Something For Nothing

Luke 12.15-16

Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly…”

Vacation Bible School often provides plenty of sermon illustrations. Kids have this knack for pulling away the facade of mature theological interpretations with a curiosity and wonder that makes the Good News good. Case in point: Two nights ago I was trying to convey the truly wild tale of God providing manna in the wilderness to the grumbling Israelites when one of the kids asked, “Why would God be so nice when all they did was complain?”

It’s a great question.

It’s a great question not only for the wandering Israelites, but also for us.

Jesus is doing his Jesus thing when a pair of feuding brothers bring their own query to the Lord. They are fighting over the family inheritance when Jesus drops the parable of the storehouse:

“There is a man who has a field that produces abundantly, and he realizes he doesn’t have enough barns to store all of his crops, so he destroys his small barns and builds even bigger barns to hoard up all his produce. But God says to the man, ‘You fool! When you die, what good are your possessions? You can’t bring them with you.’”

This, unlike a fair number of the parables, is an easy one to, like Jesus, drop on congregations: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. You can’t take your riches with you beyond the grave. Therefore, be generous toward other people. Be generous toward God through your tithes and offering to the church.”

And maybe all of that is true and maybe that’s exactly what we should hear in church. Perhaps we are called to recognize how we have been blessed (in some way, shape, or form) to be a blessing for others.

But if that’s all this parable is for, then it might as well come from a life-coach or a non-profit. The dangling moralism at the end for a more generous way of living could come from any number of sources and mean basically the same thing.

But what makes the parable of the storehouse different is the one who tells the parable.

Robert Farrar Capon puts it this way: “Parables are told only because they are true, not because the actions of the characters in them can be recommended for imitation. Good Samaritans are regularly sued. Fathers who give parties for wayward sons are rightly rebuked. Employers who pay equal wages for unequal work have labor-relations problems. And any Shepherd who makes a practice of leaving ninety-nine sheep to chase after a lost one quickly goes out of the sheep-ranching business. The parables are true only because they are like what God is like, not because they are models for us to copy.” 

We can certainly copy the parable of the storehouse, we can give abundantly because much has been given to us. But the real reason we can do all of that, is because this is a story that Jesus tells about himself.

Jesus, rather than storing up his own life and saving it, willingly lays it down and sheds his own blood for a people undeserving.

The man in the parable has a lot, but he is missing something. He lacks grace. Because when you have grace, you begin to have an awareness of how empty all of our other possessions really are. Possessions cannot add a minute to our lives nor can they save us. The only thing that can save us is Jesus; we just can’t bring ourselves to admit that we’re in need of saving.

From the manna in the wilderness, to the cross and empty tomb, God is in the business of forgiveness, of doing something while we deserve nothing. That’s why Jesus tells the parables he tells because they point to the wild nature by which God’s grace changes the cosmos. 

The parables don’t give us examples of how to live so much as they show us how God lives, and dies, for us. 

Mitchell

1 Corinthians 13.1-13

If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable; it keeps no record of wrongs; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part, but when the complete comes the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love remain, these three, and the greatest of these is love.

John 3.16

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 

Jesus is doing his Jesus thing. He wanders around Galilee, making the impossible possible, telling parables of prodigals and publicans, and confronting cantankerous clergy. And, at some point, crowds begin to follow. Within these crowds are the disciples, the ones called by the Lord to a different life. And these disciples, the ones who are supposed to have this stuff all figured out, they keep interrupting with questions. 

Hey JC, when will this kingdom of yours actually start? 

Teacher, did you really say we need to turn the other cheek?

Lord, who will make it into heaven?

The disciples, to their foolish credit, assume they’ve already made the cut. They, after all, left it all behind to follow Jesus. So what they really want to know is, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

It’s a good question. 

And Jesus answers by picking a random kid out of the crowd and lifting him up. 

It’s a strange moment in the strange new world of the Bible.

All these grown up with their grown up ideas and grown up hopes and grown up assumptions, they stand and watch Jesus take hold of a little kid and he says, “If you want to get into heaven, you have to be like this little boy.”

It’s no wonder the disciples rebuke Jesus for such an answer.

What does this boy have to show for himself? What random acts of kindness earn such a profound distinction from the Lord? 

In the end, all that he has to show matters not at all to the one who comes to make all things new.

If you want to get into heaven, Jesus says, you have to be like a little kid.

To me, Mitchell was always a little kid.

