Looking For Jesus In All The Wrong Places

John 20.11-18

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, what are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

I love learning about different Easter traditions. Some families will insist on purchasing matching outfits for the family so they can get that perfect picture for the mantel. Others will spend weeks crafting the perfect Easter menu for the family following church. And still yet others will take time to dye Easter Eggs with the kids, and scatter them throughout the house.

In my family, we always had our Easter baskets to rummage through before church. I can vividly recall waking up as a child and experiencing the profound wonder and joy that the Easter bunny had come to my house, and left a basket full of goodies just for me.

But as I got older and wiser, apparently the Easter bunny did as well.

One year, probably toward the end of Elementary school, I came downstairs on Easter and there was no basket with my name on it. I know that I looked straight toward my mother with a look that said, “What happened?!”

She smiled and said, “Taylor I came downstairs early this morning and I discovered something new and something strange. The Easter bunny knows you’re getting older and decided to hide your Easter Basket.”

And thus began a wonderful and bewildering tradition in the Mertins household. Year after year the bunny became craftier with hiding spots. Once, after searching for a good fifteen minutes, I found my Easter basket in one of my sister’s closets, another time it was hidden outside on the picnic table, and still yet another time (after a very frustrating search) I found it in the attic.

But one year, I couldn’t find it. I looked and looked. I went out to the shed. I climbed up the magnolia tree. I even looked in the refrigerator. No Easter basket.

My mother, being the great mother she is, had already searched through the house and found it, but refused to participate. The only hint she gave me was this: “It’s in a place you never go to.”

I searched that house top-to-bottom, bathrooms, closets, hallways… I went over the same places with a fine-toothed comb multiple times, but I couldn’t find it. I was at the point where I was convinced the Easter bunny had forgotten about me. But my mother, being the great mother she is, saw me in agony, walked over to the laundry machine, opened the lid, and pulled out my Easter basket.

I had been looking in all the wrong places.

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Jesus was killed on a cross and then buried in a tomb. After three days Mary went to the tomb and was shocked to discover that the stone covering the entrance had been rolled away. So she ran to tell the disciples. Peter and John in turn ran back out to the tomb with Mary and found the linens that had covered Jesus’ body neatly folded in the corner. The gospel tells us that they saw this and believed, and then returned to their homes.

But not Mary… No, Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. And while weeping, she leaned into the tomb and saw two angels who asked her what in the world was she doing. She turned from the tomb and saw Jesus, though she did not recognize him. Jesus said to her, “What are you doing? Who are you looking for?” And supposing him to be the gardener, she said, “If you took him away please tell me where he is!”

And Jesus said, “Mary” and her eyes were opened to the resurrection.

Mary was looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. How many times had she heard him proclaim his death and resurrection? How many times had he told her what was to happen? What did she think he meant when he said “I will rise up again”?

The resurrection of the dead, Easter, it upsets and upends all expectations. Mary, this follower of Jesus, someone whose life was forever altered and transformed by the Lord, cannot even come close to it without hearing Jesus call her by name. She cannot fathom what it is she is looking for and even confuses Jesus for the gardener.

Mary gets a pretty bad rap in the church for confusing her Lord for the maintenance man. I mean, hadn’t she spent nearly every day with him since he saved her from the crowd ready to stone her? Wasn’t he the most important person in her life? And she supposes him the gardener?

But maybe Mary sees more than she knows, and more than we give her credit for. Maybe she really saw the Gardener. After all, God had given life to Adam in the Garden long ago and called him to take care of it. Perhaps in the resurrection Jesus has become all that God intended: He is the Gardener of God’s creation; He is new Adam. Maybe the bible has come full circle from the Garden of Eden to Jesus as the gardener through Mary.

            She sees and believes.

Many of you know that I have a Good Friday tradition of carrying the cross through Staunton. If you’ve ever been here with us on Easter you’ve heard stories about my experiences of carrying that large cross over my shoulder. You’ve heard about the countless people who have said, “God bless you.” I’ve shared with you my sadness about the people who shouted curse words as I walked passed.

