So That

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for the Seventh Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 16.16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17.20-26). Sarah is the pastor of Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including earthquakes, real prayers, freedom, hardhats, believing on Jesus, mountain melting, the idolatry of image, Christian hatred, the alphabet of faith, Between Two Ferns, unity, and love. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: So That

The River

Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of the Lord is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing form the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

It happens, every so often, that someone reaches out with an inquiry about baptism.

A couple has a baby and they call the church office to ask if it would be possible for their newborn to be baptized. A stranger stumbles into church on a Sunday morning, is moved by the power of the Spirit, and approaches me afterward to discuss the holy waters. A long time church members sees someone else being baptized and, for the first time, desires to receive the promise of the covenant made by water and the spirit.

And, inevitably, we come to a moment when I ask THE question as it pertains to baptism: “Why?” 

One of my professors once said that the most faithful churches are those who won’t marry or baptize anyone off the street. That is, if a random couple asks to be married, it would be better for them to get married by the justice of the peace. The covenant of marriage, at least as understood by the church, is only possible within a community who will help hold the couple accountable to the promises they make.

And the same holds true for baptism.

Should you grow weary or bored at any point in the next ten to fifteen minutes, you can look at the liturgies in the hymnal or google online and you will discover that the questions and promises of marriage and baptism are remarkably similar.

What makes them similar is the outward nature of a promise, that neither of the them should be entered lightly, and they are only possible within the connection of a community we call church.

A few years back I was serving a church with a preschool and I made it a point to hang out among the students and their families as much as possible. I was at the door nearly every morning welcoming them into our building, I led chapel time once a week in the sanctuary, and after a while I started getting invited to a lot of 4 year old birthday parties.

And I’m not sure how it happened, but at some point along the way we had three different families represented in the preschool who each had a parent in ministry. 

Let me tell you, teaching preschoolers about the Bible is hard enough, but it takes on a whole new dimension when a few of those children would return home week after week to tell their pastor-parent what this pastor said.

Anyway, it came to pass that, one year, two brothers from the preschool asked if I would baptize them. And, of course, their mother was also a United Methodist pastor serving a church on the other side of town. So we decided to baptize the boys together.

But this was not to be an ordinary baptism. No, we did not schedule it to take place once picturesque Sunday morning in a sanctuary, we didn’t even consider baptizing them in the preschool where they learned of the faith. The boys wanted to be baptized in living water, a river or a lake or a stream.

It happened on a cold early May day, where we gather on the banks of, I kid you not, Whiskey Creek in Churchville, VA. I knew well enough to bring my fishing waiters because the water was liable to be cold. And it was frigid.

So we said all the things we normally say, I prayed with the boys by the creek’s edge, and then, because it was so cold, I had to literally carry the younger brother out into the middle of the creek, and his mother and I rapidly dunked him under the water three times in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

When he burst forth from the water on the final dunking, he screamed bloody murder, tears were streaming down his face. He hit me in the face and declared for everyone to hear, “I hate you Pastor Taylor!”

And then I had to go get his brother and do the same thing to him. 

John the Revelator sees what we cannot, at least not yet. From the vantage point of a high and holy mountain, he takes in the New Jerusalem, the great rectification of all things. And, oddly enough, there is no church in the city, no place of worship. How can it be that, when God comes to dwell among us, there is no place to gather such as this?

There is no temple because God is the temple. 

There is no darkness because God is the light.

There is no gate because God is the host.

Nothing unclean will enter this holiest of places, and neither will those who practice abomination or falsehood.

And there, in the center of it all, is the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

This water, and more importantly from whom it flows, makes all things new, all things holy, all things clean.

There has long been an understanding of John’s vision as a prophecy. That is: it tells us about what will come to pass at some point in the future. Christian types will then hold these images over the heads of their dozing congregations and point to connective images in our surrounding culture as signs that the times have come. They do so as a warning about getting clean for the king, repenting in dust and ashes, so that, when the time comes, they will do what is necessary to make it through the gate.

