Devotional – Psalm 90.12

Devotional:

Psalm 90.12

So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.

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These are frightening words. We can read through the Psalms and discover just about every human emotion under the sun; we can dance with joy and weep with sorrow, we can raise our fists and anger and fall to our knees in gratitude. But confronting our mortality? That’s a challenge.

When I was in seminary one of my professors told me that the hardest thing about being a pastor is that I have to remind people that they are dying when everything and everyone else tries to claim the contrary. I have been given the unenviable tasks of proclaiming the deep truth of our mortality in hospital rooms, in church offices, and always at the grave.

Most of us are tempted to believe that we are invincible and that life will never catch up with us. We are tempted to believe that death isn’t real. Countless commercials and products are advertised with the sole purpose of prolonging our inevitable end. Even in church, we spend so much time talking about the joy and hope of God in the resurrection from the dead, that we fail to spend adequate time reminding ourselves of our own earthly finality.

I received a phone call yesterday afternoon from our church secretary informing me that there had been an accident on the church property. A man was driving under the influence and lost control of his vehicle, smashed into our church sign, and eventually flipped over until it came to a stop. The man was quickly rushed to the hospital where he was treated for relatively minor injuries. And when I spoke with the police officers on the scene they kept saying the same thing over and over again, “He’s so lucky it wasn’t worse.”

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Death is a frightening thing. Contemplating our finitude is by far one of the strangest things we do as Christians. But in the end, we do it so that we may gain wiser hearts, so that God might sustain us in the midst of our sinful lives, and above all so that we can appreciate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and take solace in the glory of the resurrection.

It is my prayer that the man who crashed his car into our church sign yesterday will count his days and gain a wiser heart. Through God’s grace I hope he see’s his life for the tremendous gift that it is, and he gives thanks for all that has been given to him; including one more day.

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Now What?

1 Peter 1.3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

The existence of the church is a miracle. We live in a world so steeped in the need for scientific, historical, and verifiable fact that the existence of a community based on a person we have never seen is nothing short of a miracle. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ indeed!

However, this profound miracle is not limited to our contemporary world’s desire for things seen and observed.

According to the New Testament, only a scattering of people ever saw the resurrected Jesus after the first Easter. The disciples in the upper room, a smallish crowd heard his teachings, a handful of people saw the ascension. And from them, from their witness, the church was born.

They were filled by the power of the Spirit to live out the resurrection in their lives and it shined brightly wherever they went. They went on to tell their friends and families what they had experienced. They wrote letters to different communities. They traveled around sharing the Good News.

And today, I am sure that each of us can think about someone in our lives who was like those first disciples; we can remember someone whose faith shined brightly wherever they went. It is in large part because of them that people like you and me are receiving the outcome of our faith, the salvation of our souls.

Today is a strange day in the life of the church; Clergy and church folk often call today “Low Sunday.” It is a terrible name. People refer to it as such because, traditionally, the first Sunday after Easter has the lowest attendance of any Sunday in the year. And there is almost an unavoidable feeling of lowness after the highness of a packed church on Easter only to be filled with the likes of us one week later.

The resurrection of Jesus was not like that. No, it grabbed hold of people in a way never seen before. The inexplicable, unexplainable, and uncontainable event of the resurrection resulted in glorious joy. Like dancing in the streets, laughing on the floor, tears in the eyes kind of joy; a contagious joy that forever changed the fabric of our reality.

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Years ago I read a book by Donald Miller titled Blue Like Jazz and in it he describes his relationship with jazz music: “I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside a theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes and he never opened his eyes. After than I loved jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It’s as if they are showing you the way.”

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.

Similarly, I love jazz music. To me, there are few things as wonderful as sitting down and listening to an old Dave Brubeck LP. But I used to hate jazz. I hated how confusing it was, how unmelodic it could be, and how indefinable it was. I hated jazz until I started playing jazz.

12 year ago my high school jazz band needed a drummer and I signed up. I played Christian rock songs every Sunday for my church and I thought, “How hard could it be to play jazz?”

It was hard.

But every day I sat behind the drum-kit until my fingers were blistered and calloused. I watched my peers hold back smiles while blowing into their horns and while their fingers were flying over the keys. In response to their love for the craft I started listening to jazz in my spare time and tapped along on my thighs and countertops. I immersed myself into the strange new world of jazz, and before long I fell in love. I fell in love with the wonderful solo runs that were never the same, I fell in love with the strange time signatures and rhythms, I fell in love with the genre of music I hated because I watched others love it.

How many things in life are like that? How many of our hobbies and cultural obsessions were born out of someone else’s love and obsession?

