One of my favorite professors in college would always start his classes by telling us that when he came to the end of the semester, the class would not conclude, it would just stop. The first time I heard that I laughed it off, not really getting what he meant, but after we only got through half of the syllabus the first semester, I totally understood.
He was always ambitious in his teaching, but also never let anyone get lost along the way. In fact, the most he ever finished was about half of what he had planned. It never disappointed him, nor did it frustrate the class, because we all knew that one semester would never fill a lifetime of learning. So some would pick things up again in the next class, others would continue to study on their own, and others still would put the class behind them, not to be thought about again.
I always felt sorry for the folks who went through college as if it were a checklist of tasks. What is the point of college if the goal is merely to get to the other side? The same could be thought about life. There are many people in our world who go through life checking off tasks, doing what is expected and so on, but have they ever lived? Interestingly, when I was thinking about the classes I took with that professor, I remembered how much fun they were and how when I got to the other side, I was excited to keep going!!!
Recently, in preparing for Easter, I have noticed something interesting. When Christ died, his life on earth was not complete, it just stopped. I don’t know why I never really thought about that before, but for some reason, that really stood out to me. As I thought about it more, I could not help but think back to my class in college, and the light went on!
I have never met someone who had completed their lives when they died. Sure, they may have done everything they wanted. And, yes, many people die peaceful and content. But there is always a deep loss for those who cared for them and something that they could still live for.
But the interesting thing is that God tells us that we are not to live our lives for completion. Rather, we are to live our lives to the fullest by preparing in this life for the glory of the next. It is true that when our lives on earth stop, there will be a glorious new life in the next.
This is the promise of Christ: like my professor who promised that the class would not conclude but just stop, Christ promises that our lives do not conclude, they just stop. They stop only to be picked up in the next life.
This is what it means to be Easter People¾we live in the promise of the Resurrection. This shapes our morals, our choices, and most importantly, our lives. Since we no longer need to live to attain a complete life, we can live in a freedom that allows us to go in depth when we need to, grow when we are challenged, and show kindness and love wherever it is needed. We do not need to live for ourselves or our own goals because God has placed a new life before us, a promise that there will be more to come!
Did you know that yeast goes bad? Yeah, I found that out the hard way. Back when I was in seminary one of my joys was making bread. I learned the basic recipe, then I tried experimenting with a little of this and a little of that. After trial and error, I came up with a great recipe for a garlic parmesan Italian-style bread. It was awesome! But the seasons were changing and with no AC, I decided that bread baking would have to wait until the next season.
Well, you can guess the story. I used the old yeast that I had purchased in a fancy specialty store. The was some rising, but not as much as I would have liked. I don’t know why, but I thought, maybe baking it will get it to complete. Well, the results were less than good, in fact, they were downright disgusting. I looked at the label on the jar of yeast and, sure enough, it was past its expiration date by a couple months. The yeast was dead, and as sad as it was to throw the jar away, it had to be done. The yeast no longer had use.
Often we try to cling to things that no longer work. For me, it was hard to throw the yeast away because I had paid extra for this “special” yeast. In 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8, Paul says:
“Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
Paul uses this example of yeast to help people to see that when something does not work, there is not much that you can do but get rid of it and either get something new or not use anything at all. In fact, he is asking you to take on a very different approach: instead of relying on your traditions or doctrines, he suggests that we go back to the basics.
Take a look at a box of matzo bread. It typically has two to four ingredients. All matzo has water and flour; some will get fancy with a little olive oil or salt. But it is what it is; nothing pretentious or fancy, yet it is sustaining and filling. When it comes to bread, it really is all you need.
This is true of faith. As we approach Easter in the final days, Paul’s suggestion is to go in purged of all that is corrosive or just bad. We know that over time, faith often becomes jaded, even self-serving. It often becomes about us and our own piety, more than what God wants from us. Sometimes there are even parts of our faith that lead us down paths that are dark and isolating. It is those elements, and all that pulls us away from the core of our faith, that we need to purge to truly be ready for Easter.
