May 31, 2020
Roaring Winds and Flame
Series: (All)
May 31, 2020. Sometimes God comes with words to calm and comfort and reassure. And sometimes God comes to wake us up. Just as the Spirit came upon the disciples in the first Pentecost as roaring winds and flame, we are seeing the Spirit alive today in the city of Minneapolis, as it burns in protest of the murder of George Floyd. The Spirit descends on us too, and frees us to proclaim that healing is possible, even as the fire rages.
 
Reading: Acts 2:1-21
 
*** Transcript ***
 
Holy Week seems like such an incredibly long time ago, doesn’t it? And yet just like that, the weirdest Easter season that most of us have ever experienced is over. But let’s think back a minute, to Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday, and find Peter. As they headed into the city to celebrate Passover, the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus warned Peter that he would fall. Peter protests that he is ready to go to prison with Jesus, and he will even die with him. But Jesus knows his people. He tells Peter that not only will he not die with Jesus, but he will deny that he even knows him. And of course, we know the rest of the story. Peter does deny Jesus. The cock crows. The others run and hide. And for these fifty days since, except perhaps for essential tasks or brief trips out of the city, the disciples have been keeping kind of a low profile — waiting and watching and listening and wondering, staying out of the way of the Roman guard who they hear are still looking for the ones who were so close to Jesus — as rumors are beginning to spread and grow about the missing body and the empty tomb. "More dangerous dead than alive," warned one of the religious leaders after Jesus’ death. Maybe so. Everyone is on edge.
 
It’s that Peter — the one who denied Jesus, the one who hid with his companions, the one who grieved how badly he had failed Jesus just when it counted the most — that we see in our story today from Acts, speaking to a crowd of thousands, shutting down their mocking (of course they aren’t drunk, it’s only 9:30 in the morning), answering their questions. "It is happening," he tells them, "Just as Joel and the other prophets told us. God is upon us." How did that happen? How did Peter go from denial to prophecy? What emboldened Jesus’ followers to come out of their comfort zone and share the good news of life triumphant over death, of God’s deeds of power? And that, I suggest, is really the story here, this Pentecost Sunday. What happened?
 
There is so much that hadn’t changed, prior to the events of this reading. Jesus’ death was still real, his resurrection, confusing and maybe a bit scary as well as hopeful, his ascension, as perplexing as it was devastating. The authorities were still looking for Jesus’ followers. The disciples, as of yet, really hadn’t left their Upper Room. Hadn’t told the stories outside the circle of trusted followers. Still hadn’t figured out what on earth they were supposed to be doing, what it all meant. So what happened?
 
When Jesus and Peter were talking, before the Supper, and Peter claimed he was ready to die, Jesus told him that on the contrary Peter would deny even knowing him. Jesus also said something else important. “But I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your siblings.” When you have turned back, strengthen your siblings. And if we remember last week’s gospel, even before Jesus died he had made another promise, perhaps following up on this promise to Peter. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever, the Spirit of truth.” All along the way, Jesus promised that we would not be alone. God would be with us. Hard to believe with all that had taken place, but the disciples were trying.
 
And so, we come to the events of Pentecost. The disciples are expecting something to happen — Jesus told them he would be sending a comforter. They had gathered in anticipation of this, not knowing what to expect. And then the Spirit showed up. Jesus often said, “Peace be with you,” “Be not afraid,” to his disciples when he came upon them after he rose from the dead. Angels would often say this too, when they appeared to unsuspecting humans, who would understandably be caught off guard by a heavenly being making an appearance. But in the Pentecost reading, there are no words of comfort or peace. Roaring winds, filling their room, locked doors and all. Flames of fire, leaping down and resting on their heads. And then suddenly, they are all filled with words that can't be held in, pouring out of them in languages they didn’t even know! I was talking about this story recently with one of you, who suggested that perhaps not all of the words the disciples spoke were, strictly speaking, “good news.” I recall moments when I have been taken by surprise so profoundly that I couldn’t think clearly enough to put words on it myself, and I can imagine the words that might have escaped my mouth if I had been there that day!
 
Sometimes, God comes with words to calm and comfort and reassure. And sometimes, God comes to WAKE US UP! Pentecost is one of those days, family of faith! Just as fire in a forest can transform and clear the way for new life, the fires of Pentecost, the Spirit come to the disciples, transformed them forever. They had been afraid, and rightly so. Peter had been so afraid he denied that he even knew Jesus. The Spirit came, and in spite of their fear, they embodied courage and spoke the truth of the good news of God they knew to anyone who would listen.
 
There is so much fear and grief, morphed into understandable anger and rage, at the death of yet one more black man, George Floyd, murdered on the streets of Minneapolis. As my pastor from my Minneapolis home church, just half a block from the Minneapolis 3rd precinct, said, “My city is on fire.” My city is on fire. The fear is palpable, for those living in it, and those watching from afar. And the courage of those speaking truth, ministering in the midst of that fire, calling for an end to the deep, systemic racism that is fueling it, is undeniable. The Spirit is alive.
 
The disciples had been cut off, hidden away, and the Spirit removed all barriers between them and their neighbors — even language. Think about how often we misunderstand one another, even our closest people, when we speak the same language, and we can get a glimpse of what a miracle this was — that everyone present, regardless of their national origin, or ethnicity, or language, understood what was being said. No longer cut off, they were suddenly connected with everyone around them. Any idea that God would only speak to certain people, of a certain culture, of a certain language, in certain ways, was dispelled, and the Spirit of God insisted on being accessible to everyone, despite our human limitations.
 
And speaking of limitations... Peter, the one who denied Jesus, the one who failed to be there for his dear friend, who had really screwed up, is still called! The Spirit filled him, empowered him, and he found himself able to share the incredibly good news of God’s mercy and redemption and joy-filled power, with literally thousands. That news has travelled 2,000 years, to us here in the middle of the days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite our human limitations, the Spirit comes to us in the midst of the isolation and fear of illness and unknown future, in the grief surrounding over 103,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in this country. The Spirit has come. In the midst of the very real barriers that divide us, the scourge of systemic racism that binds every single one of us, deeply wounding and oppressing living, breathing human beings, bringing death and fear and destruction and untold misery in its wake, the Spirit has come.
 
The Spirit descends on us — not quietly and peacefully, but in roaring and in fire. It surrounds and fills us, and sends us out to proclaim the radical news of God’s abundant love, and grace, and justice to this world. We are freed and called to learn how to stand in the midst of pandemics and racism and all the evils of this world, and proclaim that God’s justice and will must prevail, even when it feels scary and risky to do so. We are freed to proclaim that healing is possible, even as the fire rages. We are freed to do everything we can to claim that all people are worthy and beloved children of God, WITH, and not in spite of, our differences. In other words, this is the day we are cut loose, freed from the limitations of our Upper Rooms, to be the church in the world.
 
The disciples, like us, were not “prepared” to be the church in their time, but the Spirit came and led them, and they were the church. Like the disciples, we too are set free to embody the promise of God in new ways. We too are being transformed, to be the church in our place and time, in ways we couldn’t even fathom three months ago, and we are still discovering as we navigate our way forward together.
 
Sustained and inspired and strengthened and blessed by the Holy Spirit, we will watch and wait with faith and hope for signs that it is safe to return to our common spaces, while staying physically distant to keep one another, and especially those most vulnerable, safe. And in the meantime, we are called, just like Peter was and the rest of the disciples, to strengthen one another on this journey. We are in this together, together cut loose, freed to be the church, and with the power of the Holy Spirit we will faithfully embody the love and the justice and promise of our God, that essential work that we as people of God have always been called to do, since the very first Pentecost.
 
Thanks be to God.
 
*** Keywords ***
 
2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Acts 2:1-21, coronavirus, Pastor Ingrid Rasmussen, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
WatchNotesDownloadDateTitle
  • May 31, 2020Roaring Winds and Flame
    May 31, 2020
    Roaring Winds and Flame
    Series: (All)
    May 31, 2020. Sometimes God comes with words to calm and comfort and reassure. And sometimes God comes to wake us up. Just as the Spirit came upon the disciples in the first Pentecost as roaring winds and flame, we are seeing the Spirit alive today in the city of Minneapolis, as it burns in protest of the murder of George Floyd. The Spirit descends on us too, and frees us to proclaim that healing is possible, even as the fire rages.
     
