The Enormity Of Easter

Our God is loquacious – that is, God creates through speech. And we call the Good News Good News because its’ something that is received from someone else. 

Preaching, then, is a uniquely wonderful task because it is always evangelical, it is always sharing the Good News with those living in a world drowning in bad news.

Easter is a challenge to preachers because it is not natural, it is not expected, and there are no good analogies from human experience that can adequately convey it. Easter is not like the butterfly emerging from the cocoon, it is not the return of the deeply buried daffodils in the ground. Easter is about a man who was tortured to death by the powers and principalities, church and state working together, who died, and then 3 days later he came back!

How can preaching ever adequately reflect the enormity of Easter?

And yet, Easter Sunday is the day that makes all of our other Sundays intelligible. For, without Jesus’ resurrection, the whole of Christianity becomes a fool’s errand – unless Jesus is raised from the dead, then we shouldn’t teach our children to turn the other cheek, or go the extra mile for our neighbors, or pray for our enemies.

Therefore, as difficult as it may be to say something about Easter, we must say something on Easter. 

And perhaps that’s the actual beauty of it all. 

Some of us have no doubt seen/experienced miracles – we know someone who dropped a bad habit, or perhaps we’re aware of an unexplainable change in a diagnosis. But none of us have ever seen someone dead in the grave for three days resurrected, let alone God in the flesh.

But someone did.

All of our faith, this whole thing we call church, is predicated on a handful of people from long ago who saw and experienced something so unexpected that it radically re-narrated everything in existence. 

And all it took were three words: “He is Risen!” 

Easter is world shattering, it is deeply disruptive, and it changes everything now and forever. Easter is the totality of the Good News. And without it, we have nothing to say at all.

Here are some instrumental tunes that can help get us ready for the unexpected Good News of Easter. I encourage you to sit back and let the music wash over you and, hopefully, you’ll discover something about who you are, and whose you are, along the way:

Explosions In The Sky is an instrumental post-rock band from Austin, Texas. All of their music explores textures and sounds rather than following typical song structures like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus. To me, “The Birth And The Death Of A Day” sounds like Easter.

Sufjan Steven’ incredibly long titled instrumental track from his album “Come On Feel The Illinoise” is a short and evocative track ripe with recorders, flutes, harmonizing chorus, and various percussive rat-a-ma-tats; it’s one of those songs where you are not the same having listened to it.

White Denim’s “Back At The Farm” is a blistering and raucous instrumental psychedelic rock song. I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to listen to it without bashing my hands around in feeble attempts to “air-drum” along. If Easter really is a day of celebration, then White Denim is the kind of music I’ll be blaring after church!

The Strange Sunday

Palm Sunday is a strange Sunday. It begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It begins with “Hosanna” and ends with “Crucify.” It begins with life and ends with death. 

Contrary to how we’ve (often) watered down the Gospel message in church, Jesus wasn’t killed for telling people to love one another. He was killed because we don’t have imaginations capable of understanding what love actually looks like.

But now we do know what love looks like because we know Jesus and him crucified. For the cross reveals to us the very heart of God. The cross is not just some symbol to explain suffering in the world, rather it is the witness to the lengths God chose to go in order to rectify our wrongs. Jesus’ cross makes a people possible who see, know, and believe that the only true response to suffering in this world is love.

And yet, Holy Week isn’t about us. If it is, it is only about what Jesus went through because of us. In the end, as we sit in the shadow of the cross, we are given a task made possible as well as demanded by the cross to be present to one another when there is quite literally nothing we can do to save ourselves. 

Jesus enters the holy city under occupation and, in the end, occupies our place on the cross.

The crowds demand their salvation and, in the end, Jesus gives it to them by giving himself.

