This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 16.9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5, John 14.23-29). Teer is one of the pastors of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including hymnody, marriage, vikings, dreams, communal discernment, ecclesial friendship, world-turning, the joy of judgment, Eugene Peterson, fear, timelessness, church architecture, peace, and endings. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Lamb Lamp
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 not he 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 hid in the tomb for what felt like hours but was only 30 minutes. It was Easter Sunday half of my life ago, and I had been volunteered to participate in the sunrise service. Out on the front lawn was a fake tomb and a fake stone that we set up every year. The idea was that, on Holy Saturday, you would drive by and see the stone blocking the entrance to the tomb and then, on Easter Sunday, you would arrive at church to see the stone rolled away like all those centuries ago.
But this particular year the associate pastor had a plan to give the people an Easter they’d never forget. He conscripted me to arrive before everyone else, don an angelic costume, and wait inside the tomb with a fog machine until the perfect moment to proclaim the resurrection.
So I sat crumpled up in the corner with my cherubic wings folding in on themselves. Neither of us had anticipated how cramped the space would be, not did we think about how difficult it would be to hear my cue from inside the tomb.
Therefore, after the congregation arrived, and the service began, and I heard what I thought was my first cue, I turned on the fog machine and waited to make my dramatic entrance.
But the space filled with the smoke very quickly and I couldn’t see or hear anything.
I began coughing in the tight space and tried my best to stay hidden until I could no longer stand it and I kicked down the papermache stone and stumbled onto the front lawn.
As the smoke dissipated, I took in the scene around me. Genteel Christian folks were arranged in a semi-circle of fold up camping chairs, the pastor was standing by a podium no doubt only halfway through his sermon, and everyone was starring at me.
I don’t know quite what I looked like, but I certainly looked more like someone who accidentally slept in the tomb overnight than I did an angelic messenger of the Lord.
For the briefest of moments I panicked, unsure of what to say or do. I had memorized a monologue to proclaim but it completely evaporated from my mind. Instead, I shouted “The Lord is risen!” And I ran for my life.
To this day I don’t know what everyone made of that moment. We tacitly agreed to never speak of it, though I’m sure more than a few walked away that Easter afraid.
Much has been made about the women fleeing from the tomb in fear that first Easter morn. Some say that Mark did not intend to end the gospel in such a way, that perhaps he died mid sentence, or the earliest manuscript was torn in that exact spot, on and on the speculations run wild.
We don’t why Mark ends the Gospel this way, only that the first of us to experience the resurrection walked, actually ran, away from it with fear.
I’ve always found that detail to be rather staggering every time the liturgical calendar comes around. For, in a few hours, most of us will be inside our actual churches with lilies, and pastel–color outfits, and peppy hymns, and smiling congregants.
Nothing about Easter screams fear.
Except for the strange new world of the Bible.
It is good and right for us to be here in worship in a cemetery. It’s the same kind of place where the first Easter happened, and it reminds us of the stark promise of salvation. That is, no one ever goes to a cemetery expecting to encounter a resurrection.
We go to cemeteries to commune among the dead.
It’s also good to be here this early, because Easter, resurrection, it happened in the dark.
New life always starts in the dark, whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.
In addition to the dead, and the darkness, I think the other reason is is good to be afraid on Easter is because it has little, if anything to do with us.
We aren’t the ones who makes Easter possible. God is the one who makes a way where there is no way, God is the God of impossible possibility, God is the God of resurrection.
It’s why we can call the Good News good.
But if the Good News is in fact, good news, then why do the women run in fear?
All life ends in death, the bell will toll for us all. How else, then, could anyone respond if the one certainty in life was no longer certain?
Easter confronts us with the scary reality that we aren’t in control, because God is.
That’s a frightening thing to accept because God truth means our obsession with earthly things really amount to nothing. All of the things we fret over most, life, beauty, security, wealth, power, careers, property, even our families cannot hold a flame to the promise of the resurrection.
