Monday, July 30, 2012

July 15, 2012 sermon--"Death, Thou Shalt Die."

Resurrection—“Death, Thou Shalt Die.”
July 14-15, 2012

Today, in our continuing series on faith questions you were afraid to ask but your kids weren’t, we come to the question of resurrection. Two of the questions that our confirmation students asked in the spring were: “Why did Jesus rise when he died for us?” and “Why was the symbol of God a cross?”  These questions inevitably lead us to deeper questions like, “What exactly are we talking about when we speak of resurrection?” or “Is resurrection the same as coming back to life?”

The last question is the easiest to answer, and gives us a good starting point to work from as well. No. Resurrection is not the same as coming back to life. Turn with me to the Gospel According to John, Chapter 11. It’s the story of the raising of Lazarus. You know the story—Lazarus has been dead for four days, Jesus comes to the tomb and tells him to come out, and he does. What Lazarus experiences is a coming back to life, but it is not a resurrection. His body is still the same, temporal body created from the same stuff as the dust of the earth, and to dust it will once again return. Lazarus is going to die again eventually. The life he receives is not new life, but a continuation of his old life. It is a wonderful gift that he and his loved ones were given, but this is not resurrection as we understand it, or as Jesus experienced it.

So then, if we know what resurrection is not, then what exactly is it?  This is where we turn to our Scripture reading from 1 Corinthians. In a sense, the hope of resurrection is at the center of this entire letter that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, but it’s here in Chapter 15 where the rubber really hits the road. It sounds as though there were some folks who were denying that there would be any future resurrection, and what Paul does is he both reaches back to the very beginning, to the first 3 chapters of Genesis, while at the same time looking ahead to the end of time, and pulls it all together in his answer to them. Turn to page 935 in the pew Bible, to the very beginning of Chapter 15. This is where Paul begins to lay out his argument. Verses 3 -5 remind the church of what they’ve already been taught, those things that Paul had received from others and had passed on to them: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve.” 

For Paul, it’s of utmost importance that the church understand that Jesus himself was resurrected, and then what that means for us.  Skip to verses 12-19. Paul writes, “12Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. 19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Those are strong words, and they’re strong for a reason. And this is why Easter is more important than Good Friday. If all the cross was about was Jesus being sacrificed to pay off a sin-debt to God, then Easter is just an afterthought, a way to make sure that God doesn’t stay dead. But if the cross is about more than that, if it’s about God in Jesus taking on the very power of sin, the very power of death, of taking incarnation so far, of taking the idea that God IS with us to the very extreme of even dying the same death we die, and THEN to conquer that death by being raised, then celebrating Easter becomes a celebration of new life, of eternal life. It takes the promise of that final day when all is made new and brings a foretaste of that day to the here and now. And so it’s important that Jesus was not just resuscitated, he didn’t just wake up, because that would make him like Lazarus. As fully God but still fully human, his fully human body would have died again eventually. But that’s not what Paul’s talking about here—this is resurrection. This is a new creation, a new physical reality—in a very real sense, a new body.

On this point there’s been a lot of confusion over time, and the NRSV does us no favors by the way it chooses to translate the Greek. Skipping ahead in 1 Corinthians 15 to where our reading begins in verse 42 on page 936. Paul has begun talking about our own resurrection—what that will mean at the end of time for us. Contrasting our bodies now with what we will experience when all are raised on the last day, Paul writes, “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.43It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” At the beginning, it all makes sense—our earthly bodies are finite. They’re perishable. They’re prone to weakness, to illness, to pain, to injury. In this life, we deal with things like cancer, or with Alzheimer’s disease, or a myriad of factors that remind us that we are, indeed mortal. We were created, and God saw us and called it good, but as we remind each other each Ash Wednesday, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The trouble we run into is when our translations have Paul contrasting a physical body and a spiritual body. We think of physical as flesh and bone, and spiritual as…well, spirit. Soul. Whatever it is that we cannot see that is the essence of who we are. The problem with that idea is that it isn’t Biblical. It comes out of Greek philosophy. Plato talks a lot about that sort of idea, but it’s not what Paul is speaking of here.  NT Wright’s incredible book Surprised by Hope is helps make sense of all of this, and it’s important, because so much of what we think we know about faith actually is a product not of our faith at all, but of how our culture has grasped this idea of body vs. spirit, of physical vs. spiritual. Biblically, this stuff is much more earthy, much more tangible, stuff that you can touch and feel and be. The Bible doesn’t separate body from soul, or physical from spiritual. In fact, NT Wright tells us that the Greek word psychikos, which the NRSV translated as “physical,” means nothing close to how we think of “physical” today. The root, psyche, from where we get our word “psychology,” ironically, was the word Greek philosophers used to describe the soul. More important than that though is that “adjectives of this tupe, Greek adjectives ending in –ikos, describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them. It is the difference between asking, on the one hand, ‘Is this a wooden ship or an iron ship?’ (the material from which it is made) and asking, on the other, ‘Is this a steamship or a sailing ship?’ (the energy that powers it). [1]  Paul is contrasting the power by which our body lives. In this present life, we are powerless against those forces that make us mortal—illness, injury, decay, and ultimately death. In the resurrection, we are given new life—the word Paul uses is pneuma, God’s spirit, breath, wind. We don’t become spirit—we are given life through the Spirit.

