Sermon: It is Hard to Say Goodbye

Saying Goodbye is essential to our walk with Christ. It is essential in our relationships with each other. And, is essential in our own growth as living, loving, spirit-filled human beings.

We all say goodbye in many ways and in many different settings: the death of a loved one; the loss of a job or a retirement; College Graduation; the birth of our first child; the end of a relationship. All of these mark the end of one chapter in our lives and the start of another.

Saying “Goodbye” recognizes that something we value, something that is essential to who we are right now, is ending.

Most of us have had to say “Goodbye” to loved ones who died. And someday, those we love will say Goodbye to us when we die. With death, all that we are slips beyond human grasp. All that is left of us here in this world are the memories of those who knew us – good memories and bad; memories that those who love us will carry with them as they move forward into their own future.

Death means saying goodbye to those we love.

The loss of a job or a retirement is another way of saying goodbye: it marks the end of a way of life or a career. We must say goodbye to the friendships and the community and sense of self that are all wrapped up with that position. We are no longer a teacher, or a manager, or a police officer, or a writer – or a preacher. Part of our identity dies, and will never come back again in exactly the same way.

Leaving a career means saying goodbye to a big part of how we see ourselves, and what defines our place in this world.

College Graduation is another way of saying goodbye. …Yes! School is done! But what now? Get a job?? Be responsible?? Rent an apartment and get a car??? OMG, I have to “adult” now??!!  …Nah, I’ll just move back in with my parents!

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Sermon: Redeemed

…our flaws and our failures are not counted in God’s judgment of us. What counts is our willingness to do what is right, even if we don’t succeed. … It’s the Heart that matters, not the Head…. God judges our hearts.

gettyimages-660179780-1024x566This morning, I thought we should tie up some of the loose ends I’ve left from our last two sermons.

Two weeks ago, in the sermon “Very Good” we learned that God sees only the goodness that is an inescapable part of who we are; and which God deliberately put into us at the very beginning. All are just as loved by God as we are; and all anyone needs is a revelation of this Love; a love which heals us from all of our iniquities.

Last week, on Palm Sunday we remembered that we’ve all betrayed Jesus, even God betrayed him. And that we cannot help but muck things up, because muckiness is also a part of who we are.

In other messages I’ve given here, we’ve talked about how – because we are conscious of ourselves, and have the freedom to choose right from wrong.  Then we must have the right to fail. This is also part of who we are. And, we not only can fail, we must. We must  have the freedom to fail, and will, even though we don’t want to.

These messages are somewhat at odds with each other. Two weeks ago, we talked about how we are all, in our heart of hearts, “Very Good” and that God sees the goodness in us, and is determined to save us for that reason.

But last week I said we are creatures of sin, we are always making choices that increase our separation from God. This seed of corruption is buried deep within us: and is a very necessary seed.  If we are to be worthy of Love, and not simply puppets of the Almighty, then God must allow us to be able to distance ourselves from God. We must have the right to fail. We must have the right and power to betray others, even betraying the Son of God himself.

So, how do we reconcile all this? Yes, we are, ultimately, Very Good: beloved children of God. And yet, we killed the Son of God through the sin that is part of who we are.

And, how does this all tie into our hope for redemption, for our salvation which is promised by virtue of Jesus’ Resurrection?

First, let’s begin by talking about sin.   When we refer to “sin”, what are we talking about?

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An Easter Sermon: The Missing Link

Good Friday is the day when we hear the first half of this story, where we mourn the death of Christ – and claim him as one of our own. And now, on Easter, we hear the rest of the story, the Divine did not relinquish its claim on Jesus either, but instead raised him from the dead. He is the missing link: we and God both claim him for our own. God has saved us through Christ, just as Jesus told Nicodemus so long ago. Jesus binds us together as members of the Body of Christ, and as children of God. The resurrection is a living reality. But, unless we come to know Christ in the depths of our hearts, unless we take the risk of claiming Christ for our own, the resurrection will never be a living reality for us.

La Descente de Croix - Rubens (1617)
La Descente de Croix – Rubens (1617)

On Easter, we celebrate the heart of our faith, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection. Why is it so important? How does this narrative bridge the gulf between Human Sin and Divine Grace? And, why does this Act of God from two Millennia ago matter to us today?

Let us pray…

Lord God, we lift up this morning’s message.  May it touch our hearts, may it speak clearly to our souls.  We know that your Word and your love have bridged the huge chasm that separates us from you, and affirmed that all of us are your beloved children. Speak to us now, Lord.  Help us to know you in the ways you have wanted us to know you since the beginning. Amen.

