For Good Friday (and the Moments Like It)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Good Friday + April 14, 2017

Reading: John 18-19

In 1928 Dietrich Bonhoeffer — just 22 years old and still too young to be ordained  — preached these words as part of a sermon:

On Good Friday let us not think right away about the fact that with Easter things were given a new direction. We want to think about how with the death of Jesus the disciples saw all hope dashed. Scattered from each other, they brooded in hopeless sorrow about what had happened. Only when we can take the death of Jesus just as seriously as they did, will we rightly understand what the resurrection message can bring.[1]

So I want us to dwell in this hopeless moment with the disciples for a while. They didn’t know would happen next. We may look back and say: they should have known; Jesus told them he would be raised from the dead. But would we have been able to believe that after the whirlwind of betrayal and violence? All the hopes raised by Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the people taking to the streets with palm branches to welcome him, shouting “Hosanna!” — all those hopes shattered just a few days later, after one of Jesus’s closest disciples led the police right to him, after the crowds of Jerusalem suddenly changed their cry from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” It had all changed so quickly, and all the disciples’ dreams of following their beloved leader into a new world hung there on the cross with him, crucified by the same old cruel world that always had been and always would be. The disciples hid themselves away and let that truth dig its hopeless hole inside them: Jesus was dead. It was over. It had all been for nothing.

Good Friday is a holy time to reflect on this moment of hopelessness and the millions of other moments like it. Such times — when all seems lost — are tragically commonplace. We know them from history: people being captured and enslaved; stock markets crashing; boats sinking; trains of people pulling into internment camps; wars being declared and wars being surrendered. We know hopeless moments from the news: shootings; human trafficking; starvation; bombs dropping. We know hopeless moments from personal experience: job loss; a bad diagnosis; injury; depression; broken relationships; death.

And yet as Christians on this side of Easter, even in such hopeless moments, we hold on to hope. We call this Friday, where we remember Christ’s crucifixion, “good.” We believe that God is there in our moments of tragedy. Why do we hold on to hope? How?

We hold on to hope because we know what comes next in this story and in stories like it. We know stories from the Bible: Joseph was left for dead, sold into slavery, and then imprisoned; but then he became a powerful leader in Egypt and saved his family from a famine (Genesis 37, 39-45). Moses killed a man and ran away from Pharaoh’s punishment into self-exile, but during his exile he was called by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery (Exodus 2-3). We know stories from our own time: John Garrett suffered from a terrible heart condition, but he became a great spokesperson for organ donation. My grandmother was a fairly young widow, but in her widowhood she has learned to drive and overcome her fear of flying and made so many new friends. Your world probably once felt like it was ending, but you made it through.

Jesus was crucified, but the resurrection morning is coming.

As, in the Old Testament, Joseph said to his brothers, so we can say to the moments where hopelessness threatens us: “Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). We believe that one day we will look back on the darkest moments of our lives and be able to see them as the blessed dirt out of which God grew new life again. Jesus taught us this in the Beatitudes:

“Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21).

The Good Friday moment, which seem so senseless, which feels like it must be an ending, or a pit we can’t climb out of — God will helps us make meaning out of it and find the good on the other side.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a student who going through a time of suffering:

“So don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don’t know what work they are accomplishing within you?”[2]

When Jesus was crucified, the disciples felt hopeless, afraid, left with nothing. Even Jesus felt abandoned by God in that moment. But we believe that God was there, suffering with them in the face of the world’s injustice and sin, but ready to use that evil moment for good. Ready to turn tragedy into a miracle, ready to turn death into new life.

And so we can remember in our moments of loneliness and loss, depression and hopelessness: even those moments are blessed by God with the promise of the future.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sermon in Barcelona for the third Sunday in Lent, 11 March 1928. Quoted in God is on the Cross, trans. O. C. Dean Jr., ed. Jana Riess, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 102.

[2] Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.


The Story God Tells About Us (Ash Wednesday)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN +  Ash Wednesday + March 1, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12; Ps. 103:8-14; 2 Cor. 5:20-6:10; Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21

Human beings are story beings. For as long back as we can remember we have been listening to stories around fires or radios or TV screens. We make sense of the world through stories: fairy tales teach us the rules of good behavior; our political views are rooted in the stories we tell about how the world is and how it should be; the gospel is the story by which we seek to live our lives.

We also tell stories about ourselves in order to understand who we are and what we want to be. Sometimes the stories we tell about ourselves can be harmful: someone might tell herself, “I’m not good enough,” so often that she can’t get passed her insecurity, and she needs to learn to tell herself a different story. We can tell ourselves encouraging stories, like when someone tells himself, “You are doing enough, so stop comparing yourself to others.” We tell ourselves the story of who we want to be, of our goals and hopes for the future, and these stories give us encouragement and help us make decisions.

