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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Joy!

Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and the scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 

One of the blessings, and curses, of being a pastor is that you pay particularly close attention when you experience a worship experience outside of the church you serve. If any of you were to participate in another’s churches liturgy on a Sunday morning, say you were on vacation or something, you might notice a different wording to a familiar tune, or a changed phrase in the apostle’s creed, or you might sit through a boring sermon all while thinking about how good you have it here with me every week.

But for me, it’s hard to even pay attention to what’s happening because all I can think about is why is it happening in the first place.

I was sitting in a large cathedral one Sunday morning, it was so large in fact that the preacher had to pause after every sentence to allow the echo of his voice to make it through the hall before stepping on the last word of his last sentence. We stood to sing the hymns. I got distracted by the abundance of stained glass windows during one of the longer scripture readings.

But then, all of the sudden, everyone stood up around me. 

No one announced that we should do it. There wasn’t even as asterisk in the bulletin noting that this was a proper time to rise. 

And so I stood and just looked at all the people around me and tried to figure out what it the world was going on.

Someone came walking down from the altar carrying the Bible, as if the service was ending thirty minutes too soon, and as she walked toward the middle of the aisle, everyone in the front turned around to watch her.

And then she stopped dead in her tracks in the absolute middle of the church.

The preacher then stepped down from the pulpit and slowly made his way to the middle of the cathedral, and when everyone was appropriately facing the center the center of the church, the Bible was opened, and he read from the gospel.

And when the text ended, the Bible was carried back to the front, everyone turned around, and we sat down for the rest of the service.

Only later, when I asked the pastor what it was all about, did I learn the justification for the liturgical turn: In that cathedral, the gospel is read from the heart of the sanctuary.

I was sitting in a small chapel one evening for a special worship service, and I was the only white person in the room. I remembered being particularly grateful for the fan that was handed to me on my way in because the longer the service ran, the hotter the room felt. 

The only way to describe the preacher was that he was on fire. He never once looked down at any notes, and he preached one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard. He would occasionally reference a lyric from a hymn and the piano player would start tapping on the keys and the whole room would break out in song, until the preacher raised his hand to keep on preaching.

At some point he said something like, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all.” And the woman sitting next to me stood up like a bolt of lightning and shouted, “Preacher! Say that again!”

And so he did, “Jesus is either the Lord of all or he is not the Lord at all!”

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From the high vaulted ceiling of a cathedral to the struggling hum of a beat up air conditioner hanging of a window in a chapel, there are many many many ways to worship. And how we worship, though important, pales in comparison to the One whom we worship.

The Bible, this holy and beloved book, is full of stuff. It’s got sermons and prayers – hymns and homilies – laws and genealogies. It’s even got prescriptions about how worship is supposed to take place, but it is relatively rare that we get a picture in the Bible about how worship actually happens.

The people of God who gathered to hear Ezra read were away from their homeland for a very long time – a whole generation. They might have heard about the law of Moses or of David the shepherd turned King while they were in exile in Babylon, they might’ve even recognized the names of the places read aloud from the text, but here, in this little moment, they are home. They are in the place that the story promised and promises.

And worship was something all of the people of God did together. There’s a lot of “all” in this passage, eight times in fact. Men, and women, and children are beckoned to come and hear the Word of the Lord. And the scope is even bigger than that because when the reading ends, they are sent on their way to bring food and drink to those they encounter on the way.

The allness of the worship is remarkable. And it speaks a radically countercultural word to the types of individualism we often experience in culture of the day. While doing things on our own, even things like spiritual disciplines, are important, there is no substitute for gathering together to worship.

As someone once said, there are many things we can do on our own, but being a Christian is not one of them.

We call this, the things we do on Sunday morning, the liturgy. But liturgy is about far more than what happens in worship. The word liturgy literally means work of the people. But if it feels like work, then we’re doing it wrong.

Liturgy is like the play of a child. (And the play of adults, but children are always better at playing than adults). Like play, the spontaneous and engrossing and transformative practice, has no real purpose or end goal and yet it is full of meaning and power.

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Without play, without liturgy, we cease to be the beautiful creatures that God intends us to be. 

Without play, worship becomes another notch on the endless list of things we’re supposed to do as Christians.

Without play, everything we do in this room rings out like a hollow gong or a clanging cymbal.

Worship, at its best, is a reflection of the playful dance that takes place within the trinity, and within all of us.

