Now What?

1 Peter 1.3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

The existence of the church is a miracle. We live in a world so steeped in the need for scientific, historical, and verifiable fact that the existence of a community based on a person we have never seen is nothing short of a miracle. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ indeed!

However, this profound miracle is not limited to our contemporary world’s desire for things seen and observed.

According to the New Testament, only a scattering of people ever saw the resurrected Jesus after the first Easter. The disciples in the upper room, a smallish crowd heard his teachings, a handful of people saw the ascension. And from them, from their witness, the church was born.

They were filled by the power of the Spirit to live out the resurrection in their lives and it shined brightly wherever they went. They went on to tell their friends and families what they had experienced. They wrote letters to different communities. They traveled around sharing the Good News.

And today, I am sure that each of us can think about someone in our lives who was like those first disciples; we can remember someone whose faith shined brightly wherever they went. It is in large part because of them that people like you and me are receiving the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls.

Today is a strange day in the life of the church; Clergy and church folk often call today “Low Sunday.” It is a terrible name. People refer to it as such because, traditionally, the first Sunday after Easter has the lowest attendance of any Sunday in the year. And there is almost an unavoidable feeling of lowness after the highness of a packed church on Easter only to be filled with the likes of us one week later.

The resurrection of Jesus was not like that. No, it grabbed hold of people in a way never seen before. The inexplicable, unexplainable, and uncontainable event of the resurrection resulted in glorious joy. Like dancing in the streets, laughing on the floor, tears in the eyes kind of joy; a contagious joy that forever changed the fabric of our reality.

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Years ago I read a book by Donald Miller titled Blue Like Jazz and in it he describes his relationship with jazz music: “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside a theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes and he never opened his eyes. After than I loved jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It’s as if they are showing you the way.”

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.

Similarly, I love jazz music. To me, there are few things as wonderful as sitting down and listening to an old Dave Brubeck LP. But I used to hate jazz. I hated how confusing it was, how unmelodic it could be, and how indefinable it was. I hated jazz until I started playing jazz.

12 year ago my high school jazz band needed a drummer and I signed up. I played Christian rock songs every Sunday for my church and I thought, “How hard could it be to play jazz?”

It was hard.

But every day I sat behind the drum-kit until my fingers were blistered and calloused. I watched my peers hold back smiles while blowing into their horns and while their fingers were flying over the keys. In response to their love for the craft I started listening to jazz in my spare time and tapped along on my thighs and countertops. I immersed myself into the strange new world of jazz, and before long I fell in love. I fell in love with the wonderful solo runs that were never the same, I fell in love with the strange time signatures and rhythms, I fell in love with the genre of music I hated because I watched others love it.

How many things in life are like that? How many of our hobbies and cultural obsessions were born out of someone else’s love and obsession?

More than four years ago I received the phone call about coming here. I was with Lindsey in New York visiting my, at the time, soon-to-be sister-in-law when a familiar voice on the other side of the phone said, “The bishop has discerned that your gifts and graces will be most fruitful at St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA.” To which I said, “I think it’s pronounced STAUNton.

I never made that mistake again.

So I looked up the website, searched for any information I could find on Google, and started praying. And I’ll admit, after checking the statistical data and other relevant materials I thought, “How am I going to love these people? I don’t know anything about Staunton, the community, or the church.”

And then at the end of June in 2013 I showed up for my first Sunday. I smiled at all of you and led us through worship, I almost forgot to take up the offering, and when I walked down the aisle after my first benediction I let out an unnecessarily loud and deep sigh.

I knew nothing about what it meant to be a pastor, or even what it meant to serve God in this place. But then I started watching you. Like a saxophone player on the street corner, I watched you close your eyes and make beautiful music in your lives.

I saw your love of God through Marshall Kirby bear-hugging every person that walked into this church, whether they wanted it or not. Through Pam Huggins’ never-ending, and forever-repeating, stories about how God has showed up in her life. Through Alma Driver’s limitless knowledge of who came to this church, where they sat, and what they were like. Through George Harris’ insistence on standing next to me after church to say goodbye to everyone as if he were the associate pastor. Through Dianne Wright keeping Hallmark in business by sending people cards for no reason other than the fact that she wants them to know that God loves them. Through Grace Daughtrey spilling grape juice all over herself while attempting to serve communion. Through Rick Maryman’s brilliant use of timing and rhythms through the hymns we sing and the anthems we hear. Through Dick Pancake’s joining the church after refusing to become a United Methodist for decades. Through Jerry Berry’s theologically probing comments offered after nearly every sermon. Through Ken Wright crawling on his hands and needs to pick the weeds. Through Eric Fitzgerald and Mike Hammer’s willingness to be dressed up like fools for a children’s message. Through Sue Volskis’ continued calls to make sure that everything was going well. Through Leah Pack’s pats on the back after the good, and the bad, sermons. Through Bob Pack mocking me from the back every week. Through Dave Fitzgerald offering to preach a better sermon than I have ever offered.

