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. 

Death and Taxes

Matthew 17.24-27

When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?” He said, “Yes, he does.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” When Peter said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the children are free. However, so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”

The church is weird.

It is weird for a lot of reasons, least of all being that people like you and me are part of it.

The church is weird, at least according to the world, because we worship a crucified God and boldly proclaim that death has been defeated in the person of Jesus Christ.

Add to that the fact that we dump water on babies telling them they’ve been baptized into Jesus’ death and every month we proudly eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood… I don’t know if things could get much stranger.

Last Sunday was Easter which, or course, is one of the more bizarre Sundays in the church year. We looked around the sanctuary and saw people we’ve never seen before, we remembered the shadow of the cross from Good Friday, and we triumphantly sang “Christ Is Alive!”

And yet here we are, a week later, on the other side of the resurrection story. We, like the disciples before us, are experiencing the whiplash of discovering a strange new world that has been changed, for good, by Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the event that shatters all of our previous expectations and assumptions and it is the lens by which we read the entirety of the Bible.

As I said last week, if the Easter story were not included in the holy scriptures then we would’ve thrown out our Bibles a long time ago.

But now we jump back into the story, back into the ministry of Jesus. We have pressed the rewind button to re-enter the realm of the bizarre.

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This act of worship through which we proclaim the Word of the Lord is often nothing more than entering the strange new world of the Bible and hoping that we can find our way through together.

Or, to put it another way, if you thought Jesus rising from the dead was crazy, just check this out…

A bunch of tax collectors went up to Peter as soon as the disciples reached Capernaum and asked, “Hey, does your guy pay the temple tax or not?” Peter said, “Yeah, of course he does.”

But then when he got to the house where Jesus was staying, Jesus brought it up before Peter got a chance to open his mouth. “What do you think Pete… Who do the wealthy and powerful tax? Do they take money from their own children or from others?” 

Peter replied, “From other people.”

So Jesus said to him, “Then the kids are free to do as they please. But, we don’t want to scandalize the collectors of the temple tax, so why don’t you head on down to the sea and go fishing. When you hook your first fish, look inside it’s mouth, you will find enough money to pay for you and me.”

What?!

This feels incomprehensible. And, upon reading the story, it’s no wonder that the disciples were such a group of bumbling fools. How can we blame them when Jesus tells the chief disciple that he can find his tax payment inside of a fish’s mouth? 

Over and over again in the gospel narratives, the disciples struggle to make sense of what they see and hear from Jesus. Sure they witness miracles, and experience profound truths, but they are also bombarded with a strange new reality straight from the lips and actions of their Lord.

He was weird.

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The weirdness is as its fullest when Jesus comes to the realization, or perhaps he has it the whole time, that the kingdom of God is inextricably tied up with his own exodus, his death and resurrection. 

The parables, therefore, are seen in their fullest light on this side of the resurrection. I have made the case before that for as much as we want the parables to be about us, they are about Jesus. That’s one of the reasons that Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone what they saw or heard until he had been raised from the dead.

Of course, upon first glance, the money in the mouth of the fish might not sound like a parable. For whenever we hear the word parable we are quick to jump to the good samaritan or the prodigal son – we conjure up in our minds the stories Jesus told.

But this is a parable that Jesus lives out.

What makes it parabolic is that it points to something greater than its parts and it leaves us with more questions than answers.

The tax collectors were out to find the temple tax, the didrachma. It was a two-drachma tax expected of all Jews and it amounted to about two day’s pay. But they weren’t simply looking to collect – they are asking a question to discern what kind of person this Jesus really was. 

“Does he pay the temple tax?” is but another version of “Does he follow the Law?”

Peter, ever eager to jump in without thinking much about what he was saying, assures the collectors that Jesus in fact pays his taxes and then he returns to the house.

And Jesus, who was not privy to the conversation, questions Peter upon his arrival, “Who do the powerful take their taxes from? Their own families, or from others?”

And Peter responds accordingly, “From others.” 

And that was good enough for Jesus who says, “Then the children are free.”

Before we even get to the miraculous and monetized fish, Jesus is establishing something remarkably new through the spoken truth of this parabolic encounter. Jesus and his followers in whatever the new kingdom will be are under no obligations to the old order represented by those in power. 

The former things are passing away and Jesus is doing a new thing.

The children are free from taxes; they don’t have to do anything. Which, to our Americans ears starts to sound a little disconcerting. Some of us will immediately perk up in our pews when we hear the news that Jesus is apparently against paying taxes, while others of us begin to squirm when we think about what would happen if we all stopped paying our taxes.

