Category Archives: St. Olaf Blog
One of the new buzzwords in American society goes by the acronym “DEI.” DEI stands for “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” Being a Caucasian male, one would think I am not included in diversity and in need of no special effort for my equity or inclusion.
But, I am a Senior Citizen. As a Senior Citizen, I receive benefits that other diversity groups in the hunt for equity can only envy: social security benefits, medicare, senior housing, senior discounts, and the like. I’m not going to lie. I enjoy the pampering. It’s nice to have others care for you just because of who you are.
And yet, I know many of us seniors harbor an anxiety within. The clock is ticking down and the question of how will we meet our death is not resolved? In casual social conversation, I have heard some seniors joke about stepping in front of a train -taking matters into their own hands. This is not a trifling concern. Legislation exists in some states (8) that allows seniors to end their lives if they so wish.
Often, feelings of purposelessness and uselessness lead to the desire to die. And yet, it is precisely the elderly, in all their seeming purposeless and uselessness, that make life worth living for others. Think of all the volunteer and paid effort of family, friends, and workers to care for the well-being of elders. But, it’s not like the elders don’t give back. Elders give back from the wealth of their experience. They have a treasure trove of life experience that younger people do not have, but need to learn from for their upcoming journey into old age. Research has shown that the elderly, when they have come to terms with the finiteness of their experience, have an ability to relax and take in the sentient aspects of life far better than younger people.
As I think about how to attract younger people to what they see as an anachronistic institution (the Church), I keep coming up with the value of elders. Whatever we do, as a society, it seems we will best serve the future of humanity if we are inclusive of our elders. This means that worship must be intentionally intergenerational. We must include the music and forms of music that elders are familiar with. In my experience, the elders are actually more flexible, for reasons indicated in the preceding paragraph, than the young. The visual memory of the “five old ladies” clapping away in the front pew as the younger folk kept their arms rigidly locked to their sides is a testament to the flexibility of the elders.
I think a lot about what the future of the Church and St. Olaf will look like, and as I do, I am reassured by warm memories of the intergenerational worship of St. Olaf. Let’s keep it that way. Peace…. Pastor Dale
The shootings of 12 children in north Minneapolis in 2021, 3 in the St. Olaf neighborhood in the past month, has raised a cry for churches to do something. To some extent, asking churches to do something is a little like clutching at straws. Before we can do anything, we have to feel safe in the streets. I had to duck bullets last Saturday as I mowed my lawn. A St. Olaf member’s grandson was paralyzed in a drive-by shooting. A 6 year old munching on a hamburger in the back seat of her mother’s car died from her injuries. The first order of business is to protect the people of the neighborhood and the church so that we can love our neighbor. Without effective police protection, we are immobilized.
And yet political leaders are paralyzed by the quandry created by the “defund the police” movement. Defund the police makes absolutely no sense when little children are dying. Community leaders have established a “both and” approach which makes more sense – both reform and fund the police. But, there is still resistance and what the community does not need now is well-meaning people from outside the community tipping the balance toward defund. We need protection now.
As a church of the ELCA, we recognize that we have more potential assets than many of the African-American churches that are being called on to do something. We have begun discussions with the leadership of the Synod and the ELCA to allocate more funding resources in north Minneapolis. These bodies regularly allocate funds to reach goals within the church. We are making the point that, since the George Floyd upheaval of last year, racial reparations are the most worthy goal at this time. Goals of church growth will only fail if the ELCA does not address this most pressing need.
We have gone ahead with several activities to address the shortfall of family funds and the need for families to have structured activities for their children. These are costly and we are in discussions as to why St. Olaf always seems to be off the radar screen of funding allocations for north Minneapolis. An interesting fact is that Shiloh Temple came to St. Olaf’s assistance a couple of years ago when we couldn’t get on our feet after the fall of the nursing home. Shiloh Temple is a prominent African-American church in north Minneapolis.
Churches are seeing a falling off of attendance and membership in the wake of the pandemic. This is not a helpful phenomenum because churches are essential to the fabric of human society. Going forward at St. Olaf, we plan to be more vocal about the assets of the Christian church. Recognizing that there were past offenses of the Christian church is an essential part of the process, but so is moving forward. (continued on p. 2)
(continued from p. 1) The assets of the church are timeless and time offers no direction but forward.
The church carries that most important asset -forgiveness, upon which the realization of lofty goals depends.
Without a deep and thorough possibility of forgiveness, efforts to establish justice and non-violence become frustrating and even hopeless. The possibility of forgiveness through the power of the resurrection of Jesus provides the potential for hope and hope is what we need right now. But, churches need to be aware that without thoroughgoing self-examination and redirection toward the goal of justice and nonviolence, which right now is racial reparations, resurrection power is essentially unavailable. It has to be employed toward those whom Thurman has identified as people with their backs up against the wall, for that is the context our of which Jesus came and which gives the resurrection its power. And with that power, I have no doubt that we will be able to move the needle of human morality toward justice and nonviolence.
Peace…. Pastor Dale
It would be remiss to not mention the racial concerns of the past month. The conviction of Derek Chauvin in the killing of George Floyd and the killing of Daunte Wright were events of international significance. Why?
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of details in both of these cases and not see the forest for the trees. People of color around the world see the forest. It is the forest of white Western civilization’s exploitation of people of color, be it through the legacy of slavery or colonization.
In his ground breaking book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond made the case that it was a circumstantial accident of history that propelled white Western civilization into its position of dominance which is only now being judged as immoral. As you all know, there’s a rush to tear down statues, rename buildings and lakes, and rewrite history books to set right centuries of exploitation.
It’s a widely known fact that, in the United States, Christian churches are one of the least racially integrated social institutions. This fact has made it difficult for Christians to understand what is going on. As long as we don’t rub elbows with each other in the places we consider most fundamental to our social well being, we will have a difficult time understanding the situation and accepting it is so that we can move on. In the meanwhile, in the absence of a strong unified Christian message, the Christian Church will continue to seem irrelevant to large numbers of people.
And yet, the Christian revelation contains the key to unlocking the future. Christians will have to swallow hard and admit that the Christian church was off track for much of its history. We will have to go back to the life of Jesus himself. Who was he and what was he doing on this earth?
In these troubled times, I am using Howard Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, as my playbook. Thurman was a mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In this little book, Thurman makes the case that the majority of the world’s people, past and present, live in conditions that can best be described as “back against the wall;” and that the Gospels can best be understood if we regard Jesus as a man whose back was likewise up against the wall -up against a wall of many different factions, wealthy landowners, Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and Romans. His book relates the stories and teachings of Jesus to his perspective as a man with his back up against a wall while at the same time a man receiving and transmitting divine revelation throughout. Although his book was published in the 1970’s, it is yet a relevant playbook for Christians to move forward in troubled times and I highly recommend it. (continued on p. 2)
(continued from p. 1)
In the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Daunte Wright, there has been talk of systemic changes. We will continue to address the immediate needs of people whose backs are up against the wall through our food and clothing shelves and assistance with housing, rent, taxes, and other community needs. But, we will also continue to address the underlying systemic problems that contribute to these needs and deny opportunity to those who need it. As a former teacher, I am best specialized to deal with the educational and psychological/emotional needs of children and youth and we will continue to work together with New Directions Youth Ministry to address those needs. And, of course, the religious education of both children and adults and the worship life of the congregation have the most potential to affect significant and lasting change.
