Veterans, Weird Questions, Finding Hope, and a Man Named John

Screen Shot 2019-11-12 at 3.01.07 PM.png
My friends’ and my favorite photo of John — at breakfast with us, laughing and likely saying something funny right back.

Luke 20:27-38

Whenever Veteran’s Day rolls around, I always think of my favorite veterans: there’s some of you, naturally. There’s my dad. There are several of my friends, as I was part of the generation that witnessed 9/11 as teenagers and had many sign up for the subsequent wars after. 

And then there’s my friend John. 

John and I met in seminary. He always had a quick, sarcastic wit and an easy smile. He was a Marine who was severely injured in Iraq in the early 2000s. He almost died, but he didn’t. However, his injury took out most of his pancreas, leaving him diabetic. He always said he felt like he was living on borrowed time. In 2010, to our shock, that proved true. He died of complications from diabetes that year; it was our senior year of seminary.

I know: Memorial Day is really the right day to honor John now. But Veteran’s Day always brought up good conversations with him about war and peace and theology and service. Not a Veteran’s Day goes by, still, when I don’t think of him.

I don’t mean to start a sad sermon, of course. John would hate that, actually. This is a guy who named his cat Bertrand, after philosopher Bertrand Russell. 

What I want to do this morning is to tell you stories that would connect to this Gospel text.

Two stories come to mind. 

The first is this: John was boarding an airplane once, after his time in the Marines. He was a strong-looking guy, and he also often had a beard and long hair. He didn’t really “look like a Marine” in any traditional sense after he was discharged. John took his seat on the aisle of an airplane, dressed in a suit to travel, just like his mother had taught him. He said hello to the woman next to him and prepared to settle in. He leaned forward to place something underneath the seat in front of him. Just then, a high school ROTC corps came down the aisle to board, clearly on a field trip.

The woman next to him, mistakenly thinking they were active duty military and eager to show her gratitude, put her hand on John’s shoulder and pushed him back into his seat. “Excuse me,” she said pointedly. After pushing what she did not know was a Marine out of her way, she went on to thank a very confused high school ROTC unit for their service to our country.

The other story is this one: John and I were in the same group of seminary interns during our second year of seminary. As part of this group, we’d all meet monthly to do a site visit. We were at one church that had a lovely children’s area, complete with a giant mural with a beautiful nature scene. John and I were standing next to one another when John leaned over and whispered, “Yo, what’s with the creepy kid?”

I followed his gaze and indeed, there was a singular toddler in the mural, just sort of sitting in this beautiful nature scene. Thinking that this was the artist’s odd attempt to help children picture themselves in the scene, we giggled at the artist’s poor choice; the kid did look a bit out of place and creepy. 

Just then, one of our classmates raised her hand and asked, “Who’s the child here?” 

The pastor of the church who was showing us around said, “Oh, that’s Timmy. Timmy died of a rare cancer, and his parents dedicated this play area to his memory.” 

John and I could’ve melted into the wall in that moment. “We. Are. Jerks.” I whispered to him. “Yes, yes we are,” he whispered back. “Drinks after this?” 

Today in the Gospel lesson, some Saducees, or some religious folks, come to Jesus and ask him sort of a creepy, weird, off-the-wall question. The Saducees, Luke helpfully tells us, don’t believe that there’s any resurrection, yet here they are, asking about the resurrection in an attempt to show Jesus what a silly idea it is. 

Essentially, they say, “Look, if people get raised from the dead, what happens if they’re married, and then marry other people? Huh? 

It’s worth pointing out that Jesus at this point is right between his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the Last Supper. He is mere days from his own resurrection. And according to John’s Gospel, he is the resurrection and the life, which adds even more irony to the story. 

They ask a weird, trapping question about the resurrection, only to miss the resurrection, in the flesh, in their midst. 

Can’t say I blame them. I miss the resurrection all the time. We all do. 

We look with doom and gloom at the future of the church. We look at the impending doom in our own lives. We fail to see or even look for hope, instead getting caught up in the details: but how will we pay the bills? How will we make it? And if there is a resurrection, how would it even work? 