Jesus does for us what Jesus does whether we deserve it or not. God in the flesh comes to dwell among us and we return the favor by nailing God to the cross. And, three days later, he is resurrected.
You see – Jesus doesn’t wait behind the stone until his disciples have just the right amount of faith before breaking forth.
Jesus doesn’t tell them that he will be raised only when they’ve evangelized the right number of people.
Jesus doesn’t even given them a to do list to do before Easter happens.
The promise of the resurrection for people like you and me is wild beyond all imagining. It is the gift of life in the midst of death, it is a way out simply by remaining it, it is everything for nothing.
And it just might scare the living daylights out of us.
Easter isn’t perfect. For some it creates more questions than answers. For the women at the tomb it was scary and astonishing. For the church folk gathered when I bumbled out of the fake tomb it was strange and a bit bizarre. Easter can both excite and terrify. And thats because is shatter all of our expectations about how the world is supposed to work. Easter means everything is changed forever.
The end of Mark’s gospel, this weird and wonderful detail about the women running away in fear, it’s no ending at all. It is the great ellipsis in which the story continues through us. The women at the tomb, all of us in this cemetery, we are now caught up in God’s great story of salvation. We are here not because of what we’ve done or left undone, but because something was done to us. That something has a name: Jesus Christ.
Hear the Good News: The end has no end.
He is risen. Hallelujah! He is risen indeed! Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Killam and Ben Crosby about the readings for the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas Eve) [C] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-14). Ben is a deacon in the Episcopal Church and a PhD candidate in ecclesiastical history at McGill University in Montreal and Sarah has theological roots in Pentecostalism, is currently applying for PhD programs, and she is interested in the Atonement. Our conversation covers a range of topics including weird Christian twitter, worship hopes, light and darkness, duel for the fire, the shadow of the Cross, for-giveness, church music, holy fear, the judged Judge, Karl Barth, the scope of salvation, perfect patience, and the cost of Christmas. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Dawn of Redeeming Grace
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Seungsoo “RJ” Jun about the readings for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 23.1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22.1-15, Hebrews 4.12-16, Mark 10.17-31). Seungsoo is the Associate Director of Serving Ministries for the Virginia Conference of the UMC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Survivor, divine anger, prayer droughts, proper terror, the spiderweb of scripture, grammatical turns, sharp swords, wealthy Christians, and the gift of salvation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Divine Yet
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14, Psalm 111, Ephesians 5.15-20, John 6.51-58). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including relay races, wicked wisdom, Christotelism, financial irony, fear, character recognition, Dead Poets Society, pagan worship, the Prayer of Humble Access, non-sentimental sacramentality, and the preaching office. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Eat Me!
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
There is something a little terrible about preaching to an empty sanctuary on Easter Sunday. It’s just me and the camera. It’s empty as a tomb.
Over the years I have written plenty of sermons, most of them alone in the corner of a coffee shop. But offering a sermon in an empty room? I never thought it possible, but I’ve been doing it for more than a year.
And yet, isn’t this also the triumph of the resurrection? Jesus is not a prisoner in this sanctuary. We can’t keep him still anywhere. He is out and about and on his way to Galilee with other things to do. Thanks be to God.
He is risen!
He is risen indeed!
It happened on a Sunday.
The Gospel is reluctant to give us too many details about the whole thing: We don’t read of the grief the women undoubtedly felt as they went to anoint Jesus’ body. We don’t learn of the disciples’ next plans now that their Master is dead and forsaken in a tomb. We don’t really receive much of anything save for the fact that the women go to the tomb without knowing how they will roll away the stone.
And yet, when they arrive, the stone is not where it’s supposed to be. They peak their heads inside and discover a young man dressed in white.
He says, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus, but he ain’t here. He was dead, but now he is resurrected. Look over there, that’s where they laid his body. But now, go, tell the disciples that Jesus is going on ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there.”