More than four years ago I received the phone call about coming here. I was with Lindsey in New York visiting my, at the time, soon-to-be sister-in-law when a familiar voice on the other side of the phone said, “The bishop has discerned that your gifts and graces will be most fruitful at St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA.” To which I said, “I think it’s pronounced STAUNton.

I never made that mistake again.

So I looked up the website, searched for any information I could find on Google, and started praying. And I’ll admit, after checking the statistical data and other relevant materials I thought, “How am I going to love these people? I don’t know anything about Staunton, the community, or the church.”

And then at the end of June in 2013 I showed up for my first Sunday. I smiled at all of you and led us through worship, I almost forgot to take up the offering, and when I walked down the aisle after my first benediction I let out an unnecessarily loud and deep sigh.

I knew nothing about what it meant to be a pastor, or even what it meant to serve God in this place. But then I started watching you. Like a saxophone player on the street corner, I watched you close your eyes and make beautiful music in your lives.

I saw your love of God through Marshall Kirby bear-hugging every person that walked into this church, whether they wanted it or not. Through Pam Huggins’ never-ending, and forever-repeating, stories about how God has showed up in her life. Through Alma Driver’s limitless knowledge of who came to this church, where they sat, and what they were like. Through George Harris’ insistence on standing next to me after church to say goodbye to everyone as if he were the associate pastor. Through Dianne Wright keeping Hallmark in business by sending people cards for no reason other than the fact that she wants them to know that God loves them. Through Grace Daughtrey spilling grape juice all over herself while attempting to serve communion. Through Rick Maryman’s brilliant use of timing and rhythms through the hymns we sing and the anthems we hear. Through Dick Pancake’s joining the church after refusing to become a United Methodist for decades. Through Jerry Berry’s theologically probing comments offered after nearly every sermon. Through Ken Wright crawling on his hands and needs to pick the weeds. Through Eric Fitzgerald and Mike Hammer’s willingness to be dressed up like fools for a children’s message. Through Sue Volskis’ continued calls to make sure that everything was going well. Through Leah Pack’s pats on the back after the good, and the bad, sermons. Through Bob Pack mocking me from the back every week. Through Dave Fitzgerald offering to preach a better sermon than I have ever offered.

Through every rolled sleeve to clean dishes; through every casserole provided for a family in grief. Through every committee meeting, every bible study, every Circle gathering. Through every mission trip, hospital visit, and picnic.

I literally could go on and on with the myriad of ways that I’ve seen God’s love through your love but I would break my rule of keeping sermons under fifteen minutes.

What I’m trying to say is this: I learned what it means to love God through all of you. For the last four years I have been blown away by your remarkable capacity to love one another and the Lord.

All of you are the reason that, even though I have not seen Jesus, I love him, because I see his love manifest in you. That is why I rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy. You practice resurrection daily, you are receiving the outcome of your faith, and salvation is here.

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You have taught me what it means to be Easter people. As Easter people there is a “not yet” to the fullness of God’s salvation, but there is also a “now” to the anticipation and joy of that fullness. That alone is reason enough for us to sing and praise the Lord. That alone is reason enough to be filled with a hope that does not disappoint. That alone is reason enough to believe that God truly does make all things new.

By the Lord’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.

In the last four years I have watched people who were spiritually dead be resurrected into new life through your faithfulness. I have seen you surrounded people in the midst of sorrow when they needed it most. I have witnessed your faith through all the crazy things I’ve asked you to do in responding to the Word, like reconciling with people with whom you were angry, like burning palm branches as a commitment to leaving behind our broken identities, like even dancing in the pews to a Justin Timberlake song in anticipation of the joy of our promised resurrection.

God has brought this church back to life through you. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!

In the United Methodist Church clergy people like me make a vow to go where the Spirit leads us. When I was finishing seminary I lived into that promise when I received that phone call about coming here and I embraced it. I came here not knowing what it would look like, how it would feel, or whether or not it would be fruitful.

And I can say to you today with joy that serving this church has been the greatest privilege of my life.

But the Spirit is moving. Over the last few months the leadership of the church and I have been in prayer and we have discerned the time has come for me to respond to the Spirit yet again in a new place, and that the Spirit is calling a new pastor to serve St. John’s. And in response to that prayer and discernment, our Bishop has projected to appoint me to different church at the end of June: Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge.

I am grateful beyond words for the many ways you have showed me how to love God, and that I get to share your love of God in a strange new place. I have nothing but hope and faith that this church will continue to pour out God’s love on the last, the least, and the lost, because that is who you are. I rejoice in the knowledge that God is doing a new thing for this community.

