Memorial Day: Apology and Dream

I am sorry. To the brave men and women who have given their lives in service of this country I call home, I am sorry.

You sacrificed for the ideals of this nation, for the ideals of freedom and liberty and justice. You gave your lives with those ideals in mind, sometimes defending the freedoms I enjoy, other times fighting to enable others to enjoy those freedoms. And I am sorry that I have not done my part.

On this Memorial Day, I am sorry that I have not been brave enough to take a stand for what America is truly supposed to be about: the truth that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I have not stood up as the rights of people in the LGBTQ community (rights endowed upon them by our mutual creator) have been threatened. I have not stood up as the rights of Muslims (rights endowed upon them by our mutual creator) have been threatened. I have not stood up as the rights of the poor, of people of color, of immigrants (rights endowed upon them by our mutual creator) have been threatened.

Dear brave, fearless fighters we remember today, I have been so distracted this past year by the ugly, cruel bigotry I see growing throughout this country. And I have been reminded that it’s nothing new. The country some of you fought for in 1776 was a country that enshrined the sin of slavery. The country some of you fought for in 1941 was a country where Jim Crow was the law, and women were expected to stay in the home, raising the children. From the very beginning of European settlement in America, the story of “freedom of religion” was the story of “freedom of religion for Puritans, but nobody else.” There has always been nastiness in America, there have always been fear and bigotry. And I am sorry that that’s all I’ve remembered lately; I’ve just given into that, and started to bitterly accept that that’s just who we are.

And while our nation does indeed have this underbelly, that’s not all that we are. And I believe it’s not at all what you fought for.

I believe you fought for something better. You fought for the America that declared independence from a “tyrant prince,” not seeking selfish gain, but seeking freedom for a whole people. You fought not for the America that has kept people of color down, but for the America that has actively fought that all along, breaking down the chains of slavery, of Jim Crow, of segregation; the America that continues to proclaim, despite any evidence to the contrary, that black lives matter too. You fought not for the America that kept women in their place, but for the America that has actively fought that all along, the tens of thousands of women who have always persisted; and those certain men who saw that the women were right, who supported them or quietly stepped aside to make room. You fought for the America that is always growing in its understanding of what liberty really means, always growing in its understanding of who is included in those who are “created equal.” Always growing, and always pushing and pulling and fighting if necessary.

I think you fought not for America as it was, or as it is, but for America as it could be. This grand experiment is one that will never be fulfilled; this shining beacon on a hill is always just around the corner, never here now. For there will always be injustice. There will always be poverty. There will always be bigotry. But America always pushes itself forward. The true hope of America is that tomorrow might be a little more just than today. Tomorrow, life might be a little better for an immigrant than today. Tomorrow, the people who are oppressed might be more free. Tomorrow, the people who enjoy power over others might be toppled. I had almost given up on that hope. I’m sorry for that. I’m sorry that I let your sacrifice be in vain in my life.

I thank you for your service, your sacrifice, your belief in the goodness of the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I will try to do better in the coming year. I will try to do my part to make this nation worthy of your sacrifice. I will try to believe in the tomorrow of America, and do what I can to make that tomorrow a better day. The Dream of America is something that we need to work for. And I think it’s worth it.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Emmaus

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning, the Third Sunday of Easter. The gospel reading was Luke 24:13-35. In last week’s sermon, I invited people to write down their fears on index cards, and get them to me. Many people did, and I incorporated some of them into today’s sermon. 

We have been all over the gospels in the Easter season, but we have seen fear at every turn. Two weeks ago, we heard Matthew’s story of the women on Easter morning, and while they had great joy, they also had fear.

Last week, we heard John’s story of the disciples on Easter evening, who were so scared that they kept the doors locked, and how Jesus came to them and offered them peace.

Today, we hear Luke’s story about two disciples on Easter day. Two sad and frightened disciples, one named Cleopas and one named…well, we don’t know. We know nothing about this second disciple. Man or woman? Old or young? Tall or short? So I’m going to take some artistic license here, and give that second disciple a name: the name you. And I’m going to tell this story again, the story of Cleopas and you walking to Emmaus.