And all of that might be right. But if that’s all that this is, then we’re in trouble. Big trouble. Big trouble because, none of us will make the cut. Abomination sounds like a big and scary thing, and yet all of us practice abominations on a regular basis. An abomination is anything that causes distrust or hatred – and we live in a world that runs on distrust and hatred! We are defined, so often, not by what we love but by what we hate. And that’s not even mentioning those who deal in falsehoods, namely all of us.

For as much as this is an image of something that will come to pass, it is also, at the same time, very much a description of how things are right now. Revelation is a timeless book not because it stands the test of time, but because it rejects all notions of temporal categories. It is beyond time. It has happened, is happening, and will happen. But, for creaturely creatures like ourselves, we can scarcely wrap our heads around it.

But John’s sees something that speaks into who we are and whose we are in present, past, and future. John sees the river. The river of the water of life.

Water runs through the strange new world of the Bible. In the beginning God swept across the waters and brought forth order out of chaos. In the days of Noah God set forth a rainbow in the sky. When God saw God’s people as slaves in Egypt, God led them to freedom through the sea, and eventually through the Jordan to the land that was promised. 

In the fullness of time God sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a woman and was baptized by John in the river Jordan. Jesus called his disciples to share in his baptism of death and resurrection and to spread to the Good News to all who will hear it. 

The water that flows through the middle of the street of the city in John’s vision is the water through which we are delivered to a strange new land where even people like us are made holy.

Nothing unclean can enter the city and we can’t make ourselves clean. No amount of goodness, no down-on-our-knees prayers of repentance, no righteous acts of piety or mercy can wash away our sins. 

The old hymn is right: What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Therefore, I can understand the hatred that came from the boy I baptized in Whiskey Creek. To be made clean implies there is a need to be made clean. And no one likes to admit there is something wrong with them. Moreover, baptism is the beginning of a journey into discipleship and following Jesus isn’t easy! I mean, look at who he decided to gather together as a church! Us! We’re stuck with each other whether we like it or not! 

Now, could that boy articulate his hatred in the river with such theological insights? Probably not. But his emotional response to the cold waters of his baptism is a truth we often forget. Baptism changes everything. 

The blood of the Lamb, who comes to take away the sins of the world, flows forth from the throne and makes a way where there is no way. It is the great cleansing flood that makes the impossible possible. Baptism is God’s way of saying yes to us when God has no good reason to say yes at all. 

I, myself, was baptized at 19 days old. I had no choice. It was done to me. 

But those who were gathered in the church 34 years ago took seriously the vows they made to raise me in the faith, with God’s help. So much so that I wound up going into the ministry.

Beware of baptizing your child! You never know what God might call them to do!

Anyway, when I was 25 and about to start serving in my first appointment, I had the opportunity to return to my home church and preach one last time as a layperson. I preached on the power of baptism and how I was a product of their promises. 

After the service ended, and I was shaking hands in the narthex, a woman I had known my whole life approached me with a well worn Bible in her hand. She opened it up to the inside front cover and I saw names and dates covering every available inch. And with her index finger she moved across the name until she came to mine and she said, “Whenever we have a baptism I write down the name and date of the person and I pray for each of them every morning. Which means, I’ve prayed for you almost every single day of your life.”

I don’t know “why” my parents had me baptized. I’m not sure they were ever asked, or if they even gave it much thought. But that conversation with that woman in the narthex of the church is the beginning of an answer to the question.

The boys I baptized in Whiskey Creek, one of whom socked me in the face right after, that moment started a journey that is the adventure of faith. Each and every day they are learning more about what it means to love God, and to be loved by God.

Baptism is the radical reorientation of all things. Whenever we bring someone to the water, whenever we remember our own baptisms, the heavens are torn apart again and God meets us in the water, right where we are.

The radical nature of the sacrament is made manifest insofar as our baptismal identities are more determinative than any other part of who we are. The waters of baptism wash away any notion of our being defined by our faults and our failures. Each drop of baptismal water contains an ocean of grace and mercy and love deep and wide enough to engulf the entirety of everything that ever was or will be.

In baptism, the heavens are torn apart, the past, present, and future are confused in the best possible way, and the Lord declares, “you are my child.”

