Category Archives: Preaching

Funeral for Suicide Victim

Two popular posts on this site have been for comments about funerals and scripture texts for funerals where there has been a suicide.  Not long ago, I conducted a memorial service for a popular man in town who died as a result of his illness of depression.  This is the sermon from that memorial service.  Many who attended the service found it helpful.  It is by far the one sermon I’ve preached that received the most positive comments.  Most who commented lingered long enough to talk more about what they heard.  It is slightly edited to protect the identity of the families.

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A week ago, no one could have predicted that you would be here this morning.  That means this has been an especially hard week.  Know this: life is so very fragile.  When you stop and pay attention, it can seem as though everything around us makes life dangerous.  Sometimes the things that endanger us the most are sneaky and unimaginable.

Think about it.  A sudden heart attack from lingering heart disease catches us off guard.  A moment of inattention while driving can cause disaster.  For Jim, it was the sometimes fatal illness of depression.  This illness caused ups and downs and unpredictability for Jim.  It also caused those same ups and downs and unpredictability for those who knew and loved him best.

I’m not going to dwell on this entirely this morning, but there are some important things that need to be said, and it is my responsibility to say them.

It is impossible to know the kind of darkness Jim lived with.  He hid much of it from the people who were closest to him.  Because we look for explanations and for his death to make sense, we grab at any reasonable logic to figure it all out.  There is a big problem with that.  This sometimes fatal illness of depression changes how we think and turns rational logical problem solving upside down.  That means that there are going to be no real answers to our biggest questions about Jim’s death.  We either have to live with that or we have to make things up.

Yes, you heard me right.  Our choice in coming to grips with Jim’s sudden death is to either live with the reality that we will never have some real answers or make things up.  Without realizing it, each of us here have been making some things up.

Some of that gets to be pretty blatant.  Maybe you’ve heard some of the rumors that are circulating these days.  When we don’t know details, we tend to make assumptions and fill in the blanks.  When you hear this kind of speculation, remind yourself that sometimes we have to accept that we don’t have the answers.  When you find yourself filling in the blanks, remind yourself that we don’t have the answers.

If you’ve been feeling guilty or questioning what you could have done to help Jim more, that’s quite normal.  The problem is that you either have to accept that you will never have any real answers or you will make things up and have the guilt.  You did the best you could.  Jim didn’t die because you failed.  Jim died because of this sometimes fatal illness of depression.  Please hear me.  You did the best you could.  Jim didn’t die because you didn’t do enough.  Any guilt you have is the result of you making things up and changing the truth.  Please don’t do that.

Some anger at Jim is appropriate.  This isn’t fair or easy or convenient.  Jim’s death changes so much and makes so many things that much harder.  Some of the anger however comes from trying to fill in the blanks and deciding that you know what Jim was thinking and what he wasn’t thinking about.  Remind yourself that you don’t have the answers.

Look, I don’t want to dwell on this all morning.  There are other, even more important things that need to be said.  This sometimes fatal illness leaves more questions than answers.  It is good for us to accept that many of our questions will never be answered.

But there are plenty of things we do know.

We know that Jim loved (his wife and children are named).

We know that Jim loved and cared about his larger family.

We know that Jim had this unique ability to touch the lives of people in significant ways.  You’ve no doubt been telling and hearing some of these stories over the past several days.  He used his love of baseball to encourage people in ways that literally changed their lives.  Someone yesterday said that even meeting Jim only one time set them on a different course in their life, and that it was good and productive and they were grateful for that important gift Jim gave them.

As much as anything, that is why so many people came to the funeral home yesterday, and so many people are here today.  Jim had this ability to let you know that you mattered.  Jim had this ability to let you know that there was opportunity ahead in your life.  Jim had the unwavering ability to encourage others and help them see their value.

Over and over again this week I’ve heard this story repeated.  There is far too little encouragement in this world.  Jim was one of those rare people with that gift of encouragement.

But, as important as this is, it is only a piece of who Jim has been to you.  You heard the words of  (his brother) earlier as he attempted to summarize who Jim has been to him.  Multiply that by hundreds and you will just be scratching the surface.  It is easy to say that knowing and loving Jim has helped to shape who you are.  That is by far the more lasting impact of Jim’s life.  I’m not going to even attempt to summarize who Jim has been to you.  That is your job.  In the coming days and weeks and months, share those stories.  Those are the stories that begin with, “Remember when …” and lead to big grins, amazement, sadness, nostalgia, and sometimes raucous laughter.  I dare say, you will discover something about yourself and something about Jim as you tell these stories.  When you tell these stories, it is natural to be grateful, especially grateful to God for placing Jim in your life.

