Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Funeral Message for Diane, Member of Our Congregation,

March is a month that can be many things. This March began with sunny, shirt-sleeve weather. Today, it seems that winter has returned. Much of the natural world is still asleep, awaiting rebirth and renewal. Yet for now, the cold remains and in truth, this morning, it's also winter in our souls.

To varying degrees, everybody here today suffers from a sense of loss. Nobody of course, suffers from that loss more greatly than Eric, Sean, Adam, Betty, and Diane's family. But Diane's life and her tough-as-nails fight with leukemia over these past two years have touched us all. As we prepare to take Diane's earthly body to its resting place, I can tell you that my family and I personally feel a sense of loss too. Diane came into our lives, along with the rest of the family, nearly ten years ago. Our son had invited Sean to worship with us at Friendship Church and the whole Binder brood came along. Through the years, our sons graduated together and played softball together. For several years, Diane and my wife held a garage sale at our place, with Eric and I acting as official go-fers. Through the years, we came to appreciate and love Diane's unshakable commitment to her family and her wonderfully silly sense of humor.

And so this morning, in the winter of our souls, our minds and hearts are a tangle of unanswered questions, dashed hopes, and fractured dreams. We wonder why all our prayers for Diane seem to have gone unanswered. We wonder why she had to suffer so long. We can't understand why she lost her life at such a young age, before she was able to see her boys married, before she was able to see any grandchildren. We ask why, so soon after Diane had found work that stirred her soul, she was taken from us and from the children she was committed to helping on the job. We're human and we can't help but ask, Where is God?

Though every death and loss are unique tragedies, we aren't the first to ask such questions. Back in the Old Testament portion of the Bible, you can find the true story of a man named Job. Job was a man who loved God and loved his family with passion and devotion. He was also a man with many friends. In a short amount of time though, Job lost everything. His ten children, who had been celebrating, were wiped out in an instant. So, too were all of his property and holdings. Job was without his children and living in poverty. Grief-stricken, the winter of his soul was compounded when his own body began to rebel against him, breaking out in painful sores all over. All Job had left now was his wife and she was no help. Observing everything and apparently intent on finding a different life, she told Job, "Why don't you just curse God and die?"

Job did question God. Like Diane on occasion, Job wondered what God was allowing to happen to him. He wondered what God was doing. Job even shook an angry fist at God and asked, "What did I ever do to You, Lord, that all of this has befallen me?" I admire the honesty of the Bible that it includes the prayers of saints who questioned God or were angry at God. But as I pointed out to Diane many times, when she had her Job-like questions, only those who believe in God bother asking Him questions or getting angry with Him. Like Job, Diane believed. And she wondered.

Yet like Job, I believe that if Diane could speak to you today, she would make an incredible affirmation of God's love and care for us when winter hits and an affirmation of the hope with which all of us should live each day. Job said, even as he grieved and suffered:

"For I know that my Redeemer [God] lives, and that at the last He will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, Whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, not another."

Thousands of years before the birth of Jesus, Job was pointing to the hope that the New Testament tells us belongs to all who will turn from sin and entrust their lives to Jesus Christ. Death doesn't have the final say in the life of the person who follows Jesus Christ. Jesus, truly God and truly Man, died and rose so that death doesn't have the last word in the lives of His followers.

In Christian tradition, Jesus has been pictured as a butterfly. After He died an excruciating death on a cross, He was laid in a tomb that became His cocoon. On the third day, He rose again. Jesus is God's answer to all our wonderings and questionings today. He doesn't erase the mysteries that we can't comprehend. He doesn't reveal why Diane suffered so or was taken from us at such a young age or any of the rest. But He does make a promise:

"For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life."

Like butterflies, if we follow Him by faith, Jesus Christ will allow us to emerge from our cocoons and from our souls' winter to live new and an everlasting lives with God. And in the meantime—through winter and all the seasons of goodness and laughter, along with those of hardship and tears, Jesus makes another promise: that He will be with us always. God, Who learned personally all about suffering and loss and feeling alone in grief when Jesus went to the cross, is on our side! He also knows the wonderful tomorrow He has waiting for all who believe in Him!

The Bible says that nothing can separate us from the love of God, given to us through Jesus Christ. If that's not true today, it simply isn't true. But it is true, a truth affirmed by hundreds of people who saw Jesus risen from the dead and by the changed lives of millions who have come to believe in Jesus through the centuries.

