Tag Archive | death

4th Sunday of Advent, 2015

4th Sunday of Advent, year C, 2015 (preached 12/20/15)

first reading:  Micah 5:2-5a

psalm:  Luke 1:46b-55

second reading:  Hebrews 10:5-10

gospel reading:  Luke 1:39-45

Church of the Visitation, Israel, photograph by Deror Avi

Church of the Visitation, Ein Karem, Israel, photo by Deror Avi

Today’s psalm and gospel readings are part of the same story, what we call “The Visitation.”  Shortly after Mary became pregnant, she went to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant.

We learn earlier in Luke’s gospel that Elizabeth was about 6 months pregnant when Mary’s visit took place, while Mary was still very early on in her pregnancy. One author I read commented that The Visitation is a wonderful human interest story, but that its primary function is theological.  I disagree.

I think it’s a wonderful human interest story PRECISELY because it tells us a great deal theologically.  And I think it makes an amazing theological statement PRECISELY because it’s intimately involved in humanity.  I don’t separate human interest and theology.  Not only that, I don’t think GOD does either.

So, what is so profound about The Visitation?  WHY is it such a good human interest AND theological story?

The human part is pretty clear.

Mary had been visited by an angel, who told her she would conceive and bear a son even though she was still a virgin. Elizabeth, who was beyond normal childbearing age and up till then childless, was having an “unexpected” pregnancy herself, after an angel appeared to her husband Zechariah announcing that their child would be born.

Both women had concerns and fears I’m sure.  We read earlier that Mary was perplexed and pondering.  Her condition was not easily explained – and in that time and place an out of marriage pregnancy could be a deadly scandal.

For Elizabeth, the concerns and fears might also have been deadly.  Many women died in childbirth, and for older women the odds were even greater.  As thrilled as she was to be pregnant, I’m sure Elizabeth was also frightened for herself.

So we have two women with very unexpected pregnancies that were announced by ANGELS.  That makes for a definite human interest story.  Not only that, but for a religious book that is dominated by men, here the men are unseen and unheard, except for a little leaping in the womb.

This story is all about the women – and of course about God.

Intertwined with the human story of the women is the story of GOD – God choosing to become part of human history.  That’s the whole point of Christmas after all, isn’t it?  God taking on our flesh – our flesh holding God.

God chooses not only to preside OVER human history, but to become PART of it, to step into our lives.

And by choosing to do so, God makes Godself part of every moment, the good and the bad, the joy and sorrow, success and failure.  When God became one of us in Jesus, God became a part of Mary and Elizabeth’s joys and fears – and even their grief – OUR grief.

It struck me, as I prayed and pondered these passages, that the story of The Visitation isn’t only about two pregnant women – it’s also the story of two women who would bury their children.

Elizabeth and Mary would know the joy of motherhood, but also its unimaginable grief with the death of their sons.

As I reminded (one of our parishioners) when I visited with her on Friday – we need to remember that Christmas isn’t just the story of the happy baby – it’s the story of the baby who would die.  The joy of this moment of visitation is colored by our knowledge that John would be beheaded and Jesus crucified.

God through Jesus CHOOSES to become a part of this mess we call life.

Not just the line from the popular song, “God is watching us, from a distance.”  NO.  God is NOT just watching us from a distance, God is WITH us.  God knows it all, experiences it all, WITH us.

This is the gift of Christmas.  It’s not happy or sappy.  It’s not “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” or “Holly Jolly Christmas.”  It’s not about inflatable snowmen, or Santas, or mistletoe.  It’s more like “In the Bleak Midwinter,” and “the hopes and fears of all the years.”

It’s a couple with no place to stay.  A young woman with her husband, forced to give birth away from their family and friends – in a BARN.  It’s not about fancy nurseries and cribs – it’s a feed box filled with straw.  It’s what Mary sings in her song – that God has come to lift up those who are lowly and hungry – to bring MERCY.

Our culture puts a lot of pressure on Christmas to be happy and sappy, because our culture doesn’t want to deal with life’s underside.

People would much rather fight an imaginary “war on Christmas,” than look at their own shortcomings in loving their neighbors and themselves and God.