By the Lord’s great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This is a time of new birth for St. John’s; a new pastor, a new chapter, a new beginning. On this side of the resurrection we are bold to proclaim our joy in God making all things new. Amen.

Devotional – John 20.19

Devotional:

John 20.19

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

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The doors were locked because the disciples were afraid. Jesus broke forth from the chains of death in the morning, but by the evening the disciples were locked up at the house. And John is quick to tell us that they did so for fear of the Jews. Perhaps the disciples were afraid that the fate of crucifixion was coming for them next, or at the least they would be attacked and driven from the city. But nevertheless, the Word become flesh is resurrected and the closest followers of Jesus are hidden in a room.

Were they really afraid of the Jews? Or was there something else that drove them to lock the doors and cower in the corner?

I think that the disciples were certainly afraid of the Jewish leaders, particularly in light of what they had done to Jesus, but I also think the disciples were afraid of the risen Jesus. These disciples, these followers of the Messiah, had all abandoned him at the end, they had denied him, and now he’s back! I would be hiding too.

How often do we fail our friends only to cower in fear as we wait for their response? I know far too many people (myself included) who will ignore that email, text message, or phone call from a particular individual not because of anything he/she did, but because of what we did.

Thanks be to God that Jesus did not leave the disciples hiding in fear behind locked doors. Thanks be to God that the gospel was too important to remain hidden. Thanks be to God that Jesus came in, stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.”

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Do we believe that Jesus could show up in our lives when we are ashamed for something we’ve done? How often do we hide (literally or figuratively) behind locked doors when we have failed our friends or families? What would it look like to live like we believed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead?

As Easter people we are committed to practicing resurrection here and now in anticipation of our promised resurrection. This means that we cannot take the people around us for granted, it means we cannot stay hidden in shame, it means that we have to be brave and courageous people willing to say “peace be with you” to the people with whom we feel no peace.

Looking For Jesus In All The Wrong Places

John 20.11-18

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, what are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

I love learning about different Easter traditions. Some families will insist on purchasing matching outfits for the family so they can get that perfect picture for the mantel. Others will spend weeks crafting the perfect Easter menu for the family following church. And still yet others will take time to dye Easter Eggs with the kids, and scatter them throughout the house.

In my family, we always had our Easter baskets to rummage through before church. I can vividly recall waking up as a child and experiencing the profound wonder and joy that the Easter bunny had come to my house, and left a basket full of goodies just for me.

But as I got older and wiser, apparently the Easter bunny did as well.

One year, probably toward the end of Elementary school, I came downstairs on Easter and there was no basket with my name on it. I know that I looked straight toward my mother with a look that said, “What happened?!”

She smiled and said, “Taylor I came downstairs early this morning and I discovered something new and something strange. The Easter bunny knows you’re getting older and decided to hide your Easter Basket.”

And thus began a wonderful and bewildering tradition in the Mertins household. Year after year the bunny became craftier with hiding spots. Once, after searching for a good fifteen minutes, I found my Easter basket in one of my sister’s closets, another time it was hidden outside on the picnic table, and still yet another time (after a very frustrating search) I found it in the attic.

But one year, I couldn’t find it. I looked and looked. I went out to the shed. I climbed up the magnolia tree. I even looked in the refrigerator. No Easter basket.

My mother, being the great mother she is, had already searched through the house and found it, but refused to participate. The only hint she gave me was this: “It’s in a place you never go to.”

I searched that house top-to-bottom, bathrooms, closets, hallways… I went over the same places with a fine-toothed comb multiple times, but I couldn’t find it. I was at the point where I was convinced the Easter bunny had forgotten about me. But my mother, being the great mother she is, saw me in agony, walked over to the laundry machine, opened the lid, and pulled out my Easter basket.

I had been looking in all the wrong places.

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Jesus was killed on a cross and then buried in a tomb. After three days Mary went to the tomb and was shocked to discover that the stone covering the entrance had been rolled away. So she ran to tell the disciples. Peter and John in turn ran back out to the tomb with Mary and found the linens that had covered Jesus’ body neatly folded in the corner. The gospel tells us that they saw this and believed, and then returned to their homes.

But not Mary… No, Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. And while weeping, she leaned into the tomb and saw two angels who asked her what in the world was she doing. She turned from the tomb and saw Jesus, though she did not recognize him. Jesus said to her, “What are you doing? Who are you looking for?” And supposing him to be the gardener, she said, “If you took him away please tell me where he is!”