We’re not so unlike the lady who pushed the Marine out of the way to thank the ROTC kids. And we’re not so unlike me and John, getting caught up in the details of a painting of a kid, yet missing the hope of the resurrection in this play area dedicated in his memory.

When John died, it was the first time I lost a friend to death. I’d lost loved ones, sure. I’d even had people that I went to high school with die, but I wasn’t close with them. But John was my friend. And when he died, it was easy to focus on all that we had lost.

John was a marathoner, and when I first started running over ten years ago, it was him who encouraged me. When I posted my finisher photo after my first half marathon on Facebook, he immediately popped up in a comment: “Great time!” Mind you, my time was not great. John was just kind. When he died, I couldn’t cry until one day, about a week after his funeral, when I was running, and it all hit me at once. Running helped me grieve. 

Now, every time I run a race, especially a long one, I think of John. He was on my mind a month ago when I ran the Hartford Half Marathon. When I crossed the start line, I looked up and thought of him. I pointed to the sky, took off, and ran my best race yet. It was awful to lose a friend in that way, but over time, I’ve begun to see the resurrection manifest itself. John is in my steps and my heartbeat whenever I run. 

My friends, the resurrection is here, in our midst. Don’t miss it. 

Those that we have lost are still with us. Christ is still with us. 

My favorite thing to say to people when they tell me that the church is dying is, “Oh, yes. And I can see why Christians would be worried about death. Our faith is all about how death is the very end of things, right?” And I wait for their reaction. To date, I’ve yet to have someone not understand what I mean.

No, we’re not unlike the Saducees, asking all the questions about the details, sometimes in good faith and sometimes not. We’re not unlike the lady who pushed John the Marine out of the way to thank the group of high schoolers wandering by in training uniforms. And we’re definitely not unlike John and I, giggling quietly in our jerkdom and missing a very sweet gesture by grieving parents. 

We have this tendency to get caught up in what’s wrong or what we think we “should” do and very much miss God’s hope and presence in our lives. So don’t do that. 

God is here: in wine, in bread, in water, and in the people sitting around you. God is here, in your breath and in your heartbeat. God is here, offering life, offering hope, and always, always, offering another chance to recognize what’s right in front of you. 

Thank God. Amen.

All Saints Sunday: Bless Your Heart

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 11.01.12 AM
Myth: “Bless your heart” is an insult. 
Truth: It can be, but the truth is more complicated. It’s often used affectionately, especially among Southerners. 

Luke 6:20-31

People accuse Southerners of being passive-aggressive compared to people from other places, and I can’t say that that’s exactly wrong. As an example, I’ve had many an argument with those from the North and Midwest about the phrase “bless your heart.” 

“It’s just another way to tell someone to…” … hmmm, there are children present. To tell someone to go… away. People think it’s an insult.

In fact, when I googled a more polite way to express the sentiment “go away,” “bless your heart” even came up in my google search. That translation was posted by a Northerner, of course. I can’t blame them, though. That’s probably the only way a Northerner who thinks they know it all probably ever hears the phrase.

For you Northerners who are humble enough to learn, however, I can tell you that the truth is that “bless your heart” can mean many things, and only one of the options is an insult.*

*I usually explain it this way: it’s not unlike saying “you poor thing.” You can say it sincerely or sarcastically, and the meaning is all in the tone.

Growing up in the South, I think, makes it clearer that the phrase can be used in absolutely genuine love and concern. When you’re a child, after all, and you come to your grandmother with a skinned knee and she says “Bless your heart,” you can safely assume she’s not insulting you.

Another option for “bless your heart” is that you’re being lovingly patted on the head — for many varying reasons. Which, even at its harshest, is still very different than being told to [blank] off.

Today, Jesus moves through a lot of “blessed”s in the Gospel passage, and it’s kinda hard to figure out what he means by “bless your heart,” what his point is, and why we would want to read this passage today, as we remember the saints who have gone before us. 

Bless our hearts. Saints & blesseds, what does it all mean?