“This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Psalm 118.24)

Here are a few tunes that can put us in a decisively strange mood for Holy Week:

I am convinced that Robert Farrar Capon would’ve been a fan of Tyson Motsenbocker’s “Sunday Morning.” The song opens with a sweet guitar riff and then launches into lyrics that reflect on leading worship: “I chose all the right songs, I played all the right chords / ‘Till the kids who still weren’t singing, praised the Lord / And the pastor yelled about faith and hell / And I soundtracked his words for affect / And everyone cried and cried and cried / everyone cried and cried and cried / And then we played kickball.” The juxtaposition of what the church often sells on Sunday morning (Do this and that to get saved) with the Gospel message that Jesus, in fact, is the one who saves us, is delightfully reflected in this song. 

Caamp’s “Fall, Fall, Fall” is a soft and tender anthem about change and I can’t help but hear the refrain “I want my kids to swim in the creek” as a reflection on the desire to swim in the waters of baptism.

Kevin Morby’s “Parade” is a somber reflection on death, identity, and ambiguity. The sporadic piano keys overtop his strumming guitar rhythms actually feels like walking through a city in a parade. But, above all, I love how Morby portrays the strange realities of what it’s like having compassion for a city hell-bent on chewing him up. Sound familiar?

Jesus Is Not A New Moses

We think the Law can save and fix our messed up and broken lives.

From infancy we’re spoon-fed a narrative of righteous self-determination, that if you do all the right things, and go to the right school, and marry the right partner, then everything will be as it should be.

Until it isn’t.

And then the Law refuses to let us go.

So we adopt new habits: we buy a Peloton, we go on a new diet, we stay up late into the evening looking at Zillow for the next perfect house, we “Marie Kondo” our lives in order to get things under control.

And, even if some things change, perhaps we get that nice dopamine hit from imagining ourselves in a new place or we can fit into clothes we haven’t worn since college, we can’t actually fix ourselves with the “law.”

At some point the new house becomes the hold house, a few weeks away from the gym brings our waistline back, and on and on.

Enter Jesus.

Jesus came to bring us something better than another law, something better than another set of things we must do in order to get God to do something for us. Sure, we’re called to love God and neighbor, turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, but those are never prerequisites for the Kingdom.

Remember: The Kingdom is already among us. Our sins were nailed to the cross and left there forever. 

The Law (from scripture and from life) is good, but it kills us. It exists to accuse us and it shows us, over and over again, who we really are. For, to borrow an expression from Paul, no one is righteous, no, not one.

Even our subtle exercises in self-denial during Lent help to remind us of the condition of our condition: Lent isn’t about participating in spiritual olympics in which we compete with one another to see who can be the most holy – instead it’s about confronting the fact that our desires will always get the better of us.

But the Law, and its ability to deaden us, is Good News and exactly what we need. It’s only in death (read: Baptism) that we begin to know the One who came to give us grace.

Contrary to how we often water down the Gospel, we worship a rather odd God. Our God who, among other things, speaks from a burning bush, promises offspring to a wandering octogenarian, and saves the cosmos through death on a cross.

And for Christians, we know who this odd God is because we know Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, Jesus is not a new Moses who displaces the old law with a new one. Instead, Jesus is the New Adam who inaugurates an entirely new cosmos.

Jesus is not a new Moses because, as the Gospel of John reminds us, the Word was God before the foundation of the world. 

Jesus is not a new Moses who offers a set of guidelines to save ourselves and the world. Instead Jesus comes to be our salvation in himself.

Here’s the Good News: On any given Sunday (even in the midst of a global pandemic) the people of God called church gather together to hear the most important word we will ever hear: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us – In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

Notice – Christ died for us while we were sinners, not before and not after. Christ chooses to die for us right in the midst of the worst mistake we’ve ever made or will ever make. 

In the end, that’s what it’s all about. 

We don’t follow the Law in order to get God to save us. 

We are already saved which then frees us to follow the Law – we do the things Christ calls us to do not because it earns us anything, but simply because it makes life a whole lot more fun. 

Jesus isn’t a new Moses – Jesus is God. And that’s the difference that makes all the difference. 