I carry the cross through our town because I want the death of Christ to rattle them out of their complacency. I want them to know and remember what God was willing to do for them. I want them to see the cross and believe.

So on Friday, like I’ve done the last three years, I got to the sanctuary a little before noon, grabbed the cross, and started walking. Before I even made it to the Post Office, 5 cars had pulled over to thank me for what I was doing. From St. John’s to downtown I was blessed by a great number of people with honks, waves, and the occasional “Amen brother!”

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But when I got to Beverley Street, something changed. I walked up toward the Valley Mission and then back toward Mary Baldwin, and no one so much as even looked at me. When I carried the cross for the first time people avoided me by jaywalking to the other side of the street and averting their gazes, as I got close. But this was different; it was like I wasn’t even there.

Now, to be clear, I’m not looking for attention or praise while walking around this town, but I was dressed in all black with rather large cross over my shoulder; I’m hard to miss. And this year, this Good Friday, people could not have cared less.

They kept talking with their friends. They walked hand in hand with their children. They continued to type on their phones. And the cross seemingly meant nothing to them.

We live in a strange new world; one in which the cross can be ignored and the message of resurrection can be limited to a basket, or a bunny, or some eggs.

So I kept walking, feeling a little hopeless about the power of the cross and the Good News. I got to the top of Beverley Street and walked passed Mary Baldwin and the Food Lion. I just wanted to get back to church and rest.

But then the Lee High bell rang and all the kids started leaving. “That’s just great,” I thought. “It’s one thing to be ignored by families downtown, but a one bunch of teenagers? C’mon God.”

I kept walking up the hill, and a great line of High School students were walking down right toward me. And when the first one got close, she stood right in front of me, coughed to get my attention, and then said, “That’s so cool!”

For the next 30 minutes I had conversations with just about every kid on that sloped section of Coulter Street. We talked about Jesus, the cross, and resurrection.

And, unlike many of us, their response was joyful. Many of them thanked me for doing what I was doing; a good number of them asked me more questions, and most of them walked away smiling.

Those high school students weren’t burdened with questions about how this could happen, or the theological ramifications of such an act, or who gets to be part of the resurrection from the dead. They heard the Good News, and that was enough.

How often do we go looking for Jesus in all the wrong places?

We purchase the latest self-help book assuming that it will fill the emptiness we feel. We look for him in the bottom of a bottle when we lose someone we love. We search for him in finite and material experiences in attempts to deny the inevitability of our lives.

When the truth is that Jesus is near us all the time and we regularly fail to recognize him: in the face of the hungry stranger standing in the median by the stop light; in the hopeful Word of a timely sermon; in the bread and the cup at this table, in the strange encounter with teenagers who are perhaps hearing the Easter story for the first time.

Sometimes we treat this story as if it’s the ending, like the whole Christian year leads up to this and we’re done, like the faithful life concludes with an empty tomb. I’m not sure why we do that, because the apostles and earliest Christians understood Easter not as the dramatic conclusion to the story. For them, as it should be for us, Easter is the beginning.

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It is the beginning of God making all things new. It is the beginning of the end for the powers and principalities that struggled to captivate the world. It is the beginning of a new time not under the dominion of death, but one that stands in the light of the glory of God.

It is the beginning of a new relationship between God and his people where, instead of looking for Jesus in all the wrong places, Jesus comes looking for us. Jesus meets us in the midst of life when we least expect it, on a hill outside of a high school, in the wave of a neighbor, in the words of a hymn, in a phone call from an old friend.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the epitome of God’s power and grace. Through it we see how God took something like a cross, a means of death, and turned it into the joy of life-everlasting. On Easter God transformed the tomb in the same way that He did on Christmas in a virgin’s womb. God made a way where there was no way. On Easter, Jesus opened up a strange new world for people like you and me.

For some of us we might be hearing the story for the first time. For some of the high school students it was definitely the first time. Or maybe you’ve been to church every single Easter of your life and you’ve heard the story over and over. Perhaps it doesn’t strike you like it once did. Maybe this Easter you’re filled with more doubt than hope. Perhaps this Easter you can’t believe you even went to church. But that’s not a bad thing; the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a new beginning; a new beginning for those of us who have never been to church, haven’t been in awhile, or have always been here. This gift we call Easter is for all of us.

