Fifth Sunday in Lent
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you
from the one who goes through death into life. Amen
This lent we are telling stories of faith,
we’ve heard from congregation members
about their own stories
and from our weekly readings,
we’ve considered how stories shape our identity,
our understanding of what is necessary,
and how we interpret the unexpected.
This week, our readings ask us to reflect
on how we tell the story of death.
This is a crucial story to tell,
because how we tell the story of death
directly impacts how we live our lives.
Lately, in our society,
we have chosen to avoid telling this story
and that has had an impact on how we view life,
part of it is that through advancements in medicine
and the continued separation of people
from the production of their food
death is less of a daily reality than it once was,
we can go long periods in our lives
before directing experiencing death.
I was in my early twenties
and on my rotation of clinical pastoral education in a hospital
before I came into close contact with someone who had died,
with a dead body,
going in I realized that I needed the experience
and that I would probably get it,
but I was also afraid.
Death scared me,
on many levels,
some of which still admittedly exist,
but what was most scary was the unknown.
I knew on an intellectual level that death was part of life,
but I hadn’t experienced that reality in the flesh
and I didn’t know how I would react.
It’s the unknown that lies at the root of many human fears,
fears that turn into anxiety or anger
or other emotions that tend to separate us from our neighbors
rather than bring us closer together
and there is no greater unknown than death.
Now the way we usually tell that story, as humans,
is as a cautionary story,
death is something to be avoided
as long as possible because it is The End,
as far as we know it
and even if it isn’t The End
as many world religions suggest
we don’t know exactly what that looks like,
and so we hesitate to talk of it
because no matter how we tell the story
we just don’t know
and we are frightened.
Which is why we need so desperately
to listen to the story God tells about death
because this story is very different from the human story
and we have two such readings appointed for today.
In the first, the prophet Ezekiel is speaking with God,
the spirit of the Lord takes Ezekiel and places him in the midst of a valley strewn with bones,
there’s a lot of them and they are dry,
they’ve been there for awhile,
and God asks “Mortal, can these bones live?”
which seems like a trick question,
these bones are very dead,
but since it’s God who is asking the question
the prophet chooses the wise response
“O Lord God, you know”
and God instructs the prophet to prophesy to the bones
to say “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord”
and at the word of the Lord,
the bones come together
and bodies become covered in flesh,
but they are not alive until the prophet prophesies to the breath,
to the spirit of God
and then these bodies become living beings.
Then God explains the vision to Ezekiel,
the dry bones are the people to whom Ezekiel is sent to speak,
they are exiles in a foreign country
who witnessed their city destroyed
and their civilization stamped out,
it seems like THE END
from which there is no coming back,
and yet God says no “O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live”
this is not THE END God tells them.
Now we might wonder why God,
who has the power to breathe spirit into dry bones
would allow the bones to become dry at all,
just as we wonder why,
Jesus in our second story,
when he hears that his friend Lazarus is sick,
waits two days before going to him.
Martha and Mary both voice this wonderment
when they say to Jesus
‘Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.’
Yes we say, wouldn’t it make more sense to just prevent Lazarus’ death?
And we think this way
because we’re still telling the story of death from the human perspective,
where the best thing to do is to avoid it in the first place.
But the way God tells the story,
death is not something to avoid,
death is something to go through.
As commentator Melinda Quivik notes in her commentary on working preacher this week (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4411)
“Jesus does not do the easy thing (keep bad things from happening),
Jesus does the hard thing, which is to reverse destruction.”
The easy thing is to keep bad things from happening,
the hard thing is to reverse destruction,
and Jesus has chosen the hard path.
Now, if we can set the question of why aside,
this is the choice I’d rather God make
because the reality of the world that we live in
is that no matter how hard we may try to avoid it,
and rather than a god who could have chosen to avoid it,
we have a God who weeps with us,
and then through God’s own power,
brings about new life.
Did you notice that in the story of Lazarus?
That the bystanders were just that, bystanders
Jesus goes to the tomb and sees the weeping of the mourners
and he weeps with them,
then he orders the stone in front of the tomb to be removed.
Martha ever the practical one protests
“Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days”
or as the King James Version puts it “Lord, he stinketh”
but Jesus insists,
the stone is rolled away,
Jesus publicly thanks his Father for hearing him,
and then he commands Lazarus to come out.
And he does,
still wrapped in the grave clothes,
and Jesus commands the crowd “unbind him and let him go”
And those who witness this
believe in Jesus.
Belief comes after witnessing the power of God,
power that does not depend on prior belief or petition from humans,
God takes action because that is who God is,
confronting the stench of destruction
brings about new life.