A Dangerous Time For Christians

“I have always thought that Lent is a dangerous time for Christians. This time in the church year, I fear, tempts us to play at being Christian. We are to discipline our lives during Lent in order to discover and repent of those sins that prevent us from the wholehearted worship of God. That is a perfectly appropriate ambition, but we are not very good at it. We are not very good at it because, in general, we are not very impressive sinners. Just as most of us are mediocre Christians, so we are mediocre sinners. As a result, Lent becomes a time we get to play at being sinners while continuing to entertain the presumption that we are not all that bad… I am not suggesting that Lenten disciplines do not have a place. Giving up something we will miss may help us discover forms of self-centeredness that make us less than Christ has made possible. But, hopefully, we will find ways to avoid playing at being sinful. Lent is not a time to play at anything but rather a time to confess that we would have shouted ‘Crucify him!’” – Stanley Hauerwas

If Hauerwas is right, and Lent is a dangerous time for Christians, we should certainly be careful about what we say and do during this season. I’m treating this Lent as an opportunity to come to grips with the condition of my/our condition. That is, I’m trying to place myself squarely in the category of sinner rather than in the category of self-righteous.

Which is no easy thing.

I remember one Good Friday when I stood before the gathered congregation and encouraged everyone to stand to sing the hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus.” It’s a strange hymn in a minor key and we all struggled through it, but when the service was over there was a woman waiting for me in the narthex who declared, “If we ever sing that song again, I am never coming back to the church.”

I inquired as to what exactly it was about the sound that upset her so much and she said, “I never would’ve crucified Jesus! And I’m offended that I had to sing those words.”

Verse 2: Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? / Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! / ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; / I crucified thee.

There is a desire within many of us to think that, had we been there, we would’ve been good little disciples and we would’ve stayed with Jesus until the very end. Remember, however, that even the first disciples called by Jesus, the ones who witnessed his healings, ate his miraculous meals, listened to his powerful proclamations, even they abandoned him in the end.

Do you see? The truth is that we can try to convince ourselves of our self-righteousness, but God will not allow us to get away with such arrogance.

That’s why we sing songs like “Ah, Holy Jesus” every year to remember that we, just like everyone else, would’ve shouted crucify.

Lent, to use Hauerwas’ words, isn’t a time to play – it’s a time to be honest about who we are.

But hear the Good News: it’s precisely in knowing who we are that the Lord chooses to forgive us from the cross.

The Gospel On A Bumper Sticker

Mark 8.31

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribe, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 

What’s the Good News?

It might seem like a rather innocuous question, but how we answer that question can make all the difference in the world.

A friend of mine, also a pastor, is currently in the process of hiring an associate pastor to join him in his parish ministry. He looked through a handful of resumes and eventually reached out to interview some of the strongest candidates. In each conversation they discussed call stories, best church practices, and a handful of other topics, but my friend ended each interview with the same question, “What is the Good News?”

One would hope that clergy would know how to respond to such an inquiry, but the candidates struggled to articulate the faith they have committed their lives to.

Which makes me curious… how would you answer the question?

Let’s imagine someone has come to you with a tremendous opportunity – The person has agreed to pay for hundreds of bumper stickers to be passed out to all the members of the church in order to drum up some conversations in the community, but you have to come up with the slogan for the bumper sticker AND the slogan has to be the answer to the question: “What is the Good News?”

So, what’s your answer?

(Will Willimon once told me he could summarize the Gospel in seven words: “God refuses to be God without us”)

The Chapel of the Middle

Mark 9.7

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Did any of you see the commercial during the Super Bowl where Bruce Springsteen is a survivor of some kind of global apocalypse and he just drives around Kansas in a Jeep looking for the possibility of other humans?

I jest. 

And yet, that’s exactly what it looked like.

In case you didn’t see it, here’s a link: JEEP – The Middle

Regardless, here’s the narration that The Boss shares while wistfully gazing into the middle distance over the barren landscape of “middle America.”