    Reading: Acts 2:1-21
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Holy Week seems like such an incredibly long time ago, doesn’t it? And yet just like that, the weirdest Easter season that most of us have ever experienced is over. But let’s think back a minute, to Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday, and find Peter. As they headed into the city to celebrate Passover, the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus warned Peter that he would fall. Peter protests that he is ready to go to prison with Jesus, and he will even die with him. But Jesus knows his people. He tells Peter that not only will he not die with Jesus, but he will deny that he even knows him. And of course, we know the rest of the story. Peter does deny Jesus. The cock crows. The others run and hide. And for these fifty days since, except perhaps for essential tasks or brief trips out of the city, the disciples have been keeping kind of a low profile — waiting and watching and listening and wondering, staying out of the way of the Roman guard who they hear are still looking for the ones who were so close to Jesus — as rumors are beginning to spread and grow about the missing body and the empty tomb. "More dangerous dead than alive," warned one of the religious leaders after Jesus’ death. Maybe so. Everyone is on edge.
     
    It’s that Peter — the one who denied Jesus, the one who hid with his companions, the one who grieved how badly he had failed Jesus just when it counted the most — that we see in our story today from Acts, speaking to a crowd of thousands, shutting down their mocking (of course they aren’t drunk, it’s only 9:30 in the morning), answering their questions. "It is happening," he tells them, "Just as Joel and the other prophets told us. God is upon us." How did that happen? How did Peter go from denial to prophecy? What emboldened Jesus’ followers to come out of their comfort zone and share the good news of life triumphant over death, of God’s deeds of power? And that, I suggest, is really the story here, this Pentecost Sunday. What happened?
     
    There is so much that hadn’t changed, prior to the events of this reading. Jesus’ death was still real, his resurrection, confusing and maybe a bit scary as well as hopeful, his ascension, as perplexing as it was devastating. The authorities were still looking for Jesus’ followers. The disciples, as of yet, really hadn’t left their Upper Room. Hadn’t told the stories outside the circle of trusted followers. Still hadn’t figured out what on earth they were supposed to be doing, what it all meant. So what happened?
     
    When Jesus and Peter were talking, before the Supper, and Peter claimed he was ready to die, Jesus told him that on the contrary Peter would deny even knowing him. Jesus also said something else important. “But I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your siblings.” When you have turned back, strengthen your siblings. And if we remember last week’s gospel, even before Jesus died he had made another promise, perhaps following up on this promise to Peter. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever, the Spirit of truth.” All along the way, Jesus promised that we would not be alone. God would be with us. Hard to believe with all that had taken place, but the disciples were trying.
     
    And so, we come to the events of Pentecost. The disciples are expecting something to happen — Jesus told them he would be sending a comforter. They had gathered in anticipation of this, not knowing what to expect. And then the Spirit showed up. Jesus often said, “Peace be with you,” “Be not afraid,” to his disciples when he came upon them after he rose from the dead. Angels would often say this too, when they appeared to unsuspecting humans, who would understandably be caught off guard by a heavenly being making an appearance. But in the Pentecost reading, there are no words of comfort or peace. Roaring winds, filling their room, locked doors and all. Flames of fire, leaping down and resting on their heads. And then suddenly, they are all filled with words that can't be held in, pouring out of them in languages they didn’t even know! I was talking about this story recently with one of you, who suggested that perhaps not all of the words the disciples spoke were, strictly speaking, “good news.” I recall moments when I have been taken by surprise so profoundly that I couldn’t think clearly enough to put words on it myself, and I can imagine the words that might have escaped my mouth if I had been there that day!
     
    Sometimes, God comes with words to calm and comfort and reassure. And sometimes, God comes to WAKE US UP! Pentecost is one of those days, family of faith! Just as fire in a forest can transform and clear the way for new life, the fires of Pentecost, the Spirit come to the disciples, transformed them forever. They had been afraid, and rightly so. Peter had been so afraid he denied that he even knew Jesus. The Spirit came, and in spite of their fear, they embodied courage and spoke the truth of the good news of God they knew to anyone who would listen.
     
    There is so much fear and grief, morphed into understandable anger and rage, at the death of yet one more black man, George Floyd, murdered on the streets of Minneapolis. As my pastor from my Minneapolis home church, just half a block from the Minneapolis 3rd precinct, said, “My city is on fire.” My city is on fire. The fear is palpable, for those living in it, and those watching from afar. And the courage of those speaking truth, ministering in the midst of that fire, calling for an end to the deep, systemic racism that is fueling it, is undeniable. The Spirit is alive.
     
    The disciples had been cut off, hidden away, and the Spirit removed all barriers between them and their neighbors — even language. Think about how often we misunderstand one another, even our closest people, when we speak the same language, and we can get a glimpse of what a miracle this was — that everyone present, regardless of their national origin, or ethnicity, or language, understood what was being said. No longer cut off, they were suddenly connected with everyone around them. Any idea that God would only speak to certain people, of a certain culture, of a certain language, in certain ways, was dispelled, and the Spirit of God insisted on being accessible to everyone, despite our human limitations.
     
    And speaking of limitations... Peter, the one who denied Jesus, the one who failed to be there for his dear friend, who had really screwed up, is still called! The Spirit filled him, empowered him, and he found himself able to share the incredibly good news of God’s mercy and redemption and joy-filled power, with literally thousands. That news has travelled 2,000 years, to us here in the middle of the days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite our human limitations, the Spirit comes to us in the midst of the isolation and fear of illness and unknown future, in the grief surrounding over 103,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in this country. The Spirit has come. In the midst of the very real barriers that divide us, the scourge of systemic racism that binds every single one of us, deeply wounding and oppressing living, breathing human beings, bringing death and fear and destruction and untold misery in its wake, the Spirit has come.
     
    The Spirit descends on us — not quietly and peacefully, but in roaring and in fire. It surrounds and fills us, and sends us out to proclaim the radical news of God’s abundant love, and grace, and justice to this world. We are freed and called to learn how to stand in the midst of pandemics and racism and all the evils of this world, and proclaim that God’s justice and will must prevail, even when it feels scary and risky to do so. We are freed to proclaim that healing is possible, even as the fire rages. We are freed to do everything we can to claim that all people are worthy and beloved children of God, WITH, and not in spite of, our differences. In other words, this is the day we are cut loose, freed from the limitations of our Upper Rooms, to be the church in the world.
     
    The disciples, like us, were not “prepared” to be the church in their time, but the Spirit came and led them, and they were the church. Like the disciples, we too are set free to embody the promise of God in new ways. We too are being transformed, to be the church in our place and time, in ways we couldn’t even fathom three months ago, and we are still discovering as we navigate our way forward together.
     
    Sustained and inspired and strengthened and blessed by the Holy Spirit, we will watch and wait with faith and hope for signs that it is safe to return to our common spaces, while staying physically distant to keep one another, and especially those most vulnerable, safe. And in the meantime, we are called, just like Peter was and the rest of the disciples, to strengthen one another on this journey. We are in this together, together cut loose, freed to be the church, and with the power of the Holy Spirit we will faithfully embody the love and the justice and promise of our God, that essential work that we as people of God have always been called to do, since the very first Pentecost.
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Acts 2:1-21, coronavirus, Pastor Ingrid Rasmussen, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church
  • May 24, 2020God’s Presence in the Ordinary
    May 24, 2020
    God’s Presence in the Ordinary
    Series: (All)
    May 24, 2020. Is anyone else feeling a little bit humdrum these days? During this time of physical isolation and sheltering in place, it's easy to lose track of the days and to lose track of our purpose. We might even find ourselves saying, "What is the point?" Rachel Helton preaches today on how our reading from Ecclesiastes (as well as lessons from the movie "Groundhog Day") can help us find our purpose for these monotonous days during the pandemic.
     
    Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2-9, Ecclesiastes 2:12-14, Ecclesiastes 2:18-25
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Has anyone else been waking up lately with the sound of Sonny & Cher's "I Got You Babe" playing in their head? I'm looking for Mark Ruff, because I know he put this idea in my mind a few weeks ago, and now it's happening to me. So, for those of you that know and those of you that don't know, in the movie "Groundhog Day" from the early 1990s, a self-proclaimed, under-appreciated weatherman is assigned with covering the events of February 2nd in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania when a groundhog named Phil will predict the end of winter, based on whether or not he sees his shadow. The weatherman, also named Phil, has contempt for this assignment and for the people in this small town. He's eager to get this story over with and move on to bigger and better things. But thanks to a blizzard, Phil is stuck spending an extra night in Punxsutawney. And he wakes up the next morning to find that it's February 2nd. Again.
     
    Day after day, he wakes up in the same bed, hearing the same song playing on the clock radio: "I Got You Babe," by Sonny & Cher. He sees the same people doing the same things. It's always February 2nd. He's trapped in this sort of time loop. He goes from confusion to frustration to downright anger. He eventually starts to manipulate this reality for his own benefit — initially because it seems there are no real consequences for any of his behaviors, and then eventually because he's trying to win over his love interest. But despite his efforts, nothing ever really changes. Everything is fleeting. All is vanity.
     
    Does this feel at all familiar? Is anyone else feeling a little bit humdrum these days? During this time of physical isolation and sheltering in place, it's easy to lose track of the days and to lose track of our purpose. We might even find ourselves saying, "What is the point?" A few Saturdays ago, I decided that our house should be cleaned from top to bottom — and everyone was going to help. About an hour in, my son Isaac said, "Mom, what are we doing? No one has been in our house for weeks. No one will be coming to our house for weeks. By the time someone can come over again, everything will be dirty. What is the point?" What is the point?
     
    And there have been plenty of disappointments in the last few weeks too, haven't there? Field trips that didn't happen. Last days of school that meant, at least for us, picking up a garbage bag of your child's desk contents while standing six feet apart, wearing a mask, on the sidewalk in front of the school. High school graduations that are meant to celebrate achievements and years of friendship that were moved to Zoom. Family vacations canceled. Special visits from friends and family afar postponed. And then there are the casual meals around the dinner table with the friends from down the block, that are suddenly just absent from our lives.
     
    And all this not to mention the real suffering that is happening from COVID. You're surrounded by words and images of illness and death. There's a real danger in our humdrum of becoming used to these images and numbers, of becoming numb to the injustices of our world that mean that people living in North St. Louis, people living in poverty, people of color are being affected more harshly by this virus. We can become numb to the pain that people are feeling and the sheer magnitude of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of deaths from this pandemic.
     
    As we spend day after day doing the same things, inside the same walls, with the same people, without the usual moments of novelty and excitement to break things up a bit, the humdrum can feel unavoidable. In the words of Kohelet, the teacher in Ecclesiastes, what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun, and see all is vanity, a chasing after the wind. The Hebrew word "hevel" is repeated 37 times in the Book of Ecclesiastes. It's the word that's often translated as "vanity" or "meaningless." But it's perhaps better understood as "fleeting," "impermanent" — something like a vapor or a mist.
     
    People have been searching for the meaning of life throughout all of recorded history. Kohelet searches for the meaning too. Is it our work? His answer is no. In the end, all that we work for may be handed over to someone else. Our achievements are impermanent. So, is it knowledge? I hate to tell you this, graduates, but his answer is no to this too. In the end, the person with knowledge will come to the same fate as the person without knowledge. Is it pleasure? Should we just live it up, seize the day? Is this the meaning of life? Another no. This too is fleeting. So the Book of Ecclesiastes opens with the teacher looking around and declaring that everything about life is meaningless, vaporous, fleeting, out of his control. Kohelet tries to justify his life with reason, and he just can't do it. He is honest and raw and frustrated. If nothing else, this book might teach us that God sees us in our frustrated search for meaning. We are allowed to be there. We are in fact invited to be there.
     
    Luckily though, this isn't the end of our story. This isn't the whole picture. So what then is the meaning? Where then can be our hope? Despite the fact that nothing about our existence is guaranteed, that there are limitations to our earthly life, God is limitless. Even in the mundane, simple activities of our daily existence, it is God's presence that makes life meaningful. It is God's presence that moves our activities from ordinary to holy, and creates purpose out of our willingness to use our lives to serve others. The ability to find not just purpose, but joy in our purpose and in our very existence, is a gift from God — a gift to be received but not possessed. When we surrender our time, our efforts, our simple moments to God — not expecting a reward, not expecting productivity or end results, but simply having faith that God will be active in our lives — this makes hope and life and meaning eternal.
     
    Kohelet writes in chapter 2, verse 24, "There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink and find enjoyment in their toil. This also I saw is from the hand of God, for apart from him, who can eat or who can have enjoyment?" Eating, drinking, working, enjoying — these can be acts of faith, faith in the eternal. This is where we, like Jesus, may become glorified by God, and bring glory to God, in this very moment, however boring and humdrum it may feel.
     
    So is the work the meaning of life? No, but we should do work that's meaningful and that serves others. Is knowledge the meaning of life. No, but we should pursue wisdom that helps us to understand God's purposes for creation. Is pleasure the meaning of life? No, but we should enjoy the pleasures of life knowing that they are gifts from God.
     
    In a moment, we'll pray together the Lord's Prayer, and we will ask God to provide our daily bread. We are asking God for the ordinary things that sustain our lives. We are surrendering to the fact that in the absence of God, the cosmos is repetitive, weary, fleeting. But God's presence in the ordinary, God's presence in our eating and drinking, in our work and in our enjoyment, makes it meaningful. This is the wisdom of God that has the power to sustain us. This is our daily bread.
     
    As the movie "Groundhog Day" moves on, Bill Murray's character starts to be transformed. He starts to do things not for himself, but for other people. And he starts to surrender to the fact that he does not have the power to change his situation. With this acknowledgement of his own limitations, and his shift from serving himself to serving others, he finally wakes up to February 3rd. In the final scene of the movie, Phil steps out onto the street — the same street that he's been stepping out onto, day after day after day — always the same gray, detestable street. But today it's new. He sees the world suddenly in a new way, and he looks around and he says, "It's beautiful. Let's live here."
     
    As we step into week 11 of COVID isolation, instead of focusing on the day when all will be back to normal — whatever that may mean — what if instead, we took a deep breath, quieted our anxious minds, allowed ourselves to ask what purpose does God have for this day? What meaning can God bring to this monotonous, humdrum, fleeting day, and all the simple moments in it? We just might find ourselves looking around our weary world, seeing God's promises of justice, hope, love, and saying to ourselves, "It's beautiful. Let's live here."
     
    Amen.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Rachel Helton, Ecclesiastes 1:2-9, Ecclesiastes 2:12-14, Ecclesiastes 2:18-25, Sonny & Cher, I Got You Babe, Bill Murray, Groundhog Day, coronavirus
  • May 17, 2020I Will Not Leave You Orphaned
    May 17, 2020
    I Will Not Leave You Orphaned
    Series: (All)
    May 17, 2020. What does it look like to embody the unity of the Spirit in this time of physical separation? What does the commandment of love, for God and one another, look like in this time of COVID-19? Pastor Meagan's sermon today is on these questions, and Jesus' promise not to leave us orphaned, in this time of uncertainty.
     
    Readings: John 14:15-21, 1 Peter 3:13-22
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    By now, you probably know that I have a thing for cats. Over the last few weeks, I've had the joy of watching over Facebook as a colleague who lives in Virginia has been raising five tiny kittens whose mother disappeared and has not been found. Weighing in at less than a pound when they were rescued, they needed help with absolutely everything. Their eyes still closed, and their little legs still too weak to support even their bitty weight, they started their time in foster care in a box just big enough for them. They were fed with eyedroppers at first, as they couldn't even handle even a bottle yet. They needed to be cleaned from head to tail, as their mother would have done frequently. As they have gained strength, their space has been expanded to include room to play, a designated litter box, and an increasing number of toys. In the last week, there have been pictures and video of these fur babies, now all over a pound, eyes wide open, exploring not just a box but a whole room, hungrily inhaling solid wet food, pulling on strings and leaping back when the string responds, and pouncing on toys, and one another, and their parents’ hands and feet. They still wobble as they navigate their new surroundings, and they return frequently to the safety of their protected habitat to rest and regroup, guided by the nurturing hands and hearts of their caregivers. Their mother may have disappeared, but they have not been abandoned.
     
