Holy Week Hangover

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 5.27-32, Psalm 118.14-29, Revelation 1.4-8, John 20.19-31). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including life on the other side of the resurrection, the best kind of hangover, The Sorting Hat, subversive obedience, gimmicky teasers, the most important psalm, proper agency, death breath, and doubt. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Holy Week Hangover

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Easter Starts In The Dark

John 20.1

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 

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Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

It feels good to say that word! We’ve been avoiding it for an entire liturgical season. It has not hit my lips since before Ash Wednesday. And even in the church we have not used the word in a hymn, in a prayer, or even had it in a bulletin. 

And today we can shout it out with all the pent-up gusto we’ve been bottling up over the last 40 days!

Hallelujah! He is risen!

But then I wonder, should we be so bold with a proclamation such as that this early in the morning? Do you feel that joyful right now? What do you think people are thinking when they drive by and see a group of people outside in the dark on a Sunday morning like this?

The Bible is full of stuff. 

Want to know about an obscure law that guided the Hebrew people 3,000 years ago? The Bible’s got it.

Want to know what Noah planted in the ground after being in the ark for 40 days and forty nights? The Bible’s got it.

Want to know what Jesus’ final words were right before he died? The Bible’s got it.

But, interestingly, the Bible is relatively silent about what happens between the burial of Jesus on Friday and the visit to the tomb on Sunday morning. We don’t really know what the disciples were up to after Jesus was taken down from the cross. We are not privy to any of their conversations or murmurings.

This sunrise service plants us squarely in that strange mystery. 

We walk with the women on their way to the tomb.

We fear with the disciples back in the upper room.

The darkness is a time for wonder.

What will the day bring? We do not know, we only know that it is coming, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And so we read from the gospel according to John that on the first day of the week, on Sunday, while it was still dark, Mary came to the tomb and saw the stone had been removed.

Why does she go to the tomb?

The other gospels stories write about the women, not just Mary by herself, go to the tomb to anoint the body of the Lord. But in John’s version, Mary goes alone and we know not why.

Why do any of us go to cemeteries? 

Sometimes we go because we don’t know where else to go, we don’t know what else to do. That’s the decisive power of death – it robs us of our rationality.

When the rug is pulled from beneath our feet we do things without knowing why we do them. 

What is Mary thinking about as she trudges along the path? Is she remembering the day that Jesus saved her from being stoned? Is she thinking about what he looked like while he was dragging the cross up to Golgotha? Does she talk to herself in attempts to calm down the grief?

We know little more about Mary’s morning other than the fact that it was dark when she arrived at the tomb.

Perhaps we are encouraged to wonder about her wonder in the dark.

Darkness and lightness are prevailing themes in John’s gospel. At the very beginning we learn that Jesus is the incarnate light comes to shine in the darkness. 

Nicodemus comes under the cover of the night so that no one would will see him with Jesus.

Jesus warns the disciples and the crowds about those who love the darkness.

And Jesus himself declares, “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

And yet this most pivotal of moments in the gospels takes place not in the light of the day, but under the cover of darkness.

A few years ago I was asked to preach at a sunrise service on behalf of all the United Methodist in the city of Staunton, Va. Sunrise services, as you well know, are only for the really faithful people so instead of each church having a small gathering we decided to get all 8 churches together. The tradition started a number of years ago but we always met in one of the church’s parking lots.

Which, if I may be honest, drove me crazy.

If Sunrise services are to happen anywhere, they should be observed in cemeteries.

They should take place among the dead. 

Anyway, after years of fruitless complaining, the churches finally gave in and agreed that we could have our sunrise service in the town cemetery. I promptly put my blood, sweat, and tears into that sunrise service because I finally got my way, and sure enough when the day of Easter arrived and the sun began to ever-so-slightly approach the horizon we had over 150 people standing among the gravestones singing about the resurrection of our Lord.

And, as it happened, I was about halfway through my sermon when I noticed something strange: I saw lots of people from the other churches in town, but no one from my church was in the cemetery. 

I kept going, trying to keep my focus in check, and finished the service with as grand of a benediction as I could muster and sent everyone to their respective churches for the rest of their Easter services.

I drove into town, still dressed in my Sunday robe, and couldn’t shake the fact that none of my people were there. I know I had made plenty of announcements about it from the pulpit, I had printed the information in the bulletin, and yet no one showed up.

A few hours later, with the sun high in the sky, I greeted everyone as they made their way into the sanctuary for Easter worship, trying my best to not think about what had happened in the darkness when a group of church people all walked up laughing.

“You’re never going to believe what happened to us this morning?” They said.

“What happened to you?” I thought to myself, “What about what happened to me!?”

I motioned for them to go on and one of them said, “We went to the wrong cemetery!”

