The Way Things Can Be

Despite the protests of fearful and cynical individuals who decry that “we are who we are,” and that “things are doomed to stay the same,” and that “it doesn’t do any good to do any good because nothing ever changes” – that’s not the proclamation of the Gospel!

We are indeed a sinful people. We do terrible things and terrible things are done to us. Just this week saw yet another innocent black man die at the hands of the police and people all across the country have tribalized themselves, again, putting up walls of division rather than avenues of connection. 

We are a people sick and tired – whether we’re sick and tired in our boring and monotonous lives, or we’re sick and tired of all the horrendous things that keep happening no matter how hard we declare that other people need to change.

And so much of this is because we have failed to open our eyes to all of the wild possibilities that life after Easter makes possible. We have been freed from the tyranny of sin and death – they no longer have control over us. And yet, we keep insisting that they are the most important things in the world. It’s why we spend more money on the military than we do on social uplift. It’s why we ask to tell people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps even when they don’t own any boots. It’s why we keep viewing people through the lens of sin rather than the lens of grace. 

But here’s the good news, the really truly good news of life after easter: If God can raise a crucified and dead Jesus from the grave, then never again can we be so sure of what is and isn’t possible. 

Jesus is alive! 

Because of Easter, we don’t believe in rejection – we believe in resurrection. We aren’t defined by what we’ve failed to do – we are defined by what Jesus has done. We can’t stay shackled to the way things were or are – God has sent us free for the way things can be. 

Here are some tunes that can help us wrestle with the already but not yet of what it means to be a Christian in the world today:

Mandolin Orange’s “Wildfire” tells the epic narrative of slavery, sin, and The South coupled with guitar, mandolin, and haunting harmonies. The duo from Chapel Hill, North Carolina use the metaphor of a wildfire to convey how hatred has always rested at the heart of “the Land of the Free” and spreads, frighteningly, even now. 

Kevin Morby released “Beautiful Strangers” in 2016 as a protest song that feels/sounds more like a hymn than it does an anthem of hoped-for societal change. All of the proceeds from the song have gone to Everytown For Gun Safety (a nonprofit aimed at gun violence prevention) and Morby still plays the song at every live performance in order to help “spread the word.” The percussion propels the song forward, the acoustic guitar is wonderfully melodic, but its Morby’s voice and lyrics that remain long after the song ends. 

Do yourself a favor: Carve our 15 minutes to sit down and listen through the entirety of Ross Gay’s incredible poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” set to the flowing synths of Bon Iver. The poem proclaims a degree of wonder for that which has been given in addition to that which has been taken away (Job 1.21). And, because I don’t know how else to convey it, the whole thing feels alive. Enjoy. 

Unexpected

Mark 16.1-8

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

There is something a little terrible about preaching to an empty sanctuary on Easter Sunday. It’s just me and the camera. It’s empty as a tomb. 

Over the years I have written plenty of sermons, most of them alone in the corner of a coffee shop. But offering a sermon in an empty room? I never thought it possible, but I’ve been doing it for more than a year.

And yet, isn’t this also the triumph of the resurrection? Jesus is not a prisoner in this sanctuary. We can’t keep him still anywhere. He is out and about and on his way to Galilee with other things to do. Thanks be to God.

He is risen!

He is risen indeed!

It happened on a Sunday.

The Gospel is reluctant to give us too many details about the whole thing: We don’t read of the grief the women undoubtedly felt as they went to anoint Jesus’ body. We don’t learn of the disciples’ next plans now that their Master is dead and forsaken in a tomb. We don’t really receive much of anything save for the fact that the women go to the tomb without knowing how they will roll away the stone.

And yet, when they arrive, the stone is not where it’s supposed to be. They peak their heads inside and discover a young man dressed in white.

He says, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus, but he ain’t here. He was dead, but now he is resurrected. Look over there, that’s where they laid his body. But now, go, tell the disciples that Jesus is going on ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there.”

And this is how the story ends: The women run from the tomb as fast as they can and they say nothing to anyone because they are afraid.

Easter.

It really doesn’t get better than this for the church. Out of death, life!

And fear.

I think we all know something of fear this year, perhaps more than any other year. Many of us are still waiting for the chance to get a vaccine, many of us haven’t seen those we love in more than a year, and still yet many of us know someone, or a family, or a friend who suffered tremendously or even died because of the coronavirus.