“There’s a chapel in Kansas standing on the exact center of the lower 48. It never closes. All are more than welcome to come and meet here. In the middle. It’s no secret: the middle has been a hard place to get to lately. Between red and blue, between servant and citizen, between our freedom and our fear. Now fear has never been the best of who we are. And as for freedom, its not the property of just the fortunate few. It belongs to us all. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, it’s what connects us. And we need that connection. We need the middle. We just have to remember the very soil we stand on is common ground. So we can get there. We can make it to the mountaintop, through the desert. And we will cross this divide. Our light has always found its way through the darkness. And there’s hope… on the road… up ahead.”

The screen cuts to black and we are left with these words: “To the ReUnited States of America – JEEP.”

Now, to those who feel compelled to go out and buy a Jeep in order to live into the middle ground, go for it.

But if you were a little surprised to see some of those sights while hearing those words, I offer this, theological, corrective:

Theres’ a chapel in Kansas standing on the exact center of the lower 48

As a Christian worship space, it is the place where sinners gather to be reminded of their sinfulness while hearing the Good News of the Gospel made manifest in Jesus Christ. All are welcome to come and meet here, but don’t be surprised if it shakes you to your core. For, Jesus is one strange Lord. He commands his followers to turn the other cheek, pray for their enemies, and sell their possessions in order to distribute the proceeds to all who are in need. 

It’s no secret: the middle has been a hard place to get to lately

And yet, the chapel of middle places proclaims a Word that is anything but the middle. In the new kingdom the chapel points to, the first will be last and the last will be first. There is a table to which all are invited, but it is a table that reminds us, rather starkly, that Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. 

Now fear has never been the best of who we are. And as for freedom, its not the property of just the fortunate few. It belongs to us all… We just have to remember the very soil we stand on is common ground… We can make it to the mountaintop… Our light has always found its way through the darkness…

If we have any freedom, it comes through and from Jesus Christ who frees us from the power of sin and death. Any other freedom pales in comparison. And yes, it does belong to everyone but not because the soil we stand on his common ground – freedom belongs to us because the soil we stand on is holyground. God has upturned the cosmos in the person of Jesus Christ. It is not freedom that takes us to the mountaintop or gets us to a place of hope – It is God who takes us to the mountaintop through the desert, and who is the light that shines in the darkness.

Behind The Curtain Of The Cosmos

“Christ did not enchant men; He demanded that they believe in Him: except on one occasion, the Transfiguration. For a brief while, Peter, James, and John were permitted to see Him in His glory. For that brief while they had no need of faith. [Then] the vision vanished, and the memory of it did not prevent them from all forsaking Him when He was arrested, or Peter from denying that he had ever known Him.” – W.H. Auden, A Certain World 

I’ve always been enchanted with Jesus’ Transfiguration. 

It’s one of those Gospel stories that is so filled to the brim with details that I discover something new every time I return to it. 

Moses and Elijah appear – representing both the Law and the Prophets.

God speaks from a cloud – not unlike the pillar of smoke that accompanied the Israelites post Egypt.

Peter requests to build dwelling places – honoring the traditional response to a divine moment only to be brushed aside by Jesus.

But this year I’m sitting with the fact that, as Auden notes, those three disciples saw Jesus in his glory and still abandoned him in the end.

The life of faith is a transfigured life in that, we cannot return to what we once were, but we’re always falling back into the same rhythms – God will not leave us to our own devices and yet, we sure are hellbent on returning to them over and over again. 

The disciples catch a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos and they still throw it all away.

While this should certainly give us pause, it should also give us encouragement – God does not give up on us even if (and when) we give up on God. 

Michael Kiwanuka’s “I’ve Been Dazed” has a melancholic feel but the lyrics point to something greater. For a singer/songwriter wrestling with self-doubt, the song stands as a witness to the power of music. The repetitious “The Lord said to me / Time is a healer / Love is the answer / I’m on my way” feels as if the words could’ve been on the lips of Jesus heading down from the mountain knowing that Jerusalem was hanging on the horizon.