But that’s not what’s going on here.

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Jesus and his disciples do not have to do anything because they are God’s children, and only God has the right to tax God’s creatures. This wasn’t money for public school education, or for infrastructure repairs, or national defense. This was for the Temple, the religious establishment, the same Temple that Jesus eventually says he has come to destroy!

But then he moves on from words alone to the action of the parable, the part that, if we’re honest, leaves us even more troubled than with questions about our taxes. 

Jesus says, “But you know what Pete, we shouldn’t scandalize the tax collectors so go catch a fish, and inside you will find a coin that will be enough.”

Interestingly, the coin in greek is a STATER which was worth exactly four drachmas, which would perfectly cover Peter and Jesus’ contribution.

And how to the temple tax collectors respond to the aquatic audit? 

The Bible doesn’t tell us.

What about Peter’s response to actually catching a fish with a coin in its mouth?

The Bible doesn’t tell us.

All we’re given is the parable.

Jesus knows that his own death will be at the heart of the new order, the kingdom of God. And in this strange and quixotic moment, he shows how free he and his disciples are from the old political and religious and messianic expectations and decides to make a joke about the whole thing.

And for the living Lord this is nothing new. He was known for breaking the rules, and eating with sinners, and questioning the authorities. But now, in this story, Jesus lives and speaks into the truth of his location being outside all the programs created by those with power to maintain their power.

He is free among the dead.

He is bound to the last, least, and lost.

The coin in the fish’s mouth is the great practical joke of God’s own creation against the powers and principalities. 

It’s but another version of saying, “You think all of this religious stuff is going to save you? You think your morality and your ethics and your economics are enough? Even the fish in the sea have a better chance than all of you!”

The children are free.

Free from what? The children are free from the religious forms of oppression and expectation. Whatever religion was trying to do during the time of Jesus, and sadly during our time as well, cannot be accomplished by our own religious acts but can be and are accomplished in the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The children are free.

The parable of the coin in the fish’s mouth is far greater than an episode by the sea or even a treatment on the levying of taxes. It is a profound declaration of freedom.

But herein lies one of the greatest challenges for us.

Because when we hear the word freedom we bring all sorts of our own definitions to that word. We hear “freedom” and we see red, white, and blue. We talk about freedom in terms of getting to do, and say, and believe whatever we want without repercussions.

But Jesus brings a radically different version of freedom – freedom from religion; freedom from the Law.

Religion, in the many ways it manifests itself, often only has one thing to say: people like you and me need to do something in order to get God to do something. We need only be good enough, or faithful enough, or merciful enough, until we tip the scales back in our favor. But this kind of religious observance, which is most religious observance, traps us in a game that we will always and forever lose.

It’s bad news.

But Jesus comes to bring Good News. 

I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law.

Again and again in the gospels Jesus stands against what the established religious order was doing and trying to do.

The Devil offers him power over the Temple during the temptations and Jesus refuses.

Jesus rebukes the hard and fast rules of not eating with sinners, and of not helping others on the sabbath.

After he enters Jerusalem, with the cross ever present on the horizon, he marches straight into the temple and flips over all the tables of the money-changers.

And even in his death, as he hangs on the cross, the veil of the Temple is torn into two pieces.

The old has fallen away and something new has arrived in its place. 

Jesus says he doesn’t want to scandalize those trapped in the Law and by religious observance but his cross and resurrection are fundamentally scandalous. We are no longer responsible for our salvation. We do not have to be the arbiters of our own deliverance.

We are free!

Truly and deeply free!

Jesus has erased the record that stood against us and chose to nail it to his cross!

Jesus has taken the “Gone Fishin’” sign and hung it over the doorpost of the ridiculous religious requirements that we have used against one another and ourselves.

Jesus has come to bring Good News.

The children are free. Amen. 

We Did Everything We Could

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 9.1-6, Psalm 30, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19). Drew serves as one of the associate pastors at St. Stephen’s UMC in Burke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including charcoal fires, Damascus road experiences, reluctant discipleship, the soul from Sheol, heaven & hell parties, learning Revelation, The OK Computer Passion Play, being naked and ashamed, and hope in the face of death. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Did Everything We Could

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Unbelievable

Luke 24.1-12

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

Ah, the beautiful and confounding day we call Easter. All of the Bible, all of the church, all of Christianity hinges on this day: Easter, Resurrection, out of death into life. If this story were not in scripture, we would’ve thrown out our Bibles away a long time ago. If the Bible does not tell us this story, it tells us nothing.

Easter is the one day when the hopes and fears of all the years are made manifest in the here and now. Today we are the church, and we have people who are firmly rooted in their faith, we have people who are filled with doubts, and we have people scratching their heads with questions. 

So, what should I say to all of you today? How might I meet each of you where you are and provide words of wonder, and challenge, and grace?

All that we’ve said, and all that we will say, today is found in these three words: He Is Risen!

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The tomb was empty and the body was gone.

All four gospels report the beginning of a strange and new reality. 

It is a wondrous and beautiful declaration, and yet, in a sense, this is the most difficult day of the year for Christians because it is impossible to talk about the resurrection.

The resurrection is impossible to talk about because it utterly baffles us. It was, and still is, something completely un-looked for, without precedent, something that stuns and shatters our conceptions of everything even all these years later.

It was on the first day of the week, a Sunday, when the women arrived at the empty tomb. 

Have you ever had to bury someone?

If you haven’t, you will. You will come to know the deafening clasp of death. You will come to understand the grief and pain of entering into a new world without someone in it. You will come to know death in a thousand different ways: the deaf of a friendship, or a job, or health, or happiness.

It will feel like every bit of your hope has been buried in that tomb.

Which maybe gets us a bit closer to how the women were feeling when they walked to the grave at early dawn. We are compelled to get near to them on their journey because even though we know how the story ends, sometimes we cannot quite see how unprepared they were, and all us are, for the Good News.

On Monday I got to the office here at church and decided that I had waited far too long to change the letters on our church marquee. For the last month or it contained the simple message: All are welcome at this church. But with Easter approaching, the time had come to display the times for our Easter worship services.

So, I wrote out the message on a little notepad, just to make sure it would fit on the sign, and then I pulled out all the necessary letters and, rather than carrying all the equipment down the hill, I decided to throw it all into the back of my car and then I drove across the lawn down to the corner.

It took about 10 minutes to pull the old letters out and replace them with the new message. I stood back from the sign to make sure it was all even and level, and then I got back in my car to drive across the lawn toward the parking lot. 

And, right as I passed by that window, a police cruiser flew down our long driveway and turned on his red and blues.

It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that I was getting pulled over inside of our own parking lot.

I promptly put the car in park and stepped out of the vehicle and the officer approached quickly and demanded to know what I had been doing on the lawn.

“Were you vandalizing the church property?”

“No,” I calmly replied, “I’m the pastor.”

“Really?” He said incredulously.

That’s when I looked down and realized that I was wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. 

I told him that I was changing out the letters for the church sign, and I even pulled a few of the letters out of the car to prove my case.

“Well, what does the sign say now?”

I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely interested, or if he was going to go down and look at it to make sure I wasn’t lying.

So I told him that I put up the times for our Easter services.

For a moment he didn’t say anything. He kept looking back between me and his cruiser, and then, out of nowhere, he said, “Do you really believe all that?”

“All of what?”

“Easter, resurrection, the dead brought back to life. Do you really believe all that?”

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The women go to the graveyard in grief. They felt the same way many of us feel when we are surrounded by tombstones. Some of us go to graveyards to lay down flowers as a sign of love upon the grave of those now dead. Some of us go to find connections with those who came before us. Some of us go because cemeteries feel spooky and we like the idea of the hair standing up on the back of our necks. Some of us go without even knowing why.

But absolutely no one goes to visit a grave because they expect someone to rise out of it.

Luke, in his gospel story, wants us to know that this new reality was totally inconceivable. The women are perplexed by the empty tomb and brought down to the ground in the presence of the angelic messengers. 

And there is this powerfully pregnant pause while the women bow in silence. 

That silence contains all of their questions, and our own. How is this possible? What does it mean? 

And then the messengers cut through the silence with the question to end all questions: Why do you look for the living among the dead?

Easter is a terrifyingly wonderful reminder that God’s ways are not our ways. God constantly subverts what we expect and even what we believe precisely because God’s ways are not of our own making. They are totally other.

Why do you look for the living among the dead? 

That question continues to burn in our minds and souls all these centuries later because we know the question is also meant for us! 

We too want to tend the corpses of long dead ideas. 

We cling to former visions of ourselves and our churches and our institutions as if the most important thing would be for them to return to what they once we. 

We grasp our loved ones too tightly refusing to let them change. 

We choose to stay with what is dead because is is safe.