Peace…. Pastor Dale
Am I a fool? I have college degrees in Biochemistry, Chemistry, Biology, and Mathematics. I believe in Jesus. There is nothing contradictory in believing in something invisible. Did you know Mr. Rogers had a sign in his office which read, “That which is essential is invisible.” (from “The Little Prince). I wouldn’t go that far because much that is visible is essential. Nevertheless, much of what matters in life is invisible to the senses and thus non-material. You have an interior life that you may or may not have tapped into. If you have not, I suggest you do. A good read is Rupert Shelldrake’s “Science Set Free.” The Apostle Paul was familiar with that which is invisible (and unexpected). He famously wrote: And, if you are into social justice, he also wrote of foolishness this way: “God chose the things the world considers foolish to confound the wise; God chose the things the world considers weak to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1:27) It was the Jesus event that effected this reversal of priorities. Again, Paul comments: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Building off my Facebook post, I would like to explain what is behind the troubling words I posted. I have lived in the inner city ever since my freshman year in college. My experience is that too often people who do not live in the inner city are the decision makers for the inner city. As we deal with police reform in the wake of the homicide of George Floyd, I’m sure we will see non-residency emerge as the major contributing factor to police brutality. Whether we will fix it is another matter.
St. Olaf Lutheran Church is an inner city church located in a community of poverty, and not coincidentally over 50% African-American. As a member church of the ELCA actively engaged in inner city ministry, St. Olaf should receive funding from the ELCA; but it doesn’t. The reason it doesn’t is because the funding decisions are made by people who don’t live in the community and are driven by their commercial instincts, which don’t often coincide with the activity of the Holy Spirit.
The funding decisions are made by the Minneapolis Synod and a representative from the ELCA.
The Synod established a North Minneapolis Area Ministry Strategy in 2013 which was supposed to give a voice to the churches involved, which included St. Olaf. However, we soon found that decisions in the strategy were coming down from the Synod and its Council and St. Olaf was not a favored site. Then all hell broke loose. The Synod intervened in what was not only our major ministry, but also our source of self-sufficiency –the St. Olaf Residence. As a result of their intervention, the Residence was lost. Over 100 vulnerable adults were forcibly moved from their homes, around 100 employees laid off, the community lost a major economic engine. To make matters worse, the Synod refused to help St. Olaf and has denied it funding since that time. They Synod did forgive an $8,000 loan, but the church lost over $65,000 on the failed sale and subsequent mortgage foreclosure.
Twice St. Olaf attempted to gain a hearing with the Synod, but were shut out. Another two times, St. Olaf attempted to bring its grievance to the Assembly of the Synod. The first time it was shut down in the Conference meeting. The second time was last February at the Conference meeting. The Conference effectively sidelined the resolution, but we were able to move it forward to the Synod Reference and Counsel Committee for approval to be aired on the Assembly floor scheduled for May 2020, which was postponed (canceled?).
Several years ago, the Synod established a Racial Justice initiative. Our racial justice representative (Rumen, my son) and I attend periodic meetings to move the agenda of racial justice forward in the Minneapolis Synod. But, this group is infected with the same cronyism that the North Minneapolis Area Ministry Strategy, now the North Minneapolis Parish, was infected with. At the last meeting, we were given another dose of medication to heal us of white privilege. After the meeting, Rumen and I went to one of the presenters, the Synod Vice-President, an African-American woman, and asked her, “When will the conversation move from exposing white privilege to dealing with institutional racism.” “Soon, I hope,” she replied.
So, when that happens, it would be nice to have more people, especially people of color, available to advocate for and with us. If you have a desire to help the ELCA look at the issue of institutional racism within itself from the perspective of a discarded, worthy inner city church, please join our team at St. Olaf. We cannot count on the stones to cry out for us.
As the grim prognosis of the pandemic grinds on, many people are asking, “Where’s God in all this?” “Why doesn’t God answer our prayers?”
God has three answers for prayer: “Yes,” “Not yet,” and “I have a different plan for you.” Considering that there is a vaccine on the horizon, it appears we are in the “Not yet” category now.
But, today’s Gospel lesson raises an important question. How do you get that “Yes” answer? Jesus told his disciples, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Doesn’t that sound like a “Yes” answer to prayer?
The catch is in that “in my name” criteria. “If in my name you ask me for anything.
Often our prayers fall up short in the criteria, “in my name.” Our prayers are often tinged with selfishness.
Often people will tell me they pray to win the lottery so they could give a lot of money to the church. “How much would you give,” I ask them. “Well, I’d save a little for myself,” they answer. “And the rest to the church.”
“Well don’t bother to pray, then” I tell them. “If it’s not 100%, your motive’s not pure enough.”
Think about it. It’s selfishness that stands in the way of God’s purposes. Just take a look at how selfishness is interfering with our ability to deal with this pandemic. Way back in January I inquired about getting a shingles shot. “We’re all out of masks,” the pharmacists informed me. Even back then, the hoarding had begun. But, the selfishness is at its most egregious at the corporate level. Unwilling to cut Executive salaries, many corporations are making employees take the brunt of the pandemic by massive layoffs and gobbling up the relief funds intended for small businesses.
But, this is nothing new under the sun. At the time Jesus made his invitation to ask in prayer, those same attributes of human civilization were at play.
Nevertheless, as now, many people regarded the teachings of their religion to be expendable. The “in my name” prayer criteria had the same level of accountability as before. Only the agenda would change.
As we try to establish a relationship with God that enables God to listen to us, it is important to understand Jesus important teaching about what he was doing. “I have not come to abolish the law,” he stated. “But to fulfill it.”
Now, he also summarized and condensed the law in his teachings to basically the Ten Commandments, which we teach in our churches. And yet, how often do we compromise those simple laws by interjecting our selfish motives into their interpretation.
“I don’t need to come to church. I can do that better at home. I’d rather not wait for marriage. What a silly outdated notion. I can’t afford a tithe to the church. My iPhone 11 bill takes too much of my take home pay. And on and on.”
It’s actually amazing that God pays any attention at all to us when we pray. Why would God expect anything less than 100% from us?
If you pledge 100% of yourself to 100% of God’s will then your prayer will be answered. Prayer must be pure, unselfish, and focused on the good.
Stephen’s prayer in today’s first reading has that quality: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
It is fitting that the first martyr of the Christian faith would be such a pure individual.
In contrast to Stephen’s purity was the defiled nature of the mob that stoned him. Lynch mobs represent the worst of human behavior. You might call a lynch mob “uncivilized,” but that’s not true. Throughout much of human history lynch mobs and the like have been integral to human civilization and have a distinct purpose within it. It is only recently that lynch mobs have ceased to function in this country, the last official one being in 1968. But, many would argue that they haven’t really ceased, that they continue in police shootings of Black individuals and the random shootings of Black people by white supremacists. I’m sure those of you who follow social media have by now become aware of the shooting of the jogger in Georgia which reminds us of the not so long ago shooting of Travon Martin in Florida.
In his teaching, Jesus was laying the foundation for a new civilization in which lynch mobs have no place and humans have no right to take the life of another human being except in the most narrow of circumstance.