And Jesus said, “Mary” and her eyes were opened to the resurrection.

Mary was looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. How many times had she heard him proclaim his death and resurrection? How many times had he told her what was to happen? What did she think he meant when he said “I will rise up again”?

The resurrection of the dead, Easter, it upsets and upends all expectations. Mary, this follower of Jesus, someone whose life was forever altered and transformed by the Lord, cannot even come close to it without hearing Jesus call her by name. She cannot fathom what it is she is looking for and even confuses Jesus for the gardener.

Mary gets a pretty bad rap in the church for confusing her Lord for the maintenance man. I mean, hadn’t she spent nearly every day with him since he saved her from the crowd ready to stone her? Wasn’t he the most important person in her life? And she supposes him the gardener?

But maybe Mary sees more than she knows, and more than we give her credit for. Maybe she really saw the Gardener. After all, God had given life to Adam in the Garden long ago and called him to take care of it. Perhaps in the resurrection Jesus has become all that God intended: He is the Gardener of God’s creation; He is new Adam. Maybe the bible has come full circle from the Garden of Eden to Jesus as the gardener through Mary.

            She sees and believes.

Many of you know that I have a Good Friday tradition of carrying the cross through Staunton. If you’ve ever been here with us on Easter you’ve heard stories about my experiences of carrying that large cross over my shoulder. You’ve heard about the countless people who have said, “God bless you.” I’ve shared with you my sadness about the people who shouted curse words as I walked passed.

I carry the cross through our town because I want the death of Christ to rattle them out of their complacency. I want them to know and remember what God was willing to do for them. I want them to see the cross and believe.

So on Friday, like I’ve done the last three years, I got to the sanctuary a little before noon, grabbed the cross, and started walking. Before I even made it to the Post Office, 5 cars had pulled over to thank me for what I was doing. From St. John’s to downtown I was blessed by a great number of people with honks, waves, and the occasional “Amen brother!”

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But when I got to Beverley Street, something changed. I walked up toward the Valley Mission and then back toward Mary Baldwin, and no one so much as even looked at me. When I carried the cross for the first time people avoided me by jaywalking to the other side of the street and averting their gazes, as I got close. But this was different; it was like I wasn’t even there.

Now, to be clear, I’m not looking for attention or praise while walking around this town, but I was dressed in all black with rather large cross over my shoulder; I’m hard to miss. And this year, this Good Friday, people could not have cared less.

They kept talking with their friends. They walked hand in hand with their children. They continued to type on their phones. And the cross seemingly meant nothing to them.

We live in a strange new world; one in which the cross can be ignored and the message of resurrection can be limited to a basket, or a bunny, or some eggs.

So I kept walking, feeling a little hopeless about the power of the cross and the Good News. I got to the top of Beverley Street and walked passed Mary Baldwin and the Food Lion. I just wanted to get back to church and rest.

But then the Lee High bell rang and all the kids started leaving. “That’s just great,” I thought. “It’s one thing to be ignored by families downtown, but a one bunch of teenagers? C’mon God.”

I kept walking up the hill, and a great line of High School students were walking down right toward me. And when the first one got close, she stood right in front of me, coughed to get my attention, and then said, “That’s so cool!”

For the next 30 minutes I had conversations with just about every kid on that sloped section of Coulter Street. We talked about Jesus, the cross, and resurrection.

And, unlike many of us, their response was joyful. Many of them thanked me for doing what I was doing; a good number of them asked me more questions, and most of them walked away smiling.

Those high school students weren’t burdened with questions about how this could happen, or the theological ramifications of such an act, or who gets to be part of the resurrection from the dead. They heard the Good News, and that was enough.

How often do we go looking for Jesus in all the wrong places?

We purchase the latest self-help book assuming that it will fill the emptiness we feel. We look for him in the bottom of a bottle when we lose someone we love. We search for him in finite and material experiences in attempts to deny the inevitability of our lives.

When the truth is that Jesus is near us all the time and we regularly fail to recognize him: in the face of the hungry stranger standing in the median by the stop light; in the hopeful Word of a timely sermon; in the bread and the cup at this table, in the strange encounter with teenagers who are perhaps hearing the Easter story for the first time.

Sometimes we treat this story as if it’s the ending, like the whole Christian year leads up to this and we’re done, like the faithful life concludes with an empty tomb. I’m not sure why we do that, because the apostles and earliest Christians understood Easter not as the dramatic conclusion to the story. For them, as it should be for us, Easter is the beginning.

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It is the beginning of God making all things new. It is the beginning of the end for the powers and principalities that struggled to captivate the world. It is the beginning of a new time not under the dominion of death, but one that stands in the light of the glory of God.