Through every rolled sleeve to clean dishes; through every casserole provided for a family in grief. Through every committee meeting, every bible study, every Circle gathering. Through every mission trip, hospital visit, and picnic.

I literally could go on and on with the myriad of ways that I’ve seen God’s love through your love but I would break my rule of keeping sermons under fifteen minutes.

What I’m trying to say is this: I learned what it means to love God through all of you. For the last four years I have been blown away by your remarkable capacity to love one another and the Lord.

All of you are the reason that, even though I have not seen Jesus, I love him, because I see his love manifest in you. That is why I rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy. You practice resurrection daily, you are receiving the outcome of your faith, and salvation is here.

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You have taught me what it means to be Easter people. As Easter people there is a “not yet” to the fullness of God’s salvation, but there is also a “now” to the anticipation and joy of that fullness. That alone is reason enough for us to sing and praise the Lord. That alone is reason enough to be filled with a hope that does not disappoint. That alone is reason enough to believe that God truly does make all things new.

By the Lord’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

In the last four years I have watched people who were spiritually dead be resurrected into new life through your faithfulness. I have seen you surrounded people in the midst of sorrow when they needed it most. I have witnessed your faith through all the crazy things I’ve asked you to do in responding to the Word, like reconciling with people with whom you were angry, like burning palm branches as a commitment to leaving behind our broken identities, like even dancing in the pews to a Justin Timberlake song in anticipation of the joy of our promised resurrection.

God has brought this church back to life through you. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

In the United Methodist Church clergy people like me make a vow to go where the Spirit leads us. When I was finishing seminary I lived into that promise when I received that phone call about coming here and I embraced it. I came here not knowing what it would look like, how it would feel, or whether or not it would be fruitful.

And I can say to you today with joy that serving this church has been the greatest privilege of my life.

But the Spirit is moving. Over the last few months the leadership of the church and I have been in prayer and we have discerned the time has come for me to respond to the Spirit yet again in a new place, and that the Spirit is calling a new pastor to serve St. John’s. And in response to that prayer and discernment, our Bishop has projected to appoint me to different church at the end of June: Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge.

I am grateful beyond words for the many ways you have showed me how to love God, and that I get to share your love of God in a strange new place. I have nothing but hope and faith that this church will continue to pour out God’s love on the last, the least, and the lost, because that is who you are. I rejoice in the knowledge that God is doing a new thing for this community.

By the Lord’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This is a time of new birth for St. John’s; a new pastor, a new chapter, a new beginning. On this side of the resurrection we are bold to proclaim our joy in God making all things new. Amen.

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Devotional – John 20.19

Devotional:

John 20.19

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

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The doors were locked because the disciples were afraid. Jesus broke forth from the chains of death in the morning, but by the evening the disciples were locked up at the house. And John is quick to tell us that they did so for fear of the Jews. Perhaps the disciples were afraid that the fate of crucifixion was coming for them next, or at the least they would be attacked and driven from the city. But nevertheless, the Word become flesh is resurrected and the closest followers of Jesus are hidden in a room.

Were they really afraid of the Jews? Or was there something else that drove them to lock the doors and cower in the corner?

I think that the disciples were certainly afraid of the Jewish leaders, particularly in light of what they had done to Jesus, but I also think the disciples were afraid of the risen Jesus. These disciples, these followers of the Messiah, had all abandoned him at the end, they had denied him, and now he’s back! I would be hiding too.

How often do we fail our friends only to cower in fear as we wait for their response? I know far too many people (myself included) who will ignore that email, text message, or phone call from a particular individual not because of anything he/she did, but because of what we did.

Thanks be to God that Jesus did not leave the disciples hiding in fear behind locked doors. Thanks be to God that the gospel was too important to remain hidden. Thanks be to God that Jesus came in, stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.”

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Do we believe that Jesus could show up in our lives when we are ashamed for something we’ve done? How often do we hide (literally or figuratively) behind locked doors when we have failed our friends or families? What would it look like to live like we believed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead?

As Easter people we are committed to practicing resurrection here and now in anticipation of our promised resurrection. This means that we cannot take the people around us for granted, it means we cannot stay hidden in shame, it means that we have to be brave and courageous people willing to say “peace be with you” to the people with whom we feel no peace.

Looking For Jesus In All The Wrong Places

John 20.11-18

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, what are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

I love learning about different Easter traditions. Some families will insist on purchasing matching outfits for the family so they can get that perfect picture for the mantel. Others will spend weeks crafting the perfect Easter menu for the family following church. And still yet others will take time to dye Easter Eggs with the kids, and scatter them throughout the house.

In my family, we always had our Easter baskets to rummage through before church. I can vividly recall waking up as a child and experiencing the profound wonder and joy that the Easter bunny had come to my house, and left a basket full of goodies just for me.

But as I got older and wiser, apparently the Easter bunny did as well.