However, the God of scripture is the God who brings life out of death.

That’s the heart of the Christian proclamation and, for some reason, it’s not what we often hear from the church, particularly on Easter. Instead we’re more likely to hear about how “Easter teaches us that the world needs more love in it,” or “Easter is the symbol of the necessity of transformation,” or “Easter is about the enduring symbols of ultimate truth.”

Notice: in each of those Easter claims, they’re entirely about us, how we respond, and what we do next.

If that’s all Easter has to offer then we should leave it all behind. 

Thankfully, the New Testament says something very different.

He is not here. He is Risen.

God is the One doing the things that get done. 

The disciples, even the women, they do nothing to contribute to the resurrection. They are merely witnesses. And, when they do respond, they run away in fear. 

And perhaps fear is the proper way to respond to the proclamation of Easter because it was, and always will be, entirely unexpected.

The women go to the tomb in the morning for the same reasons that many of us go to cemeteries – we want to connect, somehow, to those who are no longer among the living; we want to seek closure; we want to pay our respects.

But nobody, now or then, goes to a cemetery expecting someone to raise from the dead.

All of the other Easter stuff, the connections to spring and daffodils and butterflies emerging from cocoons, the eggs and the candy, they’re all good and fine, but they don’t have anything to do with the resurrection of the dead.

Hearing about the need to love one another or finding ultimate truth, doesn’t send a group of people running from a tomb, it doesn’t set the faithless disciples on a course to reshape entire societies, it doesn’t result in a faith that is still turning the world upside down. 

Let me put it plainly – What happened on Easter was so unexpected and so earth-shattering that it ignited a tiny band of mediocre fishermen and other marginalized people, all of whom were discredited by the world, because they followed a man who had been publicly executed by the highest authorities of church and state. 

Maybe it was enough to simply hear Jesus’ teachings, or eat some of the miraculous loaves and fishes to set them on fire. But I doubt it. It’s not good news to work so hard for things to change, and to love your enemies, and to pray for those who persecute you, unless the One who shared those words was, in fact, God in the flesh who died and rose again.

The resurrection is what makes everything in the life of faith intelligible. 

The earliest disciples, those hiding away in the upper room after the crucifixion and those walking to the tomb that first Easter morning had not a hope in the world. Their entire worldview was nailed to a cross. But then on Easter he came back.

No wonder they were afraid. 

Today, Easter, is the high point of the Christian year and yet it is always challenging. It is challenging because it was unexpected and there are no good analogies from human experience that can adequately convey it. 

Easter, to put it another way, cannot be explained.

But that’s the heart of Easter: it is unprecedented, unlooked-for, and unimaginable.

Some of us have no doubt seen or experienced what we might call miracles – we know someone who kicked a bad habit, or perhaps we’re aware of an unexplainable change in a medical diagnosis, or something happened that cannot be mere coincidence. But none of us have ever experienced 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!

I know that it cannot be proved, I know it isn’t possible as we understand possibility. But I also know that this is a message that explains everything that happened afterward. He is risen! That is truly a piece of such Good News that it would shakes the foundations of the world from then until now. 

Hear the Good News: The battle is over. Even though the the ugly forces of sin and death insist on rearing their heads, it is only because they haven’t heard about the forfeit. We live in the in-between, the already-but-not-yet. The old is past; behold it has all become new.

The story of Easter, the thing that terrified the women, is the fact that the greatest enemies ever faced, sin and death themselves, are defeated in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, they have no power over us.

No matter what we encounter in this life here and now, there is one thing that will always hold true – the unexpected victory of Jesus. He is risen. 

Easter then, is and isn’t about us. It’s not about trying to get us to live better lives here and now, even though we probably should. It isn’t about making a commitment to making the world a better place, even though it wouldn’t hurt. 

Easter is about what God does for us.

In just about every other part of our lives, there are expectations.

And yet, Jesus is all about the unexpected.

Jesus doesn’t wait on the cross until we right all of our wrongs.

Jesus doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until there’s enough do-goodery in the world.

Instead, the proclamation of Easter is we don’t have to do anything, because the everything we’ve always needed is already done.

If Easter becomes anything less bizarre and unexpected than that, then faith is turned into standing on your tiptoes to see something that isn’t going to happen.

We can’t make Easter happen – we can’t raise Jesus, or ourselves, from the dead.

