Three Words

1 Corinthians 15.1-11

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Ah, 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 of the hopes of the past are made manifest in the present. Today we are a church unlike many of the other Sundays in the year. On Easter our pews are filled with those deeply rooted in their faith, with those filled with questions, and with those filled with doubts. So, what does one say on a day like today? How might I meet each of you where you are and provide words of truth and challenge and grace? What can I say today?

The truth: He is risen! Hallelujah!

Graveside funerals make me nervous.

If we have a funeral in the sanctuary, most things can be taken care of and are under control. We can set the temperature, clear the parking lot, and truly celebrate the many ways in which God moved in and through the person now dead.

But when you’re at the graveside, everything is out of control. You might be driving in the sunshine while in the funeral procession, but the minute you hit the cemetery the clouds roll in and the rain begins to fall. You might have your bible open to a particular passage but then the wind will blow and you’ve gone from 1 Corinthians to Exodus. Or, as has happened to me far too many times, you’ll stand over the casket with dirt in your hands and ask everyone for a few moments of silence only to hear the faint but nevertheless decisive moo of a cow from a nearby farm.

Cemeteries are often in the strangest places. I’ve buried people in perfectly manicured military compounds where you’ll never get lost because there is always a solider ready to lead you out. I’ve buried people in cemeteries stuck in the middle of residential neighborhoods, next to a playground, and across the streets from a cow farm. I’ve even buried someone’s ashes in the backyard of a beloved family member.

And because they are often in the strangest places, they can be difficult to find.

Years ago, a young pastor was asked to do a burial service for an older man from the community who had no friends, and no family. The pastor was unable to speak with anyone about the man’s life, but he wrote a decent funeral sermon nonetheless, and when the appointed day arrive he got in the car and headed out for an old country cemetery out in the middle of nowhere.

He drove and drove, and though he did not want to admit it to himself, he was lost. He tried searching for the address on his phone, and he eventually stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. When he finally pulled up he was over an hour late.

As he drove across the open and barren landscape, the hearse was nowhere in sight, but the backhoe was next to the open hole, and there was a group of men resting under the shade of a nearby tree. The young pastor parked his car and walked over to the open grave and embarrassingly discovered that the lid was already in place and dirt had been already been sprinkled across the top.

The guilt welled up within the young preacher and he opened up his bible and began preaching like he never had before. He cried out to the heavens with clenched fists, he proclaimed the promise of resurrection, and he did so with a conviction rarely found in his Sunday delivery.

After his final “amen” he returned to his car while still sweating from his passionately delivered sermon. And just before he opened the door, he overheard one of the men under the tree say to the others, “I ain’t never see nothing like that before, and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.”

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Today is Easter and it is also April Fools’ Day. This is the first time both days have fallen together in 62 years. And for months I’ve been reading articles, and listening to other pastors, expressing the importance of incorporating humor in today’s worship service. And, of course, Easter is a joke – the greatest joke God ever played on the devil. But to trivialize this day, of all days, does a disservice to the decisive change made possible by this day. It belittles the death of Jesus to graveyard jokes about septic tanks. It makes the resurrection optional instead of essential.

If God didn’t raise Jesus from the dead, if the bodily resurrection isn’t real, then we are wasting our time. It’s as simple as that. The resurrection of Jesus from the grave is the vindication of all his teaching. It is what makes the sermons and the stories intelligible, it is the light in the darkness, it is the way we follow the way.

Without the resurrection, we have no business loving our neighbors, or enemies. Without the resurrection it would be absurd to teach our children the call to turn the other cheek. Without resurrection everything in the New Testament falls apart.

The world does not recommend doing any of this Christian stuff. It is strange and bizarre to give clothes to those who are naked, and to feed those who are hungry, and to befriend the friendless. We don’t do these things as Christians not simply because God tells us to, or because it’s the right thing to do. We do them because God raised Jesus from the dead!

The empty tomb is everything. It is funnier than any joke, it is more serious than any death, it is more majestic that any mountain, it is deeper that any valley. It is everything.