So open your eyes and look for Jesus. Discover him in the bread and in the cup, listen for him calling your name in the songs we sing. Witness the power of resurrection in the people in the pews next to you. Hear the Good News, the best news: He lives! And so do we!

Hallelujah! Amen.

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Practice Resurrection – Easter Sunrise Sermon

Mark 16.1-8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side: and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

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Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Man it feels good to say that word! In the church I serve, we have purposely avoided saying “Hallelujah” since before Ash Wednesday. No hymns, no prayers, no sermons contained the word. And now we can shout it out with all the pent-up gusto we’ve been holding in throughout Lent. Hallelujah! He is risen!

NT Wright is quite a famous theologian and he has said on numerous occasions that on Easter Christians should break out the champagne! But, we’re good United Methodists, so we’re stuck with Welsh’s Sparkling Grape Juice, plus it’s 6:30 in the morning and a bunch of us have other church services to go to after this!

But nevertheless, it’s time to pop some bottles and celebrate! I’ve passed out bottles to all the clergy so just go to the closest pastor to receive your cup. It’s time to shout out some Hallelujah and drink some Methodist champagne!

A Toast: To the God of Grace and Glory who broke forth from the tomb; Hallelujah!

Easter: What is this day all about? For centuries people like you and me have gathered like this to remember the first Easter. But, has Easter changed throughout the centuries?

We have a lady at St. John’s who, I believe, is keeping Hallmark in business. Whenever I visit people from our church community there is a better than good chance that I will see a card from Dianne on a refrigerator, or on a countertop, just to brighten someone’s day. And, wanting to be more like Dianne, I started looking through the greeting cards at Rite-Aid the other day in the section titled, “Easter.”

I flipped through a handful, looking for something appropriate, but then I couldn’t stop myself. And before I knew it I had gone through every single Easter card. They were all filled with nice words like “renewal” and “rebirth” and “revival.” They had colorful pictures of butterflies, lilies, and baby bunnies. But not one of them contained the right word: Resurrection.

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Easter is not the celebration of spring.

This is important! While we are bombarded with images and messages about spring being the season of rebirth and renewal, the resurrection is something entirely different.

I can assure you that the women who walked to the tomb that first Easter were not captivated by the birds singing in the air, or the new buds bursting from the trees. They, as Mark so eloquently puts it, were afraid.

But we are far removed from the strange new world of the bible, and instead we like to make Easter about the egg hunts, the bunny who comes like a thief in the night, and the rebirth of nature. Maybe then, we are actually just like the women who fled from the tomb; the message and power of the resurrection is such that we can barely bring ourselves to say anything about it at all.

I, or any of the fine preachers from Staunton, could stand before you this morning and talk all about the change of seasons, the wonder of the birds chirping as the sun rises, the call to a new life. But does any of that actually grab you? Does it terrify you? Does it fill you with such hope that you would stand against the tyranny of the Roman Empire?

Easter is not about spring. Easter is resurrection.

Resurrection is God’s penultimate Word to us, His creatures. And frankly, it should make us tremble and consider running in the other direction because recognizing this new truth and new reality means that we will, sooner or later, have to give up our dependence upon the things that the world tells us we need: beauty, security, wealth, power, careers, out loved ones, even our lives.

But since you’re here at the crack of dawn to worship the living God, you must surely get it already. You’re here because your lives have been transformed by the power of the resurrection and you can’t go back. Or maybe, just maybe, you’re like me and you’ve heard this story so many times before that you’ve become a little numb to the Good News of God bursting from the tomb. Perhaps we need to be shocked or afraid like the women who ran away. Maybe resurrection isn’t supposed to make us smile and grin. Perhaps resurrection is supposed to make us run away in bewilderment.

Resurrection changes everything.