It is the beginning of a new relationship between God and his people where, instead of looking for Jesus in all the wrong places, Jesus comes looking for us. Jesus meets us in the midst of life when we least expect it, on a hill outside of a high school, in the wave of a neighbor, in the words of a hymn, in a phone call from an old friend.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the epitome of God’s power and grace. Through it we see how God took something like a cross, a means of death, and turned it into the joy of life-everlasting. On Easter God transformed the tomb in the same way that He did on Christmas in a virgin’s womb. God made a way where there was no way. On Easter, Jesus opened up a strange new world for people like you and me.

For some of us we might be hearing the story for the first time. For some of the high school students it was definitely the first time. Or maybe you’ve been to church every single Easter of your life and you’ve heard the story over and over. Perhaps it doesn’t strike you like it once did. Maybe this Easter you’re filled with more doubt than hope. Perhaps this Easter you can’t believe you even went to church. But that’s not a bad thing; the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a new beginning; a new beginning for those of us who have never been to church, haven’t been in awhile, or have always been here. This gift we call Easter is for all of us.

So open your eyes and look for Jesus. Discover him in the bread and in the cup, listen for him calling your name in the songs we sing. Witness the power of resurrection in the people in the pews next to you. Hear the Good News, the best news: He lives! And so do we!

Hallelujah! Amen.

Practice Resurrection – Easter Sunrise Sermon

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 on the 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.

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Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Man it feels good to say that word! In the church I serve, we have purposely avoided saying “Hallelujah” since before Ash Wednesday. No hymns, no prayers, no sermons contained the word. And now we can shout it out with all the pent-up gusto we’ve been holding in throughout Lent. Hallelujah! He is risen!

NT Wright is quite a famous theologian and he has said on numerous occasions that on Easter Christians should break out the champagne! But, we’re good United Methodists, so we’re stuck with Welsh’s Sparkling Grape Juice, plus it’s 6:30 in the morning and a bunch of us have other church services to go to after this!

But nevertheless, it’s time to pop some bottles and celebrate! I’ve passed out bottles to all the clergy so just go to the closest pastor to receive your cup. It’s time to shout out some Hallelujah and drink some Methodist champagne!

A Toast: To the God of Grace and Glory who broke forth from the tomb; Hallelujah!

Easter: What is this day all about? For centuries people like you and me have gathered like this to remember the first Easter. But, has Easter changed throughout the centuries?

We have a lady at St. John’s who, I believe, is keeping Hallmark in business. Whenever I visit people from our church community there is a better than good chance that I will see a card from Dianne on a refrigerator, or on a countertop, just to brighten someone’s day. And, wanting to be more like Dianne, I started looking through the greeting cards at Rite-Aid the other day in the section titled, “Easter.”

I flipped through a handful, looking for something appropriate, but then I couldn’t stop myself. And before I knew it I had gone through every single Easter card. They were all filled with nice words like “renewal” and “rebirth” and “revival.” They had colorful pictures of butterflies, lilies, and baby bunnies. But not one of them contained the right word: Resurrection.

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Easter is not the celebration of spring.

This is important! While we are bombarded with images and messages about spring being the season of rebirth and renewal, the resurrection is something entirely different.

I can assure you that the women who walked to the tomb that first Easter were not captivated by the birds singing in the air, or the new buds bursting from the trees. They, as Mark so eloquently puts it, were afraid.

But we are far removed from the strange new world of the bible, and instead we like to make Easter about the egg hunts, the bunny who comes like a thief in the night, and the rebirth of nature. Maybe then, we are actually just like the women who fled from the tomb; the message and power of the resurrection is such that we can barely bring ourselves to say anything about it at all.

I, or any of the fine preachers from Staunton, could stand before you this morning and talk all about the change of seasons, the wonder of the birds chirping as the sun rises, the call to a new life. But does any of that actually grab you? Does it terrify you? Does it fill you with such hope that you would stand against the tyranny of the Roman Empire?

Easter is not about spring. Easter is resurrection.

Resurrection is God’s penultimate Word to us, His creatures. And frankly, it should make us tremble and consider running in the other direction because recognizing this new truth and new reality means that we will, sooner or later, have to give up our dependence upon the things that the world tells us we need: beauty, security, wealth, power, careers, out loved ones, even our lives.