Three years ago, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the place at the heart of the events of Easter. As you enter that Church, to your right and up a flight of stairs, is the shrine of the Crucifixion. To the left, what would be behind me and deeper into the church, is the Shrine of the Tomb. So, on one side is the place where our Sin brought about the death of our Savior; and on the other is the spot where he was resurrected by the Grace of God.

Man’s Sin sent Jesus to his death, and God’s Grace brought him back, but what ties the two together?

The answer is in front of you, unavoidable as you enter the Church: the Stone of Unction.

It is a simple stone, unadorned, surrounded by a few lamps, and just long and wide enough for a body. On the wall behind it is a modern mural that depicts the event that took place at this spot, where Joseph of Arimathea and the Pharisee named Nicodemus laid Jesus’ body after taking it down from the Cross.

“Unction” means “anointing,” and it is here on this stone that they washed Jesus’ body, anointed it with oil, and prepared it for burial.

Why is this important? Why did the designers of this Church orient it such that this spot is right in front of you as you enter the church? And, why is the building laid out such that you must pass by it a second time as you go from Calvary to the Tomb? In other words, why does it matter?

Let’s start by imagining what would have happened if Joseph and Nicodemus had not taken Jesus ‘ body down from the Cross.

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Sermon: If Time No Longer Matters

For someone who has Eternal Life, no day is any more, or less, valuable than any other. They have unlimited time to complete unfinished business, correct mistakes, or finish their “bucket list.” So, what value would any particular day (or century) have for them? Would love or friendship be valued when time is of no concern? Mortality makes time precious, but also means all things are eventually stolen or destroyed by time – except for Love.

Struldbrugs
“The Struldbrugs” (from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift)

Recently, I’ve been thinking about eternal life and its implications, as reflected within Lent and Easter.

In Genesis 3, YHWH removes our access to Eternal Life after Adam and Eve eat of the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Yet, Jesus’ death is presented as the perfect sacrifice for our salvation and reconciliation with God: a promise that we too shall be resurrected, someday. So I wonder, is Eternal Life a good or bad thing; and how does it differ from being resurrected, reconciled and saved?

One implication of Eternal Life is that time no longer matters. For someone who has Eternal Life, no day is any more, or less, valuable than any other. They have unlimited time to complete unfinished business, correct mistakes, or finish their “bucket list.” So, what value would any particular day (or century) have for them? Would love or friendship be valued when time is of no concern?

Many writers have thought about Eternal Life…

Jonathan Swift in “Gulliver’s Travels” imagines an immortal race called the Struldbrugs. They live forever, but  do not have eternal youth: their minds and bodies eventually deteriorate to the point where every breath is torment – but they cannot die. Immortality for a Struldbrug is a curse, not a gift.

In “The Lord of The Rings”, J.R.R. Tolkien presents a race with eternally youthful bodies: the Elves. Yet immortality is a burden for them, too: They are a people not quite in tune with the world. A people whose bodies do not age, but who carry profound sadness because they know everything they create, everything they love, will eventually pass away – and they cannot stop it. They are doomed to outlive everything around them, and cannot escape from their past to live fully in the present.

Science Fiction author Robert Heinlein imagined the achievement of immortality through technology. In his novel “Time Enough For Love” is Lazarus Long, who is two and a half millennia old. (Or so, but who’s counting?) A man who is medically “rejuvenated” whenever old age afflicts him. But Lazarus is tired of life. Like the elves, Lazarus has seen everything he creates or loves pass away.

Heinlein also points out that our brains are not infinite: If we live long enough, we run out of room for new memories. Even if that weren’t a problem, our memories get cluttered and disorganized with age. (In one of my favorite passages, Lazarus complains about hunting all morning for a book, only to realize he’d put it down a century ago.) Through Lazarus we see that even with youthful bodies, our minds (and spirits) will still age.

Periodically, Lazarus has his mind “washed” of old memories to make room for new ones, but this raises a new question: what good is immortality when memory no longer links you with the person you once where? Immortality is a burden for Lazarus because he outlives his youth, and because of the broken connection between his present and his past.

Mortality makes time precious: every day is a gift that cannot be recaptured. The flip side of this is that we cannot go back and make different choices when things don’t turn out as we hoped. We cannot choose to avoid the pain that is the inevitable result of the choice to love.

In the end, we need to ask ourselves whether it is worth it: to live a life like that of Lazarus, or the elves, or the Struldbrugs, or the timeless existence Adam and Eve had before they ate of the fruit.