And we are who God’s says we are. Amen. 

Grace Like Rain

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Bryant Manning about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 9.1-6, Psalm 30, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19). Bryant is the director of the Wesley Foundation at FSU. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the Greek exegesis of Mark, chapel shadows, resurrection reminders, a hopeful ecclesiology, little deaths, goodness and mercy, church camp, resolution, the great ordeal, unbelief, and prayerful discernment. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Grace Like Rain

We Are The Songs We Sing

Revelation 5.11-14

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every living creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

“Were you crying during the first hymn?”

She asked me with a raised eyebrow out on the front lawn two weeks ago.

We worshiped the Lord with glory and splendor. The lilies surrounded the altar, the pews were packed, Easter! And then a stranger walked up and wanted to know whether or not I cried.

The truth? I did cry. In fact, I cried a lot. So much so I had to take my glasses off for fear that the tears would smudge my lenses and I wouldn’t be able to read the sermon.

But I couldn’t tell from her tone what she was trying to get at with her question. Had I been too emotional for her liking? Was she embarrassed to see such a handsome pastor blubbering up at the front?

I smiled and considered how I might respond. And then she interjected with a whisper, “It’s okay, I did too.”

John the Revelator sees a vision, and what a vision it is. Myriads of thousands, singing with a full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb!” 

John shares his sights with a dispirited and anxiety ridden church. Easter has come and gone. The tomb is empty, the Lord is risen, but what happens next? The people called church run afoul of the powers and the principalities because they now know where real power can be found. They are persecuted, forsaken, punished.

And what does God have to say and show to the people called church?

A song.

A song that spreads wider and wider until the entirety of the cosmos sings praise to the One who is, who was, and who is to come.

Most of Revelation is music. As a book it is quoted among our hymnody and liturgy more than any other part of scripture. And for good reason. It is filled with such wild and wondrous images, it literally talks of music and singing over and over again. 

And, if you spend enough time among the people called Methodist, you start to think in hymns/music.

Listen to this: 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.

That’s the faith we sing, in one verse.

And so it has been since the beginning. The earliest disciples devoted themselves to the breaking of bread, the singing of songs, and the sharing of scripture.

We are the songs we sing.

The Gospel lection for today, the one that is meant to be paired with our text from Revelation, finds Jesus broiling up some fish along the sea with Peter. The infamous tripartite questioning, “Do you love me?”

Peter is questioned three times, just as Peter denied Jesus three times. Do you love me?

In some sense, it doesn’t matter how Peter answers because Jesus loves Peter whether or not the love is returned. Its grace, all of it. Jesus will remain steadfast whether Peter does or not. Whether we do or not.

Love, in the Christian context, means to be possessed by something else. We love only in the sense that we are beckoned, compelled, drawn to the Lamb who was slaughtered and is therefore the one worthy to receiving power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing.

It is a strange love. 

Like the cross, the love of God is both a reminder of what God does and what we do to God.

That is, the cross is our salvation and is also a proclamation of our complicity in the death of Christ.

Love, therefore, is our freedom, and also a declaration about our unworthiness of that very freedom.

And yet God loves us anyway.

To respond to God’s love means, oddly enough, doing exactly what we’re doing right now – gathering week after week with people we love, people who drive us crazy, and even people we hate because God in Christ calls us his friends.

To respond to God’s love means, oddly enough, even when we’ve sung these songs ten thousand times and feasted on the bread and cup ten thousand more, that we are still overwhelmed by the God who is love and loves us.

Revelation, and in particular this bit in chapter 5, is all about worship. We come to the altar of God to be met by the One who makes a way where there is no way. We worship the only way we know how – we sing, we read, we preach, we offer, we receive. This is worship and it is who we are.

We come to this place in this way with the conviction that we are in the presence of God. Every week there is an air of excitement, or at least there should be, in which we gather here thinking to ourselves, “I wonder what God is going to do next?”

And yet, to those outside, what we do here is indeed very strange.

