)

The trouble with hearing a story too often is that it can lose some of its emotional power as we become overly familiar with it.  We already know the rest of the story, but let’s think about it for a minute, the Gospel this morning is a frightening one.  And for those who haven’t heard the rest of the story who are living it out, this whole scene would be terrifying.  Jesus has been crucified, lain in a tomb, and sealed with a stone.  The women, Mary Magdalene and Mary, head to the tomb that first Easter morning Matthew tells us “to see the tomb”.  These were the women who stayed with Jesus as he died.  We don’t know for sure what they were trying to do there (maybe they were simply there to watch and to wait?), but we do know that they were afraid for their lives.  Jesus was dead, and you could be sure that the Romans were planning to round of any of Jesus’s followers who did not get the message from the empire “stop spreading hope.  Stop calling for resistance…or you’ll be next.”  The women were on their way to the tomb and risking their lives to do so, but the men were in hiding.

They arrive at the tomb to find it attended by a squadron of guards there by Pilate’s order.  And as they approach, an earthquake hits as an angel, a messenger of God, rolls away the stone.  The guards “become like dead men” (in a bit of literary irony).  They faint and fall over.  But, really, can we blame them?  I imagine the women to be good and frightened by now, but the angel says to them “Don’t be afraid”.  If you study the Greek, you’ll see that it could perhaps more accurately be translated as “Don’t YOU be afraid.”  As in, come on, gals, don’t be like those scaredy-cat guards.  I’ve got some great news… “I know that you are looking for Jesus the crucified one. He is not here, for he was raised just as he said.”

And as Wartburg professor Judith Jones says, "The resurrection has already happened. The stone has been rolled away not to let Jesus out, but to let the witnesses in."[1]

So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell the rest of his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

Do not be afraid.  Go and tell the story that death, the last enemy, has been defeated.  God, love, has won. 

Have you heard the Good News? 

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!
Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!
Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Alleluia!  Amen.

[1] Workingpreacher.com

Saturday, April 15, 2017

This Is the Night!

John 20:1-18
A (short) sermon
for the people of APLC
April 15, 2017

This is the night!  This is our Passover with Christ from bondage to freedom, 
from death to life!  Tonight is the heart of our celebration of the Three Days 
and the highpoint of the church year.  Without tonight, Lent, Advent, Epiphany, 
even Christmas…without tonight, none of the rest of it matters. Without 
tonight, our preaching is worthless, and our faith is in vain.

Tonight is the night when we listen to the stories of our ancestors in faith.  Tonight we have heard the main milestones of salvation.  We have heard how God creates life from chaos, how God saves God’s people time and again…and those stories are told in very different ways, but we see through them all that God is at work accomplishing the impossible for those who would believe.  In all of the stories, just when things look most bleak, most dire, most hopeless, God acts.  And God reveals Godself to us again…showing us that God’s true nature is that of liberator and chain-breaker and bondage-shaker and lover and friend.  God does the salvific thing, the healing thing, the liberating thing over and over in our stories of faith because God loves ALL of God’s people, and ALL people are God’s people.

Tonight is the night we arrive at the tomb to mourn the death of our teacher and friend, Jesus of Nazareth, but we find that he is not here.  He is risen.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

God forever bringing life from death.  God forever bringing healing to the world.  God forever making all things new.  God forever creating resurrection stories.  And even the Gospel lesson takes place in a garden…the story of the resurrection where death, the last enemy, is destroyed, takes place in a garden where God is inviting us to imagine an new Creation on the 8th day…and inviting us into the creating, into the resurrection, into healing and hope for a world where all are free, forgiven, loved, and brought from death into life.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!   

with enormous gratitude for the authors of Sundays and Seasons as well as the Sermon Brainwave podcasters and especially for the pastors and bishop of the Southwestern Texas Synod who have listened and talked with me during these last three months about healing, death, and resurrection.  these thoughts are a collection from all those places.  thank you. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Communion, Forgiveness, and "Peace of God"

Matthew 26:26-29
A homily for the people
April 5, 2017

In 1984, the movie Places in the Heart was released.  Some of you may recall the movie.  If you don’t or if you haven’t seen it, get yourself a copy.  Seriously.  Or come borrow mine.