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Jesus Wept

Sermon: “Jesus Wept”
Presented at ARK Community Church in Dalton, MA
April 6, 2014 (Fifth Sunday of Lent)

Scripture readings:
Ezekiel 37:1-14 (from “The Message”),
John 11:1-45 (from “The Message”)

This morning’s reading from Ezekiel 37, and our Gospel reading from John 11, are parallel stories. They both deal with the same issues, are presented in similar ways, and both demonstrate how utterly powerless we are in the face of death and darkness: readings we do well to consider on this, the last Sunday in Lent before Palm Sunday.

Let us pray…

Lord God, we ask that your Holy Spirit fill each and every one of us here this morning.  Open the scriptures before us, and enable me to clearly communicate what you intend for us to receive here today.  Make your gospel come alive within each and every one of us, driving all darkness from our hearts.

We rejoice in this opportunity to encounter new revelations and a deeper understanding of your unconditional, living, infinite love; and we ask that we be amazed and transformed by that love.  Help us to embody your gospel, and to live it, in all that we do, think, speak, and are; both individually and jointly, as members of this congregation which stands before you as a portion of the Body of Believers who share your Gospel with their neighbors in this community. 

In Jesus Name, Amen.

Both of our readings this morning deal with dark times, placing us within the narrative of those who have lost all hope, those who have nothing whatsoever left, and see nothing in their future.

We all have such valleys of darkness in our lives, times when the walls close in, times when the way forward is not just unclear, but entirely nonexistent. Times when we cannot see beyond that dark horizon that we cannot penetrate; times when all hope dies and death itself seems all too near at hand, or perhaps not near enough.

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A Children’s Message: “Out of Darkness”

Finger Lights
Finger Lights

Preparation:

You’ll need small and inexpensive LED lights to give to the children. I recommend “finger lights” like those shown in the image associated with this posting.  Clicking on the image will bring you to a product page for them on Amazon.com.  Be aware that there are several vendors who make these lights: some are good quality, many are not.  The ones shown here are good and reliable (and cheap, when bought in quantity).

The Presentation:

Tell me what do you think of when you hear the word “darkness”?

(Solicit responses from the children, looking for ways in which they connect to darkness, prompt if necessary.)

Why would we want to talk about darkness here, in Church?

(Solicit thoughts, looking for the idea of salvation and Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter as God’s way of redeeming us from darkness.)

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Where All Hope Fails

rays-of-light-shining-throug-dark-cloudsThe last couple of weeks have been an interesting mix of highs and lows for me.

The certainty of our own mortality has intruded itself forcefully into the lives of many in this part of the country recently, with the tragic deaths of two firemen in Boston the other day (and you can be sure, fire fighters are just as much ministers of God as those of us who wear clerical robes).   Also, the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing is coming soon, during Holy Week in fact.

On a more personal note, old friends have recently made known their own brushes with mortality and how the afflictions of age are becoming more and more difficult to ignore, as has also proven to be too true for myself as well.

Finally, two friends of mine have died this week, one an old and dear friend from childhood, stricken down much too early in life following a very brief and devastating illness, much to the shock and dismay of her young students and the community where she lived.  The second was a co-worker whom I’d known as a young man: she was always with a ready laugh and smile, dying after a long battle with a serious illness.  Both great people, and both very much loved by the many whom their lives touched over the years.

Mortality does not play favorites, and (as my father has often said) “there is no get out of jail free card” – no exceptions. We will all someday confront the same dark horizon that these wonderful people (and so many others) have already passed beyond: never to return from the darkness that will eventually devour all lives, all nations and all human hope.

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The Stone of Unction: What are You Going to Do?

The Stone of Unction: the spot where Jesus' body was laid when first taken down from the Cross.  Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.
The Stone of Unction: the spot where Jesus’ body was laid when first taken down from the Cross. Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem.

Presented at a joint Ecumenical Service at Christ Lutheran Church, West Boylston, MA; April 6, 2012 (Good Friday).

Gospel Reading: John 19:31-42.

Seeing this beautiful Cross laid out here before us this evening, I am reminded of my recent visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the focal point of the events that take place in this evening’s reading from the Gospel of John, the central narrative of our faith, which we remember in this Good Friday service, as well as on Easter, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.

What made the biggest impression on me in that place was not the elaborate shrines of Calvary and the Tomb. It was a humbler shrine near the main entrance to the Church, “The Stone of Unction.”

