Maundy Thursday (2010)

Late into the summer afternoon we laughed and talked. The children played tag on the grass and their shadows grew longer as the grownups lingered over one more cup of punch, maybe another cookie. It was the kind of afternoon we didn’t want to end. Time together had become rare over the years and we had looked forward to this get-together of family and friends for a long time. The children were lined up and pictures were taken. Good friends smiled at each other over picnic tables and observed the traces of time gone by on one another’s faces.

The boys and I had a long drive ahead of us and so finally it was time to leave. Michelle, my best friend since the first day of kindergarten, who now lives in Boston, walked us to our car. Her four boys ran circles around my two boys and they roughhoused like old friends even though they had all only met that week. For at least that moment it was how we had always thought it would be – her children and my children all good friends just like we had always been.

Michelle and I stood by the car. We talked about how good it had been to see each other again. How we would make sure that it wouldn’t be so long until the next time we got together. We marveled at each other’s children and how we couldn’t believe that here we were – old married ladies with families and homes.

Owen and Jesse hugged their new little friends goodbye and I buckled them into the car seats. Michelle and I hugged and then stood facing each other, motionless, until finally she smiled and said, “I’ll see you later.”   In that moment I thought about the first time I saw her, all pigtails and freckles, playing with blocks in the corner of a classroom, I remembered long walks on gravel roads, long talks about boys and then us driving around town in her dad’s big orange truck.  A thousand memories in a split second as I saw the late afternoon breeze brush through her hair.  I simply smiled back at her and said, “I’ll see you later.”

As I finally got into my car and headed west, the boys dozed off, and thought about the day and my dear friend and how we never said “goodbye.”

I don’t know about you – but I don’t like goodbyes. I’ll do most anything to avoid them. I still cry nearly every time I leave my mother’s house for the long drive back to Colorado. I don’t even like leaving my boys behind at preschool for the day – unless they’ve been particularly whiny – then, I don’t mind so much.

And of course, these days, the word “goodbye” has been on my mind a lot.  Partly because soon our family is going to be making some big changes as we move from here to Texas.   But also because I’ve been thinking a lot about the events we remember on this Maundy Thursday.   

Maundy Thursday always rings of such sadness to me. It’s almost more sad to me than Good Friday – partly because I can’t fully comprehend the horror of the crucifixion, but also because I know how hard it can be to say “goodbye”.  As I think about the last supper, the last meal that Jesus ate with his disciples, I can only imagine the sadness around that table.  I think about them wondering exactly what he meant as he kept saying “remember me”.  “Remember me by eating this bread and drinking this wine.”   I imagine constricted throats trying to choke down pieces of bread, sips of wine.  “What does he mean? He’s leaving us?  What does he mean?  One of us will betray him?”  What had it all meant if it only had to end this way? Did the shared walks and talks and the moments the disciples and Jesus had spent together, and all he had taught them mean anything if it all was just ending?

It isn’t difficult to wonder that ourselves when we teeter on the brink of goodbyes. When the illness has run its course, when a journey together has culminated and paths separate, when we find ourselves at that moment when the roads diverge and we face an ending. How do we make sense of all that has been shared? Do the long walks and the talks and the laughter and the tears and all the wonderful and difficult moments shared really mean anything if they just have to end in a goodbye? Where do we find our hope and our peace when we face endings?

I think Jesus answers this for us in words that he also spoke on this night we are remembering.  Gathered there with his disciples he said, 33“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.

34“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Why this talk about love right now?  I think it was more than just a new commandment or some good advice for their future work together and as they went about their lives.    I think it was more than just a way for people to recognize Christ’s ideals still in alive in the disciples.

 

Listen to the words of Saint Paul: Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 1but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three abide: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

That is a scripture often read at weddings, but I like to read it at funerals, too. I love it because in verse it says that faith, hope, and love abide. That word “abide” is a beautiful word that we don’t hear too often anymore but it means, to go on, to remain, to last, to stay. Love remains.