One of my favorite musical moments occurs when an artist blindsides the listener with a change in tone and feel midway through the song. Loving’s “If I Am Only In My Thoughts” hits with this one guitar note right in the middle that leads into a simple solo with all sorts of ear-wormy goodness. Similar to Kiwanuka’s “I’ve Been Dazed,” the song, to me, feels reminiscent of Christ’s Transfiguration.

Finally (because, how could I not include it?) we’ve got Sufjan Stevens’ “The Transfiguration.” I will never forget hearing the opening banjo strumming live in Asheville NC more than a decade ago, and a huge crowd joining together in one voice at the end to triumphantly declare: “Lost in the cloud, a voice. Have no fear! We draw near! / Lost in the cloud, a sign. Son of man! Turn your ear. / Lost in the cloud, a voice. Lamb of God! We draw near! / Lost in the cloud, a sign. Son of man! Son of God!”

The Strange American Dream

“I suppose I’ve always thought that Christianity isn’t really an optimistic religion. After all, it tells us that when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, comes to live with us, we end up killing him. But it is a hopeful religion because it also says that’s not the end of the story. When we’ve done the worst we can think of, there is still something that God does – God has resources that we don’t. So when kill Jesus Christ, he is raised from the dead. God turns the worst we can experience, the worst we can do to each other, and God turns that into a way of coming closer to us. Christianity is a profoundly hopeful religion because we trust in God’s ability to bring life out of death, rather than our own ability to do the best that we can.” – Dr. Jane Williams 

In this time after Epiphany but before Lent, the lectionary texts regale us with stories of those who are called by God. We hear about Samuel sleeping in the temple, some fishermen down by the sea, and even Jonah (reluctantly) warning the Ninevites about the wrath to come. And, sadly, there is a righteous temptation to so read ourselves into those stories that we walk away from worship thinking more about what we need to do for God and less about what God has already done for us.

Trusting in God’s ability to do more than we ever could really is is at the heart of the Christian witness.

As someone who consumes more music than I’m proud to admit, here are some tunes that, to me, reflect God’s primary agency in the life of faith. 

The Decalogue is a 2017 soundtrack album composed by Sufjan Stevens (and performed by Timo Andres) to a ballet of the same name. The ten tracks correspond with the Ten Commandments handed down at Sinai and each of them offer a little world worth resting in. “V” begins with rising arpeggios that, tonally, stay with the listener long after the song ends. The commands in scripture can easily fall into the category of “what we do for God” but this offering from Sufjan forces us to reflect on the One who gives these commandments to us in the first place.

I was recently introduced to the music of Andy Shauf and I keep getting lost in the brief narratives of his songs. In “Neon Skyline” the protagonist invites a friend to a bar of the same name to join him as he “washes his sins away.” The rest of the lyrics paint the scene of the evening in which there’s nothing better than wasting a bit of time. I can’t help but think about God “wasting” time with us whether it’s continually making something of our nothing, or actually being the One who washes our countless sins away. 

My final offering this week is, perhaps, a little too on the nose, but I couldn’t help myself. Rayland Baxter’s “Strange American Dream” feels incredibly prescient in our particular moment and I will let the song speak for itself, particularly the chorus: “Now the world world is wired up / On the red, white, and the green / And all the boys and girls are growin’ up / In a strange American dream.”

What makes the American dream so strange, at least to Christians, is that we are forever being told to make something of ourselves when, in fact, God is the one who makes something of all of our nothings.

Nothing Is Private To God

Psalm 139.1

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

Stanley Hauerwas likes to opine on what the church would look like if, when we take tows of membership, we also shared our previous tax returns.

That he likes to raise this idea is a reflection on both his desire to get a rise out of people and his commitment to calling into question our fabricated distinction of the public-private divide.