Under the cover of darkness, a faithful group from my church met in the parking lot to drive over to the cemetery as a carpool. And when they arrived at the wrong cemetery, they kept driving around wondering where everyone was until they saw a very small group of people huddled together near the top of the hill. They quickly parked their cars and ran up to the group and joined together in the singing of hymns. 

The group from my church nearly tripled the number of people at that sunrise service and it was only when a much older woman stepped forward to preach did they realize they had gone to the wrong place. 

But they were good and faithful Christians, so they stayed and they listened to the resurrection story. They let it fill their souls and they offered up all their Hallelujahs.

When their service came to a conclusion the female pastor walked up to the group and asked how they found out about their Sunrise service. She told them that it filled her with such tremendous warmth to know that so many people had come. To which one of my people told her that God works in mysterious ways.

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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.

The resurrection happened at night. No one was there when it happened. By the time Mary arrived Jesus was already gone. He arose from the kingdom and dominion of sin and death into the victory of life and resurrection. By the time the sun rose on the tomb all it revealed was that the victory had already taken place. 

Some of the best, and most important things in the world take place without us having to do anything. That is a strange and troubling word to a people who constantly feel as if they’re never doing enough.

The message of Easter, of the mystery in the darkness, is that the resurrection happens without us. We are only witnesses. But that’s good enough. Amen.

In Anticipation – Maundy Thursday Homily

1 Corinthians 11.23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 

This is a good amount of people for Maundy Thursday. It is a weeknight after all. But it isn’t as many people as we had for Palm Sunday and, Lord willing, it is smaller than the number of people we will have for Easter. 

That’s okay. There wasn’t a big crowd at the first Maundy Thursday either. 

And yet you are here. 

Why are you here?

We are a people forever stuck in the past.

And we can hardly be blamed. 

We only know what we know. And we can’t know what we don’t know.

So our minds, whether we like it or not, are often rooted in days long gone.

Take tonight for instance, some of you can and probably do remember former Maundy Thursdays. And even if you haven’t been to a service like this before, you can know doubt think of a time you’ve received communion. And if you’ve never had communion before, you can certainly think of a time that you’ve shared a meal with someone else.

And because we tend to spend as much time in our minds as we do, we read what is happening in our present through the lens of the past.

It happens in the political realm, and the familial realm, and the theological realm. 

When I was a kid my home church had lots of volunteer opportunities. 

There were the big ones, you could sign up to read scripture from the lectern during a service, or you could carry in the flame as an acolyte, and every summer you could travel near and far for mission trips.

And there were, of course, the little ones as well. Your family could sign up to be greeters for a particular Sunday, shaking hands with everyone on their way in, or you could join together with some of the older members and fold bulletins every Friday morning, and every Wednesday night you could help serve food for the weekly community dinner.

In my young life, I did all of those things at one point or another, but there was one particular volunteer opportunity that my whole family took care of for a long time: we prepared the communion elements.

This meant that every first Saturday of the month we would drive over to the church and retreat to the sacristy behind the altar. There we would pre-poke the bead with this medieval-like dagger to make it easier for the pastors to tear it apart on Sunday morning, and then we would set  out hundreds of tiny little plastic shot glasses within the altar rail using a little squirt bottle to fill every single one.

It would take forever.

And forever really felt like forever when I was ten years old.

On Sunday mornings, every one would arrive at the church none-the-wiser about the work we had put in to prepare everything. Even my family, knowing how long the grape juice had been sitting out in that old sanctuary, we would line up like everyone else and we would patiently kneel at the altar until a piece of bread was placed in our hands, and then we were instructed to drink from one of the little cups, and then we would go back to our pew so the next group could go.

And if preparing communion felt like forever, doing communion was even worse. It was assumed that the sermons on the first Sunday of the month would be half as long so that the congregation would have the time to all come to the altar to receive our stale bread and tepid grape juice. 

And this went on for years.

Until one day after worship, I mustered up the courage to approach our aging senior pastor and confront him about our way of the Lord’s Supper. I had been to other churches and seen other variations on how to consume communion. The Catholics would all drink from one cup, and the Presbyterians would pass around these giants trays of circular discs and tiny cups. I’m not sure what propelled me forward that day – perhaps the bread had been extra hard, or my sisters and I had consumed a few too many of the little grape juice shots after worship, but I walked up to the pastor and said, “Why do we do communion this way?”

His response: “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

We call today Maundy Thursday. This quaint names come from Jesus’ words at his last supper in John’s gospel: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. In Latin, new commandment is mandatum novum. Maundy is simply the Middle English version of the word mandatum.

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So, we are mandated by God to do what we are doing.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like being mandated to do anything. Christianity has long-suffered under the oppressive rule of expectations and assumptions. You must do this, you must do that.