It was a Sunday, and you and Cleopas were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all the things that had happened. It was a journey you walked in sadness, a journey you walked with fear, but a journey you walked together. Perhaps you were trying to escape your problems, put distance between you and Jerusalem. Perhaps you just needed to get some fresh air, clear your thoughts, and talk to someone. You were just so scared.

While you were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with you, but your eyes were kept from recognizing him. He said to you, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?”

You and Cleopas stood still, looking sad. Then he said, “Are you the only stranger who does not know about the things that frighten us?”

Jesus said, “What things?”

And you said:

  • Poor health
  • Growing old
  • Going blind
  • Cancer
  • Epilepsy
  • Losing my husband
  • Dying
  • Being alone

And you said:

  • World peace
  • War
  • Climate change
  • My grandkids growing up in a fearful world
  • So many people hate each other
  • Security in our community

And you said:

  • Losing my job
  • Losing my home
  • Losing family
  • Losing things
  • Our family may never be together again

And you said:

  • Darkness
  • Wolves
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Lightning storms
  • Clowns

And you said:

  • Not being good enough
  • Not taking enough risks
  • Disappointing others and myself
  • Not understanding my purpose
  • Letting my anxiety overcome me

And you said:

  • Never knowing God the way I desire
  • Stepping up or standing up for my beliefs
  • God not being real

There were so many things to be frightened of.

Then Jesus said to you, “How slow of heart you are to believe all that is declared in scripture.” And he began to interpret for you all the good news about him in scripture.

He quoted the Psalms and said:

  • The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

And he quoted Isaiah and said:

  • Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!

And he quoted Ezekiel and said:

  • And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.

And he quoted Paul and said:

  • For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

And he quoted the angels and said:

  • Do not be afraid.

And he quoted himself and said:

  • I am with you always, to the end of the age.

His words made you feel a little better. But they also added a little guilt. Why did you have so much trouble believing them? Why were you still afraid? What was wrong with you?

And then the three of you came near to the village to which you were going, and Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on. But you and Cleopas urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us.” And he did. When he was at the table with you, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to you.

Then your eyes were opened.

You recognized him.

And he vanished from your sight.

And in that moment, it all changed. You and Cleopas now saw that your hearts were warmed, burning even. Things began to make sense. The fear you felt began to wash away. Because Jesus was there. He was alive, and he had been right in front of you. You found that you were confident, you were courageous, you were excited, you were alive. You and Cleopas were no longer walking sadly. The two of you were running excitedly all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

Your fears were still there, but they didn’t hurt as much. The burning in your heart shrank those fears, moved them off to the side, gave you hope and life. Because the risen Christ was there. Just as the risen Christ appeared to Mary, and to Simon Peter, and to Thomas, and to Cleopas, he appeared to you.

Last week I asked you to share with me your fears, and I am honored that you did. They are your fears, and they are real. I know that I can’t stand up here and say, “Don’t be afraid,” and expect you to just say, “Oh thanks, Pastor, I feel much better now.” It doesn’t usually work like that. What I can do is tell you this: the risen Christ says, “Don’t be afraid.” And whatever journey you are on right now, he is walking with you. You may not be able to recognize him right now, and that’s okay. You may know in your head that he’s there, but you just can’t feel it, and that’s okay. That’s the way it often is. But he is there. And sometime, someday, at some point along your journey, your eyes will be opened. You will recognize him. On that day, your heart will burn. On that day, your fears will be burned away. That day is coming. Christ is risen, and he has promised it.

But for now, let us keep walking together. And keep discussing with one another all the things that we are scared of. Together, we will get through each day, reminding one another to trust. Reminding one another that Christ is risen. Reminding one another that he is coming.

Amen.

How Can I Keep From Singing?