 

Jesus was telling his disciples that by continuing to love one another and to love others, he would always be with them.  The presence of love in our world means Christ’s own presence, Christ’s own resurrecting presence, Christ’s own eternal presence remains. And do you know what this means for us in our relationships here on earth? It means that everything matters because even if we have put just a thimble-full of love into a relationship, that relationship will have an eternal dimension, because Love goes on forever.

And that is how we can put time and energy into our relationships here and now and know that while moments of separation may come, whether short or long, those do not last. Not even the ultimate separation of death. That is how a few months ago I could stand over my father’s grave and pour the sand over his coffin and speak the words, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” with no tears in my eyes. While life as we knew it was ending, I knew then as I know now that the most important things remained. Certainly, many things do die when the last breath is drawn – things like broken bodies and sadness and strained relationships, things like misunderstandings or bitterness or hopelessness – all those things do die, but what lasts is Love.  There are no real goodbyes for people who believe in a resurrected Lord.  We can always simply say, “I’ll see you later.”

Easter morning is yet far away. There is a sad and bitter journey we need to yet take with our Lord.  Jesus leaves the meal with his disciples to go to the garden of Gethsemane to pray in anguish, knowing that there is a cup that only he can drink.  He sees his only friends have fallen asleep rather than staying awake with him in this bitter hour. 

But one thing we can trust as darkness falls on our Lord. One thing we can trust even as the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard and the elders come for him.  One thing we can trust as the crowd shouts for his death and he carries his own means of execution to Golgotha is that the whole way, through his sweat and his tears and his blood and his cries, if you listen carefully you will hear him whispering to us the whole way – not goodbye, never goodbye  – no, he is whispering  – “I will see you later.”

Let us pray…

Dear Lord, on this Holy night we pray that you be with us.  Be with us in our prayers and sighs.  Be with us as our Lenten journey comes ever closer to the cross.  Be with us in our relationships with one another – help us to build each one of those relationships on a foundation of love.  Be with us especially when it becomes difficult to love.  Be with us as you have promised you always will be in our sharing of bread and wine.  How we do we remember you, Lord Jesus.  How we love you.  How we praise you.  How we thank you and adore you.  In Jesus name we pray, Amen.

Bakke Lutheran Church -Rural Detroit Lakes, MN

If you are traveling north of Detroit Lakes on Highway 21, as you wind among the lakes and fields, eventually you will come across Bakke Lutheran Church perched upon a small hill – which is appropriate since the word “Bakke” means “Hill” in Norwegian. I visited Bakke last summer to take some pictures of the cemetery and the outside of the church. This past Wednesday, I preached at their Lenten service so I finally saw the interior. Their altar is gorgeous and it has the verses from Matthew 14:30-31 inscribed in Norwegian. Some of the members told a story about how the altar was made not far from here (but no one present could remember where exactly) and the altar was brought to Bakke by horse and sleigh.

While the sanctuary is lovely and quite traditional, there are also many beautiful new additions to Bakke – and some really, really nice folks.  Check it out! Worship at Bakke is at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday mornings. 27492 County Highway 32, Detroit Lakes, MN 56501 · (218) 847-7073.  Their Pastor is The Reverend Ann Newgard-Larson.

 

Frances

I found out yesterday that a friend of mine in Texas died. It wasn’t a surprise – she was ninety-five years old and pneumonia had set in a few days ago. Her name was Frances and she was a member of my church in Texas. Her husband had been a pastor, and together they had been missionaries in Japan for decades. She was a person who had lived in many places and parsonages and we were kindred spirits in many ways, regardless of our age difference. When my mom died, Frances was a comforting, mothering presence in my life over the years that followed. I loved to sit with her in her nursing home room and we would work on crossword puzzles together or just talk. My boys would bring her handfuls of flowers they picked for her, and she grand-mothered them – exclaiming over them and making them feel special and loved, as children ought to feel.

It was agonizing for us to say “goodbye” to her when we left Texas, but she understood how we longed to be back in our homeland. After all, she and her husband had done the same thing – served churches in different places but their roots called them home to Texas.  When we left a year ago, I knew I would likely never see her again here on earth, and now I know this is true.

