Everything Happens

Romans 8.28, 31-39

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For 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.

Everything happens for a reason. We say something like that to bring comfort to people in the midst of uncertainty, or tragedy, or difficult circumstances mostly because we don’t know what else to say. It is a remarkably common expression among Christian-types and it’s not in the Bible.

Years ago I received a phone call that a woman in my church was in her final moments. She had been suffering from a great number of chronic problems for the better part of two decades and most of her family had not expected for her to live as long as she did. We all stood around her bed together praying and sharing those final moments before she died. 

A few days later, on the eve of her funeral, her now widower husband fell down the steps in front of their house after returning from the wake and was rushed to the hospital. He needed a few days to recover and we delayed his wife’s funeral until he was better. Eventually he sat in the pews with surrounded by his family and worshipped with the rest of us as we gave thanks to God for his wife.

After the burial and reception he returned to his now empty house complaining of our tired he was and after he went to bed, he never woke up again.

A husband a wife dead less than a week apart.

When I got the call about his death, having only seen him the day before, I rushed to the house to meet with the family who were still in town from the wife’s funeral. And one by one I watched and listened as every single family member exchanged a version of “everything happens for a reason.” 

“God just needed another angel in heaven.”

“God wanted them to be married in heaven just like they were married on earth.”

“This was all part of God’s plan.”

And the more I heard it the more my blood boiled. But before I had a chance to blurt out something pastors aren’t supposed to say, one of the couple’s daughters beat me to it.

“That’s BS” she stammered.

Though she didn’t use the acronym.

“If this was all part of God’s plan, then why did God take away my Mommy and Daddy so quickly? Why would God do that to me?”

And that’s when the whole room turned to me, the pastor, the so-called expert on God.

So I said, “If there is a reason for everything, if God killed both of them on purpose, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.”

When we throw out trite and cliche sentences like, “everything happens for a reason” it puts all of the responsibility of every single little thing entirely upon God. 

It makes God into a monster.

The author of car crashes, incurable childhood cancers, and unending wars.

And yet, more often than not, it is our go-to expression when we don’t know what else to say. 

If there are two things that we, as human beings, just can’t stand they are mystery and silence. It’s no wonder therefore that when we face a situation that has no explanation we get as far away from mysterious silence as we possibly can by saying something we think is helpful. We both want to have an answer for every question and we want to be able to get out of uncomfortable moments when we don’t know what to say.

The problem with all of that is we think we’re helping someone when we’re actually making things worse.

Anyone who claims that everything happens for a reason are those who believe God wills every single horrific death, every incurable diagnosis, and even something like the Coronavirus. They see and imagine God as some great puppeteer in the sky instituting every possible contingency such that it must be this way at all times no matter what.

And if that’s true, then every rape, every murder, every act of child abuse or neglect, every war, every storm or earthquake, are all part of God’s plan.

To those who believe that is the case, the response from the daughter whose parents died should suffice.

In his book The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart recalls reading an article in the New York Times shortly after the unimaginable tsunami that wrecked South Asia back in 2015. The article was focused on a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of all his efforts, which included swimming in the rolling sea with his wife and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to save his wife or any of his four children from drowning in the waters. The father recounted the names of his children and then, overwhelmed by his grief, sobbed to the reporter, “my wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here… he will save us” but I couldn’t do it.”

David Hart wonders, in his book, If you had the chance to speak to the father in the moment of his deepest pain, what would you say? Hart then argues that only idiots would have approached the father with trite and empty theological expressions like: “Sir, your children’s deaths are part of God’s cosmic plan” or “It’s okay this was God’s design” or “Everything happens for a reason.”

Most of us, Hart believes, would have the good sense not to talk like that to the father. And then he takes it one step forward. “And this should tell us something. For if we think is shamefully foolish and cruel to say things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”

And to take it one step even further, if we mustn’t say things like that to such a father, then we ought never to say them about God. 

St Paul wrote to the early church in Rome: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Which, for many, justifies the desire to say “everything happens for a reason.”

And yet we so often forget that this verse is the beginning of Paul’s big crescendo to one of the texts we use most often at funeral – nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

What we miss in that profound and powerful declaration is that there are powers and principalities contending against God in this life.

That is, death is something that is trying to separate us from God, but God wins in the end. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated in Christ Jesus, and will ultimately destroy forever in the New Jerusalem. 

That is, to put a fine note on it, the whole point of the Gospel in the first place. 

It would then be nothing but ridiculous for God to delight or even ordain the deaths of those whom he loves for it would run counter to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.”

God does not want bad things to happen to us. But bad things do happen in this fallen and fallible world we find ourselves in. We, all of us, make choices we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should. We contribute in ways both big and small to the tremendous suffering in the world. From delighting in being able to purchase a banana whenever we want from the grocery store (a banana that requires low waged work, an absurd amount of fossils fuel, and harmful chemicals to make it to our plate) to texting while we drive (which distracts us from the kid running into the street to grab his wayward basketball) to a great number of other scenarios. 

Some of the suffering of the world is willed, but not by God. It is willed by us in our relentless pursuit of whatever we think we deserve.

