Unbelievable

Luke 24.1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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The tomb was empty and the body was gone.

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

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

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

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

Have you ever had to bury someone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Were you vandalizing the church property?”

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

“Really?” He said incredulously.

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

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

“Well, what does the sign say now?”

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

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

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

“All of what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do you look for the living among the dead? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They don’t believe it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he left. 

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

But I see resurrection everyday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Difference That Makes The Difference

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Grace Han about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent [C] (Joshua 5.9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5.16-21, Luke 15.1-3, 11b-32). Grace is the pastor of Trinity UMC in Alexandria, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the burden of pastoral responsibility, the connection between fear and disgrace, permission to move on, the spiderweb of the Bible, counter-cultural humility, unpacking reconciliation, and living the prodigal life. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Difference That Makes The Difference

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The Hopes And Fears Of All The Years

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” 

I waited until the last second to buy our communion bread for tonight, which was a mistake. I foolishly made the assumption that NO ONE would be at the grocery store on Christmas Eve and when I arrived at Giant, there was not a single available spot in the parking lot – I had to park in front of a Long John Silvers. And then, when I finally got inside, I discovered the fact that they had run out of bread!

So I had to drive to the next grocery store, Safeway. Thankfully, they had some available parking but the inside of the store was packed. But I trudged my way though to the back, procured a few loaves of bread, and then waited in line for an eternity to make my purchase.

Now, to be clear, I was wearing my clergy collar and florescently bright plaid pants, but somehow no one noticed me. Perhaps everyone else was fretting just like me. 

At least, that’s what it felt like until I felt the tap on my shoulder.

I turned around and saw an older woman with a few items in her hands staring down at the floor, and she said,“This is my first Christmas without my husband. He died a few months ago.”

I just stood there balancing the bread, and asked if she was okay.

She said, “Not really. I just needed to tell someone, because no one else has asked.”

And then I asked if I could pray with her.

I dropped the bread to the ground and we took each other’s hands while waiting in line, and we prayed.

And at the end, when I said, “Amen,” the six closest people said, “Amen,” as well.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

The hopes AND fears of all the years.

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Sometimes, throughout the hustle and bustle of this season, I miss the subtle details. I gloss over a profound detail in the scriptural story, or I overlook the miracles in my midst, or I sing words countless times without thinking about what I’m saying.

The hopes and fears.

On Christmas Eve, when we’re singing praises to baby Jesus, and lighting the candles, and enjoying one another, we also encounter the strange truth of our fears being met in the one born in the manger. 

While Mary and Joseph were there in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

But the angel said, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

There is an understated wealth in the titles attributed to the baby by the angel out in the fields – Savior, Messiah, Lord. 

How can this baby, a tiny and weak and vulnerable thing, be the Savior, Messiah, and Lord?

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus Christ because something new has begun – a newness that contains a reorienting of all things where we are no longer in control of everything we wish to control.

No. A tiny and weak and vulnerable baby will change the world. 

Only a God like ours would see if fit to transform the very fabric of reality with something tiny, weak, vulnerable. Gone are the days when militaristic might would reign supreme, no longer would economic prosperity dictate the terms of existence. God brings forth a wholeness of life in the life of God’s only Son through whom God ordains a restoring of balance to all the forces of creation and all the the things that have influence over our lives.

Luke begins this story with Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius, but that’s not where the story ends. The birth of Jesus into the world establishes a new order in which the last will be first and the first will be last. The arrival of the Savior, Messiah, and Lord upsets all of the expectations and assumptions that we’ve foolishly made about this world.

Today we assume we know where Jesus is or, at the very least, where Jesus should be. We elevate particular politicians because we think they are on Jesus’ side, or we dismiss entire populations of people because we think Jesus is on our side. We relegate the incarnate Lord to our perfect manger scenes only to pack him away in a few days.

But the story of Christmas is that God cannot, and will not, be stopped. 

Hope and fear are brought near to us in Jesus because this is the beginning of a story that finds its greatest triumph not in a manger scene, not even in the angels singing out in the fields, but in an empty tomb.

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Christmas isn’t just about the warm and fuzzy feelings of warm fires and delicious eggnog. We can rip open the presents tomorrow morning with reckless abandon all we want. But if we take Christmas and the announcement of God as seriously as the shepherds did out in the fields then maybe our proper response is fear.

Not because God will punish us, and not because God is inherently terrifying, but simply because if God gets God’s way, then that means we might not get ours.

The God of scripture is one who finds life, hope, and promise from the margins rather than from the elite and powerful. God consistently uses the least likely of people in the least likely places to achieve the most extraordinary things. The incarnation of God in Jesus is a witness to the fact that we cannot remain as we are.