Shortly after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples realized the reality of what Jesus was doing. They rightly saw in his crucifixion, the end of the lynch mob forever. By becoming the ultimate victim of the lynch mob and then rising from it, that activity of human misbehavior was forever blocked from legitimacy. That Stephen was so soon after lynched himself is evidence that the point is not easily absorbed by a humanity intent upon its own murderous intentions. That it is still going on informs us that we still have a long ways to go.
The disciples recognized Jesus as the foundational cornerstone of this new civilization. Heeding Jesus’ words that he hadn’t come to abolish their religious traditions, they hooked up his new revealed identity with verses out of their scriptures. Today’s 2nd lesson from the Epistle of Peter quotes the cornerstone idea from Isaiah and Psalm 118 in 3 separate references. Some of us remember the concept from the old camp song, “The cornerstone which was rejected became the cornerstone of a whole new world.”
And Stephen was the next foundation block, a block rejected, like Jesus, by the usual builders of civilization.
They not only rejected Stephen. They killed him. Just like they killed Jesus. And in his death, Stephen joined Jesus by virtue of the way he died. Likewise the victims of all the stonings, lynchings, crucifixions, and the like join Jesus and Stephen as foundation blocks in the whole new world.
And yet, Jesus is still a scandal to the world. There is an interesting play on words with the word, “stumbling block.” It can also be translated as a “scandal.” Jesus and his whole new world are still a scandal to the inhabitants of the old world who do not want to give up what they see as their rights and entitlements.
You will still see them lining up outside gun stores at the first threat to their way of life. And occasionally one of them will take the life of someone in frustration over the absence of that good old way of doing it -the lynching mob.
Jesus is a scandal. Jesus says, “The power of my new world is kindness and love, sharing not hoarding. And when push comes to shove, my power is perfected in yielding to the wickedness of humankind, not overpowering it with force.”
For, the Kingdom of God will come. The fact that lynchings no longer occur in this country is evidence that Jesus’ whole new world is yet on the march.
Some will not want to give the church credit for this progress, but they are wrong. Jesus told a marvelous little parable to explain how this would happen. You all know the parable of the Mustard Seed. This one follows right after: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.” Then, if you study history with this idea of hidden leaven, you will see the progress of Jesus’ whole new world.
The church is advanced through the actions of the pure folk like Stephen, not the charlatans who use the institution of the church to further their own ambitions. And believe me, there are many of these pure folk out there. You just don’t see them. They don’t make the headlines, but rather just quietly work for justice and serve the poor, all the while witnessing to the love of God in Jesus Christ.
This pandemic is an experience unlike any other we’ve ever had. Pandemics are not new to the world stage. It’s just that we haven’t experienced one. The last one occurred over 100 years ago.
As Christians, we have an opportunity to further advance Jesus’ whole new world as we work through this pandemic. Now is the time to witness to the world of the cornerstone values we live by -sharing not hoarding, generosity not selfishness, yielding, not fighting. And, like the early disciples, if we are true, if we are pure, we will encounter rejection and even hostility. But, the sacrifices we make to stay true to our belief in Jesus and pure in our motives will continue to lay the foundation stones for a whole new world. We may not see it in our lifetimes. Obviously, Stephen didn’t. But as he looked to heaven, he saw a vision -God, there in his reality and Jesus at his right hand -directing the affairs of man through the hearts and minds of all the simple believers who are the leaven in the bread.
Now is there any reason not to give your 100% to Jesus? What is it you are afraid to give up? I guarantee you you will lose nothing worth having and gain everything
The metaphor of the Good Shepherd is one of the most heartwarming images of our faith. If you have been a lost sheep, you will resonate with the Good Shepherd who left the 99 to go find you and bring you safely back to the flock. If you are one who has been surprised by the Master calling you by name, you will know what Jesus meant when he said, “I know my sheep.” And, if you have ever emerged from a time of doubt with the calm assurance that your faith is true, then you will understand how no one can snatch you from the Father’s hand while Jesus is your Shepherd.
But, perhaps you have never had such a bonding experience with Jesus the Good Shepherd. You are not alone. Millions of people throughout the world have never heard of the Good Shepherd or have been indoctrinated in a religion that does not accommodate the Good Shepherd. Millions more know the metaphor but no longer regard it as having meaning in a modern world. And it is an acquired taste. Perhaps you didn’t give it enough time.
Captured in a diatribe against the Pharisees in the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus addresses the millions who will not know or relate to the Good Shepherd: “I am the good shepherd. I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep which are not of this fold: them I must also bring, and they will hear my voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus reaches across the centuries with the invitation, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden. Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
And back to John: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”
In creating the metaphor of the Good Shepherd, Jesus was reaching back into the hopes and dreams of his own people as expressed in their sacred scriptures. From the book of Isaiah, in exultation upon release from the Babylonian captivity, the prophet Isaiah exclaimed: “Behold, the LORD God shall come with a strong hand and his arm shall rule for him. Behold, his reward is with him and his work before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.”
The ancient Israelites longed for a God who would care for them personally like a Good Shepherd cares for his sheep. But, they were hoping against hope. They were such a small nation in the sweep of Empires across the human stage, that this surprise liberation was likely to be no more than a blip of good fortune in a long streak of bad. By the time Jesus came on the scene it was the Roman Empire and the Pharisees with whom Jesus argued were the traitor collaborators of his day. They knew who Jesus was mocking when he named himself the Good Shepherd. The emperor considered himself the Good Shepherd and wouldn’t look kindly on an usurper to his title.
We live in a generation that until recently was relatively free of oppression and misfortune. Whether you call yourself a Baby Boomer, a Gen Xer, a Millenial, or what, until the Coronavirus, we -in America -lived in a historical bubble of fortune. That is because in many ways we had become the Empire. In many ways we consider ourselves the Good Shepherd for the world. But, like emperors of bygone empires, we overlook our faults as we generate benefit from the rest of the world’s misfortune. That fault has come back to haunt us. The consequences of our thoughtless greed and careless hubris are crouching at our door like hyenas waiting for a chink in our armor. We will likely make it out of the pandemic, but more surely awaits us. Global warming, massive starvation, and more crouch at our door.
We are in need of a societal paradigm shift. Most of the participants in this pandemic can’t wait to get back to normal. Over 45 people have shelled out $250,000 each to take a space flight with Virgin Galactic. Apparently such endeavors are essential to our future. Virgin Galactic did a test flight last week so they are ready as soon as passengers no longer have to socially isolate or maybe before.
But, how many ventilators could have been made with the money and manufacturing it took to make that flight? How many N95 masks could have been made. And how many PPe’s. We all know what those terms mean nowadays.
And, how about you. What have you done with your stimulus payment? If you are using it to stave off the negative consequences of losing your job or not being able to work or some other such necessity, then you are using it for what it was intended for. But, if you are using it to make a downpayment on that cruise that you missed or to party like it’s 1999, then you are missing the point. There are millions, indeed billions, who need our help, from victims of the Syrian war to starving children in Yemen to the poor in our own country for whom dignity is swapped for privilege. Do we have the will to provide single occupancy housing for our elderly or will we continue to force them to close out their lives sharing one single room with a person not of their own choosing? We seem to be as oblivious of our own future as we are of that of our children.