But I want us to notice one last thing about this story,
Jesus’ last command to the crowd,
“unbind him and let him go”
Jesus has faced the stench and reversed destruction,
but he leaves it up to those gathered witnesses
who now believe in him,
to clean it up.
In order for Lazarus’ new life to be fully lived,
those around him must also face the stench of destruction,
peel away the layers of soiled cloth
to free the man beneath.
Even as God goes through death to reverse destruction,
God expects us to follow that path as well,
there is no other way to get to the new life on the other side
than through death.
And that’s hard for us who tell the story of avoidance
We’d much rather prevent the stink in the first place,
and on our own, that’s a good strategy,
that’s why we’re staying apart from each other right now,
to avoid sickness and death,
and sure there is some fear involved in that
but also love and common sense.
But if that is the only story well tell of death and adversity
we end up missing out on the new life God creates
when we are faced with death and destruction,
new life that must be reached by going through, not around.
And that’s the difference listening to how God tells the story of death makes
The promise and experience of new life on the other side of death
allows us to face the unknown with hope
and when we have hope
we are released enough from our fear to look for opportunity,
opportunities to face the stench,
to unbind and let free the Lazarus’s of the world,
and in this way we too are unbound and set free.
Set free to move through death
To new life in God. Amen
Festival of Pentecost
John 15:26-27, 16:4-15
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who sets loose the spirit. Amen
The spirit is on the loose.
That’s what Pentecost is about,
the unleashing of the spirit in the world
we have three readings today
that help us understand what this means
who the spirit is,
and in each of these readings
we find that the spirit is the gift of God,
it is unleashed by testimony
and brings life where it is heard and received.
In Ezekiel we have the story of the dry bones,
because we hear it in English
we miss some of the nuances of the story,
Hebrew is a language
where a lot of words have double meanings
and authors often play with those double meanings,
in this story that word is ruach
which means both breath and spirit
pointing to the intimate connection between the two
there cannot be life without breath
and when we think about it can there really be life without spirit?
God takes the prophet Ezekiel
and sets him in a valley of dry bones,
then asks the prophet if the bones can live?
all indicators say
that these bones are dead with a capital D
but the prophet defers to the power of God saying
“O Lord God, you know”
and God instructs the prophet to speak to the bones,
to tell them of the promise of God,
that God will bring them back together into bodies
and will cause breath to enter them so that they will live.
Instead of speaking to these bones directly
God gives the words to Ezekiel to tell to the bones,
and Ezekiel using his own breath prophesies to the bones
and they come together and form bodies
but they are not alive
until the prophet speaks to the breath, to the spirit
to come into these bodies
that they come to life.
Then God explains the object lesson to the prophet,
the people of Israel feel like these dry bones,
dead with a capital D,
but through the words and breath of the prophet
God promises to breathe life back into the people
who thought there was no life left.
That is the power of the spirit
Perhaps you’ve experienced something like this,
you were in a dry valley of faith or life
and it seemed like there was no climbing out of it
and then someone spoke a few words to you
and things didn’t seem so hopeless anymore.
That is the work of the spirit set loose in the world,
the spirit that is as close to us as our own breath.
In our Gospel
we hear Jesus promise to send the disciples an advocate,
the spirit of truth
and this advocate will testify,
will speak on behalf of Jesus
so that the disciples may also testify,
tell others of Jesus and his love.
As he is saying good bye to his disciples
Jesus acknowledges that there’s a lot that’s been left unsaid
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”
the spirit is truth,
that comes to advocate when the time is right.
We are abundantly aware of the things left unsaid,
there are a multitude of issues in life
that Jesus in the Bible does not directly address
that we struggle with,
we have trouble bearing them
we disagree about what to do
when we are faced with them,
they divide communities,
and yet in the midst of it all
is the spirit of truth
showing us the way,
speaking through a prophet or two or three the words of Jesus,
“love one another as I have loved you”
the message spreads,
and as it spreads Jesus is glorified
in the love of the community
that is growing and expanding
through those who tell what they have heard from the spirit of truth
The spirit is on the loose spreading the truth.
Finally we have our reading from Acts,
the account of the first Pentecost.
The risen Jesus has appeared to the disciples
and they have witnessed Jesus’ ascension into heaven.