And yet a fair amount of suffering in the world exists not because of us or God, things just happen without explanation

And when those things occurs, whether willed by human beings or random events in creation, we do well to close our mouths and rest in the knowledge that God has defeated death.

Does that erase death’s sting here and now? Of course not, death always hurts.

But as Christians, we know how the story ends, we know that those we lose in life will be waiting for us at the Supper of the Lamb surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses that have gone on before us. 

The “for good” that God works to achieve is the proclamation that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That even in our suffering, even in our deaths, God is with us.

Look, I hear it a lot in my line of work, people showing up at the church or calling me on the phone to ask, “Why is God doing this to me?”

The loss of a child. The loss of a job. The loss of health.

And for as many times as I have heard questions about God’s purposes behind the purposeless moments in life, I’ve heard from just as many people wondering, “What can I possibly say to someone in their suffering, in their loss?”

Sometimes the best thing to say is absolutely nothing. As hard as it might be to sit with someone else in their pain and in their suffering, just listening to them is far better than trying to fill the time with trite and meaningless aphorisms. At the very least, it’s the most faithful thing we can do.

Life is hard and all sorts of things happen without explanation. I know that might not sound very pastoral, but it’s true. Can you imagine how you would feel if you came to the church one morning in your grief or suffering or pain, and you got down on your knees to pray to God when all of the sudden you heard a voice booming from the heavens declaring, “I”M DOING THIS TO YOU ON PURPOSE! THIS IS PART OF MY PLAN!”

If that’s who God is, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.

Thankfully, that’s not who God is. God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt. God is the author of salvation and not the dictator of death. God is the one who would do everything, and already did, to make sure that nothing, truly nothing, could ever separate us from the his divine love.

Our hope is not contingent on finding reasons to explain everything that happens – instead our hope is built on Christ who shows us in his life, death, and resurrection that God is with us, always. 

And there’s nothing we can do about it. 

For I am convinced, like Paul, 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.

That’s the gospel.

Jesus is the reason that even when things happen, we are not abandoned. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Better Place

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.

They traveled to the tomb very early on the first day of the week. 

On a Sunday.

The Gospel is reluctant to give us too many details about the journey. We don’t hear about their grief and their pain. We don’t get a glimpse at their plans now that the Lord is dead and forsaken in a tomb. We don’t really learn anything except they travel without knowing how they will roll the stone back.

Low and behold… The very large stone has already been rolled away by the time they arrive. And to further their confusion, when they look inside they discover a young man dressed in white. A divine messenger? An angel? 

He speaks, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus, but he ain’t here. He was dead, but now he is alive. Look over there, that’s where they laid his body. But now go, tell the disciples that Jesus is going on ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there.”

And here’s how the Gospel story ends: They ran from the tomb terrorized, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Easter. 

It doesn’t get much better than this for the church. Out of death, life! 

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For centuries the church has mined this story for every possible nugget that can speak something new and wonderful into our lives. I, myself, have preached about the fear that so befuddles the women and how the Gospel ends with a lie. For, if they really said nothing to anyone, how else would we have heard the story?

I have preached about how new life seems to always start in darkness, whether its in the womb or in the tomb.

I have preached and preached this story.

And yet, this year, as I returned to the words that have comforted and confounded Christians for centuries, I’ve been stuck on a different detail.

Why Galilee?

I mean, good for Jesus that he’s raised from the dead and goes home. But Galilee was an out-of-the-way forgotten sort of place. It’s only claim to fame is that Jesus came from it. 

Of course, Jesus did his Jesus thing in Galilee, and Galilee is where he called the disciples, and cured the sick, and fed the hungry, and preached the parables.

But even in the midst of his Galilean mission, Jesus was focused on eventually getting to the big show – Jerusalem.

The mission and the ministry builds toward the Transfiguration, and then everything shifts to the Holy City – the gospels sharpen as Jesus enters on the back of the donkey on Palm Sunday. Jerusalem is where he was betrayed, beaten, and left to die on the cross.

Jerusalem was the place to be, it’s where all the movers and the shakers were hanging out, its where those who believed in unbelievable things hoped the Messiah would take charge and transform the world. 

Which makes the detail and the news of a Galilean reunion so bizarre. Here, on Easter, the Son of God is no longer held captive by the dominion of death, he is resurrected, and he leaves Jerusalem for Galilee.

That’s confounding.

One would hope that, on the other side of resurrection, Jesus would be smart enough to go right up to the palace to give Pilate a whole, “You can’t handle the truth!”

Or, Jesus would storm into Herod’s inner court to rip him a new one.

Or, at the very least, Jesus would gather a band of revolutionaries to overturn the powers and the principalities occupying Jerusalem.

Did the Lord of lords not know that if you really want to make a change you have to go to the top?

Jerusalem should’ve been the first step in the journey toward overthrowing the empire, Jerusalem would’ve been the perfect place to plant the flag of the kingdom of Heaven, Jerusalem could’ve been the beginning of the end.

But Jesus doesn’t do any of that – he doesn’t do the effective thing.

Instead he goes back to Galilee, of all places.

Nobody special lived in Galilee – it was populated by shepherds, fishermen, and farmers. The people there held no power or prestige.

The only thing notable at all about Galilee, is that’s where the followers of Jesus were from.