I know that he eventually grew to be taller than me, and perhaps a bit wiser, but because our families grew up together, I couldn’t really see him as anything other than a little kid. 

And, to be fair, he acted like a little kid.

Mitchell could fall asleep in the strangest of places from on a couch during a loud dinner party, to on his boat in the middle of the lake in the middle of the night.

But his childlikeness was such a gift. 

In my life I’ve never known anyone so easy to be around. Whenever he smiled, it took over his whole face and no matter what you might’ve been going through you couldn’t help but smile back. He had this way of shrugging his shoulders that made everyone else realize that we were probably taking everything else a little too seriously. He had a confidence about himself that was bizarrely endearing.

Did you know that when Mitchell was younger he once told Susie that he wanted to get John 3.16 tattooed on his hand so that, when he threw a touchdown on tv, everyone would be able to see it?

That, in a sentence, might be the most Mitchell thing I’ve ever heard.

In the life of faith we are encouraged to have scripturally shaped imaginations. That means that whenever we enter the strange world of scripture, we discover that it is indeed our world. So much so that when we read of Jesus walking down to the sea of Galilee to preach the Good News, it’s not difficult to picture Mitchell waiting off to the side of the crowd joking around with some friends. And then, when Jesus realizes the crowds have grown too large and needs a way to address everyone, Mitchell is the one who volunteers for the Lord to use his wake-boarding boat. But to bring it all home, when people still struggle to hear what Jesus has to say out on the water, Mitchell is the one who informs the Lord that the boat has a killer sound system and he can crank it up, if that’s what the Lord wants.

Jesus says, Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. 

There’s a childlike quality to giving, and receiving, love as conveyed in the Bible. It’s why Paul is so quick to riff on the subject in his first letter to the church in Corinth. For millennia these words have cultivated and curated the people called church: love is patient, love is kind, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Love never ends.

Mike, Susie, Brianna, this is the love that you had for Mitchell. You were patient with him, you rejoiced with him, you wept with him, you laughed with him. You surrounded him in every moment of his life with the tangible beauty of ever-enduring love. Any life is made intelligible only by and through love. And Mitchell was dearly loved.

But the same holds true for how Mitchell loved you and all of us. This gathered body is a witness and a testimony not just to the love we have for Mitchell, but to the love he demonstrated for us. Within these pews are countless stories of love and joy and peace and delight that were made manifest through him. 

Mitchell loved you. Each and every one of you. 

Our lives were richly blessed by him, and will continue to be blessed because of him.

That is why, even in our terrible terrible grief we can be grateful. We can be grateful because Mitchell was such a gift. 

1 Corinthians 13 will always speak words into a moment when we no longer know what to say. The love with which our lives are made possible is the great proclamation that makes the Good News good. 

And yet, for as often as we have read this text to be about us and the love we have for one another, it is actually the declaration of who God is for us. 

You see, God is love. Which means God is patient; God is kind; God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God does not insist on his own way; God is not irritable; God keeps no records of wrongs; God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all thing, and endures all things.

The promise of the Gospel is that no one, absolutely no one, is outside the realm of God’s grace and love. No matter what we do or leave undone, God is for us no matter what.

God’s love for Mitchell knows no end. 

Hear the Good News: In the fullness of time, God in Christ is born into the muck and mire of our lives, wandering the streets of time, making a way where there is no way. And then, Jesus takes all of our sins, past-present-future, nails them to the cross and leaves them there forever. The Lord is locked up forsaken and dead in a tomb. But three days later, God gives him back to us.

We are Easter people. Christ’s resurrection is the promise of our resurrection. The empty tomb is the proclamation that one day we will all feast at the Supper of the Lamb with Mitchell. We will gather at the table around which God makes all things new and there will be no mourning or crying, only dancing and laughing.

But that day is not this day.

Today we weep because Mitchell is gone.

And yet, there’s another time in scripture when the disciples are continuing to badger Jesus with their questions about the kingdom of heaven and to whom it belongs. And Jesus says, “Heaven belongs to those who mourn, those who cry, those who grieve and ache and wish that it wasn’t so, those who know not all is as it should be.”

In short, heaven belongs to people like Mitchell and people like us. Thanks be to God.

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

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. 

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.

Tyler

Grace and peace to each of you in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit,

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Taylor Mertins and, like Jon and Randy, I am a pastor and I serve Raleigh Court United Methodist Church in Roanoke, VA. 

