Three Words

1 Corinthians 15.1-11

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you – unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

Ah, the strange and bewildering 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 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 all of the hopes of the past are made manifest in the present. Today we are a church unlike many of the other Sundays in the year. On Easter our pews are filled with those deeply rooted in their faith, with those filled with questions, and with those filled with doubts. So, what does one say on a day like today? How might I meet each of you where you are and provide words of truth and challenge and grace? What can I say today?

The truth: He is risen! Hallelujah!

Graveside funerals make me nervous.

If we have a funeral in the sanctuary, most things can be taken care of and are under control. We can set the temperature, clear the parking lot, and truly celebrate the many ways in which God moved in and through the person now dead.

But when you’re at the graveside, everything is out of control. You might be driving in the sunshine while in the funeral procession, but the minute you hit the cemetery the clouds roll in and the rain begins to fall. You might have your bible open to a particular passage but then the wind will blow and you’ve gone from 1 Corinthians to Exodus. Or, as has happened to me far too many times, you’ll stand over the casket with dirt in your hands and ask everyone for a few moments of silence only to hear the faint but nevertheless decisive moo of a cow from a nearby farm.

Cemeteries are often in the strangest places. I’ve buried people in perfectly manicured military compounds where you’ll never get lost because there is always a solider ready to lead you out. I’ve buried people in cemeteries stuck in the middle of residential neighborhoods, next to a playground, and across the streets from a cow farm. I’ve even buried someone’s ashes in the backyard of a beloved family member.

And because they are often in the strangest places, they can be difficult to find.

Years ago, a young pastor was asked to do a burial service for an older man from the community who had no friends, and no family. The pastor was unable to speak with anyone about the man’s life, but he wrote a decent funeral sermon nonetheless, and when the appointed day arrive he got in the car and headed out for an old country cemetery out in the middle of nowhere.

He drove and drove, and though he did not want to admit it to himself, he was lost. He tried searching for the address on his phone, and he eventually stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. When he finally pulled up he was over an hour late.

As he drove across the open and barren landscape, the hearse was nowhere in sight, but the backhoe was next to the open hole, and there was a group of men resting under the shade of a nearby tree. The young pastor parked his car and walked over to the open grave and embarrassingly discovered that the lid was already in place and dirt had been already been sprinkled across the top.

The guilt welled up within the young preacher and he opened up his bible and began preaching like he never had before. He cried out to the heavens with clenched fists, he proclaimed the promise of resurrection, and he did so with a conviction rarely found in his Sunday delivery.

After his final “amen” he returned to his car while still sweating from his passionately delivered sermon. And just before he opened the door, he overheard one of the men under the tree say to the others, “I ain’t never see nothing like that before, and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty years.”

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Today is Easter and it is also April Fools’ Day. This is the first time both days have fallen together in 62 years. And for months I’ve been reading articles, and listening to other pastors, expressing the importance of incorporating humor in today’s worship service. And, of course, Easter is a joke – the greatest joke God ever played on the devil. But to trivialize this day, of all days, does a disservice to the decisive change made possible by this day. It belittles the death of Jesus to graveyard jokes about septic tanks. It makes the resurrection optional instead of essential.

If God didn’t raise Jesus from the dead, if the bodily resurrection isn’t real, then we are wasting our time. It’s as simple as that. The resurrection of Jesus from the grave is the vindication of all his teaching. It is what makes the sermons and the stories intelligible, it is the light in the darkness, it is the way we follow the way.

Without the resurrection, we have no business loving our neighbors, or enemies. Without the resurrection it would be absurd to teach our children the call to turn the other cheek. Without resurrection everything in the New Testament falls apart.

The world does not recommend doing any of this Christian stuff. It is strange and bizarre to give clothes to those who are naked, and to feed those who are hungry, and to befriend the friendless. We don’t do these things as Christians not simply because God tells us to, or because it’s the right thing to do. We do them because God raised Jesus from the dead!

The empty tomb is everything. It is funnier than any joke, it is more serious than any death, it is more majestic that any mountain, it is deeper that any valley. It is everything.

Without resurrection, I’ve got nothing to say. Without Easter, nothing that Christians do makes any sense.

“He is risen!” are the three precious words found at the heart of our identity. They changed, and continue to change, everything. They are the three words handed to Paul, and Paul to the Corinthians, and eventually to us.