It happens in spite of us entirely, which is exactly what makes the Good News so good.

The promise of Easter 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! Hallelujah. 

He is risen.

He is risen indeed. Amen. 

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!

Exhausted By Easter

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Easter Sunday [B] (Isaiah 25.6-9, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11, John 20.1-18). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including preparation, in-person worship, champagne, the already-but-not-yet, righteousness, the radical nature of belief, salvific hindsight, liturgical anxieties, Fleming Rutledge, and resurrected recognition. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Exhausted By Easter

A Sermon On A Sermon

Acts 2.14a, 22-32

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know – this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. For David says concerning him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will live in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption.’ This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

One of the reasons many of us actually enjoy reading the Bible, and in particular the Gospels, is that we enjoy good stories. There is just something so captivating about the way Jesus enters Jerusalem, or how he was able to reel in the crowds with his parables, or the way he fed the 5,000 while they gathered by the sea. 

Now, that’s not to say that every book and passage in the Bible is quite so captivating. There are gaggles of genealogies with their relentless “begats”, and lots of laws that read as fun as watching paint dry, and poems that pontificate on and on and on.

But the stories? They’re pretty good.

Stories, whether they’re in the Bible or not, are remarkably powerful things. 

In fact, the very first words I ever said in a sermon the first Sunday here at Cokesbury were these: We are the stories we tell.

Stories are how we understand what’s happening in the world around us, stories are how we teach the young lessons about who they are and how they are to behave, stories are everywhere and they are who we are.

Here’s an example, and I stole this one from Jesus.

There’s a Dad with two sons. He’s done well for himself and his boys, but one day the younger son says, “Dad, drop dead. I want my inheritance now.” And the father gives it to him. The kid leaves town, and blows all the money at the local casino and finds himself face down in a dumpster after drowning his debt-filled sorrows at the bottom of a bottle. He comes to his senses, there in his inebriated state, and decides to go home where, at the very least, he could work for his dad and be in better shape than in the trash. Just before he gets to the front door, his father tackles him to the ground, smothering him with kisses, and making declarations about the party they’re going to have. The boy doesn’t even get a chance to apologize before the keg is tapped and the music is bumping. Cut to the older brother, outside the house mowing the lawn. He hears the music inside and can’t believe his eyes when he peaks in a window. His good for nothing little brother is back and he will have no part of the celebration. But then the father comes outside, grabs his older son by the shirt collar and says, “Would you get over yourself and come inside for the party. Your baby brother was dead, but now is alive! We must celebrate.”

The end.

jesus-christ-is-lord-by-thomas-hawk

That’s a good story. It tells us about who God is, and we can immediately identify with a character in the story. There are moments in our lives when we feel like the Father waiting for a wayward child to get back on the right path, or we feel like the younger son knowing we’ve made mistakes and are trying to figure out what to do next, or we feel like the older brother frustrated that someone is getting something for nothing. And, in the end, the story tells us that God is preparing a party for us, and is willing to drop dead to make it happen.

Stories have the power to unlock our imaginations in ways previously unimaginable, they can completely upend and deconstruct our notions of the world.

Stories can build us up and they can destroy us.

Stories can make us laugh, think, cry, and everything in between.

Stories are powerful things.

But speeches, and in particular sermons, are another thing entirely.

I mean, I am grateful that anyone, ever, listens to the proclamations that come out of my mouth on a weekly basis. And now, while we are in the throws of social distancing and stay-at-homes orders, my gratitude for those who listen is even greater. Moreover, I am forced to hear my own voice week after week as I post the services online so I appreciate it all the more that people actually listen.

And yet, I know and recognize that the conventional sitting back and listening to someone wax lyrical for fifteen minutes is no one’s definition of a good time. 

Think about it like this: the average television sitcom is roughly 22 minutes long, in total, with commercial breaks interspersed. Even in the midst of something designed to keep and maintain our attention, we’re tempted to tune out or check our phones at least 3 times in the midst of an episode. 

When we’re all together in person for worship on a Sunday morning, remember when we used to do that (!), most people are kind enough not to check their phones in the middle of the service, unless they’re tweeting about how incredible my preaching is or they’re really good at hiding what they’re doing.

But now, now all of you can listen to me for two minutes and then open up a new tab to check on the weather for the rest of the afternoon, or browse around on Amazon, or, weirdly enough, you can pull up another video of another pastor doing roughly the same thing I’m doing right now!