The story is set in the year 1935 and in Waxahachie, Texas, a small, segregated town in the midst of the Depression. We begin in church, a place we see the family gather often in community and prayer.  It is evident throughout the film that grace is abundant in the Spalding household.  One evening, Royce Spalding, the local sheriff, leaves the family dinner table to investigate trouble at the rail yards. He arrives on the scene to discover a young black man, Wylie, drunk and loud and waving a gun around.  You can tell that Royce really likes Wylie and that this is not the first encounter they’ve had.  They have a relationship of some sort and there appears to be a genuine affection from each man for the other.  During their conversation, Wylie shoots Royce.  Royce dies immediately and it is clear that Wylie is both shocked and saddened by his actions and the death of the sheriff.  In the era of Jim Crow and lynching, Wylie very likely understood what fate was to befall him. Local white vigilantes tie Wylie to a truck and drag his body through town, for all the community to see, before hanging him from a tree.

The remainder of the movie is the story of the sheriff’s widow as she attempts to keep the family farm with the help of two surprising partners:  a blind white man and a poor Black man.  Natural disaster, the KKK, and crooked bank officials all conspire to keep the motley team from success…and I’ll let you remember or watch on your own the details of that story.

But the scene that always gets me is the closing. 

The story ends, as it began, in church in worship among the community and in prayer.  This time, there is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.  The congregation passes the bread and the wine down the pews serving one another, and gathered amidst the living, we witness those who have died in the movie (for a variety of reasons) also receive and give the elements.  The in the very last line of the film, Wylie hands communion to Royce and says, “Peace of God.”

Wylie and Royce are not only crystal clear images of the communion of saints, but they also demonstrate the power of the sacrament as they share the peace and break bread.  Forgiveness.

In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther says that it is the words which Jesus speaks “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me” and “Drink of it all of you; this cup is the new covenant…the new promise…in my blood, which is shed for you and for all, for the forgiveness of sins; as often as you drink of this cup, do this for the remembrance of me.” “These words [the words of institution] assure us that in the sacrament we receive forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation…It is not the eating and drinking [of bread and wine] that does this, but the words given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins…And whoever believes these words has exactly what they say, forgiveness of sins.” 

It is the words which are important and the command of Jesus that we do this.  That we take the very body of Christ into our own bodies and that we remember his words of forgiveness. 

“Where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
Life abundant.  Salvation, which means healing.  In the world to come, to be sure, but also in the world that is here and now. 

Forgiveness is liberating, life-giving, and healing, both for the wronged and for the wrong-doer.  And Jesus invites us into forgiveness…that we are released from sin and delivered through salvation and healing into life abundant.  And there we will and we do find the “Peace of God”.  Amen.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Unbind Him, and Let Him Go

John 11:1-45
A sermon for the people

Thursday night, Paul Furukawa, Pastor Steve, and I went to a kick-off assembly for the San Antonio Sponsoring Committee (we’re still working on the name).  This is a new and diverse collaborative coalition of leaders from congregations, schools, and non-profits which are building a network with the capacity to act effectively and faithfully by organizing our time, talents, and resources so that we can use our gifts to affect life here in town for the common good.  Our hope is to inspire businesses, the city, clergy, and laity, people of faith, to address issues that affect everyone in the city such as high quality public education, access to health care, living wages, and fair lending among many, many others.

Thursday night, with the permission and blessing of the executive council, Abiding Presence publically announced our commitment to the work of the Sponsoring Committee by making a financial pledge for the year, by promising to attend workshops which will help form the work and intentions of the committee, and by committing to a time of conversation, a “Campaign of Conversations”, if you will, in which we at APLC will sit one-to-one or in small groups to talk honestly with one another about the things we are concerned about, especially those things which affect in our lives here in the San Antonio area.

So I’m wondering, what gets you up in the morning?  What are you passionate about?  What worries you?  What keeps you up at night?  Is it a rise in neighborhood theft?  Is it the cost of healthcare?  Is there are feral cat problem near your workplace?  Does someone you love have difficultly reintegrating into society following incarceration?  Is your child getting what she needs from the school system?  Or are you a teacher struggling to get what you need from the school system?

What has you so worked up that you have trouble resting or trouble focusing on other things?  What has you feeling cut off and alone?  What has you bound?

…In the gospel reading today, Jesus performs his biggest miracle…he raises Lazarus from the dead. 

