Flipped-Turned Upside Down

Acts 9.1-4

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

When I was in seminary I made myself available to friends who were serving churches if they ever needed someone to preach on a Sunday morning. I wish I could say the offer was purely altruistic, but it was mostly born out of a desire to get some experience before serving my own church one day. It was always exciting to arrive on a Sunday morning, to a church full of strangers, and stand up to preach the Word.

But it usually went poorly.

On one occasion I forgot to take up an offering and the congregation was more than happy to not pass around the plates. I preached at one church that had no bathrooms and I was encouraged to “use a tree out back” so I bounced back and forth behind the pulpit until the end of the service and quickly drove to the nearest gas station. And there was one particular Sunday when I got lost on my way to the church, and by the time I arrived they had already gone through two hymns and I was told they figured someone would show up to preach eventually.

But perhaps the most indelible memory took place one Sunday after worship during which a man in a handsome business suit approached me in the narthex and declared, “That Paul sure was in a heap of trouble. It’s a good thing Jesus was there to set him straight!” 

The conversion of Saul, the so-called Damascus Road Experience, has penetrated the thoughts and imaginations of Christians for centuries. It’s one thing to question Jesus’ decision to enlist the help of a bunch of (not even very good) fishermen to spread the Good News, it’s another thing entirely to consider the Lord choosing Saul, the persecutor of the faith, to become the chief evangelist for the faith.

I cherish that narthex comment about Paul because, up to that point, I always thought of Paul being good and fine until Jesus showed up to complicate his life. Which, to be fair, isn’t necessarily wrong. He had power and prestige, he even had a calling in his life, and then everything got flipped-turned upside down. It’s also true in our lives that things seem to be well and good until the Lord encounters us and we cannot remain the same.

But, as that man so wonderfully put it, Paul was in a heap of trouble until the Lord changed him. Things might have felt and looked good in life, but what kind of life is it to spend all of your time persecuting others? Jesus said, “I have come to give life, and to give it abundantly.” Whatever Paul’s life was before Damascus, it could not compare at all to what it was after.

And so it is with us. 

For some the Lord uses a bright wake up call to the life of faith. For others we know no other way because we’ve been part of the church for as long as we can remember. And for others it’s somewhere in between. But the Lord gets what the Lord wants. God is in the business of transformation. We, all of us, were in a heap of trouble until the Lord came to set us free. And now, like Paul, we live in the world turned upside down.

Who’s In Charge Here?

Revelation 1.4-8

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

There’s a moment that happens every single Sunday without fail. It doesn’t matter what the context is, or what music is offered, or even what scripture is read. 

It happens right before I stand right here.

There’s a silence.

An eerie silence.

Perhaps it sounds different to me than it does to all of you. Your experience of the strange silence might be born out of discomfort or awkwardness.

But as far as I can tell that moment happens every week and its special; there is true attention and silence. And in that silence there is hope.

People like you and me hope, even for but a moment, that this time we will hear an answer to the question: Is it true?

Sadly, more often than not, that hoped for question isn’t even addressed. And if it is, it is only done so indirectly. There’s an assumption that, just by being here, we all assume all of it to be true.

But that’s not right. I think we’re all here, the tall and the small, the first and the last, the believer, half-believers, and unbelievers, because we want to have our question answered.

Is it true?

Today is the second Sunday of the season we call Eastertide. It stretches all the way from Easter Sunday up to Pentecost Sunday, its the great 50 days. Every Sunday in this season is a little Easter in which we re-celebrate the most amazing thing ever to take place in the cosmos.

And let me tell you: you all are a special bunch. There is something remarkable about those in worship for the second Sunday of Easter. You’re here because you know that following the Lord is more than just being present for the big moments. You’re clued in to what takes place behind the curtain of the cosmos. You’ve experienced the Lord in such a way that you can’t imagine being anywhere else doing anything else.

But, we must confess, we of the second Sunday of Easter crowd, that the promises of Easter are not yet fully realized.

We need only turn on the television, or scroll through Twitter, to be reminded that not all is as it should be.

I, myself, riding the incredible wave of Palm Sunday worship was deeply grieved to receive a phonemail the Monday of Holy Week that my oldest friend in the world took his own life the night before.

We sang some good old gospel hymns down in Memorial Hall on Maundy Thursday, we shared the body and the blood of our Lord, and my family and I had to jump in the car to drive up to Alexandria so that I could speak at my friend’s service of death and resurrection the next day.

Not all is as it should be.

Easter Sunday, exactly one week ago, it was remarkable! First sunrise service in 100 years, the First Light Band had the whole sanctuary clapping, even our children shouted out the Good News in song and shakers. 

All told we had more than 300 people in worship last Sunday! Truly remarkable.

And, I’m no mathematician, but I don’t see 300 today.

Why is that? Why are there those who only darken the doors of the church twice a year? 

Much has been made of the so-called Chreasters, the C and E crowd. They come because of familial obligation, or guilt, or tradition. There’s a hope, even if people like me refuse to admit it, that one year they will actually all return the next Sunday. 