And here, in the wake of Jesus’ remarkable resurrection, his defeat of death, we’re launched in the Acts of the Apostles. Sounds pretty good right? We’d love to hear about all the Apostles did in the days right after the Good News turned the world upside down. We’d love to catch a glimpse of the beginnings of this thing we call the church. We’d rejoice in knowing what it was like in those earliest gatherings that would eventually set our hearts on fire.

In short, we’d love to hear a good story.

But Acts, even named as it is, contains roughly 28 speeches/sermons which account for nearly 1/3 of the whole book.

Final-Acts-Graphic-16x9

Surely Luke was smart enough to know that what we really need is a narrative, a beginning, middle, and end – some drama and some stakes and some story.

Do we really need pontificating and preaching?

Alas, we are stuck with the Bible.

The strange new world of the Bible.

We didn’t get to hear it in the reading today, but before Peter speaks, before he ascends to the great pulpit of public proclamation, the crowds have accused him and his cronies of being drunk very early in the morning.

That tells us something about the condition of their condition. It is the day of Pentecost after all, the Spirit has descended upon them with a great rush of wind and flames of fire and they can now speak in a multitude of languages. The probably sound like they’re slurring their words.

But I like to imagine the scene with a little more flair. 

Picture in your mind the best wedding you’ve ever been to. The happy couple out there in the middle of the dance floor, a band that just keeps playing the right songs to keep people grooving, that crazy uncle is over in the corner struggling to stay vertical on his third-too-many scotches, and a gaggle of young cousins are sneaking extra pieces of cake when the rest of the adults are too busy dancing and drinking to notice.

Can you feel the joy of that moment? That feeling as if nothing in the world matters outside that celebration?

That’s how I imagine the disciples. I see them stumbling out of the upper room drunk on the Good News that is setting them off on an adventure they can scarcely imagine. 

But when the crowds see it, they see a bunch of good-for-nothing drunks stumbling around in the early morning streets.

They are accused as such, and that serves as the perfect cue for Peter to start preaching.

His sermon, if we would like to call it that, tells a story. And not just a story but the story. Jesus lived, was killed, and was raised. Peter takes the story and interprets the gospel in the midst of it.

That, in a sense, is what every sermon is supposed to do. Sermons take scriptures, weaves them together with the power of the Holy Spirit, and then speaks them toward, and on behalf of, a people in need of Good News. 

And, though we don’t often think about them this way, sermons really can upend us more than even the best stories. They can cut to our hearts in ways that stories can’t because sermons, at their best, are God’s proclamation to us.

Good sermons, rare that they are, are more than what is said, and to whom it is said. The way it is said can make all the difference.

Peter jumps right to the point.

“Hey! You all listen up cause I’ve got something to say. Jesus, the Lord, the guy who did a bunch of incredible things like feeding the hungry and healing the sick and breaking the sabbath, you all handed him over to death. You crucified him on the cross. But God raised him up, let him loose on the world again, because the tomb could not contain him. Look, we all know that David was great, truly a king and prophet. But when he died, they buried his bones in the ground and they’re still there. But Jesus was raised! And of this we are all witnesses!”

That’s a sermon. 

Grace-is-Greater+4x8+Banner

The way we, the church, read and hear this proclamation is that it is a fulfillment of a promise. That the God of Creation has been with us through thick and thin and will remain with us even to the end. And the end now has no end in Christ Jesus.

How do the crowds hear it? Disruptive inebriation and scandalous preaching.

This sermon from Peter draws a web that can only be seen on this side of the resurrection; it connects dots that have been there all along. The empty tomb becomes the lens by which Peter, and every subsequent disciple, begins to see the story we call the Gospel. The linking of time and space with scripture it, in a sense, all that a sermon is ever supposed to do.

But what, exactly, makes what Peter has to say so scandalous? Why are the crowds perplexed by the scene unfolding before them? What makes preaching, then and now, so powerful and profound?

In just about every part of our lives, from our jobs to our spouses to our children to even the ways we try to portray our perfect versions of ourselves on social media, it’s all transactional. If I do this, what can I get out of it? If I give you something, what will you give me in return? If I post this picture, what will people think about me?

And here, in a sermon on the other side of Easter, Peter presents the Gospel without cost. 

This gift, the gift of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, is free.

It’s not expensive, and it’s not even cheap. It’s free.