    “I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus told his disciples. And although we are now in the Easter season, this promise came before that — before Jesus had even been arrested, before his crucifixion and death, before the disciples discovered the empty tomb. Jesus was trying to prepare the disciples for what was to come, letting them know that everything was about to change, that he was going to be arrested and die, that their whole world as they knew it was about to fall apart, that they would in fact betray him — and yet, they would not be alone.
     
    “I will not leave you orphaned.” In our own time of uncertainty, this is so comforting to hear! And there is so much in Jesus’ counsel that can guide us as we navigate our new world, a world changed by the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.
     
    “I will not leave you orphaned.” Jesus promises that the Spirit of truth will be with us, that God will be present around and before and within us, bringing us together. And, Jesus says that the world will not see the truth, but that the disciples will. I hear this and can’t help but echo Pilate’s question to Jesus: “What is truth?” How, in the chaos of this broken world, can we see where we are to go, what we are to do, how we are to be church in the midst of it all?
     
    Our eyes are being opened, Christ Lutheran family, in this time when everything we have been used to has been altered. Our routines have been disrupted, the easy sense of inherent safety as we navigate the world undermined. Any illusion that “church” means the building in which we worship has been exposed. Because right in this moment, we're separated from our building, and physically separated from one another. And yet the truth of what it means to be the church is perhaps more accessible to us than ever. Jesus talks about keeping the commandment of love, for God and one another, as a mark of God’s people. It is the greatest commandment, one by which we will be known as the church. What does that look like, in this time of COVID-19? How can we be the church, by embodying love — for one another, for God, and for the world around us?
     
    Jesus says the Spirit brings us together, with one another and with God. Jesus abides in us; we abide in God. No matter what forces may try to pull us apart, we are all human, children of God, and in our humanity we are connected. The systems of this world are designed to separate us, put us into categories based on so many things: race and ethnicity, gender and orientation, socio-economic status, language, the list goes on. This pandemic experience can widen the gap, and all we have to do is look at a map of cases of COVID-19 in the St. Louis area to know that the Delmar Divide is real — this virus, while devastating to all of us, is particularly damaging to people of color, and people living in poverty, many of whom do not have adequate sick leave and access to health care.
     
    What does it look like to embody the unity of the Spirit in this time of physical separation? Especially in times like this, being the church means noticing when people are left out, oppressed, and excluded, and claiming the love of God that surrounds and embraces and fills everything that is, speaking the truth that we are all one and working actively for a world where all people have what they need. With eyes that are opened, we can see our neighbors living this out every day. Webster-Rock Hill Ministries is there each day, providing food and other necessities for those who need them. Our schools are continuing to provide meals for their students, so no one will go hungry while the buildings are closed. Room at the Inn continues to provide shelter for families without housing, in new ways to keep everyone safe and healthy. Advocates around the city are calling attention to the injustices that exist in our prisons, housing, and health care, and immigration systems, injustices that are particularly poignant as we all navigate a public health crisis like none we have ever lived through.
     
    Our reading from 1 Peter today tells us to be ready. Be ready to walk into the world as it is, and embody something different. Stand face to face with separation, and fear, and anxiety, and violence, and be the church — in our families, our schools, our workplaces, our neighborhoods — to witness the love of God, and see God’s creation and our fellow humans, and ourselves, in the light of God’s love.
     
    “I will not leave you orphaned.” Just as those tiny kittens have so much yet to learn about the world around them, for us, too, much is yet unknown. And, the Spirit of love, of truth, of hope, is with us, and will be, guiding us as we find our way forward. In our weariness, anxiety, fear, grief, and yes, excitement and joy as we discover new ways of doing ministry together, we can rest assured that we have not been abandoned. God is with us, and we are in this together.
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21, coronavirus
  • May 3, 2020Walking the Valley of the Shadow
    May 3, 2020
    Walking the Valley of the Shadow
    Series: (All)
    May 3, 2020. Pastor Meagan reflects on today's readings by noting that none of them promise that danger will be eliminated, death will cease to exist, or evil will be no more. Things change and we are not the same. But God does not change.
     
    Readings: Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, John 10:1-10
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    I was struck, as I read today’s readings, that although all of them mention danger in one form or another, none of them promise that danger will be eliminated. That death will cease to exist. That evil will be no more. Acts 2 acknowledges that there are needs in the community. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” says Psalm 23. And our gospel today names thieves and bandits that attempt to steal and harm the sheep. Our texts do not present a promise that hardship and even evil will be absent, but something else. It reminded me of something that happened when I was young, my first experience of God’s presence in the midst of things that we don’t understand, sadness and confusion.
     
    When I was about seven years old, my favorite pastor collapsed after church one Sunday. We went home unsure of what the outcome would be, and being one who likes to have answers, and wants to understand, I went to the source: my children’s Bible. I read it from cover to cover that day, looking for the answer to why someone so good would die like that, if that’s what was happening. I remember finishing, and still not having my answer — and yet realizing that somehow that was okay, because God knew the plan even if I didn’t.
     
    Now, lest you begin to think that I have spent all of the intervening years feeling serene and peaceful and hopeful, let me assure you — I have not. Doubts, questions, frustrations, grief, anger, are all a normal part of human existence and I, like all of you, have experienced them all along the way. But this experience was one of those touchstone moments in my life that has shaped me, revealed something of God to me, and has in many ways informed how I experience God and understand life and death. It has made possible a slow, gradual, sometimes painful, unclenching of the need to have answers for everything as I have grown older.
     
    Christ Lutheran family, as the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 continues, we are walking together through a time that is full of unanswered questions. Why is this happening? Who is this going to impact? Where is God? What are we supposed to do in this really strange time? And maybe most importantly, how long is this going to last? So much we don’t know and don’t understand. We may sense the thieves and the bandits, feel the weight of the shadow in the valley at times, as we navigate hospital corridors, or grocery store aisles, or cross streets to give our neighbors space as we walk on these sunny days of spring, or stay in our Upper Rooms to keep ourselves and our fellow humans safe. None of our readings today promise us that the thieves and the bandits and shadows will go away, much as we wish they might.
     
    For those of us used to feeling safe most of the time, and sure of ourselves and our future, these readings today can often be taken as a promise that we will be protected from the dangers and the sadness of this human life. In this time of COVID-19, when danger and sadness and anxiety and uncertainty seem to be all around us, these readings sound very different.
     
    Psalm 23 is so often used at funerals, and there is a reason for that. Psalm 23 names head-on the reality of death, the presence of the valley of the shadow. It speaks of a table of abundance, in the midst of enemies who seek to destroy. A wise woman I know created a painting of that image, a table with enemies surrounding it, and she named the enemies — fear, anxiety, self-loathing, resentment. Anyone else felt those enemies, those internal enemies, hovering close in these days? What does your valley look like in this time? Take a moment to name that for yourself, and if you would like to, share that in the chat. Psalm 23 names the valley, and it claims the promise that God the shepherd is there with us. God is with us as we walk the valley, leading us toward places of stillness and healing and renewal. Even in the presence of enemies, the table God provides is ready, abundant, overflowing, and open to everyone. Where are your still places in this time? Where are you finding healing and renewal? Take a moment to name that for yourself, and share in the chat if you wish.
     
    Jesus the shepherd, in our gospel, comes to us bringing life to the full. Thieves and bandits, whatever shape they may take in our nightmares, or our imaginations, or even our daily news feeds, may bring death, and lack, and a reason for fear, but our Risen God brings life, and guides us out to pastures that have all we need. And if we wonder what to do as we navigate the valley, feel the shadow, sense the presence of the thieves and the bandits, we can take courage from the story of the early church, as shared in Acts today. They experienced daily threat from Roman soldiers, and all of the stresses of living as an occupied people. They, like us, were separated from their primary place of worship, as the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. They, like us, were coming together to live out their faith in new ways, to make sense of what was happening, and to be church together. When — not if — people were in need, they shared what they had. They prayed and they broke bread together. And they gave thanks to God for what they had. We at Christ Lutheran are called to follow their example, even, and perhaps especially, in this time of transformation. Pray. Break bread together. Share what we have with those who are in need. And most of all, give thanks!
     