Just shy of a year ago, my wife gave birth to our son Elijah. And at first it was terrifying. I’ll never forget pushing him in his little basinet down to the recovery room and Lindsey finally getting to rest after the draining ordeal of childbirth. My beautiful wife was sleeping soundly, and our beautiful baby boy was asleep at the foot of her bed. It was a profoundly holy moment. And then Elijah started choking.

At first I looked around for a nurse or a doctor to do something, and then remembered that we were all alone. So I got up, rushed to him, used a suction cup to clear his throat, and he promptly nuzzled into my neck.

Having a baby changed everything.

Eventually we made it home and started figuring out how to exist with another tiny little human being in the house. We got into a good rhythm. And, I decided to start reading to him every night.

He was barely a month old when I picked up my collection of the Chronicles of Narnia and began with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Every night I would flip through the old and worn pages that called us into the strange new land of Narnia. And, of course, it meant nothing to him, but it meant everything to Lindsey and me.

We read the entire collection in just over a month and the very last paragraph of the very last book goes like this: And for us, this is the end of all stories… But for them, it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning chapter one of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

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The end of Mark’s gospel, this wonderful bit about the women running away afraid, is no ending at all. It is a great ellipsis in which the story continues through us. The women were afraid because the resurrection was unlike anything this earth had ever known. They could not comprehend the sheer magnitude of God’s dynamic and reality-altering gift in his Son breaking free from the chains of death.

But their story, and our story, does not end with the written gospel. Their story, and our story, is resurrection. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is always unfinished. There is an unwritten page left for each of us to write, in which we record the many glorious, joyful, and even frightening things that God has done for and through us.

Easter, resurrection, isn’t perfect like a hallmark card. We cannot contain the inexplicability of God raising Jesus from the dead in pastel colors with a simple quote about renewal. It’s strange, and complicated, and scary.

For some of us Easter creates more questions than it provides answers. For the women at the tomb it was frightening and astonishing. For all of you it probably feels uncomfortable as we passed around out Methodist champagne with shouts of Hallelujahs while gathering in a place like this: a cemetery.

Easter can be downright terrifying.

But’s its not the end of the story. Jesus came alive so that we could come alive. The resurrection forces us to not experience Easter as just a day when the seasons change, but the very life-altering, earth shaking, cosmically confusing, moment of transformation of all things.

This, what we’re doing here, is our witness to the fact that we do not know what will happen next. We do not know when the bell will toll for us. And, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, this frightens us.

But hear the Good News: resurrection is the beginning of a new story, which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before. Jesus’ story, our story, has no end.

Hallelujah! Amen.

Eucharist as Exodus

Exodus 12.1-14

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. You lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you make take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

Death is inescapable. We know this to be true because we go to the funerals for the people we love. We know this to be true because we sit in church and listen to people like me talk about it. We know this to be true because just a few weeks ago we were walking around with ashes on our foreheads, and the words you are dust and to dust you shall return were stuck in our minds.

I talk about death a lot because it seems like the rest of the world is hell-bent on denying it. Movie stars and pop icons and even politicians do everything that can to ignore the inevitability of their own finitude; they’ll get the Botox, the facelift; they’ll even participate in culturally relevant memes like dabbing now, or planking a few years ago.

Even in church we like to deny death at times. That’s why far more people will be here on Easter than the rest of our Holy Week Services combined. But if Easter is all about new life, then why should we keep talking about death?

Here in the United States, millions of people gathered in churches like this one on Sunday for the Liturgy of the Palms. Christians, like us, lifted up their palm branches and said those all-too familiar words like “Hosanna!” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Here at St. John’s I tried my best to impart upon all of us the staggering nature of being able to shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday.

Maybe you were here and heard the gospel. Maybe you didn’t.

But by now I’m sure that most of us heard what happened in Egypt on Sunday. While we American-Christians sat comfortably in our khakis and color-coordinated cardigans, while we shook our nursery grown palm branches, two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt were bombed. Two men strapped explosives to their bodies, walked up to the respective altars, and detonated.

Dozens of people were murdered.

They died doing the same thing most of us were doing: worshipping the living God who rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

The only difference between them and us, is that they live in a world far more like Christ’s than we do.