So in verse 50, when Paul says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” he doesn’t mean that there will be an end to physical being. The term “flesh and blood” was a common symbolic term. Just as in the Gospel according to John, whenever the writer speaks of “the world,” he doesn’t actually mean the whole world, or the actual soil of the planet, but rather those forces in the world which oppose God, the same kind of thing is at work here. “Flesh and blood” means “that which is corruptible, that which is finite, that which dies, that which is walking toward death.” His contrast isn’t between the physical and the non-physical, but between the physical which dies and the physical which lives forever.

And so resurrection isn’t, as we so often think of it, life after death. It’s really life AFTER life after death. Paul calls Jesus the firstfruits, sort of a downpayment if you will of what we all look forward to at the end. When we die, that is not resurrection. It is a time of rest, a waiting place on the way to the end of time. Jesus said that in his Father’s house there are many dwelling places—the word he uses, monai, doesn’t refer to a final resting place “but for a temporary halt on a journey that will take you somewhere else in the long run.”[2] The hymn For All The Saints captures this idea so well. Turn to hymn 174 in the LBW. Look at verse 6—it speaks of the rest of the faithful servants, the calm of paradise. Then in verse 7, there breaks a more glorious day—it is the end of time, and the saints triumphant rise. The final verse describes the eternal city, the New Jerusalem, as from all corners of the earth come God’s people to inhabit the new creation. The imagery is so amazingly powerful.

And it speaks to what we confess in the Apostles Creed. The ending of the creed goes, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” We profess our faith in the promise that God’s creation matters. That, as Pastor Tobi said on Easter, matter matters. We look ahead to the New Jerusalem, when Revelation tells us that we don’t all get whisked away to some spiritual plane away from Earth, but God comes to us. Heaven comes here. God makes God’s home among God’s people in a new creation that is physical, that is real, that you can touch and taste and see and experience, but that is at the same time eternal. What will that look like? We are given pictures and metaphors of streets paved with gold, of the river of the water of life, of the tree of life with leaves for the healing of the nations, and all of those pictures point to the future, but they at the same time point to right now, they point to the bread and the wine, very physical signs of Jesus’ presence with us and for us, and they point back to the very beginning when God’s spirit brooded over the waters and God created the heavens and the earth. We’re part of this amazing story of creation and life and new life and eternal life.

One of my favorite poems is a sonnet by John Donne. The official title is Holy Sonnet 10, though most people know it by the title, Death Be Not Proud. It takes what we’ve heard in 1 Corinthians 15 and reminds us of our ultimate hope in the resurrection and our ultimate victory in Jesus.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy'or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.


Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

[1] NT Wright, Surprised by Hope, New York: Harper One, 2008, p. 155.
[2] Wright, 150.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Sermon for 7-1-12: "And When You Pray..."

“And When You Pray…”

June 30-July 1, 2012

A note: this summer at our church, we're preaching a series we're calling "Faith questions you were afraid to ask...but your kids weren't." Back in May during a Confirmation class, we had our 6th-8th graders write down any question they wanted about God, faith, the Bible...whatever. What emerged was a set of questions that was so foundational, that got to so much of the important, big stuff--we needed to do something with it, something more than just addressing what we could in a class with just those young people. And so a sermon series was born. We've dealt with how we read Scripture, why bad things happen to good people, angels and demons and the devil, and now we're looking at what prayer is all about.

I’m going to be honest with you. There’s a lot that I don’t know about prayer. There’s a lot that I don’t understand about how it works, about what happens exactly when we pray, about how God answers our prayers. But there’s some things that I have come to believe about prayer through what I’ve read in Scripture and through how I’ve experienced it myself. There’s also some things that I’ve heard about prayer, some fairly common perceptions, that I think are ultimately unhelpful. I’d like to take a look at some of those, and in examining them, maybe together we’ll stumble on some truths in the process.