They know they are on their own so to speak
and they are preparing to continue on as a community,
on the morning of Pentecost,
a festival observed fifty days after the Passover
the community is gathered
they hear a sound like the rush of a violent wind,
this sound fills the house where they are
and the holy spirit appears
like tongues of fire above their heads
and fills the disciples who begin to speak in different languages,
all of this causes such a racket
that people are drawn to the house
and as a crowd forms and the disciples spill out of the house
still speaking in their given languages
the crowd is amazed
because they can understand the disciples,
they are hearing the message of Jesus in their own languages,
of course there are some naysayers
who think the disciples are drunk,
but Peter interprets what is happening
through the prophesy of the prophet Joel,
the prophesy that says in the last days
the spirit will be poured out on all people
young, old, slave, free, male, female, everyone
all the distinctions that normally divide will fall
as the spirit is given out equally
and all shall share the words of the spirit with the world
and these words will spread like wild fire.
The spirit is fire,
by nature it spreads often unpredictably,
and even we humans who have harnessed the power of fire
appreciate that it is a wild thing
that we manage and contain but really have no control over
and we get into trouble when we forget that fact.
The spirit set loose in the world,
through the gift of God
and the testimony of the disciples
is out of the disciples’ control
just like that the people who come from all corners of the earth
who hear the spirit filled message of the disciples
will take it home with them,
and they will tell others
and Jesus’ word will have spread to the far corners of the earth
far away from the original disciples.
It’s quite a contrast
to the first part of Acts,
the measured preparation that the disciples take,
casting lots to choose the most worthy follower of Jesus
to join the in crowd
the spirit busts that all open
because it’s not about worthiness
it’s a gift of God to all people
regardless of how they are defined and divided by the world
the spirit, breath, truth, fire
shows up especially when people are defined and divided
and interrupts those divisions,
that attempt at controlling who is in and who is out,
who claims to have the truth
there the spirit interrupts
breathing new life into places we have caused death,
spreading the love of Jesus like a fire that cannot be contained
showing the truth found in love
all while working through us,
the words we speak
the love we share.
Life, truth, fire
the spirit is on the loose.
And I say,
come Holy Spirit. Amen
Christ the King Sunday
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who is among the least of these. Amen
Today we are at the end of the church calendar,
instead of ringing in the new year
with late night parties and champagne,
new year’s resolutions and year end retrospectives,
we take time to consider who God is,
what kind of God we have
and what the world will be like
when the time of God comes to fullness,
when God’s kingdom comes and it is on earth as it is in heaven,
something we pray for each time we say the Lord’s prayer.
We do this using the image of Christ as a King,
one who has the power to make all the decisions for his people.
In this system of government
who the king is
makes all the difference for how life will be.
And to help us in this task today
we are given the parable of the sheep and the goats
The Son of Man returns in glory surrounded by angels
and he gathers all the nations to him
and begins to sort them as a shepherd sorts the sheep from the goats.
because we also confess
that Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead
The sheep go to the right hand- the place of honor
while the goats go to the left hand.
The sheep he invites into the kingdom
and the goats he sends away from himself.
The sheep, are confused
when they are welcomed into the kingdom
because they fed the king when he was hungry
and gave him something to drink when he was thirsty,
put clothes on him,
visited him, took care of him, welcomed him.
When did we ever do this for you? They ask.
The king responds,
Just as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family, you did it to me.
the king calls the least
members of his family,
he has gathered all the nations around the throne
and calls all the people members of his family,
Jesus is an inclusive
rather than an exclusive king.
In this sentence he affirms that we are all children of God,
everyone, all the nations.
Now the goats,
they are surprised too
at where they ended up in the sorting.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty
or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”
And the answer comes
“just as you did not do it to one of the least of these you did not do it to me.”
The goats, the unrighteous
I think are like the fat sheep from Ezekiel,
where we have another sorting scene.
In Ezekiel the Lord is envisioned as a shepherd
caring for the whole flock,
not just the sheep that are doing well,
in fact the fat sheep are the ones that are judged and separated out
because they pushed with flank and shoulder,
and butted at all the weak animals with their horns
until the weak sheep were scattered.
The fat sheep got fat at the expense of the others in their flock
and this is not acceptable to God our shepherd.
The unrighteous were so focused on getting ahead,
that they did so at the expense of others.
They are surprised
when the King says that they didn’t feed him,
focused on power and getting ahead
would have noticed if the most powerful needed something.
And that is where they fall short,
where they miss the most powerful one
who surrenders that power for the powerless.
That is the kind of God we have
One who becomes one of us
One of the least of us
We have a God that is like a King
who considers all his subjects family,
who is concerned about every last one,
especially the weak and lowly subjects who,
are traditionally not paid attention to by a ruler.
We have a God that is like a shepherd
concerned with the health of the whole flock,
where all the sheep must be healthy not just a few.