They see people singing unpopular songs, someone who reads from an old dusty book, someone else making remarks about the book that may or may not interest those listening, and then everyone stands up to eat and drink really small portions of bread and juice.

Worship IS strange and worship changes things. And sometimes the thing that worship changes is us.

A prayer is offered that strikes us to the center of our hearts and we know that we can never be what we once were. A sermon is delivered and we receive it as if it was written for me and me alone. And still yet other times its less clear what it is that happens, but we leave not the same as we arrived.

And sometimes we are changed in spite of worship.

C.S. came up with the idea for his remarkable book The Screwtape Letters during what he described as “one very boring sermon.”

I myself learned of the beauty of the Bible because I grew disinterested in parts of worship when I was a child, and I reached for the old book attached to the pew ahead of me to pass the time.

More than a few of you have shared stories about sermons you heard that brought you not to the throne of God, but to the realization that you needed to join a different church!

At its best, and I mean at its very best, worship reminds us, and begs us to realize, that we, even us, we are included in the myriads of the thousands in John’s vision. Worship tells us over and over again that there is nothing we can do for good or ill that can stop God from getting what God wants. 

Worship gives us Jesus.

There’s a story of an old seminary professor who used to interview candidates for the ministry, and in all the interviews he did over the years he would always as the same question, “Why should I join your church?”

Candidates would wax lyrical about the value of community, and the professor would say, “I’m in AA and I have all the community support I need.”

Then the candidates would mention something about outreach. And the professor would say, “I’m a member of Rotary and I already help the needy.”

And then the candidates would make a point to emphasize the beauty of the music at church. And the professor would say, “I have season tickets to the local symphony.”

For years and years he recruited for the seminary and not a single candidate ever mentioned anything specially about Jesus

The church is not in the business of societal rearrangement, we are not paragons of community service, and we certainly don’t hoard all the musical prodigies. We may have some of those gifts, to be sure, but if we’re serious about really being the church then we only have one thing to offer at all: The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

We don’t have to have impeccable fellowship gatherings, or world transforming service opportunities, or even perfectly pitched singers because what we do here is already the difference that makes all the difference in the world. And that difference has a name: Jesus.

Here’s the shortest version of the longest story: Jesus the one whom we tried to push out of our world by hanging him on a cross, shall reign, and shall gather every living creature in, the last, least, lost, little, and dead, and even we ourselves will rejoice with the myriads. We will sup at the meal that goes on without end and we shall worship with song and voice.

Singing is who we are and what we do. And we’ve been doing it since the beginning. Moses, Miriam, Deborah, David, Mary, the Angels, Jesus, Paul, all of them sing in the strange new world of the Bible. 

John Wesley was transfigured by the singing chorus of a group of Moravians. His brother Charles wrote the songs that we, and a whole bunch of other churches, sing all the time. 

And that is why we sing even now. We sing when we are up and when we are down, when all is well and when all is hell. We sing.

The last word in worship is “Amen.”  Every living creature in heaven and earth sings, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And we all say, “Amen!”

Amen means “Yes.” It is our decisive declaration about who we are, what we are doing, and what is being done to us.

We respond to God’s great Amen with our own.

A few years ago I was in Raleigh, NC for a week-long mission trip with a group of youth from the church I was serving. We were tasked with helping out at the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Every morning we traveled to the facility in order to help in the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise, and generally enjoy one another’s company. And yet, when we arrived, we discovered that the Activity Center was, perhaps, misnamed. 

The residents sat in abject silence day after day.

We pulled out the bingo cards, but we didn’t get any takers. The youth put together a workout routine to a Michael Jackson song, that receive not even a toe tap. No matter what we did, it was as if we weren’t even there.

I remember one of the employees saying, “Don’t worry about it. The residents are always like this.”

And then, one morning, one of the girls found a dusty hymnal in the corner, she flipped to a familiar hymn, and started humming the melody.

It was Amazing Grace.

Without giving it much thought, all of our youth surrounded her and started singing together:

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 the eyes in the room, previously locked onto the walls and the floor, turned toward the center where the youth stood surrounding the hymnal.