But the question remains! Why are we looking for the living among the dead? God is doing a new thing!

And notice: the women do not remain at the tomb to ask their own lingering questions. They are content with the news that God has done something strange, and they break the silence by returning to the disciples to share what had happened. 

And how do these dedicated disciples respond to the Good News?

They don’t believe it.

To them this whole transformation of the cosmos is crazy – and they are the ones who had been following Jesus for years, they had heard all the stories and seen all the miracles, and yet even they were unprepared for the first Easter. 

Throughout the history of the church we have often equated faith and belief with what it means to be Christian. We lay out these doctrines and principles and so long as you abide by them, so long as you believe that they are true, then you are in. 

One of the problems with that kind of Christianity, which is to say with Christianity period, is that it places all of the power in our hands. We become the arbiters of our own salvation. Moreover, we have used the doctrine of belief to exclude those who do not believe.

All of us here today came of age in world in which we were, and are, told again and again that everything is up to us. We are a people of potential and so long as we work hard, and make all the right choices, and believe in all of the right things, then life will be perfect.

The resurrection of Jesus is completely contrary to that way of being. It is completely contrary because we have nothing to do with it. Jesus wasn’t waiting in the grave until there was the right amount of belief in the world before he broke free from the chains of Sin and Death. Jesus wasn’t biding his time waiting for his would-be followers to engage in systems of perfect morality before offering them the gift of salvation. 

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The women returned to the disciples to tell them the good news and the disciples did not believe them. The story seemed an idle tale, and they went about their business.

But Peter, ever eager Peter, had to see for himself. He had to go to the tomb to see with his own eyes what had been told to him. And when we looked into the empty tomb he saw the linen clothes by themselves and he went home amazed at all that he had seen and heard. 

That might be the message of Easter for us today: Not look at the empty tomb and believe. But look at the tomb and be amazed!

The police officer stood there in the parking lot with his question about belief hanging in the air.

I said, “Yeah, I do believe it. All of it. Otherwise all of this would be in vain.”

And he left. 

I do believe, but the story is pretty unbelievable. I can’t prove the resurrection. I can’t make you or anyone else believe anything.

But I see resurrection everyday.

I see it when we gather at the table in anticipation of what God can do through ordinary things like bread and the cup.

I see resurrection when we open up this old book every week knowing that Jesus still speaks to us anew.

I see resurrection in the church, this church, through a whole bunch of people who can’t agree on anything but know that through Christ’s victory over death the world has been turned upside down. 

I see resurrection in the people who come looking for forgiveness and actually receive it.

I see resurrection in the crazy gift of grace offered freely to people like you and me who deserve it not at all.

The Good News is that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.

But the even better news is the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead whether we believe it or not. Amen. 

Easter Starts In The Dark

John 20.1

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. 

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Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

It feels good to say that word! We’ve been avoiding it for an entire liturgical season. It has not hit my lips since before Ash Wednesday. And even in the church we have not used the word in a hymn, in a prayer, or even had it in a bulletin. 

And today we can shout it out with all the pent-up gusto we’ve been bottling up over the last 40 days!

Hallelujah! He is risen!

But then I wonder, should we be so bold with a proclamation such as that this early in the morning? Do you feel that joyful right now? What do you think people are thinking when they drive by and see a group of people outside in the dark on a Sunday morning like this?

The Bible is full of stuff. 

Want to know about an obscure law that guided the Hebrew people 3,000 years ago? The Bible’s got it.

Want to know what Noah planted in the ground after being in the ark for 40 days and forty nights? The Bible’s got it.

Want to know what Jesus’ final words were right before he died? The Bible’s got it.

But, interestingly, the Bible is relatively silent about what happens between the burial of Jesus on Friday and the visit to the tomb on Sunday morning. We don’t really know what the disciples were up to after Jesus was taken down from the cross. We are not privy to any of their conversations or murmurings.

This sunrise service plants us squarely in that strange mystery. 

We walk with the women on their way to the tomb.

We fear with the disciples back in the upper room.

The darkness is a time for wonder.

What will the day bring? We do not know, we only know that it is coming, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And so we read from the gospel according to John that on the first day of the week, on Sunday, while it was still dark, Mary came to the tomb and saw the stone had been removed.

Why does she go to the tomb?

The other gospels stories write about the women, not just Mary by herself, go to the tomb to anoint the body of the Lord. But in John’s version, Mary goes alone and we know not why.

Why do any of us go to cemeteries? 

Sometimes we go because we don’t know where else to go, we don’t know what else to do. That’s the decisive power of death – it robs us of our rationality.

When the rug is pulled from beneath our feet we do things without knowing why we do them. 

What is Mary thinking about as she trudges along the path? Is she remembering the day that Jesus saved her from being stoned? Is she thinking about what he looked like while he was dragging the cross up to Golgotha? Does she talk to herself in attempts to calm down the grief?

We know little more about Mary’s morning other than the fact that it was dark when she arrived at the tomb.

Perhaps we are encouraged to wonder about her wonder in the dark.

Darkness and lightness are prevailing themes in John’s gospel. At the very beginning we learn that Jesus is the incarnate light comes to shine in the darkness. 

Nicodemus comes under the cover of the night so that no one would will see him with Jesus.

Jesus warns the disciples and the crowds about those who love the darkness.

And Jesus himself declares, “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

And yet this most pivotal of moments in the gospels takes place not in the light of the day, but under the cover of darkness.

A few years ago I was asked to preach at a sunrise service on behalf of all the United Methodist in the city of Staunton, Va. Sunrise services, as you well know, are only for the really faithful people so instead of each church having a small gathering we decided to get all 8 churches together. The tradition started a number of years ago but we always met in one of the church’s parking lots.

Which, if I may be honest, drove me crazy.

If Sunrise services are to happen anywhere, they should be observed in cemeteries.

They should take place among the dead. 

Anyway, after years of fruitless complaining, the churches finally gave in and agreed that we could have our sunrise service in the town cemetery. I promptly put my blood, sweat, and tears into that sunrise service because I finally got my way, and sure enough when the day of Easter arrived and the sun began to ever-so-slightly approach the horizon we had over 150 people standing among the gravestones singing about the resurrection of our Lord.

And, as it happened, I was about halfway through my sermon when I noticed something strange: I saw lots of people from the other churches in town, but no one from my church was in the cemetery. 

I kept going, trying to keep my focus in check, and finished the service with as grand of a benediction as I could muster and sent everyone to their respective churches for the rest of their Easter services.

I drove into town, still dressed in my Sunday robe, and couldn’t shake the fact that none of my people were there. I know I had made plenty of announcements about it from the pulpit, I had printed the information in the bulletin, and yet no one showed up.

A few hours later, with the sun high in the sky, I greeted everyone as they made their way into the sanctuary for Easter worship, trying my best to not think about what had happened in the darkness when a group of church people all walked up laughing.

“You’re never going to believe what happened to us this morning?” They said.

“What happened to you?” I thought to myself, “What about what happened to me!?”

I motioned for them to go on and one of them said, “We went to the wrong cemetery!”

Under the cover of darkness, a faithful group from my church met in the parking lot to drive over to the cemetery as a carpool. And when they arrived at the wrong cemetery, they kept driving around wondering where everyone was until they saw a very small group of people huddled together near the top of the hill. They quickly parked their cars and ran up to the group and joined together in the singing of hymns. 

The group from my church nearly tripled the number of people at that sunrise service and it was only when a much older woman stepped forward to preach did they realize they had gone to the wrong place. 

But they were good and faithful Christians, so they stayed and they listened to the resurrection story. They let it fill their souls and they offered up all their Hallelujahs.

When their service came to a conclusion the female pastor walked up to the group and asked how they found out about their Sunrise service. She told them that it filled her with such tremendous warmth to know that so many people had come. To which one of my people told her that God works in mysterious ways.

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

The resurrection happened at night. No one was there when it happened. By the time Mary arrived Jesus was already gone. He arose from the kingdom and dominion of sin and death into the victory of life and resurrection. By the time the sun rose on the tomb all it revealed was that the victory had already taken place. 

Some of the best, and most important things in the world take place without us having to do anything. That is a strange and troubling word to a people who constantly feel as if they’re never doing enough.

The message of Easter, of the mystery in the darkness, is that the resurrection happens without us. We are only witnesses. But that’s good enough. Amen.

Hope Rages or: All Y’all Get To Be Eastered

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast we have three episodes for Holy Week and we end with Easter [C] (Isaiah 65.17-25, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15.19-26, John 20.1-18). Joanna Marcy Paysour was kind enough to join me for this episode. Our conversation covers a range of topics including proclamation by subtraction, redeeming the season, theologically complicated hymns, moving from Friday to Sunday, confetti eggs, dust-ness, women preachers, naked gardening, and seeing the Lord. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hope Rages or: All Y’all Get To Be Eastered

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