I’m back home after two whirlwind weeks of travel, first to Minneapolis for my last Augsburg Fortress board meeting, then to Houston for a training with the North American Association for the Catechumenate. I meant to post field notes from my trips while I traveled, but early mornings, late nights and a strong desire not to lug my laptop around with me mean I’ll be catching up and posting as I can now that I’m home.
One of the (many) things I missed while traveling was getting to preach at Redeemer. This was especially hard given all that was going on in the news that first week in particular–the bombings in Boston, the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas, the earthquake in China, all happening at once and making me long for the opportunity to worship and pray with my congregation. The story that follows may show up in a sermon someday, but I wanted to share it with you now while it’s still fresh in my mind and on my heart.
On Thursday, April 18 I made my way to the Central Wisconsin Airport, feeling nervous and excited about my first solo trip since my son, Walter, was born. In the car on the way there, I listened to some of the interfaith memorial service in Boston. Governor Deval Patrick’s speech hit home, with powerful honesty: “In my faith tradition, scripture teaches: ‘In every thing give thanks.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18) That isn’t always easy to do. On Monday afternoon, I wasn’t feeling it. What I felt, what so many of us felt then, was shock and confusion and anger. But the nature of faith, I think, is learning to return to the lessons even when they don’t make sense, when they defy logic. And as I returned to those lessons this week, I found a few things to be thankful for.”
We come back, again and again, to the “idle tale” of Easter morning. It defies logic; it doesn’t make sense. Bad news overwhelms us. And yet, we have hope. And yet, we give thanks. Not because we are ignorant of all the bad news in our lives and in the world, but because we know that the Good News is stronger.
Governor Patrick introduced President Obama, who focused his remarks on the remarkable resilience of Boston, and on how even those of us who live far away have been touched by these events. After the Governor’s humble and heartfelt words, the tone of the President’s remarks and “claim” on Boston didn’t sit quite right with me. But, at that point, I couldn’t quite say why. I arrived at the airport, turned off the radio, and turned my attention to getting to my gate.
I didn’t really need to hurry to the gate, it turns out. There was snow in Minneapolis, Chicago was flooded and there were tornado warnings in Detroit. My fellow travelers and I settled in for a long wait: none of us were going anywhere. We packed into the one tiny gift shop, which I was surprised to find offered a couple of hot meal options. I would live to regret that chicken bratwurst, but in that moment, it hit the spot. I read a book about funerals, propped my feet up on my roller bag, and enjoyed some lively in-womb activity. Baby Sally has just recently moved from the “gentle flutter” to the “persistent internal organ pummeling” stage, and it’s early enough in the pregnancy that I delight in every one of those punches and kicks. It was nice to have some quiet time alone together so I could really focus on her movements.
As our mother-daughter bonding time in the waiting area dragged on, however, I started to think about my options. Minneapolis is only about a 3 hour drive from the Wausau airport. I’d decided against the driving option when making my travel plans because rest stops are not super plentiful on the route and I figured my pregnant self would need bathroom proximity. Knowing that the weather would get nasty as I headed west gave me pause, too. But when the flight had been delayed 3 hours, I started getting antsy.
“I could have been there by now!” I thought, and many of my fellow passengers started thinking and saying the same thing. They were all trying to get to Minneapolis on their way to somewhere else, and were rightly worried about missing their connections and getting stuck overnight. I eavesdropped on their conversations with our increasingly harried, but very kind, gate agent. He assured each one that no flights at all were getting out of Minneapolis–their connecting flights weren’t going anywhere without them. He tried to keep us updated, but that just added to the confusion, as the story coming out of MSP changed and changed again. Small signs of hope (“One of the runways is open! We’ll board in 10 minutes!”) were followed immediately by discouragement (“Nevermind. The airport is closed. I’ll give you an update in 20 minutes.”) Hope and woe, hope and woe. It was a bit of a roller coaster.
In the midst of this, we were all aware of the news unfolding on the televisions all around us: the FBI had released grainy photos of the bombing suspects. We peered at the blurry pictures, our own very minor troubles suddenly put into perspective. We talked to each other a little bit; the friendly, lighthearted commiserating of people who are in it together. I started to get a sense of who my plane-mates were and where they were going: the two ladies headed to Vegas for a conference, the very tall man and his teenage son going to Atlanta, the young mom on her way to Wyoming via Denver.
The young mom and I ended up being seatmates on the plane. We discovered pretty quickly that we’re both from Stevens Point, and that her son goes to 4K at Redeemer. As we talked, the plane made its way from gate to runway … and then stopped. And turned around. Back to the gate! MSP was closed, and they were estimating another 2 hour delay for snow removal. Our wonderful flight attendant, who had bonded with us during the delays in the waiting area, tried to rally our spirits with spirits: “I have wine and some ingredients to make cocktails,” she said. “Tell me what you want as you’re leaving the plane and I will hook you up. I also have juice and snacks. We can do this!” Laughter and applause. We made our way back into the waiting area and called our loved ones with the latest.