    Fr. Slattery did die that day, and following his funeral life proceeded in many ways as normal from that day forward, as if things were the same. And yet, it was not quite the same. I was not the same. And we living through this time of COVID-19 will not be the same. But one thing will not change: God is with us, guiding us and leading us to green pastures and still waters, places of healing and renewal. We, the Christ Lutheran family, will continue to pray, and break bread, and share what we have with those who are in need. The voice of Jesus our shepherd calls us, and we know that voice, perhaps more clearly in times like this than usual. And in this moment, as we gather together via Zoom and phone and email, and in our homes, and as this crisis passes and we slowly return to our church building, wherever we are — we will dwell in God’s house, forever. Thanks be to God!
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, John 10:1-10, coronavirus
  • Apr 26, 2020Encountering Jesus on the Road
    Apr 26, 2020
    Encountering Jesus on the Road
    Series: (All)
    April 26, 2020. Pastor Meagan preaches on the story of Cleopas and the unnamed disciple on the road to Emmaus. Cleopas and the unnamed disciple tell Jesus everything. What would you tell Jesus, if you were walking with him, about the events of these last few weeks?
     
    Reading: Luke 24:13-35
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    When change happens quickly, or when something somewhat traumatic occurs, it can take time to grasp even the simplest details of what has happened. One such event that stands out for me took place many years ago. I was driving from La Crescent in southern Minnesota up to the Twin Cities with a college friend, and another driver pulled in front of me and then hit the brakes. I immediately tried to slow down, but I knew that it was no use. We hit the other car from behind, and we came to an abrupt stop. My first reaction was to apologize profusely to my friend for the colorful language that had come spewing out of my mouth as I watched the accident unfold. And as we got out of the car and began to assess the damage, the reality of what had happened slowly began to seep in. I looked at the front of the car, now pushed into itself accordion-like. “This doesn’t look good.” I noted the broken headlights, the glass and the plastic scattered on the ground. “No, not good at all.” Then I saw fluids seeping out from under the car, and the peculiar angle of the front tires. “I’m not sure I can drive this home.” The liquid began to pool, the colors blending together on the ground. “No, I don’t think I can drive my car home.” Then, it dawned on me that we were two hours from home. And no cell phone. And no extra car in my pocket.
     
    It sounds pretty quick laying it out like that, but the embarrassing truth is, to my recollection, it took nearly half an hour to figure all that out. I couldn’t bear the full picture of what had happened all at once. We can probably all think of times when something happened that took a long time to “sink in.” Some of them may be painful or traumatic things, like accidents. Or diagnoses. Or losing a job. Or the death of a loved one. Painful things happen, and it can take a while to process and settle into new realities that are not what we anticipated or hoped for. Some of them may be joyful things. Like the birth of a healthy child. Falling in love, or getting married. Even times of joy can be overwhelming. And we can find ourselves struggling to grasp and name what has happened, and what it means.
     
    And so, we can relate to the disciples, as they struggled to sort out for themselves the reality of Jesus’ death, the empty tomb, the reports that Jesus had been seen alive, impossible though that seemed. And so as Cleopas and the unnamed disciple walked along the road to Emmaus together — breathing in fresh air and absorbing the sunshine, perhaps watching the birds flying overhead, after days of being closed up in the Upper Room — they talked it all over again, trying to make sense of it. And then a stranger joins them on the road, and overwhelmed and exhausted and confused as they are, they don’t even realize it’s Jesus! And Jesus, as they are walking along, doesn’t seem to know anything about what his disciples are discussing. And he asks them: what things? What things have happened? Tell me the story.
     
    And so Cleopas and the unnamed disciple, walking along the road with their new friend, are invited to share all of the challenges, the fears, the heartbreaks, and the confusion that they're going through, while Jesus listens to them. Jesus didn’t need them to tell him what had happened. Remember, he was there! But he wanted to know their story, how they were experiencing things, how they were feeling about it. Jesus knew how important it was, as they worked through it all, to tell that story one more time.
     
    And this invitation is not just for them. Cleopas is not one of the more “famous” disciples, not one of the leaders. And the unnamed disciple could be anyone. We are all included in this invitation. In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, with all of the adjusting, and adapting, and loss and grief, and closing ourselves away physically for a time, and uncertainty, and discovering new skills and new ways of doing things, we all need to do literally or figuratively what Cleopas and his companion did: take time to ground ourselves in God’s creation, breathe in fresh air, move our bodies, and share what we are experiencing with a friend. Jesus invites not only the disciples, but us, to walk with him, to tell our story, to share our thoughts and experiences with all that has taken place in these recent weeks.
     
    Cleopas and the unnamed disciple tell Jesus everything. How Jesus had been arrested, and put on trial, and crucified. What would you tell Jesus, if you were walking with him, about the events of these last few weeks?
     
    They told their new friend how they had hoped Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel. What are things that you hoped for that now seem uncertain, or even impossible? What hopes have been lost, or have changed?
     
    Cleopas and the unnamed disciple told Jesus that some of the other disciples had seen signs of hope in the midst of the gruesome events they had experienced. Indications that perhaps Jesus’ death was not as final as it seemed. What signs of hope do you see in these days? Where have you experienced joy, in the midst of the challenges of this time? Where have you seen evidence of new life?
     
    And after they had talked, the disciples invited Jesus to stay with them and eat. The table for Jesus is a place of bounty, of unity with all of those with whom Jesus ate, of renewal of community for those who had been excluded. Jesus’ table shows up in so many places in our gospel stories: the wedding at Cana where Jesus provides wine, the religious leader’s home, the tax collector’s home, the field where 5,000 people are gathered, the feast celebrating the return of the Prodigal Son, the Passover supper that Jesus and disciples shared, the shore where the disciples are despondently cooking fish after Jesus died, just to name a few.
     
    So it is no surprise really when they sit down to eat, and broke the bread together as they had so many times before, that this is the moment when Cleopas and the unnamed disciple realize that the “stranger” with whom they had been walking was Jesus. He had been with them all along! And it dawned on them: that is why their hearts had been burning as they walked along the road with Jesus! As they had been talking, they had been looking, hoping, yearning for answers to all of the questions they were holding. Why Jesus had to die. Why he hadn’t saved himself. Why God hadn’t saved him. Why Jesus had left them. We often feel those questions, that weight, in our bodies — in our shoulders, our head, our gut, our chest — and the disciples are no different. And when Jesus was listening to them, reassuring them of God’s love and presence, they felt the hope and promise in their bodies too, in the burning of their hearts.
     
    The thing is, the disciples didn’t actually understand any better why things were happening the way they were. That ultimate question of why bad things happen has been the subject of books and lectures and study for years, and no one has really come up with a good answer. The hard truth is, as much as we wish we could understand why things like the pandemic happen, why loved ones die, why we experience pain, we don’t know. But the disciples did know that God was with them. They did understand, as they saw that Jesus had been with them all along, that God’s love and mercy was a promise that God would never break.
     
    We see again this week, as we walk along with the disciples, that resurrection is not an act completed, but is about persistence in the midst of the very real challenges of this human life. Resurrection springs up like a burning in our hearts, an eruption of hope and maybe even joy in the recognition of Jesus’ presence. Where have you seen the Lord?
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Luke 24:13-35, coronavirus
  • Apr 19, 2020Coming to Terms with the Resurrection
    Apr 19, 2020
    Coming to Terms with the Resurrection
    Series: (All)
    April 19, 2020. After Jesus had been arrested, tortured, and crucified, the disciples waited  — hidden away in their Upper Room — and were afraid. We hear this gospel story every year. But this year, we know more than ever what it means to be isolated in our rooms and afraid too. Today's sermon reminds us that even so, the promise of God is still with us.
     