We have a God
that has promised to come in the fullness of time
and make the vision a reality,
to sort out those
who stand in the way of justice, mercy and abundant life for all
We believe this
We proclaim it as good news
But sometimes we wonder
Are we sheep or are we really goats?
And here we have an advantage,
unlike the sheep and the goats
who were unaware of who would judge them,
we know who will judge us
as well as the standards to be used,
we know that our king, our God
identifies with the last and the least,
those who are hungry, weak, and outcast,
the sick and imprisoned,
looking back through the empty tomb
we know that Christ is found at the cross,
the times of intense suffering
whether in our lives or the lives of others.
As one commentator I read (Karoline Lewis) said,
“If you have to ask Jesus, when was it? You are not paying attention.”
We know where Christ is found
We know what Christ expects of us.
Not noticing is no longer an excuse
actually it was never an excuse that we could use.
It seems like all around us things in the world are being uncovered
and people are being asked to account for their past actions,
some are responding with the equivalent to the question when was it?
And the answer is always,
God was with the powerless,
the least of these.
That is the kind of God we have.
In the end we don’t need to try to figure out whether we are sheep or goats,
or whether the person sitting next to us is a sheep or a goat
because what we really are,
are children of God.
What happens to us matters to God.
Our neighbors are children of God,
what happens to them matters to God.
Our enemies are children of God,
what happens to them matters to God.
The world is Gods,
what happens to the earth matters to God.
Our God is one
for whom the health and well being of all
are of great concern,
and when God reigns as king
all will have everything they need.
And until God returns,
God expects us who know this
to begin to live this way,
the begin to bring about the reign of God,
to look for and see God in all things
so that in the end,
when we come before God
we will not have to ask ‘when was it?’
because we will have seen the Lord. Amen
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from our God who is revealed in Jesus. Amen
I am one who loves words
I believe in the power of language
but I also realize that there are times
when actions speak louder than words,
despite the ability of words
to convey thoughts and feelings, intentions and regrets
so when I want to know about the character of a person,
I look at how they’ve acted
because actions reveal the un-nuanced truth of our lives,
they show just what we’re willing to do,
our priorities and yes even our weaknesses,
they reveal who we are.
The same goes for God.
Over the years,
God spoke a lot to the people,
God made promises,
entered into covenant agreements
and these were the foundation of the relationship
between the people and God,
but what built the relationship
was how God kept the promises,
giving Abraham and Sarah a son,
preserving the people through famine and sibling rivalry
and leading the people from slavery in Egypt into freedom
and eventually to the promised land.
And of course this relationship was a two way street,
sometimes the people kept up their end of the covenant
and sometimes, a lot of times they broke it
and in response
there were consequences
because that is what God promised would happen,
but there was also always a way forward in the relationship,
when the people repented,
realized the error of their ways,
said they were sorry and promised to do better in the future
God forgave them and the relationship continued.
Given a choice
God will always accept repentance and renewal of relationships
over punishment for a transgression,
and just how willing God is to do this
is born out in our human reaction to God’s willingness to forgive
“that’s not fair” we’ve cried throughout the ages
when God has forgiven the repentant
(and of course it’s always not fair when it is someone else, someone we don’t particularly like that God forgives, we tend not to protest God’s forgiveness of ourselves).
We hear this protest in our first reading from Ezekiel,
God is set on forgiving the people who broke the law
but now have turned away from their wickedness
and the other people cry “that’s not fair”
“What is fair?” God responds
“I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God, Turn, then, and live”
Again and again throughout history
God chooses forgiveness,
God chooses life,
even when it doesn’t seem fair,
this is who God is, in both word and deed.
Is this how you think of God?
So often when we think of God
we get distracted by big words and ideas
that frankly originated with humans,
omnipotent- all powerful,
omnicient- all knowing,
and when we focus so much on these things
that other people have said about God
and we compare it with what is going on in our lives
it all seems so unfair,
we say with Mary at the tomb of her brother Lazarus,
‘Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died”
all the while overlooking the fact
that God is right in front of us,
in the form of God’s ultimate action and revelation, Jesus.
If we really want to know God,
what God wants for and from the world and us,
we look to Jesus.
God’s Word turned into action.
In his letter to the Philippians
Paul writes to build up the community
and encourage them to live out their faith,
as part of his encouragement
he quotes an ancient hymn,
describing the actions of God in Jesus,
actions that speak to the truth of who God is
far better than those big words that get thrown around
or any post that you’re supposed to forward on email or facebook.
The hymn goes:
“Christ Jesus. who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
are marked by solidarity and presence
in and with creation through
becoming one of us,
and humility- living in service to others
even to the point of death on the cross.