People don’t want to connect Christmas with Good Friday, but when we don’t connect the two – then the consumerism and the inflatable snowmen win.  When we don’t connect Christmas with Good Friday we feel guilt over our grief and/or sadness because we feel it doesn’t belong, that there is something wrong with US.  When we don’t connect Christmas with Good Friday then all we celebrate is a baby and we stay lost in our sin.

We need Good Friday to be part of Christmas if Christmas is to have any depth, any real meaning in our faith.

God CHOOSING in love to be with us in all our moments from life to death is a profound theological truth.

It tells us that God loves us, strengthens us and carries us no matter where we are.

It tells us that God understands our fears, our grief and our anxieties.

So, as we approach Friday, some of us with joy and celebration, some with sadness, grief, or anxieties and fears, let us remember that God holds it all, and is WITH us through it all.

Emmanuel has come.




This post is part of my reflecting on the 20th anniversary of my ordination this year…

Part of seminary education in my denomination (ELCA) is called CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). Usually this is a summer spent working as a hospital chaplain.  CPE is intense.  You are being a hospital chaplain, but you are also part of a group of others doing their CPE along with you and you meet constantly to debrief your experiences.  In a hospital setting you’re confronted left and right with life and death decisions, with life-altering and devastating illnesses and accidents, and there is grief and pain mixed with joy and relief all around. It’s good to examine your own stuff while you’re confronting other’s stuff – so that you don’t confuse your stuff with theirs (or at least learn to recognize it when you do!).

Most of my day-to-day chaplaincy work was done on general medical floors.  Every once in a while we would help cover for each other if one of us had to be out, and we ALL took turns being on-call since this hospital had a chaplain available to patients 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  We had an on-call room to sleep in just like doctors – and we all prayed when it was our turn that it would be a quiet night.  It never was for me.  Not only that, but every single time I was on-call I was paged to be with the one “set” of patients I dreaded the most – the children.  Every single time. Without fail.  It’s never good when the chaplain (or any other care provider) is paged at 2am.  But when I would look at the number paging me and realize it was from one of pediatric units (Peds, NICU or PICU) I would just feel sick to my stomach.

The encounter that has stayed with me the most all these years is with a baby named Amanda.  Amanda was almost six months old but had never left the NICU.  She was born quite premature and had multiple problems.  Her mother and father, maybe in their mid-twenties, had just gotten the bad news that Amanda had yet another brain bleed and they wanted to talk to somebody.  The nurses explained to me that Amanda’s prognosis for survival was extremely poor, and that the parents were trying to process the information.****

I shook in my shoes.  Before I could be present with them I had some serious praying to do for myself. Obviously there was nothing I could say that would make this better.  Their little girl was dying, and they were trying to process this news.  What was there to say?

I went over to them and introduced myself.  I let them share with me what they were able to process to that point (sometimes it takes a while for news that tragic to sink in.  That’s another thing pastors do – journey with people as they unpack the realities of life and death).  I understood more than they were able to what was happening, but you can’t push people.  I met them where they were, just as God meets US where WE are.  I told them I was sorry for what they were going through, with what Amanda had gone through in her short life.  I looked at their little girl, obviously very sick, but still so beautiful, and told them that God was with them no matter what.  I told them that God had been with them all along, and that God would continue to be with them in the uncertain future.  They were not alone, even if they felt that way.  That it was okay to question, be angry, be weak, to cry, to scream – God would never leave.  My prayer with them was that they would feel God’s love embrace them and their daughter even in their pain.  We sat together for a long time, touching Amanda, touching each other, with a lot of silence.

Some people call this kind of ministry the ministry of presence.  Meaning, there isn’t anything concrete “to do.” You’re “just there.”  It’s hard to just sit with that kind of intensity.  It’s frustrating for a pastoral person who naturally wants to do something.  You feel helpless and useless, like you’re doing nothing.  In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.  I don’t know what happened to Amanda or her parents. But I know how I have felt when on their end of grief and sorrow.  I know what it’s like to feel alone, to grieve, to doubt, to be sitting in the patient’s or family’s seat in the hospital – and I know it’s NOT nothing to have another human being sitting beside you.  It can be a huge comfort.  Having a physical pastoral presence to represent God’s presence with us is NOT nothing.