Yours in Christ,
I woke up this morning for the second time this year to open windows and birds chirping. What a way to wake up! Nature has this almost magical effect on me. On a nice day I can, and often do, get lost in the beauty of God’s creation. When you think about it, sometimes it can be overwhelming to think about the intricacies of our world and the fascinating balance within it.
This Sunday the Christian churches celebrate Palm Sunday, and the following Sunday will be the Easter Celebration. Something is lost when we focus upon the celebration of Palm Sunday and Easter and miss the Passion of Christ’s betrayal, abandonment, conviction, humiliation, and crucifixion. As a result, we are unable to see the fullness of the Resurrection, and cannot truly appreciate the sacrifice that Christ made by suffering through the Passion.
Understanding the Passion and Christ’s suffering are essential, because if we do not know what Christ endured, the empty tomb is rendered meaningless. Missing Holy Week is like winning a race that was never run. Or, in other words, it is meaningless without the struggle.
The struggle is important. Unfortunately, as a society, we all too often cut out the struggle. When crafting games for children, political correctness requires the struggle to be eliminated in order to “make everyone a winner.” In life, if we don’t like our place, we can move. If we do not like a person, we can avoid them. If we don’t like our job, we can search for a new one. If we don’t have money, we can borrow it. We can do many things to remove ourselves from the suffering, and so could Christ.
It is similar to our secular life in another way. The freedom that we have as a people is due in great part to the suffering and struggles of those who came before us. There are also many who, because of their parents’ hardships, are able to live better and more comfortably than any prior generation in their family. Thus, history plays an important role, but the struggles of our previous generation shape who we are.
This is true in my life. Growing up, I never received an allowance. If I wanted something, I had to work for it (mowing lawns, babysitting, washing cars, etc.), or save birthday and Christmas money. Though my parents could have afforded to give me much of what I wanted, they did not. Both grew up in families that were poor and struggled. Both went to college and both worked hard to make it to the tops of their chosen professions, thanks in great part to the hard work they had learned to handle in overcoming struggles. In knowing their history and learning the importance of hard work, I am able to be that much more grateful for the life that I have.
The same is true of our faith. It is in the struggles of Christ that we understand the importance of the Resurrection. God’s choice to send Christ into this world allows us to see God through Christ as fully human and fully divine. We know that he felt the same pains that we feel. He got sick, as we get sick. He was tempted, as we are tempted. And he suffered as we suffer. He suffered so that when we suffer, we know that he is suffering with us. Furthermore, he did all this out of love; he did this so that we may receive his grace and have life.
As we come to Palm Sunday, I challenge you to go to at least one other service during the week. It could be one of the community noon services or a Holy Week service somewhere else. Let your eyes be opened to the Passion that allows true celebration.
Something about being in seminary can take an interesting story and make it bizarre. While visiting seminaries, I will never forget listening to a group talk about their calls to ministry. A young man told this fantastical story about a hamburger that began to speak to him and told him to go to seminary. My initial thought was “isn’t that what Mylanta is for?” But it is really not my place to judge. Looking back, I question why the seminary had that as a formal part of their weekend. It was kind of a set-up.
Now I know, I cannot judge whether that happened or not, but having gone to seminary I now realize that there is a phenomenon that happens there where as stories are shared they become more and more remarkable. It is as if the more outlandish they are, the more they prove how good a Christian the candidate is going to be. But this is part of our humanity, no matter what field or position in life, think of the fishing stories we often hear!!!
In my own life, I could boast about being the perfect Christian. I do have the right pedigree. No matter which branch of our family tree you follow there are tons of pastors and priests, one branch even goes back to Ulrich Zwingli himself, a cornerstone of the reformed tradition. I cannot remember a week of my life where the church did not play a major role!
But, let’s be honest, while I have always been part of the church, and faith was always around me,` that does not make for a good Christian. I am the first to admit that I am far from the perfect Christian. Much of my life I took my faith for granted. As a child, the social side of church was important, the faith part was not. As an adult, I have let my own desires come between me and my relationship with God, something I always am working to reconcile. You see, to claim your own wants and desires over God’s is a faith about you and your wants.