But the longer I do this, the more I understand that the church swells at Christmas and Easter because those who don’t normally attend know they have a better than good chance of hearing nothing but Good News: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” and “Christ the Lord is risen today!”

Part of the challenge is that we always proclaim the joy of the resurrection, in song, sacrament, and sermon, to people who, admittedly, feel like those two on the road to Emmaus. We know something has happened, but life beckons us elsewhere. 

It is true?

John the Revelator certainly seems to think so.

I don’t know what you know of John of Patmos and his epistle of Revelation. It is, perhaps, the most misunderstood book in the Bible and yet, at the same time, the most important. It, like the concluding chapter of any good book, ties everything together. But to drop in at the very end, without knowing the beginning or the middle is a recipe for disaster.

There are some wild bits to this book, some that we will encounter over the next few weeks, but, as GK Chesterton noted, “John saw many strange monsters in his vision, but he never saw a creature so wild as those who try to explain it all.”

John, whoever John was, wrote for a people living in a time in-between. They were stuck squarely between the already but the not yet, planted in the time before the end time.

You know, people just like us.

Easter people, while all is not as it should be.

Oddly enough, even with its bizarre images and confounding cassations, Revelation is an odyssey of encouragement. It tells us who we are, who God is, and what is the world is going on in the world.

To put it simply, it tells us the truth.

John begins, rather abruptly, with the decisive declaration that Jesus is Lord and King of the cosmos. He was, he is, and he will be. 

Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the one who remains steadfast even when we don’t, he points to the real things that matter in this life, and he is committed to doing so no matter what.

Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead, he is the one who, by death and resurrection, makes possible an impossibility, that in our deaths we are raised to new life. 

Jesus Christ is the ruler of the kings of the earth, he is the one in charge.

I wonder though, if we actually believe that, or if we trust that to be true. I think, all things considered, it’s not difficult to affirm that Jesus is faithful, and that Jesus is risen. If it looks like Good News and it sounds like Good News. But Jesus being the ruler of the kings of the earth?

Its like a church meeting I remember attending long ago, certainly not something that would ever happen here, where we gathered for an important conversation, debate, decision making, and as we gathered voices were raised, accusations were made, and when finally came to the end of our appointed time, fists clenched, no wiser than we were when we stared, someone present had the audacity to ask if we might end our time in prayer.

I thought, “What for? We certainly didn’t behave like God was in the room, why invite the Lord in now?”

You see, when Jesus is in charge everything changes. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that it gets better. Have you read about the stuff he got up to the in the backwater towns of Galilee?

Are we sure we want Jesus to be in charge?

From the very beginning he predicted that those in power would reject him, and they did. I would say that’s strike one. Jesus has the gall to call all kinds of people who have no business being in the kingdom business. I mean, fishermen for disciples? Tax collectors for apostles? What’s next, bankers for Sunday school teachers? Lawyers on the mission committee?

Jesus is risky and foolish, spending all of his time among the last, least, lost, little, and dead. If we ever want to make the world a better place, we need a leader who’s going to spend time with the first, the best, the found, the big, and the lively.

What kind of leader forgives betrayers? What kind of ruler leaves ninety-nine behind to find the one who is lost? What kind of king hosts a banquet and invites everybody to attend?

Jesus.

John reminds us, across the centuries, through the power of words that Jesus is the one in charge, and in his infinite and confounding wisdom, he loves us, he has freed us from our very worst mistakes, and he has made us into a new people who will always feel like strangers in a stranger land. 

And, to be clear, being in charge doesn’t mean being in control. If God in Christ is the author of every war, cancer diagnosis, and car crash then God isn’t worthy of our worship. But as the one in charge it means that God in Christ is the one we follow. He leads the way.

It is to Jesus, John says, that we owe our allegiance because he does for us what we cannot do for ourselves – he makes a way where there is no way. He, himself, is Easter for us.

The key according to the Revelator, the important truth that will be brought up again and again, is that it’s all up to Jesus. We can absolutely respond to what Jesus has done, we can even take up our crosses to follow, but he’s the one in charge, he gets all the good verbs. He, to put it plainly, is the Alpha and the Omega, the A and the Z.

Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, or improve the improvable, or correct the correctable; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life for people like you and me, the good and the bad and the ugly. 

The message of Revelation, of the one who is, and was, and is to come, is that it isn’t over yet. Easter is still happening. Until we all feast at the Supper of the Lamb, we will live in the in-between – the place where we vacillate between mourning and dancing, crying and laughing. 

Every Easter we make the same declaration – Christ is risen! But that’s a little deceptive. It is true, but we have more to say: Christ is risen, and he’s in charge. Amen. 