All of the musts don’t muster up to a very lively faith.

Instead we trudge into the sanctuary to sing the hymns and offer the prayers because we think we must do it.

We stand and proclaim with bored affectations the words of the Apostles’ Creed because we think we must do it.

We drag ourselves up to the altar to receive the body and the blood because we’ve made it out into our minds that we are mandated to do so.

What are we hungry for? 

Are we even hungry at all?

There is always a lot that happens in the eucharist, a lot happens here tonight. In John’s Gospel Jesus spends his final evening breaking bread and drinking wine with his friends, but he ends with getting on the floor and washing all of their feet. 

There have been countless traditions throughout the history of the church that are all tied up with what we are doing right now. By the time Paul writes to the church in Corinth he conveys it as “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

And so we remember. We remember how Jesus’ self-giving life included feeding the poor as well as dining with the rich. We remember that Jesus broke bread with the religious elite and the social outcasts. We remember that most of Jesus’ ministry took place around tables with those who both loved him and were confused by him. 

And because we spend so much time remembering, we often look at this thing of communion backwards. We focus all of our attention on Jesus’ final night and we get caught up in the “we’ve always done it this way.” 

Do you know what it says on our altar? I have it covered so you can’t just take a peek. Any guesses?

“This Do In Remembrance Of Me.”

It fits doesn’t it? We place the bread and the cup on the table, we read the words that Jesus shared with his disciples that final evening, and we do what we are doing in remembrance of all that Christ did.

But somewhere along the way we got our tenses confused.

Communion is not a backwards looking proposition. Yes, it is good and right for us to imagine ourselves in that space with those people on the night in which he gave himself up for us. But to do so as fully and totally as we do denies the fundamental truth that Jesus is here with us tonight in this space and with these people!

Of course communion is about remembrance, but it is equally, if not more, about anticipation. For as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 

There was a woman who used to sneak into the church during the first hymn and would often retreat before the final hymn concluded. I would see her from my preaching vantage point but it was as if she planned everything so as to not have to interact with too many people when she came. After a while I noticed that she would only come to church on the first Sunday of the month and when we held our Maundy Thursday service. 

Luck had it one day that I was able to catch up with her outside the main doors when she was briskly walking to her car and I asked if everything was okay.

She told me that she was Baptist and that her church almost never celebrated communion. But she knew she needed strength for the journey, so she came every month to commune with us. 

I expressed my admiration of her faithfulness and she said that a pastor once told her that communion is where the past, present, and the future get all confused with each other. The pastor apparently meant it as a bad thing, but she fell in love with the idea.

She told me that she loved her church and would never leave it, but that she always needed to feel the confusion of time with us.

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Maundy Thursday services often end in a confusing way. Tonight, as we conclude, we will join with Christians across the globe in the striking of our altar. We will remove elements of color and vitality making the turn toward the cross. 

We will do so because our sense of time is purposely confused. Jesus has already shared the meal with the friends. Jesus has already mounted the hard wood of the cross. Jesus has already broken free from the tomb.

But tonight we both place ourselves in the time of Jesus and we witness to the fact that Jesus is still with us. We will gather at the table not just because that’s what Jesus did, but because it is what Jesus is still doing. And, we will engage in all of this in anticipation of when we will gather at Christ’s heavenly banquet with all who have come before, and all who will arrive long after we’re gone. 

This is the place where time gets confused. 

And that’s a good thing. Amen. 

There’s Nothing Sexy About Palm Sunday

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Marcy Paysour about the readings for Palm Sunday [C] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Luke 19.28-40). Joanna serves at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including proper pronunciations, BBT’s Leaving Church, debates about Passion Sunday vs. Palm Sunday, the spiderweb of the Bible, the craziness of faith, joyful obedience, giving palms to children, being an ass in church, King Jesus, and scaring people for the Lord. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: There’s Nothing Sexy About Palm Sunday

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Enough Is Enough

John 12.1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep if for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

“How are you?”

A rather innocuous question and one that we drop all the time. So much so that we aren’t really asking because we want an answer, but because it has become a filler. 

We ask the question and we are asked the question in the grocery store line, while we’re sitting in the waiting room, and even when we’re passing the peace on Sunday morning.

And how do we usually answer the question?

“I’m fine.” “I’m good.” And the best of all, “I’m busy.”

“I’m busy.” It’s almost as if it’s become a reflex these days to respond with our busyness. And it’s not untrue.

Take one of my day’s this week as an example. Woke up early to get breakfast and coffee ready, rushed out the door with my kid in tow to get him to preschool on time. Drove straight to church to start going over financial documents, sermon prep, phone calls, emails, and then had to leave to get home in time to get my kid to soccer practice, which went late, we didn’t have time to cook dinner so we had to grab something on our way home, just to get him to bed late knowing that it would be another crazy day tomorrow.