This morning I don't have all the answers to your questions. But I can offer you Jesus Christ and I can beg you to follow Him. Jesus gives the promise that God stands with you in your grief and the certainty that through His forgiving love and power over death, winter will give way to spring...death will yield to life...tears will all be dried...and pain will be a thing of the past.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

The Journey, Through Lent...Through Life, March 14, 2004

Facing Life, Bearing Fruit
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, March 14, 2004)

Back in the day when farm folks didn’t get to big cities very often, a young boy went on such an excursion with his grandparents. After stopping at a few places, grandma could tell that her husband and grandson were less interested in shopping than they were in exploring. So, she arranged to meet them later at a particular landmark and let them go. Soon, they came to a large skyscraper. They eyed it up and down and decided to have a closer look. As they approached the building, they saw something they’d never seen before: a revolving door. They couldn’t quite figure it out when they saw a stunning thing. An old haggard woman, stooped over, with a cane, walked through the revolving door and out came a young, shapely, attractive girl. Hardly daring to believe the miracle he’d just witnessed, the grandfather became agitated, turned to the boy, and said, “Tell your grandma to get over here right away. I’ve got a door I want her to walk through!”

We have to be careful about jumping to conclusions too quickly in life. The easy answers that seem so obviously true can be dead wrong. One day, Jesus met people who were abuzz about a recent event. People from Jesus’ native region of Galilee had been massacred by the Roman governor Pilate. Their blood, the people told Jesus, was mingled with the blood of the sacrificial animals at the temple in Jerusalem. Evidently, these people had been murdered in the very act of worshiping God. From Jesus’ words to them, we glean that this crowd had jumped to a conclusion about people who would have died such untimely and tragic deaths. Jesus asks them:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did."

It’s amazing to consider how quickly we condemn people for the tragedies that befall them. Desperate to make sense of life’s senseless suffering, wanting to believe that there is something about us that will give us a pass when it comes to the possibility of tragedy, we adopt easy answers.

Sometimes we offer such explanations of tragedy to make ourselves feel superior. When AIDS first hit the radar screens of our consciousness, those who engage in the homosexual life style were the hardest hit. I remember a woman approaching me at the time and saying that God was giving those people a message. She was shocked when I disagreed with her. I told her that like her, I thought that homosexual behavior is contrary to the will of God. But if God passed a death sentence on every human being who did things that are contrary to the will of God, the population of Planet Earth would be erased in a second! The Bible makes it clear that we all fall short of God’s minimal expectations for human beings. We all sin. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus–an act God did for us–proves that God loves sinners and isn’t out to get anyone.

Jesus drives this point home in our lesson for today when He mentions another event which must have recently happened in Judea. He asks the crowd so quick to offer easy answers for others’ misfortune, “How about those eighteen people killed when the tower of Siloam crashed down on them? Do you think that they were worse sinners than everybody else and that God targeted them that day to die?” To this explanation, Jesus gives a resounding NO!

We live in an untidy world where bad things happen and there are no tidy explanations for when they do. Part of growing up as followers of Jesus, Jesus Himself seems to be telling us today, is accepting the ambiguities of life on this planet where sin and death still have their say. We don’t live in a perfect place and this side of heaven, we won't.

Some people observe these realities and fall apart or adopt the ethic of ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’

Still others slump into despair or cynicism.

But for the follower of Jesus Christ, none of these reactions will do. That’s because unlike any other group of people in the world, the follower of Jesus Christ always has hope!

After confronting the crowd–and us–with the sobering fact that suffering happens in this life, Jesus tells one of His parables, a story. In it, a man plants a fig tree. Apparently, you don’t even look for a fig tree to bear fruit until three years after you plant it. So, six years after planting the tree and three years after he began looking regularly for fruit to show up on it, the man who planted it has had enough. He says to his hired hand, “Cut the thing down! It’s wasting soil!” But the hired hand–the gardener–begs the owner to hold off on his decision for just a little while. He asks for permission to lavish the tree with some TLC for another year. Then, he says, if it sprouts figs next year, great! If it doesn’t, then he’ll happily cut it down.

What exactly does this little story mean? God lavishes one blessing after another on us. The greatest blessing of all, of course, is His offer of forgiveness and life forever with Him which He gives to us through Jesus Christ. Followers of Jesus have no reason to be paralyzed by fear or indifference or laziness in our lives. Jesus, the great God-Man went to a cross, taking the penalty for sin that you and I deserve. On the third day following His death, He rose again. Like the gardener in the story, for as long as we live on this earth, Jesus, the Risen King, gives us everything we need to “bear fruit,” everything we need to live meaningful, purposeful lives. That’s why, just before telling the story of the fruitless fig tree, Jesus says, “...unless you repent, you will all perish...” Literally, Jesus says, “...unless you are repenting, you will all perish.”

