1 Peter 1:24-25

“All flesh is grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord abides forever.”

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For many Easter is past. The bright flower of the festival has faded into the ordinary routines of daily living. For what was observed was a day, and nothing more.

But the real Easter endures. For what is Easter if not the promise of God’s eternal victory in Jesus Christ; a victory that begins now in faith and is brought to perfection in the life to come?  

The wedding service contains these words, “By your promises bind yourselves to one another…”. Marriage begins with a promise and lives on that promise, “…until death parts us.” Other aspects of life together may not stand the test of time; children, career, friendships, health may all fail us, but the promise is meant to endure. Sadly, for many, the promise also fails, withers, fades.

God’s promise does not fail. “…the Word of the Lord abides forever,”  proclaims the Scripture. Easter Sunday – and  every Sunday – bears witness to the God who keeps his promises. This simple truth has been the bedrock of assurance for millions. It can be that for you, too.

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 “May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Romans 6:23

 

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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Some years ago I was speaking with a young medical student following a funeral. He asked, “Why is death stronger than life? Why isn’t it the other way around?” In response I quoted him the text for today. We die because we sin. No matter how flourishing a life we may have lived, we all have sinned and death is our future. Pretty simple.

The inevitability of death can result in all kinds of effort to rationalize, to attempt to put a positive construction on death, to put the proper ‘spin’ on death and thereby diffuse it of its sting and power. We like to say things like, ‘Well, at least he didn’t suffer’ – if, in fact, that is the case. Or, ‘She had a long life and did everything she wanted to do’, and so on. Or, keeping fashion with the latest in the rhetoric of death denial, nowadays you don’t even die…you simply ‘pass’. Whatever that means.

But can we really believe that these assessments are an adequate response to something that robs us of everything – including life itself? They sound much more like the remarks of those who are powerless and don’t know WHAT to say in the face of the sobering and irrefutable truth that the world is a graveyard.

The Christian faith does know what to say. The Scriptures do not gloss over death and treat it like a minor bump in the road on our inevitable way to some spiritual never-never land. The culture may deny it, sanitize it, rationalize it, try to make the best of it and so on, but St. Paul called it what it is: “…the wages of sin…”. So I quoted St. Paul to the young medical student, who didn’t care much for what St. Paul had to say about sin and death.

I also reminded him of the free gift. I told him that God in Jesus Christ has forgiven sin and defeated death on the cross and that it is because Jesus lives that we may look forward in trust and hope to everlasting life.  My young friend wasn’t so sure about that either but he did concede that it was quite a promise. I said, “Indeed it is. And it’s for you.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Psalm 104:33

“I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.”

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Before the formation of the ELCA in the late 1980’s, I was a pastor in the American Lutheran Church. In those days we had district presidents, a rather straightforward institutional title that always rankled those with episcopal pretensions. My ‘DP’ was Cecil Johnson. With a name like Cecil you just know he was a down-to-earth fellow who reeked of common sense and good judgment. And he did. Cecil had recommended me to the folks at Concordia Lutheran Church in Fertile, Minnesota.

Prior to Concordia Lutheran I had been an associate pastor in two very large congregations. Now I was the only pastor in a congregation of 650 members, in a town of just under 900. You do the math. I had a captive audience for better or for worse. Cecil was voting for better. He leaned over to me at the installation pot-luck following the service, while several cubes of red Jello wobbled on his spoon, and said in his adroit, fatherly manner, “Go slowly here, Mark. Take your time.” Then he gave me an excellent piece of advice which has served me well for many years. He suggested that I spend a lot of time the first year with shut-ins and the older members of the congregation. Get to know them. Get to know what they care about. Ask them about the congregation, the community, their faith. I took his advice and got to know some of the finest people I have had the privilege to have known in all my years of ministry. And in getting to know them they taught me something about the church and it’s business.

What I learned on those many afternoons while sipping coffee with those old Norwegians – and a few misplaced Swedes – was that faith in Jesus Christ and His promises was the marrow in their lives. And they had not come to this faith because some clergy person stuck his\her finger in the air and blathered on from the pulpit about politics, being relevant or the indelible wonderfulness of now. The message that gripped them was the old, old story of Jesus and His love and forgiveness delivered in Word and sacrament. The faith they held gave voice to their favorite hymns; Beautiful Savior, The Old Rugged Cross, Abide with Me, I Know that My Redeemer Lives, A Mighty Fortress.

During the years I was their pastor I had to bury some of these folks. Often, in those last days before the end, sitting by their bedsides, we would sing those old hymns accompanied by a guitar, read passages from the Bible, share the sacrament. It was during those hours of ministry that they taught me something essential about the hymns of the church; if they can’t be sung at our deathbeds they probably shouldn’t be sung at all.

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  “May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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Matthew 26:29

 

“I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

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Linda and I stepped out of the elevator and this is the scene that greeted us. The rooftop restaurant looks out on the Roman Forum and Capitoline Hill.  The beautifully set tables announced that a gathering was imminent.  And sure enough, just a few minutes after this picture was taken, every seat was filled. A large family and some friends were gathering after a First Communion. Wine began flowing, food was served. The setting was spectatcular, the atmosphere joyful, full of life, a celebration. It was great to be there, even if we were on the outside looking in.

Thank God for these moments. Respites when we may gather with others for celebrations; brief truces in the wider conflicts, struggles and pressures of living, little glimpses of God’s promised future.