And so, of course, we could copy the ancient people of God. We could stuff as many people in this space as possible. We could all stand together in solidarity when the book is opened and we could bow to the floor and worship God with our faces on the floor. We could get someone like me to interpret the words so that, to use the passage of Nehemiah, you all would understand the readings. And then we could send everyone home with the call and the charge to eat the fat and drink the sweet wine in joy while sharing that joy with others. 

But that’s already kind of what we do anyway. We worship the way we worship because it is the way that we discover something true.

In that Episcopal cathedral, they stood with attention and respect and silence when the Bible was brought into the middle of the sanctuary because it was the way they affirmed the truth of the Word of God. It was a physical embodiment of the recognition that the Holy Word of scripture demands attention and focus because it contains all that is needed to guide and shape one’ss life.

In the Black church, it is common to see members stand when the preacher says something that rings true with them. It is part of the call and response heritage and practice of the black church. You’re likely to hear the “mmmhmm” and “Say that preacher!” and “Amen!” Because those are the things people say when they know they have heard the truth.

In many ways, the ways we worship today, are the new ways of standing tall or laying on the ground before the Word of the Lord.

Because God is not just the object of our worship; God is also the subject of our worship – the living and Holy One we encounter, and who encounters us, in worship.

It’s kind of strange, reading a passage like this one, to see how far we moved in our own worship. We still prioritize the reading of the Word, but in some churches the worship is far more likely to kill someone (out of boredom) than it is to give new life. In some churches people are wearing fine suits and long dresses which is kind of crazy – we should be wearing hard hats and the ushers should be carrying first-aid kits. The God of Israel is here with us, and we never quite know what God is going to do with us!

When something is true whether it’s inside the church or out, it grabs a hold of us in a way that we can barely understand. I could regale you with stories I’ve heard over the years of people whose lives have been radically, and I use that word specifically, transformed because of the truth encounter in Jesus Christ.

Like the racist woman who fell out of her pew in repentant tears when she heard about Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well.

Like the adulterous husband who stood during the middle of a hymn and begged for forgiveness and the courage to admit the truth.

Like the young adult who rejoiced when she heard the liturgist read those words from Genesis “Let us go create them in our image” as she felt peace about her identity for the very first time.

I could go on and on and on.

It can hit us like a ton of bricks falling from the ceiling, or like a gentle breeze flowing through the window, it can happen in one moment or take an entire lifetime, but when we encounter the truth, it grabs a hold of us and it refuses to let go. 

One of the many things that’s right with the church, is that God’s Word in the midst of a community can change our lives better than just about anything else. Scripture read in community gives us a lens by which we can look at the world round us, and at our own lives, through God’s eyes.

Being the church together is the regular discipline of showing up and being prepared for the unpredictable movements of the Spirit shaking the floorboards and the rafters of our lives.

And, being the church is, or at the very least should be, fun! In the scripture read for us today the people who heard the Word responded with the merriment of eating fat and drinking the sweet wine – Life in God should produce a gladness in our hearts, particularly while we are listening together for the Word that continues to speak to us even today.

This day is holy to the Lord your God – do not mourn or weep. And as you go from this place, eat the fat and drink from the sweet wine of life, and send portions of those great things to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy! 

And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength! Amen. 

Seven Days Without Prayer Makes One Weak

Devotional:

James 5.13

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any among you cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.

Weekly Devotional Image

 On Friday evening I stood in the sanctuary with a wedding party and was attempting to guide them through a rehearsal of what would be the wedding ceremony on Saturday evening. The bridesmaids, of course, were attentively listening to my directions and promptly moved through the church accordingly while the groomsmen, of course, were joking with the groom and trying to distract him from everything we were doing.

We finally got to the portion of the rehearsal when I lined everyone up by the altar and gave the bride and groom a glimpse of what would be said and done during the exchanging of vows, when one of the groomsmen leaned over to the groom and made a jesting comment about his weakness and inability to get the thing done. To which the groom triumphantly declared, “No! Seven days without prayer makes one weak, and I am strong!”

Which just so happened to be the words on our church marquee when he arrived for the rehearsal!

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When should we pray? Some might say that prayer is necessary when we feel overwhelmed by the darkness of life and we are in need of the light. Some will say we need only pray when we actually need something. And still yet some will say that we should pray only when we are in a place to properly praise the Lord before asking for something.

Sadly, prayer is often made out to be a conditional proposition in which we must be in the right place, or we must offer God the right words or phrase in order for it to become efficacious. 