Amanda was my first serious experience as a future pastor with the ministry of presence.  It’s still not easy even all these years later.  It’s not supposed to be.  But it’s important to remember that it’s NOT nothing.  Thank you Amanda.  You helped this person be a better pastor.

it's not nothing

it’s not nothing

****This is where ministry takes place.  This is when you want people to realize that sending their money to some televangelist so he can buy a new jet is just GARBAGE.  This is when you want people to realize that buying the best-seller of a preacher living in a mansion is just GARBAGE.  Amanda and her parents are ministry.  THIS is what regular everyday pastors are called to do day in and day out.  We brave the 300 pound gorilla in the room, which is death.  We sit with people as they mourn and doubt, as they question their own worth, struggle with addictions, sickness, anger, depression.  We hold hands with those who bury their children and lose their homes and can’t put food on the table.  Next time you think about sending a check to a “mega-ministry” half across the country, think of the church down the street whose pastor probably makes pennies, but whose doors are always open when you need a hand to hold.  Just my two cents…


4th Sunday in Lent, 2015

4th Sunday in Lent, year B, 2015 (preached 3/15/15)

first reading:  Numbers 21:4-9

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

second reading:  Ephesians 2:1-10

gospel reading:  John 3:14-21

Some people have the mistaken belief that people in the Bible were all righteous and wonderful, always doing the right thing.  That our heroes of faith were beyond reproach.  They would be WRONG.  The truth is that the people of the Bible, with very few exceptions, were seriously flawed, just like you and me.

In our first reading we have Moses and the people, freed from bondage in Egypt, but still wandering in the wilderness looking for their new home.

Moses is NOT the Charlton Heston of the “Ten Commandments.”  Moses was not full of himself, confident to the point of arrogance.  Moses grew up persecuting his own people, though he didn’t know it at the time.  He was an exiled murderer, who when called back to free his people, begged not to go.

And the nation that ultimately followed him out of Egypt was certainly no better.  They were impatient, sick of traveling, sick of the food God was providing, sick of Moses and sick of God.

The people start openly complaining. And in their complaints they sound like children.  In one breath saying there is NO food, but in the next acknowledging yes, there IS food, they just don’t like it.  They “detest” the “miserable” food!

And in an extraordinary statement of mistrust in God’s desire to care for them, they ask, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to DIE?”

These words become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, because we read that the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people and they DID start to die.  Then they repent and ask Moses to pray that the Lord would take the serpents away.

What follows is VERY interesting.  The Lord does NOT take the serpents away.  What the Lord DOES give the people is a way to DEAL with the serpents.

And it gets even more interesting. Because the way the Lord tells Moses to deal with the serpents is to confront them head on.  Get bit by a serpent?  Look to the serpent to live.  Look at the very thing that wants you dead, and you will survive.  Wow.

It seems wrong.  But in reality we do it quite often.  Vaccinations contain bits of the diseases we’re trying to avoid.  In chemotherapy we accept poisons into our bodies to fight the deadly cancer.  And if we ARE ever bitten by a dangerous snake or spider, the cure we’re given really is from the venom that wants to kill us.

So when we’re going through something and we feel angry or lost because we’ve prayed for God to take it away, and it seems like God’s answer is no, perhaps our answer is somewhere else, in finding a way to COPE with what we’re going through.

After all, I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again – God NEVER promised us an easy life.  What God HAS promised is that we’re never alone in it.

Again, God didn’t take away the serpents, the means of death – God gave the people a way to cope – to overcome.

And God has done the EXACT same thing in Jesus.

novgorod-icons18In our gospel reading this morning Jesus makes a direct reference to our first reading.  “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Jesus becomes the serpent, and the cross becomes the pole.

God’s answer is not a way to escape the ultimate enemy of death, but a way to OVERCOME it.  To look at what wants to kill us, and not only survive, but live forever.