One year, probably toward the end of Elementary school, I came downstairs on Easter and there was no basket with my name on it. I know that I looked straight toward my mother with a look that said, “What happened?!”

She smiled and said, “Taylor I came downstairs early this morning and I discovered something new and something strange. The Easter bunny knows you’re getting older and decided to hide your Easter Basket.”

And thus began a wonderful and bewildering tradition in the Mertins household. Year after year the bunny became craftier with hiding spots. Once, after searching for a good fifteen minutes, I found my Easter basket in one of my sister’s closets, another time it was hidden outside on the picnic table, and still yet another time (after a very frustrating search) I found it in the attic.

But one year, I couldn’t find it. I looked and looked. I went out to the shed. I climbed up the magnolia tree. I even looked in the refrigerator. No Easter basket.

My mother, being the great mother she is, had already searched through the house and found it, but refused to participate. The only hint she gave me was this: “It’s in a place you never go to.”

I searched that house top-to-bottom, bathrooms, closets, hallways… I went over the same places with a fine-toothed comb multiple times, but I couldn’t find it. I was at the point where I was convinced the Easter bunny had forgotten about me. But my mother, being the great mother she is, saw me in agony, walked over to the laundry machine, opened the lid, and pulled out my Easter basket.

I had been looking in all the wrong places.

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Jesus was killed on a cross and then buried in a tomb. After three days Mary went to the tomb and was shocked to discover that the stone covering the entrance had been rolled away. So she ran to tell the disciples. Peter and John in turn ran back out to the tomb with Mary and found the linens that had covered Jesus’ body neatly folded in the corner. The gospel tells us that they saw this and believed, and then returned to their homes.

But not Mary… No, Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. And while weeping, she leaned into the tomb and saw two angels who asked her what in the world was she doing. She turned from the tomb and saw Jesus, though she did not recognize him. Jesus said to her, “What are you doing? Who are you looking for?” And supposing him to be the gardener, she said, “If you took him away please tell me where he is!”

And Jesus said, “Mary” and her eyes were opened to the resurrection.

Mary was looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. How many times had she heard him proclaim his death and resurrection? How many times had he told her what was to happen? What did she think he meant when he said “I will rise up again”?

The resurrection of the dead, Easter, it upsets and upends all expectations. Mary, this follower of Jesus, someone whose life was forever altered and transformed by the Lord, cannot even come close to it without hearing Jesus call her by name. She cannot fathom what it is she is looking for and even confuses Jesus for the gardener.

Mary gets a pretty bad rap in the church for confusing her Lord for the maintenance man. I mean, hadn’t she spent nearly every day with him since he saved her from the crowd ready to stone her? Wasn’t he the most important person in her life? And she supposes him the gardener?

But maybe Mary sees more than she knows, and more than we give her credit for. Maybe she really saw the Gardener. After all, God had given life to Adam in the Garden long ago and called him to take care of it. Perhaps in the resurrection Jesus has become all that God intended: He is the Gardener of God’s creation; He is new Adam. Maybe the bible has come full circle from the Garden of Eden to Jesus as the gardener through Mary.

            She sees and believes.

Many of you know that I have a Good Friday tradition of carrying the cross through Staunton. If you’ve ever been here with us on Easter you’ve heard stories about my experiences of carrying that large cross over my shoulder. You’ve heard about the countless people who have said, “God bless you.” I’ve shared with you my sadness about the people who shouted curse words as I walked passed.

I carry the cross through our town because I want the death of Christ to rattle them out of their complacency. I want them to know and remember what God was willing to do for them. I want them to see the cross and believe.

So on Friday, like I’ve done the last three years, I got to the sanctuary a little before noon, grabbed the cross, and started walking. Before I even made it to the Post Office, 5 cars had pulled over to thank me for what I was doing. From St. John’s to downtown I was blessed by a great number of people with honks, waves, and the occasional “Amen brother!”

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But when I got to Beverley Street, something changed. I walked up toward the Valley Mission and then back toward Mary Baldwin, and no one so much as even looked at me. When I carried the cross for the first time people avoided me by jaywalking to the other side of the street and averting their gazes, as I got close. But this was different; it was like I wasn’t even there.

Now, to be clear, I’m not looking for attention or praise while walking around this town, but I was dressed in all black with rather large cross over my shoulder; I’m hard to miss. And this year, this Good Friday, people could not have cared less.

They kept talking with their friends. They walked hand in hand with their children. They continued to type on their phones. And the cross seemingly meant nothing to them.

We live in a strange new world; one in which the cross can be ignored and the message of resurrection can be limited to a basket, or a bunny, or some eggs.

So I kept walking, feeling a little hopeless about the power of the cross and the Good News. I got to the top of Beverley Street and walked passed Mary Baldwin and the Food Lion. I just wanted to get back to church and rest.

But then the Lee High bell rang and all the kids started leaving. “That’s just great,” I thought. “It’s one thing to be ignored by families downtown, but a one bunch of teenagers? C’mon God.”

