Unbelievable

Luke 24.1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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The tomb was empty and the body was gone.

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

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

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

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

Have you ever had to bury someone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Were you vandalizing the church property?”

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

“Really?” He said incredulously.

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

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

“Well, what does the sign say now?”

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

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

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

“All of what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do you look for the living among the dead? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They don’t believe it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he left. 

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

But I see resurrection everyday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Hope Rages or: All Y’all Get To Be Eastered

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast we have three episodes for Holy Week and we end with Easter [C] (Isaiah 65.17-25, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15.19-26, John 20.1-18). Joanna Marcy Paysour was kind enough to join me for this episode. Our conversation covers a range of topics including proclamation by subtraction, redeeming the season, theologically complicated hymns, moving from Friday to Sunday, confetti eggs, dust-ness, women preachers, naked gardening, and seeing the Lord. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hope Rages or: All Y’all Get To Be Eastered

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Saved In Death

Devotional: 

1 Corinthians 15.36

Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 

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There are two types of stories we can tell in the church. 

1. There’s a lifeguard who has just ruled that the surf is no longer safe for the visitors at the beach. He ascends to the top of his vaulted chair until the wind dies down but then he hears a few people shouting down the beach. As he glances toward the commotion, he sees fingers pointed out toward the ocean, and he immediately grabs his binoculars and discovers a woman in struggling to keep her head above water. He then rushes down toward the water, swims as hard as he can against the current, grabs the struggling woman, and drags her to safety on the shore. Countless observers watch as the winded woman expresses her gratitude toward the life guard who has saved her life.

2. Same as the first, except when the lifeguard makes it out to the water, he is unable to overcome the pull of the water, and the drowning girl, and they are both pulled below the surface. The crowds on the sand wail in fear and sadness. However, on the lifeguard stand, attached to a clipboard, was a note with the following words: “Everything will be okay, she is safe in my death.”

This two-type typography comes from Robert Farrar Capon who notes that we can tell both of these stories in church, but we are FAR more inclined to tell the first. It has a happy ending, there is a noble hero, and the crowds get to witness a “miracle.” But, upon comparison, there’s nothing that miraculous about it. Sure, the drowning woman has been saved, but she has only been saved to eventually die in the future. Sure, the lifeguard appears heroic but he was doing nothing more than his job. Sure it appears magical and powerful, but it doesn’t really result in any profound changes; people will still swim in dangerous oceans.

The second version leaves us uncomfortable. Its ending appears tragic, the hero dies, and the crowds witness a tragedy. It strikes us as a rather dark tale, and certainly not one that we want to hear about in church on Sunday mornings.

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And yet the second story is the story of the gospel!

We are not saved by Jesus only to die again in the future – his death defeats death. 

We are not saved by being better swimmers (studying out bibles, praying our prayers), because the waves of life will keep crashing on us regardless.

One of the most important, and least talked about, aspects of faith is that we are saved in our deaths, not in our attempts to live better and more faithful lives.

When we start to realize that the second story is our story, other parts of the puzzle begin to fall in place. We are no longer trapped by the feeling of having to be perfect for God to love us. We are freed from believing that any of our sins (Any!) have the power to separate us from God’s grace. We break away from the crazy idea that we have to be morally perfect to earn God’s favor.

If all we tell is the first story, then Jesus really is nothing more than a lifeguard who saves us only for us to die again.

But if we tell the second story, the challenging and truthful and even dark narrative, then Jesus’s death really is the thing that bring us life. 

Love Is A Crazy Thing

Devotional: 

Jeremiah 17.9

The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?

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Last night I frantically paced through the grocery store while looking for Valentine’s Day gifts. You might be thinking that I am a delinquent husband neglecting to properly procure said gifts with plenty of days to spare, but these were not little trinkets for my wife. Instead I was trying to find appropriate cards/items that my son could hand out during his Preschool party today. 

Tucked away in the corner of the store were shelves upon shelves of pink, red, and white. And at the bottom were the kid friendly gifts and when my son saw a package containing Lightning McQueen pencils, he tucked them under his arm and triumphantly declared, “We’ve got our plan!”

This morning, as we were walking across the parking lot toward his preschool, he inexplicably looked up at me with his Valentines in his hand and asked, “Daddy, why do we give these presents?”

And I realized that I had yet to even explain Valentine’s Day to him.

In the moment I just offered a brief response about how it’s a kind way to show the people around us that we love them, but upon getting back to my car I couldn’t get his question out of my head.

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Because I know about Saint Valentine for whom the day is named, and it’s always been strange for me to reconcile what so many of us will do tomorrow with who he was.

There were numerous Christians in the early church named Valentine and many of them were martyred for their faith. But perhaps the most famous was Valentine the Bishop of Terni during the 3rd century. The story goes that he was put under house arrest by Judge Asterius for evangelizing and the two of them eventually struck up a conversation about Jesus. The judge wanted to put Valentine’s faith to the test and brought him his blind daughter and asked him to heal her – if Valentine was successful, the judge agreed to do whatever he asked.

So Valentine placed his hands on the girls blind eyes and her vision was restored.

Overcome by the miracle the judge eventually agreed to be baptized and freed all of the Christian inmates under his authority.

Later Valentine was arrested again for his continued attempts to evangelize and was sent before the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Though Claudius liked having Valentine around, he tried to convince the emperor to become a Christian and the emperor condemned him to death unless he renounced his faith.

Valentine refused the emperor’s request and was beheaded on February 14th, 269.

Later additions to the story imply that shortly before his execution, Valentine wrote a note to the young girl he once healed and signed it “from your Valentine” which is said to have inspired the Hallmark holiday that tomorrow brings.

So what does a beheaded Christian martyr have to do with boxes of chocolate and bouquets of flower?

The prophet Jeremiah warns that the heart is devious above all else. It compels people to do incredible things, but it can also compel people to do horrible things. Who can possibly understand what love can make us do?

I often think it’s crazy to see the kind of stuff people will do tomorrow, including the amount of money that people will spend of trivial and fleeting items. But others will say that Valentine’s willingness to give his life for Jesus is even worse.

Love is a crazy thing.

It just also happens to be how God feels about us.

So much so that God in Christ, out of love, mounted the hardwood of the cross to die for us.

Happy early Valentine’s Day!

Christ Takes It For Granted That People Are Bad

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joshua Retterer about the readings for the 6th Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Jeremiah 17.5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15.12-20, Luke 6.17-26). Our conversation covers a range of topics including internet friends, discipling interns, distrusting mortals, the color green, the Law, reading Romans, preaching the same sermon every week, the bodily resurrection, the morality of wealth, and lighting money on fire. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Christ Takes It For Granted That People Are Bad

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You’ve Got To Set Yourself On Fire

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Isaiah 6.1-13, Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11, Luke 5.1-11). Our conversation covers a range of topics including fishing with Jesus, deserted island scriptures, prophetic imagination, transformation by fire, the call to confusion, theological reset buttons, the intimacy of creation, resurrection lenses, spiritual hangovers, and leaving everything behind. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: You’ve Got To Set Yourself On Fire

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