Serpents have had a bad name throughout history, starting from the beginning – LITERALLY.  In the garden of Eden the serpent was described as, “more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” (Gen. 3:1)

“Crafty” in this instance does NOT mean good with arts and crafts!  The definition of crafty is “clever at achieving one’s aims by indirect or deceitful methods.”  As a result of the serpent’s actions towards Eve and Adam, God proclaims the serpent to be “cursed among all animals.”(Gen. 3:14)

Jesus becomes the serpent.  Jesus becomes cursed above all for you and me.

Through Jesus we are given the same way to overcome that which wants us DEAD.

In our sin we detest the miserable food of life – the fact that we can’t get everything we want when we want, what our neighbors have that we don’t.  We set unreasonable expectations for those we love so that we end up detesting them. We detest God for commanding us to love one another when hate and apathy are so much easier.

And if left to our own devices the serpent of sin will multiply our misery and we WILL die.  As Paul wrote in our second reading, (paraphrase), we were dead through our trespasses and sins.

We’ve been bitten.  We’re drowning in the venom.  It infects every cell of our bodies.

But then Paul says, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us ALIVE together with Christ…”

God says, “Look to Jesus and live.”  Jesus overcomes for us what we CANNOT overcome on our own.

He becomes the serpent for you and me so that he may defeat the enemy that wants to devour us – the enemy of sin and death.

Just like with Moses, it may not always be what we ask for – but in reality, it is INFINITELY better.


the disturbing reality of our mortality

My denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, posted this picture on their facebook page for Ash Wednesday:

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (facebook page)

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (facebook page)

It’s a beautiful image – yet disturbing at the same time.  In our culture, talking about death is avoided, confronting death in the face – really avoided, confronting the death of our children – avoided at all costs.  Some people might consider the above photo to be in poor taste because it features a child.

Death is ultimate equalizer – no one escapes it.  We might be wealthy enough to afford the best medical care, but in the end, no matter how much medical expertise we can buy, we eventually succumb.  With medical advances (and again money) we may be able to hold it back, but in the end it’s only delaying the inevitable.  We all die.  And with the exception of suicide, we have little control over how and when that happens.   And death is frightening.  It’s frightening because of our lack of control over it, and our lack of concrete physical knowledge of what happens next.  If we could be guaranteed heaven, our earthly death would be no big deal.  Problem is we don’t have that.   I have FAITH there is heaven.  I BELIEVE that Jesus has prepared a place for me and all the baptized.  But faith and belief are NOT the same as knowledge.  Can I prove there is an afterlife?  If we could prove heaven’s existence, no one would fear death and everyone would (not believe) but know there is God and live and die accordingly.  Alas, we cannot.  Resurrection is a matter of faith.

But here is where I find comfort in the above photo, rather than poor taste.  Here is where I find joy in the photo, rather than an affront.

The first time I imposed ashes on the forehead of one of my children I paused.  Looking them in the face, confronting their mortality, SHOOK me.  In that moment I was thinking only of the “here and now,” which, as a parent was completely natural.  I quickly had to remind myself of what I believe and rest in that.  It’s easier said than done, especially when thinking of our children.  I can’t imagine what it is like to lose a child.  I pray I never know.  I have, however, tasted just a morsel of that pain, when we suspected my middle child might have a degenerative disease that would cut her life very short (thankfully it was ruled out, but the wait for diagnosis was torture).

I can’t say I never doubt.  That would be dishonest.  But I DO have faith.  I have faith that the same cross that was traced on our forehead at baptism, the same cross that is traced on our forehead in ash, is the cross that was there for us 2,000 years ago, the cross of death that leads to life.  I have faith that death does NOT have the last word for those who cling to that cross.  The pain of death is real.  Even those who have faith grieve, and grieve profoundly.  But with our grief we dare to have hope that there is more.  And when hope is fleeting, having a community of faith surrounding us, reminding us of the promises and love of God, can carry us through another day.