Trading My Sorrows

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Bryant Manning about the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 9.1-6, Psalm 30, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19). Bryant is the director of the Wesley Foundation at FSU. Our conversation covers a range of topics including seminary salutations, campus ministries, silent retreats, the call of Saul, humbling humility, praying the psalms, divine anger, hand motions, nooma, the eschaton, choral singing, good worship, and texts for tweenagers. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Trading My Sorrows

It’s Better Than You Think It Is

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 5.27-32, Psalm 118.14-29, Revelation 1.4-9, John 20.19-31). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including strange intros, short sermons, eating in Eastertide, Raymond Brown, good trouble, Stanley Hauerwas, codas, timelessness, the firstborn of the dead, real peace, and the gift of faith. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: It’s Better Than You Think It Is

A Strange New World

Luke 24.1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what happened. 

Here we are for the strange and bewildering day we call Easter. All of the Bible, all of the church, all of Christianity hinges on this day: Easter, resurrection, out of death into life. If this story were not in scripture, we would’ve thrown our Bibles away a long time ago. 

If the Bible does not tell us this story, it tells us nothing.

Easter is the one day when all the hopes of the past are made manifest in the present. Some of you are here because you can’t imagine being anywhere else. Some of you are here because you desperately want and need to hear Good News amidst a world drowning in bad news. Some of you were dragged here against your will.

So, no matter who you are or even why you’re here, hear the Good News: He is risen! Hallelujah! 

No one saw the resurrection of Jesus.

There’s plenty of art and films and even songs that attempt to describe the event that we are here to celebrate, but the strange new world of the Bible tells us, in all four gospels, that no one saw it. Not Peter, not Mary Magdalene, not anyone.

Jesus was already gone from the tomb when the stone was rolled away.

And perhaps, oddly enough, that’s a good thing. For the resurrection is beyond our ability to understand or comprehend – it comes to us from an entirely different sphere of reality.

It breaks all the rules.

The women wake up on the third day knowing full and well what to expect. They travel to the tomb with spices to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. They’ve run out of tears since Friday, perhaps they even travel in silence, the real and terrible sound of grief. But when they arrive the stone is moved and the body is gone.

And behold two men in dazzling clothes appear and the women fall to the ground in fear and reverence. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” They say, “He is not here, he is risen!”

Their rebuke reverberates through the centuries. To this day we still look for new life in all the wrong places, hoping to gain control over something that is fundamentally out of our control.

We still set our minds on earthly things, we seek the living among the dead, but we rarely notice it. We cling to various things in life because life is so uncertain – tomorrow is never promised. So we hold desperately to those things we think give us life. Our jobs, spouses, children, on and on. But things largely stay the same.

So we flip through the never-ending abyss of Netflix searching for a momentary reprieve in a life of monotony, we listen to podcasts at 1.5x speed because we don’t feel like we have enough time between all of our timely events, all while we go from day to day knowing not what we are doing or why we are evening doing it. 

We know longer no what it means to be surprised.

And then BAM Easter!

Easter is the great disruption, the exodus for the rest of us, the beginning of a strange new world.

Kurt Vonnegut said that most good stories occur when a character gets unstuck in time. Our lives, therefore, only really become interesting when the time of our lives is disrupted and unstuck from its normalcy.

The women in Luke’s gospel travel to the tomb with predictable expectations – the dead stay dead. They knew that everything was out of their control, until they heard the announcement that Christians have been shouting throughout the centuries: He’s not here, he’s risen!

No wonder the story ends so strangely – the women just go home, amazed. Easter sets them, and us, on a course from which we leave provoked, unsettled, disoriented. Life will not, and cannot, be the same. But how can we possibly respond to the most unexpected thing in the world?

The tomb was empty, the body was gone. He is risen.

This is the proclamation of Easter and yet, proclaiming the resurrection is so difficult and so challenging because the resurrection cannot be made into a metaphor; it cannot be reduced into a charming story.

Easter is not the celebration of spring, it is not new life shooting up from the soil. It is not a quaint little tale of how love is stronger than death. It is, instead, something completely unlooked for, something without any precedent, and something that leaves us truly amazed. 

Easter proclaims that God is the Lord of disruption. It is among the roads of life, the traveling among the dead while looking for the dead, that Jesus shows up, becomes time itself for us, takes our time, and transforms the cosmos.

All these centuries later, with our sanctuaries and our lilies and our songs and our sermons, it can all feel like Easter is just one more thing that happens to Jesus. But that’s not right. Easter is the happening of Jesus to all things. Jesus doesn’t change on Easter – everything is changed because of him.

Any attempt, therefore, to find a way to make Easter relevant or new or relatable is a fool’s errand because Easter is unlike anything else and the best we can ever hope to do is point toward it. 

The proclamation of Holy Week, the entry into the city, the meal on Thursday, the cross on Friday, the empty tomb on Sunday, they run counter to just about everything else in life – they don’t give us ways to be better human beings, they aren’t commandments about how to make the world more bearable. They are not about what we do, but are instead about what is done to us. And that what has a name: Jesus Christ. 

The amazing part of Easter is that we don’t have to do anything for it to happen.

Jesus does for us what Jesus does whether we deserve it or not. God in the flesh comes to dwell among us and we return the favor by nailing Jesus to the cross. And, three days later, God gives him back to us.