Jesus is away from Bethany when he hears the news that Lazarus is ill.  And he waits for two more days before going to him.  So, by the time he gets to Bethany, Lazarus, the one whom Jesus loved, has been dead for four days.  Now, this is important, because the ancient Jews believed that the soul would inhabit the body for three days, but on the fourth day, the soul was gone.  A little nod to Billy Crystal in the Princess Bride here, after the 4th day, the person was no longer “mostly dead” but really, really dead.  Beyond hope for resuscitation.  Beyond mortal hope for resurrection.   

But Jesus knows better.  Jesus knows where to place hope, and (spoilers, dear ones…it’s not in the grave!).  And so he travels to Bethany and greets Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus.  And he is moved to tears by their grief…which is his grief also.  And he says two things. 

First, he says to Lazarus, “come out!”  And Lazarus, trusting the voice of his beloved teacher and friend, does the impossible, he responds to the invitation and comes out of his tomb…out of the place which has been holding him trapped and cut off from everyone else…he comes out of a place which by its very design supports death.  But holding onto hope and trust, Lazarus moves toward the voice of his Savior.

Second, Jesus addresses the community, “unbind him, and let him go”. 

Unbind him.  Take off the oppressive garb of death and free him to life in the sun among God’s people.

Now, Jesus was most assuredly capable through either human or divine movement of unbinding Lazarus.  He could have pulled off that linen by hand or snapped his fingers and commanded a legion of angels to do it for him, but instead, Jesus instructs the community to “unbind him, and let him go.” 

When we were baptized, we were baptized into community.  We were baptized into the body of Christ.  And, let me just tell you, in the body, there are NO insignificant parts.

Some of you know that about two weeks ago, I broke my little toe.  I had gone back to Alabama to pick up my kids and our belongings.  Someone had left the weights from the grandfather clock in the middle of the walkway, and since my arms were laden with boxes, I couldn’t see them and WHAM!!...a great deal of hopping around and several naughty words later, we determined that my sweet little baby toe, the one which never gives me a reason to think twice about it, was broken.  Let me just tell you, since then, I have had many occasions to think about that baby toe.  You just don’t realize how much you use it until you can’t use it well.  That little toe provides balance and stability and mobility in ways I never even imagined until it was injured.  The part of my body I regarded as insignificant and cute-but-useless is actually terribly important to my daily life.  The last couple of weeks I have really been living into the Corinthians text:  there are NO insignificant parts of the body.

Which is beautiful, because we are baptized into the body of Christ.  We have become part of one body with all of humanity.  And there are NO insignificant parts.  And by our baptism into the body of Christ with ALL OF THE PARTS we are therefore bound up in the very Trinity.  And we are bound up in God’s continual creating, redeeming, and sustaining work in the world for all of God’s people…and God’s people are ALL people.

And we are called to look closely at our neighbors…the ones in our community…and to see where they are bound and to “unbind them, and let them go.”   To unbind them from the things that would keep them tied to worry and resentment and to death…both literal and figurative…and to release those bonds so that they may be free to live life as God intends…safely and creatively and freely and with the joy of being bound not to death but to God in love and in life abundant.

 This new chapter at Abiding Presence of community work through the San Antonio Sponsoring Committee is just that, a new chapter in a long story of community commitment.  At APLC we are no strangers to unbinding others.  No strangers to being a caring community…to caring for our greater community.  We were born out of this very neighborhood…out of community…and we spent our early years caring for those who live in it.  Did you know that this congregation is responsible for the first fire station in the area?  We are!  We organized and did the work to show the city that a fire station was necessary in this part of San Antonio, and eventually our efforts paid off…and our neighbor’s homes were made safer.  Ask Jarrell Pruitt to tell you the story.

And we are really good about caring for folks who come to us.  I’ve seen members of this congregation offer rides, meals, and extra nights in a hotel for all kinds of folks.  I’ve never, ever seen anyone leave this place hungry.

And those are just a couple of ways we’ve organized our resources to unbind our neighbors.  I imagine you can think of several more. 

The challenge is to keep doing the work of unbinding our neighbors from the death shroud.  But it is not ours to do alone.  God has provided us with a community…one which we unbind and one which unbinds us so that we all may be free to be tied up in God’s abundance.  We only need to be open to living into our baptismal call…in which we are claimed by God, called into community, and propelled forth to “unbind him, and let him go”…the whole body of Christ…even, or especially, the baby toes.