But since you’re here at the crack of dawn to worship the living God, you must surely get it already. You’re here because your lives have been transformed by the power of the resurrection and you can’t go back. Or maybe, just maybe, you’re like me and you’ve heard this story so many times before that you’ve become a little numb to the Good News of God bursting from the tomb. Perhaps we need to be shocked or afraid like the women who ran away. Maybe resurrection isn’t supposed to make us smile and grin. Perhaps resurrection is supposed to make us run away in bewilderment.

Resurrection changes everything.

Just shy of a year ago, my wife gave birth to our son Elijah. And at first it was terrifying. I’ll never forget pushing him in his little basinet down to the recovery room and Lindsey finally getting to rest after the draining ordeal of childbirth. My beautiful wife was sleeping soundly, and our beautiful baby boy was asleep at the foot of her bed. It was a profoundly holy moment. And then Elijah started choking.

At first I looked around for a nurse or a doctor to do something, and then remembered that we were all alone. So I got up, rushed to him, used a suction cup to clear his throat, and he promptly nuzzled into my neck.

Having a baby changed everything.

Eventually we made it home and started figuring out how to exist with another tiny little human being in the house. We got into a good rhythm. And, I decided to start reading to him every night.

He was barely a month old when I picked up my collection of the Chronicles of Narnia and began with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Every night I would flip through the old and worn pages that called us into the strange new land of Narnia. And, of course, it meant nothing to him, but it meant everything to Lindsey and me.

We read the entire collection in just over a month and the very last paragraph of the very last book goes like this: And for us, this is the end of all stories… But for them, it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning chapter one of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

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The end of Mark’s gospel, this wonderful bit about the women running away afraid, is no ending at all. It is a great ellipsis in which the story continues through us. The women were afraid because the resurrection was unlike anything this earth had ever known. They could not comprehend the sheer magnitude of God’s dynamic and reality-altering gift in his Son breaking free from the chains of death.

But their story, and our story, does not end with the written gospel. Their story, and our story, is resurrection. The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is always unfinished. There is an unwritten page left for each of us to write, in which we record the many glorious, joyful, and even frightening things that God has done for and through us.

Easter, resurrection, isn’t perfect like a hallmark card. We cannot contain the inexplicability of God raising Jesus from the dead in pastel colors with a simple quote about renewal. It’s strange, and complicated, and scary.

For some of us Easter creates more questions than it provides answers. For the women at the tomb it was frightening and astonishing. For all of you it probably feels uncomfortable as we passed around out Methodist champagne with shouts of Hallelujahs while gathering in a place like this: a cemetery.

Easter can be downright terrifying.

But’s its not the end of the story. Jesus came alive so that we could come alive. The resurrection forces us to not experience Easter as just a day when the seasons change, but the very life-altering, earth shaking, cosmically confusing, moment of transformation of all things.

This, what we’re doing here, is our witness to the fact that we do not know what will happen next. We do not know when the bell will toll for us. And, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, this frightens us.

But hear the Good News: resurrection is the beginning of a new story, which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before. Jesus’ story, our story, has no end.

Hallelujah! Amen.

Devotional – Matthew 6.28-29

Devotional:

Matthew 6.28-29

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

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In a few hours I will gather with members of the community for a Service of Death and Resurrection for one of St. John’s long-time members, Gracie Jackson. During my first two months serving at St. John’s (almost 4 years ago), I tried to visit as many people as possible from the church community, particularly those who could no longer attend worship on Sundays. I want them to know that the church still cared about them and that they were in our prayers regardless of their presence.

Throughout those first months I was welcomed into a great number of homes and learned so much about Staunton and the impact St. John’s has had throughout the decades. One of my first visits was to the Jackson home where I sat and talked with Lenard and Gracie Jackson. But we didn’t sit for long. Instead, they wanted to give me the grand tour including the basement workshop and the green house in the backyard. There were plants everywhere but one in particular was striking and unlike anything I had seen before. Lenard explained that it was a Night-Blooming Cereus, and like the name implies, it only blooms at night. At the time, I casually mentioned my interest in the plant and we continued the door.

However, a couple days later Gracie told Lenard that he HAD to invite me over to witness the Night-Blooming Cereus in all it’s glory. (Lenard recently told me that in his life there were always two ways to doing things, and both of them were Gracie’s!). So at 10pm Lindsey and I drove over to the Jackson house and the four of us sat in their living room in our pajamas patiently waiting for the plant to do its magic.

When the right time arrived, we huddled in the green house with the dark sky coming through the windows and the cactus bloomed right in front of us. It produced the most exquisite scent and filled the room with its glory. And in that moment I was struck by the holy space we were sharing and was reminded of Jesus’ words from Matthew 6: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

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That Night-Blooming Cereus was one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen and I never would’ve experienced if it weren’t for Gracie’s insistent invitation. Similarly, our faith is something that is offered to us as an invitation. We can read all about the Lord in Scripture, we can pray privately on our own time, but when we share our faith with another person it can bloom in the most exquisite of ways.