Our God is not one who is far removed from us
who dictates that future at whim,
our God is alongside us
suffers with us,
forgives us and finds a way forward
even when the future looks bleak
even as bleak as a cross and a tomb.
This is the God that Paul has shared with the Philippians,
and having reminded them of this
he turns their attention to their own lives,
their own actions which reveal their nature
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” he says
this is not to say that Paul expects the Philippians
to earn salvation through their actions,
rather the grace of God demands a response in kind,
inspired by the awe of being in the presence of God,
“for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
And that is awe inspiring,
God is at work in and through you and me,
what we do reveals who God is to other people,
people for whom it is not too late
because with God it is never too late for repentance,
for actions oriented toward God,
actions that are louder than the words we speak.
5th Sunday in Lent
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the Word of God,
the Resurrection and the life. Amen
The movie The Princess Bride is a tale of action, adventure and yes even true love. It tells the tale of Buttercup and Wesley in their quest to be reunited after pirates, a scheming prince and other nefarious characters interfere with their ability to be together in their true love. Toward the end of the movie the prince kills Wesley who is found by his friends Inigo and Fezzik.
They who take Wesley to a local apothecary Miracle Max -played by Billy Crystal- in search of a miracle. Miracle Max is reluctant at first having lost confidence in himself but when he finds out that Wesley is already dead he agrees to take a look, after poking the body he tells Inigo and Fezzik “I’ve seen worse” after they haggle over the price of the miracle
when Inigo questions what Max can do with Wesley being dead Miracle Max says “Ooh looks who knows so much, well it just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead...now, mostly dead is slightly alive, all dead, well with all dead there’s usually only one thing you can do.” “What is that?” Inigo asks “Go through his clothes and look for loose change” Miracle Max quips.
Dead is an absolute,
it seems funny that there could be degrees of dead
and yet when miracles are concerned
skeptical humans invent degrees of dead,
is there possibility of resuscitation or is there no hope?
a miracle isn’t as miraculous
if it deals with someone who is only mostly dead.
Our readings for today
make sure to emphasize the dead in them is all dead.
The bones in Ezekiel are dry,
there’ve been there a long time,
Lazarus has been in the tomb four days,
already there is a stench, he is all dead.
These are small details
but the emphasis is important,
when dealing with all dead
there can be no question about the power of the Word of God
to bring life out of death.
We are at the last Sunday in Lent,
the readings are preparing us,
getting us ready for Holy Week
and what God is about to do in Jesus the Word of God,
the Word who became flesh and lived among us,
who crucified on a cross was all dead
who God raised on the third day.
And how is God going to do the miraculous?
Words are the way God works,
we see that in our lessons for today.
Ezekiel is told to prophesy to the dry bones,
“O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.”
Jesus prays out loud then commands “Lazarus, come out!”
Words are powerful.
Words are powerful because they build relationships,
relationships that stretch beyond logic
to an unspoken truth that is felt, lived with.
Words are how God works in the world,
In the beginning God spoke the world into being
saying let there be light and there was light.
through the prophets God built a relationship with the people
even when they’d cut themselves off,
God sent the living Word, Jesus,
to take on flesh and live and walk among us
creating a bond that is possible
only when words are lived with, held, savored.
ultimately God used the Word in a way that defied logic
but led to a powerful truth
that in this Word death is no longer absolute.
And through our baptisms
we have been joined to the Word
and the rhythm that repeats again and again throughout the song of God,
the pattern where words are spoken,
action follows words,
witnesses are called to speak,
God tells the prophet what to say,
the bones come back to life,
go tell the people of Israel.
Jesus prays to God
cries “Lazarus come out” and Lazarus comes out
Jesus commands the bystanders “unbind him and let him go”
This rhythm is repeated in the events of Holy Week.
Maundy Thursday- Jesus tells his disciples what is going to happen,
Good Friday he is crucified,
Easter Sunday the tomb is found empty
and the women are commanded to go tell the others what they have witnessed.
The rhythm is repeated each Sunday when we gather,
the word of God is proclaimed,
grace is received at the table
and we the witnesses are commanded to go tell others what we have seen.
This rhythm is how we are to pray,
We speak to God,
then put into action what we have spoken
and share with others the results,
we pray for the hungry to be filled,
then we go feed those who are hungry,
then we share our experience with others
as we practice the rhythm
it becomes familiar, second nature even
and if we ever fall out of time for a bit
all we have to do to find ourselves is pause,
feel the beat stir in us again, bringing us back to life.
This is how we live when faced with all dead.
new life comes in unexpected ways,
and we share our life with others. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.