Without resurrection, I’ve got nothing to say. Without Easter, nothing that Christians do makes any sense.

“He is risen!” are the three precious words found at the heart of our identity. They changed, and continue to change, everything. They are the three words handed to Paul, and Paul to the Corinthians, and eventually to us.

Some of you know that I have an annual tradition of taking this cross out of the sanctuary on Good Friday, throwing it over my shoulder, and walking through town. I started this because years ago I was struck by often we keep our crosses tucked away in our sanctuaries, hidden among the altars and rafters. And so, for the last five years, I’ve marched around town with a cross on my back, beckoning all who encounter to remember that Christ died for them, and for the world.

On Friday I made my way across our parking lot with the cross thinking, somehow, it was heavier than last year, and eventually I made it to Route 1. I began by heading north, politely waving at cars and passers by, and I think it freaked some people out. There were many open mouths and puzzled expressions in regards to a bearded young man, all dressed in black, with a cross on his back.

But I kept walking.

After about twenty minutes there was a car to my left that slowed down as it came closer, and eventually pulled in front of me and into the closest parking lot. A man quickly exited his car and started walking toward me. After 20 minutes of walking I felt like God’s was giving me the opportunity to share the gospel story. In the man’s eyes I could sense a deep need and longing, and I was just the pastor to provide. So when he stood in front of me and said, “Can I ask you a question?” I replied: “Of course, my son, ask away.” To which he asked, “Do you know where the post office is? I can’t find it.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Its back a few blocks on the left… right across the street from my church.”

Another 20 minutes of walking passed by as a few drivers kindly honked their horns in support. When all of the sudden I noticed a car full of teenagers on the other side of the road, in which they were pointing at me. The driver’s made a quick u-turn, and then they stopped in the middle of Route 1 so that half of the kids could lean out their windows to take even more pictures. As they began driving away I heard one of the girls say, “Imma put him on my Instagram!”

Eventually, after walking for more than an hour, I started heading back toward the church, wondering if carrying the cross had really made any difference. I thought about all of the people who saw the cross and whether or not it made them reflect on what Jesus did for them. I wondered about how many of them even knew what I was doing.

Shortly before I got back to the church property, I saw a young man running toward me in full workout gear. He had headphones on that were clearly pumping some serious music and he was bopping his head back and forth. I assumed that he would run right past me, but he stopped briefly on the sidewalk, gave me a double index finger point, winked, and then said, “He is risen!” and then he kept running.

He said, “He is risen!” like it was a joke.

When the event of the resurrection comes upon us, like it did Paul, when we are encountered by the living God, raised from the dead at Easter, our world is rocked and we are changed forever.

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It’s no joke. The resurrection is a reminder that we can never go back the same way we came. Those three words are the beginning of God’s in-breaking in the world, they are the witness to God’s unending love, they are nothing short of grace.

Easter is world shattering. It is deeply disruptive. It changes everything, now. Easter is the totality of the Good News. The story of the empty tomb is what radically reshaped Paul’s life, and, hopefully, it’s what has reshaped ours as well.

On Easter we celebrate the great power and mercy of God. In Easter we see how God took something like the cross, a sign of death to the world, and made it into the means of life. On Easter God transformed the tomb the same way that he did on Christmas in a virgin’s womb; God made a way where there was no way. On Easter God changed the world.

And all it took was three words.

So come and taste the goodness of God in the bread and in the cup. Listen for the truth of salvation in the songs we sing and the prayers we pray. Witness the power of Easter in the people in the pews next to you. Hear the Good News, the best news. Hear the three most important words you will ever hear: He is risen!

Hallelujah!

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Yet

Psalm 22.1-11

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the Lord; let them deliver – let them rescue the one in whom he delights!” Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

 

Last night we gathered to remember Jesus’ final night with his friends. We, like they, broke bread together and shared a cup in order to remember what Jesus did.

And while we were together we talked a lot about memory – What stories do we hold on to – What stories do we want to forget?