Or could you save the stimulus to allow you to afford time to volunteer in an organization that serves the poor or advocates for change in social justice or environmental sustainability.
The flock of Jesus does not live by such a selfish ethic. The flock of Jesus follows the teachings of the Good Shepherd who taught us to lay down our lives for our fellow human beings as he laid down his life for us. Sure, the church has not been perfect over the centuries and, at times, has acted like an Empire itself, but the church has the key to the future. The church has the operating principle that will save the world. Based on the operating principle that God employed in Jesus laying down his life to overcome evil and death, the church has been ordained by God to lead God’s planned salvation of the world.
That operating principle is the use of power. The church believes that its power is perfected in weakness, not in overcoming by force and violence, but in overcoming by serving and nonviolence. The principle of the cross is the antidote to the principle of force and domination that has been the operating principles of the empires of this world.
But, many Americans hang out there unwilling to come home to the faith of their ancestors.
How about you? Are you safe in the flock of Jesus?
In 1800 William Wordsworth wrote a monument to human sadness: Michael. Michael is the story of the Prodigal Son who did not return home. The grief of the Father is immense. He is inconsolable. The remainder of his life is spent in sad hoping that one day Michael will return. But he never does.
O sinner, why do you not come home?
There is yet hope. Jesus has left the 99 and he is looking for you. He has risen and his spirit lives forever in the space between the twilight of this world and the brilliance of the next. You are in plain sight. You cannot hide. Come home.
All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned, every one to his or her own way; But God has laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all. He was wounded for our transgressions. He bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might be free from sin and live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
You might be tempted to question how this could be? How this could all work? But, to think it through isn’t fruitful. Just take it on faith. Surrender, if you will. Let Jesus into your heart.
The image of sheep blindly following their shepherd could be a questionable metaphor. But, if you accept who you are -a sinner prone to go astray at the slightest impulse or when you least expect it, you will accept the protection of the shepherd and the company of the flock. Such simplicity is the key to the abundant life. As Jesus said in today’s gospel lesson, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught about a utopian dream – a mythical time and place when there would be perfect justice and peace. No violence. This was the Kingdom of God. It was a Kingdom attainable, not through the power of brutal force, but through the power of laying down one’s life.
And he taught that this kingdom was now -breaking into this world now and, in his church, among us already. It is a kingdom that lives in the hearts and minds of those who have given themselves freely to Jesus -to be in his flock -to accept his protection and providence. There is a new term in therapy named “mindfulness.” A mindfulness that wells from the Kingdom within you is like a spring to eternal life.
“My sheep listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”
The narrative of Jesus and the Kingdom of God rewrites our human story. It has become the story of human history. It can’t be erased or made to go away. It’s always tempting to latch onto a different narrative, but our minds have been wired to relate to this story. We will never be able to shake it because it’s true.
We were created in the image of God for the purpose of being in a relationship with God. No matter who you are or where you think you are in your spiritual life, it never hurts to try to strengthen that relationship. It never hurts to turn your eyes toward home.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus tells you how much God longs for you. When the prodigal son is yet a long ways off, his father saw him and was filled with love for him and ran to him and fell on his neck and kissed him.
That’s how much the Father loves you. He is filled with compassion for you and runs to meet you. And the Good Shepherd will safely see us home.
The rising is all around us. Soon you will see the fresh shoots of flowering plants rising from the ground. Soon, you will see the tiny new leaves emerging from the buds of eager trees. The rising is all around us. It is spring.
If there is one thing we can do during this period of enforced social isolation, it is get outside and take time to observe the coming of spring. God has given us a front row seat. The emerging life will naturally lift our spirits as we observe nature’s stubborn will to rise again after winter’s dreary days.
We think a lot about death these days. Many of us have experienced the death of relatives and loved ones. Spring’s arrival gives us fresh hope about the resurrection from the death. Her rising is all around us.
Flowers would not rise from flower beds,
Were they not to raise their heads,
In steady defiance of that unholy alliance,
Of the all and of the end.
I learned a lot when I was in seminary, but one of the most profound lessons I learned was from my Global Missions professor. “One of the most tragic things about life,” he taught, “is that we spend so much of it unaware of the beauty around us.”
That’s true, isn’t it. We do spend very much of our time unaware of the beauty surrounding us. Our minds become occupied with the tasks of our lives. We fret about this and that. And then for relief, we binge read or we go to the gym and count repetitions or pick up the phone and gossip. More of the same. It’s so bad, we can even be working in our yard and all we’re thinking about is task completion.
When the writers of the Hebrew Bible captured the stories of creation circulating about their culture, they paid particular attention to that one about the Garden of Eden. The way God created it and the way God wanted it was for the creature he created in his image to be unimpeded by worry and woe. Life was to be simple. The food of the Garden would easily provide for all their needs.
But, and you know the rest, Adam and Eve ate the apple from the forbidden tree and brought the consequences of sin upon themselves. My Global Missions professor felt like being out of touch with nature was the most tragic of all those consequences.
No longer can we just reach up into a tree and get our lunch. No longer can we bring a child into this world without pain. Sin crouches at our door and soon we will be killing one another. Anxiety and fear can take over our minds. Disappointment, discouragement, and despair can set into our thinking and affect our feeling. Lack of purpose and meaningless can usher us into a state of grim hopelessness and a life of cheap material satisfaction. We know this. We all, to some extent, have experienced this or at least had a taste of it.
To which Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin. Yet even Solomon, in all his glory, is not decked out like one of these lilies. If God clothes even the grass, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will God not much more provide for your needs.”
Nice sermon, huh. Not. So far, I have provided you no solution to your dilemma. I have provided you nothing strong enough to overcome the fears and anxieties which cause you to toil and spin. I have provided you with meaning or purpose that can offset the need to pick up cheap material satisfactions. I have offered you no hope that you, too will rise in the resurrection.
When we take in the sayings of Jesus, it is important to be aware of the complete context, past, present, and future. Jesus’ teachings are proleptic, that is they take into account what will happen in the death and resurrection of Jesus. When he taught to consider the lilies of the field, Jesus was aware that human beings cannot bring themselves to stop the toiling and spinning of their minds. We have left the Garden. But, that doesn’t take away God’s intentions for us to have the Garden life. But, sin still crouches at our door and death still steals our hope. Without God’s ultimate defeat of sin and death in Jesus’ crucifixion and death, such pronouncements as “consider the lilies’ and “look at the birds of the air” provide no more hope than any amateur philosopher, guru, life coach, or the like.
Today’s Gospel lesson is about 2 men 2 thousand years ago who had lost hope. They had been disciples of Jesus and had witnessed his inglorious end. They had, however, received reports that he had risen from the dead like he said he would. But, they still couldn’t believe it. They doubted as they scurried along the path toward their destination, Emmaus, the village in ancient Palestine where they lived.
Along the way, a traveler joined them and listened to their conversation. “What are you talking about,” he asked. At this point, the writer of the story informs us what the 2 disciples reported about this encounter. “It was Jesus,” they reported. “But somehow we were kept from recognizing him.” We are not told what prevented them from recognizing him. Did he look different in his resurrected state> Did God put veils on their eyes so that they wouldn’t immediately recognize him? Or, were they so committed to disbelief that they wouldn’t allow themselves to recognize him.