And this is how the story ends: The women run from the tomb as fast as they can and they say nothing to anyone because they are afraid.
It really doesn’t get better than this for the church. Out of death, life!
I think we all know something of fear this year, perhaps more than any other year. Many of us are still waiting for the chance to get a vaccine, many of us haven’t seen those we love in more than a year, and still yet many of us know someone, or a family, or a friend who suffered tremendously or even died because of the coronavirus.
However, the God of scripture is the God who brings life out of death.
That’s the heart of the Christian proclamation and, for some reason, it’s not what we often hear from the church, particularly on Easter. Instead we’re more likely to hear about how “Easter teaches us that the world needs more love in it,” or “Easter is the symbol of the necessity of transformation,” or “Easter is about the enduring symbols of ultimate truth.”
Notice: in each of those Easter claims, they’re entirely about us, how we respond, and what we do next.
If that’s all Easter has to offer then we should leave it all behind.
Thankfully, the New Testament says something very different.
He is not here. He is Risen.
God is the One doing the things that get done.
The disciples, even the women, they do nothing to contribute to the resurrection. They are merely witnesses. And, when they do respond, they run away in fear.
And perhaps fear is the proper way to respond to the proclamation of Easter because it was, and always will be, entirely unexpected.
The women go to the tomb in the morning for the same reasons that many of us go to cemeteries – we want to connect, somehow, to those who are no longer among the living; we want to seek closure; we want to pay our respects.
But nobody, now or then, goes to a cemetery expecting someone to raise from the dead.
All of the other Easter stuff, the connections to spring and daffodils and butterflies emerging from cocoons, the eggs and the candy, they’re all good and fine, but they don’t have anything to do with the resurrection of the dead.
Hearing about the need to love one another or finding ultimate truth, doesn’t send a group of people running from a tomb, it doesn’t set the faithless disciples on a course to reshape entire societies, it doesn’t result in a faith that is still turning the world upside down.
Let me put it plainly – What happened on Easter was so unexpected and so earth-shattering that it ignited a tiny band of mediocre fishermen and other marginalized people, all of whom were discredited by the world, because they followed a man who had been publicly executed by the highest authorities of church and state.
Maybe it was enough to simply hear Jesus’ teachings, or eat some of the miraculous loaves and fishes to set them on fire. But I doubt it. It’s not good news to work so hard for things to change, and to love your enemies, and to pray for those who persecute you, unless the One who shared those words was, in fact, God in the flesh who died and rose again.
The resurrection is what makes everything in the life of faith intelligible.
The earliest disciples, those hiding away in the upper room after the crucifixion and those walking to the tomb that first Easter morning had not a hope in the world. Their entire worldview was nailed to a cross. But then on Easter he came back.
No wonder they were afraid.
Today, Easter, is the high point of the Christian year and yet it is always challenging. It is challenging because it was unexpected and there are no good analogies from human experience that can adequately convey it.
Easter, to put it another way, cannot be explained.
But that’s the heart of Easter: it is unprecedented, unlooked-for, and unimaginable.
Some of us have no doubt seen or experienced what we might call miracles – we know someone who kicked a bad habit, or perhaps we’re aware of an unexplainable change in a medical diagnosis, or something happened that cannot be mere coincidence. But none of us have ever experienced someone dead in the grave for three days resurrected, let alone God in the flesh.
But someone did.
All of our faith, this whole thing we call church, is predicated on a handful of people from long ago who saw and experienced something so unexpected that it radically re-narrated everything in existence.
And all it took were three words: He is risen!
I know that it cannot be proved, I know it isn’t possible as we understand possibility. But I also know that this is a message that explains everything that happened afterward. He is risen! That is truly a piece of such Good News that it would shakes the foundations of the world from then until now.
Hear the Good News: The battle is over. Even though the the ugly forces of sin and death insist on rearing their heads, it is only because they haven’t heard about the forfeit. We live in the in-between, the already-but-not-yet. The old is past; behold it has all become new.