And that can be a rather terrifying prospect. 

The fears of our years are made evident by the many things we cling to that do not provide us life. For some of us it will be the presents we open tonight and tomorrow morning, for others its the paycheck that comes in ever 2 weeks, and for others its a broken relationship or a fractured family.

We put our trust and our hope in so many things these days and we are so regularly disappointed. 

We vote for the politician of change only to experience the same bureaucratic bumbling as before.

We seek out new employment opportunities only to still feel exhausted at the end of every day.

We even try out different churches hoping they will fix the problems we’re experiencing.

We might like to imagine that Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year, but it can be equally frightening.

Particularly if its the first one without someone we love. 

And yet, as wonderfully weird as is befitting the faith, the angel declares, “Do not be afraid! I am bringing you news great joy!”

To you is born the Savior, Messiah, and Lord.

You need not be responsible for saving yourself and transforming yourself. 

You are not alone.

God is already working on you and in you through Jesus Christ! The sign is a child wrapped in swaddling clothes laying in a feeding trough. God has and will transform the very fabric of the cosmos through that baby.

God saw and sees the disparities of this world and makes a way where there was and is no way. God knows better than us about what is best for us. And the Lord, the one who can terrify us even at this time of year, arrives as Jesus Christ, perfectly vulnerable and weak to transform everything.

Because that very same baby, the one with teeny tiny toes and the one resting in the feeding trough, is the same person who walked through Galilee, who was transfigured magnificently, who feed the people abundantly, who walked on water miraculously, who suffered on the cross tragically, and rose from the grave majestically.

The womb and the tomb could not and cannot contain the grace of God. Even in the darkest moments of our lives there is an everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus tonight. Amen. 

Jesus Still Weeps

Devotional:

John 11.35

Jesus wept.

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Jesus’ emotions in the gospel accounts are often overlooked. We, the readers, often become so consumed by his actions (like the miracles) and his teachings (like the parables) that we miss how Jesus was also fully human in his experiences. Preachers and teachers will gloss over profound verses in which we can discover how Jesus was just like us, in favor of verses where he is anything but us.

And even if we do emphasize Jesus’ emotions it usually comes in the form of focusing on his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane or his cry of dereliction from the cross – both of which are remarkably important, but in those moments we encounter the inner turmoil of the Messiah in a way that is difficult for us to resonate with.

But in John’s gospel we find a small window and vignette into the humanity of Jesus when he cried over the death of his friend Lazarus.

In a strange way, Jesus’ emotional turmoil over the death of his friend brings great comfort to we who call ourselves Christians, because in that moment we see how Jesus still weeps with us as we encounter hardship and injustice and suffering in this world. However, Jesus’ emotional solidarity is not an apathetic response to the world’s tragedies, but instead it is a deep and profound desire for the world to to wake up to the senseless disregard for life that is still all too present.

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Last Wednesday a man in Kentucky attempted to enter a predominately black church and when he failed to get inside he drove to a nearby Kroger grocery store in which he murdered two black individuals in cold blood.

Jesus wept.

On Friday law enforcement officers arrested a man in Florida after he sent at least 13 potential explosive devices to prominent political and media figures in the days preceding. And after searching his property they found a list he created of more than 100 other potential targets.

Jesus wept.

On Saturday morning a man stormed into the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA shouting his hate for Jews while shooting worshipers with an AR-15 in a 20 minute long rampage. 11 were killed and 6 were injured.

Jesus wept.

And so long as we believe that violence reigns supreme, so long as we continue to act and move and speak with such disregard for human life, so long as these types of stories continue to flood our world, Jesus will continue to weep.

May God have mercy on us all. 

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.

What Must We Do To Be Saved?

Psalm 111

Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant. He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations. The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.

In 1962 one of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century visited the United States on a lecture tour. Karl Barth was a product of Western Theology who actively spoke against the Nazi regime and rejected their un-Christian allegiance to Adolf Hitler. His writings and influence spread throughout the world to a degree beyond his ability to comprehend, such that (for instance) I have an entire shelf in my office dedicated to his books.

But long before I heard about Barth, he toured the US in the early sixties, lecturing to both the young and old about the importance of God being God.

And for as much as I love Barth, he can be remarkably dense. During his tour he was approached by a young theologian who declared, “Professor Barth, you’re my hero! I’ve read everything you’ve ever written.” To which Barth responded, “Son, I haven’t even read everything I written.”