I think the latter. When I attended Luther College in the late sixties, the book, “On the Road,” by Jack Kerouac was influencing us young people. I decided I would try to hitch hike home from college. My parents had instructed me not to attempt to come home before thanksgiving, at which time they would provide the money to come home on the bus. Nevertheless, I stuck out my thumb and arrived in Roseville in record time. As I walked through the yards to my parents back yard garden, I could see them working in the garden. I can still see my mother’s basket. They saw me coming and went back to their gardening. They looked up again and went back to their gardening. Finally, I was right in front of them and they still went back to their gardening. “It’s me, Dale,” I had to say. Needless to say, they were startled. They had it in their minds that I had been instructed not to come home until Thanksgiving and that I had no way to get home anyway, so it never entered their minds that it was me.
So it was for the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus even interrupted their discussion with a know it all attitude and instructed them on the meaning of all the events that had just happened in Jerusalem. It never occurred to them that this was Jesus.
I think it happened this way so that we could have another proleptic lesson about doubt. “No one rises from the dead,” we keep telling ourselves. And so, we don’t hear all the witnesses who tell us that they saw someone who did. We don’t listen to the voice in our minds that says, “I wish that was true.” And we don’t pay attention to the feelings in our heart that say, “That’s soooo good.” We just tell ourselves, “It’s too good to be true.”
And that is why it is good to pay attention to the rising of new life this spring. These are the metaphors that remind us that God is yet in control of God’s creation. That, despite the death that appears all around us and seems so final, spring will come and life will rise again.
Yet, there is one more piece to the story. When did the disciples finally figure out that it was Jesus? What did it take to remove the veils from their eyes.
The breaking of the bread. Jesus was revealed in the breaking of the bread. The breaking of the bread was so characteristic of Jesus that they just couldn’t deny the fact any more. He truly had risen from the dead. And then he vanished.
The breaking of the bread reminded them of all the fellowship, hospitality, and goodness of Jesus -toward all people. He even fellowshipped with people who would one day arrange for or call for his death. He lived out that most difficult of his pronouncements: Love your enemy as yourself. Forgive those who harm you. He did it! And there he was sitting with them at table. And then he vanished.
But, they remembered the last supper they had had with him. They remembered that he had said to them, “Do this in remembrance of me.” And, from that day on, followers of Jesus have gathered to be reminded that he has never really died. His mission lives on.” Jesus closed out his teaching on the lilies of the field with, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and all God’s righteousness. All the rest will be added to you.”
Followers of Jesus gather to have the veils removed from their eyes -to have all the doubts and fears removed, the toiling and spinning removed, and to see our being just as it is -an inextinguishable gift from God.
And so, again, I encourage you to go out during this time of enforced isolation and take time to be in touch with the rising. It is nature’s metaphor for your rising. Death can no longer hold you.
Your existence was a gift. You did nothing to obtain it. You do nothing to maintain it. And you need do nothing to have it keep going into eternity -save believe in Jesus. If the veils of doubt still cloud your eyes, ask God to remove them that you might come to believe in the resurrection of Jesus and the eternal existence that it brings to you.
I can’t wait until we can again gather and break bread together again -to have Jesus revealed to us in the breaking of the bread. Pray for deliverance. Our God who raised Jesus up from the dead can provide what we need to make it through this difficult time in our lives. The Apostle Paul taught us, “No one lives to himself and no one dies to himself. If we live, we live to God and if we die, we live to God. So whether we live or whether we die, we are safe in the arms of God.”
As the stay at home order stretches into its 4th week, our material, emotional, and spiritual resources are wearing thin. We urge you to continue to follow the directions of the Governor and pray for deliverance from this pestilence. Starting Wednesday, April 22, at 9 am, Minneapolis residents can apply for rent and utility assistance. You can apply online at http://www.minneapolismn.gov/coronavirus/gapfunding or by phone at 612-302-3129. Additional utility assistance up to $1200 is available through 952-220-1711.
On Saturdays, we have food distribution here at the church starting at 10 am.
On Sundays, we livestream the worship at 10:30 am on the St. Olaf Lutheran Church Facebook site. We upload the sermon to St. Olaf Lutheran Church Minneapolis YouTube channel after the worship for better clarity. Posts are not erased, so you can go back to previous Sundays if you wish. Stay healthy by laying a foundation of daily devotion and prayer, getting outdoor exercise, eating healthy, and loving one another in your household, being ready to forgive and ask forgiveness. Remember, we are safe in the arms of Jesus.
It’s Easter. Jesus is up and moving. He’s left the graveclothes behind and heading to Galilee. There, he will make his presence known to his disciples and his brothers James and Joseph. But, on the way, he makes one little stop to show himself to the women. After all, one of them was his mother.
But, Mary is no longer just his mother. She has become a follower, just like the other Mary -Magdalene. Mary and Mary weren’t disciples. That title could only be worn by men. But the irony is that though they were not disciples, they were Apostles, a title more exclusive than disciples. Not every disciple could be an Apostle. To be an Apostle, one had to see the risen Jesus. And that made Mary and Mary Apostles -the first Apostles, to be exact. This gets better all the time.
The resurrection of Jesus was not meant to preserve the status quo. For the status quo is a product of sin. The resurrection of Jesus was meant to upset the status quo, just like the tables in the temple marketplace that Jesus turned over.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ve moved along with Jesus into the time of the Church. Today is just about “the day” -the day of the resurrection.
They came early. In this version they didn’t bring spices to anoint his body with. They just came to look. Now, this is just speculation -maybe they had some kind of curiosity as to whether he would actually rise from the dead like he said he would. They didn’t have to worry about getting a front row seat. None of the disciples were there -just as they had not been there at the crucifixion, except for John. But, Mary and Mary were there. They had witnessed the entire event. That must have been hard for a mother. It makes you wonder why she stayed. But, then, this was no ordinary child. The origins of this child were wonderfully mysterious. I think she watched her son die with the expectation that something wonderfully mysterious would happen at his death -that he would exit this world as miraculously as he had entered it.
Can you imagine Mary’s joy at seeing her risen son. Now what if she hadn’t watched to the bitter end? She might have thought he actually didn’t die -that he somehow had cheated death. And that would have been no miracle. But, this clearly was. Mary’s otherworldly husband had come through. Her son’s exit from this world was as awesome and mysterious as his entrance.
But, as she approached the tomb, she couldn’t help but fear -fear that her son’s bizarre prediction that he would rise from the dead was untrue. Yes, he had raised Lazarus. But, could or would the Father raise him too. People do not rise from the dead. So she feared.
“Do not be afraid,” the angel implored her. “Jesus has risen from the dead as he said he would and you will see him.” In the Hebrew, it’s more like “Stop being afraid!” The angel could see that their fear was chronic.
He got them half way there. Matthew says they left the tomb with not only fear, but also joy. Great joy. So, I guess the joy won out. But, they still must have been a little afraid because when they encountered Jesus, he too observed their fear. He, too used the same Hebrew word: “Stop being afraid!”
Fear is a chronic condition of our lives. We fear we are not good enough for a certain job. We fear that our children will get sick. We fear that our finances will fall through. We fear that we will fail that final exam. And on and on. We live in a perpetual state of fear.