The story of Easter, the thing that terrified the women, is the fact that the greatest enemies ever faced, sin and death themselves, are defeated in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, they have no power over us.
No matter what we encounter in this life here and now, there is one thing that will always hold true – the unexpected victory of Jesus. He is risen.
Easter then, is and isn’t about us. It’s not about trying to get us to live better lives here and now, even though we probably should. It isn’t about making a commitment to making the world a better place, even though it wouldn’t hurt.
Easter is about what God does for us.
In just about every other part of our lives, there are expectations.
And yet, Jesus is all about the unexpected.
Jesus doesn’t wait on the cross until we right all of our wrongs.
Jesus doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until there’s enough do-goodery in the world.
Instead, the proclamation of Easter is we don’t have to do anything, because the everything we’ve always needed is already done.
If Easter becomes anything less bizarre and unexpected than that, then faith is turned into standing on your tiptoes to see something that isn’t going to happen.
We can’t make Easter happen – we can’t raise Jesus, or ourselves, from the dead.
It happens in spite of us entirely, which is exactly what makes the Good News so good.
The promise of Easter for people like you and me is wild beyond all imagining. It is the gift of life in the midst of death. It is a way out simply by remaining in. It is everything for nothing! Hallelujah.
He is risen.
He is risen indeed. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany [B] (Genesis 1.1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11). Mikang serves at Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including biblical names, rare words, faithful mentoring, real fear, holy moments, being surprised by the church, the scandal of particularity, and the confounding nature of grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Scandal of Particularity
John 16.33 (ESV)
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.
“Our online worship numbers have gone down week after week even though I keep telling my people to invite more people, and to pray harder, and to read their Bibles. None of it seems to work… I feel like I’m losing my religion.”
“If my son doesn’t get the classes he needs this year, then he’ll never get into the right college and it will ruin the rest of his life.”
“Every time I leave the house I feel anxious about the possibility of catching Covid from someone else not taking the proper precautions.”
Those are three sentences I heard from three different people (a pastor, a parent, and a parishioner, respectively) in the last week. The lingering tribulations and anxieties are quite perceptively present these days and it can feel like there’s nothing we can do about any of them. Whether it’s turning on the news to see another protest, or pundits arguing about the Presidential Elections, to doom-scrolling through Twitter, it seems like the foundations of life are crumbling under our feet
Or, to put it another way, the world feels like its falling apart.
“I have overcome the world” says Jesus near the end of his earthly life in John 16. And, frankly, that’s the message of the Gospel – The child born to us and for us in the manger, the One nailed to the cross, the One resurrected and delivered from the grave has overcome the world.
Notice: Christ does not say we have overcome the world. Instead, he says, “I have overcome the world.
Whether we’re good or bad, foolish or clever, powerful or weak, we could not (and can not) do what Christ has already done.
It makes all the difference in the world that Jesus says these very words to his disciples, and therefore us. They ring throughout time as a reminder that no matter what tribulations or anxieties occur, Christ has overcome the world.
And those anxieties and tribulations will come. Jesus doesn’t say we might face hardships, but instead states it as a plain fact: In the world you will have tribulation.
There is tribulation among young people today: tribulations about who they are, their very identities, and fears about what life will bring in the future with all of its rampant uncertainty.
There is tribulation among older people today: tribulations about bodily ailments and infirmities, economic concerns about how to live on little, and thoughts that more lies behind them now than ahead.
There is tribulation among all regarding the pandemic: tribulations about other people and what they can transmit to us willfully or ignorantly, fears over whether life will ever feel normal again, and the ever ticking number of people who have died because of COVID-19.
And the same One born to us and for us, the One beaten, betrayed, and abandoned, the One delivered and resurrected, declares the truth of our tribulations. Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat what life is like, he doesn’t promise sunshine and rainbows. He speaks honestly about the condition of our condition, but then shouts into all of our anxieties: But take heart.