What we’re doing here tonight is not a normal thing; it defies conventional wisdom. We could be anywhere doing anything, but instead we came to this place to share the Lord’s Supper. Being Christian is weird, it is strange, it is different. And in a lot of places, that’s enough to get you killed.

And so it was with the first disciples, who sat in a small room surrounded by their friends long ago. We are here tonight to remember what Jesus said and did in that room. The disciples were there that night to remember what God said and did on the first Passover.

The time had come to break free from the tyrannical and dictatorial rule of Egypt and to go to a strange new land. The Hebrew people were enslaved and worked to the death. And, as if that wasn’t enough, Pharaoh ordered the murder of every first-born male in every Hebrew family. Can you imagine the terror of the powers-that-be coming for your baby boy? But these were their lives, living under the shadow of subjugation.

And the time had come to break free.

God spoke to Moses and gave him explicit instructions on what to gather together, how to cook it, and even how to eat it. With specifics like an overly heavy cookbook, God laid out the plans for their deliverance: Every household shall cook and eat and lamb. Blood from the lamb shall be taken and adorned on the doorposts of the house where they eat it. You shall eat it hurriedly, with your loins girded, sandals on your feet, and staff in your hands. This will be the Passover, for the Lord will pass over the homes marked with blood and strike down every firstborn in Egypt, including the animals. But the blood shall be a sign, and nothing evil will come to you. You must remember this day every year, tell the story to your children, and your children’s children, for this is the day you will be delivered from slavery.

That’s the story the disciples gathered to remember. It’s a strange one, but they, like the generations before them, were a product of that story and it shaped everything about their lives.

And while they were sitting at the table, Jesus reached for a common loaf of bread; he gave thanks to God, and shared it with his friends. As they passed the bread around the table, Jesus said, “I am going to do a new thing, I am giving my body for you.”

And then, before the supper was over, Jesus took a cup, gave thanks to God, and shared it with his friends. As they passed the cup around the table, Jesus said, “This cup is my blood of the new covenant. I’m pouring out my blood for you, and for the world.”

In the frame of the blood of the lamb from the first Passover, Jesus poured out his blood as the Lamb of God.

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Whenever we share this meal, we like to talk about forgiveness; being forgiven by God for what we’ve done. And this is good, and right, and true. But the first Passover wasn’t about God forgiving the Hebrew people for anything they had done… Passover was about God making a way out of no way; it was about freedom from tyranny and slavery; it was about the journey to a strange new land.

The Hebrew people took blood from the lamb and it was a sign for them to be saved.

Jesus took the cup and told his friends that his blood was to be their freedom from a different form or slavery, far worse than any power in Egypt then, or now. Through the Lamb of God’s blood, we are freed from death.

While sitting at the table with his friends, it’s as if Jesus is telling them that when they see him hanging on the cross, they should see a door with blood. It’s as if Jesus is telling them that his sacrifice, his death, is our exodus.

It might not feel like it at times, like when we gather in the sanctuary for a funeral or when we turn on the news and see what’s happening in Egypt or Syria or any number of places, but death no longer holds any control over us. For centuries the Hebrew people remembered how God delivered them out of Egypt, and for centuries Christians have remembered how Jesus delivered us out of the slavery to sin and death.

            Jesus is our Passover Lamb.

His blood has been spilled in the cup at our table and it covers the doors of our souls.

Tonight, Coptic Christians in Egypt will gather in their churches to remember Jesus’ final night with his friends, just like we are. They will remember God delivering God’s people out of Egypt, and God delivering them out of the bondage of death.

And we might wonder: Why stay in Egypt? As Christians, why don’t they just leave and go to a place where they can worship without the threat of death? Why not come to a place like the United States where they can be free to worship how they please?

Perhaps they will stay because they’ve already had their exodus. They’ve already been delivered from the reign of death into a strange new land we call the Kingdom of God. Maybe they’ve been shaped by the knowledge and faith that Jesus is their Passover Lamb.

I don’t know what you’re wrestling with tonight, whether you’re feeling God’s presence or it’s been a long time since you’ve felt anything remotely holy. I don’t know what sins you need to confess, or who you need to seek reconciliation with. But what I do know is that this meal is the beginning of our exodus; it is our journey to a strange new land.