That particular tour had him stopping at the leading theological institutions like Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Union Theological Seminary. And after one such lecture, not doubt filled with deep theological affirmations beyond reasonable comprehension, a young woman decided to bravely ask a question.

Now, at the time, evangelical theology was beginning to take off in the US. Churches were pushing hard for “personal relationships with Jesus Christ.” Altar calls were all the rage. And every wanted to know when everybody got saved.

So, this young woman, with her hand shaking in the air, patiently waited to ask her question. Barth lectured on and on about who knows what and then he finally called on her.

She said, “Well, Professor Barth, I was wondering, when were you saved?”

After no doubt responding to questions about the immutability of God, the diminishing role of the third member of the trinity, and the self-unveiling of God who cannot be discovered by humanity, Barth was finally asked a simple question with a simple answer.

And this is what he said, “Hmm, when was I saved? Of yes, that’s easy, it was… 2,000 years ago on the cross.”

What must we do to be saved?

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In many churches, being “saved” is equated with a moment when an individual accepts Jesus Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior.” We look at it as an item on a check-off list, an accomplishment to be met in order to get into heaven. These moments of willed salvation often take place in the midst of an altar call, that time when the pastor calls for people like you to come to the throne to give your lives to Jesus. Sometimes it takes place in baptism, when water is used to cleanse a child or an adult from their broken ways and saved them. Sometimes it takes place in the bread and cup of communion, nourishing someone’s faith to the point of everlasting reward.

In many places, being “saved” like this is worth celebrating as a total rebirth, such that individuals will celebrate two birthdays each year. Their actual birth day, and their new-birth day. Some, believe it or not, will even bring out a birthday cake and presents, for BOTH of the days.

But is that what it takes to be saved? Is that part of God’s requirements to pass through the pearly gates?

            This is what I do know: The saving of anyone is something is not within our own power, it is exclusively God’s. No one can be saved – by virtue of what he/she can do. But everyone can be saved – by virtue of what God can do.

Great are the works of God, and we delight in what God has done, is doing, and will do. God’s work is full of majesty and God’s righteousness endures forever. The psalmist covers all the bases, buttering God up with all of God’s attributes. We know of God from all of God’s wonderful deeds. The Lord is gracious and merciful. He offers and provides food to those who fear, and God is always mindful of the covenant.

But among these buttery and complimentary verses, there is one that shines bright and is somehow often overlooked: God sent redemption to God’s people.

Perhaps it’s a product of coming of age in a culture where we always hear about the need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that we assume salvation is up to us. We read these books about how to be the better me, thinking that if I only add this discipline, or get on this diet, that it will fix everything. We surround ourselves with people who often think like us, to embolden our own beliefs, rather than spending time with people who will challenge what we think we know.

But God sent redemption to us!

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Can you think of a more profoundly beautiful sentence? God sent redemption to us. Not a five steps process to becoming the true you, not an outline of a daily schedule to practice piety, not a pill or product that can fix our problems. God sent redemption. To us.

We have been redeemed. But from what? In the beginning of scripture there is a story about a man and a woman who had a choice. They could have stayed within God’s loving and beautiful embrace, or they could taste the fruit, the forbidden fruit. All was theirs, and then all was lost, because they chose to govern themselves rather than obey God. They believed in the boot-strap model more than the grace-filled reality of God. They wanted power, and they received punishment.

But, God sent redemption to us.

In the United Methodist World, we call redemption grace. And it begins with prevenient grace. It is something offered to us without price or cost. It is free. And we can choose to respond to the grace, but we cannot do anything to earn it.

And then there’s God’s justifying grace, the act of Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead that reconciled the divisions that took place in the Garden of Eden. Again, it is something God did for us, without our having earned it.

And finally there’s God’s sanctifying grace. It is the power of God’s grace working in us toward a better and more perfect understanding of who we are and whose we are. Sanctification is a life-long process where we grow daily in our Christlikeness.

We experience God’s grace through a number of means, like communion and baptism, reading scripture, daily prayer, and even sometimes through a sermon. They are the tools and mechanisms by which we are reminded what God has done, so that we might respond.

Our lives are made up of holy sanctified moments, those strange and powerful moments where the earthly and the divine come close together.

We are all in the process of sanctification. And, as someone once noted, sanctification is nothing more than getting used to our justification.

When I was in seminary learning about all the stuff pastor’s are supposed to learn, we took a class on the New Testament. Every time we gathered we looked at a different book in the New Testament and we unpacked the theology. We talked about who Jesus was, and where Jesus went, and what Jesus said. And one day, in the middle of the lecture, my professor projected an image on the board of the crucified Jesus. It looked like a painting from the Renaissance and Jesus was the perfect specimen of humanity, almost glowing while dangling without pain. But then my professor went to the next slide, and it was another crucifixion scene. This time it was more abstract with strange colors and shapes but it was still clearly Jesus on the cross. And again and again, the slides came and went with different portrayals of Jesus’ death.