And that is wildly irreligious and scandalous.

When everything in life comes with a cost, the fact that Christ brings new life for free is a staggering thing. Peter preaches, strangely enough to so many of our Christian ears, without exhortation. There’s no to-do list at the end of the sermon, no ten ways to apply the scripture to your life this week, no how to be the best version of yourself.

It’s just grace.

It’s a story about what Jesus has done.

For us, and in spite of us.

Anything other than that way of preaching is unqualified bad news. 

When the church actually proclaims the Good News of Jesus, of him crucified and resurrected, we will cease to be some bureaucracy selling spiritual snake oil and instead we will be a party, perhaps a wedding party, tumbling out of the venue trying to wake up everyone we can find to the fact that they’re at the party already. 

When Peter preaches to the crowds that day, it’s like he’s telling them it doesn’t matter whether they’re the younger son who threw his life away, or the older son whose disappointed with the life he settled for. It doesn’t matter because Easter started a party that will never stop. Death has been defeated. Jesus is alive. 

Come in, and have some fun. Amen. 

Less Is More

4d46bf1bb0394b294fab8d3ea3c7ea0b-1024x1024

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Marcy Paysour about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 2.14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1.3-9, John 20.19-31). Joanna is an elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Eastertide, Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs, the H-word, shorter sermons, tour bus preaching, other gods, bad church marquees, icky verses, the harrowing of Hell, DBH, and death breath. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Less Is More

Screen Shot 2020-04-13 at 9.23.46 AM

The Better Place

Mark 16.1-8

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

They traveled to the tomb very early on the first day of the week. 

On a Sunday.

The Gospel is reluctant to give us too many details about the journey. We don’t hear about their grief and their pain. We don’t get a glimpse at their plans now that the Lord is dead and forsaken in a tomb. We don’t really learn anything except they travel without knowing how they will roll the stone back.

Low and behold… The very large stone has already been rolled away by the time they arrive. And to further their confusion, when they look inside they discover a young man dressed in white. A divine messenger? An angel? 

He speaks, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus, but he ain’t here. He was dead, but now he is alive. Look over there, that’s where they laid his body. But now go, tell the disciples that Jesus is going on ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there.”

And here’s how the Gospel story ends: They ran from the tomb terrorized, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Easter. 

It doesn’t get much better than this for the church. Out of death, life! 

b110144f82dfd31199537e0400567824

For centuries the church has mined this story for every possible nugget that can speak something new and wonderful into our lives. I, myself, have preached about the fear that so befuddles the women and how the Gospel ends with a lie. For, if they really said nothing to anyone, how else would we have heard the story?

I have preached about how new life seems to always start in darkness, whether its in the womb or in the tomb.

I have preached and preached this story.

And yet, this year, as I returned to the words that have comforted and confounded Christians for centuries, I’ve been stuck on a different detail.

Why Galilee?

I mean, good for Jesus that he’s raised from the dead and goes home. But Galilee was an out-of-the-way forgotten sort of place. It’s only claim to fame is that Jesus came from it. 

Of course, Jesus did his Jesus thing in Galilee, and Galilee is where he called the disciples, and cured the sick, and fed the hungry, and preached the parables.

But even in the midst of his Galilean mission, Jesus was focused on eventually getting to the big show – Jerusalem.

The mission and the ministry builds toward the Transfiguration, and then everything shifts to the Holy City – the gospels sharpen as Jesus enters on the back of the donkey on Palm Sunday. Jerusalem is where he was betrayed, beaten, and left to die on the cross.

Jerusalem was the place to be, it’s where all the movers and the shakers were hanging out, its where those who believed in unbelievable things hoped the Messiah would take charge and transform the world. 

Which makes the detail and the news of a Galilean reunion so bizarre. Here, on Easter, the Son of God is no longer held captive by the dominion of death, he is resurrected, and he leaves Jerusalem for Galilee.

That’s confounding.

One would hope that, on the other side of resurrection, Jesus would be smart enough to go right up to the palace to give Pilate a whole, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Or, Jesus would storm into Herod’s inner court to rip him a new one.

Or, at the very least, Jesus would gather a band of revolutionaries to overturn the powers and the principalities occupying Jerusalem.

Did the Lord of lords not know that if you really want to make a change you have to go to the top?