Some of you know that I have an annual tradition of taking this cross out of the sanctuary on Good Friday, throwing it over my shoulder, and walking through town. I started this because years ago I was struck by often we keep our crosses tucked away in our sanctuaries, hidden among the altars and rafters. And so, for the last five years, I’ve marched around town with a cross on my back, beckoning all who encounter to remember that Christ died for them, and for the world.

On Friday I made my way across our parking lot with the cross thinking, somehow, it was heavier than last year, and eventually I made it to Route 1. I began by heading north, politely waving at cars and passers by, and I think it freaked some people out. There were many open mouths and puzzled expressions in regards to a bearded young man, all dressed in black, with a cross on his back.

But I kept walking.

After about twenty minutes there was a car to my left that slowed down as it came closer, and eventually pulled in front of me and into the closest parking lot. A man quickly exited his car and started walking toward me. After 20 minutes of walking I felt like God’s was giving me the opportunity to share the gospel story. In the man’s eyes I could sense a deep need and longing, and I was just the pastor to provide. So when he stood in front of me and said, “Can I ask you a question?” I replied: “Of course, my son, ask away.” To which he asked, “Do you know where the post office is? I can’t find it.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Its back a few blocks on the left… right across the street from my church.”

Another 20 minutes of walking passed by as a few drivers kindly honked their horns in support. When all of the sudden I noticed a car full of teenagers on the other side of the road, in which they were pointing at me. The driver’s made a quick u-turn, and then they stopped in the middle of Route 1 so that half of the kids could lean out their windows to take even more pictures. As they began driving away I heard one of the girls say, “Imma put him on my Instagram!”

Eventually, after walking for more than an hour, I started heading back toward the church, wondering if carrying the cross had really made any difference. I thought about all of the people who saw the cross and whether or not it made them reflect on what Jesus did for them. I wondered about how many of them even knew what I was doing.

Shortly before I got back to the church property, I saw a young man running toward me in full workout gear. He had headphones on that were clearly pumping some serious music and he was bopping his head back and forth. I assumed that he would run right past me, but he stopped briefly on the sidewalk, gave me a double index finger point, winked, and then said, “He is risen!” and then he kept running.

He said, “He is risen!” like it was a joke.

When the event of the resurrection comes upon us, like it did Paul, when we are encountered by the living God, raised from the dead at Easter, our world is rocked and we are changed forever.

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It’s no joke. The resurrection is a reminder that we can never go back the same way we came. Those three words are the beginning of God’s in-breaking in the world, they are the witness to God’s unending love, they are nothing short of grace.

Easter is world shattering. It is deeply disruptive. It changes everything, now. Easter is the totality of the Good News. The story of the empty tomb is what radically reshaped Paul’s life, and, hopefully, it’s what has reshaped ours as well.

On Easter we celebrate the great power and mercy of God. In Easter we see how God took something like the cross, a sign of death to the world, and made it into the means of life. On Easter God transformed the tomb the same way that he did on Christmas in a virgin’s womb; God made a way where there was no way. On Easter God changed the world.

And all it took was three words.

So come and taste the goodness of God in the bread and in the cup. Listen for the truth of salvation in the songs we sing and the prayers we pray. Witness the power of Easter in the people in the pews next to you. Hear the Good News, the best news. Hear the three most important words you will ever hear: He is risen!

Hallelujah!

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Are You Afraid Of The Dark?

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.

I was hiding in the tomb for what felt like hours, but in reality it had only been 30 minutes, on Easter Sunday more than a decade ago. It was the church’s Easter Sunrise service, out on the lawn, much like ours, though we had a fake tomb, with a fake stone, around which everyone had gathered.

I arrived particularly early that morning because it was my job to dress like an angel and hide in the tomb until the right moment, in which I would break down the stone and declare the resurrection of Jesus. The pastor and I had concocted this plan together, and nobody else knew.

So there I sat crumpled up in the corner while failing to keep my wings nice and clean. I hadn’t anticipated the walls being so think which made it difficult to hear the pastor, and more importantly to hear the keyword that would be my signal.

When he said something approximate to what we had agreed upon, I turned on the fog machine. You know, we wanted to create the right sort of atmosphere. But I was in a very small and tight space, and the space filled with smoke far sooner than I had anticipated, and I misheard the pastor and he was not yet ready for the theatrics.