I makes me think back to when I went through confirmation. At 14 years old, I was a typical junior higher, concerned with all that came with that age. Like getting braces on my teeth, it was expected -- not that I had much of a choice -- or so I thought. For me, and some of my friends, confirmation was a goal, a rite of passage, a mark of having put in the time at church and now would be our time of reward!
There was a group of us who grew very frustrated because all of a sudden there were people who we never saw before showing up for confirmation. This was OUR confirmation not theirs. We brought our frustration to our Youth Pastor. He listened intently to our concerns and said something interesting, something I did not think much about at that time, but have often thought about since. It went something like this:
“Confirmation is about being with God your whole life, not just as a kid. It’s a time to learn and grow and at the end commit yourself publicly to Christ. This is your choice and yours alone, as it is their choice and theirs alone. So why not welcome them and show them the love you have had for all these years?”
That went totally over our heads! But later in life I came to know what that meant in deep and profound ways. Where you come from or what you have done -- none of that matters once you have come to really let God into your heart.
This is the gist of what Paul is talking about in Philippians 3:4b-14. No matter how good or perfect he was, no matter the pedigree, learnings, or past; what is most important is the relationship with God. It is about helping others to understand and allowing them to make a choice of how they will embrace that relationship. It does not matter where they come from!
Now this does not make everything perfect from that point forward, but it does mean that when you truly let God into your heart that becomes the most important thing. It also means that when you fall, it is easier to find your way back. As we prepare for the final weeks of Lent we have before us a reminder from Paul:
“Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” And you can too!
Goals are great. They keep you focused and on track. But if your goals are all that you live for, how are you ever able to really live?
When I was in high school, a friend of mine got me an interview for a dream job. I was going to be the host. Not only would I make good money, but I would also share in the tips! The best part was that all I had to do was greet people. Excited, I went into the interview and everything went great, that is until the last question. Where do you see yourself in five years?
Quickly I had to make a decision. Should I lie and give the goal-oriented answer I knew he wanted or do I answer honestly, that I did not have the answer? I answered honestly. He wanted to see that I had goal, a desire to work towards something concrete. I did have an idea and direction. I wanted an education, and I wanted to be successful. I just did not know exactly what that entailed, and I did not want to be defined by something I may or may not like!
Fortunately for me, the owner let the question define and categorize who I was. This was not the only time in my life that happened, but it stood out, especially since it was my willingness to speak frankly that allowed me success at the job I ended up getting. I have always thought about that and what that meant in terms of my relationship with God. It was interesting that through various other times of my life when I felt either overwhelmed, over my head, or just confused, I would sit back and think that God had some sort of plan and some sort of direction for me, often which did not align with the goals or hopes that I had or have.
This week at the core of the lectionary is the story of the prodigal son. While there are many aspects to that passage, I think one of the most important is about how we choose to define ourselves. If we define ourselves by things of this world (the earthly inheritance) then it is this world that we are bound to. If we define ourselves to by eternal things (Family and ultimately Christ), we are not bound by the things of this world. Thus, we are given a freedom that is not bound in either a temporal or special way. This life allows us to live more fully, not living up to a singular outcome but willing and able to embrace that which is beyond.
We see this in the relationship with the brothers. Don’t you find it interesting that the younger becomes a playboy, makes mistakes, spends all the money and finds himself broke, yet he is not the bad guy, it is really the brother who stayed? The fascinating subtext was that all the brother who stayed was concerned about was the inheritance, whereas it was the one who squandered everything who was able to see and understand his father’s compassion and thus reap the celebration.
Core to understanding this story, is understanding who and what we are living for. If we go through life with blinders on, only seeking what we want, we are never able to see the fullness of God. But if we live for the fullness, taking the “good, bad, and otherwise” that life has to offer, we can really begin to accept and celebrate all that God has for us. Now I am not saying to go out and go wild! But what I am saying is not to hold so fast to what you want eternally that you are no longer able to see the fullness of God in your life.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen