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.

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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.

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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. 

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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

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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

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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! 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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This Is The Day…

Psalm 118.24

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

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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.

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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. 

Knocking The World To Pieces

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Lent [A] (Genesis 12.1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4.1-5, 13-17, John 3.1-17). Sara is a United Methodist pastor serving Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the H-word, the importance of space, blessing to bless, mountain ministry, the law gospel distinction, Easter moments, Nicodemus as a middle schooler, being born-again, the challenge of John 3.16, and God as Mother. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Knocking The World To Pieces

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Knowing The End At The Beginning

Devotional: 

Isaiah 9.6 

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

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A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas and it was the first time she ever asked about the holiday and why it was something they celebrated. The father explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked about it the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a illustrated Bible and began reading to her every night.

And she loved it.

They read the stories of Jesus’ birth and his teaching, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from the Lord like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So the father would share thoughts about how Jesus teaches his followers to treat people the way they want to be treated. They read and the they read and at some point the daughter simply declared, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas, they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix right out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss as was the figure nailed to it. The daughter pointed out the window and said, “Dad, who’s that?”

The father realized in that moment that he never told his daughter the end of the story. So he began explaining how the man on the cross was Jesus, how he ran afoul of the Roman government because is message was so radical, and that they thought the only way to stop his was to kill him. And they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of Christmas, the Preschool where his daughter attended was closed for Martin Luther King Jr. day and the father decided to take the day off and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. When they were sitting at the table waiting for their food at the restaurant, the daughter saw the front page of the local newspaper laying across the next table with a picture of MLK’s face on it. And the daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad, who’s that?” 

“Well,” he began, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

She said, “For Jesus?”

The father replied, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said that people should treat everyone fairly no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like du unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The father laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re right. I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl lowered her gaze to the table and then she looked up at her father with tears in her eyes and said, “Dad, did they kill him too?”

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Kids get it. They make connections that we’re supposed to make. And even though 2019 has been a strange and rough years with all the political rhetoric and partisanship, with all the suffering of individuals and communities across the world, kids still get it.

The baby in the manger is the same person who hangs on the cross. 

That’s a difficult and challenging word for those of us who like our Christmases unblemished, who want to think only of the precious new born child without having to confront what will be done to him at the end of his days. But he was a child born for us, who came to make a way where there was no way, and his story has changed our stories forever. 

Or, to put it another way, we cannot make sense of the beginning without knowing the end. 

The Judged Judge

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Beth Demme about the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 16.9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5, John 14.23-29). Beth is a Licensed Local Pastor in the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our conversation covers a range of topics including ministry mistakes, something from nothing, burning the patriarchy down, good guests, equitable equality, divine judgment, essentials for life, being between two trees, peace in the kingdom, and losing control. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Judged Judge

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All Is Lost

Matthew 18.10-14

Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. 

I was sitting around a table with a bunch of adults who had agreed to give up a week of their summer to take a group of youth on a mission trip to Raleigh, North Carolina. We had successfully made it to our site and as the kids were preparing to sleep, or at least pretending to, and the adults had to figure out where each kid would be working during the week, and what project they would focus on.

We ultimately decidedly to do it via a random lottery so that every person had a fair chance at any of the missional opportunities. One group would be spending most of the week working in a nursing home providing fellowship and entertainment for the residents. Another group would be doing simple carpentry for low income housing on the economically challenged side of town. And still yet another group would be responsible for keeping tabs on a group of younger kids through a very inexpensive summer camp program.

It took thirty minutes to separate all of the children appropriately, and as we prepared to leave the room the director informed us that we had omitted one important step in the process – we, as the adults, had to sign up for sites as well.

I, being the remarkably gifted, faithful, and holy pastor that I am, elected to pick last and was stuck with the glorified babysitting opportunity.

So the following morning I drove a large fan full of hormonal teenagers to meet with the program at a local museum. We were given very little instruction other than go inside, don’t lose anybody, and come back to the main entrance at 3pm. I decided to separate the more responsible teenagers and assigned groups of the camp participants to them, and then ended by striking the fear of God into them, “Do not lose any of your kids.”

And then I let them go.

Which, admittedly, was a big mistake.

Hours went by, I kept an eye on my little group and kept stepping on my tiptoes through all of the exhibits to see if I could see any of the other kids, many of whom I barely recognized from our brief encounter in the morning. And sure enough, when 3pm rolled around, a group of sweaty kids congregated by the main entrance, and I started a head count.

After I tapped every single head, I decided to start over again, just to be safe, and it was only after the third count that I had to admit the truth. 

We were missing one kid.

I immediately interrogated all of the students on the mission trip and berated them for losing a child in their care, but the clock kept ticking, and we needed to get the kids back to their families, and we were still missing one kid. 

I had a few choices: 

Send all the kids back through the museum with the charge to find the one who was missing, at the rick of losing more. 

Cut my losses and pretend like I didn’t know one was missing. 

Or leave everyone behind to find the kid by myself.

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Jesus predicts his passion for the second time, the Son of Man must be handed over, killed, and in three days rise again. And in response to the Lord’s declaration, the disciples enter into a lively discussion, what we might otherwise call a fight, about who will be the greatest in the kingdom of God.

And why do they respond this way?

Because they’re idiots.

Jesus has just told them that he, the Lord of lords, Son of Man and Son of God, is going to die.

And they, apparently, can’t stand the idea of it, so they jump quickly to, “that’s fine and all, but how about we talk about who will be your next-in-command when you finally get the throne…”

Jesus then gives them one of the all time great theological punches: “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be last, whoever is the least among you will be the greatest.”

It’s like Jesus just wants these disciples to get it through their thick skulls, that the work of God in the world is done by losing and not by winning. God loves taking the least likely and making them the objects of transformation. God has a knack for making something out of nothing.

Which, if we’re honest with ourselves, we hate.

Maybe hate is too strong of a word. We can be on board with Jesus’ project of being with and for the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead. But then we struggle with the idea of labeling ourselves in any of those categories. 

We, like the disciples before us, would rather be part of the first, the great, the found, the big, and the alive.

Think about it, even the way we practice religion is all about the myth of progress. We preach and teach a religion of “doing” and “earning” and “finding.” 

We are consumed by what we consume, and what we consume most of all are these fabricated version of our possible future selves. 

There’s a reason that self-help books are always at the top of the best-seller lists.

We are constantly works in progress.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to be better – it’s just that in spite of our desires for approval and change and growth, the work of the Lord remains steadfast.

Jesus saves losers and only losers. 

He raises the dead and only the dead. 

He finds the lost and only the lost.

The last, least, lost, little, and dead receive more of Jesus’ joy than all of the winners in the world.

And we can’t stand it.

And now we arrive at the parable. 

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What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?

I stood by the main entrance the museum with a cacophony of kids when I, reluctantly, decided to head back into the museum by myself to find the one who was lost. I strictly ordered the youth from the church to keep an eye on the rest of the group and prayed under my breath with every step that nothing would go wrong.

Within ten minutes I had combed most of the museum – I flew through all of the exhibits and the kid was nowhere. I started shouting his name and even asked a few strangers to help me look. I was honestly starting to lose hope when I passed by the gift shop and I saw the kid sitting on the floor in the corner flipping through a picture book.

I promptly picked him up and prepared to march back triumphantly toward the entrance, and that’s precisely when the fire alarm went off.

So we ran, along with everyone else to the nearest exist, on the opposite side of the museum and we walked around the building looking for the rest of our people and they were all gone.

That’s the thing about going off in pursuit of the one lost sheep – the only real result will be ninety-nine more lost sheep.

Ultimately, going off for the one is pretty bad advice. It puts everyone else at risk, and there’s no guarantee that any of them will be found in the end.

For me, it took the better part of another hour to round up everyone as they had dispersed in different directions when the fire alarm sounded. We were almost two hours late in terms of returning home, and I made a vow to leave the sheep finding business to Jesus.

This story, this parable, just like the rest of them, is strange – it points at something greater than the sum of its parts. The lost sheep declares, oddly enough, that we are saved in our lostness. 

Unlike a novice pastor, even if a hundred sheep get lost it will not be a problem for our wonderfully weird Good Shepherd. Our Lord rejoices and is in the business of finding the lost.

And here’s maybe the craziest thing of all – the lost sheep does nothing to be found. No amount of good works, or faithful prayers, or money offerings, brings the Shepherd out into the wilderness. The sheep does nothing except hang around in its own lostness. 

And to make things all the more prescient – a lost sheep, in all reality, is a dead sheep. Without the shepherd, the sheep has not a chance in the world.

We might love the idea of always doing more, or finding that one right book or list or program that will finally enable us to be who we are supposed to be. But the parable of the lost sheep is a deadly reminder for us that we need not do anything to get God to love us, or find us, or even forgive us. 

God is determined to move before we do – Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. 

It is our lostness that is our ticket into the dinner party of the Lamb.

The parables of Jesus, though they greatly vary in form and even in function, they do point again and again to the fact that God acts first and God acts definitively without conditions. 

Well, there might be one condition, and if there is one it is this: we need only admit we are lost.

We’re all lost.

We’re lost in our ambitions, in our sins, we’re even lost in our faith. Last Saturday, a young man walked into a Synagogue and started shouting. He killed one and injured three others. And when these things happen, and they happen all too often, we are quick to point out how isolated the attacker was, or how damaging the ideology was that led to the violence. But this particular young man was a faithful Christian, he attended a Presbyterian church nearly every week.

His manifesto in defense of his actions against the Jews came from some of the theology he acquired in his church.

His is a radical example of lostness. It is extreme. And yet, all of us here, whether we want to admit it or not, are lost as well.

Which, paradoxically, is Good News. It is Good News because when God is given a world full of losers, a world full of people lost in our own journeys, lost in our own sins, that’s just fine. Lostness is what God is all about.

We may be determined to do whatever we do, we can try all we want to save ourselves, but it will largely only result in us becoming more lost. Thanks be to God then that the Lord’s determination will always exceed our own.

God is determined with an unshakable fervor, to raise the dead – to find the lost.

We can all be better, of course. And I don’t mean to knock self-help programs and books so much. But we are a people who have fallen for the greatest trap in the world and we believe, foolishly, that God is going to close the door in our faces unless we do enough.

We are a people moved by guilt. 

When the truth is entirely different. 

God isn’t waiting around for us to become the most perfect sheep. 

If God is waiting for anything its for us to admit our lostness, that we are dead in our sins. Because when can see the condition of our condition, then we begin to experience the joy of having no power over ourselves to save ourselves or to convince anyone else that we are worth finding.

And even if we can’t admit how lost we are, the shepherd will look for and find us anyway. That’s kind of the whole point. 

This beloved parable, and the image of Jesus returning to the fold with the one lost sheep over his shoulders, is but another reminder that our whole lives are forever out of our hands, that we really are dead, and that if we are to ever live again, it will only be because of the grace of a Shepherd named Jesus. 

Who will never stop looking for us. Amen.