So I love the photo.  I love that it jolts me out of my comfort zone.  Out of the comfort zone that tells me I’m the master of my destiny.  Out of the comfort zone that tries to have me deny the reality of my mortality.  I’m thankful to be jolted out, because out of that comfort zone I find the love of God I don’t deserve, the love of God that holds my children and all those I love more than I EVER could, the love that holds every one of us as we travel through the trials of this life, and into the eternal joy of the life to come.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs

The Holy Innocents, Martyrs, ABC, 2014 (preached December 28, 2014)

first reading:  Jeremiah 31:15-17

Psalm:  124

second reading:  1 Peter 4:12-19

gospel reading:  Matthew 2:13-18

***Note:  I was substitute preaching for a colleague at a neighboring congregation, so I was not preaching to my regular folks.  Also, the commemoration of the Holy Innocents is December 28th, and when Dec. 28th falls on a Sunday its appointed readings take precedence over the regular ones for the first Sunday of Christmas.

What a depressing day.  Right after we welcome the baby in the manger, right after we can finally sing all our favorite Christmas carols, we are confronted with the slaughter of innocent children.

This commemoration of the Church brings up all kinds of questions that are ultimately unanswerable – and way too much to deal with in one sermon.  And those questions bring up others that are equally unanswerable.  How could God allow those little children to be senselessly murdered?  How come God didn’t stop Herod?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why are innocent people sometimes punished while the guilty go free?

We can answer these questions in part, but not completely.  I have often said that I have a long list of questions I want to ask God when I get to heaven, and those are some of them.  There are parts that can be answered though, and it’s important that we talk about that.

Each of us has been given incredible freedom as human beings made in God’s likeness.  We are not puppets to be manipulated, we are God’s children, individuals with limited, but still amazing will and power.

The freedom that God gives us at birth is a wonderful thing.  It empowers us to shape our own future, and we have tremendous abilities and opportunities to help others.  There are countless examples of our human capacity to be kind, generous, and giving to one another.

But this freedom can also be abused.  We are given the freedom to do good, but along with that comes the freedom to act and make choices that may hurt or devastate others.

We may have countless examples of human kindness but we also unfortunately have countless examples of human cruelty.

It’s not lost on me that even as we remember the slaughter of all those innocent children by Herod, there are hundreds of parents in Pakistan who will never stop grieving their children who were murdered by religious extremists just a few weeks ago.

There are families torn apart by domestic violence, kids being bullied and degraded in schools, racism, sexism, classism, and all the other “isms” that just never seem to fade away.

All this violence and hatred I believe can be traced back to the sin of covetousness.  Envy.  Greed.  The desire for power over others – to want the power that someone else has.  Whether it’s power manifested through owning land, money, possessions, or influence over people – it’s intoxicating, it’s addictive, and it’s dangerous.

There’s a good reason that we have one or two commandments (depending on how you number them) that speak directly to coveting – wanting what someone else has.  And this was Herod’s problem.  Herod’s sin.  He had power and he didn’t want to give it up or share it.  He was even willing to slaughter children to keep it.

He saw Jesus as a threat, and since he didn’t know who or where Jesus was he just killed all the children in Jesus’ age bracket.  Nice guy.

And we read the quote from Jeremiah in Matthew that there was wailing and loud lamentation – Rachel weeping for her children, because they were no more.

If there is any value to be found in the death of the children, both then and now, we find it in the phrase, “she refused to be consoled/comforted.”  Rachel, a symbol of motherhood, a symbol of Israel, refused to accept the evil.  Too many times when we see evil, we are too content to let it happen, too content to let it win.  Either we think we have no power, or we’re too tired from fighting it.

But grief and anger are powerful.  The human spirit is powerful, and the Holy Spirit working within and through us is unstoppable.  It is part of our baptismal calling as workers in the kingdom in the name of the holy child, Jesus Christ, to stand against the Herods of the world, to refuse to be consoled, or lulled into complacency.

This commemoration of the Church also reminds us that life and death are intimately connected.  That joy and suffering exist side by side.  That Christmas and Good Friday are bound together.

It may not be a happy thing to remember.  It may not give us all those nice warm fuzzy feelings we like to have at Christmas.  But thankfully our faith goes beyond warm and fuzzy – our faith is down and dirty.  Our faith is REAL.

Our faith does not deny pain, it does not deny suffering, it does not deny evil.  Our faith denies none of those things – it CONFRONTS them.  It meets them head-on, and ultimately defeats them on the cross.