People like us.

When we read the Easter story, whether it’s on a Sunday in church or from the comfort of our own homes, we catch this moment when the women run away in fear. And because we tend to focus so much on their reaction, their terror, that we miss how Jesus is raised from the dead only to return to the very people who abandoned him.

Jesus chooses the unworthy and undeserving ragtag group of would-be disciples that he’d been dragging along for three years as the people for whom and through whom he will change the world.

On Easter Jesus returns not to the powers that be, but to people like you and me.

He doesn’t storm the gates of the temple, he doesn’t show up in the Oval Office, he goes where nobody would’ve expected.

Hear the Good News: 

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Not after we repented of all of our sins, not before we even had a chance to think up all of our sins, but in the midst of them, in our worst and most horrible choices Jesus dies and rises for us.

At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, people like us who too easily move from “Hosanna” to “Crucify.”

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

My sin, oh the bliss, of this glorious thought; my sin, not in part, but the whole. Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.

All of that can be summed up like this: Jesus returns to us.

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Take it from a preacher like me, even in these strange circumstances of celebrating Easter online, we’ve messed up the resurrection message for a long time. We’ve made church into yet another self-help program, a place to gather week after week to hear about what you must do to make your life better. Or, in case you don’t want to look too close to home, what you must do to make the world a better place.

And that doesn’t have anything to do with Easter!

It’s not Good News.

Notice: on Easter, Jesus’ response to the sins of his followers isn’t to berate them or judge them or even damn them. He doesn’t give them a list of things to do, or programs to start, or prayers to pray. 

Instead, he just comes back to them, to us, with, of all things, love.

How odd of God.

When you think about it, it’s rather confounding how God keeps coming back to us.

Stuck in captivity in Egypt? God shows up in a burning bush.

Lost in exile? God brings the people home.

Dead in your sins? God sets us free.

Are we really sure we want to worship this God who refuses to leave us to our own devices?

God is like the shepherd who willingly leaves behind the ninety-nine to search for the one who is lost. God doesn’t sit back and relax and just hope for the best. God charges out into the wilderness and refuses to quit.

God is like a Samaritan, forsaken and ignored by the rest of the world, who stops by the side of the road to help the one that everyone overlooked. God doesn’t keep walking by with better things to do. God condescends God’s self to get down in the ditch with all of us.

God is like a king who hosts a giant party and, when not enough people show up, sends his servants out into the streets to grab anyone they can find, even the poor and the marginalized, and makes space for them at the banquet.

God is like the father who runs out into the street, stops his prodigal and wayward child before an apology can even spring forth, and says, “I’m busting out the good stuff tonight, we’re having a party! You were dead but now you’re alive!”

We, the good and righteous folk that we are, we might’ve thought the story was over. That the shadow of the cross remaining in the distance puts a conclusion on the whole thing. That, in the end, we really had gone too far this time with the whole killing the Son of God.

But even in this, the greatest sin of all, Jesus comes back.

He comes back to the betrayers and the crucifiers, to the doubters and the deserters.

Jesus comes back to us.

The work of Jesus, contrary to how we so often talk about it and hear about it in church, is not transactional. There is no such thing as “if” in the Gospel. 

We are not told that the Lord expects us to get everything ironed out before he will come and dwell among us.

He doesn’t wait behind the stone in the tomb until there’s enough good morality in the world before he busts out.

What we are told, from the cross and from the resurrection, is that Jesus is already in it with us, and even more that he has gone on ahead of us.

Church, whenever it descends into “you must do this, or you have to make the world a better place” fails be the church Christ inaugurated in his life, death, and resurrection, because we will fail that work.

Easter invites us to do nothing except trust; trust that there is a New Jerusalem waiting to come down and feast at the Supper of the Lamb, the Lamb who has been with us the whole time, who refuses to abandon us regardless of how good we are or how bad we are.

If Easter because anything less bizarre than that, then faith is turned into standing on your tiptoes to see something that isn’t going to happen.

We can’t make Easter happen. We can’t raise Jesus from the dead.

It happens in spite of us entirely, which is the best news of all.

Easter, simply put, is a gift. A gift like grace – unwarranted, unmerited, undeserved. 

God has made the world a better place in Jesus Christ who comes back to us. Amen.

Easter Begins With A Whisper

John 20.1-18

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. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes. 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, why 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 camped in the backyard with my very nearly 4 year old on Monday night. With the calls for Social Distancing and the stay-at-home order, I figured why not break out the tent and the sleeping bags and have a mini adventure. My plan was to get Elijah all snug in his bag around bed time and that I would be able to stay up for a few more hours by the fire, reading a book. But, of course, the minute I zipped up the tent the calls for me to join him started ringing out.

“But Dad, what if I get hungry?”

“Dad, I think you probably need to come in the tent now.”

“Um, Dad, I can’t sleep without you.”

So, at 8:30pm, I willed myself into the sleeping bag right next to him and began staring at the inside of the tent until I drifted off to sleep.

It took a long time.