So, while I’m physically here in my office in Minnesota, admittedly my mind is drifting back to our church in Texas today, and thinking about how her memorial service will be. Some other pastor will commit her body to its’ resting place later this week. Someone will climb up the steep stairs into the old balcony and ring the bell 95 times as she is brought from the church out to the quiet cemetery where her husband is buried. The church ladies will make a lunch for the family. Then, one by one, the parking lot will empty out.

I know exactly how that place and that day will feel because I buried so many friends at that little church in Texas. I know how my heart would ache and how the dirt would feel in my hand as I placed it on the coffin and said, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  Each time I would think about how it all felt like sadness and endings, even though the words coming out of my mouth, the words from Scripture, were all about joy and resurrection.

This is the contrast we live in as people who believe in Jesus Christ, people who know there are no final goodbyes for those who trust in a resurrected Lord. It’s always so hard to let go, to realize a chapter has truly ended, to know there will never again be those talks, those crossword puzzles, but even so – we hold fast to God’s promises. There’s a glory, a healing, a wholeness, a hope that we can only catch glimpses of here – but someday it will all be revealed when we are all reunited in the presence of the One who made us. Jesus has made this possible and this is the promise of Easter.

 

Pouring out Love -Fifth Sunday of Lent – Year C

John 12:1-8

Anointing His Feet

12 1-3 Six days before Passover, Jesus entered Bethany where Lazarus, so recently raised from the dead, was living. Lazarus and his sisters invited Jesus to dinner at their home. Martha served. Lazarus was one of those sitting at the table with them. Mary came in with a jar of very expensive aromatic oils, anointed and massaged Jesus’ feet, and then wiped them with her hair. The fragrance of the oils filled the house.

4-6 Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, even then getting ready to betray him, said, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor? It would have easily brought three hundred silver pieces.” He said this not because he cared two cents about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of their common funds, but also embezzled them.

7-8 Jesus said, “Let her alone. She’s anticipating and honoring the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you. You don’t always have me.”

Our sense of smell can bring back memories in such powerful ways. I have what was left of my father’s after shave when he died. I keep it in my dresser and every now and then when I come across it, I’ll open it and close my eyes and sniff – and I’m instantly brought back to when he would take my face in his hands after he was done shaving and pat some of the good smelling aftershave on my face, too. The smell of woodsmoke immediately brings me back to summer nights on the shores of Lake Carlos when I was a camp counselor. The scent of lilacs transports my thoughts directly to my grandmother’s yard no matter where I might be.

And if we were living in the moment of our Gospel – the room would be filled with the scent of pure nard. In case you ever wondered about what Nard was, it is also called Spikenard and muskroot. It is a flowering plant of the Valerian family and it grows in high altitudes. The plant itself grows to be about 1 meter in height and it has pink, bell-shaped flowers. It can be crushed and distilled into intensely aromatic, thick, amber-colored oil. It was used as a perfume, an incense, a sedative, and an herbal medicine said to fight insomnia, birth difficulties, and other minor ailments. Also, as a side note of trivia: It is also apparently a very attractive scent to cats.

Anyway, pure nard is the scent filling the air after a dinner party – the scene includes we’re not sure how many people – but we know Jesus is there and Mary comes in with this oil, this pure nard, and begins to anoint and massage Jesus’ feet.

Then as if this scene weren’t tender enough, she uses her own hair to gently wipe off his feet. This scene is scandalous in a number of ways – First, that she loosens her hair in a room full of men, an honorable woman never did that.  An honorable woman only let her hair down in the presence of her husband.

She pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which was also not done.  The head, maybe–people did that to kings–but not the feet.  Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet–also not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair. 

But none of these things strike me so much as that it is a scene of complete generosity and extravagant affection. This oil was so expensive – worth about a year’s salary then – that to use this oil so lavishly and all on one person seems foolish at first glance. Her giving to Jesus so completely – of what she had and of herself and her attention makes the reader feel we perhaps should turn our heads – give these two a little time alone – so intimate is this scene.

Judas Iscariot voices the concern that others in the room are probably thinking.  He says, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas seems right on the mark to me – in fact, he seems to be saying something that Jesus himself would normally say. We know Jesus was a champion for the poor and the oppressed  – but he defends Mary and he says, “No, leave her alone. You’ll always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.”