When our Lord Jesus Christ gathered with His disciples for what we know as the Last Supper, He was giving them, and us, a foretaste of the future. “I will not drink of the cup again”, He said, “until I drink it with you in my Father’s kingdom.” In other places, Christ Jesus described the coming kingdom as a marriage feast that knows no end. In every service of Holy Communion the future comes to meet us, full of joy and promise.

Some day, we will all be gathered at the banquet of the Lamb. Fellowship with the Living God will be the occasion for us. The endless drone of the world’s melancholy will finally give way to the joyous harmonies of eternal Easter, the glorious celebration that Christ has prepared for His people.  We will enter the banquet hall of the kingdom. Every place will be set and the feast that knows no end will begin! 

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“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

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“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,…”

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There was a time when many young people grew up in a well ordered supportive world. Family members were close at hand. Uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins hovered around our lives. The ‘bleachers’ of the community were full of family and friends, cheering our successes and lamenting our failures. To be sure, people were no better or worse in the ‘good ol’ days’ but when compared with today many, many more children grew up in the midst of the strong, supportive structures of family, church and community.

For many young people today that world is largely gone. The bleachers are empty. Families are scattered everywhere. Ours is no exception. Our immediate family members can be found in Hawaii, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.  In such an environment it is not hard to understand the bewilderments of so many young people, their cynicism and uncertainty about the future. Where do they find an enduring set of values by which to order their lives, something worth living for? 

When many young people look at  the church, the community that points to the magnetic figure of Jesus, and His call to follow Him into loving service, they are often disillusioned by the time and energy poured into pursuing wealth and comfort by those who sit in the pews.

An old story tells of a young orphan boy who was taunted for his faith; ‘It seems your God has forgotten you”, someone said to him. “No”, he replied, “God has not forgotten me. But God’s people have.”

The Church has always been a place where the lost are found, where the hopless find hope, where those disillusioned or crushed by the brokeness of their earthly families find the love and support of God’s family. Not only are we surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on from the halls of heaven, we also have a role. People caught in the dislocation, alienation and mass estrangement of our time are searching for a place to stand; where an authentic life of faith, hope and love is really possible. The church can be such a place. 

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 “May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Peter 4:10

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“As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.”

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It took some doing but after several miles on a winding, hilly gravel road past wineries and olive groves Linda and I arrived in the locale pictured above. This is the Abbey of Sant’ Antimo, nestled in a remote valley deep in the hills of southern Tuscany. The current church was commissioned in the 8th century, according to tradition, at the order of Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor. The first building for Christian prayer and worship was constructed here on the site of an old Roman villa in the 4th century.  Today, the stewards of this place are a small group of monks (the Canons Regular of the Augustinian Order) whose purpose is to engage in a ministry of worship and sacraments for all who visit the church. 

 We arrived just in time for noon prayers. Only moments after we took our place for the sparcely attended service, a small group of monks silently made their way to the front ot the sanctuary. For the next twelve minutes the ancient tones of Gregorian chant echoed through the stone arches as they have, daily, for centuries. Then, as quickly as they came, the monks left.

 As a Lutheran Christian I could not help but think back to Martin Luther’s years as a monk. He was also an Augustinian but of a group called the Order of Hermits. He spent many years in that life, praying, studying, seeking solice and salvation. This was among the prescribed avenues through which holiness could be developed and salvation finally achieved.

 You probably know the story. Prescriptions for spiritual advancement and peace eluded him until, finally, he heard the promise of the Gospel; we are made right with God by faith alone, and not through our efforts, works or sincerity. Christ is our righteousness. Our confidence is in Him alone. The new-found freedom that resulted led Luther from the seculsion of monastic life to engagement with the world; marriage, children, community responsibilities, the struggle of reform.

 In your baptism, Christ Jesus has called you to the vocation of living. Family life, occupational pursuits and the whole host of life’s obligations and responsibilities are not secondary to what some call “full time Christian service.” There are  times in the life of every Christian when pulling back is necessary for prayer, reflection and renewal. But the Christian life is finally not one of retreat from life but engangement with life.

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 “May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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Galatians 5:13

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“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.”

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“You can have it all,” the saying goes.  How many times and in how many ways is this promise pushed at us from all corners of life?  It is a false promise, of course, but one to which we are terribly vulnerable. Why? Partially because of our wants, or to put it a bit more forcefully, our appetittes. And when our appetites for things, for experiences, for money, for security, etc, drive us we begin to see life as a quest for aquisition, for having what we want, for personal fulfillment. How many lives have been shipwrecked in the pursuit of “having it all” is beyond calculating.

 One area of life where the impact of this false promise has been devastating is the family. Raising children means parents putting their own fulfillment aside for the sake of their children. They may not recognize it but such commitment is actually the key to their fulfillment. If a couple continues to defend their right to personal fulfillment after marriage they probably should not be parents. Their candidacy for marriage itself may be called into question.

 The basic problem with this false promise is the premise, what it says about life. A meaningful life does not begin with me and what I want.  Service and not fulfillment is the basis for a meaningful life. “Having it all” is the fairy tale that seduces us into the fantasyland of fulfillmenrt on our terms. The more you seek it the more it will elude you.

 Sadly, the “having it all” mentality can also find it’s way into churches, where a gospel of personal fulfillment replaces the faith and freedom of the Gospel. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus came among us to serve and not to be served. A reading of the gospels reveals the extraordinary power and freedom this kind of living produced. It is this liberating life of love and service that God wants for His children. 

 In Christ we have been set free from the insatiable pursuit of the self and it’s wants. At the same time we have been set free for true fulfillment which cannot be pursued for it’s own sake. When love and service become our aim, fulfillment is thrown in. 

 “May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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