Elijah was out within minutes, but I had nothing to do but listen to the sounds around me until sleep came for me. And, to be honest, I was shocked at how loud it was in my backyard. I could hear full conversations that neighbors were having in their backyard. I could make out the low buzz of a television sitcom with a laugh track coming from somewhere to the south. And I could hear God knows how many cars and motorcycles driving all over the place.

Which only made falling asleep that much harder.

But eventually sleep came for me, and I embraced it with love.

At around 4am I jolted awake inside the tent. I looked around for a brief moment trying to remember why I was inside a tent in the middle of the night, and then I laid my head back down and tried to go back to sleep. But something felt off. 

And not just the fact that I was laying on the ground in the backyard.
It took me awhile to realize where my discomfort was coming from – it was silent. 

No cars. No conversations. No birds. It was completely still and quiet and it drove me crazy.

Somehow I eventually tell back asleep in the tent, even with the suffocating silence surrounding me. Until around 5:45am, while deep in in a dream, I heard the faintest little whisper, “Dad, are you awake?”

That’s all it took.

The whispered voice of my son called me out of what was into what is. And I was awake.

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The Bible contains multitudes. But sometimes what it doesn’t say is what really stands out. Like one of my favorite and least favorite passages from John’s gospel, “Jesus did many other signs and wonders but we didn’t record them here.” I mean, why the hell not? I would love to know more about what Jesus said and did.

For as much as the Bible tells us, it’s notable that we learn absolutely nothing about what happens from the time Jesus is taken down off the cross until the disciples head to the tomb a few days later.

I would love to know what they were up to. But, we don’t get a behind the scenes glimpse at their grief stricken conversations. We don’t get to hear Mary the Mother of Jesus singing a song of lament to rival her Magnificat. 

In fact, we don’t even find out what exactly happens in the tomb with Jesus that whole time. 

Instead, Scripture just picks up right in the middle of the darkness with Mary Magdalene traveling to the tomb. 

Which is just another way of saying that the most pivotal moments in the Gospel take place not in the light of day but under the cover of darkness. Whether its the incarnate life in the womb, or the upending of creation from the cross, or the resurrection within the tomb, it all begins with and in the dark.

Mary walks to the tomb in the silent darkness. She discovers, unexpectedly and inexplicably, that the stone has been rolled away. And she runs to tell the disciples. They, of course, rush to the tomb, take a peak inside, make some connections, and leave only slightly wiser than when they arrived.

But Mary stays at the tomb. Overcome with grief, she weeps.

Let us just stay here with that word for a moment. Before the joy of Easter, before the Good News truly becomes good, Mary grieves.

Loss is something we don’t often give space for during Easter. We focus so much on the Bunny, and the Candy, and the Eggs, and the hymns, and the lilies, that we don’t make space for people to feel what they feel. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave does not take away the pain of absence in death.

But death has been changed.

The Resurrection gives us eyes to see that death is not the end.

However, Mary has not yet seen the risen Lord. She peaks into the tomb and sees two angels and they ask her about her tears. For what it’s worth, they don’t tell her to get over her grief or start processing her feelings, they just ask her about her tears. 

Then she turns around and see Jesus standing there, though of course she doesn’t recognize him. And he, like the angels, asks about her tears. She pleads, supposing him the gardener, to tell her where the body of her Lord is.

And instead of responding to her request, Jesus says, “Mary.”

Easter, for Mary, begins with a whisper.

All it takes is the sound of her name whispered from the lips of the Lord and everything changes forever.

She runs with the Good News ringing in her head and is the first to preach Easter to the disciples with words that still shake our hearts, “I have seen the Lord.”

The resurrection of Jesus Christ happened at night. No one was there when it took place. By the time Mary arrived with her tears it was already finished.

Some of the best and the most important things in the world take place without us have to do much of anything. That is a very strange and troubling word for those of us who feel as if we’re never doing enough. But Easter, Easter is a reminder that the most defining moment in the history of the cosmos happens in spite of us.

That’s why it’s Good News.

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Jesus doesn’t wait behind the stone until his disciples have the right amount of faith before breaking out. Jesus doesn’t tell them that he will be raised only when they evangelize enough people. Jesus doesn’t give them a list of to-dos before Easter happens.

Jesus came to raise the dead – not to reform the reformable, not to improve the improvable, not to teach the teachable, but to raise the dead.

The promise of Easter for people like you and me is wild beyond all imagining. It it the gift of life in the midst of death, it is a way out simply by remaining in, it is everything for nothing.

Truly.

Easter is the promise that God, who has always been with us, will remain with us.

Easter is the promise that God can make something of our nothing.

Easter is the promise that death isn’t the end.

And we don’t have to do anything for it.

So I end with a whisper, not with clanging cymbals or banging drums, but with a whisper of the Good News, the very best news. 

He is risen. He is risen indeed. Amen. 

Crying on Easter

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Marcy Paysour about the readings for Easter Sunday [A] (Jeremiah 31.1-6, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3.1-4, John 20.1-18). Joanna is an elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Cave Spring UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lengthening Lent, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Incubus and The Weeknd, Easter in Coronatide, defining worship, finding grace in the wilderness, contingencies, dying with Christ, resurrection emotions, and biblical connections. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Crying on Easter

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This Is The Day…

Psalm 118.24

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

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I ran a half-marathon yesterday afternoon. 13.1 miles in roughly two hours all over the Woodbridge area. I was supposed to the run the Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon in DC last Saturday but it was canceled in light of the Coronavirus. However I had been training for long enough that I figured, “Why not just go out and see if I can do it?”