Part of our memories, what makes them such, is our ability to have something memorized. Think, for instance, of a beloved story you like to tell, or even one you like to hear. Think about a favorite song or movie. Can you remember the words? Can you repeat them just like the singer or the actor? We memorize that which is valuable and important to us. We internalize particular words or phrases from those whom we love and we cherish the memories they become.

I have memorized many anecdotes from my family. I could stand here tonight and fill the evening with hilarious stories from just one of my grandmothers, and come back tomorrow and do it again without repeating anything twice. Those stories are important to me, and because they are part of my family’s history, they are all the more important. Such that at any given moment, should it be required, I can pull the avenues of the narrative to the surface, and I could share the story.

During the time of Jesus life, people had profound memories of well. Some things, regardless of the sands of time remain the same. Get people together today, or 2000 years ago, for a meal and the stories start to flow. But there was a level of memory present during the time of Jesus that has all but disappeared these days.

Jesus, and his contemporaries, knew the scriptures.

And when I say they knew them, I don’t mean they could open up a bible and find the book of Malachi, or they could list of the books of the bible in order at any given notice. No, they had scriptures memorized.

As a young Jew around the first century Jesus, like many others, would pray the psalms out loud once a week. All of them. From 1 to 150. The psalms were the spoken word of the people, they were on their hearts, minds, and lips, all day long. Praying through the psalms was as natural to them as watching bad sitcoms are to us. It was part of their collective identity.

Such that when Jesus was hung on a cross to die, his final words were these: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

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It is difficult and challenging to contemplate our Lord saying those words from the cross. We might be a little more comfortable with John’s story (It is finished) or even Luke’s version (Into thy hands I commit my spirit). But according to Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ final earthly words were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

When I need to offer a grieving family a hopeful word, I often turn to Psalm 23, that beloved collection of verses that some of us have memorized. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside still waters, he restoreth my soul. They are comforting words. But rarely, if ever, have I pulled out Psalm 22.

It’s difficult just to get past the first verse. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? We are pulled to the cross, to the torment and to the agony of Jesus yelling out into the void moments before his death.

Jesus suffers. It is both disconnected and disconnecting. In suffering on the cross he was made completely alone. Entirely and utterly alone. In this moment we are welcomed into the divine in a way not parsed out in other places of the bible. Here on the cross, in the cry of dereliction we experience the duality of Jesus’ divinity and humanity, we experience the abyss of fear and the hope of things unseen, we confront the elect and the reject.

And yet here, on the cross, with his final moments, Jesus turned to prayer. Not a final sermon on the marks of a faithful life, not a moment of divine healing. Jesus prays.

Prayer corresponds with experience. It is the way we process the moment we are in with something larger and more enduring. Prayer is what enables us to scale the impossible mountains of torment that threaten to close us off from all we have known, and prayer is what enables us to see the truth of our lives in terms of what has gone before and what is yet to come.

Of all the things we do as disciples, worshipping the crucified Jesus is possibly the strangest. It is only something we can do through the power of prayer. It is also why tonight’s worship is usually the least attended of all the worship services in a year. Tonight we glorify the Son of God who was degraded by his fellow human being as much as it is possible to be, by decree of both church and state. We worship the one who died in a way designed to subject him to utter shame and to be erased from human memory.

It is a story realer than real. It cannot be spiritualized away, nor can it be fully comprehended by we finite people. The climax of the gospel takes place in the midst of political and economic life, it is shocking and violent, it threatens the prevailing authorities, and it results in people two millennia later worshipping God nailed to a cross.

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There is a paradox in our worship tonight, a paradox as difficult as Jesus’ final words. The paradox is that the generosity of God means the crucifixion of the Son. In Him both the godly and the ungodly are justified.

According to the strange and mysterious wisdom of God, it is in the crucified death of Jesus that all of the cosmos is altered (and altar-ed). This death makes our lives possible. This death is what makes the Christian experience intelligible. This death is at the heart of who God is.