Of course we also hear stories about who we are and who we should be from other people and from the culture we live in. Through TV shows, advertisements, songs, and newspaper articles, we constantly receive messages about what a good human should be like. Women hear about exactly how we should be beautiful; men hear about how they should be strong. We all hear that we should be perfectly kind and successful in our work but also spend a lot of time with our families and also be rich and of course be happy all the time. Sometimes it feels like we’re hearing: you need to be all things to all people, and you need to enjoy doing it.

Then we come to worship today, Ash Wednesday, and we hear a different story. We hear the story God tells about us.

First, we hear that we are limited. We hear that we are imperfect, sinful. We hear that we are mortal: our bodies will get weak; we will die.

Does gathering to hear those stories come as kind of a relief to anyone else?

Here is a sacred place where we can lay down all the pressure that is put on us to be perfect. Here is a sacred place where we can lay down our pretenses and our strivings and our performing, a sacred place where we can admit for a moment how we feel sometimes: not good enough. Not able to be perfect. Worn out sometimes, selfish sometimes, hypocritical sometimes.

Here is a sacred place where we can acknowledge our fear of dying, of losing those we love; a sacred place where we can acknowledge our frustration with the frailty of our bodies, our grief for those who have died or whose bodies are hurting or minds are fading.

Most of us hide away all that vulnerability most of the time: because it’s not polite conversation, or because it’s painful to talk about. But today we gather to be marked with a reminder of it all: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

For this moment we can admit together all our weakness and vulnerability, and it is good, it is true, it is honest.

But to stop the story there would not only be a recipe for a very depressing day: it would be wrong. Our sin and our frailty are only the first part of the story God tells about us. The story we will act out in the ritual of being marked with a cross of ashes will continue as we gather around the table for Holy Communion.

Today we hear not only that we are mortals and sinners but also that we are beloved, forgiven, sainted children of God. God sees us exactly as we are — sees us even more clearly than we see ourselves — and God chooses us exactly as we are. Jesus Christ came for us exactly as we are. God welcomes us into God’s kingdom exactly as we are.

First we hear, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” And then we hear, “The body of Christ, given for you.” / “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

On Ash Wednesday we hear the story of who God says we are. We hear that we are vulnerable and sinful. Then we hear that God loves us as we are. And, finally, we hear that God does not leave us as we are.

When we hear that, we may think first of God’s law, which convicts us when we do wrong or fail to do right, which holds us to God’s standard. We may also think of the vision of the Kingdom of God, the vision we get through the words and lives of Jesus, the prophets, and the saints: the stories of the Kingdom of God help us see how God is working to transform our world and call us to be a part of that work.

But most of all we should remember that we are not called to repent and to change and to work all on our own — that would eventually lead us back to the first part of the story, our imperfections, and leave us stranded there. This third part of the story is not about what we are striving to do: it is about what the Holy Spirit is doing in us. God holds all of our weakness and transforms it into something new; God takes on even our mortality and with it creates new life.

As we enter into the season of Lent, pay attention to the ways God is transforming you now. What fear may God help you make peace with? What grief may God help you make beautiful? What weaknesses may God turn into to strengths?

Listen to the story God is telling about you. Listen to the story God is writing in you. Let that be the story you tell yourself, too.

All Saints Day: Remembering and Hoping

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + All Saints Day + November 1, 2015

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6b; John 11:32-44

Last weekend I drove up to Appleton, Wisconsin for the wedding of my best friend from high school. On the way I reenacted a little ritual I used to do on every drive between my parents’ house in southern Wisconsin and my college in St. Paul, Minnesota. Driving on I-90, I neared the exit for the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, where another high school friend, Joey, died during his freshman year, seven years ago. I turned off my music while I passed, silently remembering the day Joey had bought a coconut just so he could cut it in half, bring it to school, and make horse-trotting noises like in Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie.

And then I did something I’ve only had the strength to do a few times in the years since he died — I listened to the song that all we drama department kids sang at Joey’s funeral. It was from his favorite musical, Spring Awakening. Most of the song is made up of just two lines: “I believe there is love in heaven. I believe all will be forgiven.”

The next day, just before the wedding ceremony, the bride tucked a small yellow rose in the altar flowers for Joey, the friend we had both loved and lost. Even on that happy day, in the midst of trying to figure out fancy dresses and how to keep a smile on for the photographer, she and I joined together to shed a few tears of grief.