First, I fully believe that God is not a vending machine. Prayer is not the money we put into the divine pop machine so that we can press the button we want and wait for God to spit out the answer we’ve asked for. Sometimes what we read in Luke gets interpreted that way—that whatever it is we ask for, as long as we do it in the right way or with the right formula of words or with the right heart, God will give us exactly what we ask for. If we were to look at prayer that way, though, who is the one in control? Who is the one pulling the strings? God may be the one doing the answering, but we become the ones in power, as though we had discovered a magic lamp and because we freed the genie, he is bound to do our will. In a very real way, we end up putting ourselves in God’s place.  That’s not to say that God doesn’t want us to ask. The Greek word in our Gospel lesson that is for some reason translated as “persistent,” really means “shameless.” God wants us to ask, God wants us to be shameless in our asking, God wants to hear the cries and desires of our hearts…and why? I think it’s because God wants us to remember that we are completely and utterly dependent not on ourselves, but on God.

This isn’t some sort of power trip—God doesn’t have a Napoleon complex. But when we are offering our petitions to God, when we are shameless in our asking, we are being drawn into a relationship—the relationship of loving grace that God wants for and with each of us. We are assured that God hears our prayers. Sometimes, the answer is yes. Sometimes, the answer is no. Often, the answer is “not now.” Is there a specific, divine reason behind every response to prayer? This sort of goes into some of the issues that Pastor Tobi has been preaching about. I do not believe that God causes evil and suffering—I do not believe that there is necessarily a divine purpose behind when bad things happen to good people—but I do believe in a God of transformation. I do believe in a God of presence. I do believe that God hears our prayers, that God listens to our prayers, and that God is present beside us in the midst of whatever it is we’re praying for. And when we’re shameless in our asking, we are more fully drawn into the loving arms of God’s embrace.
Second, prayer is not about having all the right, fancy, churchy words. In fact, as we hear in our passage from Romans, sometimes we don’t even have the words at all. Think of a time in your life when words failed you. Sometimes, it’s a time of joy, or beauty, or wonder. I think of when my children were born as a time like that. Sometimes, it’s our time of deepest sorrow, or fear. I still remember the numbing grief that gripped me when I got the phone call years ago telling me that my mentor Larry Meyer had died. At times like this, whenever it is that our brains and our words fail us, Romans 8 tells us that we still have the God of presence with us, the Holy Spirit interceding on our behalf when we don’t have the will or the words or the strength or even the faith to pray on our own. I’ve told our middle and high school youth that sometimes, the most authentic prayer we can pray is simply three words: “Oh my God.” When they are said as a prayer, when they become our address to God and not just simply a throwaway phrase, they have the power to say in three words what we wouldn’t be able to encompass in an entire book.

In Matthew’s account of when Jesus teaches the disciples what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus also reminds us that prayer isn’t about needing to say the right things in the right way. He says not to pray like the hypocrites do—at the time, a hypocrite was an actor who wore a mask, quite literally someone who was “two-faced.” So Jesus didn’t have anything against big words or prepared prayers—in fact, he gave his disciples the model of the Lord’s Prayer to help them. Prayer can be spontaneous, or it can be prepared. Neither is more or less real than the other.  There are ancient, beautiful prayers that the church has prayed for thousands of years—sharing the same words with those who have gone before us, knowing that there are those who will come after us who will also share those words—what an amazing picture of the kingdom of God through time. What a way for us to ground ourselves in this thread of faith that runs across the centuries. At the same time, spontaneous prayer speaks to where and when we find ourselves—as the Spirit moves, sometimes the words just flow and we are for that time intimately connected with God and those around us. What Jesus is warning against is praying one thing while your heart is in another place entirely. Using fancy words isn’t bad praying if what you’re trying to do is to be drawn more deeply into communion with God—it is bad praying if what you’re trying to do is impress the person next to you. What we see again is that prayers become about relationship—our relationship with God.

That relationship between us and God form the centerpoint around which the Biblical psalms revolve. That’s what the vast majority of the psalms are, after all—prayers addressed directly to God. Prayers of praise, of thanksgiving, of petition, of fear, of anger, of sorrow. The psalmists sometimes get angry with God. They sometimes tell God exactly what they think of God. They sometimes doubt and wonder. They sometimes are in awe of God’s goodness, and sometimes question that same goodness. You want a guide to authentic prayer that covers the wide range of human emotion and experience? Use the psalms as a prayer devotional and guide.  It’ll knock your socks off.

