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Can We Bear This Much Love?

footwashingMaundy Thursday Reflection on John 13:1-17, 31b-35 for a service of foot washing, Holy Communion and stripping of the altar, St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

I remember when I was in middle school and I first heard the popular saying, “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”

It was the first time I began to understand that real love was not about possession, but rather about freedom.

If there was ever a night for Jesus to give up on love as freedom and engage in a little love as possession, I think the night before he died would have been a good choice. It would have been understandable if Jesus would have put the screws down on the disciples a little harder and said,

“Look, I’m going to die tomorrow, and I need you to show up. I have given you my heart and soul, my prayers, my healing, my time, everything I’ve got. Now it’s all coming to an end tomorrow and the political and religious leaders are going to have my head. I need to know that you are with me. Peter, are you in? Matthew are you in? James and John, can I count on you? Philip and Andrew, will you be there for me? Bartholomew and Thaddeus, can I count on you? Thomas and James, and all the rest, are you in?”

But Jesus does not do it, does he? Instead he instructs them to love one another as he loves them, and he demonstrates what this love looks like as he wraps a towel around his waist and washes their feet.

The funny thing is, their feet were already clean, actually. They probably washed them before they came into the house for supper. The roads were dusty, and their sandals were open, and nobody wanted all that dirt tracked into the house, so feet were washed upon entering, much like taking off our shoes at the door. Foot washing was usually done by a servant and if there wasn’t one, the woman of the household. In addition to an act of cleanliness, it was also an act of hospitality, warmth and welcome, especially after hard work or a long journey.

Because their feet were already clean, Jesus washes their feet, not to get the dust off, but as an act of love. He gets down on his knees, taking the form of a slave or serving them a like woman—talk about bending social and gender roles! Jesus offers hospitality and love, warmth and welcome, acceptance and relationship, as their time together comes to a close, shifting social and gender roles to demonstrate that true love is a life of service, regardless of what social norms might dictate.

What is even more surprising than Jesus behaving like a slave or a woman to demonstrate true love, is that Jesus washes feet that will run away and leave him; he washes feet that will deny him; he washes feet that will betray him. Jesus knows these feet will all abandon him in some way, and he washes them anyway.

Judas allows Jesus to wash his feet, and then he leaves and goes into the night—he has turned toward evil. This is the worst betrayal of all—it wasn’t turning Jesus over to the chief priests (which we will hear at the end of our service), but the worst betrayal in John's Gospel, is abandoning the relationship with Jesus. Judas is struggling with all kinds of things—fear, turmoil, greed—and in that suffering he turns away from Jesus.

But there is Jesus, on his knees, rinsing and rubbing 24 feet, 120 toes—all feet that will flee and leave him to journey to the cross alone.

“If you love something, set it free…” Jesus loves the disciples enough to wash their dirty souls and let them go… We all have the freedom to walk away.

The disciples will walk away from the relationship, but Jesus will not. When they are ready to return to him, he will be there. It may not be until Easter morn, but Jesus will always show up.

Can we bear to receive that much love? Can we sit still and have our feet washed, knowing we have failed Jesus, and will fail him again—not because we are bad people, but because, like the disciples, we are human—and still, Jesus is going to show up and love us, and kneel at our feet, with warmth, love and welcome, and get the towel and water and say, “I love you. I am here, and will always be here—even when you walk away, I will be here when you come back.”

Can we kneel at the railing and open our hands, knowing we have walked away and may walk away again—not because we are bad people, but because, like the disciples, we are human—and still Jesus is still going to show up with joy, and love us with abandon, and feed us with forgiveness and say, “you are precious to me, and honored, and I love you.”

Jesus is not going to betray, abandon, or deny his relationship with you, no matter who you are, what you’ve done, what you’ve thought, how weak your faith is, or whether or not you deserve it.

You can always come back. No matter what, you belong to Jesus.

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Parades of Honor, Shame, and Paradise

Parades of Honor Shame and ParadiseA reflection for Palm/Passion Sunday after the congregational reading of the passion story in Luke 22:14-23:56 on April 14, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Our story today began with a parade of Jesus’ triumph. His followers who travelled with him from Bethany and Galilee, witnesses and recipients of his healing, hailed him as their king and Lord. A triumphal entry into the city is the greatest tribute accorded anyone in a culture where honor and shame, even more than money, were the greatest personal currency.

It did not take long, however, for those accolades to threaten the powers that be, who wanted such tributes sung about them, rather than some upstart rabbi from the backwaters of Galilee. If that continued, what would happen to the religious leaders? To their authority? To their power?