’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 residents started perking up in their wheel chairs, and some of them started mouthing the words.

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

Aides and employees started gathering in the doorways, witnessing this strange and wondrous sight, and more than a few of them joined in:

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

Everyone in the room was now singing or humming along, even residents who were labeled as non-communicative were making a joyful noise:

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.

With tears streaming and voices ringing, we all joined for the final verse:

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

We are the songs we sing. Amen. 

Flipped-Turned Upside Down

Acts 9.1-4

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

When I was in seminary I made myself available to friends who were serving churches if they ever needed someone to preach on a Sunday morning. I wish I could say the offer was purely altruistic, but it was mostly born out of a desire to get some experience before serving my own church one day. It was always exciting to arrive on a Sunday morning, to a church full of strangers, and stand up to preach the Word.

But it usually went poorly.

On one occasion I forgot to take up an offering and the congregation was more than happy to not pass around the plates. I preached at one church that had no bathrooms and I was encouraged to “use a tree out back” so I bounced back and forth behind the pulpit until the end of the service and quickly drove to the nearest gas station. And there was one particular Sunday when I got lost on my way to the church, and by the time I arrived they had already gone through two hymns and I was told they figured someone would show up to preach eventually.

But perhaps the most indelible memory took place one Sunday after worship during which a man in a handsome business suit approached me in the narthex and declared, “That Paul sure was in a heap of trouble. It’s a good thing Jesus was there to set him straight!” 

The conversion of Saul, the so-called Damascus Road Experience, has penetrated the thoughts and imaginations of Christians for centuries. It’s one thing to question Jesus’ decision to enlist the help of a bunch of (not even very good) fishermen to spread the Good News, it’s another thing entirely to consider the Lord choosing Saul, the persecutor of the faith, to become the chief evangelist for the faith.

I cherish that narthex comment about Paul because, up to that point, I always thought of Paul being good and fine until Jesus showed up to complicate his life. Which, to be fair, isn’t necessarily wrong. He had power and prestige, he even had a calling in his life, and then everything got flipped-turned upside down. It’s also true in our lives that things seem to be well and good until the Lord encounters us and we cannot remain the same.

But, as that man so wonderfully put it, Paul was in a heap of trouble until the Lord changed him. Things might have felt and looked good in life, but what kind of life is it to spend all of your time persecuting others? Jesus said, “I have come to give life, and to give it abundantly.” Whatever Paul’s life was before Damascus, it could not compare at all to what it was after.

And so it is with us. 

For some the Lord uses a bright wake up call to the life of faith. For others we know no other way because we’ve been part of the church for as long as we can remember. And for others it’s somewhere in between. But the Lord gets what the Lord wants. God is in the business of transformation. We, all of us, were in a heap of trouble until the Lord came to set us free. And now, like Paul, we live in the world turned upside down.

Who’s In Charge Here?

Revelation 1.4-8

John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

There’s a moment that happens every single Sunday without fail. It doesn’t matter what the context is, or what music is offered, or even what scripture is read. 

It happens right before I stand right here.

There’s a silence.

An eerie silence.

Perhaps it sounds different to me than it does to all of you. Your experience of the strange silence might be born out of discomfort or awkwardness.

But as far as I can tell that moment happens every week and its special; there is true attention and silence. And in that silence there is hope.

People like you and me hope, even for but a moment, that this time we will hear an answer to the question: Is it true?

Sadly, more often than not, that hoped for question isn’t even addressed. And if it is, it is only done so indirectly. There’s an assumption that, just by being here, we all assume all of it to be true.

But that’s not right. I think we’re all here, the tall and the small, the first and the last, the believer, half-believers, and unbelievers, because we want to have our question answered.

Is it true?

Today is the second Sunday of the season we call Eastertide. It stretches all the way from Easter Sunday up to Pentecost Sunday, its the great 50 days. Every Sunday in this season is a little Easter in which we re-celebrate the most amazing thing ever to take place in the cosmos.