The weather yesterday was perfect, giving extra meaning to the “this is the day that the Lord has made” and I decided to rejoice and be glad in it by putting one foot in front of the other until I put in the requisite miles.

Now, a day later, I can tell you there wasn’t much to rejoice about.

Or to put it a different way, my legs are sore!

During the months of training I was looking forward to being surrounded by scores of people all running toward the same goal. I was excited about the prospect of passing the finish line to be embraced by my family in celebration. I even anticipated the proud feeling of wearing around the medal for the rest of the day.

Yesterday was different.

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I ran all alone for two hours. I didn’t even tell my family that I was going to do it. And the only prize for completing it was knowing that I did it.

A lot of us have been experiencing profound feelings of isolation as the Coronavirus has forced us to remain physically separated from one another and forced us to limit our interactions outside of our homes. For some of us we’ve retreated into new or familiar books, we’ve binged terrible and incredible television shows, or we’ve picked up the phone to call people we’ve needed to reconnect with for a long time.

But for others of us, we’ve retreated further into our minds and our worries and our anxieties. We keep checking out bank accounts and wonder how we’re going to make it through all of this. We see updates from others on social media that make it seem like they are having a vacation while social distancing while our time have felt nerve wracking. 

And yet, as Christians, we believe that each new day is a gift from the Lord. That doesn’t mean that we have to force ourselves into optimism, but it does call us to rejoice knowing we’ve been given another day. The season of Lent, the season we’re in right now, is an ever-present reminder that tomorrow is never promised and that the bell will toll for us all. We didn’t need the Coronavirus to remind us of this but it certainly has helped to focus our attention on that which we cannot take for granted. 

I for one am grateful that I was able to get outside yesterday and run, even if my body feels miserable today. I am grateful I have another day to spend time with my family. But most of all I am grateful to know that God has not abandoned us to our own devices. 

The season of Lent always ends with Easter – a reminder that death is not the end.

If nothing else, that is certainly worth rejoicing. 

Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God – Ash Wednesday

Psalm 51.1-3

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 

“I know all about that.”

I looked up from my book toward in the man sitting next to me. He had bandages all over his face and he was pointing at the cover of my book.

When God Is Silent by Barbara Brown Taylor.

I was trying to mind my own business at the dermatologist, just preparing for a routine exam of my pale and mole-y body, I didn’t even wear a clergy collar because I just wanted to be like everybody else, but I didn’t think about the book I was reading.

So I looked into the eyes of the man and I said, “What do you mean?”

“I know all about God being silent.”

And, knowing that listening is often better than speaking, I just kept looking into his eyes and waited for him to continue.

And then he did.

I learned about the man. About his life, about his family, about his struggles, about his skin cancer that just keeps coming back. About how many times he’s pleaded with God to just give him a sign, to just say anything at all. He kept talking and talking until they called his name and he left me sitting there in the waiting room, waiting for my own appointment, in silence.

I hear this a lot, considering what I do for a living. I hear about God’s silence, about the absence of God from one’s life. I hear about suffering and loneliness and fear and, in particular, the silence of death. People want to know what their loved ones long dead are now doing. They want reassurance that, even though they hear nothing, God is somewhere still speaking.

In other words, they want to hear about life without having to think about death.

And they, whoever they are, are us.

We all do it. 

Consciously and unconsciously.

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Whether we’re lying awake at night frantically willing ourselves not to think about the end, or we’re watching yet another commercial desperately attempting to convince us that we can make it out of this life alive.

I was sitting with a family one time preparing a funeral and the daughter of the woman now dead said, “We really want this to be a celebration of life.”

“Sure,” I muttered, thinking we could move on to selecting hymns or particular scriptures, but she continued.

“In fact, we would prefer it if you didn’t mention how she died, or even that she’s really dead at all. Come to think of it, we’d really like it if you could talk about her as if she were still alive with us right now.”

There is a time to live and there is a time to die, as the scripture goes. And we’d prefer to have to the first bit without the latter.

I wonder if the reason we feel so afraid of death, the reason we pretend the dead aren’t dead, is because the silence of death is so overwhelming. We go from having someone with whom we can converse and then suddenly that conversation is cut off forever. We don’t know what to do with something we can’t control, and we therefore fear it with every fiber of our being.

We fear death.

We used to fear God.

I’ve been preaching and gathering together with Christians on Ash Wednesday for the better part of a decade, and I find it to be one of the most incredible and strange things we do. Ash Wednesday, though hyper focused on our identity as sinners in the hands of God, is a time when we are actually encouraged to do some navel gazing.

Every other day of the church year feels different. As the oft quoted line goes, “The church is the only institution in the world that exists for the sake of outsiders.” That’s probably true, but today is different. Today, it really is about us.

It’s about how we know we’re going to die, and how God is going to make something out of the nothing of our deaths, and how God will still speak even in the silence of our ends.