The religious and political leaders were afraid of losing—losing honor and power, so much so, they kicked it into high hear to get rid of Jesus. They set out to re-balance the honor-shame scale by shaming Jesus in the most extreme way. If the greatest honor is triumphal parade, the greatest shame is the criminal’s procession, carrying his own cross to his death. Two kinds of parades—one giving the greatest honor, one filled with most shame.

When the triumphal parade with palms and honor on Sunday turned into the parade of cross-carrying shame on Friday, the reversal was so successful that even those who loved and followed Jesus were affected by it. Like the leaders, they all became afraid of losing something as the story played out.

Judas was afraid of not having enough money. Peter was afraid of losing his life—of being treated the way Jesus was. James and John, the sons of thunder were probably tired of losing face—of being mocked and ridiculed—and angry at Jesus for not fighting back. They believed when push came to shove (literally) that Jesus would let them use their swords, but he did not. Other disciples feared loneliness—what were they going to do without Jesus, without this community of friends traveling and working together? 

Still others, like Matthew—a hated tax collector, were losing a sense of purpose and worth which they had with Jesus for the first time in their life, and it was all falling apart. Who was he going to be now? Others were losing the most important relationship they ever had—they were broken-hearted with grief. How could they bear to watch someone they loved die? So, they scattered—shame worked—they betrayed, denied and abandoned Jesus.

It seemed like hope was losing and those in power were succeeding in setting the honor/shame scales back in their favor, but in reality, Jesus had his own parade going on. Jesus used their schemes to enact God’s plan of salvation and we see this at every stop in the story.

In his procession to the cross—Jesus saw the women weeping and he stopped to acknowledge them, and speak to them—to their pain, their loss, their fear of losing him, their agony.

In that moment, it is as if time stood still. Jesus acknowledged all human pain—all of the weeping, betrayal, denial, abandonment, loss, fear, and failure, including our own—as if to say, “This is not as it appears! You are not losing, and all is not lost! This is not the end, shame is not the story, and pain is not final! Watch for the the real parade, the parade to paradise!”

Then from the cross, Jesus does not accept the shame, mocking, and ridicule others try to put on him. Instead he sees their shame, their brokenness, their sin, in all of its ugly cruelty, and—with words not of shame and judgement, but rather of love, abundance, and peace, he prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Those with the eyes to see can behold the real parade he’s leading to paradise.

Then the scene shifts to the criminals hanging with Jesus and they both articulate part of what we all want. The first one asks to be saved by being spared suffering—have we not all asked God for that? But that’s not how God saves—God enters into the fullness of human life rather than rescuing us from it. So, the second criminal says, “remember me when you come into your kingdom—be with me, save me, forgive me and bring me into your heart, Jesus.” And Jesus does: “today you will be with me in paradise.” The real parade is marching forward.

Those in power thought they were winning the battle as they exchanged a parade of honor for one of shame and death, when in reality, the God of the cosmos, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, hung above the theater of this human drama, and in Jesus Christ, offered abundant love and wholeness and new life for all.

Jesus is leading a parade to paradise—that’s the only parade that matters—and we are blessed to be counted in that number!

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Offering Our Extravagant Love to Jesus

Our Extravagant Love for JesusA sermon preached for the 5th Sunday in Lent on John 12:1-8 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas. We also dedicated 65 quilts, 65 personal care kits, and 62 baby care kits for Lutheran World Relief made by the women's group and ended the service with a blessing of the new Great Achievers Preschool in our education wing.

My husband’s best friend, Phil, is also a pastor. Several years ago, Phil’s mom was dying, and she was receiving hospice care at home. Phil and his mom had a very challenging relationship—there’s no need to go into detail, but she had problems and just was not the best mom. She could not show up for Phil in the way that most moms could and would.

It was a Friday afternoon and Phil left his work at church to drive home to see how she was doing, arriving about 4:30 in the afternoon. The hospice nurse left at 5 and wouldn’t be back until morning. As happens when one is in the dying process, Phil’s mom soiled herself and the bed. Phil called hospice and asked if they could come back and help him, but they said that unless his mom needed medication, they could not return until the next day. His brother was working; his dad had died. Phil was on his own.

Phil returned to his Mom’s bedside and said, “Well, Mom, it’s just you and me. I guess you wiped my behind 100 times before, and now it’s my turn to wipe yours.” They looked each other in the eye and burst out laughing. And then he cleaned her up.