And let me tell you: you all are a special bunch. There is something remarkable about those in worship for the second Sunday of Easter. You’re here because you know that following the Lord is more than just being present for the big moments. You’re clued in to what takes place behind the curtain of the cosmos. You’ve experienced the Lord in such a way that you can’t imagine being anywhere else doing anything else.

But, we must confess, we of the second Sunday of Easter crowd, that the promises of Easter are not yet fully realized.

We need only turn on the television, or scroll through Twitter, to be reminded that not all is as it should be.

I, myself, riding the incredible wave of Palm Sunday worship was deeply grieved to receive a phonemail the Monday of Holy Week that my oldest friend in the world took his own life the night before.

We sang some good old gospel hymns down in Memorial Hall on Maundy Thursday, we shared the body and the blood of our Lord, and my family and I had to jump in the car to drive up to Alexandria so that I could speak at my friend’s service of death and resurrection the next day.

Not all is as it should be.

Easter Sunday, exactly one week ago, it was remarkable! First sunrise service in 100 years, the First Light Band had the whole sanctuary clapping, even our children shouted out the Good News in song and shakers. 

All told we had more than 300 people in worship last Sunday! Truly remarkable.

And, I’m no mathematician, but I don’t see 300 today.

Why is that? Why are there those who only darken the doors of the church twice a year? 

Much has been made of the so-called Chreasters, the C and E crowd. They come because of familial obligation, or guilt, or tradition. There’s a hope, even if people like me refuse to admit it, that one year they will actually all return the next Sunday. 

But the longer I do this, the more I understand that the church swells at Christmas and Easter because those who don’t normally attend know they have a better than good chance of hearing nothing but Good News: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight,” and “Christ the Lord is risen today!”

Part of the challenge is that we always proclaim the joy of the resurrection, in song, sacrament, and sermon, to people who, admittedly, feel like those two on the road to Emmaus. We know something has happened, but life beckons us elsewhere. 

It is true?

John the Revelator certainly seems to think so.

I don’t know what you know of John of Patmos and his epistle of Revelation. It is, perhaps, the most misunderstood book in the Bible and yet, at the same time, the most important. It, like the concluding chapter of any good book, ties everything together. But to drop in at the very end, without knowing the beginning or the middle is a recipe for disaster.

There are some wild bits to this book, some that we will encounter over the next few weeks, but, as GK Chesterton noted, “John saw many strange monsters in his vision, but he never saw a creature so wild as those who try to explain it all.”

John, whoever John was, wrote for a people living in a time in-between. They were stuck squarely between the already but the not yet, planted in the time before the end time.

You know, people just like us.

Easter people, while all is not as it should be.

Oddly enough, even with its bizarre images and confounding cassations, Revelation is an odyssey of encouragement. It tells us who we are, who God is, and what is the world is going on in the world.

To put it simply, it tells us the truth.

John begins, rather abruptly, with the decisive declaration that Jesus is Lord and King of the cosmos. He was, he is, and he will be. 

Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the one who remains steadfast even when we don’t, he points to the real things that matter in this life, and he is committed to doing so no matter what.

Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead, he is the one who, by death and resurrection, makes possible an impossibility, that in our deaths we are raised to new life. 

Jesus Christ is the ruler of the kings of the earth, he is the one in charge.

I wonder though, if we actually believe that, or if we trust that to be true. I think, all things considered, it’s not difficult to affirm that Jesus is faithful, and that Jesus is risen. If it looks like Good News and it sounds like Good News. But Jesus being the ruler of the kings of the earth?

Its like a church meeting I remember attending long ago, certainly not something that would ever happen here, where we gathered for an important conversation, debate, decision making, and as we gathered voices were raised, accusations were made, and when finally came to the end of our appointed time, fists clenched, no wiser than we were when we stared, someone present had the audacity to ask if we might end our time in prayer.

I thought, “What for? We certainly didn’t behave like God was in the room, why invite the Lord in now?”

You see, when Jesus is in charge everything changes. And that doesn’t necessarily mean that it gets better. Have you read about the stuff he got up to the in the backwater towns of Galilee?

Are we sure we want Jesus to be in charge?