This is a good day to give thanks to God for placing Jim in your life.

We know that because Jim has played an important part in shaping who we are, his death last week leaves a hole that is huge.  It hurts.  It leaves us reeling.  It leaves some of us feeling overwhelmed.

This is a good day to acknowledge that hurt and pain.

We know that just like God gave Jim the gift of encouragement, God gives gifts to people so that the work of God might be accomplished.  When we care for one another we are doing God’s work.

This is a good day to allow people to comfort us.

We know that God has made some irrevocable promises to Jim.  Long ago Jim was baptized and became a child of God.  That was a relationship that God promised never to abandon.  On a day like this it is so important to let those words in the second reading take hold of us.  I paraphrase.  “What can separate us from God’s love?  Nothing, nada, zip, zilch, not the stupid things we do, not the little mistakes we make, not the big blunders that hurt others, not anything at all.”  God’s love in Christ Jesus is for all time, and it is for Jim.

We know that God made the promise to Jim to love him, to be with him in thick and thin, and to forgive him.  God promised to forgive Jim.  That brings me peace today.

We know that God promised Jim everlasting life.  Jesus goes ahead to prepare a place for Jim. That brings me hope.

It is a jumbled up day with all this mixed together.  Bittersweet describes it best.  It is as should be.  Ultimately, we know that God is the source of healing; bringing promise, forgiveness, and most importantly … hope.

May you experience that healing.

Amen

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Ash Wednesday & Lent 2011

Ash Wednesday – March 9, 2011

Our Shepherd Lutheran Church – Severna Park, MD

For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters.  You didn’t expect me to say that did you?  Let me say it again.  For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters.

You received a reminder of your mortality on your forehead just minutes ago.  You heard the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  As I see it, you have a couple of choices.  Live your life as if your mortality is a far off into the future slight possibility.  Or, live your life as if your life matters, precisely because you are mortal.

What people want me to do today is to be a cheerleader.  You are giving up chocolate for Lent?  Great!  You can do it for 40 days.  It will be hard.  Hang in there.  You can do it.  It is only 40 days.  Think of the reward at the end!  It will be worth it.

I can’t do that.  I’d rather turn in my pastor card.

Let me tell you something else you might not expect me to say.  What we do during Lent is never meant to be temporary.  That’s right.  If you are living this season as it is intended and you are giving up, oh let’s say chocolate for Lent, then when Easter arrives, there will be no chocolate Easter bunnies for you.  Why play like Lent means nothing?  Why decide to ignore the call Jesus issues to obedience?

Live your life as if your life matters.  Lent is a time for renewal.  Lent is a time to take on some spiritual disciplines that make sense 24/7/52/lifetime.  Lent is a time for making sure the “whenevers” of Matthew’s Gospel are part of who we are.

Whenever you give alms.  Whenever you pray.  Whenever you fast.

Jesus doesn’t say, if you give alms, if you pray, if you fast.  He doesn’t say when you take the time to give alms, pray, or fast.  The expectation is that these three are all done, all the time, unnoticed by others, because this is what people of faith do when they are living their lives as if their life matters.

Whenever you care for the needs of others … just do it without fanfare or recognition.  It’s what people of God do.

Whenever you pray to align yourself with God … just do it without any need for recognition.  It’s what people of God do.

Whenever you deny the temptations that draw you away from God … just do it without needing to draw attention to yourself.  It’s what people of God do.

If you give alms, pray, and fast only during Lent, isn’t that really drawing attention to these practices and that you are something special during Lent?

Sorry if what I’m saying is messing up your plans for Lent.  I simply want you to live your life as if your life matters.  Why trivialize it?  Why make this 40 day time mean so little?

The church I served in Johnstown invites people to use self-denial envelopes during Lent.  I think they are asking either 25 cents or $1 per day as a means of self-denial.  Horse feathers!  You want to give alms, or to use this as self-denial … what about giving a full tithe during Lent if you’ve never done this before?  More than a tithe if you already tithe.  Maybe an even amount … say $80-100 a week.  A quarter a week?  Nonsense.  Live as if your life matters.