Jerusalem should’ve been the first step in the journey toward overthrowing the empire, Jerusalem would’ve been the perfect place to plant the flag of the kingdom of Heaven, Jerusalem could’ve been the beginning of the end.

But Jesus doesn’t do any of that – he doesn’t do the effective thing.

Instead he goes back to Galilee, of all places.

Nobody special lived in Galilee – it was populated by shepherds, fishermen, and farmers. The people there held no power or prestige.

The only thing notable at all about Galilee, is that’s where the followers of Jesus were from.

People like us.

When we read the Easter story, whether it’s on a Sunday in church or from the comfort of our own homes, we catch this moment when the women run away in fear. And because we tend to focus so much on their reaction, their terror, that we miss how Jesus is raised from the dead only to return to the very people who abandoned him.

Jesus chooses the unworthy and undeserving ragtag group of would-be disciples that he’d been dragging along for three years as the people for whom and through whom he will change the world.

On Easter Jesus returns not to the powers that be, but to people like you and me.

He doesn’t storm the gates of the temple, he doesn’t show up in the Oval Office, he goes where nobody would’ve expected.

Hear the Good News: 

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Not after we repented of all of our sins, not before we even had a chance to think up all of our sins, but in the midst of them, in our worst and most horrible choices Jesus dies and rises for us.

At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, people like us who too easily move from “Hosanna” to “Crucify.”

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

My sin, oh the bliss, of this glorious thought; my sin, not in part, but the whole. Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

All of that can be summed up like this: Jesus returns to us.

resurrection-2

Take it from a preacher like me, even in these strange circumstances of celebrating Easter online, we’ve messed up the resurrection message for a long time. We’ve made church into yet another self-help program, a place to gather week after week to hear about what you must do to make your life better. Or, in case you don’t want to look too close to home, what you must do to make the world a better place.

And that doesn’t have anything to do with Easter!

It’s not Good News.

Notice: on Easter, Jesus’ response to the sins of his followers isn’t to berate them or judge them or even damn them. He doesn’t give them a list of things to do, or programs to start, or prayers to pray. 

Instead, he just comes back to them, to us, with, of all things, love.

How odd of God.

When you think about it, it’s rather confounding how God keeps coming back to us.

Stuck in captivity in Egypt? God shows up in a burning bush.

Lost in exile? God brings the people home.

Dead in your sins? God sets us free.

Are we really sure we want to worship this God who refuses to leave us to our own devices?

God is like the shepherd who willingly leaves behind the ninety-nine to search for the one who is lost. God doesn’t sit back and relax and just hope for the best. God charges out into the wilderness and refuses to quit.

God is like a Samaritan, forsaken and ignored by the rest of the world, who stops by the side of the road to help the one that everyone overlooked. God doesn’t keep walking by with better things to do. God condescends God’s self to get down in the ditch with all of us.

God is like a king who hosts a giant party and, when not enough people show up, sends his servants out into the streets to grab anyone they can find, even the poor and the marginalized, and makes space for them at the banquet.

God is like the father who runs out into the street, stops his prodigal and wayward child before an apology can even spring forth, and says, “I’m busting out the good stuff tonight, we’re having a party! You were dead but now you’re alive!”

We, the good and righteous folk that we are, we might’ve thought the story was over. That the shadow of the cross remaining in the distance puts a conclusion on the whole thing. That, in the end, we really had gone too far this time with the whole killing the Son of God.

But even in this, the greatest sin of all, Jesus comes back.

He comes back to the betrayers and the crucifiers, to the doubters and the deserters.

Jesus comes back to us.

The work of Jesus, contrary to how we so often talk about it and hear about it in church, is not transactional. There is no such thing as “if” in the Gospel. 

We are not told that the Lord expects us to get everything ironed out before he will come and dwell among us.

He doesn’t wait behind the stone in the tomb until there’s enough good morality in the world before he busts out.

What we are told, from the cross and from the resurrection, is that Jesus is already in it with us, and even more that he has gone on ahead of us.

Church, whenever it descends into “you must do this, or you have to make the world a better place” fails be the church Christ inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection, because we will fail that work.

Easter invites us to do nothing except trust; trust that there is a New Jerusalem waiting to come down and feast at the Supper of the Lamb, the Lamb who has been with us the whole time, who refuses to abandon us regardless of how good we are or how bad we are.

If Easter because anything less bizarre than that, then faith is turned into standing on your tiptoes to see something that isn’t going to happen.