But I grew up in this church, and Tyler was one of my oldest friends.

I am someone who works in the world of words, and I must confess that preparing these words was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

I have 1,001 stories I could tell about Tyler, many of which would not be appropriate to tell in church, and that’s saying something coming from a pastor.

I met Tyler for the first time at my 6th birthday party. My mother had received word that a new family had moved in around the block and she informed me that a boy I never met would be coming to my party because what better way could a child be introduced to a neighborhood.

Let me tell you, that’s an incredible way to parent.

Anyway, I vividly remember this dark haired boy with a cast from his shoulder to his wrist jumping on the bounce house and using his cast to push all the other kids around.

We were fast friends.

There’s a ten year period of my life where I can’t really remember doing anything without Tyler being involved somehow. Our families went on vacation together every year, our first sleepovers were at each others houses, we were together all the time.

Our mothers will tell this story that, one time, they brought all us kids over to Collingwood park and while they stood by the playground with our younger siblings, Tyler and I were running around in the field. And all seemed well, until they really looked at us and they realized we were beating the hell out of each other. So they rushed out into the field and pulled us apart, and the next day were were playing together again.

That is to say: I always felt like Tyler was more of a brother than a friend.

Another confession – during that same ten year period, if I ever got in trouble and some concerned adult asked for my name and my parents name, I never hesitated to say “My name is Tyler Gray, and my parents are Larry and Janet Gray.”

Tyler got in plenty of enough trouble on his own, but Larry and Janet, you probably received at least a few phone calls that were about me and not Tyler.

There are things we did in life that I know we did only because the other one did it. Tyler and I were in cub scouts together and we came to this church for a time on Sunday afternoons to earn our God and Me badge, we went through confirmation together and knelt at this altar in order to respond to God’s grace and mercy, both of which I am sure Tyler did because I did it.

Similarly, Tyler enrolled in German when we were in high school just as I did, and I know for a fact that Tyler never learned a single word. I know he learned nothing because I helped him cheat on every single test and even when he was called upon to stand and respond to our teacher’s questions Auf Deutsch, I would whisper the answer to him and he always answered with a smile on his face.

Entschuldigung Frau.

And it went both ways; I am sure that I signed up to play Ft. Hunt baseball, basketball, and lacrosse because Tyler did. I listened to a lot of punk music in middle school only because Tyler talked about it all the time. I even used to wake up early every morning before school so that I could ride my bike to the Gray’s house and then walk up the hill to ride the bus with Ty.

I wanted to spend as much time with him as I possibly could.

Because I loved him, and he loved me. 

The latter part of high school was rough for Tyler and he went through a lot. So much so that there was a time that we didn’t speak to one another. But when we finally reconnected, one of the first things he told me was that he met a girl on the ski trip.

Sure you did, I thought.

But then he kept talking about Laura, and spent time with Laura, and Tyler started to change, for the better. He became a version of himself that I think he always wanted. In you he found himself. You were the light in his darkness. Your marriage and your girls are a testament to who Tyler became.

He loved you, and you loved him. What a gift.

Larry, Janet, Corey, B, Lauren – you loved Tyler too. You loved the hell out of him. You were patient with him, you were forgiving, you were present.

And he loved you.

No family is perfect, just as no marriage is perfect and no friendship is perfect. But you were all for Tyler in a way that he needed. 

There’s this bit right smack dab in the middle of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome that, for me, I can’t read without thinking about Tyler. Paul has been riffing on the wonders of God’s love and it crescendos up to this remarkable declaration: I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What makes such a statement so profound is the fact that all those things are constantly trying to separate us from one another and from God. Life, at times, is a seemingly endless battle between where we are and where we should be or want to be and, no matter what we do, we can’t get there. And then Paul shouts through the centuries, rattling our souls, with the reminder that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any more, or any less. Nothing can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. 

And yet, the pain of life can sting like nothing else. 

None of us will ever know or understand what happened on Sunday. But today is Good Friday, and if you’ve ever spent time in church you’ll know there really isn’t anything good about today. Churches across the world will gather to worship the King of kings who rules from the arms of the cross. Today is the day we remember Christ’s death.

And, notably, in two of the Gospel accounts Jesus’ final words are, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The incarnate One cries out with his final breaths feeling completely alone, isolated, and abandoned. The Messiah meets his end feeling like he has nothing left.