You see – Jesus doesn’t wait behind the stone until his disciples have just the right amount of faith before breaking forth.

Jesus doesn’t tell them that he will be raised only when they’ve evangelized the right number of people.

Jesus doesn’t even given them a to do list to do before Easter happens.

We, the good and righteous folk that we are, we’re in church on Easter after all, we might’ve thought the story was over – that the shadow of the cross was the final word.

But in the strange new world made possible by God, only Jesus gets the final word because he, himself, is the Word incarnate.

On Easter God took the cross, a sign of death to the world, and made it the means of life. 

The promise of the resurrection is that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love, not even death. Jesus’ pronouncement from the cross, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they’re doing” frees us from all of our sins, past, present, and future. Easter means that one day we too will rise to join in the feast at the supper of the Lamb.

Can you imagine anything more wonderful than this?

The first disciples were amazed by what they saw and heard that first Easter morning.

We still are. 

The promise of the resurrection for people like you and me is wild beyond all imagining. It is the gift of life in the midst of death, it is a way out simply by remaining in, it is everything for nothing.

It is, to put it simply, amazing. 

Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else.

He is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah! Amen. 

The Living Daylights

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 not he 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. 

I hid in the tomb for what felt like hours but was only 30 minutes. It was Easter Sunday half of my life ago, and I had been volunteered to participate in the sunrise service. Out on the front lawn was a fake tomb and a fake stone that we set up every year. The idea was that, on Holy Saturday, you would drive by and see the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb and then, on Easter Sunday, you would arrive at church to see the stone rolled away like all those centuries ago.

But this particular year the associate pastor had a plan to give the people an Easter they’d never forget. He conscripted me to arrive before everyone else, don an angelic costume, and wait inside the tomb with a fog machine until the perfect moment to proclaim the resurrection. 

So I sat crumpled up in the corner with my cherubic wings folding in on themselves. Neither of us had anticipated how cramped the space would be, not did we think about how difficult it would be to hear my cue from inside the tomb.

Therefore, after the congregation arrived, and the service began, and I heard what I thought was my first cue, I turned on the fog machine and waited to make my dramatic entrance.

But the space filled with the smoke very quickly and I couldn’t see or hear anything. 

I began coughing in the tight space and tried my best to stay hidden until I could no longer stand it and I kicked down the papermache stone and stumbled onto the front lawn.

As the smoke dissipated, I took in the scene around me. Genteel Christian folks were arranged in a semi-circle of fold up camping chairs, the pastor was standing by a podium no doubt only halfway through his sermon, and everyone was starring at me.

I don’t know quite what I looked like, but I certainly looked more like someone who accidentally slept in the tomb overnight than I did an angelic messenger of the Lord.

For the briefest of moments I panicked, unsure of what to say or do. I had memorized a monologue to proclaim but it completely evaporated from my mind. Instead, I shouted “The Lord is risen!” And I ran for my life.

To this day I don’t know what everyone made of that moment. We tacitly agreed to never speak of it, though I’m sure more than a few walked away that Easter afraid.

Much has been made about the women fleeing from the tomb in fear that first Easter morn. Some say that Mark did not intend to end the gospel in such a way, that perhaps he died mid sentence, or the earliest manuscript was torn in that exact spot, on and on the speculations run wild.

We don’t why Mark ends the Gospel this way, only that the first of us to experience the resurrection walked, actually ran, away from it with fear.

I’ve always found that detail to be rather staggering every time the liturgical calendar comes around. For, in a few hours, most of us will be inside our actual churches with lilies, and pastelcolor outfits, and peppy hymns, and smiling congregants.

Nothing about Easter screams fear.

Except for the strange new world of the Bible. 

It is good and right for us to be here in worship in a cemetery. It’s the same kind of place where the first Easter happened, and it reminds us of the stark promise of salvation. That is, no one ever goes to a cemetery expecting to encounter a resurrection.

We go to cemeteries to commune among the dead.

It’s also good to be here this early, because Easter, resurrection, it happened in the dark.

New life always starts in the dark, whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.

In addition to the dead, and the darkness, I think the other reason is is good to be afraid on Easter is because it has little, if anything to do with us.

We aren’t the ones who makes Easter possible. God is the one who makes a way where there is no way, God is the God of impossible possibility, God is the God of resurrection.

It’s why we can call the Good News good.

But if the Good News is in fact, good news, then why do the women run in fear? 

All life ends in death, the bell will toll for us all. How else, then, could anyone respond if the one certainty in life was no longer certain?

Easter confronts us with the scary reality that we aren’t in control, because God is.

That’s a frightening thing to accept because God truth means our obsession with earthly things really amount to nothing. All of the things we fret over most, life, beauty, security, wealth, power, careers, property, even our families cannot hold a flame to the promise of the resurrection. 

Jesus does for us what Jesus does whether we deserve it or not. God in the flesh comes to dwell among us and we return the favor by nailing God to the cross. And, three days later, he is resurrected.

