Sunday, April 5, 2020
Palm Sunday / Sunday of the Passion
The Word for This Day
FIRST READING - ISAIAH 50:4-9a
4The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
5The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
6I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
7The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
9aIt is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
SECOND READING - PHILIPPIANS 2:5-11
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
GOSPEL - MATTHEW 26:14 - 27:66
Today's Gospel is the entire story of Jesus' suffering and death as told by Matthew. You are invited to read it from your Bible and reflect upon it. Today's sermon (below) is a brief introduction to guide your reading and reflection.
"Introduction to the Passion According to Matthew"
We are about to hear a painful story. That is what a “Passion” is. Passio is Latin for “suffer.” And there is plenty of suffering in this story. Matthew describes a grizzly execution. There is raw and naked anger—a crowd gone frantic. There is torture and cruelty. There are two betrayals and a suicide and a great unmasking of pretension. By the end of the story is seems everyone has been undone—Jesus, the disciples, the leaders, the crowd, Judas, and Peter.
In a time of pandemic, why should we put ourselves through such a horrendous tale? One answer is simple and honest: “It happened.” And if it happened it could happen again. It could happen to you or me. And so we have an obligation to remember. As Matthew tells the story, however, he gives it a twist—uses a phrase he loves to use throughout his gospel: “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet....” This story of pain is not an accident or mistake. It was plotted beforehand, and the author of this tale is no one less than God.
In this story there is one character who stays in control. It is the one for whom the story seems most certainly to go spinning of control. It is Jesus. He sets a course for Jerusalem and the hill called The Skull and he will not be swerved from it. Even more, he has determined that he will not travel this path alone. He brings everyone else in the story with him. It’s not a trick or a deception. He told them from the beginning this is how it would have to be: “If you would follow, take up your cross.”
None of the other characters end up on crosses with Jesus, but one way or another, everyone in this story dies. They cease to be what they had been. The crowd that once cheered Jesus now calls for his death; they offer their own children as a sacrifice to their rage. Judas thinks he will make the world better but discovers he’s made a terrible mistake. Peter must confront the reality that he is not the hot-shot disciple he pretends to be. A Roman governor executes a man he knows is innocent. Religious authorities become transfixed in their jealousy and orthodox convictions and it leads them to murder. Interestingly, only the women fare well in this story. Pilate’s wife tries to call her husband back from disaster. The women from Galilee will watch the proceedings while the men run away. The women fare well because in Matthew’s world they are “the little ones”—the ideal disciples of whom Jesus has been speaking throughout the story. Relegated to second-class citizenship in a patriarchal society, these women are closest to the kingdom of which Jesus has been speaking. They understand what it means to empty oneself for the sake of others.
And if Jesus walks this path and brings his disciples with him, it is only so that they can be undone, too—so that they can also be raised from the dead like him and assume his new life in the world. This most certainly is risky business. Jesus says so and he shows it. Everyone loses their lives. Some like Judas never come back. Other like Peter and the disciples will need to die to what they were. But the story does not end here—today. There is an open tomb and a resurrection. Jesus is going there, and he wants us to follow.
Let us hear the Passion of Our Lord According to Saint Matthew....
Sermon by Pastor Ron Roschke
Recorded service of March 29, 2020
Sermons from St. Stephen's Lutheran Church
Sunday, March 29, 2020
The Fifth Sunday in Lent (Cycle A)
The Word for This Day
FIRST READING - EZEKIEL 37:1-14
1The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” 4Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
7So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
11Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
SECOND READING - ROMANS 8:6-11
6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
GOSPEL - JOHN 11:1-45
1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
"Invited to the Cross"
Today’s readings to me are like a gut punch! They just hit too close to home. They speak in graphic terms about death. Yes, these actually are the readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, but they could just as easily be assigned to a day called Commemoration in a Time of Pandemic. It just gets too intense for me when Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Ouch! This is one of those places where I find the King James Version a little more comfortable. In that translation, Marth says, “Lord, he stinketh.” At least I can get a chuckle out of that.