    Reading: John 20:19-31
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Is anyone else tired this week? I will admit that I am. Easter is over, Jesus is risen, the adrenaline of the fast-paced adjustments of the last several weeks has worn off — and I am a little worn out. And yet, all of the reliable sources on the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 indicate that we're not done yet, and we'll be sticking together while staying physically apart for a while yet. The nightly news is not hopeful, for us who long for the widespread testing and successful management of the virus that will allow us to open the doors of our Upper Rooms, and come out safely to resume our regular routines, to travel, to go to parks and movies and museums and restaurants, like we did every day until just five weeks ago. Think about that — just five weeks, and how much has changed.
     
    And I wonder, if the disciples didn’t feel a similar weariness, waiting in their Upper Room. The news they heard from outside wasn’t good, either. Jesus, their friend, with whom they had eaten the Passover meal, who had washed their feet, who had shared the promise of God’s love and forgiveness and mercy, had been arrested. And Jesus was tortured. And murdered. And Jesus had been betrayed by Judas, their friend, who was now dead too. All of the hopes they had for freedom and justice and change in their world had seemingly died, on the cross, with Jesus.
     
    And they, the followers of Jesus that they were, were vulnerable also. Peter especially knew that — he had been noticed, as he waited for word on what was happening to Jesus in the sham trial held by the religious leaders and the Roman occupiers. And he was afraid that he himself, and maybe his family too, would also be arrested by the religious leaders. So afraid that he had denied not only Jesus, but his own ideals and hopes, multiple times, in order to protect himself. They were all afraid.
     
    And so they waited, hidden away in their Upper Room, perhaps the same Upper Room where they had their last meal with Jesus. The witness of Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of James and John, that Jesus’ tomb was empty, corroborated by Peter and the other disciple reporting on the linens left abandoned where Jesus had been buried, and Mary Magdalene’s claim that she had actually seen Jesus, could stir hope, but not enough to set them free to leave their place of safety for good, and return to their normal lives. It was all too confusing, too hard to believe.
     
    We hear today’s gospel story every year, and it is so familiar. How Jesus came to the disciples as they hid. How Thomas wasn’t there, and refused to believe that Jesus had come while he was out. And how, when Jesus came again, Thomas demanded proof from him of who he was, proof of the good news that he brought. And how Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds, and Thomas then believed. “Doubting Thomas,” as he has been dubbed, gets a bad rap often, in our Easter story. And I always stick up for Thomas, point out how often we too need proof in order to believe, how Jesus sees what Thomas needs, and offers him the opportunity to touch the wounds in his hands, his feet, his side. But this year, as we wait still in our Upper Rooms for good news that will allow us to venture out again, a question occurred to me about this story of the disciples in their Upper Room.
     
    Where was Thomas, when Jesus came the first time? It’s easy to take this for granted, to let it pass as insignificant to the story we are hearing. But in this season of COVID-19, a new light is shed on this throw-away phrase from our gospel. And I wonder, where was Thomas, the so-called doubting one? From our new point of view on this ancient story, from our Upper Rooms, this feels strangely significant. Given the circumstances, I don’t think Thomas was out just for fun, attending a party or going to the local baths. I suspect Thomas was out with a purpose, perhaps trying to get news on what was happening, in a world without TV or internet to help the disciples stay informed. Or perhaps he was getting food and supplies, so they would have what they needed while they stayed safely hidden. Thomas may have, for some reason, been least at risk of arrest by the Romans, and so was the one sent out while the rest remained, not having any idea that Jesus was going to come through that locked door.
     
    Having been the one at home and the one to go out during this time of physical distancing, I can imagine how they all felt. Thomas, hearing the whispers of fate that awaited any followers of Jesus, having perhaps seen armed soldiers searching the shops and the streets, having maybe even had to quickly cross the street to avoid coming face-to-face with someone who might betray him, gets back to the Upper Room, breathing a sigh of relief as he locked the door behind him again. And he doesn’t have a chance to tell his friends what it’s like out there before they tell him the news: Jesus had come while he was out, breathing life into their place of refuge, bringing hope to a situation that felt completely hopeless. How can Thomas reconcile that with what he has just seen?
     
    And the rest of the disciples, having seen Jesus, have had their minds blown, one more time. The hope of being with Jesus, hearing the promises, seeing the miracles, shattered on the cross. And just when they thought there was no way to redeem the situation, Jesus shows them that everything they thought about him, and what he was going to do, was wrong — and right.
     
    Coming to terms with the resurrection isn’t something we think about a lot, is it? And yet this year, we know more than ever what it means to be afraid. What it means to be closed away. What it means to long and grieve for nothing more than what has been and what we had hoped for, for the people who we have loved and lost, for what was familiar and comfortable such a short time ago. It takes time, this process, and we are just at the beginning.
     
    And Jesus, he was so patient, so understanding of the fear that the disciples felt, and how hard it would be for them to embrace their new reality and understanding of who Jesus was, who God is. He breathed on them, promised them peace, and came not just once, but many times, as many times as it would take for the disciples to finally get it.
     
    And we are being transformed, as people, as a community of faith, as a human family, just as Thomas and the disciples were transformed. We are being renewed and prepared for something we can’t yet imagine or understand. And the promise of God is with us, here and now. There is grief in transformation, and there is hope and life, too. We can be patient with one another, patient with ourselves, and lean on each other through this time. Jesus breathed the Spirit on his disciples, and he breathes on us gathered here this morning. “Peace be with you,” my family. Peace be with you. Christ is alive!
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, John 20:19-31, coronavirus
  • Apr 12, 2020Easter in the Upper Room
    Apr 12, 2020
    Easter in the Upper Room
    Series: (All)
    April 12, 2020. It's been challenging thinking about how to mark Easter this year, when in the season of COVID-19 we can't be together physically. In our isolation, we feel a little closer to the disciples in theirs, waiting for a bit of good news. Pastor Meagan's sermon this morning is on the promise of the resurrection, on the light and life and healing and hope on the other side.
     
    Reading: John 20:1-18
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    This Easter feels really weird, doesn't it? It's been challenging thinking about how to mark Easter this year, when in the season of COVID-19 we can't be together physically. We aren't gathered in our sanctuary with the altar full of gorgeous color, and the choir resounding, and the smell of lilies flooding the space. We won't be feasting on a brunch, at a table surrounded by loved ones, traveling from distant places to celebrate. In comparison with "normal" years, in some ways it hardly feels like Easter.
     
    And yet here we are. We have shared the Last Supper in our Upper Rooms. We've been at the cross with Jesus, remembered how he died, acknowledged the ways in which we contribute to the brokenness that still oppresses and wounds so many today. And now we are huddled again in our Upper Rooms — just as the disciples were that early first Easter morning — waiting for a bit of good news, something to let us know that resurrection is coming, something to prove that Jesus has in fact risen from the dead.
     
    In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens declares, "Marley was dead to begin with. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story that I'm going to relate." And I say to you this morning, Jesus was dead to begin with. And this must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I'm going to relate. Because although Jesus' death is not the end of the story, if we don't know the sacredness and intimacy of Maundy Thursday, the horror of Good Friday, and the silent despair of Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday comes like too much chocolate and jelly beans on an empty stomach: it tastes really good but it won't get us very far. And so, my family of faith, this year may in fact be more like that first Easter than our typical Easter celebration, because we in our Upper Rooms are a little closer to the disciples in theirs.
     
    The women — Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and John — who went to the tomb that morning bearing spices, were there when Jesus died. They knew he was gone, and they didn't have the slightest expectation that he had survived all that had happened. They were drawn to the tomb that morning not by the thought that Jesus might be alive, but by the call of their faith to honor one they had loved and followed by anointing the body that was left. They were there because they were not afraid to face the darkness of the tomb. They faced the darkness, walked into the tomb, and saw evidence of the miracle: the stone rolled away, an empty tomb, a pile of linen left lying on the floor. What would you have thought had you been there? How would you have told the story to the others, waiting back in the Upper Room to hear about their visit to the tomb? What would you have thought if you were one of Jesus' other followers hearing this story?
     