I called Sean and told him I was going to get in the car and drive. At this point, the flight had been delayed 6 hours. If I left right now, most of my drive would still happen during daylight hours. I went to find the gate agent to find out what I needed to do to get off the flight without penalty. When he appeared, it was with another update “We are cleared for take off!” he said, “Everybody come back right now and get on the plane! Boarding all rows, let’s go!”
“I have a good feeling about this one,” I told my seatmate. “We are definitely going to get to Minneapolis this time.” She wasn’t as confident as I was, but she seemed hopeful, too. And a little tired. We were all a little tired.
The flight from CWA to MSP takes about 30 minutes. You basically just take off, ascend, prepare for landing, and land. Not long into our short flight, we hit terrible turbulence. The bumps and rolls went on for what felt like a very long time. This is when I began to regret that chicken bratwurst. I looked in my seat pocket for an air sickness bag. Nope. My seatmate checked hers, as did our immediate seat neighbors. No bags to be found. The very tall man caught the attention of our stewardess, way at the front of the plane. The turbulence was so bad she couldn’t get up to help me, so she got on the PA and asked everyone to look for bags at their seats and send them my way. Passed quickly from hand to hand, about 10 bags immediately arrived in my lap. ”I hope I don’t need any of these,” I told my seatmate, “But just to be safe.” She nodded, looking quite green herself.
We leveled off for a moment and I took the opportunity to scoot across the aisle where there were two empty seats, left open by fellow passengers who’d given up and decided to drive. I settled in and thought about not throwing up. Soon, we had an announcement from our captain explaining why we’d leveled off. ”We are flying over Menominee right now, and we just got word that the airport is closed. We’re going to circle up here for another 20 minutes or so, and then we’ll hopefully get to land in Minneapolis.” The captain sounded deeply depressed. My seatmate and I exchanged looks of despair.
As we circled, our flight attendant made her way back to my seat with a bag of ice to put on my neck, a can of ginger ale (“Just little sips!” she warned,) a pile of paper towels and kind words of concern and encouragement. The ice helped a great deal, but I was still worried. While pregnant, once you get nauseous it’s pretty hard to recover. The stomach acid isn’t easy to call back. But I kept breathing and thinking positive, non-vomitous thoughts. Soon, we started our descent into MSP. As we hit the runway, I looked across the aisle and my seatmate gave me a huge smile and two thumbs up. ”You made it!!” she said.
And that’s when I threw up.
With my head firmly ensconced in airsickness bag #1, I became aware of a very large presence suddenly filling the seat next to me. It was the very tall man. My first thoughts ran along these lines: “Very tall man, you are sitting very close to me. I am kind of trying to have a private moment with my bag, here.” But within seconds he had cleared away my coat and other traveling debris, giving me more space and air. He took the bag of ice and held it up to my neck. When I was done throwing up, he took away the bag, sealed it, and passed it to the flight attendant who took it away. He dabbed gently at my face with the paper towels and offered me some tissue, some water, and some ice. ”This happened to my wife when we flew and she was pregnant,” he said. ”It seems like just yesterday, but look! He’s seventeen.” I looked over and saw the very tall man’s son sitting by the window, looking a little green himself. “Yeah, he’s not feeling too good, either. I was watching both of you,” said the very tall man, “and I figured at least one of you was going to need my help!”
We arrived at the gate and everyone got up and gathered their things. I was the only person on the plane who had arrived at my final destination, so I stayed put to let everyone get off and get to figuring out their connections. The Vegas ladies gave me a breath mint and big smiles. A beautiful woman traveling with her granddaughter patted my shoulder and said, “You did very well.” My seatmate and I wished each other luck and exchanged looks of mutual exhaustion and encouragement. The flight attendant came back and helped me clean up some more, all while making sure I was feeling better and had a way to get to my hotel.
When I got to the hotel and collapsed in a heap on the bed, my first thought was: “People are basically good.” I went to sleep full of faith in the basic goodness of humanity.
As I reflected on it more the next day, though, I revised that thought. People are basically complicated. People are basically saints and sinners–all of us, we are both saints and sinners at the very same time. We are living paradoxes traveling about and behaving in all sorts of contradictory, illogical ways. That’s why Governor Patrick’s speech touched me in a way that President Obama’s didn’t. President Obama’s speech was just one story: the story of a mighty and resilient city. Governor Patrick’s speech was about paradox: about faith and confusion, thankfulness and despair all at the same time.