I kept walking up the hill, and a great line of High School students were walking down right toward me. And when the first one got close, she stood right in front of me, coughed to get my attention, and then said, “That’s so cool!”

For the next 30 minutes I had conversations with just about every kid on that sloped section of Coulter Street. We talked about Jesus, the cross, and resurrection.

And, unlike many of us, their response was joyful. Many of them thanked me for doing what I was doing; a good number of them asked me more questions, and most of them walked away smiling.

Those high school students weren’t burdened with questions about how this could happen, or the theological ramifications of such an act, or who gets to be part of the resurrection from the dead. They heard the Good News, and that was enough.

How often do we go looking for Jesus in all the wrong places?

We purchase the latest self-help book assuming that it will fill the emptiness we feel. We look for him in the bottom of a bottle when we lose someone we love. We search for him in finite and material experiences in attempts to deny the inevitability of our lives.

When the truth is that Jesus is near us all the time and we regularly fail to recognize him: in the face of the hungry stranger standing in the median by the stop light; in the hopeful Word of a timely sermon; in the bread and the cup at this table, in the strange encounter with teenagers who are perhaps hearing the Easter story for the first time.

Sometimes we treat this story as if it’s the ending, like the whole Christian year leads up to this and we’re done, like the faithful life concludes with an empty tomb. I’m not sure why we do that, because the apostles and earliest Christians understood Easter not as the dramatic conclusion to the story. For them, as it should be for us, Easter is the beginning.

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It is the beginning of God making all things new. It is the beginning of the end for the powers and principalities that struggled to captivate the world. It is the beginning of a new time not under the dominion of death, but one that stands in the light of the glory of God.

It is the beginning of a new relationship between God and his people where, instead of looking for Jesus in all the wrong places, Jesus comes looking for us. Jesus meets us in the midst of life when we least expect it, on a hill outside of a high school, in the wave of a neighbor, in the words of a hymn, in a phone call from an old friend.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the epitome of God’s power and grace. Through it we see how God took something like a cross, a means of death, and turned it into the joy of life-everlasting. On Easter God transformed the tomb in the same way that He did on Christmas in a virgin’s womb. God made a way where there was no way. On Easter, Jesus opened up a strange new world for people like you and me.

For some of us we might be hearing the story for the first time. For some of the high school students it was definitely the first time. Or maybe you’ve been to church every single Easter of your life and you’ve heard the story over and over. Perhaps it doesn’t strike you like it once did. Maybe this Easter you’re filled with more doubt than hope. Perhaps this Easter you can’t believe you even went to church. But that’s not a bad thing; the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a new beginning; a new beginning for those of us who have never been to church, haven’t been in awhile, or have always been here. This gift we call Easter is for all of us.

So open your eyes and look for Jesus. Discover him in the bread and in the cup, listen for him calling your name in the songs we sing. Witness the power of resurrection in the people in the pews next to you. Hear the Good News, the best news: He lives! And so do we!

Hallelujah! Amen.

Practice Resurrection – Easter Sunrise Sermon

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.

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Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Man it feels good to say that word! In the church I serve, we have purposely avoided saying “Hallelujah” since before Ash Wednesday. No hymns, no prayers, no sermons contained the word. And now we can shout it out with all the pent-up gusto we’ve been holding in throughout Lent. Hallelujah! He is risen!

NT Wright is quite a famous theologian and he has said on numerous occasions that on Easter Christians should break out the champagne! But, we’re good United Methodists, so we’re stuck with Welsh’s Sparkling Grape Juice, plus it’s 6:30 in the morning and a bunch of us have other church services to go to after this!

But nevertheless, it’s time to pop some bottles and celebrate! I’ve passed out bottles to all the clergy so just go to the closest pastor to receive your cup. It’s time to shout out some Hallelujah and drink some Methodist champagne!

A Toast: To the God of Grace and Glory who broke forth from the tomb; Hallelujah!

Easter: What is this day all about? For centuries people like you and me have gathered like this to remember the first Easter. But, has Easter changed throughout the centuries?

We have a lady at St. John’s who, I believe, is keeping Hallmark in business. Whenever I visit people from our church community there is a better than good chance that I will see a card from Dianne on a refrigerator, or on a countertop, just to brighten someone’s day. And, wanting to be more like Dianne, I started looking through the greeting cards at Rite-Aid the other day in the section titled, “Easter.”

I flipped through a handful, looking for something appropriate, but then I couldn’t stop myself. And before I knew it I had gone through every single Easter card. They were all filled with nice words like “renewal” and “rebirth” and “revival.” They had colorful pictures of butterflies, lilies, and baby bunnies. But not one of them contained the right word: Resurrection.

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Easter is not the celebration of spring.

This is important! While we are bombarded with images and messages about spring being the season of rebirth and renewal, the resurrection is something entirely different.

I can assure you that the women who walked to the tomb that first Easter were not captivated by the birds singing in the air, or the new buds bursting from the trees. They, as Mark so eloquently puts it, were afraid.