    The women themselves didn't believe it at first. Mary was sure that someone was playing a cruel trick, that Jesus' body had been stolen and hidden. As Mary begs to know where Jesus is, she hears the voice — that voice, the one she knew so well — saying her name. And she believed, or began to believe. And knowing how crazy it might sound, she runs to tell the others.
     
    Resurrection, this coming of life out of certain and undeniable death, is impossible to explain or prove. And yet for those who have experienced it, it changes everything. The women who went to the tomb and the other disciples who followed them, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, once they had witnessed the resurrection, they were never the same. They faced the darkness of the tomb. They knew the despair. And they were transformed when they discovered that death is not the final word.
     
    And resurrection isn't just a one-time event. It is a promise from God in Jesus that when we enter that tomb, God will be there. Those who have been to the tomb know this. People who have lived with the devastation of addiction and found recovery. People who have experienced profound grief, and found to their surprise that one day, if only for a moment, they could feel joy again. People who have found reconciliation after years of estrangement. Or healing and empowerment after living with abuse.
     
    Resurrection, beloveds, is not so much a one-time event as it is a process of coming out of death, over and over and over. Just as the disciples did not instantly understand and believe and experience the freedom of Jesus rising from the dead, the resurrection in our lives comes slowly. In times of darkness and destruction, we need to hear this promise — as we follow the news of the COVID-19 pandemic, as we stick close to our phones and computers and tablets to stay in contact with loved ones we can't be with right now, as we struggle to navigate all new routines and all new ways of sharing space, as we live with the loneliness of not being able to be with our close communities, as we pray for the health of those who are called to risk their well-being and lives to serve others, as we hold our breaths hoping for good news about those who are ill, and as we grieve from a distance those whose funerals are deferred to an uncertain future. We need to know that even in the face of illness, oppression, loneliness, and grief, death will never be the final word.
     
    Resurrection is not a magic eraser that takes away the pain and the despair. Jesus was dead to begin with, and nothing can ever change the horror of that. The women in the tomb knew that. The good news came to them when they were fully expecting to anoint a body. The disciples in the Upper Room knew that. It took many days and many encounters with the risen Jesus to ease their fear and fulfill their freedom. Resurrection does not erase death, but it does reveal the loving, redemptive presence of God in the midst of it. And that changes everything.
     
    The promise of the resurrection, brought first by Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and John, is that no matter how dark the tomb is, God is with us in the tomb, and there is light and life and healing and hope on the other side. When we know that, we can face the tomb, even if we are afraid. Resurrection is hard to explain and impossible to prove, but when we see it we have to tell the story. Today, just as Jesus said Mary's name, the Risen One is whispering our names, and calling us to be witnesses to the resurrection. Today we celebrate this promise in our Upper Rooms, trusting that new life is here and it is coming to us in its fullness. We celebrate today in our Upper Rooms, claiming the hope of a celebratory feast, with flowers and food and physical community, when the doors can be safely opened. Come with me and tell anyone who will listen: alleluia, Christ is risen!
     
    Thanks be to God.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, John 20:1-18, coronavirus, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
  • Apr 9, 2020In Our Upper Rooms
    Apr 9, 2020
    In Our Upper Rooms
    Series: (All)
    April 9, 2020. For many people of faith, washing is a sign of spiritual cleansing. In our gospel this evening, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. And all these years later as we prepare to break the Eucharistic bread together, each of us in our own separate Upper Room during this time of social distancing, we are more aware than ever of how important washing is.
     
    Reading: John 13:1-7, 31-35
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    A few years ago when I was in Tanzania, we had the opportunity to “break bread” many times, in many places. We had a rich meal with many different foods, spread on a large table, in the home of a bishop. We had cakes and tea, served with a face-splitting smile by the mother of three young boys living with a degenerative disease, as we sat on bales of hay in their living space. And we had a meal of peanuts, which our hosts poured into the hands of guests sitting on the floor of their one-room village home. “You can’t leave until you take something,” said the boy’s mother. And so it was, everywhere we went. Always there was food, something to nourish our bodies. And always there was that profound joy in having something to share. And always, there was a washing of hands. In the Bishop’s home, and in the restaurants, there was a sink with running water in the corner of the dining space, at which we lined up to wash our hands before the meal was served. In the mother’s home, there was a pail of water and a cup for pouring water over our hands before we took the cakes. And before the peanuts were divided among the guests, a banana leaf, broken open to reveal its moist inside, was passed around so all could receive that rare treat with clean hands.
     
    The breaking of bread and the washing are central to Tanzanian culture. And, they were central to the culture shared by Jesus and his friends, and their surrounding community. This story of the Last Supper is not the first time we have heard about washing in our gospels. There is perhaps most notably the poignant story of the woman who enters Simon’s house, when Jesus is there, to wash and anoint his feet. And when people chastise her for “invading” the home of a temple leader, sinner that she was, Jesus chastises Simon for not having offered Jesus the opportunity to wash his feet when he arrived.
     
    There are many reasons why washing is so important to different cultures and different times. For many people of faith, it's a sign of spiritual cleansing. For us as Lutherans, the use of water in baptism is a way of claiming our identities as children of God, a way of entering into the community of faith, and the promise of forgiveness. For we humans, at our essence, water is life. And the use of water for washing can be a reminder of the water that exists in our bodies, our very cells. For the disciples who lived in a hot, dry land where travel by foot was the norm, even when there were miles to cover, the opportunity to wash one’s feet upon entering a home was very basic hospitality. And washing feet was essential for health and well-being, in a way that we often take for granted — washing feet that were covered with dust and dirt, blistered and cut and bruised from walking for days, was necessary to ensure that they could walk another day.
     
    And in this season, this time of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, we are more aware than ever of how important washing is. “Wash your hands” has become a mantra for us these days, as we see more clearly than usual that doing this simple ritual is not only a way to keep ourselves clean, but to stay healthy, prevent disease, and indeed to show our love for others as we contribute to the health of our whole community.
     
    The disciples gathered with Jesus over 2,000 years ago in an Upper Room in Jerusalem. Jesus broke bread with them in that Upper Room. And before they ate in that Upper Room, Jesus washed their feet for them. And he said, “Do this in memory of me. Do for others, as I have done for you.” “You can’t leave until you take something!”
     
    And tonight, 2,000 years later, we are here, all of us in our Upper Rooms, preparing to break the Eucharistic bread together for the first time in a few weeks. Separated by space but not by time, we have come together at the table of God, which knows no limits. We will hear those words of Jesus — this is my body, this is my blood, do this in memory of me.
     
    And together, separated by space but not by time, as so many have done before us, we will wash. We will wash for our health. We will wash out of love for those with whom we live, and those with whom we cross paths in this time of isolation — at the grocery store, at the pharmacy, on the sidewalk, or in the hallway. We will wash to remember our baptisms, and our identity as children of God, always seen and known by the one who is present with us in our Upper Rooms. We will wash with water to claim the promise of life. As people across all times and places, all the cultures, all faiths have washed themselves and one another — for health, for hospitality, for spiritual practice — so we tonight, each in our Upper Rooms, wash one another, or wash ourselves, in preparation for the meal that we are about to eat.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, John 13:1-7, 31-35, coronavirus
  • Apr 5, 2020We Cry Hosanna!
    Apr 5, 2020
    We Cry Hosanna!
    Series: (All)
    April 5, 2020. The people walking along with Jesus on his triumphant entry into Jerusalem were yelling out, "Hosanna!" This was not so much a cry of joy, though, as it was a cry for help. Palm Sunday this year is different from other years, isn't it? Here we are a week away from Easter, dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, and we are crying out for help that we know only God can give.
     
    Reading: Matthew 21:1-11
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    We tend to think of Palm Sunday as a parade like St. Patrick's Day, a big street party with lots of music and dancing and food, a time of exuberant celebration, and unbridled fun. And that was certainly part of it, that day so long ago, when Jesus was entering Jerusalem. The people gathered spontaneously to sing and wave branches, and to walk along the road together as a community.
     
    My favorite Twin Cities parade, before it was canceled a few years ago, was always the Holidazzle Parade. It would take place every night from Thanksgiving through Christmas, outside — yes, we are crazy like that in Minnesota! — and people would come hours early to eat downtown, to go to the Macy's Eighth-Floor Holiday Display, and then line up on the street to watch the parade after it was dark. All the floats and even the costumes were lit, and the costumes and music were amazing. It was a great chance for the community to come together in defiance of the winter snow and ice and cold. What's your favorite parade?
     