So there it is.  Jesus, who used every moment as a teaching moment – was he doing it again now – reminding them he was the lamb, the ultimate sacrifice.  Or did he simply want to treasure for a moment the fragrance of the oils filling the room, the touch of a friend offering him comfort – just savor these small pleasures of this life as long as he could before the next things were fulfilled?

The whole story is so sad and bittersweet.  From our vantage point we know what is coming next and we know how precious those final moments with friends must be for Jesus.  Did Mary’s kindness and extravagant care for Jesus bring him some measure of comfort as he endured all that happened in the next days? Did the scent of the oils linger on his skin even as he was brought before Pilate? Did the memory of gentle hands that lovingly massaged his feet have enough power to lessen some of the blows that other hands soon dealt?

These are things at which we can only wonder.  But what is not a mystery to me as I read this text are the actions of Mary.  I think I understand Mary of Bethany very well.  What she does here is clear to me – as clear as when Peter wanted to make those dwelling places on the mountaintop the day of Jesus’ transfiguration – when Peter wanted to stay in that moment of wonder forever.  His actions and words often interpreted as brash and even foolish – but who doesn’t say and do impetuous things when wonder and joy have filled you to the top?  And Mary – the people around her might shake their heads at the foolishness of sharing all that precious oil with just one person, they might tsk tsk at her unrestrained actions as she kneels at Jesus’ feet and even lets down her hair to use it as a towel – but these were the things she had to give.  Who doesn’t understand that feeling of wanting to give all that we have for the people who mean the most to us?  We’d give anything to see them not suffer or be harmed – and if we know the end must near – then we at least do everything we possibly can to make that end be pain-free and dignified and meaningful as possible -and surround that person with love.

What Mary had to give were these precious oils and her actions. She shared all of it without holding back. She shared all of it because soon she would no longer have Jesus near to give him all that she could give. She had to give it all and give it then. This was no time for stingy love or small gifts– this was a time to pour it all out – because soon, there would be no more time.

And yes, she did it for Jesus but she was also doing it for herself.  That’s how giving is – we have a need to do it.  It’s a great and true mystery – that generosity never leaves us empty or wanting or poorer for having done it – it only helps fill the empty places and gives wholeness to our brokenness. 

I’ve heard Mary described as a prophet – that with her actions here and using these precious oils she’s not only preparing Jesus for burial but she is showing the extravagance of God’s love. 

In fact, some call Mary “the prodigal woman.”  As we recalled a couple times last week, that word “prodigal” actually means “extravagant.”  We remember how the prodigal son took his inheritance and spent it recklessly.  But when we look at that word “prodigal” knowing its true definition we see prodigal happenings all over the place in our scriptures.  The prodigal father – who welcomed back the son and gave him a robe and a meal and his place in the home – loving him extravagantly even though he did not deserve it.  The prodigal shepherd who loses one sheep and will not rest, goes over the top in his searching, until that lost sheep has been found.  The prodigal widow who only has two small copper coins and she recklessly gives them both away trusting that little becomes much when it is placed in the master’s hands. The prodigal woman, Mary, pouring out oil and tears, letting down her hair and her guard to love profusely.  The prodigal God, Jesus, making his way down the Via Dolorosa and ultimately giving up his very life – loving us with everything he was – then and now and forever.

When we begin to take note of this Spirit of generosity – the giving away of both love and possessions lavishly – that fills our Holy Scriptures it is easy to see why the happiest people are those who have learned how to give.  Yes, of possessions and money and time – there is no question that belief in Christ commands that we be good at sharing these things – but God demands even more. 

Let’s take a lesson from Mary of Bethany. 

We begin by giving of what we have.  As she poured out expensive oils without thought of the cost, we give generously as well, and if that is hard to do, which it is for most of us, we work bit by bit to become better at it.  We try to loosen our grip on stuff, loosen our worries about money and materials and instead see all that has been entrusted to us as simply means to help bless others.  Anyone who is wise knows that anything we think is ours isn’t really ours – it’s only a gift from God given to us for a time and to be shared.  Our view of the world becomes a lot more beautiful when we see everything this way.  There is no material thing to which we cling tightly.  Worries become less as we take our focus off our own wants and instead minister to the needs of others.  Our time becomes more meaningful when we use it to benefit others rather than primarily looking for our own entertainment and comfort. 