So come and see that the Lord is good, let this be a moment of remembrance, and look to the cross as a door covered with blood. Amen.

On Rediscovering Joy At Easter

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing Brian Zahnd (founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a nondenominational congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the season of Easter during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary. For the first Sunday of Easter, Brian challenged us to make it all about joy while the world struggles under the weight of the current political climate. If you want to hear the conversation and learn more about heresy, the paradox of Easter, and destroying lilies in worship, you can check out the podcast here: Easter 1 – Year A

 

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Devotional – Matthew 6.28-29

Devotional:

Matthew 6.28-29

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

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In a few hours I will gather with members of the community for a Service of Death and Resurrection for one of St. John’s long-time members, Gracie Jackson. During my first two months serving at St. John’s (almost 4 years ago), I tried to visit as many people as possible from the church community, particularly those who could no longer attend worship on Sundays. I want them to know that the church still cared about them and that they were in our prayers regardless of their presence.

Throughout those first months I was welcomed into a great number of homes and learned so much about Staunton and the impact St. John’s has had throughout the decades. One of my first visits was to the Jackson home where I sat and talked with Lenard and Gracie Jackson. But we didn’t sit for long. Instead, they wanted to give me the grand tour including the basement workshop and the green house in the backyard. There were plants everywhere but one in particular was striking and unlike anything I had seen before. Lenard explained that it was a Night-Blooming Cereus, and like the name implies, it only blooms at night. At the time, I casually mentioned my interest in the plant and we continued the door.

However, a couple days later Gracie told Lenard that he HAD to invite me over to witness the Night-Blooming Cereus in all it’s glory. (Lenard recently told me that in his life there were always two ways to doing things, and both of them were Gracie’s!). So at 10pm Lindsey and I drove over to the Jackson house and the four of us sat in their living room in our pajamas patiently waiting for the plant to do its magic.

When the right time arrived, we huddled in the green house with the dark sky coming through the windows and the cactus bloomed right in front of us. It produced the most exquisite scent and filled the room with its glory. And in that moment I was struck by the holy space we were sharing and was reminded of Jesus’ words from Matthew 6: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

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That Night-Blooming Cereus was one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen and I never would’ve experienced if it weren’t for Gracie’s insistent invitation. Similarly, our faith is something that is offered to us as an invitation. We can read all about the Lord in Scripture, we can pray privately on our own time, but when we share our faith with another person it can bloom in the most exquisite of ways.

I am so remarkably grateful for the time I got to spend with Gracie, and for the many ways she embodied God’s grace for me.

On Working The Crowd

Matthew 21.8-9

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Romans 8.31-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Working a crowd can be an art form. Comedians walk back and forth casually across a stage making the crowds feel relaxed and ready to laugh. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly punctuated and staccato’d his refrains like the rhythm of a song to get the people connected to the message. Even our President, Donald Trump, knew how to work the crowds at his rallies leading up to the election. You don’t win elections by laying out the step-by-step plans to make economic, ethical, political, and militaristic changes. You don’t win elections by calmly reflecting on the days of the past and a desire for simpler times. You don’t win elections with PowerPoint projections of pie-graphs and political policies.

We all know you win elections by firing up the people with a litany of complaints about what has gone wrong. You win elections by throwing gasoline onto the fire. You win elections by working the crowd.

And Jesus, like Donald Trump, knew how to work a crowd.

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You spread the word and get thousands of people outside to hear the message, you keep them on the edge of their, you know, ground area, and then wait for them to salivate with under the sun and then transform a loaf of bread and a couple of fish into a buffet the likes of which had never been seen.

You get the crowds riled up about working on the Sabbath, even quote some of the prophets from the past, and then heal a cripple man and leave everyone with a rhetorical question: Is it better to heal someone on the Sabbath or let them continue to suffer?

Walk into the middle of an angry mob about to stone a woman to death and quietly write a couple choice words in the sand to let them peer deeply into their own sinful souls and then empower the woman to live a new life.

