February newsletter

I sat down to write this article, it feels like the 74th day of January. In reality, it’s the end of the month. What is it about January that it seems to drag on forrrrreeeevvvvveeeerrrr?? And I don’t know if it’s January or the cold or what, but I really struggled with what to write to you this month. After a very challenging month, I’m feeling a bit dry, honestly. So I turned to my trusted confidant, our secretary Lynn, and asked her “what should I write about this month?” And in her infinite wisdom, she said “well, February is the month of love. Why don’t you write about love?” But here’s the thing, beloved, I’m in the mindspace that I’m more wanting to talk about grief. 

I don’t want to assume that all of you reading this know, but a young man in our congregation, Tristan Toppert, died on January 13. I confirmed Tristan. I took him to the Lutheran Youth Gathering in Houston (along with Kristi Lueders, Katelyn Howe, Paige Bauer, and Sam Lueders). Chris, Ellen and I have had the honor of spending many of the major holidays at the Stuedemann house. This means that I have spent many Thanksgivings, Christmases, and Easters with Tristan. The story of his death, while not private, is one familiar to too many families in this congregation. It comes with a different kind of grief. 

I have walked with many of you through grief. And if I have had the honor of doing that (and yes, for me it is an honor to be invited into such a sacred place) you have heard me say something like this. Grief never happens at a convenient time. It never happens when you’re home alone, with the lights turned down, and a kleenex box nearby. Grief happens at really dumb times, like when you’re at the grocery store and you pass by a woman who wears the same perfume as your grandmother and now you’re crying in the potato chip aisle. And yes, this really happened to me. And it happened to me more than once. I ran into someone at the meat counter at Hy-Vee less than 24 hours after Allen Petersen died. They asked me “how’s Allen doing?” and there I was, crying in front of the sirloins. Grief is terrible and awful and confusing. But, grief is the price we pay for loving one another so fiercely. Grief is the price we pay for having loved. 

And yes, sometimes love looks like chocolate, roses, even folding the laundry. Sometimes love looks like holding hands to steady one another. Love looks like rides to chemo, sitting in the silence waiting, rocking babies, and being comfortable with one another’s wrinkles and rolls. And sometimes love looks like picking out the perfect casket for a 17 year old who should still be here if it weren’t for bullies. I don’t think we often think about that grief and love are partners that go hand in hand. What love and grief have in common is that God is present in them both. 

I think about the first time I laid eyes on Ellen and my heart just about exploded out of love and I know God was in that moment. After years of infertility and our struggle to bring this little girl into the world, I knew without a doubt, God was there as we fell in love with this amazing creation of God who bears the image of her redeemer. At the same time we know and must lean into the idea that God is most certainly present in our grief. I don’t dare imagine how unbearable grief would be without God or without faith. If I need proof of God’s presence in grief, I think about the story of Lazarus. When Jesus arrived and heard his friend Lazarus had already died, his first reaction was one of tears. Sorrow. Pure grief. This was the very human Jesus having very human emotions. 

The only way we can avoid grief is to not love. Grief physically hurts (like that gut-wrenching hurt) because something or someone we love has been removed from our lives. I believe that loving is worth the hurt. At the same time, I also believe that life is too short and nothing is guaranteed. I am writing this just a few days after basketball great Kobe Bryant died in a tragic helicopter accident. So if you’ve been waiting for the perfect moment, the perfect words, the right opportunity or whatever to act on love, stop waiting. Stop waiting because I don’t want you left with grief and “what if’s.” Love and grief are both gifts from God. Yes, gifts. Love we can understand as a gift. Grief is a gift because it reminds us that we are capable of loving and being loved. When we read “for God so loved the world” (see John 3:16) that includes you, me, and everyone you love and everyone you may not even know. Love is not a precious commodity. Grief isn’t a precious commodity either. So don’t wait for Valentine’s day. Don’t wait another moment to love. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my short time thus far on this spinning ball of madness it’s that there’s always room for more love. 

Sermon for 4/28/19 John 20:19-31

Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!) I know that we all have things about us that are unique. But have you ever noticed that there is somewhat of an instant bond among people that find out they share the same unique qualities? It’s like you’ve finally found someone who understands your troubles or just how awesome you really are. I’ve seen this with my twins (my brother and sister) when they meet another set of twins. I’ve seen this with those of you that are left handed (because you make it very clear where you want to sit at dining tables). I’ve seen this with Chris and his fraternity brothers and their special handshake. I’ve also seen this among veterans, no matter the battles they’ve fought. Even if you have nothing else in common with this other person, there’s something to be said about sharing unique qualities. I’m a firm believer in knowing you are not alone. There is power in that. It’s powerful when you find out you share unique qualities with someone else. It’s even more powerful to find you share experiences with someone when those experiences weren’t so pleasant. As I said, there’s something to be said about knowing you aren’t alone.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve lost the sense of community, the sense of belonging. Now, I don’t mean “we” as in this church. But, more often, I wonder if we as a nation have lost that. That’s an easy thing to lament. When we talk about how things “used to be” part of what we miss is the sense of community and neighborhood. I used to play on the street where my childhood home was located. We would play kick the can for all hours of the day until Jan Corley would yell out her children’s name “EricPattyRobin” and we all kind of knew it was time to go home. This doesn’t seem to be the case any more. We don’t always know our neighbors names. Our kids can’t go outside by themselves and use the streetlights as a signal to come home. I imagine there are several contributing factors to losing our sense of community. Perhaps that’s why then when we do realize we’re not alone, especially during our most challenging times, that a sense of community and belonging is all that more powerful.