You see – Jesus doesn’t wait behind the stone until his disciples have just the right amount of faith before breaking forth.

Jesus doesn’t tell them that he will be raised only when they’ve evangelized the right number of people.

Jesus doesn’t even given them a to do list to do before Easter happens.

The promise of the resurrection for people like you and me is wild beyond all imagining. It is the gift of life in the midst of death, it is a way out simply by remaining it, it is everything for nothing.

And it just might scare the living daylights out of us.

Easter isn’t perfect. For some it creates more questions than answers. For the women at the tomb it was scary and astonishing. For the church folk gathered when I bumbled out of the fake tomb it was strange and a bit bizarre. Easter can both excite and terrify. And thats because is shatter all of our expectations about how the world is supposed to work. Easter means everything is changed forever.

The end of Mark’s gospel, this weird and wonderful detail about the women running away in fear, it’s no ending at all. It is the great ellipsis in which the story continues through us. The women at the tomb, all of us in this cemetery, we are now caught up in God’s great story of salvation. We are here not because of what we’ve done or left undone, but because something was done to us. That something has a name: Jesus Christ.

Hear the Good News: The end has no end.

He is risen. Hallelujah! He is risen indeed! Amen.

Tyler

Grace and peace to each of you in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit,

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Taylor Mertins and, like Jon and Randy, I am a pastor and I serve Raleigh Court United Methodist Church in Roanoke, VA. 

But I grew up in this church, and Tyler was one of my oldest friends.

I am someone who works in the world of words, and I must confess that preparing these words was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

I have 1,001 stories I could tell about Tyler, many of which would not be appropriate to tell in church, and that’s saying something coming from a pastor.

I met Tyler for the first time at my 6th birthday party. My mother had received word that a new family had moved in around the block and she informed me that a boy I never met would be coming to my party because what better way could a child be introduced to a neighborhood.

Let me tell you, that’s an incredible way to parent.

Anyway, I vividly remember this dark haired boy with a cast from his shoulder to his wrist jumping on the bounce house and using his cast to push all the other kids around.

We were fast friends.

There’s a ten year period of my life where I can’t really remember doing anything without Tyler being involved somehow. Our families went on vacation together every year, our first sleepovers were at each others houses, we were together all the time.

Our mothers will tell this story that, one time, they brought all us kids over to Collingwood park and while they stood by the playground with our younger siblings, Tyler and I were running around in the field. And all seemed well, until they really looked at us and they realized we were beating the hell out of each other. So they rushed out into the field and pulled us apart, and the next day were were playing together again.

That is to say: I always felt like Tyler was more of a brother than a friend.

Another confession – during that same ten year period, if I ever got in trouble and some concerned adult asked for my name and my parents name, I never hesitated to say “My name is Tyler Gray, and my parents are Larry and Janet Gray.”

Tyler got in plenty of enough trouble on his own, but Larry and Janet, you probably received at least a few phone calls that were about me and not Tyler.

There are things we did in life that I know we did only because the other one did it. Tyler and I were in cub scouts together and we came to this church for a time on Sunday afternoons to earn our God and Me badge, we went through confirmation together and knelt at this altar in order to respond to God’s grace and mercy, both of which I am sure Tyler did because I did it.

Similarly, Tyler enrolled in German when we were in high school just as I did, and I know for a fact that Tyler never learned a single word. I know he learned nothing because I helped him cheat on every single test and even when he was called upon to stand and respond to our teacher’s questions Auf Deutsch, I would whisper the answer to him and he always answered with a smile on his face.

Entschuldigung Frau.

And it went both ways; I am sure that I signed up to play Ft. Hunt baseball, basketball, and lacrosse because Tyler did. I listened to a lot of punk music in middle school only because Tyler talked about it all the time. I even used to wake up early every morning before school so that I could ride my bike to the Gray’s house and then walk up the hill to ride the bus with Ty.

I wanted to spend as much time with him as I possibly could.

Because I loved him, and he loved me. 

The latter part of high school was rough for Tyler and he went through a lot. So much so that there was a time that we didn’t speak to one another. But when we finally reconnected, one of the first things he told me was that he met a girl on the ski trip.

Sure you did, I thought.

But then he kept talking about Laura, and spent time with Laura, and Tyler started to change, for the better. He became a version of himself that I think he always wanted. In you he found himself. You were the light in his darkness. Your marriage and your girls are a testament to who Tyler became.

He loved you, and you loved him. What a gift.

Larry, Janet, Corey, B, Lauren – you loved Tyler too. You loved the hell out of him. You were patient with him, you were forgiving, you were present.

And he loved you.

No family is perfect, just as no marriage is perfect and no friendship is perfect. But you were all for Tyler in a way that he needed. 

There’s this bit right smack dab in the middle of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome that, for me, I can’t read without thinking about Tyler. Paul has been riffing on the wonders of God’s love and it crescendos up to this remarkable declaration: 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.