So, if you had asked me how I was doing this week, I’m sure that I would have made a comment about how busy I am. 

And then I picked up a copy of David Zahl’s new book Seculosity. 

In it he writes about how our busyness has become a new religion. “To be busy is to be valuable, desired, justified. It signals importance and therefore, enoughness. Busy is not how how we are but who we are – or who we’d like to be.”

When we feel busy, we make connections between what we do with who we are. Which, of course, is a problem.

And today, many of us cannot imagine who we are outside of what we do. So we build these ladders out of whatever we have around and construct scoreboards of our own design measuring everything we do against everyone and everything else. 

And we never feel like we have, or have done, enough. 

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We chase after the elusive “enough” when in our heart of hearts we know that we will never really have enough. The perfect meal leaves us hungry mere hours later, the perfect spouses ages with time and knows how to cut through our armor, the perfect children grow up and rebel against our wishes, the perfect church gets a pastor or a program or a piety that rubs us the wrong way, and on and on and on.

We just can’t shake the feeling that there’s always more for us to do.

In the prelude to his Passion, on the eve of Palm Sunday, Jesus arrives in Bethany and goes to the home of Lazarus. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha decide to throw a little dinner party and the disciples gather around the table to kick up their feet. The food is brought out, and probably some wine, when Mary walks over with a pound of Chanel No.5 and pours the entire bottle out on Jesus’ feet and she wipes them with her hair. 

And then Judas jumps up from his seat and screams for everyone to hear, “Woman! What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you sell this perfume for a year’s worth of salary and give the proceeds away to the poor?”

Jesus, ever calm, merely replies, “Judas, leave her alone. She bought it so that she could use it for my burial. There will always be poor people, but I won’t be here forever.”

What a story and the details are incredible. But perhaps most interesting of all is how some of the details just sit there without elaboration or explanation. 

The home of Lazarus is casually mentioned, you know the guy who Jesus raised from the dead! I don’t know about you but I have a hard time imagining a guy once dead just merely sitting around at the dinner table – the miracle made possible for him through Jesus seems to demand more demonstration than hosting a dinner party.

Martha served the food. Apparently Martha hadn’t quite learned her lesson as the constant busybody from a previous interaction with Jesus and continues to preoccupied with the comings and goings in the kitchen.

And then Mary takes a pound of perfume. A whole pound (!) and begins pouring it on Jesus’ feet. Today, perfumes and colognes are often contained in tiny one ounce bottles, so we have to broaden our minds to a pound of this stuff being poured out.

In Matthew and Mark’s version of this story the woman anoints Jesus’ head, a prophetic witness to his the truth that he is the King and Messiah in the midst of the empire ruled by Caesar.

But here in John’s version, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet – another kind of prophetic act. Though in this scene, it points to his imminent death, as he is anointed ahead of his burial. 

Mary, unlike the inner circle of the disciples and unlike the rest of the crowd who have been following him, sees Jesus for who he is. She comprehends and accepts what others can not – Jesus will die.

But then Judas goes off the rails.

You know, the one about to betray Jesus!

Why are you wasting that perfume when we could’ve sold it to help the poor?! And he drops the fact that they could’ve sold that pound of perfume for 300 denarii, which roughly equates to a year’s worth of wages.

Which, alone, begs our consideration.

How in the world did Mary procure such an expensive quantity of perfume? Where did the money come from? How long had she been holding on to it?

And, of course, scripture doesn’t provide us any more details than the ones on the page. We are left with a scene of a wasteful woman and a nonchalant Jesus.

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Judas, for good reason, gets a bad rap in the Bible. After all, he is the one who ultimately hands Jesus over to the authorities. But can we but not sympathize with him in this moment? He’s certainly not wrong, they could’ve sold that perfume and given the proceeds to the poor.

John, makes sure that we know what Judas was really up to with the narrative interruption: He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.

Even still Mary seems to be wasting what she had, and it could’ve been used in a different way, perhaps an even better way…

Throughout the gospel according to John, Jesus regularly provides blessed abundance. When he and the disciples arrives in Cana he creates 18 gallons of new wine to keep the wedding party going. By the Sea of Galilee Jesus produces enough food to feed the 5,000 with plenty of leftovers. After fishing all night without anything to show for it, Jesus instructs Peter to put his nets in one more time and he pulls up such a haul that the boat begins to sink.

The abundance made possible in Christ is offered to those in need. Whether its food, or wine, or companionship, Jesus provides. But at this particularly weird dinner party, the abundance is reversed. 