But we are far removed from the strange new world of the bible, and instead we like to make Easter about the egg hunts, the bunny who comes like a thief in the night, and the rebirth of nature. Maybe then, we are actually just like the women who fled from the tomb; the message and power of the resurrection is such that we can barely bring ourselves to say anything about it at all.

I, or any of the fine preachers from Staunton, could stand before you this morning and talk all about the change of seasons, the wonder of the birds chirping as the sun rises, the call to a new life. But does any of that actually grab you? Does it terrify you? Does it fill you with such hope that you would stand against the tyranny of the Roman Empire?

Easter is not about spring. Easter is resurrection.

Resurrection is God’s penultimate Word to us, His creatures. And frankly, it should make us tremble and consider running in the other direction because recognizing this new truth and new reality means that we will, sooner or later, have to give up our dependence upon the things that the world tells us we need: beauty, security, wealth, power, careers, out loved ones, even our lives.

But since you’re here at the crack of dawn to worship the living God, you must surely get it already. You’re here because your lives have been transformed by the power of the resurrection and you can’t go back. Or maybe, just maybe, you’re like me and you’ve heard this story so many times before that you’ve become a little numb to the Good News of God bursting from the tomb. Perhaps we need to be shocked or afraid like the women who ran away. Maybe resurrection isn’t supposed to make us smile and grin. Perhaps resurrection is supposed to make us run away in bewilderment.

Resurrection changes everything.

Just shy of a year ago, my wife gave birth to our son Elijah. And at first it was terrifying. I’ll never forget pushing him in his little basinet down to the recovery room and Lindsey finally getting to rest after the draining ordeal of childbirth. My beautiful wife was sleeping soundly, and our beautiful baby boy was asleep at the foot of her bed. It was a profoundly holy moment. And then Elijah started choking.

At first I looked around for a nurse or a doctor to do something, and then remembered that we were all alone. So I got up, rushed to him, used a suction cup to clear his throat, and he promptly nuzzled into my neck.

Having a baby changed everything.

Eventually we made it home and started figuring out how to exist with another tiny little human being in the house. We got into a good rhythm. And, I decided to start reading to him every night.

He was barely a month old when I picked up my collection of the Chronicles of Narnia and began with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Every night I would flip through the old and worn pages that called us into the strange new land of Narnia. And, of course, it meant nothing to him, but it meant everything to Lindsey and me.

We read the entire collection in just over a month and the very last paragraph of the very last book goes like this: And for us, this is the end of all stories… But for them, it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning chapter one of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

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The end of Mark’s gospel, this wonderful bit about the women running away afraid, is no ending at all. It is a great ellipsis in which the story continues through us. The women were afraid because the resurrection was unlike anything this earth had ever known. They could not comprehend the sheer magnitude of God’s dynamic and reality-altering gift in his Son breaking free from the chains of death.

But their story, and our story, does not end with the written gospel. Their story, and our story, is resurrection. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is always unfinished. There is an unwritten page left for each of us to write, in which we record the many glorious, joyful, and even frightening things that God has done for and through us.

Easter, resurrection, isn’t perfect like a hallmark card. We cannot contain the inexplicability of God raising Jesus from the dead in pastel colors with a simple quote about renewal. It’s strange, and complicated, and scary.

For some of us Easter creates more questions than it provides answers. For the women at the tomb it was frightening and astonishing. For all of you it probably feels uncomfortable as we passed around out Methodist champagne with shouts of Hallelujahs while gathering in a place like this: a cemetery.

Easter can be downright terrifying.

But’s its not the end of the story. Jesus came alive so that we could come alive. The resurrection forces us to not experience Easter as just a day when the seasons change, but the very life-altering, earth shaking, cosmically confusing, moment of transformation of all things.

This, what we’re doing here, is our witness to the fact that we do not know what will happen next. We do not know when the bell will toll for us. And, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, this frightens us.

But hear the Good News: resurrection is the beginning of a new story, which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before. Jesus’ story, our story, has no end.

Hallelujah! Amen.

On Rediscovering Joy At Easter

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing Brian Zahnd (founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a nondenominational congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the season of Easter during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary. For the first Sunday of Easter, Brian challenged us to make it all about joy while the world struggles under the weight of the current political climate. If you want to hear the conversation and learn more about heresy, the paradox of Easter, and destroying lilies in worship, you can check out the podcast here: Easter 1 – Year A

 

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The Cross in Creation – Karl Barth and Genesis 1.1-2

Genesis 1.1-2

In the beginning when God created the heavens and earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

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While I was in seminary I spent one of my summers helping Bryson City UMC in Bryson City, North Carolina. Bryson City is surround by the Great Smokey Mountains and is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my entire life. It was an incredible experience that directly shaped the way I do ministry today.

During my time at the church I was invited to participate in a weekly lectionary group with local clergy. Every Monday morning the pastors and priests of Bryson City would get together to talk about the scripture readings for the following Sunday. We met at the large Baptist Church, ordered breakfast to be delivered, and then we would take turns reading from the bible and shared what we thought we would preach about on Sunday.