What makes such a statement so profound is the fact that all those things are constantly trying to separate us from one another and from God. Life, at times, is a seemingly endless battle between where we are and where we should be or want to be and, no matter what we do, we can’t get there. And then Paul shouts through the centuries, rattling our souls, with the reminder that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any more, or any less. Nothing can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. 

And yet, the pain of life can sting like nothing else. 

None of us will ever know or understand what happened on Sunday. But today is Good Friday, and if you’ve ever spent time in church you’ll know there really isn’t anything good about today. Churches across the world will gather to worship the King of kings who rules from the arms of the cross. Today is the day we remember Christ’s death.

And, notably, in two of the Gospel accounts Jesus’ final words are, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The incarnate One cries out with his final breaths feeling completely alone, isolated, and abandoned. The Messiah meets his end feeling like he has nothing left.

We will never know what Tyler felt, but Christ does.

And even in death, Jesus isn’t forsaken. 

In three days God gives him back to us.

The promise of Easter is that, one day, we will all feast at the supper of the Lamb with Tyler. We will gather at the table anew when there will be no mourning and no crying.

But that day is not today. Today we weep and we mourn because Tyler is gone.

Sometimes, I fear, we’re too noisy around people who are suffering, trying to make things okay with our words. Nothing will make this okay. What we do need is presence, we need one another. 

So it is my prayer that, in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead that we hold tight to each other. That we give thanks to the Lord who gave Tyler to us. Amen.

The Exodus For The Rest Of Us

Exodus 12.1-4, 11-14

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. 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 day 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. 

Why is tonight different from all other nights?

That’s a worthy question for us gathered here for worship in a room that hasn’t held a worship service in a very long time. We’ve got different chairs, different lights, it all feels strange, in a good way.

But tonight is also different for another reason – tonight we mark Maundy Thursday. Maundy from the latin mandatum, from which we get commandment. In John’s gospel Jesus says to the disciples during the foot washing on his final evening, I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.

We moderns don’t really like being commanded to do anything, but surely we can get on board with loving each other a little more.

It’s the Gospel according to the Beatles: All you need is love.

Except, love ain’t enough.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Why is tonight different than all other nights? That is surely a question for us, but it is also the question that all Jewish children are asked when they gather for the celebration of Passover. 

Long ago, God made it all – the tall and the small, the near and the far, from here to there and everywhere. God brought forth light and life.

Including us.

Later, God made a promise with Abraham to be his God, and that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. Abraham begat Isaac who begat Jacob. One day Jacob wrestled with an angel of the Lord on the banks of the Jabbok river and was given a new name, Israel. It means, you have struggled with God and prevailed.

Jacob begat Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers. And yet, during his time as a stranger in a strange land, he was prosperous and eventually brought about the salvation of his kinfolk and they were fruitful and multiplied in a foreign land.

All was well in Egypt, until it wasn’t. 

The Egyptians grew jealous of the people Israel, and subjugated them. Out of fear the Pharaoh ordered the deaths of every male child born to Hebrew women.

Moses was born and saved by his mother who pushed him out in a basket into the mighty Nile river. He grew in strength and wisdom and was called by God from the burning bush to deliver God’s people from their captivity.

The Lord commanded Moses to have the people slaughter lambs and use the blood to mark their doors. This would be the sign for the Lord to pass over their homes while dispensing with the firstborns of Egypt. 

Passover is a night different from all other nights because it is a time set apart to mark and remember the sacred and profound work of the Lord in deliverance. God makes a way where there is no way.

Jesus gathers with his friends to celebrate the Passover.

He sends two disciples to procure a space for the occasion, perhaps the same two who found him the donkey for his triumphal entry into the holiest of cities.

And it came to pass that, while sitting at the table together, Jesus took a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, gave it to his friends and said, “This is my body.” And then he took a cup of wine, gave thanks to God, gave it to his friends and said, “This is my blood.”

This is my blood.

And before the evening ends, those friends who shared bread and cup, body and blood, they’re all gone. Jesus is arrested and the cross waits for him on the horizon.

Why does Jesus die on a cross?

Another worthy question for reflection. The simplest answer is: Jesus died on a cross because the cross was how Rome made an example of those who questioned the status quo. But, for us, the question is confounding. We might answer by saying, “He died so that we can go to heaven” or “The cross is a sign of forgiveness” or “Jesus died to show us his love.”

Those answers aren’t necessarily wrong. Salvation is made possible by the cross, Jesus does pronounce forgiveness from the arms of the cross, and the cross reveals the heart of God.

But, if the only thing we needed was a little more love, couldn’t we have received it without Jesus having to die? If Jesus only wanted us to be a little kinder, why did his closest disciples abandon him in the end?

It’s notable that Jesus chose Passover for the time of his last supper. Because Passover isn’t about forgiveness, or love, or even mercy.

During the days of Exodus the Lord didn’t look at the misdeeds of the people Israel and say, “Okay, time to let bygones be bygones, I’m going to wash away your sins.”