If you’re anything like me, you’re eager to jump to Easter. Enough with the crucifixion! Give me resurrection! But you can’t have one without the other.

We cannot ignore the challenging words of Jesus from the cross. We cannot imagine away, or explain away, the overwhelmingly jarring nature of the Son of God crying out to the Father in fear.

But of course, that’s not where the Psalm ends.

Psalm 22 contains what it possibly the greatest “yet” in scripture… “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.”

On that “Yet” hangs both the Old and New Testament. In that “Yet” we confront the true paradox of the crucifixion: that Jesus is both elected and rejected, that he knows sorrow and hope, that he dies and will rise again.

Jesus knew the power of “yet.”

But we must wait for Easter. We have to take the terrible time to sit in the shadow of the cross, to see in this first century man all the fullness of God, to recognize our sin in him nailed to the tree.

Good Friday, unlike just about anything else we do as a church, cannot be tied up neatly in a bow. We can’t fast-forward to Sunday morning. We, like the disciples in the distance, have to look at our Lord on the cross and wait. We have to wait for God to do a new thing. We have to recognize that this is what God did for us, and not the other way around.

We will leave this place tonight under the cover of darkness. And yet… Jesus is the light of the world.

The words of our prayers and hymns will fall silent. And yet… God cannot be silenced.

The shadow will feel darker than ever. And yet…

Devotional – Psalm 118.1

Devotional:

Psalm 118.1

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

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Holy Week is easily the busiest week in the life of most churches. While the palm branches are still resting on the floor of the sanctuary, pastors and lay leaders are frantically putting together the last minutes items for Holy Week services. Meanwhile, families are frantically planning Easter Sunday meals, and making sure they have enough eggs and goodies for all the children. And because we are so busy this week, we often forget to think about, and reflect on, Jesus’ final week:

It was early in the morning when Jesus sent two of his disciples to a village atop the Mount of Olives to find a donkey. The day had come for Jesus to enter the holy city of Jerusalem during Passover, a time when the city’s population would balloon up to 200,000 people entering to celebrate. On a Sunday morning, while the crowds gathered with palm branches, Jesus entered Jerusalem. Five days later he would be killed on a cross.

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The two disciples procured a donkey and Jesus prepared to make his triumphal entry. Riding on a donkey was a richly symbolic act, one that can be traced back to the time of David. To arrive in the holy city on a donkey calls back to the prophet Zechariah who declared, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.”

As he rode toward Jerusalem, droves of people arrived on the streets and they began to waves palm branches while he passed. They were so enraptured by Jesus that they took off their cloaks and placed them on the road with their palms in order to create a royal pathway for their king. They shouted things like “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Hosanna!” which means “Save us!”

At the same time, on the other side of the city, Pontius Pilate (the Roman Governor of Judea) entered Jerusalem with at least 1,000 soldiers to demonstrate the power of Rome during the Jewish celebration of the Passover. It was a show of force to prevent the people from revolting against their imperial rulers while they remembered that time when God had delivered them from captivity in Egypt.

But with Jesus, there was no show of force. Instead of armor and swords, the people took off their cloaks and waved palm branches. Instead of cowering away in fear they rejoiced in the humble man on the back of a donkey.

While the distance between the Lord and the city grew closer and closer, while the crowds were dancing and shouting, he began to cry. He looked out over the holy city and he wept for Jerusalem. He wept knowing that he was entering as the prince of peace, and within the next few days the very people who were begging for his salvation with their palm branches would reject him and call for his crucifixion.

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

On Monday, Jesus made his way to them Temple with countless other Jews. With the episode that had transpired the day before, all eyes were on the humble man with expectation of deliverance. As his feet walked over hallowed ground, Jesus encountered the moneylenders and changers who were taking advantage of all the Jews in Jerusalem. The prices for clean animals necessary for sacrificial rituals were vastly inflated to the benefit of the merchants and the religious elite.