It is a prelude to the passion. Mary anoints him ahead of time for the burial he is to receive. 

Again and again people ask something of Jesus: Lord, give us a sign, heal my daughter, feed the hungry crowds. And Jesus obliges over and over. 

But here, less than a week away from the moment of his crucifixion, John tells us that Jesus turns his attention to different direction: the cross.

Much of religion today focuses on that which is useful, practical, and cost-effective. We spend most our time thinking about and planning upon what we should do in order to achieve what we want to do.

This type of fanatical religious observance has been on display in the last week, though not inside the church – it has been in the frightening dedication of wealthy parents who bought their children spaces in elite colleges.

Have you heard about this? An agency, for a steep price, could procure a diagnosis from a psychologist that would enable your child to take the SATs over two days rather than a few hours. And a hired proctor would be provided to either help guide the students to the right answers, or simply fill out the test on their behalf.

For another fee, the agency would hire someone to take online high school classes under the name of student in order to boost their grade point average.

And still yet for another fee, coaches at elite universities would take a bribe to say that they needed a particular individual for their team, regardless of whether the high schooler had ever played the sport or not.

The news broke through a number of arrests and articles and the overwhelming response wasn’t one of shock and awe but one of, “meh, sounds about right.”

I mean, who are we to blame those ultra wealthy parents for doing everything in their disposal to help their children? (sarcasm)

But they, and we, suffer from the Judas-like fixation that enough is never enough. We move to a particular neighborhood only to start planning out the finances required to move to an even better neighborhood. We enroll our children in after-school programs and we aren’t content with their participation until it garners them a spot on the best team, in the best social group, or at the best school. We work until we are able to retire and then spend most of our retirement wondering is we really saved enough.

The frightening truth that Judas hints at with his question is that there will always more work to be done. The question isn’t what needs to be done, but whether we know what enough looks like.

Now, this is not as some churches have foolishly used as a claim that frees us from caring for the last, least, and lost. We don’t have to help the poor, and we aren’t freed from helping the poor, we get to free the poor because of what happens to and through Jesus.

The anointing of Jesus’ feet is a recognition that the week will end with those feet being nailed to the cross. In that most of God’s triumphant condescension, Jesus does for us what we could not. Jesus is sent into a world that did not request him and yet acts entirely for the world’s benefit. Were it up to us alone, even with our best intentions, the poor would get poorer and the rich would get richer, the hungry would starve and the filled would bloat. 

Enough would never feel like enough.

But Jesus lays down his life for God’s people not because he is asked to do so, but because he chooses to give himself for us. 

We can, of course, initiate new programs to fee the hungry in the community. We should do that work. We can also give away clothing to those in need, or start offering micro-loans to small local businesses, or help teach individuals and families how to budget their money.

The list could go on and on and on.

And it would never be enough.

There will always be more for us to do, but the one thing we could never do has already been done for us. The work of Christ, life-death-resurrection, provides all the enoughness we could ever really hope for. It is the sign that though we are unworthy, Christ makes us worthy, though we have sinned, Christ offers pardon, though we feel empty, Christ proclaims that we are enough.

Because Christ is enough. Amen. 

Alive In Death – A Baptism Homily

Ephesians 5.1

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Dear Carson,

I hope someone takes a few pictures today, because you’re definitely not going to remember any of this. And even if if there are no pictures to mark the occasion of your baptism, I hope some that are present will tell you the story. And even if none of those people remember anything about today, I’m writing you this letter so that one day, you might be able to look back at this decision that was made for you, and you can begin to appreciate how strange it all was. 

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When I stood before your parents and brought them into their wedded bliss, of which you are a result (you’re welcome by the way), I told them that marriage is a mystery.

And I meant it.

Couples, even those as in love as your parents, have no idea what they’re doing when they get married. They think they know what marriage is supposed to look like or even feel like, but it will always be one of the most profound mysteries we will ever encounter in the world.

And Carson, make no mistake about it, what we will do to you and for you today has been to willfully place you in the path of another mystery – one even greater than the strangeness that is marriage.

Your family and friends have gathered together in one place to see you cutely baptized in the water as countless others have been before you but, to be honest, there’s nothing very cute about what is going to happen.

Baptism is nothing short of baptizing you into the life of Jesus of course, but also into his death.

In time you will come to find that to be Christian, is to be weird.

Sometimes the strangeness is so pronounced that I find myself bewildered that people even want to become Christians. What I mean to say is: Who wants to willingly give away part of their gifts just to bless other people? Who wants to turn the other cheek when someone strikes them? Who wants to worship a crucified God?

Apparently we do.