We will never know what Tyler felt, but Christ does.

And even in death, Jesus isn’t forsaken. 

In three days God gives him back to us.

The promise of Easter is that, one day, we will all feast at the supper of the Lamb with Tyler. We will gather at the table anew when there will be no mourning and no crying.

But that day is not today. Today we weep and we mourn because Tyler is gone.

Sometimes, I fear, we’re too noisy around people who are suffering, trying to make things okay with our words. Nothing will make this okay. What we do need is presence, we need one another. 

So it is my prayer that, in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead that we hold tight to each other. That we give thanks to the Lord who gave Tyler to us. Amen.

The Divine Ellipsis

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Resurrection of the Lord [C] (Isaiah 65.17-25, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15.19-26, John 20.1-18). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including McDonalds, Easter songs, champagne, ecclesial delight, the super psalm, good verbs, lectionary podcasts, Adam’s helpless race, commandment keeping, the destruction of death, All Things Beautiful, skepticism, and brevity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Divine Ellipsis

One Week

Luke 19.28

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 

Fleming Rutledge, patron saint of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast, has often waxed lyrical about the need for preachers to proclaim the Word rather than explain the Word. Explanation often leads to exhortation; the Bible says this so we have to do that. But the Good News is an announcement that God has come into the world and we now live in the light of that in-breaking.

In other words, the gospel is a story – it is the story of God’s people Israel which culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel is not a program, or a set of beliefs, or a collection of rules, or an explanation of how to wind up in the right place when you die.

The gospel is a story, in fact it is the story. 

And preachers do well to tell the story, rather than explain it.

Therefore, here just a few days before Palm Sunday and Holy Week, here is one preacher’s attempt to tell the story of Jesus’ last days before the cross and resurrection…

It was early in the morning when Jesus sent two of his disciples to a village to find a suitable farm animal: a donkey. The time had come to enter the holy city of Jerusalem for Passover, a time when the city’s population would balloon up to 200,000 for the celebration. On a Sunday morning, the crowds gathered with palm branch and shouts of “Hosanna!” they placed their cloaks on the road as a sign of their devotion to the arriving king, and Jesus entered Jerusalem. 

At the same time, on the other side of the city, Pontius Pilate (the Roman Governor of Judea) entered with at least 1,000 soldiers demonstrating the power of the empire. 

One arrived on a donkey, the other arrived on a battle horse.

With the city coming into focus, Jesus began to cry. He looked over the temple and the people of God and he wept. 

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

On Monday Jesus made his way to the Temple with countless other Jews. With the triumphant and parodic entry the day before, all eyes were on this so-called Messiah. As his feet walked over holy ground, Jesus encountered the moneylenders and changers who set up shop in the temple courtyard. They were profiting off those who traveled great distances to make their ritual sacrifices and boosted their prices in anticipation of economic gain.

Jesus, who spent the better part of three years berating the elite for taking advantage of the last, least, lost, little, and dead, became incensed when he saw the poor being ripped off in the name of God. He therefore walked straight over to the tables, lifted them off the ground, and went into a full blown temple tantrum. He declared for all to hear: “This is my Father’s house and you’ve made it into a den of robbers!”

The elite and the powerful now had their eyes set on Jesus. It was one thing to have a crowd with palm branches welcoming a poor rabbi into the city, but it was another thing entirely when he disrupted the status quo particularly when it came to the economic practices of the Temple. The leaders started looking for a way to discredit him, or remove him completely. 

And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

On Tuesday, Jesus once again entered the Temple and he began to teach. If people were excited to see him enter the city, they were now even more eager for a chance to hear and see the One who had been making waves in Galilee, the One who flipped the tables the day before.

While he was teaching the Pharisees and the religious leaders began interrupting and demanded to know from whom Jesus received such authority.

And Jesus, who used parables to teach his disciples and followers, responded to their accusations with head scratching stories about mustard seeds and prodigal sons and kingly banquets. Over and over he used examples to show how those in the places of authority had lost sight of their responsibility and he labeled them hypocrites, snakes, and broods of vines.

They tried to trap him in his words, but he continued to point to the in-breaking kingdom of God.

And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

On Wednesday Jesus left the arena of the Temple and continued his teaching on the Mount of Olives. Some of his disciples made comments about the glory of the Temple and Jesus responded with talk of destruction. He revealed images of God’s cosmic plan for the world made manifest in himself, and he called for his disciples to stay vigilant.