For, if we were so bold as to share our tax returns, perhaps we would be a little more willing to share our resources with those in need a la the church in Acts 2. Or, maybe we would actually know more about the people in the pews with us (or watching online these days) than merely who they are rooting for the NFL playoffs. Or, perhaps we would take seriously Paul’s notion that we are one body with many members rather that a bunch of individual bodies who happen to attend the same church.

Thoughts on the private vs. the public have been a sore spot in the church since the Enlightenment such that, now, it’s not uncommon to hear some nonsense like, “I believe in God, but that’s just my personal opinion.”

Confessing the lordship of Christ is not a personal opinion, but rather it is a decisive political claim that will result in different thoughts, hopes, and behaviors for the individual and the community.

Whereas believing that belief is a personal matter allows people to go to church on Sunday and then live Monday through Friday as if what happened in church made no difference at all.

But for Christians, Christ is the difference that makes all the difference in the world. 

And yet, many of us cringe at the thought of revealing our finances to our church. But what about revealing who we voted for? Or, how about sharing our internet search histories? Are all of those off limits as well?

Admittedly, I don’t know how healthy it would be for churches to have access to every single bit of information about their respective congregants (the slippery slope toward works-righteousness is ever present), yet the covenant God has made with God’s church makes it bewilderingly difficult to keep anything private.

The psalmist declares, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” 

To God, nothing is private.

God knows our innermost thoughts and desires!

God knows our prejudices and our preconceived notions!

God knows our internet search histories!

God knows who we voted for!

Put simply, God knows us better than we know ourselves. 

And how does God respond with the total knowledge of God’s creation? Does God punish us for our ridiculous Facebook posts? Does God rain down destruction on those who silently judge others from afar? 

God responds by taking on flesh and dwelling among us, by taking on our very nature to save us from ourselves, by breaking forth from the grave so that we might no longer live under the reign of sin and death.

God responds to our shortcomings and sins before we even get a chance to come to grips with what our shortcomings and sins actually are! 

Grace precedes all things because God knows all things. 

But it is in the knowledge of grace, of knowing that God did and does for us what we couldn’t and won’t do for ourselves, that we begin to take steps toward a transfigured existence. When we see the lengths to which God was willing to go for us we can’t help ourselves from living in the light of his glory and grace. 

Back To Normal?

Isaiah 60.1

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

After Epiphany, on the other side of the magi making silly faces at the baby born King, the new parents were left alone with the incarnate Lord. Christmas came and went in that tiny little town of bread and life after Christmas started to settle in.

One night an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to get the hell out of Bethlehem because Herod was coming for the little Messiah. And so, being the good man that he was, Joseph took his family and set off for Egypt-land where they would wait until Herod died.

Meanwhile Herod, fueled by fear and megalomania, sent soldiers to the little the village of David with orders to kill any child under the age of two. 

Life after Christmas has always been one of the best, and one of the worst, times of year. The light of the world is born on earth setting the cosmos on a trajectory toward resurrection and reconciliation, and yet we are (often) hellbent on keeping things exactly where they are. We spend weeks (and sometimes months) preparing ourselves for our own Christmases only to take down the lights, get rid of the trees, and go back to life as before.

I was up on the roof this weekend, patiently moving along removing every strand of multicolored lights, when a neighbor walked up and yelled to me from the sidewalk. She offered some unsolicited advice about how the lights could’ve looked better had they been hung in a different way but then, after a rather pregnant pause, she said, “This is the worst time of year. I don’t want to go back to life before Christmas. I wish we could keep these lights and this feeling all year long.”

As Christians, life can’t go back to the way that it was and that’s good news! What makes it good news is the fact that, as the baptized, we have been deadened with Christ in order to have new life, and life abundant. 

The season after Epiphany, this strange nebulous time between Christmas and Lent, is a reminder that our lives are constituted by the Lord who is the light who shines in the darkness. It pushes and prods us to consider who we are and whose we are. It reminds us that the glory of the Lord has risen upon us and nothing (nothing!) can ever take that away.