She died two days later. Phil shared that it was such a healing moment—it stripped everything else away and brought them down to their bare humanity, to forgiveness, and the chance to die receiving deep love.

Mary offers this kind of deep love to Jesus before he faces his own death. Mary pours expensive spikenard on Jesus’s feet and wipes them with her hair—a sign of anointing. Such anointing is an act done only for the coronation of a king, or for someone being prepared for burial.

Jesus of course, is both. He is the king of the Jews, through whom he has come to save all nations, the true Messiah who will begin his reign, not with a display of mighty power to overthrow the Roman oppressor, but rather, by taking on the worst of human violence, and entering death to show us that not even the most evil aspects of our brokenness can separate us from God, nor stop God from loving us.

But before Jesus can endure that kind of deep suffering, before he can enter Jerusalem and be that kind of king who dies to bring life, he needs to be deeply loved. Mary offered him a healing moment of extravagant love that stripped everything else away, and recognized Jesus’s bare humanity in what he had to endure, offering him the chance not just to love others, but to die receiving deep love.

Can you imagine that as he hung dying on the cross, the musky smell of the rich spikenard oil still wafting up into his nostrils, a physical message of deep love in the midst of devastating suffering; a visceral reminder that someone understood, that one disciple gave herself extravagantly to him, that his humanity was embraced, that he was not alone?

That is Mary’s gift to Jesus and to us. Of course, we are on the receiving end of God’s love in Jesus—always, every day, every breath, every flower, each new sunrise, every meal, every kind word, each person who loves us, every morsel of Communion, every loyal pet, each choir anthem and transcendent piece of music, every mistake forgiven—God in Jesus Christ is dying to shower us with love. But Mary shows us that Jesus also needs us and wants us to extravagantly love him back, giving him our best, our all, despite what others might think.

Mary ignores Judas, and Jesus receives her love, helping him prepare for his suffering and death in the days ahead, and sustaining him when he most needs it. Her love enables him to love his disciples even knowing they would betray, deny, and abandon him. Just as she wiped his feet, a few days later, Jesus washed and wiped the disciple’s feet in a similar act of extravagant love, asking them to love others as he has loved them, as Mary has loved him.

Have you ever looked at Mary’s action and wondered what Jesus needs from you? What kind of extravagant love? What service? What devotion does he need from you to do the kingdom work ahead? Mary shows us that your love for Jesus matters, your devotion, your willingness to give and serve, your willingness to seek out and offer what is needed matters to Christ the King—who chooses to work through relationships, through human beings, through Mary, through Phil, through you.

Jesus needed Phil’s extravagant love so his mom could experience forgiveness before she died—not because she deserved it, because none of us do. Phil has received God’s love, and he loved Jesus enough to offer extravagant love to his mom in that moment of uncomfortable need. And the clean, musky smell of forgiveness could waft up into her nostrils in death.

The women of this church stitched, purchased, sewed, and created all these personal care kits, and baby kits, and quilts because Jesus already loves you, and these are signs of your extravagant devotion, service, and love for Jesus in return. Jesus will use them to bless people you will never meet—people in refugee camps and recovering from natural disasters here and around the world. Stripped of everything, our common humanity is recognized in the need for basic supplies. A family will receive a homemade quilt, a hand-stitched baby onesie or crocheted sweater and they will know—they will know that someone loves Jesus extravagantly enough to anoint them with the rich, musky smell of fresh blessings during suffering.

Today we are going to bless Great Achievers Preschool, another way for us to extend the extravagant love of God, by building relationships with the families in our community, anointing children with extravagant love, teaching and loving children who are not our own. And oh, the wiping that needs to be done! Smelly bottoms and runny noses, dirty hands and sticky mouths, sweaty foreheads and teary cheeks, all the while trying to keep up with fast feet, quick minds, and pure hearts. Children help strip us bare—reminding us what is essential in our common humanity. It takes deep love to open a preschool; it takes extravagant patience to teach toddlers; it takes expansive hearts to welcome families with noisy, little ones, but I know you love Jesus extravagantly enough to scoop them up with your whole heart and embrace them with the musky smell of your devotion to the kingdom work at hand.

And the poor. What are we going to do about the poor? Some think this passage gets us off the hook—they will always be here, so apathy and inaction in the face of poverty is okay. But I know you don’t really think that is what Jesus meant! Such bad interpretation sounds just like Judas—only to serve our own ends. The indicative verb for “you will always have” is the same verb form as an imperative. So instead of a description of the state of being (that the poor are always with us), Jesus is more likely to be giving a command, as in, "Keep the poor among you always." Jesus is saying, “I am going away—I am not going to be here much longer, so continue my mission: keep the poor among you always and tend to their needs.”