From the very beginning he predicted that those in power would reject him, and they did. I would say that’s strike one. Jesus has the gall to call all kinds of people who have no business being in the kingdom business. I mean, fishermen for disciples? Tax collectors for apostles? What’s next, bankers for Sunday school teachers? Lawyers on the mission committee?

Jesus is risky and foolish, spending all of his time among the last, least, lost, little, and dead. If we ever want to make the world a better place, we need a leader who’s going to spend time with the first, the best, the found, the big, and the lively.

What kind of leader forgives betrayers? What kind of ruler leaves ninety-nine behind to find the one who is lost? What kind of king hosts a banquet and invites everybody to attend?

Jesus.

John reminds us, across the centuries, through the power of words that Jesus is the one in charge, and in his infinite and confounding wisdom, he loves us, he has freed us from our very worst mistakes, and he has made us into a new people who will always feel like strangers in a stranger land. 

And, to be clear, being in charge doesn’t mean being in control. If God in Christ is the author of every war, cancer diagnosis, and car crash then God isn’t worthy of our worship. But as the one in charge it means that God in Christ is the one we follow. He leads the way.

It is to Jesus, John says, that we owe our allegiance because he does for us what we cannot do for ourselves – he makes a way where there is no way. He, himself, is Easter for us.

The key according to the Revelator, the important truth that will be brought up again and again, is that it’s all up to Jesus. We can absolutely respond to what Jesus has done, we can even take up our crosses to follow, but he’s the one in charge, he gets all the good verbs. He, to put it plainly, is the Alpha and the Omega, the A and the Z.

Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to reward the rewardable, or improve the improvable, or correct the correctable; he came simply to be the resurrection and the life for people like you and me, the good and the bad and the ugly. 

The message of Revelation, of the one who is, and was, and is to come, is that it isn’t over yet. Easter is still happening. Until we all feast at the Supper of the Lamb, we will live in the in-between – the place where we vacillate between mourning and dancing, crying and laughing. 

Every Easter we make the same declaration – Christ is risen! But that’s a little deceptive. It is true, but we have more to say: Christ is risen, and he’s in charge. Amen. 

Trading My Sorrows

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Bryant Manning about the readings for the Third Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 9.1-6, Psalm 30, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19). Bryant is the director of the Wesley Foundation at FSU. Our conversation covers a range of topics including seminary salutations, campus ministries, silent retreats, the call of Saul, humbling humility, praying the psalms, divine anger, hand motions, nooma, the eschaton, choral singing, good worship, and texts for tweenagers. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Trading My Sorrows

It’s Better Than You Think It Is

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 5.27-32, Psalm 118.14-29, Revelation 1.4-9, John 20.19-31). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including strange intros, short sermons, eating in Eastertide, Raymond Brown, good trouble, Stanley Hauerwas, codas, timelessness, the firstborn of the dead, real peace, and the gift of faith. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: It’s Better Than You Think It Is

A Strange New World

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; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what happened. 

Here we are for the strange and bewildering day we call Easter. All of the Bible, all of the church, all of Christianity hinges on this day: Easter, resurrection, out of death into life. If this story were not in scripture, we would’ve thrown our Bibles away a long time ago. 

If the Bible does not tell us this story, it tells us nothing.

Easter is the one day when all the hopes of the past are made manifest in the present. Some of you are here because you can’t imagine being anywhere else. Some of you are here because you desperately want and need to hear Good News amidst a world drowning in bad news. Some of you were dragged here against your will.

So, no matter who you are or even why you’re here, hear the Good News: He is risen! Hallelujah! 

No one saw the resurrection of Jesus.

There’s plenty of art and films and even songs that attempt to describe the event that we are here to celebrate, but the strange new world of the Bible tells us, in all four gospels, that no one saw it. Not Peter, not Mary Magdalene, not anyone.

Jesus was already gone from the tomb when the stone was rolled away.

And perhaps, oddly enough, that’s a good thing. For the resurrection is beyond our ability to understand or comprehend – it comes to us from an entirely different sphere of reality.

It breaks all the rules.