The fact that your parents have asked me to baptize you is both a testament to their faith, and their foolishness (at least according to the world). To get all of these people together, friends and family, and make them sit and listen to someone like me wax lyrical about the virtues of death and resurrection, to commit your life to something you will faintly understand, is to participate in perhaps the most counter-cultural thing any of us can ever do.

While the world tells us to do all we can and earn all we can and change all we can, baptism tells us otherwise. 

Instead, today marks the beginning of your bewildering journey into the discomfort of learning that your life no longer belongs to you, neither does it belong to your parents, nor to the rest of us.

You’ve already done, earned, and changed all you can because you belong to God.

Now, Carson, there are some who would prefer that I not speak about death at the moment of your baptism, and I don’t blame them. You will come of age in a world just like the rest of us in which we are constantly denying the one truth – none of us make it out of this life alive. So, some of us will mark your baptism as a rite of passage, something to measure the time of your infancy.

But your baptism, and all baptisms, are actually quite dangerous.

Baptisms are dangerous not because of the water involved, but because in so doing we are setting you against the powers and principalities of the world, and incorporating you into something that will come to drive you crazy.

Carson, I asked you parents to choose the scripture for the occasion of your baptism, just as I asked them to pick the passage for their wedding, and they didn’t disappoint. These words from St. Paul have been used for centuries to encourage those newly in their faith about what their faith is all about.

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

So, Carson, I am here to tell you to do all of that stuff. Imitate God, live in love, whatever that might mean. In other places Paul lengthens this list to include putting away falsehoods, living by humility and gentleness, and learning to speak the truth in love.

And all of that is good stuff, but more important than hearing a list like that is for you to hear this: don’t you ever think for one second that it will earn you anything. 

In fact, by doing those things it will probably make your life harder.

Let me explain – If you want to live in love like Christ did then you will have to do all sorts of nice things, but you’ll also be expected to do some terrible things. The love that Jesus held for others certainly led to him feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and befriending the lonely, but it also led to him turning the tables over in the temple, and praying for his enemies, and eventually it led him to the cross. 

My point, Carson, if there is one at all, is that you can try and try and try and no matter what you accomplish, whether for good or ill, it will never ever negate or change what is done for you and to you today, in Christ.

Paul tells us, again and again, that Christ has already given himself up for us.

That “us” is always bigger than we imagine because it includes all of us.

The person of Christ was a fragrant offering to God such that all of us would be forgiven. 

Or, to put it another way, you don’t have to live like Christ because you won’t be able to – none of us are.

We do not deserve what has been done for us. 

This hits home today because Paul is affirming that you are forgiven in your baptism for all of the sins you’ve already committed. Which, to be clear, are few and far between at this point. Save for that one night that a bunch of people were over at the apartment and you had multiple blowouts in your diaper. 

But this baptism of yours forgives you of all your sins. Not just those that came before, but an entire lifetime of sins yet to come.

In the strange waters of baptism all of us confront the confounding truth that we are all forgiven before, during, and after our sins.

And we are forgiven for one reason, and one reason only: Jesus gave himself up for us. 

In time you will come to discover that this claim is paradoxical in the eyes of the world. You will be bombarded throughout your life with the fallacy that there is always more you can do to earn the approval or the love or the acceptance of others. But you are already precious in the eyes of God and there is nothing, quite literally nothing, you can do to earn, or accept, or even fathom the forgiveness made possible to you.

We, your family and friends, are here with you to simply and fully declare that you already have it. Period. Full stop.

However, lest you discover this letter as a middle school and think you’ve been baptized into zero responsibilities – it’s not that living in love doesn’t matter. I hope you do live by love. But my greater hope is that you don’t fall prey to the foolish believe that whatever you do in that love isn’t enough. 

You are enough.

And, I’ve been doing this long enough to know that no matter when you read this letter, you will fail to understand what was done to you today. None of us really knows what we are doing when we are baptized into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just like none of us know what we’re doing when we get married.

It’s only something we can figure out while we’re figuring it out.

Carson, on some level I’m actually grateful you won’t remember any of this. You might wake up and realize one day that being a Christian isn’t all that its cracked up to be and you might even blame me, your beloved pastor uncle for ushering you into it. But, like most of the things that determine our lives, we don’t really have control over our baptisms.

I’m also particularly grateful that you won’t remember the first time we met. In time you will learn that I’ve known your mother longer than just about anyone on this earth and when she introduced me to your father, I knew she had finally found someone willing to put up with all of her craziness. Though, by now, I know that it goes both ways.

Anyway, when I found out that your parents were bringing you into this world, I began counting down the days until I could hold you in my arms. And, I know this will sound selfish, there’s just something indescribable about being invited into the covenant of marriage between two people, particularly when you love them as much as I love your parents, and then knowing that their covenant has resulted in new life so much so that I feel bound to you in ways both tangible and intangible.