So, what does Jesus need from you? What extravagant love? What service? What devotion does he need from you to do the kingdom work ahead? Jesus says, “Love me abundantly by taking care of the poor, the children, and those in need. Bring them justice, and make their life better; love them as I have loved you. Help the undeserving. Forgive the unforgiveable. Give me your best, your all, your everything, so that those who suffer might experience the musky, rich fragrance of the God who comes to them through a people who love their Lord with extravagant devotion.”

 Image: I Cried for You by Nik Helbig

 

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God's Fierce and Tender Love Calls Us to Fierce and Tender Ministry

Gods Fierce and Tender Love Calls Us to Fierce and Tender MinistryA sermon preached for the Second Sunday in Lent on Luke 13:31-35 on March 17, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

Paula D’Arcy is a Christian author and inspirational speaker. At age twety-seven, she was pregnant with her second daughter when a drunk driver struck and killed her husband and her first daughter who was two years old. She tells the story of being in the hospital 6 months after this terrible tragedy, to give birth, and praying to God to please give her a natural birth, so she could experience life after so much death.

Although she wanted to trust God as the foundation of her life, in that moment, she wanted God to prove himself by granting this one desire. In her grief, she had struggled in her relationship with God and wanted to feel loved and less alone. After several hours of labor, it looked like her desire for a natural birth was not going to happen, and she was minutes from having a C-section. She prayed, “What do you want from me, God? You already have everything-you have my husband, you have my daughter—what more do you want?”

Paula heard in her own heart God’s response. God said to her, I want you to want me more than you want anything else. I want to transform your pain. I want you to give your whole self to me. Paula looked down at her hands and realized that she had been holding on to life as she wanted it, and the grip of her desires had closed her off from God doing what she most needed, which was to transform her pain into new life.

She released her hands and opened her whole self to God; a moment that became a turning point in her spiritual journey. Both the fierce and the tender love of God enveloped all of her—even her angry, bargaining, scorekeeping, fearful, distraught, birth-giving, complex, grieving self. God’s fierce and tender love embraced all of her.

In our Gospel reading, we hear Jesus embody both the fierce and the tender love of God. The pharisees tell him that Herod has threatened his life and Jesus responds with a fierceness that might have sounded as startling to them as it does to us. “you tell that fox, Herod, that I’m going to finish what I came to do—I am healing and casting out demons and no matter who you are, what you say, or what you do, I am going to complete my work. I am going to be on my way, but it’s not because of you or your idle threats, it’s because my purpose will take me to Jerusalem.” Jesus expresses a clarity of purpose and mission, and no obstacle—not even death threats, nor death itself—is going to deter him.

Yet in the next sentence, we hear one of the most tender, loving and maternal passages in all of Scripture, expressing Jesus’s weeping lament of broken-hearted love over those who will not turn toward him in trust to hide and rest under God’s protection and love. Jesus’s love is so tender, so healing, so mothering, and so all-encompassing—an image of gathering and protecting, covering and hovering, calling and making sure no one is missing. It conveys warmth and safety, home and comfort, peace and rest, homecooked food and a warm fire, fluffy blankets and a hug that lasts as long as you hang on. It’s gentle and welcoming and expects nothing except that you show up and snuggle under grace.

Isn’t that why God sent Jesus in the first place—to show us that God’s love for us is both so fierce about defeating evil and in that, asking for our full devotion, and also, so tender in desiring an intimate relationship with us?

Inserted in your bulletin is a copy of the cross I’m wearing today, so you can see it in detail. I received it from a Catholic priest when I was working through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. You can see an image of God, the Creator behind Jesus who is hanging on the cross (it’s an image of God as a man with a beard, but we know that God is not a male; Jesus just gave us in image of God as mother!).

If you look at the arm on the right—you can see that God is holding Jesus’s wrist—as if to hold him there, on the cross. This is the fierce love of God who is helping Jesus complete the work he has begun to defeat the power of death, release the power of violence, and overcome evil with love. God says, “I’m holding you to this, Jesus, you must finish this work, you must stand against evil, you must give all of yourself, I need you to do this, as painful as it is.”