But that’s not an easy thing to handle, and its why fewer and fewer people attend services like this one, whether its at 7 in the morning or 7 in the evening. We don’t want to look at sin and death any more than we have to, but we have to do it. Otherwise we run the risk of perpetual self-deception, in which our ears become so stopped up that we can’t hear the voice of the Lord that still speaks in spite of us.

Like the psalmist, today we come before the throne of the Lord and confess that God has a case against us and we throw ourselves upon the mercy of the Lord. 

As Christians this rests at the heart of who we are and whose we are – we cannot ignore the condition of our condition, we cannot fool ourselves into believing that we are better than anyone else, we are sinners resting in the hands of a loving God.

That we can call God a loving God is what makes all the difference. For, it is in the same moment that we can truly acknowledge our brokenness that we also begin to see God as the One who offers mercy to us even though we don’t deserve it.

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While we were sinners, Christ died for us. Not before we were sinners, or after we were sinners, but in the midst of our sin. 

Even the psalmist gets it: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

That is the prayer of someone who knows that there is hope in spite of feeling hopeless, who knows that God’s compassion far exceeds our own, and who knows that grace is always greater than our sin. Always.

I waited my turn, all the while thinking of the man and what he said. I pondered over what I would’ve said had his name not been called, and I kept mulling over the different scriptures that speak about God’s silence in the Bible. I even pulled out my phone to look up a passage about Elijah and the still small voice, when I realized that the man was finished and was walking back into the waiting room. But instead of walking toward the door and leaving us all behind, he walked back over to me, sat down and said, “Thanks for listening earlier. I feel a lot better.” Then he shook my hand and left.

His gratitude for my silent listening was a reminder for me that whenever God might feel silent, perhaps God’s silence is due to God’s listening. That, rather than interrupting and knocking us down a peg or two (something we all deserve) God is content to listen to whatever we might hurl at God. God can handle our anger and our fear and our frustration and even our sin because God is holy.

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In a few moments we are going to pray together. As we pray and reflect on the overwhelming love of God we are going to confess our lack of love. While we remember Jesus’ willingness to come and take away our sins, we are going to confess those sins for which Jesus came. As we acknowledge the unconditional grace of God, we are going to confess the conditions we place on one another all the time. 

And while we do all of that, lifting up contradictory elements of who we are and who God is, it will become our worship. God has done a remarkable thing for us. We don’t need to lie to ourselves or to others, we don’t have to compete with unattainable moral expectations, we don’t have to pretend we are something that we are not.

We are Christians, we can be who we are and can be seen as the sinners we are, because God will not remain silent.

God speaks his Son into the world who comes to be the judged Judge in our place. He takes each and every one of our sins, nails them to the cross, and refuses to evaluate us by our mistakes. God reminds us today, and every day, that we are dust and to dust we shall return. 

But God is in the business of raising the dead, which means that dust isn’t the end. Prayer.

Knowing The End At The Beginning

Devotional: 

Isaiah 9.6 

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

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A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas and it was the first time she ever asked about the holiday and why it was something they celebrated. The father explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked about it the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a illustrated Bible and began reading to her every night.

And she loved it.

They read the stories of Jesus’ birth and his teaching, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from the Lord like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So the father would share thoughts about how Jesus teaches his followers to treat people the way they want to be treated. They read and the they read and at some point the daughter simply declared, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas, they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix right out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss as was the figure nailed to it. The daughter pointed out the window and said, “Dad, who’s that?”

The father realized in that moment that he never told his daughter the end of the story. So he began explaining how the man on the cross was Jesus, how he ran afoul of the Roman government because is message was so radical, and that they thought the only way to stop his was to kill him. And they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of Christmas, the Preschool where his daughter attended was closed for Martin Luther King Jr. day and the father decided to take the day off and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. When they were sitting at the table waiting for their food at the restaurant, the daughter saw the front page of the local newspaper laying across the next table with a picture of MLK’s face on it. And the daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad, who’s that?” 

“Well,” he began, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

She said, “For Jesus?”

The father replied, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said that people should treat everyone fairly no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like du unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The father laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re right. I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl lowered her gaze to the table and then she looked up at her father with tears in her eyes and said, “Dad, did they kill him too?”

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Kids get it. They make connections that we’re supposed to make. And even though 2019 has been a strange and rough years with all the political rhetoric and partisanship, with all the suffering of individuals and communities across the world, kids still get it.

The baby in the manger is the same person who hangs on the cross. 

That’s a difficult and challenging word for those of us who like our Christmases unblemished, who want to think only of the precious new born child without having to confront what will be done to him at the end of his days. But he was a child born for us, who came to make a way where there was no way, and his story has changed our stories forever. 

Or, to put it another way, we cannot make sense of the beginning without knowing the end. 

To Whom It May Concern

Romans 1.1-7

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I was exactly halfway through seminary when one of my professors decided to do something a little different with his lecture. Those of us in attendance had taken classes on Church History, The Old Testament, The New Testament, Theology, Greek, Practical Ministry, and an assortment of others, but this particular professor was responsible for teaching us about American Christianity. For months we had listened to him lecture about the budding growth of the church as the frontier spread west, we knew all about the Great Awakening that took hold of the new nation, and we even examined the manifold reasons for the explosions of denominations across the Union. 