The powerful and glorious But! God’s great Nevertheless! It shines like a beacon in the midst of a tumultuous sea. In the world you will have tribulation – But take heart!
“Take heart,” contrary to how it is often explained, does not mean just think of something else. Nor does it mean run away from your troubles.
“Take heart” means lifting up our eyes to the hills and see where from where our help comes – it comes from the Lord.
“Take heart” means taking up our hearts with those who have the strength to carry us in the days/weeks/months/years when we feel weak, when the tribulations are too much for us to bear on our own.
“Take heart” means bearing one another’s burdens because no one should have to go through this life on their own.
“Take heart” means resting in the Good News that God has already written the end of the story and we know how it ends.
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
They traveled to the tomb very early on the first day of the week.
On a Sunday.
The Gospel is reluctant to give us too many details about the journey. We don’t hear about their grief and their pain. We don’t get a glimpse at their plans now that the Lord is dead and forsaken in a tomb. We don’t really learn anything except they travel without knowing how they will roll the stone back.
Low and behold… The very large stone has already been rolled away by the time they arrive. And to further their confusion, when they look inside they discover a young man dressed in white. A divine messenger? An angel?
He speaks, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus, but he ain’t here. He was dead, but now he is alive. Look over there, that’s where they laid his body. But now go, tell the disciples that Jesus is going on ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there.”
And here’s how the Gospel story ends: They ran from the tomb terrorized, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
It doesn’t get much better than this for the church. Out of death, life!
For centuries the church has mined this story for every possible nugget that can speak something new and wonderful into our lives. I, myself, have preached about the fear that so befuddles the women and how the Gospel ends with a lie. For, if they really said nothing to anyone, how else would we have heard the story?
I have preached about how new life seems to always start in darkness, whether its in the womb or in the tomb.
I have preached and preached this story.
And yet, this year, as I returned to the words that have comforted and confounded Christians for centuries, I’ve been stuck on a different detail.
I mean, good for Jesus that he’s raised from the dead and goes home. But Galilee was an out-of-the-way forgotten sort of place. It’s only claim to fame is that Jesus came from it.
Of course, Jesus did his Jesus thing in Galilee, and Galilee is where he called the disciples, and cured the sick, and fed the hungry, and preached the parables.
But even in the midst of his Galilean mission, Jesus was focused on eventually getting to the big show – Jerusalem.
The mission and the ministry builds toward the Transfiguration, and then everything shifts to the Holy City – the gospels sharpen as Jesus enters on the back of the donkey on Palm Sunday. Jerusalem is where he was betrayed, beaten, and left to die on the cross.
Jerusalem was the place to be, it’s where all the movers and the shakers were hanging out, its where those who believed in unbelievable things hoped the Messiah would take charge and transform the world.
Which makes the detail and the news of a Galilean reunion so bizarre. Here, on Easter, the Son of God is no longer held captive by the dominion of death, he is resurrected, and he leaves Jerusalem for Galilee.
One would hope that, on the other side of resurrection, Jesus would be smart enough to go right up to the palace to give Pilate a whole, “You can’t handle the truth!”
Or, Jesus would storm into Herod’s inner court to rip him a new one.
Or, at the very least, Jesus would gather a band of revolutionaries to overturn the powers and the principalities occupying Jerusalem.
Did the Lord of lords not know that if you really want to make a change you have to go to the top?
Jerusalem should’ve been the first step in the journey toward overthrowing the empire, Jerusalem would’ve been the perfect place to plant the flag of the kingdom of Heaven, Jerusalem could’ve been the beginning of the end.
But Jesus doesn’t do any of that – he doesn’t do the effective thing.
Instead he goes back to Galilee, of all places.
Nobody special lived in Galilee – it was populated by shepherds, fishermen, and farmers. The people there held no power or prestige.