I wonder how have you experienced freedom because the victory was won for you here, as Jesus was held on the cross? When you have experienced the fierce love of God fighting evil and conquering struggles, sin, addiction or loss on your behalf? Or perhaps you too, have experienced the fierce love of God holding you to account, to integrity, to the fulfillment of hard work? That also is a part of following Jesus.

If you look at the arm on the left, you can see that God’s hand is holding Jesus’ hand—holding him in his pain and suffering—being present with him—never leaving him—hiding him under the cover his wings. This is the tender love of God—holding Jesus in love as he suffers and hurts in completing the work he must do, so that he is never alone, abandoned nor betrayed. God says, “we are in this together, and I will never leave you nor forsake you, I am with you, and you are not alone.”

I wonder when have you experienced the tender love of God? The freeing release of forgiveness? Love renewed, relationships healed? A new start offered, a dark night of the soul survived, a trauma endured, an illness abated, a companion in the slow slog of grief? When have you experienced the tender love of God, a chance to snuggle into grace?

Throughout his ministry and on the cross, Jesus shows us a fierce and tender God—a God so fierce, there is no negotiation with Herod, there is no compromise with evil, and even when life is at its most painful, there is no bargaining for half your heart, like in the story of Paula D’Arcy. God is all in with us—in creation, in Christ, in his death and in his resurrection, and God’s fierce and tender love requires that those of us who choose a relationship with this God, must be “all in” as well.

Do you see what fierce and tender love God has for you? God will fight all manner of evil for you, and hold you in all suffering, and in that, God says, “give me your all.” I want you to want me more than you want anything else. I want to transform your pain. I want you to give your whole self to me.

That’s the voice of a fierce and tender God who saves us all through his own self-giving suffering on a cross, and who settles for nothing less than our whole heart.

When like Paula, we can open our hands and let go of the grip of our desires and give our whole selves to God—we can allow God to both hold us in place, where God wants us to serve on one hand, and hold us snuggled into grace and comfort on the other hand.

Joined to Christ through the cross, we are freed—freed to be fully who God calls us to be as God’s precious children. Joined to Christ through the cross, we are freed to participate in God’s fierce and tender work in the world. There is much to be done--both fierce work against evil and tender work with those who are suffering.

As followers of Jesus, God calls us to fight against the evil of this age with the fierce love of God that speaks against the Herods of this world that deal death for the sake of their own power. As a 96% white church, Lutherans must name and stand against the sin and evil of white supremacy and the hatred and murder it engenders, this week, especially against those in Muslim faith. It’s not enough to put a message on the sign outside, but each of us, can build relationships with people of different faiths and cultures in our own neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and if you don’t have that opportunity, then join the Richardson Interfaith Alliance and the many multi-faith events in our area. It is not enough not to come to church or sit in our living room and not hate other people. We trust in a God of relationship who calls us to be in the world building relationships with those of other faiths and cultures, showing up as a different kind of white Christian who fiercely love others.

After the announcement of the United Methodist Church at the beginning of this month, that LGBTQ people are not welcomed into the full life of the church, ordination and marriage, there are so many people who are hurting, feel unsafe, rejected again by church, by God, by Christians. Our LGBTQ sisters and brothers need the tender love of God expressed through Christians and other churches, giving them a chance to snuggle into grace; they need an explicit, public welcome to know if its safe to come to church, and an unequivocal message that they are created and precious children of God in the same way that all of us are, no exceptions. People I know and love are hurting. God wants to say to them, I want you to want me more than you want anything else. I want to transform your pain. I want you to give your whole self to me.

But how are they going to hear that message when they have been rejected over and over and over again, if we don’t tell them? If we don't let them know explicitly and publicly that we are here so they can hear God tell them this?

St. Luke’s, we need the same clarity of mission that Jesus had when he was told Herod was going to kill him; that it doesn’t matter what others do, think or say, we have a mission to do fulfill and we are going to do it no matter what. What difference does it make to Richardson that a Lutheran church is on this corner of Belt Line Road? Our mission is both fierce and tender—it is Law and Gospel—we need a fierce public stand for justice, to confront evil, defend the powerless, welcome the LGBTQ community, and live as an inclusive witness to the kingdom of God. And our mission is also one of tenderness—to hold people in their pain, to offer a place for people to snuggle into the grace of God in a loving community, to pray for others, seek healing, growth and deeper faith together, so that people know that they are not alone.

A fierce and tender ministry of the Gospel is possible when we open our hands and are "all in" with our whole heart—God holds us in this time and place for this fierce ministry and gives us the comfort of his presence and power so we can carry it out with tender love. I’m in—say, “amen” if you are, too.

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