So when the day finally arrived that I got to see you in the flesh, I patiently waited as you were passed around the room and waited until you became fussy with all of the forced baby talk and pinched cheeks from the adults, and I swept across the room, took you out of one of your grandmother’s arms and declared that I would take you into the other room to calm you down and rock you to sleep.

But I was honestly just being selfish.

I wanted to hold you close and whisper the promise of faith into your tiny little ears.

But I never got the chance. Because as soon as I was out of earshot on the other side of the house, and I looked down into your eyes, you looked right at me and I started crying. I cried and cried all over you, to the point that I was worried I would have to wipe you down before handing you back to the family.

Carson, I was overcome by the emotions of the moment because I was filled with a sense of profound gratitude. You are, in lots of ways, a miracle. And not for the simple miracle of child birth and such, but you and your life is a testament to the miraculous ways in which God has stitched this world together. You are the result of a love not only between your parents, but also an entire community of individuals who helped to bring them together, and a God of such immense love and mercy that we have been blessed by your existence.

You, to use Paul’s language, are a beloved child of God.

Carson, in my family, which is beautifully bound to your family, we have a habit of calling one another precious lambs of Jesus. It’s cutesy, and religious, and even a bit weird, but it also points toward the truth of this moment. You are baptized into something you cannot possibly comprehend, you are led into it like a sheep guided by the divine shepherd. In the water offered to you God will bring you into a life defined not by lists and expectations, but by grace and mercy.

It is my hope and prayer, precious lamb, that you come to discover that God neither exists next to us, nor merely above us, but rather with us, by us, and most important of all, for us. 

So welcome Carson, welcome to the complicated and confounding life now defined by your baptism in which in spite of your worst, and even best, intentions, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen. 

The Death Of The Party

Luke 15.1-3, 11b

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons…”

There was a man that had two sons.

The family business had been good to the family. The little grocery store had been passed down generation after generation. It was a staple in the community and the family knew the names of nearly every customer that walked through the doors. 

The father had been good to his sons as much as any father can. And one day the younger son walked into the shop and back into the office to find his father going over the inventory.

“Dad,” he said, “I want my share of the property right now.”

In other words, “Drop dead.”

The father responds by dividing the assets between his sons. To the elder he gives the property and the responsibility of the family business, and to the younger he cashes in on some investments to give him his half in cash.

Only a few days pass before the younger son has blown all of the money in Atlantic City. At first he was careful with his bets at the roulette wheel, but the more he lost the more he spent, on booze, and girls, and more gambling.

His fall from grace happened so fast that before he left the casino he was begging the owner for some work. 

“Sure,” the owner said, “We’ve got a new opening in our janitorial services and you can start right away.”

Within hours he had gone from being the wealthiest individuals in  he casino, to picking up the trash from the now wealthiest people in the casino.

And with every passing day, and every emptied trash bag, he contemplates pulling the scraps of food from the bottom just to provide some sort of sustenance. He had taken to sleeping outside behind the casino in a place where no one would find him, and he would wash his uniform every morning in the sink of one of the public restrooms. 

And finally he came to himself.

He realized that even his father’s employees back at the grocery store had food to eat and roofs over their heads. 

In the midst of accepting the condition of his condition he starts working on his confession. “Dad, I really messed up. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Please just give me a job at the store.” 

So he packs up the little that he has, and leaves the casino without even picking up his paycheck.

And how does the father respond when this prodigal returns home?

He’s sitting by the window, listening to his older son now barking out orders to everyone in the shop before retiring to the back office, and then the father catches a glimpse of his youngest boy walking down the street. And he reacts in what would seem an unexpected way: he bolts out the door, tackles him into the street, and starts kissing him all over his matted hair.

“Dad,” the boy whispers under the tidal wave of love, “I’ve really messed up, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”

“Shut up,” says the father, “We’re gonna close the shop for the rest of the day and throw a party.” 

He grabs the boy by the collar, picks him up, and starts barking orders to everyone in the store to get everything ready. “Hey Joe, pull out the beer.” “Murph, would you mind locking the front door?” “George, do me a favor, find the nicest rack of lamb we’ve got and start roasting it on the grill out back.” “It’s time to party, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”

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And the beer caps start flying, the the radio in the corner get turned up to full blast, and everyone starts partying in the middle of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the time sheets, making sure that none of his employees are trying to swindle him out of some money, and he hears the commotion on the over side of the store. He catches a glimpse of George with beer foam stuck in his mustache running out the back door with what looks like a leg of lamb, and he shouts, “What in the hell is going on?”

George skids to a halt in the hallway, and declares, “It’s your brother, he’s home, and your father told us to party.” And with that he runs out the back door to get the grill going.