So I did what anyone would have done, I tried to keep quiet. But the more the smoke billowed around me, the more I felt the need to cough until I could no longer hold it in, and like a drunken fool I kicked down the stone blocking the entrance, and fell into the mud, while hacking up a lung.

While the smoke dissipated, I took in the scene around me. The sun was just peaking above the tree line, a few dozen dedicated Christians were huddled together for warmth, the pastor was standing off to the side with his sermon in his hands, and all eyes were on me. I don’t know quite what I looked like, but I’m sure I looked more like a vagrant who slept in the tomb overnight than an angel prepared to make the greatest declaration in the history of the world.

For a few moments of silence I panicked – I was supposed to offer a brief monologue pertinent for the occasion, but I couldn’t remember any of it. So I just stammered something like, “He’s alive!” And then I ran.

If anyone left that day feeling anything but bewilderment, I’m sure they were afraid.

Much has been made about the women fleeing from the tomb in fear. Some say that the gospel writer did not intend to end the story this way but that he either died mid sentence, or the page was ripped at this exact place. Others have remarked that many people fear the divine in the bible, and the women are just living into the reality of what it’s like encountering something greater than yourself.

We don’t know exactly. All we know is that they left in fear.

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But why fear? For many of us, fear is the last thing we think about on Easter. Instead Easter is about the lilies, and the eggs, and the giant bunny. Easter is about color coordinated children, and big lunches, and the good ‘ol hymns. You know, like Christ The Lord Is Risen Today, and In The Garden. Those hymns are about joy and hope and praise and glory. Nothing about fear.

But the little we know of the first Easter, is that the very first people to experience news of the resurrection responded in terror.

We are told that in life there are only two truths: death and taxes. And if we’re honest, both of those truths scare us. Jesus tells us what to do about taxes – give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. But death, death is still an absolute. Or at least it was until Easter.

And that’s why the women are afraid.

If Jesus, the one crucified by colluding governmental and religious leaders, the one who had been crushed by the forces of evil, if this Jesus was now raised from the dead, now vindicated by the mighty act of God to bring new life, if God stepped in and reversed all of time and history, then the women at the tomb knew enough to know that everything in the world had been turned upside down, and that nothing would ever be the same again.

If the one truth you knew to be true was no longer true, how do you think you’d respond?

When you take the time to think about it, being met by a man who was once dead is a truly frightening proposition. It seems more like a horror movie than a polite Sunday sermon.

If Jesus was beaten, crucified, dead, buried and nothing more, then the world is right: Evil is all powerful. Violence wins. All life concludes in cemeteries.

But if Jesus is raised, if the tomb is empty, if God has the final Word, then there is reason for the women to run in fear, there is reason for all of us to be afraid. God is on the move! Everything about what we think we know to be true is wrong. He’s alive!

The frightening truth about the resurrection is that we, like the women that first Easter, will not leave the same as we arrived. Every Easter we are confronted by the scary truth: God really is in control.

That’s a frightening thing to accept because in the resurrection we discover God’s truth; that our dependence on all sorts of earthly things mean nothing. Life, beauty, security, wealth, power, our careers, property, even our families – they pale in comparison to the promise of the empty tomb.

Everything has been made new!

It is good and right for us to be here in this space at this time to celebrate Easter. Don’t get me wrong, I love worshipping in the sanctuary, but here, right now, we are participating in an even deeper truth. Jesus’ resurrection happened in the dark, when no one was around. Jesus was given new life in the tomb just like he received life in his mother’s womb. It happened in the scary mystery of darkness.

Easter was, is, and forever shall be the height of joy, it is God’s love and majesty made manifest in a new reality. Death has been defeated. We have reason to celebrate.

            But Easter is also a reminder that God has inaugurated a strange new world, one in which all of our priorities have been flipped upside down.

So the question remains: Are we afraid? If not, then perhaps we should be. Amen.

Jesus is Back, Jack!

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy and Jason Micheli about the readings for the Resurrection of the Lord [Year B] (Isaiah 25.1-9, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11, Mark 16.1-8). Teer serves as the associate pastor at Mt. Olivet UMC and Jason is the executive pastor of Aldersgate UMC (both in Northern Virginia). Our conversation covers a range of topics including bad impressions, shout outs to Scott Jones, bible translations, Easter as NOT the celebration of spring, God’s time, the challenges of recording live, Paul’s little Easter, female preachers, and God as an iceberg. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Jesus is Back, Jack

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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.

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.