    There is more to this parade though, this Palm Sunday parade, this triumphant entry into Jerusalem, than what appears at first glance. Because this was a parade not to celebrate an anniversary or a heritage or a season or even a community. The people, Matthew tells us, were shouting "Hosanna!" as they walked with Jesus into the city. It can be understood to be an exclamation of praise and honor, and it is. But interestingly, most closely translated, hosanna means "save us." Think about that for a moment. The people walking along with Jesus were crying out to be saved. Jesus was the focal point of this parade, the whole reason for the spontaneous gathering. And those who gathered there were poor, oppressed, beaten down by the occupying forces. And they were yelling out, "Hosanna!" This was not so much a cry of joy as it was a cry for help, from a people who believed that Jesus could save them.
     
    This gathering of people claiming their right to be heard, and their faith in the possibility of freedom and justice, was probably more like the March on Selma for basic rights and freedom for black people led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other black leaders, or the historic demonstration for LGBTQ rights and lives at Stonewall that was led by queer trans women, than it was like your typical St. Patrick's Day parade. This was an act of resistance to the injustice and despair in their world, an act of hope, of community standing together in solidarity with one another, welcoming the one they believed could change their lives. As Matthew tells the story, this is emphasized by the passage from Zachariah that Matthew quotes: "Your king is coming to you, mounted on a donkey and a colt," claiming Jesus as that king who would save God's people — not the Roman emperor, but Jesus, God come to us in human form, to fulfill God's promise.
     
    This Palm Sunday is different from other years, isn't it? Here we are a week away from Easter, knowing we'll be experiencing a Lent of sorts for a while, as we all do everything we can to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This year, more than other years, we are fully aware that we need more than our own efforts, more than our local and national rulers can do, to bring us through this crisis that is impacting all of humanity. We know this year, more than most, the limits to our human capacity. We know more than ever that we need one another and that we need God to save us. This year, more than most, we join the crowd that gathered around Jesus and claimed him as the king come to save God's people. We cry out with those most vulnerable to becoming ill, those who do not have access to what they need at this time, those whose jobs have ended, those waiting for basic protective equipment but continuing to heal and serve, those who are painfully lonely in this time of physical separation.
     
    Let us together — in joy and desperation, in hope and determination and faith, across time and space and Zoom — add our voices to the voices of resistance crying, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" Grab your noisemakers, friends. It is time for a parade. Or you may have something to wave, or you may wave your palms as John Hoffmann likes to say, or you may just choose to watch the parade as it goes in front of you. Let us celebrate together.
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Matthew 21:1-11, Zechariah 9:9, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, coronavirus
  • Mar 29, 2020Can These Bones Live?
    Mar 29, 2020
    Can These Bones Live?
    Series: (All)
    March 29, 2020. The readings today include the Valley of Dry Bones from Ezekiel, and Jesus raising Lazarus to life from the Gospel of John. Pastor Meagan preaches on these texts, on the death that is already happening in our world with the pandemic we are facing, and the life anew that we know is coming from the breath of God.
     
    Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45
     
    *** Transcript ***
     
    Twice, I've been present in the room at the moment when someone took their last breath. Stood at the bedside, waiting and watching, holding hands, praying and singing, as breath by breath, life slipped away. In both cases, I and those I stood vigil with listened closely, wondering which breath would be the last one — this, or this, or this. In the end, when the final breath was released, we collectively held our own breaths until we were sure: the final exhale had indeed signaled the end of this unique life in human form, the body still warm, but quickly cooling.
     
    The bones God leads Ezekiel to in that valley have no warmth. There is no indication that they ever had breath, and for my money, if I were the betting type, no hope that they would ever breathe again. It’s kind of like the feeling I would get being out in our yard in Minneapolis, after the snow melted, but before any buds had popped or grass had appeared. It just doesn’t seem possible that life could return, it all looks so dead, twigs and sticks and brown.
     
    If I had been Ezekiel, I might have said, “No way!” in response to the question of whether these bones can live. “Are we looking at the same thing? Not possible.” And Mary and the other mourners say basically the same thing to Jesus, when he says he wants to take the stone away from Lazarus’ tomb. “It’s going to smell! He’s been in there for four days!”
     
    Jesus persists, because he knows something that the others don’t know. Even when death is so final that you can smell it, when breath has been gone for so long that the bones are literally dry, God can still bring life.
     
    The winds, the Spirit, moves, in concert with Ezekiel’s prophecy, and the breath enters the bones and they live! When the stone is rolled away from Lazarus’ tomb, we have to imagine the stench of certain death was terrible, and yet in response to Jesus’ cry — Lazarus, come out — Lazarus comes!
     
    My family of faith, the pandemic that we are facing is like the stench of death from Lazarus’ tomb, or the rattle of bones from Ezekiel’s valley, or the brown, lifeless branches in my yard before spring begins. Signs of death, undeniably. Death is already happening, and beloveds, there will be more before this passes.
     
    And, the Spirit is still at work. The wind is blowing, ready to bring life out of the bones that have no flesh left on them. The stone is rolled away, waiting for Lazarus to step out into the fresh air. In our yard here in South City, our cats are discovering every green blade, all the new plants they've never seen before.
     
    This coming of life is not a passive thing. We human beings living this human life are invited to be active, breathing participants in the life-giving movement of the Spirit around us. God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” and he says, in effect, “I don’t know, can they?” And God says, “Prophecy to these bones. Tell the winds, breathe on these bones, and they might have life.” In other words, claim the promise, Ezekiel, and proclaim the promise, that God brings life where we can only see death.
     
    Lazarus’ sisters, and their gathered community, are invited to participate in Lazarus’ re-birth by unbinding him. Letting go of old ideas perhaps of who he was, letting go of grief, opening their minds to receive the new life that stood before them.
     
    We, too are invited to witness to death, family of faith, as Ezekiel did in the Valley of Dry Bones, as the mourners gathered smelled death at Lazarus’ tomb. God witnesses with us all the griefs we experience, all the losses we bear now, and those yet to come — not as a passive observer, but weeping alongside us, as Jesus wept for his friend, Lazarus.
     
    We, too, are invited into the promises of the living God, family of faith. We, too, are invited to prophecy with Ezekiel, to join the mourners in unbinding new life when it appears.
     
    And when we are the dry bones, when we are sealed in a tomb as dead as Lazarus, the community here gathered prophecies to you, and for you, and unbinds you, that you might find life again. Because we can’t always see it for ourselves, in the midst of the tomb, in the midst of the valley. I don’t know about you, but I suspect I am not alone in having experienced dryness the last couple of weeks. I will confess to having had a temper tantrum over a minor inconvenience a few days ago, to having felt overwhelmed by all the changes we have been asked to make in a brief two weeks, to having felt the helplessness of wondering how my family is, from a distance, as I know many of you have as well. Anyone else felt dry, keenly aware of fear and grief and tiredness this week?
     
    And yet, I have also felt the wind blowing, and the Spirit moving. Your worship team gathered, and a new life entered into our imaginings about how to celebrate Holy Week and Easter together, while we are still physically apart. Our youngest cat figured out he can climb the wooden fence in our yard, much to his delight and our chagrin. A neighbor down the block hosted her own block concert this week, with a professional sound system set up on her porch. My brother’s family posted a photo of their family taking a run together in their neighborhood. A mentor sent me a link to an acapella recording of “It is Well” that brought tears to my eyes. And all of you, family of faith, are caring for one another so well, in these days.
     
    When we are dry and can’t speak, we prophecy to one another, proclaiming that we know the breath of God will come, bringing life anew, however that looks, on the other side, whenever that is. Family of faith, no matter what happens, life is coming. We are here, and so is God, and we are in this together. Life is coming!
     
    Family of faith, God is whispering to us, “Mortal, can these bones live?” What is your answer this morning?
     
    *** Keywords ***
     
    2020, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Meagan McLaughlin, Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45, coronavirus, COVID-19, St. Louis