At our meeting the next day, one of my colleagues said, “The public narrative about Boston right now is about amazing courage, about the people who ran toward the blast and helped people. But most people did not run toward the blast. They ran away, or they froze … they didn’t help anyone. They are trying to make sense of all this, too, and they are struggling.”
Any human story has to be about more than the public narrative, more than courage and resilience and helpers. Any human story has to be about humans, and humans are about paradox … a story that can’t be easily told.
The final verses of the Gospel of Matthew are my favorite example of this. “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Face-to-face with the risen Christ, the disciples worship him … and doubt him, too. You’d think the situation couldn’t get any clearer than this, but they are human beings, and anything involving human beings is not going to be easy or clear. Jesus looks at these human beings–these confused, doubting, conflicted sinner/saints–and says, “Good enough. I can work with this.” Jesus sends all of them–even the doubters–out, commissioning them with all the authority of heaven and earth to baptize and make disciples, to be messengers of the Good News. It’s not their basic goodness that makes them disciples. It’s the goodness and the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, which works through them, and through all of us, in amazing, surprising ways.
We never travel alone. And when we reach out in kindness to our fellow travelers, we don’t do that alone, either. Thanks be to God for traveling with us, for embracing our full, complicated, paradoxical selves, for sending us out with our doubts and our faith to be disciples in our daily lives. Amen!
Today we’ve heard two amazing stories: one about how Peter, Jesus’ disciple, became an apostle, and one about how Paul, a persecutor of Christians, became an apostle. An apostle is someone who is sent away, sent out to carry the message of Jesus wherever they go. It shouldn’t surprise you to hear me say that you and I are called to be apostles, too. We talk about that a lot, here. That’s the whole idea behind the blessing I give you every Sunday, the sending words that tell you to Go and serve the Lord. Our congregation’s tagline is “Gather. Grow. Go!” and we put a lot of emphasis on the “go” part, the part about living out our faith in daily life, not just on Sunday morning, not just when we’re in church, but every day and every place, seeing every interaction as a potential opportunity to serve God, werve our neighbors, and share the Good News of Jesus with what we say and what we do.
So, we’re pretty comfortable with this idea, I think. And I spend a good amount of time trying to make it an accessible goal for each of us: maybe not an easy goal, but certainly not impossible. Today I’d like to make this idea of being an apostle a little more uncomfortable for us, and I’d like to talk about what makes it so hard to do, so challenging to actually put into practice and live out in our lives.
On Wednesday night we had our long-awaited confirmation movie night and we watched the movie “Pay It Forward,” which is a favorite of my co-teacher, Sue. The movie came out back in 2000 and I’d never seen it, but I thought I knew what it was about. I thought it was about a little boy who tries to make the world better by encouraging everyone to do little random acts of kindness: when someone does something nice for you, you turn around and do something nice for someone else. Like the insurance commercial from a few years ago, where you see the ripple effect of people’s days being improved by small acts of kindness from strangers (holding the door open for someone, helping them carry something heavy, etc.) A cute idea, pretty harmless, I thought.
Well, the movie is much more meaningful than that. It’s about alcohol addiction. It’s about domestic violence and abuse. It’s about bullying, and suicide, and despair, and families torn apart, and young children who have to deal with all this brokenness, hurt and sorrow. It’s not cute and harmless, it’s real. It’s about real life and real life challenges that we wish no child would ever have to face.
And in the midst of these real challenges, Trevor, the 12 year old main character, decides that it’s worth it to do something difficult to make someone else’s life better. The “pay it forward” idea isn’t about holding the door open for someone or returning a lost umbrella (although those things are nice.) It’s about taking the time to identify what would really change a person’s life for the better and then taking the huge risk of trying to make that happen.
“It has to be something difficult,” Trevor says in the movie. “That’s the whole point.”
It had to be something difficult, something challenging, to turn Saul, the Christian hater into Paul, the Apostle for Christ. The usual angel appearance, which is usually very impressive and fear-inspiring and effective wasn’t going to be enough in this case. For Saul, it took a blinding light and the voice of Jesus himself.
But even more than the light and that moment of revelation, it took the three days he spent praying and fasting in the dark. It took the healing touch and words of Ananias, the Christian, to convert Saul into Paul. Can you imagine how difficult it was for Ananias to do that? To trust God enough to put himself and his family in danger by revealing himself as a Christian to a man who turned Christians over to be tortured and killed? Ananias took a huge risk when he laid his hands on Saul and healed him in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit. He risked his life, and by doing so, he changed Paul’s life forever. Ananias showed Paul what it means to be an apostle: you will risk your life, eventually you will even lose your life, it will be difficult, and you will suffer, but it will be worth it.
It has to be something difficult, Ananias shows Paul, that’s the whole point.