The women wake up on the third day knowing full and well what to expect. They travel to the tomb with spices to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. They’ve run out of tears since Friday, perhaps they even travel in silence, the real and terrible sound of grief. But when they arrive the stone is moved and the body is gone.

And behold two men in dazzling clothes appear and the women fall to the ground in fear and reverence. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” They say, “He is not here, he is risen!”

Their rebuke reverberates through the centuries. To this day we still look for new life in all the wrong places, hoping to gain control over something that is fundamentally out of our control.

We still set our minds on earthly things, we seek the living among the dead, but we rarely notice it. We cling to various things in life because life is so uncertain – tomorrow is never promised. So we hold desperately to those things we think give us life. Our jobs, spouses, children, on and on. But things largely stay the same.

So we flip through the never-ending abyss of Netflix searching for a momentary reprieve in a life of monotony, we listen to podcasts at 1.5x speed because we don’t feel like we have enough time between all of our timely events, all while we go from day to day knowing not what we are doing or why we are evening doing it. 

We know longer no what it means to be surprised.

And then BAM Easter!

Easter is the great disruption, the exodus for the rest of us, the beginning of a strange new world.

Kurt Vonnegut said that most good stories occur when a character gets unstuck in time. Our lives, therefore, only really become interesting when the time of our lives is disrupted and unstuck from its normalcy.

The women in Luke’s gospel travel to the tomb with predictable expectations – the dead stay dead. They knew that everything was out of their control, until they heard the announcement that Christians have been shouting throughout the centuries: He’s not here, he’s risen!

No wonder the story ends so strangely – the women just go home, amazed. Easter sets them, and us, on a course from which we leave provoked, unsettled, disoriented. Life will not, and cannot, be the same. But how can we possibly respond to the most unexpected thing in the world?

The tomb was empty, the body was gone. He is risen.

This is the proclamation of Easter and yet, proclaiming the resurrection is so difficult and so challenging because the resurrection cannot be made into a metaphor; it cannot be reduced into a charming story.

Easter is not the celebration of spring, it is not new life shooting up from the soil. It is not a quaint little tale of how love is stronger than death. It is, instead, something completely unlooked for, something without any precedent, and something that leaves us truly amazed. 

Easter proclaims that God is the Lord of disruption. It is among the roads of life, the traveling among the dead while looking for the dead, that Jesus shows up, becomes time itself for us, takes our time, and transforms the cosmos.

All these centuries later, with our sanctuaries and our lilies and our songs and our sermons, it can all feel like Easter is just one more thing that happens to Jesus. But that’s not right. Easter is the happening of Jesus to all things. Jesus doesn’t change on Easter – everything is changed because of him.

Any attempt, therefore, to find a way to make Easter relevant or new or relatable is a fool’s errand because Easter is unlike anything else and the best we can ever hope to do is point toward it. 

The proclamation of Holy Week, the entry into the city, the meal on Thursday, the cross on Friday, the empty tomb on Sunday, they run counter to just about everything else in life – they don’t give us ways to be better human beings, they aren’t commandments about how to make the world more bearable. They are not about what we do, but are instead about what is done to us. And that what has a name: Jesus Christ. 

The amazing part of Easter is that we don’t have to do anything for it to happen.

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 Jesus to the cross. And, three days later, God gives him back to us.

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.

We, the good and righteous folk that we are, we’re in church on Easter after all, we might’ve thought the story was over – that the shadow of the cross was the final word.

But in the strange new world made possible by God, only Jesus gets the final word because he, himself, is the Word incarnate.

On Easter God took the cross, a sign of death to the world, and made it the means of life. 

The promise of the resurrection is that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love, not even death. Jesus’ pronouncement from the cross, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they’re doing” frees us from all of our sins, past, present, and future. Easter means that one day we too will rise to join in the feast at the supper of the Lamb.

Can you imagine anything more wonderful than this?

The first disciples were amazed by what they saw and heard that first Easter morning.

We still are. 

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 in, it is everything for nothing.

It is, to put it simply, amazing. 

Nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else.

He is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah! Amen. 

The Living Daylights

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 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 pastelcolor 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.