Jesus, who had spent the better part of three years berating the elite for taking advantage of the poor and outcasts, Jesus, who had told the rich young ruler to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, became incensed when he saw the poor being ripped off in the name of God. He walked straight over to the tables and he lifted them off the ground and disrupted everything in the temple. He threw the merchants out of the Temple and declared that his Father’s house had been turned into a den of robbers.

The elite and powerful, who had heard about this mysterious man claiming to be the Son of Man, now had their attention on Jesus. It was one thing to have a crowd with palm branches welcoming him into the city, but to disrupt the economic scheme they had established was going too far. From this point forward, the tides began to turn against Jesus. The leaders started looking for a way to discredit him, or to remove him completely. For as long as Jesus stayed in Jerusalem, their power would be in question, and they would no longer make the money they had planned on.

And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

On Tuesday, Jesus once again entered the Temple and he began to teach. If people were excited to see him after his entry in Jerusalem, they were now even more eager to listen to the one who had throne the merchants out of the sacred space. The Pharisees and religious leaders began to interrupt his teaching and demanded to know whom he thought he was to speak with such authority. Jesus, the one who shared parables with his disciples and followers, used parables to respond to their accusations. Over and over again he used examples to show how the powerful and lost sight of their responsibility to take care of God’s creation and he labeled them “hypocrites.”

He accused them of neglecting to practice what they preached, he called them “snakes” and a “brood of vipers” and he told them they had failed to do the one thing required of them which was to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbors as themselves.

Jesus had a following, he had entered with a display of peace, but he had removed the leaders’ economic disparity, and now he had called them hypocrites. They tried to trap him in his words, but he continued to point to the love of God in all times and in all places.

And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

On Wednesday Jesus left the arena of the Temple and continued his teaching on the Mount of Olives. Some of the disciples made comments about the beauty and the magnificence of the Temple and Jesus responded by foretelling the destruction of the temple and his own body. He revealed images of God’s cosmic plan for the world made manifest in Jerusalem and called for his disciples to stay vigilant no matter what.

He used parables to describe the call of his disciples and ended by saying that his followers would be blessed in the end if they had fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the prisoner.

Word about Jesus continued to spread fast throughout Jerusalem and the leaders learned that he was now prophesying the end of their rule and the destruction of the temple. Gone was the joy the people felt on Palm Sunday. Fear was present with the leaders and the elite.

And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

On Thursday Jesus continued to teach and gathered with his twelve disciples in the upper room for the Passover celebration. Around the table they remembered God’s great work in the delivery of the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt to the Holy Land; they remembered God’s actions in the lives of God’s people including themselves. But before the supper was over, Jesus did something radical. He took a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, gave it to his friends and said, “This is my body, and I’m giving it for you.” Later, he took the cup, gave thanks to God, passed it to his friends and said, “This is my blood, and I’m pouring it out for you and for the world.” Even though he knew that in short time his disciple Judas would betray him he still shared this incredible meal and gift with his friend.

Later that evening, they arrived in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus urged his disciples to keep awake while he prayed. He knelt on the ground and he communed with his Father and prayed about what was about to happen. But he ended the prayer by saying, “Lord, with you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” In essence he prayed, “Let thy will be done.”

When Jesus finished praying, Judas arrived with soldiers. They grabbed and arrested Jesus. The disciples fled into the distance. Jesus was dragged back into the city to be tried for blasphemy.

And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

On Friday Jesus was brought to the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. The leaders demanded that he be crucified and executed, but Pilate could find no fault with Jesus. He then brought Jesus before the Jewish people and they chanted with loud and bellowing voices, “Crucify him!” The same people who had gathered on the road with palm branches yelling “Save us!” were now demanding Jesus’ death. In order to appease the crowds and the Jewish leaders, Pilate sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion.

The soldiers whipped and beat Jesus nearly to the point of death and then, to mock him, they placed an opulent robe on his soldiers, and they made a crown of thorns for his head. They forced Jesus to carry his torture device, a cross, on his shoulders all the way to the place called The Skull. The crowds berated him on either side while he marched forward to his death. “If you really are the Messiah, save yourself!” “Where are all your disciples now?!” “Some King of the Jews you are!”