The only thing notable at all about Galilee, is that’s where the followers of Jesus were from.
People like us.
When we read the Easter story, whether it’s on a Sunday in church or from the comfort of our own homes, we catch this moment when the women run away in fear. And because we tend to focus so much on their reaction, their terror, that we miss how Jesus is raised from the dead only to return to the very people who abandoned him.
Jesus chooses the unworthy and undeserving ragtag group of would-be disciples that he’d been dragging along for three years as the people for whom and through whom he will change the world.
On Easter Jesus returns not to the powers that be, but to people like you and me.
He doesn’t storm the gates of the temple, he doesn’t show up in the Oval Office, he goes where nobody would’ve expected.
Hear the Good News:
Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Not after we repented of all of our sins, not before we even had a chance to think up all of our sins, but in the midst of them, in our worst and most horrible choices Jesus dies and rises for us.
At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, people like us who too easily move from “Hosanna” to “Crucify.”
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
My sin, oh the bliss, of this glorious thought; my sin, not in part, but the whole. Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.
All of that can be summed up like this: Jesus returns to us.
Take it from a preacher like me, even in these strange circumstances of celebrating Easter online, we’ve messed up the resurrection message for a long time. We’ve made church into yet another self-help program, a place to gather week after week to hear about what you must do to make your life better. Or, in case you don’t want to look too close to home, what you must do to make the world a better place.
And that doesn’t have anything to do with Easter!
It’s not Good News.
Notice: on Easter, Jesus’ response to the sins of his followers isn’t to berate them or judge them or even damn them. He doesn’t give them a list of things to do, or programs to start, or prayers to pray.
Instead, he just comes back to them, to us, with, of all things, love.
How odd of God.
When you think about it, it’s rather confounding how God keeps coming back to us.
Stuck in captivity in Egypt? God shows up in a burning bush.
Lost in exile? God brings the people home.
Dead in your sins? God sets us free.
Are we really sure we want to worship this God who refuses to leave us to our own devices?
God is like the shepherd who willingly leaves behind the ninety-nine to search for the one who is lost. God doesn’t sit back and relax and just hope for the best. God charges out into the wilderness and refuses to quit.
God is like a Samaritan, forsaken and ignored by the rest of the world, who stops by the side of the road to help the one that everyone overlooked. God doesn’t keep walking by with better things to do. God condescends God’s self to get down in the ditch with all of us.
God is like a king who hosts a giant party and, when not enough people show up, sends his servants out into the streets to grab anyone they can find, even the poor and the marginalized, and makes space for them at the banquet.
God is like the father who runs out into the street, stops his prodigal and wayward child before an apology can even spring forth, and says, “I’m busting out the good stuff tonight, we’re having a party! You were dead but now you’re alive!”
We, the good and righteous folk that we are, we might’ve thought the story was over. That the shadow of the cross remaining in the distance puts a conclusion on the whole thing. That, in the end, we really had gone too far this time with the whole killing the Son of God.
But even in this, the greatest sin of all, Jesus comes back.
He comes back to the betrayers and the crucifiers, to the doubters and the deserters.
Jesus comes back to us.
The work of Jesus, contrary to how we so often talk about it and hear about it in church, is not transactional. There is no such thing as “if” in the Gospel.
We are not told that the Lord expects us to get everything ironed out before he will come and dwell among us.
He doesn’t wait behind the stone in the tomb until there’s enough good morality in the world before he busts out.
What we are told, from the cross and from the resurrection, is that Jesus is already in it with us, and even more that he has gone on ahead of us.
Church, whenever it descends into “you must do this, or you have to make the world a better place” fails be the church Christ inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection, because we will fail that work.
Easter invites us to do nothing except trust; trust that there is a New Jerusalem waiting to come down and feast at the Supper of the Lamb, the Lamb who has been with us the whole time, who refuses to abandon us regardless of how good we are or how bad we are.