No.

God said, “I’m getting you the hell out of Egypt. Let’s go!”

Passover is about freedom.

And consider the connections made manifest around the table:

Jesus was without sin and was innocent of the charges lobbed against him, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be perfect and without blemish.

Jesus was beaten to the point of dead and stabbed in the side shortly before his death, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be bled before being hung to roast. 

Jesus was hung up high and though beaten his bones were not broken, just like the lamb’s bones were to remain intact.

I know this is a lot, it’s gruesome and frightening and not for the faint of heart.

But that’s what communion is all about. It stands in stark contrast with those who receive it. It’s not just a simple meal at grandma’s house after church one Sunday afternoon. It is the Lord of all creation proclaiming his death at the hands not of his enemies, but of his friends. Its God looking each of us squarely in the eye and saying, “I know you deserve this not at all, and yet I’m giving it to you anyway.”

Yes, Jesus commands us to love one another. But that kind of love is made intelligible only in the light of the cross, and in the bread and wine of our Lord’s body and blood. 

Jesus is the exodus for the rest of us. He delivers us from our captivity to sin and death into a strange new world we call the kingdom of God.

I haven’t been here a year, but I have been here long enough to know that we are believers, half believers, and unbelievers. I know that each of us here has done something we ought not to have done, and we’ve all avoided responding to the confoundingly difficult commandment to love one another.

But I also know that we worship the Lord who makes a way where there is no way. That, as Robert Jenson so wonderfully put it, “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of captivity in Egypt.”

Even today, we’re all stuck in our own Egypts and we are in desperate need of deliverance. We need rescue. We need freedom.

And that’s exactly what we get in Jesus, our Passover Lamb. Amen. 

The Divine Ellipsis

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Resurrection of the Lord [C] (Isaiah 65.17-25, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15.19-26, John 20.1-18). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including McDonalds, Easter songs, champagne, ecclesial delight, the super psalm, good verbs, lectionary podcasts, Adam’s helpless race, commandment keeping, the destruction of death, All Things Beautiful, skepticism, and brevity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Divine Ellipsis

Jesus Saves

Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever. 

Every pastor has a favorite Palm Sunday story.

Like the year when the palm branches were delivered way too early and dried out so much that when the gathered congregation shook them over their heads in worship, palm branch particles went flying in every direction resulting in sneezing and coughing fits among the people of God.

Or the time when the pastor thought it would be a great idea to dress up like a donkey and preach the sermon from the perspective of the animal that carried Jesus into Jerusalem, to which the pastor received perhaps the greatest Sunday morning comment of all time: “You know, you’re not the first donkey we’ve had in that pulpit.”

Only they used a different word for donkey.

Or the time when the children of the church processed in waving their palm branches and lifting up their hosannas only to begin smacking one another in the face with their aforementioned palms until a nearby parent had to jump in to break up the melee and mutter, a little too loudly, “Lord, save me from these kids!”

And I think the reason preachers like me like to tell a cute or funny little story about Palm Sunday is because the actual story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rather confounding.

Put another way: Palm Sunday is perhaps the strangest Sunday of the year.

For, it begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It starts with “Hosanna” but it finishes with “Crucify.” It begins with life and it ends with death.

At they are approaching Jerusalem Jesus sends two of his disciples to procure a colt for his entry into the holy city. He rides in a cartoonish way, with his feet nearly dragging on the ground on either side of the animal, and the people of Jerusalem comes out in droves to see the would-be Messiah. They are overcome with reverence, so much so that they begin to take their own clothing, and spread it on on the road only to be trampled upon by the colt. They make a royal carpet as they worship the King of kings.

They take leafy branches from the fields and they wave them to and fro and they shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Hosanna. I’ve always loved that word. It’s such a churchy word. It makes me think of my own childhood and parading around the sanctuary. It makes me things of the musical masterpiece Jesus Christ Superstar and the crowds singing, “Hey sanna Hosanna, sanna sanna Hey, sanna ho sanna hey sanna.”

Hosanna is a wonderful word. And, every Palm Sunday, we reach into the vault of churchy words, we dust off this old familiar declaration, and we proudly put it on display. We shout it in our hymns, we put the word on the lips of our children, we hear it read in the scriptures. And then, at the conclusion of worship, we wrap it up and place it back into the church vault with our other special words only to come back one year from now.

We are familiar with this word. It conjures memories and songs. Churches everywhere will join us in our shouts of Hosanna today.

But do we know what it means?

Save us.

It is a declaratory pleading. It is an emphatic demand.

Save us. Now!

Saved?

That’s a word you don’t hear much in churches like ours. We’re Methodists. We sing and we eat and we sing some more. We try to love each other. Really, we do. 

Love, peace, grace, mercy, forgiveness. Those are our words.

But saved?

How many got saved on Sunday? We don’t talk like that. 

We might make fun of those other types of church that talk in such a way. 

I remember someone once asking me if I was saved, and I said something like, I suppose so, and he said he’d been saved no less than 9 times.