The older brother feels his fists tightening and he retreats back into his office and he slams the door.

And with every passing minute, and as his rage increases, the party just gets louder on the other side of the door. The older brother tries to distract himself with the work before him, but he eventually gives into his feelings and throws the ledger across the office and puts a hole in the wall.

And that’s when he hears a knock at the door. 

His dad steps across the threshold, clearly in the early stages of inebriation. He mumbles something like, “What’re you doing back here? You’re missing the party.”

But the older son is incredulous. “What do you mean ‘what am I doing back here?’ I’m doing my job. Look, I’ve been working live a slave for you for years, and I have never missed a day of work. And yet, you’ve never thrown a party for me, you’ve never told me I could go home early. But this prodigal son of yours returns home, having wasted all of your money with gambling and prostitutes, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”

And the father sobers up for a moment while listening to his son lamenting his present circumstances. And maybe its the beer, or maybe it’s just his own frustration that causes him to shout back in return, “You idiot! I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me, you’ve been working for yourself. The last I checked you were the one in charge around here.”

The older son stands speechless. In all his years he had never heard his father speak so freely.

And the old man continues, “Remember when your brother told me to give him his inheritance, well I gave you this. And what does your life have to show for all of it? You’re so consumed by the rules, and doing what you think you’re supposed to do, and you’re clinging to something that isn’t real.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you ‘But Dad’ me right now. Listen! All that matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And look at yourself – you’re hardly alive at all. Listen to the party that’s bumping in the other room. We’re all dead and having a great time. You, you’re alive and miserable. Keep complaining all you want, but don’t forget that you’re the one who owns this place.”

The father turns to go rejoin the party, but before he crosses the threshold he turns back to look at his older son and says, “The only reason you’re not already out there having a good time with the rest of us is because you refuse to be dead to all of your dumb rules about how you’re life is supposed to be enjoyed. So do yourself a favor, son of mine, and die already. Forget about all your stupid rules and just come and have a drink with us.”

This has to be the most well known story that Jesus tells in the gospels. And, strangely enough, the whole thing is about death. The first death takes place right at the very beginning. The father is asked to effectively commit vocational suicide to give his sons their inheritance prior to his biological death. The second death happens when the prodigal wakes up dead, or rather dead to the life that he once had back home. Reduced to the shame of working for nothing he comes to himself and realizes that whatever life he thought he had is gone forever.

So he returns home to a moment of profound judgment and grace. It is a bizarre reunion, and the son realizes that he really is dead, and that if he is going to have any new life at all it will be through his father who willingly died for his behalf.

Notice, the confession on his lips, the one he planned for, follows forgiveness. Only after being tackled to the ground by his father does he come into contact with the completely unmerited gift of someone who died, in advance, to forgive him.

Confession, at least according to Jesus, is not something we do to earn forgiveness. The best we can ever do is open our eyes to what we already have and then respond with our confession. 

In the church we talk about forgiveness all the time and we do so without recognizing the true weight of our forgiveness. We say things like, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” and it’s true. We are forgiven not only for the sins committed before the confession, but also for a who life of sins yet to come. And this is only possible for one reason: Jesus died for us.

Which leads us to the third death – the fatted calf (or the lamb in my version). This is Jesus Christ himself in his own story. What does a fatted calf do? It sits around waiting to drop dead at a moment’s notice in order that people can have a party. I don’t mean to sound so crass, but this is what Jesus is saying. 

This whole story, the beloved tale of the prodigal son, isn’t about our religious observances, or our spiritual proclivities, or even our bumbling moral claims. It’s about God having a good time and just dying, literally, to share it with us.

But, lest we forget about the older brother, he shows up in the story to show the Father how foolish he is. When in fact, the greatest fool of all is the one who stayed home. He’s the fool because he refuses to die – not literally, but to his crazy sensibilities about the world and about his work. 

He is so convinced, too convinced, that doing all of the right things will be enough to save him. His refrain is “I did everything I was supposed to. I stayed home. I took care of my responsibilities. I planned accordingly. I was perfect.” And yet his life is anything but perfect. And he cannot stand the idea of his father throwing a party for his brother who deserves nothing.

But we all deserve nothing. 

Grace is a crazy thing. Jesus tells this story and whenever we hear it we are quick to read ourselves into the story. We can think of times when we’ve been the prodigal, and we made bad choices. We can think of times when we’ve been the Father, waiting to receive the one asking for our forgiveness. We can even think of times when we’ve been the older son and we’re just so angry that someone else gets something for nothing.

But this story is really about the party and the craziness of grace. The party is already happening. Jesus has already marched to the top of Calvary. We were dead, but now we’re alive. We were lost but then God found us. 

And the best part is none of us deserve it. Amen.

 

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