Grieving is not really a process, at least not one we can graduate from. We make it out of that initial fog and return to our “normal” selves, but then there are moments — places, smells, events, anniversaries — that bring our grief back in full-force. Today, on All Saint’s Day, the church sets apart a time for us to bring that grief we still carry — that grief we will always carry — before God.

Today’s gospel reading is filled with the sounds of grief. Some of that grief is disappointed, faith left unfulfilled: Mary says to Jesus “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Some of the grief is angry, as some of the people say: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Some of that grief is just raw, without words, and unreasonable: Jesus weeps at the sight of his friend’s tomb, even though he knows Lazarus is about to be raised.

Those expressions of grief are the parts of the gospel that feel the most true to me. I believe in the power of God to raise Lazarus from the dead; I have faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. But I know grief. I know it in the way my eyes still get heavy with tears when I think about those I have lost; I know it in the anger at God I have heard in hospital rooms and in churches; I know it in expressions of loneliness and blank pain. I know it in my gut. Surely there is faith and hope to be found in the power of God, but sometimes the knowledge of grief, the reality of death, feels so much closer and inescapable.

While I was studying this week’s Bible readings, I read that the hopes expressed in these beautiful passages from Isaiah and Revelation — the hopes for a perfectly redeemed future — tend to come from people who “see no way out of the current dilemma.”[1] Many of the Old Testament’s most beautiful visions of the Kingdom of God come from the exiled Israelites, people torn away from their homeland and forced to live powerlessly under a foreign king and a foreign religion. In the New Testament, the book of Revelation visualizes the hopes of Christians persecuted under Roman rule.

These were people who could see no end to the way their lives were going; they could not circle a date on a calendar and count down the days till change came. But they could visualize a different future, somewhere out there, because they had faith that the world they were living in was not the world God wanted.

There are many situations in our lives that can feel inescapable. Death and grief are two of the most powerful. But there is also sin — those feelings of regret that keep us awake at night; the feeling that our past is always going to have a stranglehold on our future. There are relationships that feel like they will never be healthy. There are illnesses and pains that will not be fully healed here. There is an endless and global history of war. There are “the ways of this world” that strike against the work of God’s grace.

It is when we find ourselves dwelling in these situations that we must try to visualize the future alongside those saints that have gone before us. They hoped for a world where God is even more present than God is now, where God is near enough to wipe away tears from our eyes.  We may find comfort in knowing that Jesus weeps along with us now, but we must also remember what that weeping shows us: that God does not want death or sin or brokenness or wandering for us. God wants to keep saying to us what Jesus said to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus: Take away the stone. Come out of that dark place. Unbind him, and let him go!

Our faith in these words is not based only on a story that has been passed down to us from long ago. It is based in what God has already done in history and in our lives. We have heard the testimony of saints like Nadia Bolz-Weber, whom God freed from enslavement to addiction and doubt and made a powerful preacher of the gospel. I have seen God working in the jails, where men who spent their lives building up a defensive, tough-guy, in-control persona find a sacred space to break down in front of one another and ask for prayer. And I am sure we have each seen God working in our own lives: helping us change our ways, guiding us along paths we wouldn’t have chosen, offering us moments of peace, comfort, and forgiveness, making us new people, God’s people.

In a way, this is what All Saints Day is about. It’s not about praising the famous saints — the saints with capital S’s, like St. Paul and St. Francis and St. Lucy — for all their good works or their faithful deaths. It’s about remembering what God has done in every saint, including us; and it’s about looking forward to what God will do in us, and in all the saints that are yet to come.[2] This is the source of our hope for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for the world to come.

Today we remember those who have died, but the day is not only for them; it is for all of us, the whole family of God. How beautiful and perfect that today we baptized John and recognized in our community the newest of God’s saints?

Let us pray: God of the Past, God of the Present, God of the Future, You gave hope to your people in exile; you sustained those who suffered in your name; you transformed the lives of so many who have gone before us. Grant us faith to believe that you will provide a future, even where we see none, that bitterness may turn to joy, and hopelessness to hope eternal, by the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.[3]

From St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church’s mural “Dancing Saints” (San Francisco). Image borrowed from Tea Mama’s pinterest page.

[1] “November 1, 2015: All Saints Day,” Sundays and Seasons:Preaching (Year B, 2015), ed. Robert Farlee (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2014) pp. 272.

[2] Rev. Dr. Delmar Chilton emphasized remembering what God does in God’s saints in his podcast with Rev. Dr. John Fairless: “All Saints Day (November 1, 2015), Lectionary Lab Live (#139),

[3] Based on a thematic prayer for the day from Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Revised Common Lectionary website (November 1, 2015).