He arrived at the top of the hill and the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross and hung him in the sky. For six hours Jesus’ life slowly slipped away while the crowds continued to mock him from the ground. With some of his final breaths he offered a prayer that has haunted the world ever since, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” With two thieves on either side hanging on crosses, while some of his disciples watched from the distance, he died.

And there was evening and there was morning, the final week.

Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey proclaiming and inaugurating a time of humility and peace. Jesus rebuked the elite for preying on the poor and weak. Jesus confronted the hypocrites in leadership. Jesus called his followers to love God and neighbor. Jesus shared his final meal with the one who would betray him. Jesus was crowned with thorns and enthroned on a cross in the sky. Jesus forgave his murders from the moment of his death. And Jesus died so that we might participate in his kingdom and salvation.

Keep The Cross In Christmas

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rubén Rosario Rodríguez about the readings for Christmas Eve [Year B] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20). Ruben is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. He is passionate about Liberation Theology and keeping others honest about Karl Barth. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the temptation (and need) to preach political sermons on Christmas Eve, the themes of light and darkness, singing new songs on one of the highest attended worship services of the year, the fragility of victory, trembling in church, and keeping the cross in Christmas. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Keep The Cross In Christmas
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Devotional – Psalm 103.8

Devotional:

Psalm 103.8

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

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16 years ago I was sitting in my 8th grade band class when an announcement came over the PA system that I was needed at the main office. I walked down the hallway wondering why in the world they needed me in the main office of my middle school when I saw my father standing outside the doors beckoning me to hurry up. We quickly dashed toward the car where my sisters were already waiting and all I remember my dad saying was, “So many people have already died.”

It was September 11, 2001 and my father somehow got us out of school before they went under lockdown. I spent the entire day sitting on the living room floor at my parents’ house watching the World Trade Centers fall to the ground over and over again. And I was angry.

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Thinking back on that day 16 years ago, I can remember the anger I felt, but I can’t tell you who or what that anger was directed toward. The television contained images of violence I never thought possible in the world and it created in me a frustration and an anger that remained for a long time.

It was only years later that I came across a prayer written by one of my professors 30 minutes after the destruction of the World Trade Center. Dr. Hauerwas’ words articulate a feeling that I believe most Americans felt 16 years ago, but he was also bold enough to speak the truth in a time of fear, anger, and violence. This is the prayer he wrote 16 years ago today:

“Vulnerable – we feel vulnerable, God, and we are not used to feeling vulnerable. We are Americans. Nor are we used to anyone hating us this much. Such terrible acts. Killing civilians. We are dumbfounded. Lost. We are good people. We are a nation of peace. We do not seek war. We do not seek violence. Try to help us remember that how we feel may be how the people of Iraq have felt while we have been bombing them. It is hard for us to acknowledge the “we” in “We bombed them.” What are we to do? We not only feel vulnerable, but we also feel helpless. We are not sure what to feel except shock, which will quickly turn to anger and even more suddenly to vengeance. We are Christians. What are we to do as Christians? We know that anger will come to us. It does us not good for us to tell ourselves not to be angry. To try not to be angry just makes us all the more furious. You, however, have given us something to do. We can pray, but we wonder for what we can pray. To pray for peace, to pray for the end of hate, to pray for the end of war seem platitudinous in this time. Yet, of course, when we pray you make us your prayer to the world. So, Lord of peace, makes us what you will. This may be one of the first times we have prayed that prayer with an inkling of how frightening prayer is. Help us.” (Dr. Stanley Hauerwas – Disrupting Time)

So today, 16 years later, we still pray for God’s will to be done. We pray that we might become God’s prayer for the world. And, perhaps most boldly, we remember that while the world is consumed by fear and terror, we worship the God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

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.