The cross itself was pain, suffering and evil – Jesus all wrapped up in and nailed to the ugly sin that is the worst of our human nature.  But the light shines in the darkness.

We look at the events of 2,000 years ago, and know that evil and death did not have the last word.  It won the battle but it did NOT win the war.  And the same is true in our day and age.

Pain, suffering, evil and death impact our lives regularly.  But it is GOD who ultimately triumphs – NOT pain, or suffering or evil or death.  They do NOT have the last word for us either.

They impact us, but they do not define us.  WE are defined by the God who journeys with us through the dark valleys.  WE are defined by the Savior who claims us in baptism and makes us his children forever.  WE are defined by a cross whose intention was cruelty and death, but whose final outcome was love and life.

THAT brothers and sisters – the life and love of Jesus for you and me, has the ABSOLUTE last word – both now and forever.



Everyone’s Pastor

photo(11)When I was ordained almost 20 years ago, I was ordained to serve a specific congregation.  A pastor, however, is NOT just a pastor to one particular group of people in a particular place – when one is ordained, one is also ordained as a pastor of the Church.  That’s Church with a capital “C” – the universal Church.  I serve a congregation, but I also serve the Church, which is everywhere and everyone.

This week I was contacted out of the blue by a woman who is battling leukemia, but it appears she is losing.  She doesn’t belong to a congregation.  It’s been a while since she’s been to church.  But she is baptized, was raised Lutheran, went to a Lutheran school, and feels Lutheran at her core, so she sought out a Lutheran pastor and found me.

She’s afraid.  She has questions.  She has doubts.  She wants to live, but wants to plan her funeral.  She is weak and immune compromised and cannot leave her house, so she asked if I would come and speak with her.  I don’t know her.  She is not a member of the congregation I serve.  She is not a member of ANY congregation.  What do I do?  I go and visit because as a pastor of the Church with a capital “C” I AM her pastor.

Sometimes pastors can lose sight of the fact that we’re not just called to a congregation, or a synod (or diocese) or even a national denomination – but the people – ALL the people, in our buildings and out of our buildings.  This means we get calls from funeral homes to officiate funerals for folks we don’t know, who for whatever reason want a Christian funeral even though they didn’t belong to a congregation.  It means if we’re in public wearing the “collar” we can get stopped by anyone who wants to talk about anything – complaints about religion, questions about faith, even outright confessions.  I’ve run into all of these experiences in my almost 20 years in the ordained ministry.  It is part of the profound honor of serving Christ in the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

I will be visiting with her again, because now, even though we only met this week, I am her pastor.


***Of course, all the baptized (not just pastors) are called to minister to one another.  Each one of us is called through baptism to offer support, comfort and the Word of the gospel to those we meet.  But there are times in a person’s life when they desire someone to provide counsel, spiritual guidance, the comfort of the sacraments, and the confidentiality that the office of pastor brings.

In the end

A member of my congregation entered the Church Triumphant early this week.  He was elderly, his body was failing him, he was receiving hospice care.

One of the more daunting tasks of a pastor is to journey with people through illness and death.  It’s a terrible privilege.  Terrible because of the circumstances – terrible to be surrounded with grief, sadness, anger, doubt, fear.  A privilege because you are allowed into to a sacred moment, where time almost stands still, where no one questions what is most important, because it is clear then what really matters in life.

Many people run away from scenes of death and dying as fast as their legs will carry them, and it may also be the first instinct of the pastor as well (we are human after all).  But it is our call to enter into that space and provide the presence of God (not to BE God, but to represent faith, to be a sign that God has not and will never abandon us).  Even after more than 19 years I struggle to find the words to say, though I know better.  What matters then is the ministry of presence, of just BEING with another, because there really is nothing to say to make the situation better, to make the pain go away, to truly ease the fears.

In the end these are the things that matter: loving, being loved, a smile, holding hands, a hug, making a connection to another – BEING together.  That is “wonder”ful, powerful, mysterious, and holy.  It is how God is with us through the incarnation of Jesus, and what we are called to be for one another.