Jesus knew how to work the crowd.

And Palm Sunday, this strange occasion where we pass out palm branches at the beginning of the service, is perhaps the best example of Jesus’ perfect political ability to work the crowd. We read that many people spread their cloaks; they literally take the clothes off their backs, and placed them on the road. And still yet others even cut down palm branches to prepare the way for the king who entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

We know the story. We can imagine ourselves there on the side of the road with the dust hanging in the air. We can feel the buzz of expectation around the one who will come to change it all. We can feel within ourselves that same desire to scream out “Hosanna!” “Save us!”

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842

But, unlike the crowd, we know how the story ends.

We know what awaits us this so-called Holy Week. We know what will happen in the temple when Jesus flips the tables. We know what kind of strange sermon Jesus will offer from the mountain. We know that Jesus will get down on the floor and wash the feet of his disciples. We know that Jesus will gather his friends around a table to share bread and wine. We know that Jesus will be betrayed, arrested, beaten, mocked, and nailed to a cross. We know that before the end of the week, Jesus will die.

And because we know how the story ends, it becomes clear to us that may not have known what we were doing by joining the crowds along the road, or by joining the crowds in a place like this one that we call church.

The crowds who gathered to sing their “hosannas” wanted a king, but the only people who continue to admire him as a king at the end of the week are the sadistic soldiers who made him a crown of thorns and drove it into his skin.

Jesus, it seems, was not the right kind of king. He was not the one they, or even we, were hoping for.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t all that gifted at working the crowd. After all, it took less than a week for the shouts to go from “Hosanna” to “crucify.”

Jesus is a King unlike any other king. Other kings, who are also at times called presidents, know they have to work and manipulate the crowd to bend them according to the desires of the powerful. Kings and Presidents may even rely on the power of the sword to control and handle the crowd to bring forth their hopes and dreams.

Such is the reality of worldly power.

But Jesus, our King, does not take advantage of the crowd’s enthusiasm. Rather than a call to arms to storm the city gates or to murder the ruling elite, Jesus suffers humiliation, abandonment, and death.

Do you still want to be part of the crowd by the side of the road? Do you want a place in Jesus’ kingdom? Do you want to follow the suffering King?

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Don’t be mistaken; Jesus is as political as they come. But he rules not at the head of an army, but from an old wooden cross. He rules not by filibustering particular Supreme Court nominees or demanding democratic political policies, but by laying it all down for the ungodly. He rules not by ordering his troops to use chemical weapons against innocent civilians or even sending tomahawk missiles to destroy a military base, but mounting the cross and saying, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

In America, we pride ourselves on being the ones who can defy the whims of the crowds. Freedom! We think for ourselves! Or at least, we think we can think for ourselves. But here’s the irony: The moment we are so sure that we have thought something up for ourselves, the moment we believe we are most free, is really when we’ve been co-opted by the powerful.

I know that we like to think that if we had been there, we would’ve been good disciples and that we would’ve stayed with Jesus to the very end. I know we like to think that if we had been there in Germany all those years ago, that we would’ve protected the Jews and rallied against Hitler. I know we like to think that if we had been involved in politics at the time, we would’ve voted against going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the truth is a whole lot harder to swallow: We are easily manipulated.

Which is precisely why we sing awful songs like “Ah Holy Jesus.” God will not allow us to get away with perennial self-deception and arrogance. We killed Jesus.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.

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We know who we want Jesus to be. We want Jesus on our side in our petty arguments with friends and neighbors. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to disagreements in the community. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to the trajectory of our country. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to politics, and Syria, and Healthcare, and Immigration. We see ourselves as Jesus in the story of his entry into Jerusalem, when in reality we are far more like the fickle crowds on the side of the road than anyone else.

And that brings us to Romans 8.

Romans 8 is an unsettling text. Sure, we’ve heard it and used it at funerals; it offers us comfort and hope in the midst of sorrow and loss. It is important for us to declare over and over again that death will not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

We know this passage. We know it just like we know the story of Palm Sunday. In fact, if you can remember, months ago I asked the congregation to imagine what scripture you would use to comfort someone on death row, and this was the overwhelming favorite.