I think that Thomas gets a bad rap sometimes. I think he’s not doubting, as his nickname often portrays, but rather, I think he simply wants to know he is not alone. He wants to know he’s not alone in his questions. He wants to know he’s not alone in his wonderment. He wants to know that the wounds left on his heart from mourning the death of his friend Jesus will soon become scars. And as much as we don’t like to see those around us hurting, isn’t it powerful when we’re hurting and we look around and see that others are hurting too? We don’t wish it upon others, but to know we’re not alone in grief, sorrow, and suffering makes the grief, sorrow, and suffering a little softer. I think this is part of why we have funerals. I’ve always said that funerals are for the living. We want to know we’re not doing this alone.

I also often think that sometimes, as a Christian community, we don’t always want to deal with the ugly. We don’t always want to deal with grief. We don’t always want to deal with scars and wounds. I think this is the same reason why people think they can’t come to church until they have their life straightened out. There’s a fear of judgement. Because we’re all so perfect and everything. The church hasn’t always done a good job of meaning it when we say “all are welcome.” But we all have scars. And whether we know it or not, we bring those scars with us every Sunday morning. They aren’t always seen. They aren’t even always acknowledged. But we all have them. And when are scars are exposed to others, then that’s when we really get a chance to be Jesus to and for one another. I don’t know about you, my beloved, but I want to be part of a community of faith that has some scars. Because scars are proof that you have lived life. Scars are receipts for the lessons learned. I would rather be part of a community that acknowledges it has scars and wounds than part of a community that works really hard to cover it all up. Scars make us human and when we see and acknowledge one another’s scars, we see and acknowledge one another.

Again, I don’t know about you, but to have a savior who is willing to let Thomas touch his wounds tells me that we have a savior who would be willing to let us touch his wounds. We have a risen Lord that wants us to feel seen, validated, and understood for all of our scars and wounds. And so much so that the risen Lord is willing to let Thomas and us feel his wounds. We serve a God who has been through some stuff! I find a lot of comfort in that. I need to know that the one I turn to the most, Jesus, knows what it is like to show up, again and again and again, over and over and over, scars and all and be willing to be seen. That kind of action gives me courage. Jesus wants you to be seen. Jesus wants you to feel like you’re part of a community. Jesus wants you to feel love. And in order to do all of that, Jesus is willing to show you his wounds. Not his scars. His wounds; still fresh from a state-authorized execution. Once again I say there is power in knowing you aren’t alone. There seems to be even more power in knowing you aren’t alone and your companion is Jesus.

Did you notice what Jesus did? Thomas needed proof. I don’t blame him. Thomas needed to be shown without any hesitation that Christ was indeed risen. Thomas needed proof before he was willing to be part of a community of believers. He was hesitant. I don’t blame him. Jesus didn’t shame Thomas. Jesus didn’t make Thomas feel guilty. Jesus just did what Jesus always had done: he made Thomas feel loved and feel seen. By showing Thomas his wounds and allowing himself to be touched, he made Thomas part of a community. What do you need to be seen, my beloved? What do you need to feel safe? What do you need in order to start letting your scars and wounds be seen? What do you need to tell your story. And your story is your whole story, not just the cleaned up parts that make you sound really good. What do you need to tell your whole story that tells about how despite it all, you’ve been redeemed? Because those are the stories we need to hear. Those are the testimonies the world needs. We don’t need prettied-up Christianity. We need Christianity that’s a little rugged, a little torn at the edges, a little rough, but all real. The world doesn’t need any more clean-cut sparkly clean Jesus. We need disciples who will show the wounded Jesus. Because the wounded Jesus feels like someone that could know our story. The wounded Jesus sees us.

There is power in community. There is power in being seen. There is power in showing up with your scars, your wounds, your tattoos, your stories, your histories, your prison records, your speeding tickets, your indiscretions and proclaiming a risen Lord anyway. The tomb wasn’t empty with an asterisk. The tomb was empty, period. The risen Lord sees you, scars and all, and loves you just the way you are. No catch.

I want to share a quote with you from one of the shows I’ve been binge watching lately. It was the drama series, The West Wing. The Chief of Staff, Leo McGary, played by Jon Spencer tells this story. “This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you, can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up ‘Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. ‘Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.’ That’s the power of not being alone. Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)  

Sermon for 11/4/18 John 11:32-44 All Saints Day

I find it strange that death is something we all have in common and yet we still struggle to find the words to speak about it. If you’ve stood in that receiving line at a visitation for a loved one, you’ve probably heard the phrase “I’m sorry for your loss” more than you care to. Yet, when we’re on the other side of that receiving line, we say the same thing. Can you imagine if we had the anger and frustration of Mary and Martha? When people say to us “I’m sorry for your loss” we responded “if Jesus had been here, our brother would not have died.” Our gospel story for today is one of my favorites for a few reasons. It speaks and supports very clearly that we have a God who keeps promises. We also have a savior who is stronger than death. And lastly, this story is so full of the raw human emotions we don’t always get in these stories; even Jesus himself is emotional.