The Elephant In The Room

Romans 5.1-11

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

 

Sometimes I’ll be running at the gym, or walking the dog, or just sitting in my office when an idea will pop into my head. The idea starts like seed and then it germinates throughout my mind into sermon topics and bible studies and blog posts. The idea grows and grows and before it disappears into the gray matter of my brain I make sure to write it down.

And, (would you believe it?) an idea is coming to me right now! But I don’t have any paper up here so I need you all to write this stuff down (seriously).

Okay, we are justified by faith, God’s faith in us. That’s what we talked about last week. And because we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus. And, I mean, not only that, but we are bold to boast of God’s grace in our worst moments, because we know that our suffering leads to endurance, and endurance leads to character, and character leads to hope.

Yeah, that’s good.

We arrive at hope because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Spirit. And we know that God loves us because while we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly. Right? Like, how often will someone die for a righteous person? Though, I guess for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love to us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us!

Still with me?

Okay, and its even more than that, now that we have been justified by Christ’s blood we will be saved from the wrath of God. Through Jesus’ death we were reconciled back to God, and through Jesus’ life we will be saved! This is worth boasting about!

Did you get all of that?

Let me try to simplify in case I lost any of you: We are justified by God’s faith in us. Suffering leads to endurance, endurance to character, and character to hope. We arrive at this hope because we know God loves us. And we know God loves us because Christ died for us while we were yet sinners…

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Paul is hard to take from the pulpit. Give me one of the stories of Jesus’ healings, or any of the parables; they preach themselves. Sometimes I even think it would be better to just read the scripture and not preach anything at all. But with Paul it takes on a new and strange and difficult dimension. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, writes in a form of rhetoric almost lost to the sands of time. In our current age of 140 character tweets from our President, frenetic television shows, and fast-paced YouTube videos, we no longer have the minds, nor the time to hear Paul’s theology.

A theology that was probably dictated to someone else to write down while Paul was thinking it up.

You can almost hear that in the reading can’t you? It’s like he remembered something from a few sentences back and wants to clarify it.

The Epistle to the Romans is not a perfectly crafted sermon meant for pulpit proclamation. Instead, it’s practical theology dictated from the greatest missionary the world has ever known.

Paul begins this section by addressing suffering; it’s the part of the passage that is most often mentioned. And he’s not just talking about some esoteric understanding of suffering. Paul is talking from experience! At the time of this letter, Paul was not a young, pre-maturely balding, healthy pastor standing in a pulpit telling his worn and suffering congregation to keep their chins up. No, this is entirely different. Paul suffered for the gospel, was arrested and persecuted, and yet he continued on. That’s why he can say that suffering leads to hope. For Paul it’s not a false and empty promise, it’s what he has experienced.

And then we come to the section about dying for others.

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Dying for others, for one’s country, for our families, these stories captivate our hearts and our emotions. The thought of all the firefighters courageously rushing into the World Trade Center buildings on September 11th, or the countless volunteers who went to the other side of the world to fight in World War II, or just hearing about a mother who sacrifices herself to save her children, these stories really pull our heart strings.

But here, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, this is even more radical than any of those stories. We have to try to put aside the emotional waves of grief and reverence for the stories of modern sacrifice for one’s friends, family, or country. Paul does not say that Jesus died for his friends or his family or even his country.

            Christ died for the ungodly!

Paul says that Christ died for us while we were his enemies!

Talk about an elephant in the room… While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We hear it in Romans, we hear it every time we come to the table for communion, but do we believe it?

We don’t like talking about sin, we good Christian folk. We want to hear about love, peace, joy, hope, and happiness.

Only the converted, those whose lives have been truly captivated by Christ, think of themselves as sinners. Others won’t have anything to do with it. That, my friends, is why we so seldom read from Paul’s letters in worship; we don’t like the idea of ourselves as sinners, as ungodly.

“Preacher, can’t you just give us a little more grace and love from the pulpit? Nobody wants to come to church to hear about sins!” And yet, we enjoy reading in the gossip columns and watching TMZ to learn about other people’s sins, but that’s their problem.