People, especially here in Catholic country, often have a bit of a complex when it comes to calling their loved ones “saints.” It’s one of the biggest differences in language that we have as a result of the Reformation; for Roman Catholics, the emphasis is often placed on famous saints who have been canonized by the church. As good Lutherans, however, we emphasize the we are all both saints and sinners.

Still, because of the visibility of icons and our own weird and selective sense of humility, we hesitate to call ourselves or our loved ones saints. What does it even mean to be a saint?

There’s a Reader’s Digest story that Delmer Chilton of Two Bubba’s and a Bible told this week on the podcast that goes like this. 

A little boy was out trick-or-treating in a Superman costume. He came to the door of one of his neighbors with his mother, who was holding his pumpkin for him. The neighbor asked why his mother was holding the boy’s candy. The boy didn’t hesitate to answer: “Because it’s heavy!” 

“Heavy?” the neighbor said. “But you’re Superman!” 

The boy leans in somewhat conspiratorially and whispers to the neighbor: “It’s just pajamas.” (1)

Bless his heart. 

We’re just like him when it comes to calling ourselves or our more imperfect loved ones “saints.” Told of God’s grace, we at best think of ourselves as forgiven sinners, but not saints. Not worthy of recognition as models of faith. Like “bless your heart,” we struggle to define what a saint is, other than that we aren’t saints ourselves.

But it seems to me that if there’s one message in the Gospel passage that’s especially relevant for All Saints’, it’s that Jesus is saying loud and clear that saints aren’t going to look like you’d expect them to (2). We think of passages like this as being about who’s getting in to heaven, but given that Jesus doesn’t make any such claim in the text, we’re free to think of it in bigger terms than who’s going to heaven.

It’s about what God’s reign on earth looks like, and what it looks like to live as if God’s love has made a difference. It’s not just pajamas. 

This whole day is about how we are stepping into this tradition, this stream of faith, that has been flowing for thousands of years before us and will keep flowing when it is our names that will be spoken in November every year (3).

Before an Auburn football game one year, then-head coach Gene Chizik addressed his team in the locker room of Jordan-Hare Stadium. He talked about tradition. 

Coach Chizik’s words were simple: “This place was great way before you got here.” 

He said this not to make the players feel unworthy, but to wake them up to the opportunity they had to carry on a tradition that was far bigger than they were: that they  can be an example of what it means to carry this great tradition forward. They get to wear the uniform no matter what; now it’s their chance to set an example of what makes this tradition great.

This is true of us, too. The church was great way before we got here. 

It’s not just pajamas.

An alb is what we all wear whenever we serve in worship; it’s the garment of all the baptized. When we bury our dead, we put a white pall over the casket, also symbolizing baptism. We are marked with the cross of Christ forever, with everyone who has gone before us and with everyone who will follow us.

That uniform is real, and we get to wear it no matter what. It was great way before we got here. We are saints. And now we carry this tradition forward: to do crazy things like loving our enemies. Being generous. Being joyful. The church’s legacy throughout the centuries isn’t untarnished, but it is ours. No human has been perfect, but we have all been loved. 

Bless our hearts.

It’s a lot to take in, and we probably feel unworthy and will always wonder what, exactly, it means. But I think Luther said it best when he wrote, “When I look at myself, I don’t see how I can be saved. But when I look at Christ, I don’t see how I can be lost.”

So that’s it.

Let’s speak the names of those who went through the waters of baptism before us and who now rest with God. We’ll light candles to remember them, then, surrounded by those candles that remind us of the great cloud of witnesses, we will gather around the table again, just like Christians have for well over 2,000 years now. Then we will leave to continue the legacy of Christ’s church for another day. 

Bless our hearts. Amen. 

1. I listen to “Two Bubbas and a Bible” just about every week. You can find it here.
2. This snippet also comes from Delmer Chilton of “Two Bubbas and a Bible.”
3. The “stream of faith” metaphor is from Nadia Bolz-Weber, who used it at her ELCA Youth Gathering talk in 2012.