We can’t make Easter happen. We can’t raise Jesus from the dead.

It happens in spite of us entirely, which is the best news of all.

Easter, simply put, is a gift. A gift like grace – unwarranted, unmerited, undeserved. 

God has made the world a better place in Jesus Christ who comes back to us. Amen.

Easter Begins With A Whisper

John 20.1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. 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, why 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 camped in the backyard with my very nearly 4 year old on Monday night. With the calls for Social Distancing and the stay-at-home order, I figured why not break out the tent and the sleeping bags and have a mini adventure. My plan was to get Elijah all snug in his bag around bed time and that I would be able to stay up for a few more hours by the fire, reading a book. But, of course, the minute I zipped up the tent the calls for me to join him started ringing out.

“But Dad, what if I get hungry?”

“Dad, I think you probably need to come in the tent now.”

“Um, Dad, I can’t sleep without you.”

So, at 8:30pm, I willed myself into the sleeping bag right next to him and began staring at the inside of the tent until I drifted off to sleep.

It took a long time.

Elijah was out within minutes, but I had nothing to do but listen to the sounds around me until sleep came for me. And, to be honest, I was shocked at how loud it was in my backyard. I could hear full conversations that neighbors were having in their backyard. I could make out the low buzz of a television sitcom with a laugh track coming from somewhere to the south. And I could hear God knows how many cars and motorcycles driving all over the place.

Which only made falling asleep that much harder.

But eventually sleep came for me, and I embraced it with love.

At around 4am I jolted awake inside the tent. I looked around for a brief moment trying to remember why I was inside a tent in the middle of the night, and then I laid my head back down and tried to go back to sleep. But something felt off. 

And not just the fact that I was laying on the ground in the backyard.
It took me awhile to realize where my discomfort was coming from – it was silent. 

No cars. No conversations. No birds. It was completely still and quiet and it drove me crazy.

Somehow I eventually tell back asleep in the tent, even with the suffocating silence surrounding me. Until around 5:45am, while deep in in a dream, I heard the faintest little whisper, “Dad, are you awake?”

That’s all it took.

The whispered voice of my son called me out of what was into what is. And I was awake.

resurrection-Easter-edit[1]

The Bible contains multitudes. But sometimes what it doesn’t say is what really stands out. Like one of my favorite and least favorite passages from John’s gospel, “Jesus did many other signs and wonders but we didn’t record them here.” I mean, why the hell not? I would love to know more about what Jesus said and did.

For as much as the Bible tells us, it’s notable that we learn absolutely nothing about what happens from the time Jesus is taken down off the cross until the disciples head to the tomb a few days later.

I would love to know what they were up to. But, we don’t get a behind the scenes glimpse at their grief stricken conversations. We don’t get to hear Mary the Mother of Jesus singing a song of lament to rival her Magnificat. 

In fact, we don’t even find out what exactly happens in the tomb with Jesus that whole time. 

Instead, Scripture just picks up right in the middle of the darkness with Mary Magdalene traveling to the tomb. 

Which is just another way of saying that the most pivotal moments in the Gospel take place not in the light of day but under the cover of darkness. Whether its the incarnate life in the womb, or the upending of creation from the cross, or the resurrection within the tomb, it all begins with and in the dark.

Mary walks to the tomb in the silent darkness. She discovers, unexpectedly and inexplicably, that the stone has been rolled away. And she runs to tell the disciples. They, of course, rush to the tomb, take a peak inside, make some connections, and leave only slightly wiser than when they arrived.

But Mary stays at the tomb. Overcome with grief, she weeps.

Let us just stay here with that word for a moment. Before the joy of Easter, before the Good News truly becomes good, Mary grieves.

Loss is something we don’t often give space for during Easter. We focus so much on the Bunny, and the Candy, and the Eggs, and the hymns, and the lilies, that we don’t make space for people to feel what they feel. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave does not take away the pain of absence in death.

But death has been changed.

The Resurrection gives us eyes to see that death is not the end.

However, Mary has not yet seen the risen Lord. She peaks into the tomb and sees two angels and they ask her about her tears. For what it’s worth, they don’t tell her to get over her grief or start processing her feelings, they just ask her about her tears. 

Then she turns around and see Jesus standing there, though of course she doesn’t recognize him. And he, like the angels, asks about her tears. She pleads, supposing him the gardener, to tell her where the body of her Lord is.