Week after week I heard from clergy of all different denominations (Presbyterian, Baptists, Catholic, Methodist, etc.) as they wrestled with God’s Word and how to proclaim it from very different pulpits to very different people.

On one hot morning in the middle of July I found myself surrounded by those familiar pastors and priests as we read the texts aloud. The lectionary always had four prepared readings for each Sunday on a three-year cycle: a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel. I don’t remember what the other readings were that morning, but I do remember that I was asked to read Genesis 1: In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…

When I finished, as was our custom, we waited for individuals to speak up about what they planned to do with the test during worship. Silence filled the room. So I decided to ask the obvious question, “I anyone planning to preach on Genesis 1?” The silence remained. I remember thinking to myself, “How strange is this? We’re talking about the first lines of scripture in the bible and no one is preaching on it in Bryson City this week.” It was obvious that most of the clergy wanted to move on to a different reading, but I felt compelled to ask another question: “Have any of you every preaching on Genesis 1?” One by one they confirmed my suspicion; not one of those pastors, priests, ministers, or preachers had ever proclaimed a sermon on the beginning of creation.

While they moved on to a different reading and a different conversation, I silently began calculating from my chair: In that room we had over 100 years of preaching represented. Over 100 years of preaching, more than 5,200 sermons, and not one of them had ever preached from Genesis 1.

Why do we ignore Genesis 1? What is it about the text that makes us afraid to bring it up in worship or in bible study?

On some level I think it is good to be afraid of God’s Word; that fear reminds us that God is God and we are not. But Genesis 1 is not something to be ignored or forgotten.

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Of all the writing I’ve read on Genesis 1, it is Karl Barth’s exegesis of the text that gives me hope for its return to the pulpits and congregations of our churches.

Barth, unlike so many modern theologians and pastors, rejects the fear and presumption that there is dissonance between creation as recorded in scripture and the scientific method. Instead of attempting to rationalize the theory of the Big Bang with the details of Genesis 1, and instead of struggling to line up Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection with the order of creation in scripture, Barth rejoices in the knowledge that the earth was in a hopeless situation of chaos and utter darkness and God chose to transform reality through the Word. The “how?” and “why?” of creation is simply answered with “Word” and “love.”

Writing and reflecting from this vantage point gives Barth the ability to freely respond to the words contained in Genesis 1 with a freshness that is often lost in the church today; his exegesis of Genesis 1 is a worthy read for clergy and laity alike.

In §41.2 “Creation As The External Basis Of The Covenant” (III.1 The Doctrine of Creation in Church Dogmatics) Barth begins his exegesis with the very first words of God from the Word of God.

The first word in the Hebrew Bible is bereshith, which roughly translates to “start” or “beginning.” In English we render this as “In the beginning…” but for Barth the distinction is important. To begin with “beginning” tells us “that this history, and with it the existence and being of the world, had a beginning, i.e., that unlike God Himself it was not without a beginning, but that with this beginning it also looks to an end.”[1] There is no other word that can quite compare with the one that inaugurates God’s holy scripture. From the beginning of all things God created a beginning to have an end. The Lord did not create the world like a watchmaker and then step back to see how it would run. God was intimately involved in the creative act knowing full and well that there was a necessary end, or conclusion, to the creative act. Unlike an author who begins a story without knowing how it will come to close, God created from beginning with an ending.

For years I’ve read the creation account from Genesis 1 and thought of it just like that: an account of creation. The words were there on the page, though they hardly jumped out at me. Like those pastors in Bryson City, Genesis 1 is one of those chapters in the bible that I have not so subtly avoided because of the difficulty of rationalizing it with modern science. And yet Barth writes about the first two verses of scripture with such conviction that it challenges me to re-engage with the text and see the beauty of what God did, and is doing.

Verse 2 (the earth was a formless void…) has been similarly read with haste and overlooked for the richness it holds. Everything else, which is to say everything neutral or against God’s will, ceased to exist when time began with God’s action and accomplishment. The whole of creation was worked into being and order by God in time. In God’s freedom to create was the earth brought into meaning through God’s action and through God’s word to create.

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The challenge of verse 2 has vexed theologians and Christians alike for centuries regarding the chaos, whether or not God created it, and if God willed a reality of chaos into existence. This, I think, has factored into the disappearance of Genesis 1 from pulpits because we are unsure of how to speak about evil in the world, and whether or not God ordained it.

The question of God’s role in the creative act resulting in, or presupposing evil, is usually limited to two answers: God either did create the darkness and evil, or God did not.

Barth totally rejects this dualistic presumption.