In contrast, the story of Peter becoming an apostle seems like a walk in the park, or literally, like breakfast on the beach. There Peter is, enjoying the fruits of another miracle, spending time with the risen Christ, who is cooking for him. It’s an idyllic scene. But it’s about to get difficult.
In some ways, Jesus challenges Peter even more than he challenges Paul. At first it seems just like old times: Jesus asks a question, Peter responds, Jesus tells him what to do about it. “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” Not too tough, nothing out of the ordinary, kind of nice exchange between a teacher and his disciple.
But Jesus keeps repeating himself, and Peter starts to realize there’s something else going on, here. As Jesus repeats his question and command for a third time, we all begin to realize that Peter is being confronted with his failings as a disciple: the way he denied knowing Jesus three times while his teacher was on trial for his life. The way he abandoned Jesus in the garden. The way his courage and love seemed to fail him at the most important moment.
“Do you love me, Peter?” It’s not an easy question, it turns out. It’s an uncomfortable question, it’s a challenge. And with it comes the even more uncomfortable and challenging news that Peter the Apostle will be put to death for his faith. Jesus’ challenge to Peter is direct, it is firm, it is difficult and uncomfortable, and it clearly comes from a place of love. And for Peter, the wayward disciple turned apostle, it changes everything.
This conversation has to be difficult, Jesus shows Peter, that’s the whole point.
I’ve been thinking a lot about difficult conversations this week, ever since I heard the news on Monday that Bishop Burnside, the ELCA bishop for Madison and the area around it, was involved in a terrible car accident over the weekend. Bishop Burnside was driving drunk, and he hit and killed a pedestrian. More details have been coming out in the news all week, and I’ve read the articles and had a hard time keeping myself from jumping to conclusions or reading my own interpretation, my own assumptions into what happened. I don’t want to get into all of that today, because ultimately, my speculation isn’t very helpful.
But I’ll tell you that one source of sorrow and frustration for me this week has come from wondering if there was anything anyone could have done to prevent it. Or rather, if there was anything I could have done to prevent it. Because it did occur to me to wonder, in the past year, how the Bishop was doing, and if he was dealing with recent challenges in his life in a healthy way. It didn’t occur to me to say anything to him about it, though. Why not? Well, he doesn’t really know me, I don’t really know him, I just know about him, or think I know about him, because he’s a public leader in the church. He’s not my bishop, and even if he was, how awkward and uncomfortable would it be for a pastor to randomly ask a bishop such personal questions.
Even if you take away the power dynamic, having that kind of conversation with anyone is just not something we do. It’s rude, it’s presumptuous, it almost inevitably puts the other person on the defensive and might end conversation or even end the relationship… and, in this case, it might have changed a life. It might have saved a life, really more than one life.
Now, I know that these kind of “might haves” and “what ifs” aren’t very helpful. As a pastor and a chaplain I’ve seen people get stuck in the “what ifs,” tormenting themselves with things no one can change and no one can know … you can’t know if anything you did differently would have made it turn out differently. And I know as well as anyone that, with matters of drugs and alcohol, it is ultimately up to the person who needs help to get help … you can’t make someone get help.
So I should know better. And I’ve prayed a lot about it and I’ve decided not to drive myself crazy wondering “what if.” I know I can’t change the past, and I can’t change things for Bishop Burnside or for anyone involved in the accident, but I can change myself.
And I can tell you that my attitude toward difficult, awkward conversations about important things like alcohol abuse: that is changing. I’m feeling called to be bolder than I have been, to take the risk of saying something difficult because, if I’m saying it in love, it could possibly be an opening for the Holy Spirit to do something powerful, even to change a life, even to save a life.
It take a lot of courage to be an apostle. What we are being called to do today is difficult, and that’s the whole point. It is difficult, but not impossible; it is possible with God’s help. It is risky, but it is worth it, because with God’s help, real change is possible, even and especially when it seems too hard. I know it from my own life, and I’m guessing you’ve experienced in your life, too: times when something or someone you thought would never change did change in a profound way.
With Peter and Paul, we are called to be apostles. Let’s go out there and do the difficult, life changing work of the Spirit, knowing that we never, ever go alone. Amen!
Whenever I read the story about Thomas, our Gospel lesson for today, which is always at least once a year, I think of that phrase “seeing is believing” and how true that is. And it’s strange that it’s true, right? Have any of you ever been to a magic show, or looked at a book of optical illusions, or had problems with your vision in some way? Even though we know that our sight, just like any of our other senses, can be easily fooled, we trust it. And we seek visual confirmation, we want to see it for ourselves.
Sean and I went to our 20 week ultrasound on Friday, and we found out that we’re having a little girl. I told Sean that I wanted to include this in my sermon today, and he said, “Why? Because you doubted that it was a girl, even when I told you months ago that’s what we were having?” That’s not exactly what I was thinking.