To which the angel and Jesus both say, “Stop being afraid!”
Many of our fears arise from a fear of death. Fears of our own health, fears of the health of our loved ones, fears of the finality of death, and on and on. But, Jesus rose from the dead. Hundreds of credible witnesses testified to that fact. And history corroborated their testimony. This was no hoax or wishful thinking. It happened. And if he rose, then we too will rise. “I am the resurrection and the life,’ Jesus taught. “He or she who believes in me shall not die, but have eternal life.”
Death, then is just another event in an eternal existence -an important event -but not the final event. Death has become the portal to the larger self, in terms of both time and space, who we actually are. I remember my Father used to ask me “Where’s the real Dale?” What a great question! As a child, I found the question frustrating. When we are children, we are not too far away from the eternity from which we came. But, as I grew older, that question began to take on more meaning. Is there more to me than what I experience in this material realm? Who am I in the spiritual realm? And now, in light of the resurrection, it’s not who I am, but whose I am. I belong to Jesus.
It’s entirely understandable if you would harbor skepticism about the resurrection, especially in our world today where we have abolished superstition and rely heavily on the advances of the scientific way of thinking. If that is the case, I encourage you to look inside. One amazing thing about the resurrection is that Jesus moves freely back and forth from the self that interacts with the exterior world and the interior world of our thoughts and feelings. You might find him there. Or he might find you.
Okay, now I can open it up to the time of the Church. The time of the Church started shortly after Jesus’ resurrection – 49 days after to be exact, at a day we now call Pentecost after the Jewish name for the event.
The effect of the resurrection of Jesus on death had another result. It’s a result that requires putting yourself back in time into the thoughts and feelings of Mary and Mary as they encountered the empty tomb, the angel, and then Jesus himself.
Regardless of whether one believes in the resurrection of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus are regarded as among the highest ethical teachings ever expounded. The great ethical giants of the 20th century -Ghandi, King, Mandela -all regarded Jesus’ teachings as their guide. The teachings surrounding forgiveness particularly stand out.
So here come Mary and Mary to the tomb. The great moral enterprise that Jesus had laid out in his teachings all hung in the balance. The existence of the Kingdom of God was at stake. If the injustice and brutality of Jesus’ crucifixion were effective in ending his moral crusade, then evil and hatred wins. But if….
And will continue to win until the final whisps of evil vanish like the music of rubber bands and the Kingdom of God is firmly established forever.
There is a cosmic battle going on, and we have a role in that battle. Jesus gave us a role. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And love even y our enemies, forgiving them seventy times seven if necessary.
This is an agenda for my life that I gladly accept. It’s an agenda that provides meaning and purpose. It gets me up every morning to live another day. It keeps my mind quiet and clear. There are times when events cast doubt on that meaning and purpose –times like this pandemic.
I preached on the most extreme of those events 3 weeks ago as the pandemic moved in and we ramped up into Good Friday -the holocaust. My point was that as bad as that event was, God’s agenda continues to move forward. I used the example of women’s elevation of status around the world, an event which has largely occurred after the holocaust. Mary and Mary could not have become Pastors in the 1940’s. Such status was reserved only for men. A few women in history had broken through in the political realm, but world governance was largely the domain of men. As was war.
In that sermon, I used the conclusion that Tzvetan Todorov had come to in his book, “Facing the Extreme,” which was that humanity was basically good and that humanity’s innate capacity to be compassionate would carry the day. And that that compassion would carry the day for natural evils like pandemics as well as human evils like war.
As Lutherans, we embrace that affirmation of our goodness when we declare that we are all saints. We simultaneously declare that we are sinners and that through the free forgiveness of God offered through the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus, sin does not get the upper hand any more than death does.
And finally, I agreed with Todorov’s conclusion that hope for the future lies in what is happening right now as the other half of the human race becomes empowered to exercise the superior compassion they are naturally endowed with to move the needle of human existence toward justice and non-violence ever more forcefully as the situation becomes more dire. You go, Mary and Mary! And men, let Jesus be your role model. The world needs us unflinchingly compassionate.
I would like to preface my remarks tonight with a statement that Governor Andrew Cuomo made yesterday. He said, “This pandemic is the greatest evil to strike New York since 9/11.”
Evil? We can all readily see the evil in the bombing of the World Trade Center, but it might not be so easy to see evil in the Covid-19 pandemic. Worse, if we do, does that imply that God is evil? And, on this Good Friday, as we contemplate the evil of the crucifixion of Jesus, does the evil of the pandemic relate to it at all?
We can’t just let these questions sit out there unanswered. They trouble us. And if they don’t, they should. We need to understand.
I agree with Andrew Cuomo that the Covid-19 epidemic is evil and most theologians would agree. It is just different in its origins. The bombings of 9/11 were human evil. The Covid-19 evil is natural evil.
Natural evil and human evil affect us in different ways. In some ways, human evil is easier for us to deal with psychologically, for there is justice. But with natural evil, who do we arrest? The wind? Who do we put on trial? The waves? And on whom do we pass sentence? A virus?
But, behind these impersonal causes, is the perpetrator God? Some people obviously think so. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, one well known Pastor said it was God’s reprisal for Haitian’s pact with the devil, presumably referring to the practice of voodoo.
In law, such disasters are sometimes called “acts of God.” That’s a presumptive term. As with the fundamentalist Pastor who said that God punished the Haitians with the earthquake, to call natural disasters an act of God is to presume a control over such disasters that God might not actually have.
How can we live with a God who cannot control the natural world?
If God can’t control it, perhaps God didn’t even make it. And it’s not too far of a leap from there to perhaps God doesn’t exist.
And this is why we should read our Bible. Do any of you remember the story in John 6 where Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood? He lost quite a few disciples that day. But he kept a few, too. Jesus asked the twelve, “Will you go away as well?”
To which Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? YOU have the words of eternal life!”
The words of eternal life don’t read like a lawbook or the sermon text of a fundamentalist Pastor. They read like something we do every Sunday in church – we eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood –symbolically, of course, but we nevertheless consume the aftermath of his crucifixion. He asked us to do this in remembrance of him.
Something happened when Jesus got crucified –something big –big enough to save humanity from not only human evil, but also natural evil. For the evil twin of evil is death and from that, this crucifixion saved us. For human evil it is easier to understand. The word, “victim” is greatly helpful in fashioning this understanding. Jesus was the ultimate “victim” of human evil. The stage and setting were different then, of course, but the victimization is the same.
What, you say? We don’t crucify people anymore. Thank you for volunteering that counter. Yes, the Holy Spirit of Jesus has led us toward a more just and non-violent world.
And then comes along an act of natural evil, seemingly indifferent to all the progress we’ve made in justice and non-violence. But, natural evil has the same evil twin. Death from whatever cause is humankind’s ultimate enemy.
And, had Jesus lain in that grave just like every other victim of human injustice and violence, nothing would have changed. But, he got up. God raised him up, and his death, not exclusive of all the other victims, by the way, his death abolished death and created the eternal life that Peter and the rest of the 12 hung their hopes on. In some way we cannot know, but we can work toward knowing, natural evil itself is corrected by the cross of Jesus. Human evil is somehow the lynchpin of it all. Perhaps when we cross through a black hole in space, we will know it for the first time.