But for the last class before the final exam, our professor didn’t pull out the powerpoint slides with the appropriate lecture notes. Instead he said, “I want to preach.” So preach he did.

I don’t remember the text. I don’t remember the points he was trying to make. Frankly I was studying the all the important details I had in my notebook for the impending final exam. But as he got toward the end of his sermon his disposition and his voice changed. He no longer looked down at the papers on the podium, and he rest his arms down and looked at all of us straight in the eyes. I remember the room being eerily silent as he took a longer than usual pause before saying something I will never forget:

“Part of what I’ve hoped to teach you and show you this semester is that if you can do anything else with your lives, you should drop out of seminary right now and go do those things. If you think God has called you to be a pastor you better be absolutely sure that God has in fact put that call on your life because it will be a difficult one. You will be expected to do things that you know you shouldn’t do. You will be surrounded by death at every turn. The pay isn’t any good. And with each passing year the church will beat you down until you know longer remember what it was to have the faith you had.”

But if you can’t do anything else – if the call is so real that you know there is nothing else for you then the work of ministry well then you must stay, you must study, and you must give yourselves to the Lord. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

It was a sobering moment, to say the least. Our professor politely smiled and walked out of the lecture hall while we sat there doing our best to absorb and make sense of what he said. Personally, I felt my call stronger in that moment than in almost any other because I felt, deep in my bones, that God had in fact called me to ministry, that there was nothing else I could do with my life, because all I wanted to do was share the Good News that has made all the difference in my life.

So I sat there, reasonably assured by and with the words my professor offered – but the experience wasn’t mutual for some of my friends. It was not mutual for some of my friends because in that profound moment they realized that ministry was not what they were called to do, that the stark reality my professor painted left them not assured but confused. And, on the other side of the final exam and the end of the semester, more than a few of my classmates did not return after Christmas break. 

I’ve thought a lot about that sermon, or at least the end of it, in the years that followed. I am thankful my professor spoke as candidly as he did and saved some of my classmates from entering into a life and vocation that would ultimately leave them feeling like something was missing. I’ve felt reinvigorated by my call again and again and again and have known, with assurance, that this is what I’m supposed to do.

But something else has percolated up over the years, something I couldn’t quite articulate in the beginning, but now understand to be important: My professor was wrong. 

To be clear, he wasn’t wrong about how bizarre and crazy the life of ministry is, all that he said is true. But he was still wrong. He was wrong because he made it out as if there are two types of Christians in the world: pastors and lay people. But that’s not how it works – all of us are disciples of Jesus Christ, all of us have been put on a different path than we would’ve chosen on our own, and all of us are called.

Or, to put it another way, what my professor warned all of us about a life of ministry isn’t meant for ministers alone – it’s for all of us.

We Christians are different. We are, as Paul puts it, set apart for the gospel of God. This language of “set apart-ness” has created problems over the millennia as we’ve assumed that perhaps only pastors are called to do special things that the rest of Christians don’t have to do. And, even worse, we’ve taken that language to mean that the church is better than the rest of the world. 

Think about how many times you’ve heard a sermon (even from me) about how the church is right and the world is wrong. It’s certainly true as times, but the more we hear about our rightness and their wrongness, the more we consider ourselves special, or elite, or the beloved. 

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But that’s not what Paul means when he writes about set apart for the gospel of God. Paul didn’t choose for himself that life that God called him into. Remember – he was confronted by Christ on the road to Damascus to begin again, to set his life anew. And everything about Paul was wrong for the role to which Christ called him – he was brash and arrogant and self-righteous and furiously committed to exterminating the new Christian faith that was budding up in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. 

Jesus calls that guy to speak the Good News across the world. 

Think on this for a moment – God took the enemy and sent him out to carry the Gospel to the very people Paul would have considered beneath him, namely the gentiles. And to make matters all the more confounding, without Paul there would be no worldwide Christian faith.

And yet Paul saw his entire mission not as his own, but instead Christ working in him.

Thats a far cry from “If you can do anything else with your life, go do that thing instead.”

Can you imagine Jesus knocking Paul down on the road to Damascus and saying, “Hey Pauly! I know you’ve been hating on the people following me, you’ve dragged them off to prison and probably even killed a few. No worries. But I want to talk about something else… What would you think about coming to work for me? The pay isn’t very good, my followers won’t want to accept you (for the time being), and you’re going to get killed in the end because of me. Now, if you can do anything else with your life, tent-making or Christian persecuting, go do that. But if you can’t do anything else, then I have a job for you.”?

Paul didn’t have a choice.

The Good News of God in Jesus Christ grabbed him by the collar and refused to let him go. Paul heard what all of us hear at some point – you’re not enough, or you’re doing the wrong thing, or you’ll never cut it. And instead of relenting to the nihilism of it, Paul heard a better Word from the Lord – come to me all of you with your heavy burdens and I will give you rest.

You see, that’s what the beginning of the letter to the Romans is all about. It’s not a list of all the things pastors have to do, or even what lay people have to do. It’s not a litany of complaints about how hard the life of faith is. Its not even really about the people receiving the letter! It’s all about Jesus and what Jesus did and does for us, his people.