Having an ultrasound on Friday made me think about how much we want to see the unseeable, to know the unknowable, to use our senses to give ourselves a sense of certainty, even thought that certainty is an illusion.
I knew going in to that ultrasound that the grainy images on the screen can only show so much and that it’s very different from seeing that baby in person. When Walter was born Sean and I were both shocked by how real he was. The ultrasounds had not adequately prepared us for the real thing. And yet … I’ve been looking forward to those grainy images for weeks. And we both cried tears of joy, as we got to watch, to really see, that new life taking shape.
We are going to name her Sally. She’s named after my great-aunt Sally and we’ve had the name picked out for a long time. Finding out that we’re having our Sally was especially poignant on Friday, though, because earlier that morning we got the news that Sally’s middle son, my mom’s cousin, John, died in his sleep sometime Thursday night.
John was young, in his mid-fifties, and in good health. He was a husband, a father and a grandfather, and a devoted son to my Aunt Sally. Sally has terrible arthritis and gets great help from all three of her sons, which allows her to continue to live alone in her own home. Sally told my mom how John comes and makes her oatmeal every morning at 7:10. On Friday morning, she woke up to the sound of an ambulance siren, and when John hadn’t arrived to make her oatmeal by 8 am, she started to worry. Sally said, “It’s really going to hit me tomorrow morning, when I wake up and he still hasn’t come to eat breakfast with me.”
What we see and what we don’t see is a huge part of our experience of living and dying, of birth and death. Seeing an empty chair at the breakfast table or a grainy ultrasound image carries emotional weight and significance beyond second hand news … when you see it, you know it in a different way.
For Thomas, Jesus’ absence—the empty chair at the table which he could clearly see—that absence was much more convincing than his friends’ second hand stories, their crazy tales about having seen Jesus again, alive. He wanted to see it for himself. Can you really blame him? The other disciples got to see. He wasn’t asking for anything special or different from what they experienced. He just wanted to see for himself.
You can’t really blame any of us for wanting the same thing, even though it’s tempting to pat ourselves on the backs when Jesus says that those who haven’t seen and still believe are blessed. That’s us, right?
But all this thinking about new life and death, of birth, and death and resurrection, all of this makes me think about how Thomas didn’t just ask to see Jesus … he asked to see and to touch his wounds.
Thomas says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
Can we, you and I today, see and touch the wounds in the Body of Christ?
In some ways we can, and we do. As a congregation and as individuals hardly a day goes by when we don’t encounter the suffering of the people around us, sometimes the people we know and love the most. When we hug someone who has just gotten bad news, when we reach out to help someone in need, we are surely touching and seeing the wounds of the Body of Christ.
And yet, we can’t rely entirely on what we can see and touch, because so much of the woundedness around us can’t be seen and isn’t known.
Until Sean and I lost our first pregnancy back in 2010, I never realized how many women I know have had miscarriages and children who have died. Most of the time, that loss is silent, that wound is invisible.
Last night I learned that Pastor Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, took his own life on Friday. Pastor Warren is the author of The Purpose Driven Life and many other books, which makes his family loss and grief a public thing. I’m imagining the letters and emails and calls he’s getting from all over the world right now from people saying, “My son struggled with mental illness, too,” or “I miss my daughter every day.” Most of the time, these wounds are invisible, these stories untold.
Most of the time we have no idea of the hurt that’s going on all around us, the secret sorrows, the wounds we can’t see or touch.
Blessed, then, are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.
Blessed are those who care for the wounded Body of Christ even when those wounds aren’t clearly visible.
Blessed are those who care for wounded brothers and sisters who live and die far away from here, people we may never see or touch in person.
Blessed are those who have the courage to share the story of their grief, and loss and woundedness, so that people who have been suffering in silence and isolation realize that they are not alone.
We call him “Doubting Thomas,” but out of his mouth comes one of the most direct and most profound faith statements in the whole Bible. Thomas sees the risen Christ and cries out: “My Lord and my God!”
We don’t get to see Jesus the same way Thomas and the other disciples did, but in our experiences of birth and death and everything in between we do encounter the risen Christ. We touch and see his wounded body, we have come to believe in and care for and serve him and our neighbors even when we can’t see those wounds very clearly, even when all we have to go on is a grainy image on a screen or an empty chair at the breakfast table. “My Lord and My God!” we say. Amen.
The sermon begins with an update on a houseplant I bought as an illustration for a children’s message a few weeks ago. Brief notes similar to what I said: “[Hold up dead plant] … just kidding. Old one, kept because I thought it would be a good sermon illustration. But you probably were not terribly surprised … many of you know that I don’t have a particularly green thumb, and all of you know that plants are prone to dying. So, it wouldn’t have been totally unexpected. Certainly not an unbelievable Easter morning kind of surprise. [Hold up live plant] … not really a huge surprise, either. It shouldn’t be beyond expectation to think that I could keep a plant alive for a month. Especially when I promised the kids I would try to do that. Raised the stakes. It’s nice that the plant is alive, but it’s not an unbelievable Easter morning kind of surprise.”