But for now, we must trust. We must trust that the good God who gave his most dear and precious son to die on a human cross of shame in order to raise him up from the dead is the one. We will leave the resurrection until Sunday, but for now, we can know that he lives and goes before us and we can join in Peter’s oh so human affirmation: “Lord to whom can we go. YOU have the words of eternal life.”
Today is Palm Sunday, the commemoration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The triumphal entry was a joyous occasion and we usually reenact it in church on Palm Sunday. We are not going to do that today, not only because there are no people to process around, but also because it is not such a joyous occasion this year.
There are those who are fighting a life or death battle with Coronavirus even as we gather today. Others have lost that battle and we grieve with their families. Still others fear for their lives as they heroically do their duty as medical personnel on the front lines of the battle. We feel profound gratitude for their service.
But, one thing to know about Palm Sunday services. They always move away from the joy. Good Friday is coming and there is a bitter irony to that word, “triumphal.” That is an irony well worth exploring and an irony that provides something true and certain you can hang your hopes on during not only this difficult time, but in all of life’s difficult times. And, paradoxically, what works in the difficult times works in the blessed times -when the sun is shining down on us, as the words of today’s praise song tell it. It is a paradox that is at the heart of living as a Christian.
Calling Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem triumphant is about as discrepant as calling the day of his crucifixion Good. Why the reversal of meanings?
Kingdom reversal is prevalent throughout the Gospel. It starts before Jesus is even born, on the lips of Mary his mother during her pregnancy. “He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly.” Then when Jesus stood up for the first time in the synagogue to preach, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” Then from the sermon on the mount: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” And later, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” And toward the end, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a triumph in this reversal sense. Jesus will later appear to Paul to state it precisely: “My power is perfected in weakness.”
As for power, one would expect a mighty warrior on a war horse, not an unarmed, vulnerable peasant on a donkey. There is some speculation, and it could be true, that as Jesus and his unarmed followers rode into Jerusalem from the east side, Pontius Pilate, mounted on his war horse, rode into Jerusalem from the west side accompanied by armed soldiers.
The importance of this lowly approach for the Christian life cannot be overstated. In todays’ 2nd lesson from the book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul states: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant to others.”
I have several times during this pandemic heard the expression, “We’re all in this together.” It sounds idyllic, and is intended by the speaker to be that way -an expression of a utopian kind of society where everybody looks out for everybody else.
I don’t want to tarnish that vision, for it is indeed the exact vision of the Kingdom of God. The phrase, “We’re all in this together” embodies Jesus’ core teachings: “Love your neighbor as yourself;” and “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
But, when we say, “We’re all in this together,” are we also referring to those who don’t share our utopian vision? I have had personal experience this last week with people who do not share my utopian vision for humankind. Rather than observe the Covid restrictions, my neighbors have decided to blatantly defy them. They gather at all hours of the day to party. We knew they were in the entertainment business, but now we can see what kind of business that is. To say it is the nightclub business would be to put it kindly. When the police were called, one of the partiers called out defiantly to the neighbors and the police, “If you think it’s bad now, wait until we get our stimulus checks!”
The teachings of Jesus go beyond the nice comfy expressions of universal love. They go to the heart of the matter: From the sermon on the mount: “You have heard it said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemies. But, I say to love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” This radical ethic is what it will take to move the saying “We’re all in this together” from a utopian dream to reality.
Jesus wants us to take a step back and look at ourselves. How can we put aside the hatred, revenge, and envy in our hearts to become a person who can love their enemies? Again, from the sermon on the Mount: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.’
Oh, you might think. I will do that myself. I will make myself a better person.
I listened with interest to a radio hour broadcast on the life of George Price. George Price was a biologist who set out to do just what I said you can’t do by yourself. Bothered by the Darwinian dogma of self-interest, Price set out to make himself a living experiment that a person could live a totally selfless life. The word that is used is altruistic -living entirely for the other.
But Price eventually became despondent and eventually committed suicide -a grim lesson that we cannot go it alone to make ourselves into better people, to be the exemplar of the “we’re all in this together” slogan. For this, we need Jesus -not once, but daily. As we walk a humble walk with Christ, we will become better people, but not for our glory, but for God’s glory in establishing God’s reign of justice and nonviolence here on this earth.
I might have misled you in last week’s sermon when I extolled the wisdom of the Renaissance philosopher Rene Descartes, who thought much like Mr. Price. The humanist philosophy that humankind has the capacity to be altruistic and compassionate without needing God’s help is an ancient philosophy. Martin Luther took it on in a discourse with Erasmus, who was the leading humanist of his time. The titles of their treatises summarize the argument: Erasmus’ treatise was titled, “The Freedom of the Will,” whereas the title of Luther’s was “The Bondage of the Will.” But, Luther’s subtitle was, “The Freedom of a Christian.” It is through humbly acknowledging out arrogance, pride, and envy that we meet the forgiveness of Christ and find freedom -much to our surprise.
But, this only works because of that other irony I mentioned earlier in the sermon: Good Friday. Let me suggest to you a shortcut. Rather than try to justify the ways of God to man, just try to stay close to Christ. Let the supernatural intervention of God through Jesus enter your heart and you will understand why the crucifixion of Jesus is called “good,” and how this goodness applies not only to the victory over human evil, but also to the victory over natural evil. We need to know that the victory of the cross applies to natural evils like the Coronavirus in these times of trial.
And how do you do that? Not like George Price. Don’t just go out there and try to be an altruistic person. You don’t have that capacity without God’s help. Rather, start by getting close to God through the portal that God has provided in Jesus. Come to church. Read your Bible. Pray. Not to some impersonal God who could care less what happens to you. Pray to the God who is one with Jesus.
With that, I invite you all to join us on Friday for worship at 7 pm. Come, let God’s holy spirit infuse you with the good of Good Friday.
Today’s Gospel on the raising of Lazarus evokes memories of me trying to teach too much in a day’s math class. “You’re doing too much!” the students would shout out at me. At least they were paying attention.
But, it’s true. This text is too long and too complicated to unpack in a single sermon on a single Sunday. And it’s been this way all through Lent. The Samaritan woman at the well, the man blind from birth, and Nicodemus – are epic in size and scope.
So, where do we start? I suppose we start with what does it have to do with the Corona virus. How could we not start with that? I’ve never preached to an empty church before. When I was in seminary we had roommates, so I would have to go practice in the garage, preaching to the canoes. But this. I’ve never experienced this before.
I keep hearing that. This is something we’ve never experienced before. And, I’d say for me, that is true. But, I hardly think it is true for the generation before me. 400,000 Americans died in World War II. And, carry it forward to my generation. Though I never served in VietNam, I’m pretty sure that some of our VietNam vets would take issue with the statement that we’ve never experienced anything like this before. And certainly our Liberian members who survived their brutal civil war.
For, what is being referred to is the imminent threat of death and destruction. Many Americans my age or younger have lived our lives fairly clear of those things. But some Americans and many other people throughout the world are experiencing the threat of death and destruction on a daily basis. At least we have a shelter in which to “shelter in place.” The refugees of Idlib province, Syria, have no shelter. They sleep out under a cold winter sky because their homes have been bombed to rubble. And they have lost loved ones. Likewise the Rohingya of Myanmar, and the people of Yemen. It would be too bad if the Coronavirus muted our compassion for all of these unfortunate people and blunted our response to their needs.