But isn’t that exactly the way we usually deal with death? We use euphemisms and coded language. “He passed on” or “He departed.” Well, OK. But what we really mean is, “He’s dead.” COVID-19 is forcing all of us to look squarely at the reality we most often try to hide. Our current restriction about staying six feet from each other and our fear that there may be too few ventilators are real, but what motivates our concern right now is that without an adequate supply of ventilators people are going to die. I think the Word for today here in 2020 asks us to think about how we deal with death. Here’s the strange reality: there is nothing so mysterious about death, is there? Death is universal! There are only two realities that every human shares with every other human on this planet—we are born and we die. Apart from this, humanity is a crazy quilt of diversity. People are rich or poor, female or male, straight or gay, sad or happy, lucky or tragic, conservative or liberal, dumb or smart, and every conceivable combination in between. Only in this are we united—we were born, and we will die. So why should death—if it is so universal—make us squirm so? What does that mean?
We find it difficult—perhaps impossible—to imagine there will come a day when “we are not.” And so, we choose to pretend it is not so, that it will never be so. We begin this elaborate charade that we will live forever—that life will simply go on and on. Death is something that happens to other people—but not to me. And in the denial of death something tragically important happens—we no longer live in the truth. Life becomes a lie. Paul has a name for this lie. It is called, in Greek, sarx—“flesh.” It is life built upon our lies, and in that lie something amazing takes place: death invades life. Our unspoken fear of death begins to shape the way we go about living. At its heart, this fleshly existence is actually a rebellion against our very created nature. We want to live forever; we want to be like God. We reject our creaturehood. We want to live without limits, without end.
Living this lie is a double tragedy. First of all, it alienates us from the truth of our existence. But even more seriously, this is a lie that cannot be sustained; it is a doomed project from the beginning. Actually, living the lie becomes a death worse than death itself. It is a death worse than death because it alienates life from the truth that makes life so precious; it perverts the gift of finite life that has been given to us. We ought to know that each of us has only so much time. And if that is so, living should mean valuing and cherishing each moment we have. But instead, we end up playing games based on the lie that we think we’ll live forever. We spend our days worrying about the future and so we waste the present. We live in the guilt of our past failures and thus become lousy stewards of this current moment. We pretend we have forever and so we ignore the Holy Now—which is the only territory in which we can live in the first place! It is this thick interlocking web of lies that Paul calls “flesh.” We “set our minds upon it,” we participate in it and help to create it, and so we choose to live in league with death.
But death is real, and every so often it’s able to break through our illusions and dreams and confront us with its stark, finite reality. “Lazarus is not asleep. He’s dead.” The illusions of our lie-shaped worlds are suddenly laid bare with all the detail of a 3D IMAX apocalyptic vision. The landscape is spread before us like a valley filled with very dry bones—the remains of an entire army laid out dead long, long ago. It is from this stunning, starkly real scene that the Word for this day addresses us. It cuts through all our defenses and all our lies with surgical precision and confronts us with the only question that in the end really matters: “Mortal, can these bones live?” Is there any hope in a world shaped by death?
There are tough preaching assignments that preachers sometimes encounter, and even a couple of them have come my way. There have been times when I have been asked to preach good news at an occasion of immense sadness or overwhelming tragedy. And I have faced one or two really tough crowds that refused to recognize my credentials or acknowledge my right to speak the Word of God to them. But never in all my life or career have I ever faced a preaching assignment like the one God gives to Ezekiel in his nightmare. “Mortal, prophesy to these bones.” I mean—talk about a tough crowd!
But you know what? This really is a picture of the greatest issue that faces us every day of our lives—with or without a pandemic. “Can these bones live?” Week after week we find ourselves playing the game of lies, living in our illusions, in league with death. We are enmeshed in this rebellion called “sin”—struggling against the God who seems to ask the impossible of us—this God who asks us to use faith to lay aside our fleshly existence and our own entanglement in a world that would rather live the lie than dare the truth. God shows us we live in a world that will go to its death to defend an illusion rather than to do the crazy thing and take the leap that will trust God and hold God to the promise. “Mortal, can these bones live?” All eternity pivots on the answer. But even more important, so does this present moment, balanced on this one sharp point—the only moment given to us in which we can live—Now! Is there any reason to smile, any reason to hope?