Instead, Barth begins by confronting what is actually stated: “In verse 2 there is absolutely nothing as God willed and created and ordained it according to verse 1 and the continuation. There is only “chaos.” … that which is absolutely without basis or future, utter darkness… According to this phrase the situation in which the earth finds itself is the very opposite of promising. It is quite hopeless.”[2]

For Barth the question over evil and whether or not the violent and chaotic state of the world is self-originated or willed by God pales in comparison to the fact the earth was in a hopeless situation of utter darkness and God chose to transform reality through the Word. Verse 2 therefore posits a world in which the Word of God had not been uttered. The “nothingness” of creation is utterly destroyed and rendered impossible by the possibility of God in the creative act.

The ugliness of the existence prior to the Word of God did exist almost like a shadow of the actual creative act of God. And because it was like a shadow, in the freedom of humanity we can look back and return to that past and bring forth the shadow of verse 2. In so doing, by rejecting the Word of God, the past defies its own nature and becomes present and future. However, God totally and utterly rejected and rejects the shadow and speaks forth the Word to shine in the darkness.

The temptation of humanity to return to the shadow is ever present. Whenever we deny mercy to God’s creatures, we are retreating to the moment precisely before the Word of God. It is in our broken and sinful nature that we reject God’s Word and substitute our own. The shadow of darkness is around us whenever we encounter death and destruction. But no shadow can compare with the one of the cross: “This – this moment of darkness in which His own creative Word, His only begotten Son, will cry on the cross of Calvary: ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’ – will be ‘the small moment’ of His wrath in which all that is indicated in Genesis 1.2 will become real. For all the analogy to other kinds of darkness, there is no other moment such as this.”[3]

In the death of Jesus Christ, in the shadow of the cross, humanity encounters the true and total darkness prior to God’s Word. But it is through Jesus Christ (as the Word) that God will reconcile creation to God’s self. In the one incarnate creature, at that particular moment and time in the cosmos, the Word will again become the Light over all creation. The brilliance of the empty tomb shines like the first light hovering over the darkness in Genesis 1.2.

The “old things” of creation prior to the Word have radically passed away in a dynamic and divine act of the Lord speaking the Word and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The first two verses of scriptures contain the fullness of all God’s scripture. In beginning we see the ending. In the darkness we see the cross. In the light we see the empty tomb and resurrection. What Barth does with scripture is like what a Jazz musician does with the form of a tune; Barth improvises over the lines and draws connections to melodies that we have scarcely imagined.

To reclaim the brilliance of Genesis 1, to jump into the strange new world of the bible like Barth, will give us the strength to encounter creation and believe that it is worthy to be preached and proclaimed. But more than anything, it will give us the vision to see creation and declare, like the Lord, “it is good.”

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.1 (Peabody, Massachusets: Hendrickson Publishers), 99.

[2] Ibid., 104.

[3] Ibid., 110.

With A Little Help From My Friends

John 20.19-29

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his said, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

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Before I became your pastor, I was a pulpit-filler. If a pastor became sick, or was otherwise unavailable to preach, I was tapped on to come up with something to say from the pulpit. A phone call would arrive in the middle of a week, or even on Sunday morning, and I would have to whip something together right quick. For years I took the ”undesirable” Sundays: Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Sunday, and the Sunday after Easter; those Sundays when the regular pastor needed a break.

Every time I was tasked with preaching was an opportunity to grow in my faith while attempting to articular the faith for others.

When I was in college I got the phone call one week to preach for a Sunday evening service. I was fairly familiar with the context because I played the drums for the church every week, but this time they wanted me to come out from behind the drum set to proclaim God’s Word.

At the time I was living with a couple of roommates, but of course none of them went to church. Week after week they would rib me for waking up early on Sunday morning, they would jokingly mock me with questions about God’s presence, and they made sure I knew they thought there were better things I could be doing with my time.

So I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get them to church.

It was on a Sunday night, so they couldn’t complain about sleeping in. We would be playing contemporary Christian rock songs, so they couldn’t complain about the music. And I was supposed to preach, so they couldn’t complain about it being archaic or a waste of time (I hoped).

I casually invited them to worship while we were having dinner one night; I shared that I was the preacher and that it would be a relatively short sermon, and I made sure to mention that it would really mean a lot to me if they would come.

Under the weight of my communal invitation and guilt, they all came to church that night and sat together in a pew near the back.

The service went well; the music balance was good, and the sermon was short and to the point, and then we moved to the communion table. Our resident pastor began talking about how whenever Jesus gathered with his friends he would breathe new life into them through his words and his presence. And on his final night he took bread, broke it, gave it to his friends and said, “Take. Eat. This is my body.” And then he took the cup and shared it with his friends saying: “Take. Drink. This is my blood.

One by one every person in the sanctuary gathered in the center aisle and started walking forward for communion. The pastor stood next to me holding the bread, and I stood next to her holding the cup and for each person that came forward we said, “The body of Christ given for you.” Or: “The blood of Christ shed for you.” Hands were outstretched penitently while people feasted on the Lord, and then the end of the line came forward, with my roommates.