If Easter because anything less bizarre than that, then faith is turned into standing on your tiptoes to see something that isn’t going to happen.
We can’t make Easter happen. We can’t raise Jesus from the dead.
It happens in spite of us entirely, which is the best news of all.
Easter, simply put, is a gift. A gift like grace – unwarranted, unmerited, undeserved.
God has made the world a better place in Jesus Christ who comes back to us. Amen.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stopping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
Ah, the beautiful and confounding day we call Easter. All of the Bible, all of the church, all of Christianity hinges on this day: Easter, Resurrection, out of death into life. If this story were not in scripture, we would’ve thrown out our Bibles away a long time ago. If the Bible does not tell us this story, it tells us nothing.
Easter is the one day when the hopes and fears of all the years are made manifest in the here and now. Today we are the church, and we have people who are firmly rooted in their faith, we have people who are filled with doubts, and we have people scratching their heads with questions.
So, what should I say to all of you today? How might I meet each of you where you are and provide words of wonder, and challenge, and grace?
All that we’ve said, and all that we will say, today is found in these three words: He Is Risen!
The tomb was empty and the body was gone.
All four gospels report the beginning of a strange and new reality.
It is a wondrous and beautiful declaration, and yet, in a sense, this is the most difficult day of the year for Christians because it is impossible to talk about the resurrection.
The resurrection is impossible to talk about because it utterly baffles us. It was, and still is, something completely un-looked for, without precedent, something that stuns and shatters our conceptions of everything even all these years later.
It was on the first day of the week, a Sunday, when the women arrived at the empty tomb.
Have you ever had to bury someone?
If you haven’t, you will. You will come to know the deafening clasp of death. You will come to understand the grief and pain of entering into a new world without someone in it. You will come to know death in a thousand different ways: the deaf of a friendship, or a job, or health, or happiness.
It will feel like every bit of your hope has been buried in that tomb.
Which maybe gets us a bit closer to how the women were feeling when they walked to the grave at early dawn. We are compelled to get near to them on their journey because even though we know how the story ends, sometimes we cannot quite see how unprepared they were, and all us are, for the Good News.
On Monday I got to the office here at church and decided that I had waited far too long to change the letters on our church marquee. For the last month or it contained the simple message: All are welcome at this church. But with Easter approaching, the time had come to display the times for our Easter worship services.
So, I wrote out the message on a little notepad, just to make sure it would fit on the sign, and then I pulled out all the necessary letters and, rather than carrying all the equipment down the hill, I decided to throw it all into the back of my car and then I drove across the lawn down to the corner.
It took about 10 minutes to pull the old letters out and replace them with the new message. I stood back from the sign to make sure it was all even and level, and then I got back in my car to drive across the lawn toward the parking lot.
And, right as I passed by that window, a police cruiser flew down our long driveway and turned on his red and blues.
It took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that I was getting pulled over inside of our own parking lot.
I promptly put the car in park and stepped out of the vehicle and the officer approached quickly and demanded to know what I had been doing on the lawn.
“Were you vandalizing the church property?”
“No,” I calmly replied, “I’m the pastor.”
“Really?” He said incredulously.
That’s when I looked down and realized that I was wearing jeans and a tee-shirt.
I told him that I was changing out the letters for the church sign, and I even pulled a few of the letters out of the car to prove my case.
“Well, what does the sign say now?”
I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely interested, or if he was going to go down and look at it to make sure I wasn’t lying.
So I told him that I put up the times for our Easter services.
For a moment he didn’t say anything. He kept looking back between me and his cruiser, and then, out of nowhere, he said, “Do you really believe all that?”
“All of what?”
“Easter, resurrection, the dead brought back to life. Do you really believe all that?”