Jesus isn’t saying that in order for us to live, we have to go around with glum faces feeling sorry all the time. This is what He’s saying...

Yesterday, during Catechism class, Cori volunteered to be an object lesson. Tim asked her if she liked snacks. She said yes and he handed her a bag of chips to hold. He asked if she liked to sleep. Yes, she answered; so, Tim threw her a pillow to hold. Cori said she also liked soccer. So, she got a soccer ball to hold. She also said yes to reading for school and reading for pleasure and got books to hold symbolizing those loves. As you can imagine, after a few moments, Cori’s arms got pretty full. Then, standing here with all this stuff, Tim pulled out a rope and said, “Cori, you’re in the middle of a flood. The waters are rising. You need to catch this rope in order to be pulled to safety. What do you have to do?” The answer is obvious: to live, Cori had to be willing to empty her arms of everything but that rope.

That’s what Jesus means when He tells us to be repenting. You see, there are two parts to repentance. There is sorrow for past sins, to be sure. But there’s also opening ourselves to go where God sends us, do what God wants us to do, be who God wants us to be. To be repentant means to hold on for dear life to Jesus Christ no matter what fake comforts and joys the world may offer to us. When we live each day with a life style of repentance, God sets us loose to live with all the passion and power we were made to have as human beings! That’s what the Bible and Jesus mean when they talk about you and me “bearing fruit.”

Ever since I lost the primary election on March 2, I’ve had people trying to console me. I never needed consoling. I did what I did because I knew that Jesus Christ has set me free, not to succeed, but to do my best in all aspects of my life. This includes the political arena, an area in which I felt I could in practical ways, love my God and love my neighbor. That’s bearing fruit and that’s what I want to do with my fleeting time on earth.

When we make living a repentatn life style our aim, win or lose, you and I can’t do anything but succeed because win or lose, seeking to love God and neighbor, we know that God is with us!

The novelist Herman Wouk, who wrote The Winds of War and The Caine Mutiny, once visited David Ben-Gurion, the first president of modern Israel. Ben Gurion kept telling Wouk, that as a Jew, he should move to Israel. “Here,” Ben-Gurion told him, “you will be free.” Wouk could hardly believe his ears. “Free?” he wondered. Israel was surrounded by enemies and some roads in the country were impassable after sundown because of sniper fire. What did the old man mean by saying he would be free? “I did not say safe,” Ben-Gurion replied, “I said free.”

Many of you are familiar with the series of novels called, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. In these novels, children from our world keep having encounters with another universe in a land called Narnia, most memorably with a Christ-like figure named Aslan. In the book called, The Silver Chair, two children are joined by a strange creature from that land in liberating a prince named Rilian from the enchantments of a devil-like witch. But they find Rilian in an undeworld city whose inhabitants they feel certain will fight their escape with tooth-and-tong. No longer under any spell, Rilian and the others were all free, even if they weren’t safe. That’s why Rilian tells the others, “Let us descend into the city and take the adventure that is sent us.”

As long as you and I live here on this earth, God makes no guarantees about our being safe from the tragedies and losses that may be sent to us. Jesus says that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Cancer, bankruptcies, tragedies, defeats, mishaps, and even death come to Christians and non-Christians alike.

But only followers of Jesus Christ, absolutely certain that we will live with God forever, are free to live life to the maximum, loving God and loving neighbor with passion, seeking to be and do our best no matter how hard the devil, the world, and our sinful selves may oppose take whatever adventure is sent to us.

For the follower of Jesus, the key issue isn’t how many days to our lives; it’s how much life in our days.

This morning, Jesus’ message for us is simple: “Be free, be fearless, and live like people who, through Jesus Christ, have been given eternity!" Because through Christ, we have been given eternity!

[The inspiration for this message came from the work of the pastors and staff of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church of Burnsville, Minnesota.

[The true story of Herman Wouk's encounter with David Ben-Gurion comes from Perfect Illustrations For Every Topic and Occasion, edited by the folks of and published by Tyndale.

[The joke about the grandparents and their grandson was told by Pastor Gerald Mann in one of his audiotaped messages.

[I heartily recommend The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis to children of every age. I have read the series several times. ]