In your dreams, sometimes, you can do the thing you could never do when you’re awake. You say to yourself, “It’s crazy! It’s crazy! I can’t jump off a building and survive!” but in your dream you do it and—Oh, my!—you fly! In his dream, Ezekiel does the crazy thing: he starts to talk to a valley filled with bones and—can you believe it?!?—they move! They reconnect themselves! They are raised from the dead! It happens, too, in the Gospel, when Jesus speaks to a corpse—“Lazarus, come out!”—and the stone on the tomb begins to scrape its way open.
How can such things happen? They happen because these events are connected to the God who raises the dead. It happens because in the beginning God was able to call everything-that-is out of what-is-not. But that act of creation is not merely a “once upon a time” or an “in the beginning.” This is the very nature, the quality of the God who calls all things into being and holds existence in powerful, divine hands. And to prove the point, God has crawled into our human flesh and dies on a cross and gets carried into a tomb and raised from the dead. We are on the edge of the week that explores that mystery—and this year particularly it will be electric!
When bones begin to rattle in the valleys of our despair—when the stone lid begins to scrape against the sarcophagus—it is a moment not of uninhibited joy but rather it is a moment of terror—terror, however, that is radically different from the scary effects of a grade B horror flick. This is a terror that is a kind of dizzy vertigo—a terror of realizing suddenly that I have been living all my life in a coffin of my own making, nailed shut from the inside, but now God has pried off the lid and above my head there is a star-strewn sky—infinity. And, oh my God—what now?—what will I do?
What will we do if God raises the dead? How then will we live—here? now? Even in this pandemic? This is life given to our mortal bodies that are subject to death. It is unbinding and liberation. It is truth defined by the surprise of resurrecting grace. What if God raises the dead? What if the valley of bones can become an army of the faithful? What if Lazarus can walk out of a grave? What if our lives, every single day, can be organized entirely around God's creative power rather than our fear of death? What will you do? What if there is no such thing as a hopeless situation? What then?...
In the name of Jesus.
Sermon by Pastor Ron Roschke
Sermons from St. Stephen's Lutheran Church
Northglenn, Colorado, Sunday, March 22, 2020
The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Cycle A)
The Word for This Day
FIRST READING - 1 SAMUEL16:1-13
1The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
6When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
SECOND READING - EPHESIANS 5:8-14
8Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light—9for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
GOSPEL - JOHN 9:1-41
1As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
"Five Vision Tests"
Today’s readings all have to do with sight. They’re almost like a kind of spiritual eye exam. What do you see? How do you see? In today’s Gospel we hear this wonderfully told story about a man who receives his sight for the first time in his life by being healed by Jesus. Part of the joy of this story is to watch this man see more and more clearly. Sight creates insight. And we understand the increasing clarity of his vision as we hear him speak about the identity of the one who healed him. In other words, his visual perception is linked to witness. We encountered the same reality last week with the woman at the well; she did not enter fully into the truth until she went public and began to tell others about her experience.
In today’s First Reading, the prophet Samuel has gone to look for a new king for Israel. Would you know a king if you saw one? Perhaps. But maybe not—at least you might not see the king whom God has chosen, for we are told in this wonderful story, “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” What we really need to see might be more than what is visible from surface appearances. We need to learn how to look beneath the surface in order to see into the heart of things!
The Second Reading also offers help. There we hear these strange and mysterious words: “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.” Please notice that it does not say that once we lived in darkness but now we live in the light. No, it says we are light—we have become light! Does this seem similar to last Sunday’s Gospel? Last week Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman at the well. He assured her that the Spirit could “bubble up” within her and become a stream of living water that flows from her into the lives of everyone else around her. Now, in this week’s Second Reading, Paul says “in the Lord you are light.” Jesus said the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount several weeks ago. Remember? “You’re the light of the world.” We are meant to be living water and God’s light. God gifts us not just so that we can be gifted, but so that those around us are refreshed with water and illuminated with light.
Right now we are trying to practice “social distancing.” But it may be true that there was never a time in our lifetimes when water and light were more needed, not only for ourselves but for those around us. Social distancing does not cut you off entirely from those who need water and light! Do you have a telephone? Or email? Now is the time to offer your support to those around you. My husband Dan and I are spending a half-hour each weekday with two of our grandchildren to help them with projects and schoolwork that will give their parents some time to try to hold down their jobs working from home. Our grandkids live more than a thousand miles away but we can still care for them! I’m sure there is a neighbor or a friend here at St. Stephen’s that could use a call from you. Water can bubble and light can shine even when we cannot give hugs or shake hands.