The women go to the graveyard in grief. They felt the same way many of us feel when we are surrounded by tombstones. Some of us go to graveyards to lay down flowers as a sign of love upon the grave of those now dead. Some of us go to find connections with those who came before us. Some of us go because cemeteries feel spooky and we like the idea of the hair standing up on the back of our necks. Some of us go without even knowing why.
But absolutely no one goes to visit a grave because they expect someone to rise out of it.
Luke, in his gospel story, wants us to know that this new reality was totally inconceivable. The women are perplexed by the empty tomb and brought down to the ground in the presence of the angelic messengers.
And there is this powerfully pregnant pause while the women bow in silence.
That silence contains all of their questions, and our own. How is this possible? What does it mean?
And then the messengers cut through the silence with the question to end all questions: Why do you look for the living among the dead?
Easter is a terrifyingly wonderful reminder that God’s ways are not our ways. God constantly subverts what we expect and even what we believe precisely because God’s ways are not of our own making. They are totally other.
Why do you look for the living among the dead?
That question continues to burn in our minds and souls all these centuries later because we know the question is also meant for us!
We too want to tend the corpses of long dead ideas.
We cling to former visions of ourselves and our churches and our institutions as if the most important thing would be for them to return to what they once we.
We grasp our loved ones too tightly refusing to let them change.
We choose to stay with what is dead because is is safe.
But the question remains! Why are we looking for the living among the dead? God is doing a new thing!
And notice: the women do not remain at the tomb to ask their own lingering questions. They are content with the news that God has done something strange, and they break the silence by returning to the disciples to share what had happened.
And how do these dedicated disciples respond to the Good News?
They don’t believe it.
To them this whole transformation of the cosmos is crazy – and they are the ones who had been following Jesus for years, they had heard all the stories and seen all the miracles, and yet even they were unprepared for the first Easter.
Throughout the history of the church we have often equated faith and belief with what it means to be Christian. We lay out these doctrines and principles and so long as you abide by them, so long as you believe that they are true, then you are in.
One of the problems with that kind of Christianity, which is to say with Christianity period, is that it places all of the power in our hands. We become the arbiters of our own salvation. Moreover, we have used the doctrine of belief to exclude those who do not believe.
All of us here today came of age in world in which we were, and are, told again and again that everything is up to us. We are a people of potential and so long as we work hard, and make all the right choices, and believe in all of the right things, then life will be perfect.
The resurrection of Jesus is completely contrary to that way of being. It is completely contrary because we have nothing to do with it. Jesus wasn’t waiting in the grave until there was the right amount of belief in the world before he broke free from the chains of Sin and Death. Jesus wasn’t biding his time waiting for his would-be followers to engage in systems of perfect morality before offering them the gift of salvation.
The women returned to the disciples to tell them the good news and the disciples did not believe them. The story seemed an idle tale, and they went about their business.
But Peter, ever eager Peter, had to see for himself. He had to go to the tomb to see with his own eyes what had been told to him. And when we looked into the empty tomb he saw the linen clothes by themselves and he went home amazed at all that he had seen and heard.
That might be the message of Easter for us today: Not look at the empty tomb and believe. But look at the tomb and be amazed!
The police officer stood there in the parking lot with his question about belief hanging in the air.
I said, “Yeah, I do believe it. All of it. Otherwise all of this would be in vain.”
And he left.
I do believe, but the story is pretty unbelievable. I can’t prove the resurrection. I can’t make you or anyone else believe anything.
But I see resurrection everyday.
I see it when we gather at the table in anticipation of what God can do through ordinary things like bread and the cup.
I see resurrection when we open up this old book every week knowing that Jesus still speaks to us anew.
I see resurrection in the church, this church, through a whole bunch of people who can’t agree on anything but know that through Christ’s victory over death the world has been turned upside down.
I see resurrection in the people who come looking for forgiveness and actually receive it.
I see resurrection in the crazy gift of grace offered freely to people like you and me who deserve it not at all.
The Good News is that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead.
But the even better news is the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead whether we believe it or not. Amen.