Honestly, I had trouble thinking of an illustration that would work this morning because there really isn’t anything in our regular, everyday life that even comes close to the unbelievable surprise of Easter morning. This plant would have to start producing apples to even come close. And that’s the point of today, really: nothing comes close. Nothing in our normal, everyday experience could prepare us for the Resurrection. It’s not an event within the grasp of our human wisdom, experience, or reason. We forget that, because we get used to hearing the story, close to the same story every year, with some slight variations depending on which Gospel lesson we read.
The story of Easter in the Gospel of Luke is interesting because Jesus just … isn’t there. There are two mysterious men in dazzling clothes, messengers who remind the women about everything Jesus said before he died. There’s an empty tomb, there are discarded grave clothes. For the disciples, there’s the story the women tell, which they dismiss as an idle tale.
You would and I would, too. We’d dismiss it, in part, because in those days the testimony of women was considered highly suspect, and not admissible in court or for any official reason. So, we would have dismissed the women because they were women. But we also would have dismissed them and what they said because it was unbelievable.
Everything we know about life and death and the way the world works tells us that when living things die, they stay dead. End of story. The world as we know it bears little resemblance to the new heaven and new earth that the prophet Isaiah described. In our world, babies do die after just a few days, and even the old sometimes die too soon. We plant trees we might not live to see bear fruit. We bring children into the world knowing that we’re bringing them into a world that can be cruel and harsh, knowing that they will experience pain, and knowing that someday they will die. The wolf and the lamb don’t live in peace and the lion doesn’t eat hay like an ox. And no one who dies comes to life again after three days.
Most of you know that every month I answer questions for the “Ask a Pastor” section on LivingLutheran.com. One of our questions this month was this: “The basic beliefs of Christianity go against everything we know about the laws of nature. How can an intelligent person be Christian?”
I have to admit, my first reaction to that one was a little defensive. I think I’m pretty smart, you see. But being smart has nothing to do with it, and you don’t have to be an intelligent person to be a Christian. To be a Christian, you have to believe that “idle tale.” You have to believe that Jesus died and, after three days, came back to life again. That belief is not something you can get to with human intelligence. That belief comes from faith, and faith comes from God.
The fact that the unbelievable surprise of Easter morning fills us with the joy of the women at the tomb and the amazement of Peter: that’s a gift. That comes from God.
The fact that the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth fills us with hope: that’s a gift. That comes from God.
The fact that we have hope at all, not just in this life, because, as St. Paul wrote in our second lesson today, if we only have hope for this life, we should be pitied. No … we have hope for this life and for the life to come. And that is an amazing gift. That comes from God.
Believing in something as unbelievable as the Resurrection is a gift, because it gives us the courage of the women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning: courage both to face the reality of death and to share the amazing, unbelievable good news of eternal life.
Belief in the unbelievable liberates us from the shackles of not only our sin, but our smarts, our work ethic, our wealth, our goodness, and anything else we might be tempted to worship instead of God.
Belief in the unbelievable, in the idle tale of the Resurrection, makes it possible for us to be God’s hands and feet in the world: serving God and neighbor, reaching out beyond ourselves and beyond, the limits of human compassion to care for each other in profound ways, to be the risen and moving Body of Christ, to be the church.
Today and every day, let’s give thanks for the gift of faith, the gift of belief in an idle tale, the gift of the grace of God, the love of Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, the gift of the joy of Easter morning, which is summed up so perfectly in these words:
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
He is risen indeed, Alleluia!
The title of my sermon today is: “The Problem with Good People.”
It’s a title that should make everyone in this room, including me, alittle nervous, because we all remembered to set our clocks ahead and we all came to church this morning which is pretty darn good.
And even if you forgot all about the clocks, and even if you hadn’t come to church this morning, you’d still be a pretty good person, I’m guessing. Decent, caring, loyal to the people you love. And that should make our Gospel lesson today an uncomfortable one for you. It should be uncomfortable for all of us, really.
The way we get out of dealing with the difficulty of this text is by identifying with the younger son, and with the Father’s message to that son. The message is so clear, so comforting and wonderful, a message of pure grace: my dear son, my precious daughter, my beloved child: I love you and I forgive you no matter what. Now come on in and let’s have a party.
It’s a great message. I try to make it the ultimate message of every sermon I preach because it’s the Gospel, it’s the Good News: through Jesus Christ God loves us and forgives us no matter what. Amen.