It is challenging for me, even, at times to find the words to express my grief and lament about death as I wish I could. After all, I am someone who has been called to speak the promises of the resurrection life. And I really do believe in the promise of the resurrection. I believe that we all will be raised on the last day. Nonetheless, when I am personally touched by grief and death, I find words difficult. I think of my friend and fellow Pastor, Benjamin Ahles-Iverson who died way to young from cancer earlier this year. I think of my friend and college classmate Brian Hopf who also passed from cancer. And as I come ever closer to being with you all for (almost) 5 years, I think of those that I buried this past year. The longer I am here, the harder it gets. And I have a story for almost every single saint remembered this day. And if I don’t have a story for them, I have a story about their family or the way their legacy has lived on. So even for me, a trained professional, a trained theologian, there are times that death literally and figuratively stinks.

I also think that there are several who have experienced deaths that are not as traditional. Perhaps you changed jobs, lost your job, or retired and now your wrestling with the death of what once was. Maybe you had a child move out and go to college; that brings with it its own sense of loss. Others of you may have ended relationships whether romantic or friendships and with that comes a sense of grief and loss. Or perhaps you are just grieving the loss of civility in our communities. Whatever the situation may be, we seem to be surrounded by death and yes, it stinks. “Lord if you had been here….”

Mary, in her great lament, throws herself at the feet of Jesus, and in all of her grief basically yells at him. “Lord if you had been here.” I think all of us, on some level, can relate to this kind of grief. This is the kind of grief that finally slaps us in the face when we realize we actually cannot stop death. Mary, having nothing but love for her brother, would have done anything to have saved him. She couldn’t. But, her faith made her realize and recognize that Jesus could. But he wasn’t there when Lazarus died. And death came. Death came and settled in and had stayed for 4 days already when Jesus arrived. Mary had already surrendered to the idea that death would have the final say. Now, as Christians we know that’s not true. We know that death is not the end of our story. Yet, we still operate and talk sometimes as if it is the end of our story.

All too often we give death way more power than it deserves. This is not to say that we should ignore death. It is, after all, a fact of life. Death will happen to all of us at some point in time. But, we allow death to suck the air out of our lives. It consumes us in so many ways. I think we all know people who are alive but not really living. The more power we give to death, the more it will take from us. Let me say that again. The more power we give to death, the more it will take from us. Death, in all ways possible, robs us from life and from living. When we give death as much power as we do, we are forced to ask ourselves which God we worship: the God of life, hope, and resurrection, or a god of death, destruction, and the ends of our stories.

When we give death power, it sucks everything out of us, like I said. And sometimes, it even robs us of words. As I said before, words often fail us when death occurs. But one of the ways we continue to be stronger than death is to speak of our loved ones, the saints  that surround us. I have talked to too many people that want their loved ones remembered. Even if we just say their names, that would be enough. As we mark All Saints day today, maybe that’s the best we can hope for. We can hope that people pause for a moment, no matter how brief, and remember how much our dearly departed were loved. How much they are still loved! It doesn’t matter if your loved one has been gone for just a few months, or it’s been years, you still love them. And what a gift it would be for someone else to recognize that as well! Because the truth is this: death is awful and terrible and it stinks (in our story today, it literally stinks). Even if your loved one had been ill for sometime and death, in a weird way, was welcomed, it is still terrible and awful. Someone we love is no longer physically with us and the pain of that loss is very real. At the same time, death is also part of our reality.

We recognize the loss of our loved ones. We will pause and remember them. There also seems to be a fear that somehow, we will forget about those who have passed. But that won’t happen. But it is to us, as Christians, to speak the truth about death. Death is very painful. Death is very real. Death causes great anger, heartache, and suffering. Even when death is the answer to prayer, our hearts break and we weep and mourn. And for Christians, we must also speak another truth about death: it’s not the end. We can’t skip over death, but we have confidence that it is not the end. As I’ve said before, we cannot be Easter people without being Good Friday people as well.

Jesus proved he was stronger than death with three words: “Lazarus, come out.” We prove we are stronger than death every single time we show up here to worship. We prove that we still believe in something stronger than death even when society tells us we shouldn’t. We sing praises to God; words that are stronger than death. We eat the body and blood of Jesus; a meal that is stronger than death. And we proclaim the tomb empty on the third day and shout “alleluias!” to a world that would rather keep us quiet. Death may be part of our reality, my beloved, but it will never be part of our finality. We live in the hope that death never has the final word. For the saints who have gone before us we believe this, and we believe it for ourselves. Even when the words fail us in our grief, God’s actions, which always speak louder than words, will comfort us.