Giving is a joyful thing.  Giving lightens our load in so many ways – it frees us of things we never really needed anyway and opens the doors and windows wide for things like peace and joy and love to rush in – and heaven knows, those are the things we really need.

One night during seminary, I was sitting at supper with a group of friends. One of my friends, Joy, offhandedly said to my other friend, Steve, “Hey, I like your sweater.” Steve immediately took off his sweater and gave it to her. Joy said, “no, that’s crazy, don’t give it to me! I was just saying I like it!” But Steve insisted. He smiled and told us he had been practicing his giving. He had made a promise to himself that if anyone said they liked something he had, if at all possible, he was going to give it away – to remind himself how little he actually needed. He said that since he started doing it, it had been one of the best things he had ever done – he said, “Please, as a favor to me, take the sweater!” Joy laughed and took the sweater. She said, “you are nuts.”

I think of that night at the supper table often – how Steve was so willing, happy actually, to let go of his stuff – to walk home on a chilly night with no sweater. But he knew he didn’t need it. He knew practicing giving things away opened up something in him, practicing generosity blessed him. It was a genuinely cool thing to witness.

We may not have precious oils or hair to let down to wipe Jesus’ feet – yet we can still ask ourselves each day what kind of fragrant offering we can give to show how very much we love him, how thankful we are for this life and our blessings.  Each day we have the opportunity to be the prodigal son or daughter, too –  love, live, help and give extravagantly.  

 

RIP L.Y.E.

I received word yesterday that Youth Encounter (formerly Lutheran Youth Encounter) was closing its’ doors. http://www.youthencounter.org/blog/posts/news/

This was not surprising news. Youth Encounter had been lacking in monetary support and struggling to find its’ place in modern times for a while now. It wasn’t for lack of trying – they had tried all different kinds of changes in leadership, changes in ministries offered, changes in formats, but finally it was time to stop trying.

I was on two different Youth Encounter teams in the early nineties. I had seen a team put on a program at the Bible Camp I loved, Luther Crest, and when I saw them, I was in awe. They were musical and funny and performed interesting skits. I got on their mailing list back then and then nearly a decade later, a recruiter from Youth Encounter called me to see if I would be interested in being on a team.

Of course I was!  I confessed I wasn’t musical at all but they didn’t seem to mind. They asked me to apply anyway and I did. The recruiter then met me in Alexandria for an interview and before I knew it, I was set to be on a team after college graduation.

I didn’t know if I would be traveling in the United States or Africa. I wanted to go overseas but I was told that they were still figuring out the teams. I spent the summer before training started working at a Bible Camp in North Dakota and I found out two weeks before I went to training that I would be on the North Central team – traveling in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, and a little bit of Canada. No Africa for me, yet.

What followed were two intense, wonderful years. I saw so many tiny towns in the upper Midwest and then I was accepted to go on the West Africa team the second year. I loved living out of a van, the simplicity of our days, being surrounded by musicians, and sharing the Gospel. I met people who are still some of my best friends in the world.

Youth Encounter was a bit of magic. It was all about friendship and living simply and music and God. We relied on strangers for our food and our shelter. We laughed a lot. Sometimes we fought and cried – these things happen when you live together – but we learned how to forgive, too.

I remember someone saying to me when I was on team that they were surprised Youth Encounter was still in existence. They didn’t think the model of putting on programs at churches would last much longer. I was surprised to hear him say that. Why would people ever not want to come out and see a LYE program, I thought? But attention spans shorten, and options for entertainment have expanded beyond measure. Church attendance is shrinking. Youth groups are dying. The world we live in now likes flashy lights and fabulous screens a lot more than watching a group of young adults put on a puppet show.

But for those of us who lived Youth Encounter and know what it was like to live out of a backpack and share food in a van, show up at a different church every day, put on a program every day, and meet friends in piles of zip codes, we know it was all so good. Youth Encounter lives on in us no matter how old we get.