… Pretend that sermon is over…
That’s not all there is to it because there are two sons in this story, and the father’s message to the older son, the “good son” is a little different and a little more difficult: my dear son, my precious daughter, my beloved child: get over yourself. You’re not going to get special treatment because you’ve been good. Now lighten up and come enjoy the party!
When I was a teenager and wanted to stay out late on a school night or something else that my parents wouldn’t let me do, I always found myself making the same, totally ineffective argument: I would tell my parents how much better behaved I was than my peers, and then argue that, being better behaved, I should have the same privileges as them, or really, more than them. Because I was such a good kid.
This argument never, ever worked. Not even once. But I felt like it should, and I think most of us still feel that way on some level: we feel like good people should get good things and bad people should get bad things and everything should be … fair. We feel that way even though we know that the world isn’t fair.
And it’s a shock, I think, to hear the story of the Prodigal Son and learn that not only is the world not fair, but God’s not fair, either. The bad son and the good son both get to go to the party. Saints and sinners alike get to go to heaven.
When my mom was the editor of Lutheran Woman Today they ran an article about heaven and hell, and the author pointed out that it’s not our goodness that gets us to heaven, it’s God’s goodness and God’s grace, and that’s a free gift given to all people. One of the angry letters my mom got after that article ran included a very memorable line: “If all these terrible people are going to heaven, why have I spent my whole life being good?”
Why have I been good? Asks the older brother, the responsible one. You killed the fatted calf and threw a party for my no-good brother. Why have I been good?
The problem with good people is that we worship our own goodness. We put faith and trust in our own goodness, faith and trust we should be putting in God. And turning our own goodness into a false idol is just as dangerous as idolizing wealth, or sex, or power… any of the gods that the younger brother went off to find.
In fact, worshipping our own goodness is more dangerous, because we’re less likely to end up in a pig sty realizing the error of our ways, and more likely to go through life feeling terribly self-righteous and holy, and better than all those other people, you know, the bad ones.
There was an opinion piece in the New York Times this week titled “The Good, Racist People.” Recently the Oscar-winning black actor Forrest Whittaker was accused of shoplifting and frisked by an employee in a New York deli. When he found out what happened, the owner of the store apologized and also defended his employee: a good, decent man who made an honest mistake.
The problem with that is how hard it is for us to believe that a good, decent man could also be racist. The author of the article writes this:
‘In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.”’
If we believe that racism only exists in the hearts of really evil people, we fool ourselves into believing it is not in our own hearts and in the heart of our most beloved institutions and in the heart of how this nation and our society and our culture all work. Worshipping our own goodness allows us to fool ourselves into thinking that other people are the problem. Those people. Not you, not me. We’re good people.
Last week we talked about unrepentant sin, and how sin works to destroy us and our relationships with God and with each other. Clinging defensively to our own goodness for salvation does the same thing. It messes up our priorities and turns us against each other.
And, ultimately, it turns us against God. “Why have I been good?” we cry out in anger and frustration. “If those people get to go to heaven, well then I don’t want to be there. If my no good brother gets treated with forgiveness and love, I either want more forgiveness and love, or I want none of it.”
When we worship our own goodness, God’s love for us seems lessened by God’s love for our enemies. When, in truth, we’re not getting any less. The older brother gets his full inheritance, he’s invited to the party, he could enjoy the fatted calf right along with his brother. The Father doesn’t love the older brother less than the younger brother. But he doesn’t love him more, either, even though he’s been loyal, and decent, and responsible and good.
So, good people, can we rejoice in this?
Can we put aside the false god of our own goodness and give thanks for the abundant, overwhelming love of the true God who made us and claimed us in baptism?
Can we be glad for that younger brother and even see ourselves in him?
Can we go dance and enjoy ourselves at the party?
I hope so. With the Spirit’s help I think it is possible. That’s why we need baptisms, not just our own baptisms, but the baptisms that we get to witness and be part of, like Michael S.’s baptism today.
Baptism gives us a glimpse of the party yet to come. The guest of honor is celebrated and rejoiced over and welcomed, and it has nothing to do with his goodness. Now, I’m sure Michael is a very good baby. But that’s not the reason we’re celebrating today. We’re celebrating because God is good. And God loves baby Michael completely and forgives him entirely no matter what.
What a great message.
What a great reason to party.
And it’s no less great just because it also applies to the rest of us, too, even though most of us aren’t cute babies anymore and we’ve done a lot of sinning since our baptisms. Even the sin of thinking we’re better than other people, that we deserve God’s love more than other people, or that our own goodness will save us. God forgives even that sin, too.
As Michael grows up he’ll carry the message and the promise of his baptism with him and, hopefully, every time he witnesses a baptism he’ll be reminded of that message. And it won’t matter whether he ends up identifying more with the wild younger son or the righteous older son. My guess is, like most of us, he’ll have some younger son days, and some older son days ahead of him.