Hosanna! Save us!

Really? 

Well, perhaps we should go look in the Bible for this word, where else does it appear besides Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city that will kill him?

There’s a woman, suffering from a hemorrhage for 7 years. She’s among the crowd one day and she says to herself, “If I but touch the hem of his garment I will be saved.” 

Well, in our Bible’s it says, “made well.” 

But it’s the same word for saved. The same word the crowds cry out as Jesus’ enters Jerusalem. 

And she suffers from more than just her bleeding. She’s isolated, outcast, thrown away by the likes of her family and her friends. She is a nobody with no hope in the world. Until the hope of the world walks past one day and she reaches out. She’s got nothing until she gets saved.

Jesus saves.

There’s a blind beggar sitting by the roadside. Like the woman he is unseen by all because of his inability to see. Forgotten and abandoned. And when the Lord walks by he shouts out, “Son of David have mercy on me.” The disciples are quick to shut him up. The Lord has more important things to do than to waste his time on you.

But the Lord comes anyway and says, “What do you want me to do?” 

I want to see. 

And Jesus says, “You faith has saved you.”

He has nothing to show for anything. He’s desperate. And in a moments notice, he is in the parade of the faith. Dancing and shouting for joy. 

Jesus saves.

There’s a rich man, well to do, Mr. Z they call him behind his back. While his fellows get poorer and poorer he gets wealthier and wealthier. He’s a tax collector. One day he climbs a tree to see Jesus. And the Lord calls him down and says, “Got any plans for lunch?”

They go to Zacchaeus’ house and the crowds are incensed. How dare the Lord go to eat with that sinner! What do they talk about over lunch? We don’t know. We only know that as they leave the house the tax collector is changed. He says, “I will give back everything that I have taken with interest.” 

“Salvation” Jesus says, “has come to this house.”

Jesus saves.

It’s no wonder the crowds grew and grew and grew. It’s no wonder the strange new world of the Bible talks of people leaves their plows in the field and their bread in the oven when the Messiah shows up. 

Because the Messiah is the one who saves.

And there’s no such things as being a little bit saved, or partially saved. It means a total and complete salvation. 

So when they wave their palm branches, when they place their cloaks on the road, they scream for salvation from the only one who can bring it.

Hosanna! Save us Jesus!

Save us, from what?

Jerusalem is occupied, the Roman garrison enters the holy city on the other side. Pontius Pilate comes riding in on a war course while Jesus enters on a donkey. The people of God, therefore, are living as strangers in a strange land in the very land God had promised. Their way of life is fracturing, their faith is under scrutiny, they have no bright hope for tomorrow. 

And here comes the Messiah! The one who makes everything right! He’s saved others and now he’s going to save us. He’s going to give us our city back. He’s going to bring back our way of life. He’s the new king!

The crowds grow and grow, and the shouts of Hosanna echo through the city streets, until they see the cross.

It is strange and not so strange to know that those same people who shouted Hosanna at the beginning of the week were shouting crucify by the end.

It’s all too easy for us to cast Jesus into role of our own choosing.

It’s all too easy for us to put words, our words, into Jesus’ mouth.

We would still like to see him parade around into the madness of our circumstances to champion our hopes and dreams, to disrupt and frustrate the plans of our enemies.

But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same.

Jesus comes to save us.

He doesn’t enter the holy city to establish yet another political machine that result in one group lording it over everyone else.

He doesn’t pass out swords and shields to storm the temple walls.

He doesn’t even offer programs of personal morality that will make the world a better place.

One of the craziest parts of Palm Sunday is that, according to the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus doesn’t say anything.

He merely rides into the city that will kill him.

But it’s Palm Sunday. We don’t want to have to think about Friday yet. We like the images and the sounds of our children waving palm branches high in the air. But there is no jumping from today to Easter Sunday.

Put another way, we do well to remember there is no resurrection without crucifixion.

It’s in our hymns and in our creeds and even in our prayers, but we try to stay away from the crucifixion as much as possible. And for good reason – it is the sign of our total and utmost depravity. But it’s also the heart of God. 

God, the creator of the cosmos, lays aside almightiness to come and dwell among us in the muck and mire of life, to be one of us.

God becomes vulnerable for us.

And how do we return the favor?

Crucify, Crucify!

Why? Because we want salvation on our own terms. We want to take matters into our own hands. We want to save ourselves. 

We don’t want to be saved in our sins, we’d rather lord it over other sinners who are worse than us. The only problem with that is, according to the kingdom of God, none of us is righteous, no, not one. 

You see, we crucified Jesus not because he was God, but because he was God and then failed to come up to our standards in doing so. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t the one we were looking for.

We’re fine with being saved only so long as it fits neatly into our expectations of what it means to be saved. 

The crowds wave their branches and they shout their hosannas. Save us Jesus, save us! And, by the end of the week, that’s exactly what he does, whether we deserve it or not, whether we like it or not.

Jesus saves.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

Even on the cross.

Jesus saves. Amen.