This stone marks where Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the High Council in Jerusalem, and the Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews; laid Jesus’ body after taking it down from the Cross. It was there that they washed Jesus’ body, anointed it with oil, and prepared it for burial.

Why is the Stone of Unction important? Why did the builders of that Church orient the building such that this spot is so close to the main entrance? Why is the building laid out such that you must pass by the Stone of Unction as you go from the Cross to the Tomb? In other words, why does it matter?

Let’s start by thinking about what would have happened if Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had not taken the body of Jesus down from the Cross.

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Muffin’s Love

Muffin is an example to me of how the Lord loves us: He finds us dirty, smelly, and unlovable; and accepts us into his home. He then patiently works to bind up our wounds, heal our hearts, and make us clean.

In 2000 my then-wife and daughter went to a SPCA animal shelter in nearby Lancaster County, PA and adopted a gray and black poodle that had been found and brought to the shelter nearly a month before. She appeared to have been a stray for quite a while. She had no name, so, after some discussion, my daughter named her “Muffin”. I must confess that I was a bit skeptical: Muffin was not a young dog. The veterinarians who looked at her thought she must be at least ten years old, perhaps older.

When we adopted her, she stank, she was weak, and her bones were painfully obvious to the touch underneath all of her very long and incredibly tangled hair. (Her hair was so tangled and matted that she didn’t like being touched over much of her body, especially her legs and underside. She was unable to wag her tail or move her rear legs due to the pain caused by the tangled hairs pulling on her skin. Feces were embedded in the mats of hair under her tail and between her rear legs as well.) To put it mildly, she was a weak, smelly, unlovable mess.

Despite it all, we loved her anyway: we immediately clipped off as much matted hair as Muffin would let us remove. She obviously liked the attention, stretching out and letting us work on her for several hours. we slowly worked through each mat of hair (and dulling a new pair of scissors in the process). She ate a huge amount of food that evening. Her teeth appeared to cause her pain, so we provided softer food for her.

We gave her a bath the next morning, which she relished. We spent a fair amount of time each day working away at the matted hair, slowly gaining her trust, and patiently working our way through the mats under her body, between her legs, and on her feet. Muffin ate good solid meals each day, and slept most of the time. She quickly put on weight, and her energy got better each day.

She was a sweet dog. She had obviously been well cared-for at one point. It appears that she was once in a home where she had been trained, and was allowed to sleep on her master’s (or mistress’s) bed, she begged to be allowed to get up on our bed the first time she saw it, and tried to jump-up, though her hind legs were too weak to do so. She was obviously much loved by her previous owner: she loved to be cuddled, and had no fear of people (which we thought might be a problem, given that many dogs in pounds come from neglective or abusive environments). We often wondered how she came to be a stray, and if her former owner missed her.

At first, Muffin always stayed near us as we moved about the house, and loved to be cuddled. Her presence in our family had a very positive impact on our lives. We loved her, and she obviously loved us, and returned that love. We, and especially my daughter, poured love into her from the minute they first met at the pound.

Through her whole life with us, she was a happy, joyful dog, but was definitely a tough old lady when she needed to be. In 2001 she developed into some major health problems including a severe infection of her oil glands, and so we took her to the vet: my daughter assisted in the operating room while Muffin was put under general anesthetic to have the infected area cleaned and some abscessed teeth removed. Despite her great age at the time, Muffin came through with flying colors, and I’m sure my daughter’s hard work and love had a lot to do with her successful recovery.

As another dog (Cappuccino) and then cats (starting with Misty) came into the home, and despite fading eyesight and arthritic legs, Muffin remained the queen of the roost: she was definitely the dominant personality. She lived with us until the summer of 2004: but then began to rapidly lose weight, was incontinent, and was growing significantly weaker every day. When it was clear the end was near, and rather than allow her to suffer, we put her to sleep. I held her in my arms and cried while the doctor gave her the injection. We buried her in the backyard of the townhouse we lived in at the time in Woodbridge, VA.

Muffin is an example to me of how the Lord loves us: He finds us dirty, smelly, and unlovable; and accepts us into his home. He then patiently works to bind up our wounds, heal our hearts, and make us clean. While healing us, He never does more than we can handle at one time, and He loves us unconditionally, no matter what condition we are in, or where we’ve been, or what we’ve done. All He wants us to do is return His love.

Copyright (c) 2009, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as you are not seeking (or getting) financial benefit for doing so, and as long as proper credit for my authorship is given (via a credit that mentions my name or provides a link back to this site).