However, prayer (at least according to St. James) is something that we should do, regardless of the circumstances. Pray when you are suffering, and pray when you are cheerful. Pray when you are alone, and ask other people to pray for you when you’re in community. Prayer, in and of itself, is not something that can or should be relegated to particular times and moments. Instead, it is something we are called to do without ceasing.

For it is in prayer that we are made strong in our faith, in our convictions, in our beliefs that we are who God believes we are. 

So pray when you are up and when you are down. Pray when all is well and when all is hell. Pray when you are received and when you are nowhere believed. Pray until sinners are justified, until the devil is terrified, until Jesus is magnified, and until God is satisfied.

Godly Play

1 John 3.1-3

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Families are complicated. There was a time when “the family” meant a husband and wife, 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence. But frankly, that time never really existed. Regardless of Leave It To Beaver and the Andy Griffith Show, the family has never been normative for everyone, and it certainly isn’t today.

Families have, and always will, constitute a difficult and confusing set of relationships. There are families with children and without children. There are families with two dads and two moms. There are families that represent different races, different languages, and different cultures. The family is anything but ordinary.

And somehow we believe that we become a new family as the church.

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We might spend most of our lives debating who is in and who is out, whether its in regard to our family units, or our communities, or even our country. But here in 1 John we are offered a corrective: in the church we are all children of God, regardless of our community or culture or race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or just about anything else. Here in this place we are family.

We are in the middle of Eastertide; that time when the glory of Easter is still shining bright. And we have scriptural texts all about how to be in relationship with people we do not know in addition to the people we do know – we are God’s children. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Particularly when we say things like, “our church is a family” while we all act like we’re the adults and we forget what it means to be children.

The images of children are pervasive in scripture. And for good reason! Children live and work and play together with energy. They are not consumers sitting in pews waiting for something to happen. They are drawing in their bulletins, climbing over the pews, wandering around the altar area.

And even outside of the church, in the schoolyards and playgrounds, that’s where children live out their identities. They learn to communicate when something has gone wrong, they joyfully tug at one another, they make up new games, and they play.

Everything children do is about navigating a world in which their identities are still being formulated. They are not content with being labeled and placed in any kind of box. They live lives based on a fluidity that most of us have lost.

For some reason, as we mature into adulthood, our joyful play begins to fade and for some of us it completely stops. We just accept things the way they are, we make peace with the labels placed on us by society, we accept the love we think we deserve. We do all of this without ever asking, “Why?”

We are comfortable with our current relationships instead of forging new ones. We come home most evenings not with thoughts of what went well, but instead with thoughts about how everything fell apart. And, more often than not, we’d rather relax than play.

But not today.

The children of God, that’s us, work out their identities and relationships with energy and commitment and patience and intensity. They do it through play.

1 John 3, the text read for us this morning, compels and encourages us to see one another as children. It begs us to imagine a world in which we are still those joyful playful versions of ourselves.

So, I could fill this sermon with stories of how children play and come to inaugurate new visions of reality. I could call on each of you to remember your childhood games and imaginations. I could even ask us to think about the importance of being inclusive in the midst of playing with other and end with some sort of egalitarian vision of the church.

            Or, we could just play…

(For the next fifteen minutes everyone in worship had the option to play with play-dough, percussion instruments, blocks, coloring books, and an assortment of other activities.)

Give Me Joy Or Give Me Death

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

I am convinced that the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve are some of the noisiest days in the year. There’s the noise of scratching together the proper shopping list, the boxes of decorations being dragged down from the attic, kids screaming in the car on the way to the grandparents’ house, extra services at the local church, and boxing other people out to buy the perfect present at the mall.

And right at the beginning of all this noise, the time of frenetic and frantic noise, we have Christ the King Sunday.

Like many Sundays throughout the liturgical year, this one has a special focus and significance. However, Christ the King Sunday is a more recent addition to the church calendar. Whereas Christians have celebrated the likes of Maundy Thursday and Pentecost for a long long time, Christ the King was only established as an official day in the liturgical year in 1925. It took the church nearly 1900 years to need this day the same way that we need it now.

In 1925, Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for 3 years, a loud insurrectionist in Germany named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was rapidly growing in power, and the entire world was suffering under the weight of a Great Depression.

Yet, despite the rise of autocratic dictators, despite the lack of economic opportunities, despite the strange and uncomfortable silence between the two World Wars, Christ the King asserted, and still does, that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Jesus the Christ is Alpha and Omega, the one to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance. This psalm and this day are a reminder of our first and primary allegiance to the Lord.