Pull out a 1 minute devotion and pray daily during Lent?  Ok, I suppose that’s a start.  Phfff.  Write a devotion daily, pray each hour on the hour for 5 minutes, memorize scripture … maybe a couple of chapters, read 20 pages of scripture a day, read a Gospel book a week and cycle through them twice during Lent.  All of this is prayer.  All of this addresses a whenever.  Live as if your life matters.

Don’t eat meat on Fridays, but instead go to some fish fry or seafood place?  When did that ever get to be equated with fasting?  Stop pretending!  Do you really need more than 1500-2000 calories a day, ever?  Have you ever considered eating a restricted calorie diet because it is the right thing to do, because over-consumption of everything is an American anti-Christian attitude?  Does our gluttony say something about how we see ourselves as entitled?  Is entitlement a Christian virtue?  Live your life as if it matters.

There are a lot more examples.  You can use Lent as a trivial venture into pretending that we are mortal.  Or you can use Lent as if you really get your mortality and live as if your life matters.  What you do has an impact on the world, on the people around you, on you, and on your relationship with God.

For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters … and then …

Amen

Anxiety and Fear (Reflections on Advent 1C)

The Gospel lessons for the first Sunday in Advent have apocalyptic themes and in preparation for preaching I wandered around the internet to experience some of what people are writing about the chaos that is and is to come.  I couldn’t disconnect fast enough … and was strangely drawn to more.

The movie 2012 was as good a place to start as any, which soon led me to www.december212012.com.  Talk about dusting off all sorts of familiar themes.  In the mid-late 1980’s, I had an employer who started to talk about polar shifts and coming disasters.  He and another staff member quit their jobs, bought a farm in Iowa, equipped it for the coming catastrophe, and taught seminars about surviving the coming apocalypse.  He died never seeing the events he anticipated.  This website collects disparate “predictions” and pulls them all together. I’m a reasonable person, and I found myself starting to think about steps to survive the coming disaster.  (Prudent preparation makes sense and I have some emergency response items already stockpiled … more for our frequent power outages than anything else.)

I read about graffiti on the bathroom wall in a High School.  “It sucks to be in the class of 2013 … what’s the point?” (Referring to the “end of the world” in 2012.)

I encountered the Psalm 109:8 “prayer for President Obama” movement.  In case you haven’t heard about this one,  people are encouraged to pray “for” President Obama using Psalm 109:8 “May his days be few; may another seize his position.”  Plenty has been written in outrage about this prayer, especially in light of the verses which follow: “May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow.  May his children wander about and beg; may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.  May the creditor seize all that he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.  May there be no one to do him a kindness, nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.  May his posterity be cut off; may his name be blotted out in the second generation.”  I don’t believe that’s what Jesus meant when he instructed us to “pray for your enemies”.

From there my wandering spun completely out of control, and I felt like I was in a dark alley, late at night, ready to be mugged.  I got out of there as fast as I could.

Don’t people get that apocalyptic literature is a word of hope?  Oh, that’s right, if we are Biblical literalists then these are predictions of actual events rather than poetic imagry to describe a world that seems stacked against us!  The way I read Luke 21:25-36 gives me encouragement.  By listening to and following Christ, I don’t have to wring my hands at the sexually-charged singing/dancing of Adam Lambert, or drag myself into a survivalist camp armed to the teeth against the world.  God’s purposes will be fulfilled even in the face of those things which seem opposed to God.  In Christ’s power, we will live an alternative reality that flows alongside chaos.  The good news is that even though it seems as though evil wins … it cannot.  That theme is persistent in Luke/Acts.  Why, I think that it makes a lot of sense to invite people I care about into that same alternative reality.

Take a breath folks.  Christ is alive.  Now, let’s get busy living the alternative reality feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and giving drink to the thirsty.

Pondering Pastor

Wow! What a book!

I’m reading what I believe will be the most influentional book I read this year.

Why do some ideas thrive while others die? And how do we improve the chances of worthy ideas? In Made to Stick, accomplished educators and idea collectors Chip and Dan Heath tackle head-on these vexing questions. Inside, the brothers Heath reveal the anatomy of ideas that “stick” and explain sure-fire methods for making ideas stickier, such as violating schemas, using the Velcro Theory of Memory, and creating “curiosity gaps.”

It is impacting my preaching already … and I have a chapter or two to go.

I’m recommending this book to pastors: for preaching … and for vision casting.