He continued to speak his parabolic utterances and even offered a sermon describing the great inversion of all things. 

His presence and proclamations continued to threaten those in power and they grew afraid.

And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

On Thursday Jesus continued his preaching and teaching until he retreated away with the twelve for their observance of Passover. While sitting at the table they remembered God’s mighty acts for the people Israel as they were delivered from slavery to sin and death into the Promised Land. But before the supper was finished, Jesus did something rather radical. He took a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, and gave it to his friends while saying, “This is my body, I’m giving it for you.” Later, he took the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to his friends while saying, “This is my blood, and I’m pouring it out for you and the world.”

He knew one of his disciples at the table would shortly betray him to the authorities, and he offered him his body and blood anyway.

Later in the evening they went to the garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus urged his disciples to stay awake while he prayed. He knelt on the ground and ended his prayer by saying, “Lord, with you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want. Let your will be done.”

At the conclusion of the prayer, Judas arrived with soldiers. They grabbed and arrested Jesus while the disciples fled into the distance. 

And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

On Friday Jesus was brought to the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. The religious authorities demanded Jesus’ execution by crucifixion, but Pilate could find no fault with Jesus. Pilate then gave the gathered crowds a choice: they could free a rabble rouser named Barabbas or the messianic Jesus of Nazareth.

They chose Barabbas.

Soldiers whipped and beat Jesus nearly to the point of death and then, to mock him, they placed a robe on his shoulder and a crown of thorns on his head. They forced Jesus to carry a cross, his own instrument of death, up to a place called The Skull.

The crowds berated him from either side of the road, “If you really are the Messiah, save yourself!” “Where are all your disciples now!” “Some King of the Jews you are!”

When he made it to the top of Golgotha, the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross and they hung him high to die. With some of his final breaths Jesus offered a prayer that has haunted the world ever since, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” 

With two thieves on either side hanging from their own cross, while some of his disciples watched from a distance, Jesus died.

And there was evening and there was morning, the final week.

And then, three days later, God gave him back to us. But that’s another story for another day. 

Who In The World Is Jesus?

Philippians 3.10

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. 

Years ago, on one particular Good Friday, I took a large cross, lifted it onto my shoulder, and I walked around town for a few hours. It has been a habit of mine ever since I entered the ministry and it is part of my desire to bring the Lord to the people outside the church. I want people to see the sign that we see every Sunday morning in order to be reminded about what we did, and what the Lord has done for us.

Anyway, on that Good Friday I set out for my cross carrying venture and I received a variety of reactions. Some people honked their horns as they drove past. There was a man who offered me water because it was a particularly hot spring day. I even had someone spit at my feet. But mostly, people just stared at the strange sight of a man in all black carrying a cross around town.

I had almost finished my loop when I spotted a woman on the other side of the road with a perplexed look on her face. She was glaring at the cross and then she inexplicably crossed the street and demanded to know what in the world I was doing.

I calmly explained that I was carrying the cross because that’s exactly what Jesus did on Good Friday before he was crucified. And then she said something I, sadly, was completely unprepared to hear: “Who in the world is Jesus?”

I know that I, for one, take for granted the ubiquity of Christianity. That is, I assume that even people who never step foot in a church have, at least, some semblance of an idea about Jesus. But there, on that Good Friday, I encountered someone who knew nothing of the Lord.

Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” Even on the other side of his Damascus experience, his desire to know the Lord was at the forefront of the apostle’s heart and mind. Even for as much as I know the Lord, from encountering God in the strange new world of the Bible, in the sacraments, in the still small silences, I too desire to know the Lord and the power of Christ’s resurrection. At the heart of the church’s gathering is a willingness to proclaim the wonders of God so that all of us come to know who Christ is and who we are in relation to Christ.

But what about those outside the church?

Or, to put it another way, how would you respond to someone who said, “Who in the world is Jesus?”

Faith is an exciting adventure not because it provides all the answers to our questions, but because it encourages us to ask questions in the first place. Here, at the tail end of Lent, with the cross hovering on the horizon, we are compelled to confront the incarnate truth. That truth has a name: Jesus. Jesus cannot be explained  from a pulpit or from a book. Jesus defies all of our expectations and often leaves us scratching our heads.

But that’s the point. God is God and we are not. The best we can do is tell the story of Christ’s death and resurrection that we’ve been telling throughout the centuries. The rest is up to God.