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Make a joyful noise to the Lord, everyone! Praise the Lord with glad and generous hearts; come into the presence of God and sing your hearts out. Know that the Lord is God. The Lord made us and we belong to the Lord. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. With every breath give thanks to God and bless the name of the Lord. God is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

We praise and sing with joy because God in Christ is the Good Shepherd. We jump to our feet and throw our hands in the air because God has already done so much for us.

But if we’re honest, sometimes it feels hard to praise God during this time of year. For some of us, all those decorations and all those songs don’t hold the joy they once did.

Rather than hopeful in expectation, we are fearful in deliberation. Instead of thinking about all the God has done for us, all we can think about are all the things we still have to do. And instead of praising God with a joyful noise, we struggle to hear God among all the sounds of this season.

The psalmist proclaims a joy for the Lord that cannot be contained, a joy that must be shouted from the rooftops. But most of us don’t want to sing to the Lord in public. In fact, we don’t want to be confused with the type of people who do sing aloud in public places.

However, Christ the King Sunday prepares us for Advent, the season dedicated to waiting for the arrival of Christ on Christmas. This is joyful, praise-filled waiting. And, ironically, in many churches it does not look like the congregation is making a joyful noise to the Lord. Rather, most churches are filled with people singing along looking slightly bored.

Thanks be to God that this church is not like other churches.

Last Sunday, during the 8:30 service, our sound system decided to no longer cooperate when it was time to sing our final hymn “I Am Thine, O Lord.” The whole service had built up to the final hymn and our chance to respond to what God had said, and I sighed as I reluctantly announced that we would be singing it acapella knowing it wouldn’t have the full strength as usual. And just when I was about to start singing the first note, Gloria raised her hand from the choir and said, “Pastor, I can play that one on the piano.”

Friends, I don’t know if we’ve ever sounded more joyful than when we sang that hymn last week. And even at the 11 o’clock service, when I knew ahead of time she was going to play it, I ran over to the drums and joined her for our final hymn and the whole congregation made a joyful noise to the Lord.

It was a shot of joy to the arm, and it was a reminder that the Lord is indeed good.

But it forces us to ask ourselves, “How can we be joyful when so much is wrong in the world?”

When a new widower attends church on a Sunday morning, he hears the familiar words of a Christmas hymn and instead of being transported to joyful memories from the past, all he can think about is the now empty spot next to him in the pew.

When a mother goes to the store to purchase Christmas presents, she goes not with the excitement of how the children will react, but with the fear of how the family will be able to afford it all.

When the refugee woman hears similarities between her story and Mary’s, she cowers in fear upon returning home and wondering if she will be caught and shipped back to her home country.

The kind of joy the psalmist sings about is not a surface-level temporary experience. It is not a fall on the floor guttural sense of laughter that eventually fades.

The joy of the Lord comes because God is still God, even when the world feels like its falling apart.

The joy of the Lord comes because we are still God’s people, even when we feel like we’re all alone.

The joy of the Lord comes because Jesus is King, even when it seems like other people are determining what happens in the world.  

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When we feel the struggle of making a joyful noise amidst all the other noise, we fall back to God’s great gift of music. For music is the magnificent agent that lifts our hearts to commune with the heavenly angelic choir. Music transforms our hearts and minds such that we give thanks to the Lord through our voices, and we know that the Lord is good.

A few summers ago I took a group of youth down to Raleigh, NC for a week-long mission trip. My particular group was assigned to help at the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Every morning we traveled to the facility in order to help lead the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise together, and respond to trivia questions. It was quite the shock to the youth to go from the comfort of their homes and friends and family to sitting in a room full of people with limited abilities and limited communication.

We tried pulling out the bingo cards and reading out the letters and number. I encouraged the youth to dance around the room to get the residents involved, but almost all of them just stared off into space. We even tried leading them through an exercise routine to the music of Michael Jackson, but it was as if we weren’t even there.

To be honest, we felt pretty worthless. Having traveled all the way to Raleigh, it was hard for the youth to feel so unsuccessful with those near the end of their lives. But then I saw a discarded hymnal on a table, and I started flipping through the pages until I found Amazing Grace.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.

All eyes in the room, though previously locked onto the walls and the floor, had all turned to the center where I stood with the hymnal in my hands.

            ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.