But these words from Paul can tempt us to forget that it is not just death that threatens to separate us from the love of God. Instead, we imagine the other things in the list to be good: life, angels, rulers, powers, things present, things to come. But all of them can threaten to come between Christ and his church; between God and us.

When we are comfortable, when we can’t imagine our faith requiring us to suffer, the list remains easily ignorable. However, we become true disciples of Jesus when we are willing to take risks, when we are prepared to go against the flow, when we resist the manipulation of those in power. And risks are called risks for a reason: following Jesus is a risky thing to do because it always involves the possibility of rejection.

Many of us know that this week marked the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King stood firm while the waves of the status quo crashed around him. Dr. King called out the principalities and powers for being wrong. Dr. King worked the crowds to a belief in non-violent resistance. And it got him killed.

Here in Staunton, like I said last week, we don’t feel very revolutionary, we don’t equate our faith with taking risks, and we can’t even imagine having to lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel. We can’t imagine ourselves being like Dr. King or questioning what our country is doing in Syria. But if we are serious about following Jesus, we will suffer; it’s just a less glamorous and more mundane form of suffering.

You know, like being mindful of other people; not getting stuck in our own unending bubble; asking hard questions that other people would rather ignore; acting like Jesus; sacrificing our wants and needs; calling someone in the midst of grief; showing up for a funeral when we might have other things to do.

Following Jesus in this place these days might not get us killed. But it might mean reaching out to someone who is totally unlike us. It might mean having a conversation with someone who voted for the other candidate. It might mean asking our spouses to forgive us for what we did. It might mean repenting for the way we spoke to our children or our parents. It might mean confronting our friends about their addictions. It might mean asking for help regarding our addictions.

And in so doing, we will suffer.

But nevertheless (!) nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ! Not a bitter parent who refuses our apology; not an angry child who resents us for a past decision; not a nation who indiscriminately persecutes the poor and the marginalized; not a king or a president or a politician; not standing against the powers that be; not going against the current for a strange and more loving way of life; not anything now; not anything in the future.

We will surely suffer for the sake of the kingdom, but we will never be divided from the Lord. Amen

Devotional – Job 19.23-25

Devotional:

Job 19.23-25

O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.

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Last Thursday, while my wife, son, and I were visiting family in Alexandria, I received a phone call about one of St. John’s long-time members having died. Ruth Cassidy joined the church weeks after it formally began back in 1954 and while it was still meeting in a basement down the road. Ruth was easily one of the kindest people I ever had the chance to spend time with, and she will be greatly missed by our church community, and by her family.

A couple years ago I received a phone call about Ruth’s husband Howard, and it was clear that he was close to the end of his life. And so, I made my way over to their retirement home and when I walked into the room Ruth was sitting next to her husband, she was lovingly holding his hand in hers, and he had just taken his final breath. I, not wanting to intrude on the holiness of the moment, slowly started to back away but Ruth insisted on me sitting down with her on the couch. She immediately started asking me questions about my family and St. John’s and I was still in a state of shock; I was overwhelmed by the totality of the moment, and the fact that Howard had literally just died. Ruth continued to ask me questions, but I wanted to acknowledge what had just happened. It took a couple minutes, but I finally mustered the courage to ask: “Ruth, are you okay? I mean, Howard just died…”

She looked right into my eyes, smiled, and said, “Oh, everything is fine; I know where he really is.”

Rarely have I encountered such faith, such hope, and such love as what I regularly experienced through Ruth Cassidy. Like the biblical character of Job, she had an assurance about the way things really are. In that holy and profound moment immediately after her husband died, I could almost hear the words of scripture floating in the room with us: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.”

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Ruth’s assurance, her blessed assurance, was one worthy of our emulation.

Do you know that your Redeemer lives? What words or thoughts would you want to engrave on a rock forever? Can you feel the Holy Spirit moving and breathing into your life? Are you filled with an assurance about who you are and whose you are?

O that my words were written down and engraved forever! I know that my Redeemer lives! And that at the last he will stand upon the earth!