Is it new material?  No, not quite.  But it packages those ideas into a useable format.  The authors even use their ideas in the writing of the book.

Tonight I preached probably my shortest and most effective sermon (and like I said, I’m still working my way through the book.)

It’s more than worth the $20 or so.

Made to Stick – the website for more info.

Pondering Pastor

Blogging the Lectionary: November 11, 2007

Lectionary 32: Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 20:27-38

27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Initial Review

Jesus is in Jerusalem (Palm Sunday events happen in Chapter 19).  So we have an event happening during the week leading up to the crucifixion.

I often get the kinds of questions the Sadducees ask Jesus.  They are questions that can’t be answered directly because the question assumes a perspective that I might not share.  Those who are answered often complain that I didn’t really answer the question, when I really can’t.  The Sadducees ask a question that can either be understood as “entrapment” or “a polemic” against resurrection.  It might be considered rhetorical because it can be heard as saying, “Look, the whole resurrection question is ridiculous because why would God let this kind of conflict or problem arise?”

There is the additional problem that the understanding of “everlasting life” in the days of Moses was that we live eternally through our children (specifically sons).  As the “name” is carried on into the future, the “father” lives on.  So at one level we have conflicting understandings of what resurrection/eternal life means.

I fully expect questions arising out of this lectionary reading about heaven and resurrection and what we might expect.

The second part of the answer of Jesus takes some unpacking.   If, as the Sadducees believe, there is no resurrection and once people are dead … they are dead (nothing), then the active statement of God to Moses at the burning bush about being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would mean that God was the God of nothing.  If God is to be God of something, then those people must be alive to God.  (Not the way I think … but then I’m not Jesus.)

So, as usual on Monday, I’m not sure where to take this on Sunday.  I could talk about resurrection, heaven, or eternal life.  I suspect people have a lot of questions about that … but will there be enough answers to preach?

Pondering Pastor

Blogging the Lectionary II (10/21/07)

After my initial work earlier in the week, I’ve got some ideas forming as I begin to move into sermon writing mode.

Once again, the Gospel text: Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

The Old Testament Lesson is the story of Jacob wrestling with the “angel” in Genesis 32:22-31.

The Psalm is 121 “I lift my eyes to the hills …”

The focus of all three is clearly about prayer. Prayer is one of those topics that is a challenge to people. If you believe that God controls everything … why pray? If God doesn’t control everything … why pray? What good is praying, many people will ask … even very faithful people.

O. Hallesby’s book, Prayer contains two chapters on “Wrestling in Prayer”.

I really think that the parable of the widow and the unjust judge can be a distraction to the purpose of the parable. The Gospel writer says that Jesus told the parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart. People are more likely to be persistent when they feel they’ve been treated unjustly (by companies, or in relationships) than in prayer. How much more is God the loving father willing to bring justice than even an unjust judge who is worn down by persistence.

A lingering question that may form the basis of a sermon is “How can you pray when …?”

Mother Theresa struggled with the very same question. The book of her private letters reveals that her private prayer life was non-existent for long stretches, and that the only prayer she was engaged in was the corporate prayer of worship and her order.

As usual, I’ll be interested to see where I’m led this week as I prepare the sermon.

Pondering Pastor

This link takes you to the sermon

Blogging the Lectionary (10/21/07)

Why is it that each week when I look at the lectionary texts, my first reaction is to groan?

Sunday, October 21, 2007 – Lectionary 29C

Luke 18:1-8

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Initial Thoughts

Persistence is what moves the judge. Is God like the judge or not? It seems as though parts of the reading suggest that God is like the judge, moved by persistence rather than mercy. Other parts of the reading seem to suggest that God is more merciful than the judge, so if persistence can move the judge, how much more will God be moved by our persistence. Maybe this really is not so much about God as it is the need for persistence in prayer. But the challenge with that is that if we don’t “succeed” in prayer are we to assume that we weren’t persistent enough? There is not much that seems grace-filled in this passage. It all depends upon the persistence of the one making the prayer … not on the one hearing the prayer.

Luke is the only Gospel writer with this “parable”.

The focus of part of the passage is justice.  God gives justice.  I’ll have to do some more digging about what that means in this context.  Are faith and persistence related? How quick are we to lose heart?  I’m still troubled by the implication that if we are persistent enough we will get what we want … although it says that we will be granted justice, not what we want.

Once again, I’m glad that I have the better part of a week to wrestle with this one.

Pondering Pastor