I am so remarkably grateful for the time I got to spend with Gracie, and for the many ways she embodied God’s grace for me.

On Using Bad Words In Church

Romans 6.1-11

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

 

What’s the worst word you can imagine hearing from the pulpit? In a world where you can get away with saying and doing just about anything, is the church still a sacred place untainted by the desires of the world? There are plenty of strange and difficult and downright awful stories from scripture that we can read from the lectern, but don’t you think the pulpit should remain nice and clean?

During the season of Lent, we confront our finitude, our sinfulness, and our total dependence on the Lord. It is a tough time for us comfortable Christians, because these are exactly the types of things that many of us would rather avoid.

Gone are the days when we could expect to hear about sin and be challenged and convicted out of it. Gone are the days when we could affirm our finite lives without needing the stark reminder of ashes on our foreheads once a year.

Today, God has been reduced to a bumper-stickered and hallmarked version of love. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Today, church is not the place for judgment and for talk about sin. Regardless of their primacy in scripture, we would all be happier if we could avoid them.

The same holds true for foul language.

Right?

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This is definitely not the place for someone like me to stand in front of people like you and use words that are forbidden from the radio and are relegated to rated-R movies.

As I heard someone say recently, “Preacher, there are just some things you don’t talk about it church.”

There is a seemingly endless list of things not to talk about in church; things like politics, abortion, divorce, war, sex, taxes, just to name a few. But foul language, language that results in soap-in-the-mouth discipline, is a particularly poignant thing to avoid in church.

And I have a friend in ministry who has completely ignored this accepted fact.

He loves to use foul language from the pulpit. Whether it’s the Christmas Eve sermon and the church is filled with young families who only show up for one worship service a year, or an Ash Wednesday service where only the die-hard Christians come out, he’s known for his colorful language. He’ll tell you that he uses those particular words in order to enhance the sermon in such a way that it will become more memorable and hit closer to home.

And a lot of the people at his church can’t stand it.

“Why does he feel like he has to resort to such awful language?” “The church deserves better than this.” “Does he talk to his mother that way?”

And, I think, they have a point. When the language used becomes more memorable or more important than what is being proclaimed, something has fallen a part. For instance: His recent Ash Wednesday sermon was titled “God Doesn’t Give A @#$%” I read it and listened to it online, it was phenomenal. The theology and the proclamation were remarkably faithful to the One who is faithful to us. But a few of the people from the church called me afterward and couldn’t even begin to express what the sermon was about at all; they were still hung up on the title.

However, there is a value to using some bad words in church.

During the season of Lent, this time after Epiphany but before Easter, there is a specific word that we avoid at all costs. It’s really bad. The word is… well, I’m not supposed to say it. Um, how can I do this…

Okay, there’s this great song by Ray Stevens called the Mississippi Squirrel Revival, maybe you’ve heard it, and part of it goes like this: The day the squirrel went berserk // In the First Self-Righteous Church // In the sleepy little town of Pascagoula // It was a fight for survival // That broke out in revival // They were jumpin’ pews and shoutin’ @#$%^&*!”

You know the word I’m talking about? You might not have even noticed it, but we have not said the “H” word in worship since before Ash Wednesday. It has not been read from the lectern, it has not been hidden in one of the verses from our hymns, and I certainly haven’t used it from the pulpit.

We purposely avoid the word during Lent so that when we shout it out on Easter it will mean all that much more. We specifically deprive ourselves of this important and powerful word to create a longing for the realization of all that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus promises to us and to the world.

And there’s another bad “H” word that we need to talk about: Hell.

I don’t mean the place filled with fire and a red-toned, frighteningly tall, horned figure with a trident and a bifurcated tail. I mean using “hell” as an expression.

Paul writes: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” Now, what I’m about to say will probably get me in trouble, but so be it. That little ending, the “by no means” just doesn’t cut it. In Greek the expression is “me genotio” and it is way more emphatic than “by no means.” Some translations have it as “God forbid” or “Definitely not” but even both of those miss the mark.

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In what we read last week, Paul wrote: “When sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” And it’s as if Paul knew that people would hear those words and say, “Dude, that’s awesome! If grace abounds all the more when sin increases, then lets keep the sins rolling!”

And here is Paul’s response: “Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound? HELL NO!