But, I am hopeful that it will not. I am hopeful that the present crisis will make us more compassionate and increase our response to our neighbor in need.
Prior to the coronavirus, I would say that many of us Americans had become overly self-centered. We had gotten so absorbed in reaching our career goals, taking that once in a lifetime vacation -the second time, or just enjoying hours of social media, that we felt little or no compassion for those refugees and did little or nothing to help them. We had, in the famous words of that Pink Floyd song of the same name, become “Comfortably numb.”
Today’s Gospel text has something to say about that. The story is about how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing. It might come as a surprise that some people don’t regard this miracle as a good thing. ‘What’s the point,” they ask. “He just has to die again.” One particular push back I remember was from a gay man whose parents had disowned him for religious reasons. “I figure this life is hell,” he informed me. “I wouldn’t take my life or anything, but I’ll have no regrets when I leave this world behind.”
We don’t know much about Lazarus’ life, but one thing we do know -he was dear to his sisters and his raising was a wonderful thing for them. Not too long after, he attended a dinner with the sisters and Jesus, so we can assume he valued his relationships with them as well. Yes, raising Lazarus from the dead was a good thing.
The goodness of the miracle might just pass you by when you hear or read this story. But it’s huge. There is an affirmation of life in this world. It’s good and it is when we have good relationships with loved ones that it is especially good.
But not everybody gets raised –only Lazarus. For the most part death is final. We do not see our loved ones again -not in this life anyway. And when those relationships are permanently severed by Coronavirus, war, natural disaster, or whatever, we grieve.
But, do you think that Jesus did not know our grief? When Jesus saw Mary weeping, the text says his spirit groaned. And when Mary brought him to Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus wept. He wept! Okay, men. Never again should you try to suck it up at a funeral. Let the tears flow. You need to be in touch with your inner compassion. Not only did Jesus teach us, he also gave us object lessons, and this is one of them -for the men.
And the object lesson is that though life is worth living, it will have its share of grief and pain in this life.
But, where is the tipping point? I remember a scene from the movie, The Emigrants, where the father in the family states, “I just can’t go on without her.” So there is for some, a tipping point.
But, to ignore the pain or to avoid the pain are not good options. The raising of Lazarus encourages us to embrace life with all its joys, but also with all its pains.
But, something is missing. Clearly this Gospel lesson didn’t work for the father in the Emigrants movie. Death and grief can be overwhelming. The gay man I previously alluded to was a Christian as well – a Christian living with despair, which is too bad. It doesn’t have to be this way.
To apply our Gospel text to these situations, we must go to the extremes. In Tsvetlan Todorov’s book, “Facing the Extreme,” he identifies different players in the holocaust of World War II – victims, survivors, perpetrators, onlookers, and rescuers. Each of these categories have different take-aways from the event. Many of the survivors committed suicide. One of the rescuers made the statement, “There is no good news in the holocaust.”
Considering that good news is the translation of the word, Gospel, does that mean that the holocaust killed the Gospel?
It doesn’t look that way from the survival of Christianity, but nevertheless, this is the key question that arises from that horrific event. Is there any meaning in life? What’s the point?
One of the survivors, Victor Frankl, came up with the famous formula that the meaning in life is to make us worthy of our suffering. While I see the point in this, it begs the question, do we need to suffer in order to find meaning? The dinner party with Lazarus’ family after his resurrection seems to deny this conclusion.
How can we simultaneously enjoy life and take with proper seriousness the extremes of human suffering?
Sister Martha provides the answer in verse 27: “Lord, you are the one coming into the world.” In other words, the entrance AND CONTINUED PRESENCE of Jesus in the world makes all the difference. Martha could not have known how this would be accomplished through her friend, Jesus. She just believed that he was the one. He was the one who would make meaning out of this world of suffering.
She also identified Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah in this declaration. In the early church, that might put her in the category of an Apostle. Followers who had seen the risen Jesus were identified as Apostles. All the rest were disciples.
In his book, Todorov kept wrestling with how to make meaning from the holocaust. In the end, he came up with a strange conclusion which seems to fit this text, although he did not bring Christianity into it. He did relate it to the famous Christian philosopher Rene Descarte. Most of us are familiar with Descartes’ famous premise, “I think, therefore I am.” Less familiar is his other premise: “I regard with compassion. Therefore I am.” A Roman Catholic, Descartes believed that the redemption and presence of Jesus in the world allowed his disciples to be in touch with the compassionate nature that we are all created with. And it is through this compassion that the world will move toward a more perfect state -the state which in the Gospels is called the Kingdom of God.
Being a seventeenth century Roman Catholic, Descartes could scarcely imagine feminine leadership in the church. Neither he nor other scholars saw in Martha’s declaration any future of the church. But, it’s there. In the final chapter of the Book of Romans, Paul expresses gratitude to the fellow Christians who helped him in his ministry. Over half of them are female. And who could forget Mary Magdalene’s witnessing of the resurrected Jesus? Women graced the early church with acknowleged leadership. Jesus had set the stage for this revolutionary event in human history and the early church naturally picked it up. Jesus’ women disciples and apostles were everywhere.
So Todorov came up with the astonishing premise that what was missing in the world leading up to the holocaust was feminine leadership. He correctly identified females as being the more compassionate of the sexes, culturally, if not naturally, and if world leadership could be swung away from masculinity to feminitiry, then there might be hope that the natural compassion in each and every created human being might overwhelm the evil that is brought into the world by the muted compassion so direly demonstrated in the holocaust, not only among the perpetrators, but among the comfortably number onlookers as well.
We live in exciting times. Things are rapidly changing for the better. Not in technology per se. Todorov warns against letting our innate ability to create technology dictate who we are. But in the exercise oif compassion in the world.
Do you realize it has only been 50 years since women have been ordained in the Lutheran church? And the Lutheran church was one of the first! Oh yes, the spirit of Jesus is alive and moving in the world. This Coronavirus is but a manifestation of the limitations of this world. But, we have to stop living just for this world, We need to attach our reasons and purposes for life to Jesus, whose spirit is yet alive and changing the hearts and minds of people throughout the world. We will come out of this Coronavirus thing with new manifestations of the compassion of human beings and with the needle being moved yet further toward the Kingdom of God. Then we will have Climate Change. And then what.
Accept these challenges gladly. They purify our souls. And cherish your relationships. Life is good because of them.
During the Coronavirus epidemic, we are livestreaming our worships on the church Facebook page – St. Olaf Lutheran Church. We have had a dickens of a time getting the sound reverb eliminated, so we will be providing a manuscript of the sermons on this blog page. The first manuscript will be published tomorrow after worship. BTW, we will also be uploading the sermons to our YouTube channel, St. Olaf Lutheran Church Minneapolis, during the Coronavirus pandemic. To see why we created the YouTube channel, take a look at the Pastor’s Letter on the February newsletter. This Coronavirus ain’t the end of the story. As a faith leader, I will try to move the concern to Global Warming even as soon as now.