And the longer it went on the more uncomfortable I felt.

Instead of looking at the images from the perspective of a student studying lines and meaning, I began looking at them like a Christian. And with each passing image I saw the immense suffering of the one we call Lord, dying on the cross. I noticed the fragility of the One born in the manger, I saw the struggle of the Savior, I experienced the labor of the Lord.

And it was too much.

Before I knew it I was walking out of the room as if I couldn’t breathe, and I sat down in the hallway by the door. One of my friends promptly followed me outside and picked me up, looked me in the eyes, and said, “What in the world is going on with you?”

I said, “I don’t deserve it. Seeing Jesus on the cross, for me, I just don’t deserve it.”

And with complete sincerity he said, “You idiot, that’s the whole point. You don’t deserve it. Neither do I. That’s why we call it grace.”

God sent redemption, to us. We did not receive God’s redemption, God’s grace, because we finally mastered the faithful life, and because we finally put all our ducks in a row, and because we finally paid off our credit card debt, and because we finally lost those ten pounds. God sent redemption to us. Period.

No matter what you do, God will never love you any more, or any less. You have been saved, and are being saved. As you get used to your justification, God is sanctifying you. There is nothing we can do to be saved because God is the one saving us.

That’s why the psalmist can say, “Praise the Lord!” Because God’s works are indeed great, God is full of majesty and righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful. Holy and awesome is the name of God. He has sent redemption to us.

However, lest we become “couch potato Christians”, we are not sitting around passively waiting for God to do something. God’s grace is such that it propels us to respond in ways we can scarcely imagine. We are always moving on to a greater understanding of what it means to love God and neighbor.       

God’s grace, prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying is a gift. We can receive the gift and pack it away in the closet and it will never do a thing. Or we can receive the gift and use it each and every day in the ways we commune with God, the ways we interact with our fellow brothers and sisters, and the ways we experience God’s creation.

Additionally, grace is not a get out of jail free card, nor is it a protective talisman that saves us from ever suffering. The life of God in Christ, the redemption sent to us, is the penultimate reminder that you cannot have resurrection without crucifixion. That those who wish to gain their lives must lose them. And that if we want to call ourselves disciples of Jesus, we have to take up our own crosses to follow him.

So we praise the Lord! We give thanks to Lord with our whole hearts, in the company of the congregation, because God sent redemption to us. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 85.9

Devotional:

Psalm 85.9

Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.

Weekly Devotional Image

I spent a lot of time last week considering how I might impress upon the congregation the need for darkness in order to appreciate the light. I weighed the options of telling stories from my life when I was particularly afraid of the dark and therefore grateful for the light when it arrived, I pondered the possibility of asking the congregation to announce their fears until someone said something about darkness, but I ultimately decided to shut off all the lights in the sanctuary for the majority of the service.

We therefore were guided by candlelight (which made singing from the hymnal particularly challenging!) but my hope was in the fact that we would all consider the darkness in our own lives in a new and different way. Additionally, while using Isaiah’s language about our righteous deeds being nothing more than a filthy cloth, I challenged the congregation to confront the truth of their sinfulness in a way often missing from the mainline church these days. And finally, I even talked about nuclear weapons to drive home to point about admitting our recklessness with the power we’ve been given and the need to repent.

After worship ended, I stood by the narthex doors shaking hands with everyone on their way out and someone said, “Pastor, I don’t know if I’ve ever been afraid in church before, but I was today. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

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Fear, perhaps more than any other emotion, is the typical response and reaction from those who encounter God in scripture. Again and again we read the same words from the angels, or from God, “Do not be afraid.” But there are also many times in scripture when fearing the Lord is exactly what we are told to do.

Fearing God has less to do with being spooked when the sanctuary is dark and more to do with recognizing that God is God and we are not. When we perceive the great gulf between God and humanity, we are forced to consider our sinful souls and the need for God’s grace. Therefore fearing God might be just what we need this season.

Whereas the world worries about whether or not all the right gifts are under the tree, Christians worry about whether we’re living into the reality of God’s kingdom here on earth. While families hang lights on gutters, we wonder whether or not we have really clothed ourselves with Christ’s righteousness. And as individuals assume that the reason for the season is some plump red-dressed man, or remembering the names of all the reindeer, we know that God, whom we fear, has come near.