Our lives have changed forever. We can’t just retreat to the ways of the past because grace abounds. God in Christ has made in us a new creation! The gift of God in Christ on the cross was, and is, such that we are forever freed from the tyranny of sin and death. Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound? HELL NO!

But that’s not the last bad word we’re going to talk about today. No, we still need to talk about “Sin” and “Death.” Perhaps two of the worst words that can ever be used in church. And you can tell they’re bad word precisely because of how rarely they are used in a place like this.

We need to talk about these bad words, not because they are normal parts of human experience, but because they are false powers that rule over us. That’s how Paul understood them: Sin reigns, Death has dominion.

You need only turn on the television for five minutes in the evening to see how true this really is: The nighty News hour is filled to the brim with the failures and faults and sins of other people; The Republican Party failed to procure their dream for American Healthcare. Left Wing activists went on a violent strike in another major city. Augusta County citizen receives life sentence for horrible crime. North Korea has another failed missile test but they are getting closer to developing their own weapons of mass destruction. The market fluctuated with each tweet from our president. Test scores have fallen in local school leading to speculation that it will close… All of them are negative.

And then when they go to a commercial break we are bombarded by products designed to make us believe that we can and will live forever; Use this cream and your wrinkles will disappear. Invest in this company and you will never have to worry about money. Go on this vacation and you will feel happy and healthy like the people running on the beach or tanning by the pool.

We live under the tyranny of sin and death. But Paul says this should not be so!

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We who have been baptized into Christ have been crucified with Christ. Our sinful selves are put to death on the Cross so that we will no longer be slaves to the bad words of Sin and Death.

Long ago, we would have known this without Paul having to remind us. Baptisms, long ago, were all about death. That’s where the Baptists beat us today, I’m sorry to say. When the Baptists baptize, they fully submerge people under water. And, depending on the faithfulness of the pastor, the soon-to-be-new Christian might be held under for quite a long time.

You would’ve missed the baptism to death if you were with us in Alexandria when Elijah was baptized. No, we didn’t hold him under a tub of water to embody the death to sin. No, we didn’t give him some old and tattered gown to wear. Elijah looked perfect in his little khakis, and button-up shirt, and bow-tie, and mustard-colored cardigan. Elijah was sprinkled with water, and the perfectly portioned amount of holy oil was smeared in the shape of the cross on his forehead. And, he was carried out to the congregation and held up high by the same preacher who curses too much.

We miss the death to sin in our baptisms. But we have a member of our lectionary bible study who really gets it. Judy had avoided church for decades before God grabbed her by the heart and said, “Follow me.” She brought her questions and her doubts to her preacher, and after a time she felt her heart strangely warmed and felt moved to be baptized.

Unlike babes in the United Methodist Church, Judy marched up to the giant baptismal font and prepared to jump into the all-too-cold water. And outside, through the multicolored stained glass windows, a thunderstorm was brewing.

Judy slowly descended into the water, and with cracks of thunder in the distance the preacher plunged her into the depths of death to sin. I like to imagine that if she opened her eyes underwater, even for the briefest of moments, she would have seen a flash of lighting that illuminated the entire congregation. The whole moment felt as if the rule of Sin and Death, the dominion of the devil himself, was making one final dash to keep her under their control. But alas, the grace of Jesus Christ abounded all the more, and she arose from the water dead to sin and death.

Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? HELL NO!

God has changed us! Not just through the waters of our baptisms, not just through the bread that we break and the cup from which we drink, but also through the death of Jesus on the cross. It changes everything! This gift transforms our very lives to the point that we should feel compelled not to fall back into the old ways, to the old self, ruled by Sin and Death.

But we know the truth: we do fall back. We know that those who are sent to prison for horrible crimes have an all too high likelihood of returning one day. We know that those caught in adultery tend to habitually cheat for the rest of their lives. We know that even the strongest member of an AA group can fall off the wagon.

We know that we fall back.

We say “never again” to so many thing only to have them come right back around. We say never again to the anger, to the cigarette, to the bottle, to the cheating, to the lying, to the hatred, to the racism, to the homophobia, to the elitism, to the narcissism, to defeatism, to a great number of things.

            They never stop.

            The fact that they never stop is evidence of the power of Sin in this world, which reigns in Death.

But our lives have been changed! God has wiped away the old self and clothed us with the new. God washed away our insecurities and insufficiencies and said, “My grace is enough.” God was nailed to the hard wood of the cross to die a death that we might die in our baptism. God was raised from the dead as we were brought forth from the water to live a resurrected and holy life.

            The death Jesus died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So we also must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? HELL NO! Amen.