We don’t like admitting our shortcomings, our faults, and our helplessness. We reject that gospel and substitute our own, one we talked about a couple weeks ago. We’d rather believe the American gospel: God helps those who help themselves. Actually, Paul tells us quite the opposite: When we could not help ourselves, when we were stuck in the shadow of sin, Christ died for us.

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In our current age of tweets, twenty-minute TV shows, and traffic filled websites, we want everything compartmentalized as much as possible. Instead of reading a newspaper we want a short and brief email every morning that tells us only what we need to know. Instead of buying the latest hit book and spending an afternoon in our favorite chair, we read a summary online so we can talk about it with our friends. And instead of coming to church for an hour a week to experience the presence of God, people read the sermon online and check off the box on the Christian list of to-dos.

We, whether we admit it or not, are consumed by a desire to compress as much as possible into something as small as possible. Paul completely rejects this desire and notion that we can limit the gospel to any particular sentence or paragraph. The Gospel, the Good News, is nothing less than the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Son of Man, and Son of God.

But, if we cannot resist the temptation, if we have to have something small, something we can keep with us at all times to know what the gospel is, this might work: While we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.

            This is crazy stuff people! Our Lord and Savior, the one in the stained glass window behind me, he died for the ungodly!

Who is the ungodliest person you can think of right now? I know some of you will immediately think of the members of ISIS who are terrorizing regions under their control. Others of you will immediately think of the leaders in North Korea who are trying their best to develop nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Some of you might think of Donald Trump and the seemingly endless Executive Orders streaming out of the Oval Office these days. Some of you might even be thinking about the person sitting in the pew next to you.

If it’s too hard to think of someone ungodly, just think about one person you’re angry with right now…

Jesus died for that person. Whoever you’re thinking of, whoever that completely backwards and horrible and disappointing person is that’s bouncing around in your mind right now, Jesus died for them.

That’s the real elephant in the room. Jesus died precisely for the sort of person that would crucify him and mock him while they were doing it. People like us.

These things we call faith and discipleship are not very religious in the sense of being pretty and easy to handle. They are not something we can carry around in our pockets during the week only to show up when we need them. The cross of Christ is far too offensive to be religious.

The cross and the death of Christ shatter our expectations given to us by the world. They, in all their strangeness, reorient us back toward the radical nature of God’s love. The offensive and scandalous cross is our paradoxical hope and joy. Because in and through the cross, God did something that none of us would do.

            As the old hymn goes, the immortal God hath died for me.

God’s love in Christ is so comprehensive and so bewildering that it is able to wash away even the greatest of sins.

We started this sermon with a dictation, an imaginative way to reimagine the writing of Paul’s letter to the Romans. If you wrote down anything I hope you wrote this: While we were yet sinners God died for the ungodly, for us.

Now I want you to write down the name of the person you thought of just a moment ago, the person who you’re angry with. Write his or her name at the top as if you meant to send this letter to them.

Now you know that I’m going to ask you to send it. And I know that you probably won’t. You won’t for the same reason I wouldn’t; it’s offensive and it’s uncomfortable. We won’t send this affirmation of God’s unnerving love to someone else because it would force us into an area we’d rather avoid; we don’t want to come off as too evangelistic, or too churchy. We don’t want to admit our sin.

Can you imagine the shock on the person’s face if they received your dictated letter from the adapted words of the apostle Paul? Can you picture how bewildered they would be by something Christians say all the time? Can you imagine how it would change the way you look at them for the rest of your days?

While we were still weak, Christ died for the ungodly. In our weakness we reject the challenge to confront our sins and we reject the forgiving nature of God’s love for the world. We forget that Christ died for our shame and our sin and our sadness. We forget that Christ died for our disappointment and our degenerate derelictions and our deficiencies. We forget that Christ died for us and for the people whose names’ are at the top of our letters.

And yet Christ still died for us! What wondrous love in this that that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul! To God and to the Lamb who is the great I am, we shall sing! And when from death we’re free, and through eternity, we shall sing.

For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Amen.