I think, most of all, the Word for this day wants us to see with new eyes—just like what happened with the man in today’s Gospel. We need to see ourselves differently. We need to join Samuel in seeing things as God sees. And in order to do that, I would like to give you five “vision tests.”
Is it a pair of faces or is it a vase? It is both, but it is impossible to see both simultaneously. The images snap back and forth in our brain, and we cannot hold both of them together at the same time: saint and sinner, law and gospel, divine and human. They seem mutually exclusive to us but not to God. Something similar happens to us as we look at people who seem different from us. Very often, the way we look at other people is determined by our own attitudes. We may not be able to see people clearly because all we ever see, really, is the “vase” that separates me from my neighbor. When it comes to seeing clearly, I suspect God can see the faces and the vase simultaneously. Sometimes we simply have to trust God to tell us what-is when we cannot see it for ourselves. And God tells us that, no matter what we think of ourselves or of those around us, we all are beloved sons and daughters in God’s family. Maybe, in truth, God is the vase between us all.
The glass of water—is it half full or half empty? Of course it’s both at the same time, but how you define it makes all the difference in the world. Sometimes how we define what we are seeing actually determines what we see! Here are some important questions for you: Would you know a miracle if you saw it? The Pharisees in today’s Gospel had trouble seeing one, even though the evidence was standing right in front of them. Could that happen to us, too?
Would you know happiness if it was staring you in the face? How often do we define happiness in terms of some dream we have of the future, some imaginary vision of how our lives ought to be once the glass is totally full rather than seeing the wonder of life and love that surround us here and now? How much will it take to make you happy? And why can’t you be happy now with what you have—here, today? Should you try looking at what-is in a new way?
What do you see in the cross of Jesus? Maybe more than anything else, Jesus’ death on the cross is God trying to shock us—educate us—into seeing everything a new way. Jesus’ cross is the picture of a God-forsaken loser, a man executed by being tortured to death. But if we allow the scene to be interpreted by his last meal the night before his death—that this is his body broken for us, his blood poured out for us—this gruesome horror becomes a divine love song. Could you let this light shining in the darkness help you to see the difficulties in your own life a new way? And if you saw those difficulties a new way, don’t you think perhaps you might have a good story to tell others?
This is the vision test for Easter. What if you came to a tomb and you saw...nothing? Could you look at emptiness and think you were seeing God’s new day? Could you look at nothing and become convinced that everything had changed?
Finally, Test #5:
Yes, it’s the coronavirus. Four months ago I could not have recognized this at all! Now it is an image all too familiar. But here is the question I would like you to think about this week: How are we going to look at what happens to us here and now? The other four vision tests—and the readings for this day—invite us to see with new eyes. Like the test with the face and the vase, is it possible to look at Covid-19 not only as a deadly tragedy happening to us, but also as a way to affirm deep truths like these:
- The present moment is a precious gift we should not waste.
- We can express our love for those around us here and now.
- We can see ourselves as living water and God’s light for others.
- We can take better care of ourselves and each other—not just during the crisis but after all as well again.
If we see with new eyes, we may discover that our glass-half-empty is also the glass-half-full.
We need to also remember what the cross of Jesus reminds us: that God is never distant from us, especially in those places in our journey that seem God forsaken. If things become difficult, we need to remember that God knows from the inside-out what we are going through. We also need to remember what the open tomb of Jesus tells us. First, that God raises the dead—not only at the end of life but here in the middle, over and over. When we come to the place of emptiness, it is a sign that God does extraordinary things to give us hope.
You see, Lent is an exercise in learning to look at everything through the eyes of God—training our vision in God’s ways of grace and truth. The disciplines of Lent are lessons in seeing. Fasting helps us to get rid of the clutter and visual noise so that we can focus on what is really important. Prayer invites us to see ourselves and others in the light of the God who can save us and raise us from the dead—learning to see the world with hope. Acts of kindness propel us out of ourselves and take us to our neighbor so that in our witness they too can see the love of God. And always, through everything, shines the light of God in the face of Jesus, the one who invites us into the light, to be light—the one who gives us sight. So open your eyes and take a look, in the name of Jesus.
Sermon by Pastor Ron Roschke