This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached today, the 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time. For the next twenty weeks, my sermon themes will have to do with twenty Spiritual Gifts. Today’s gift is “Music,” and the associated scripture passage was Psalm 30.

            My life flows on in endless song;
above earth’s lamentation,
I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

 

This hymn always reminds me of Jack. Jack was an active member of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, the congregation where I was an intern. Jack was heavily involved in the Sunday School and youth programs at Good Shepherd. Jack was in his mid-50s, but he was a kid at heart, and the kids loved him. He had a beautiful voice, sang in the choir, and he served on the Worship and Music Committee. Jack basically was the Worship and Music Committee. Worship was so important to him, and perhaps the most powerful part of worship for him was music. He found the grace of God in music, the grace of God that gave him peace and hope, comfort and forgiveness. Jack was a blessing to Good Shepherd, and certainly a blessing to me in the short time I knew him.

Jack was also the first person whose death I witnessed.

            Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing.
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

Jack was already sick by the time I met him. He had bone cancer that was aggressively and excruciatingly spreading throughout his body. Yet he never gave up hope. He never felt pity for himself. I can remember sitting in the sanctuary at Good Shepherd with Jack, as he told me stories from his past. He had been through a lot. And he had done some things that gave him great regret. But in recent years, he had found forgiveness, he had found peace, he had found a new direction in his life, and he had fallen deeply in love with his second wife Jill. (Yes, it was Jack and Jill, and they loved that.)

I can remember sitting with Jack and Jill in various hospital rooms, as they cried and laughed together, knowing what was coming, but trusting that God was with them. And I can remember that Sunday in April that I went into his hospital room right after worship. I discovered that day that death isn’t like in the movies. There wasn’t a clear moment. There wasn’t a doctor there who said, “Time of death, 12:30.” There was Jack lying in the bed, and there was Jill, holding his hand. I didn’t realize at first what was happening, but by the grace of God, I just sat there and put my hand on her shoulder. We sat there for half an hour, as Jack slowly moved from life to death. I have no idea when exactly it happened. It wasn’t like that. It was like a slow, mournful song that played so quietly and so slowly. And as I looked back on those thirty minutes, the only word I can put to it is “holy.”

 

            What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth.
What though the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

When we planned Jack’s funeral, we knew that it would be in the church, and that there would be lots of music. I take pride in remembering that I chose the last hymn for the funeral, the one I’ve been singing throughout this sermon. I think it captured beautifully both Jack’s faith in God, that enabled him to continue to find joy even amid the pain and the fear of his illness, and also Jack’s love of music, one of the primary ways he experienced that faith.

Our Psalm today, Psalm 30, reflects this. “O Lord my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health. You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life even as I was going down to the grave.” “Sing to the Lord, you servants of his; give thanks for the remembrance of his holiness.” “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes with the morning.” As I said in last week’s sermon, God will not always cure our illnesses, but God will always heal us, always bring us peace and hope in the midst of anything. Jack knew that. Jack lived that. Jack died with that song on his lips. And so we sang together in the Psalm:

So let our hearts their songs employ
To thank the Lord with hymns of joy

Now, I said I would talk about the Spiritual Gift of Music today. Jack had that gift in spades. I do not. Nor do many of you. And that’s okay. It’s okay because it’s not my calling to create beautiful music. Thank God that Jack was called to that. Thank God that Robert Lowry, who wrote “My Life Flows on in Endless Song,” was called to that. Thank God that our Minister of Music and our choir are called to that. People who have the spiritual gift of music are those who are especially called to create music that glorifies God and changes lives, those who are especially called to give our hearts the words, give our hearts the notes, give our hearts the songs to sing in response to God’s love.

choir-305352

And the rest of us are just called to sing out however we can, with whatever voices we have, with whatever songs we have, in response to the God who is always, always with us. The God who saves us. The God who loves us.

            The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
a fountain ever springing!
All things are mine since I am his!
How can I keep from singing?
No storm can shake my inmost calm
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?

 

Amen.