            The youth moved closer toward the center and started singing and humming along with the familiar tune that had all heard so many times before.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

The residents started perking up in their wheel chair, even the ones who had nothing to do with what we had done earlier, and some of them even started to mouth the words with us.

            The Lord has promised good to me, his words my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.

The aides and employees who were wandering the hall started gathering in the doorway to watch what was happening, and a few of them even opened their hands and prayerfully joined in one voice.

            Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope and peace.

            Everyone in the room was singing or humming along, every resident who was previously lost to the recesses of their minds were found by the time we all joined together for the final verse.

            When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.

It was abundantly clear that for many of the residents this was the first time they had participated in anything for a very long time. From the tears welling up in the eyes of the employees while watching the people they served each day, to the smiles and wrinkles breaking forth on individual faces, to the youth singing and dancing in the middle of the room, the Lord was giving us the strength to make a joyful noise.

From there we continued to flip through the hymnal and we joined together for a number of hymns. That previously silent room was suddenly filled with the words and tunes of Softly and Tenderly, Stand By Me, I Love to Tell they Story, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and we ended with Victory in Jesus.

            It was one of the most powerful moments in my life, and we get a hint of that same feeling every week when we gather here together.

When I hear all of you say the Lord’s Prayer just as Jesus taught his disciples, with one voice, it sends shivers up my spine. When I look out while the choir is singing and I see some of you on the edge of your seats my heart flutters in my chest. When I open my eyes right before saying “Amen” and catch all of you faithful praying with tightly clenched eyes, I feel the Spirit moving through air.

And I am filled with joy.

Even the sounds that drive some of us crazy: the shuffling around of bulletins from someone in the back row, a toddler crying from a pew, a kid cackling on their way up the stairs toward Children’s Church. These are joyful sounds!

They are a reminder of God’s wonderful majesty and mystery. They are a reminder that God still has work for us to do. They are a reminder that Jesus unites us in a way that nothing else on earth can.

We worship the King of kings in Jesus the Christ. We come into God’s presence with gladness and singing because of all that God has done for us. And in response we can make a joyful noise. Amen.

Stuck In The Middle

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rev. Matt Hambrick about the readings for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (Judges 4.1-7, Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18, 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, Matthew 25.14-30). Matt is the pastor of Trinity UMC in San Diego, California . The conversation covers a range of topics including the joy of collecting vinyl records (and why OK Computer is so good), the importance of place-names, the myth of originality, being stuck between joy and sorrow, militaristic language, and using our God given talents. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Stuck In The Middle

 

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Devotional – Psalm 34.8

Devotional:

Psalm 34.8

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.

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Last night, after we finished dinner, my wife and I got out the Robin costume for our 18 month old Elijah. The Halloween decorations had been up for weeks, we were stocked with candy for the neighborhood kids, and the time had come to begin trick-or-treating. And, wonderfully enough, this was to be Elijah’s first ever outing on Halloween and the excitement was palpable in the air.

However, once we made it outside we realized that no one else was combing the neighborhood. And, not wanting to be that family, we patiently waited in our front yard until we saw at least one other costumed child before we guided Elijah up to our neighbor’s front door. He only made it to ten houses last night but he ran down every sidewalk with the kind of excitement that leaves parents smiling and giddy with joy.

When we returned to our house, we set up chairs in the front yard and waited to pass out candy to kids from the neighborhood. And for the first fifteen minutes Elijah was fine with sitting on my lap, but at some point he remembered that people had strangely handed him pieces of candy and he wanted it. Lindsey and I quickly agreed that it would be fine for him to have one piece of candy (he’s maybe tasted chocolate all of three times in his life) and when he crunched down on his Kit-Kat bar his eyes lit up like fireworks. For the next fifteen minutes all he said was “mmmmmm” and “more.”

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In some strange way, the kind of excitement and joy that my kid experienced last night is the same kind of excitement and joy that we are privileged to experience in the church. The fleeting sugar rush that entered Elijah’s blood stream eventually disappeared, but the table that we feast at as a community of faith has an everlasting significance. The hope and wonder Elijah had while walking up to other homes is the same hope and wonder we discover when we actually do the good and hard work of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

The challenge of a holiday like Halloween is that there is so much build-up and when its over, its over. But with God we discover something that is truly good; we find a refuge offered without cost.

We can find happiness in this life through experiences of glee and moments of wonder, we can decorate our homes for all of the pertinent holidays, but true happiness comes when we discover that the Lord is good, and that one holy day with God is more powerful than any holiday.