Regardless of all that, the message he gets from God today is the same: my dear son, my beloved child: you are loved and forgiven no matter what. Now come on in, and let’s have a party. Amen.
Does God send suffering as punishment for sins? That’s the question Jesus is presented with today.
The crowd has heard about an atrocity: Pontius Pilate has gruesomely murdered some Galileans. They don’t ask the question directly, but it’s implied: what did those people do to deserve that? Why is God punishing them?
We hear that kind of questioning and speculating after natural disasters and other tragedies: there’s always some religious figure ready and willing to explain that the hurricane hit that city because of gay people or the shooting happened there because it was a Godless public school.
I get pretty angry and offended when I hear those explanations offered, especially by Christians, but if you take it away from the national level and bring it down to the personal, I think most of us have moments when we do think that the world works as a system of punishments and rewards.
Have you ever heard of someone suffering a personal loss and thought, “Why, God? Why are you doing this?” Have you ever experienced a loss yourself and wondered, “What did I do to deserve this? Why is God punishing me?”
Jesus’ answer to the crowd is both straightforward and confusing. The straightforward part is where he dismisses the idea that God uses suffering as punishment. The confusing part is where he talks about repentance and fig trees.
But Jesus is really clear about this: the Galileans killed by Pilate were no more sinful than anyone else. They didn’t deserve death more than anyone else, either. He compares them to another group of people, killed in an accident when a tower fell. Accidents can happen to anyone. The people killed by the tower were no more or less sinful than anyone else. Neither of these incidents was a punishment from God. That’s clear.
But what does Jesus mean when he says, “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” God didn’t use Pilate to punish those Galileans with death, but unless you repent you will all perish as they did? God didn’t bring the tower down on those people, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did?
Is Jesus contradicting himself?
I don’t think so. I don’t think he’s saying that suffering and death is what God does to punish unrepentant sinners. I think he’s saying that unrepentant sinners bring suffering and death upon themselves. Or rather, upon ourselves.
Now, Jesus isn’t saying that all suffering is a result of sin. That tower that fell in Siloam, that was an accident, it wasn’t anyone’s fault. But he is saying that sin always leads to suffering. Unrepentant sinning is its own punishment.
Now, if you’re starting to tune me out because you’re sure I’m talking to someone else, you know, all those sinners out there … tune back in, because this is about all of us. Every single one of you and me, too.
We are alive and breathing and we are beloved children of God and we are sinners. Jesus was born, lived, died and rose again so that, even though we are sinners, we might still get to experience the grace, and love and forgiveness of God.
But if God freely forgives all of our sin, again and again, why do we even bother repenting? We’re going to heaven anyway. Why bother with the whole process of confessing our sins, asking for God’s forgiveness, and doing our very, very best not to sin that way again? We’re sinners … why bother trying to be anything else?
Because sin kills us. Sin kills our bodies and our souls and our relationships with God and with each other. Sin destroys our minds and our hearts, warping and twisting our lives and our priorities. Martin Luther called sin, “incurvatus in se,” being curved in on oneself (demonstrate.)
Sin curves us inward until we can no longer see God in our brothers and sisters and until we can no longer see God in creation, and until we can no longer even see God in ourselves. It makes us hateful and hurtful to each other and it makes us hateful and hurtful to ourselves.
Jesus says, “unless you repent, you will all perish.” Jesus is being very dire, very serious here, and I am, too, because sin is serious. It’s deadly serious. If sin wasn’t a life or death issue for us Jesus would not have died for our sins. There is no such thing as “cheap grace.” God’s grace is free, but it’s not cheap. It’s something we need, desperately, because without the hope of confession and repentance and forgiveness, sin is far too powerful for us, far too deadly.
Yes, this is serious, this dire, and there is really good news coming, I promise. Because just when the crowd is starting to get worried, just when I’m starting to get worried that I haven’t repented enough or tried hard enough, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree.
This particular fig tree went years without bearing fruit. The owner says, “Tear it out, it’s wasting soil.” The gardener says, “Let me tend it for another year. Let me give it manure and water and care for it. Let me give that tree another chance.”
God gives us another chance, and another and another, because God knows that without God’s help we will be fruitless and we will die. Our sin will curve us in on ourselves and we will live in hell. But with God’s help, we can bear fruit.
We can spend an hour working on quilts with Kathy B. We can go talk to Kurt Y. and learn more about Simply Giving. We can lead prayers or sing or bring refreshments on Sunday morning. We can bear fruit on days other than Sunday, too, incorporating our faith and love and service to God and others into our daily lives.
All of that is possible because of repentance. All of that is possible because of forgiveness. All of that, and more, is possible because of God. Amen.