And instead of responding to her request, Jesus says, “Mary.”

Easter, for Mary, begins with a whisper.

All it takes is the sound of her name whispered from the lips of the Lord and everything changes forever.

She runs with the Good News ringing in her head and is the first to preach Easter to the disciples with words that still shake our hearts, “I have seen the Lord.”

The resurrection of Jesus Christ happened at night. No one was there when it took place. By the time Mary arrived with her tears it was already finished.

Some of the best and the most important things in the world take place without us have to do much of anything. That is a very strange and troubling word for those of us who feel as if we’re never doing enough. But Easter, Easter is a reminder that the most defining moment in the history of the cosmos happens in spite of us.

That’s why it’s Good News.

Good News - Bad News signpost with sky background

Jesus doesn’t wait behind the stone until his disciples have the right amount of faith before breaking out. Jesus doesn’t tell them that he will be raised only when they evangelize enough people. Jesus doesn’t give them a list of to-dos before Easter happens.

Jesus came to raise the dead – not to reform the reformable, not to improve the improvable, not to teach the teachable, but to raise the dead.

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

Truly.

Easter is the promise that God, who has always been with us, will remain with us.

Easter is the promise that God can make something of our nothing.

Easter is the promise that death isn’t the end.

And we don’t have to do anything for it.

So I end with a whisper, not with clanging cymbals or banging drums, but with a whisper of the Good News, the very best news. 

He is risen. He is risen indeed. Amen. 

Crying on Easter

4d46bf1bb0394b294fab8d3ea3c7ea0b-1024x1024

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Marcy Paysour about the readings for Easter Sunday [A] (Jeremiah 31.1-6, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3.1-4, John 20.1-18). Joanna is an elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lengthening Lent, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Incubus and The Weeknd, Easter in Coronatide, defining worship, finding grace in the wilderness, contingencies, dying with Christ, resurrection emotions, and biblical connections. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Crying on Easter

Screen Shot 2020-04-06 at 7.49.03 AM

 

This Is The Day…

Psalm 118.24

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Weekly Devotional Image

I ran a half-marathon yesterday afternoon. 13.1 miles in roughly two hours all over the Woodbridge area. I was supposed to the run the Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon in DC last Saturday but it was canceled in light of the Coronavirus. However I had been training for long enough that I figured, “Why not just go out and see if I can do it?”

The weather yesterday was perfect, giving extra meaning to the “this is the day that the Lord has made” and I decided to rejoice and be glad in it by putting one foot in front of the other until I put in the requisite miles.

Now, a day later, I can tell you there wasn’t much to rejoice about.

Or to put it a different way, my legs are sore!

During the months of training I was looking forward to being surrounded by scores of people all running toward the same goal. I was excited about the prospect of passing the finish line to be embraced by my family in celebration. I even anticipated the proud feeling of wearing around the medal for the rest of the day.

Yesterday was different.

IMG_2333

I ran all alone for two hours. I didn’t even tell my family that I was going to do it. And the only prize for completing it was knowing that I did it.

A lot of us have been experiencing profound feelings of isolation as the Coronavirus has forced us to remain physically separated from one another and forced us to limit our interactions outside of our homes. For some of us we’ve retreated into new or familiar books, we’ve binged terrible and incredible television shows, or we’ve picked up the phone to call people we’ve needed to reconnect with for a long time.

But for others of us, we’ve retreated further into our minds and our worries and our anxieties. We keep checking out bank accounts and wonder how we’re going to make it through all of this. We see updates from others on social media that make it seem like they are having a vacation while social distancing while our time have felt nerve wracking. 

And yet, as Christians, we believe that each new day is a gift from the Lord. That doesn’t mean that we have to force ourselves into optimism, but it does call us to rejoice knowing we’ve been given another day. The season of Lent, the season we’re in right now, is an ever-present reminder that tomorrow is never promised and that the bell will toll for us all. We didn’t need the Coronavirus to remind us of this but it certainly has helped to focus our attention on that which we cannot take for granted. 

I for one am grateful that I was able to get outside yesterday and run, even if my body feels miserable today. I am grateful I have another day to spend time with my family. But most of all I am grateful to know that God has not abandoned us to our own devices. 

The season of Lent always ends with Easter – a reminder that death is not the end.

If nothing else, that is certainly worth rejoicing.