Our prayers are also about our relationship with our neighbor and with all of creation. When we pray, WE are transformed. Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t begin with the phrase “my Father,” but rather “Our Father.” Prayer isn’t merely individual exercise. It is inherently communal. It forms community. It is meant to be something that is done together. And it draws us together in the very act of doing it. When we pray for our neighbor, we become invested in their well-being. When we pray for our enemy, we can no longer dehumanize them. When we pray for the world, we are empowered to become better stewards. When we pray for peace, when we pray for an end to hunger or a cure for a disease or that our children will be well or that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, God draws us into that which we are praying for. We become part of the story, part of God’s mission.

There’s a man named Gordon Atkinson who lives in San Antonio. For years, he was a preacher in a small church—now he does independent web design. He is an incredible writer—I discovered him online where he wrote a blog called “Real Live Preacher.” He had a book published by the same name, a book of vignettes about the intersections of life and faith that he encountered. Gordon’s a dreamer, a wonderer, a faithful doubter, and a firm believer that when it comes to the really big stuff, the stuff of life or death or God or love or...prayer...sometimes the deepest truths are revealed through story rather than through rote explanation. That’s why the Bible isn’t mostly a book of theological exposition—it’s mostly a book of stories. Stories and prayers. This is one of his stories, one that speaks to what I think are some of the deepest truths about prayer. It speaks to our relationship with God, our relationship with each other, and how God uses our prayers to open our own hearts. 

These are Gordon's words:

What's the weirdest thing I ever prayed for in church?

A hermit crab.

A little girl raised her hand and asked if the whole congregation would pray for her sick hermit crab. I don't remember exactly what was wrong with this crab. I don't know how you determine that a hermit crab is sick in the first place. She seemed pretty sure he was sick, so we took her at her word.
Among those who bowed their heads that day was Roy, whose father died when he was nine. This was back in the Great Depression. His mother was left alone to scratch out an existence for herself and her two small boys there in the flatlands of the Texas Panhandle.

Chris was there that morning, too. Her father abused her for years and years, and no one in her family ever came to her rescue. As I recall, she used to sit in church when she was a little girl and pray that he would stop. I sneaked a glance at Chris and saw her head go down.

There were others with similar stories. The room was full of people who had seen plenty of hard times in their lives and done plenty of praying.

It's funny how a preacher's mind can wander, right in the middle of a sermon or even just before a prayer. I couldn't help but think of Julie, the little girl I prayed for years ago. She was five years old and had vaginal cancer. I prayed first that she would be healed and later that she would die in peace. The silence was deafening. After she died in great pain, I said to God, “I guess that's a ‘no', huh?”
All the heads bowed except mine. I was left standing at the front, wondering how you pray for a hermit crab in the presence of a man who prayed that his daddy would live. How do you pray for a hermit crab while looking at the bowed head of a woman who prayed that her daddy would stop?
And what about Julie, God? Exactly what was going on with that situation? Maybe it's like what I read about the butterfly causing a hurricane on the other side of the planet. Maybe you have complex reasons for letting things develop freely, but what grand scheme would have been derailed if you had let her die with no pain? She was five, God. Five!

If letting Julie die in peace was outside your self-imposed limits, what will you do for a hermit crab that we hear is a little under the weather?

Like I said, it's funny how a preacher's mind can wander. The people in my church have gotten used to the occasional pause before I begin to pray. This was one of the longer ones.

You know what got me started praying? The bowed heads. Roy's head and Chris' head. All of them. Rows and rows of bowed heads, waiting expectantly. Toward the back I saw the head of the little girl who asked for this prayer. Her hands were clasped in front of her so seriously. It was a precious sight, and my heart was filled with love for these people. I was like the Grinch looking down on the little town of Whoville and having a stunning revelation of his own.

“Maybe prayer,” I thought, “Means a little bit more.”

Here were people who would pray for a crab in church.  They loved this little girl, and she felt comfortable enough to share the concerns of her heart. Even in the midst of their own unanswered prayers, they were big enough and small enough to pray with their little friend for her hermit crab.
Suddenly, I wanted to be like these people. I wanted to be praying with them, and I didn't care if it made sense or not. I said to myself, “The heck with it. I'm praying for the darn crab.”

And I did. And it felt good.

When the prayer was over, all the heads came up and no one knew what had happened to me. As far as they knew, a kid had asked for prayer and we had prayed. Business as usual.

But it wasn't business as usual for me. Whatever I was praying for, I got what I needed. And I did not miss the irony either. The one leading the prayer knew less about praying than almost anyone in the room, including the little girl who loved her hermit crab.

That little girl was my daughter, by the way. The second of three sisters. The crab was named “Pinchy,” and he lived in our house all the days of his life. And I am a man who has become a child again.

I tell you, I will pray for just about anything


Matt Schur
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church
Lincoln, NE

[1] Adapted from “Something About Prayer ,” by Gordon Atkinson, from ©2004 Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids.  pp.19-21.