Unsure of what was actually taking place, they stood up like everybody else and came forward without knowing what to do next. As they stood in front of us, and in front of the whole congregation, the pastor’s eyes darted back and forth between myself, and the ragtag roommates standing in front of us. Her eyes screamed, “Do something!”

So I did what anyone in my position would do. I whispered to my friends as quickly as possible: “I know this will sound weird… But you need to take a piece of bread, dip it in the grape juice, and eat it. Don’t worry I’ll explain it to you later.” And with that they all feasted on the body and blood of our Lord, and returned to their pews confused and bewildered.

On the day of Jesus’ resurrection, after appearing to Mary Magdalene and calling her by name, Jesus appeared before the disciples. They were locked away in a room full of fear and trembling when Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” Perhaps they were afraid of being crucified like he was by the Jews, or they were afraid of how the crowds would taunt them when they came out of hiding, or they were afraid of seeing their risen friend in their midst. But Jesus found it fitting to speak words of peace in the midst of their terror.

And immediately Jesus outlined what they were supposed to do: “Go. As the Father sent me, now I send you.” With his proclamation, Jesus empowered his friends to proclaim the Good News for everyone to hear.

But Thomas, one of the disciples, was not there to experience the resurrected Jesus. The disciples tried to explain what they had seen, heard, felt, and experienced. Yet, their eyes and fingers were not enough for Thomas. He did not trust his friends. He wanted to see and touch Jesus for himself.

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Sure enough, a week passed, and Jesus showed up again before the disciples and Thomas. Again Jesus greeted them by saying, “Peace be with you.” And he told Thomas to feel the scars on his hands and side, but before Thomas could even reach out he declared, “My Lord and my God!” And thus Jesus concluded the moment by saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Thomas gets a pretty bad rap. Every year we follow Easter Sunday with this reading about doubting Thomas. He is the one disciple who gets a qualifier in front of his name. We don’t refer to eager Peter, or betraying Judas, but we do say doubting Thomas. For years pastors like me have used this Sunday and this story to call people like you to learn from the example of Thomas, to not doubt the Lord, to believe without seeing.

But the real problem with Thomas is not his lack of faith in the Lord, but his lack of faith in his friends. For three years he had traveled with this ragtag group of disciples, shoulder-to-shoulder they had watching Jesus perform countless miracles, and now when they tell him the Gospel, he does not believe them.

After the episode of my friends confusedly attending worship and receiving communion, I avoided the topic of church. I knew they had a strange experience through their lack of addressing the service in any way shape or form, and they stopped mocking me for going to church. At the time, I thought they thought I was nuts.

A few weeks passed and the topic of faith was still avoided like the plague until one morning I walked down the stairs and discovered one of my roommates crying on the couch. He had just received a phone call from a long time friend of ours whose father had died. The man was a staple in our community, regularly coached little league sports, and was another father figure for most of us. And when my roommate received the news, it devastated him.

I slowly made my way across the room and sat down next to him. For the longest time neither of us spoke. Finally my roommate looked up from his tears and he said, “I want you to pray for me.

I sat shocked. I didn’t know what to say. But he continued: “You know I don’t know much about God or church. But I know it’s important to you. When you were standing up before us in church I could tell that you really believed. I don’t know what I believe. And I can’t describe it, but I really feel like you need to pray for me.”

So I did.

When Thomas heard the news of the risen Lord through his friends, he didn’t believe them. Even though they were some of the people he should’ve trusted the most, he refused to accept their words.

When my friend felt the sting of death and loss, he didn’t know what to believe. But, for better or worse, he trusted me. Even though he had every reason to be suspicious and weirded out by what he had experienced in worship, he believed in God’s presence through prayer.

Thomas’ kind of radical suspicion of his friends still takes place in our lives today. We view church as a private thing, something we do on the weekends and don’t need to bring up during the week. We might know people in our lives that are suffering or are alone, but we assume that God will send them to us when they’re ready.

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If we want to be faithful followers of Jesus, then me must stop distrusting our friends and neighbors. At the very least, we should stop questioning motives or thinking the worst in others when they express a difference of opinion.

To be faithful followers of Jesus requires a willingness to be sent by God to people who do not know God. It requires us to be vulnerable and uncomfortable while inviting others to discover God’s love in a place like this. It requires us to be the agents of belief for people who have not yet seen.

All of us are here because we are the product of someone influencing our faithfulness. Whether a parent or a friend or even a stranger, we were once invited to discover God through the power of church.

Friends, I promise you that the days of people showing up to church because a church is in their neighborhood are long gone. Today, people discover God’s presence, they begin to believe what they see and see what they believe when people like us are brave enough to invite them to church.

Because, for us, this table is the closest we can get to the presence of Christ. In the bread and the cup God invites us into the upper room when Christ shared the meal with his friends. When we feast on his body and blood we receive the grace necessary to be Christ’s body in the world.

This thing we call communion, whether at the table or just gathering in worship, has transformed my life. If you’re here in church, it’s probably changed your life too. So, may the God of grace and glory give us the courage to invite others to be transformed as well. Amen.