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We are set apart for the gospel of God, the Good News he promised before the beginning of time and throughout all of his prophets, the Good News about his Son, who comes from the line of David and was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all people for the sake of his name, including us, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

The beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is one long sentence filled with theological nuggets about what it means to be part of the called. Being called means being set apart, not from the world or above the world, but set apart to know who we really and and what we’re really like! 

That was Paul’s burden and it is ours as well. 

Paul was called to a life of spreading the Good News about the one for whom he tried to punish others previously. Imagine a white supremacist being called by God to work for racial equity, or a sexist man being called by God to work in a battered woman’s shelter. 

Paul writes about the obedience of faith, and when we hear the word obedience it sets off all kinds of red flags. Obedience sounds like something that will infringe upon our rights to freedom. But the obedience of faith, strangely, is all about freedom – its the freedom to confess what we, on this side of the resurrection, know to be true. There is nothing good in us nor among us. Try as we might, we will do things we know we shouldn’t and we will avoid doing the things we know we should.

Part of what makes us different is that we know that we no longer belong to ourselves and we haven’t been left to our own devices. We belong to Jesus Christ who came into the world to take us and our burdens upon his shoulders. We belong to Jesus Christ who sees and knows our sins and nails them to the cross anyway. We belong to Jesus Christ whose birth we mark in the manger, and whose return we anticipate with joy and wonder.

Today is the end of Advent, it is the end of a season in which we stare straight into the darkness, the sinfulness, of our own lives and the world. Regardless of the lights on the tree or the carols on the radio, these weeks have been a time set a part for us in which we confront the reality for which God had to come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ.

If anything, Advent is a time for us to confess that being a Christian is hard, whether we’re pastors or not. But what makes it hard isn’t what we often think it is. It’s not about expectations and moral observances, God no longer delights in those things. It’s hard to be a Christian because while the world constantly tells us to be better on our own terms or by our own merits, God reminds us that all that work will be for nothing. Instead, God is the one who makes us better by sending his Son for us, to do for us that which we could not. 

It’s hard because we want to be in control but Advent reminds us that God is in control.

That’s what sets us a part. It’s also why we can call it good. Amen. 

Married and Buried

Luke 20.27-38

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

The family gathers around the casket, muttering prayers under their breath imploring the Lord to keep the rain clouds at bay. The new widow is dressed appropriately in all black, her mascara is flowing down her cheeks, and she is clutching at the chest of her dearly departed husband’s brother. 

Like anyone else, the family isn’t sure what to do with their grief. Some of them forcefully push their hands into their pockets, others try desperately to hold back tears, and still yet others stand stoically as if nothing happened.

But, none of them, not the mother nor the father, not the cousins or the nieces or nephews bat an eye as the widow drives off in the limo nestled a little too closely with her brother-in-law.

2 years later the same family, though a little grayer than before, gathers in the same cemetery only a few paces from where they were last time and the scene feels eerily familiar. So much so that a few of the guests note how the pastor inexplicably uses the same homily as he did the last time around. The widow is now widowed twice, with two dead brothers buried by the old oak tree. This time the family wonders which brother will step up to the plate, and sure enough before the occasion ends she is driving off in another limo with another brother.

A decade later the woman runs out of tears for all of her dead husbands. She went from one brother to another, all seven in fact, and not a one of them had given her the baby she so desperately craved. The waning and remaining family members try their best to show signs of grief and sadness, but the scene has become so familiar that they were kind of looking forward to it. These funerals had replaced the Thanksgiving table as the occasion for family catch-ups and story-telling.

The priest is now feeble and old, and he had taken on an apprentice in the last few years hoping he would be the one to replace him. The two with their black robes and white collars politely shake hands with the family and make their way back up to the country church. The older priest struggles up the hill and sighs before noting that the next funeral will probably be for the woman, suspecting her of an imminent death caused by a broken heart. To which the younger priest wonders aloud, “Father, to which husband will the woman belong in heaven?”

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There’s no telling how many times I’ve read this story or heard this story. It’s a powerful moment in Luke’s gospel when the Sadducees try to beat Jesus at his own game by sharing their own little parable. They are but another drop in the ocean of those who questioned the audaciousness of Jesus’ claims about the kingdom of God, the totality of grace, and the resurrection of the dead. 

And for as many times as I’ve heard the story and even told the story in moments of worship and even counseling, there is a detail that has bothered me to no end.

I mean, I understand what the Sadducees are trying to do with the question, they want to trap Jesus in a no-win situation. And okay, the woman seems to have some rotten luck. But no one seems to want to point out the obvious! Are we sure she’s not a murderer?!

Seven men marry her and seven men die! Those are pretty bad odds! The Sadducees are consumed by this idea of who she’ll be married to in the resurrection and I’m over here far more concerned with whether or not she was a serial killer!

And yet, its a story meant to point at something else. Like any parable it takes on these larger that life characteristics that intend to point us as something bigger. The story might as well have been that a woman married one man, who then died, and then married the man’s brother who also happened to die, who then would she be married to in the end? But that’s not nearly juicy enough! Particularly not when you’re trying to take down the guy who had the gall to tell stories about a prodigal son and a faithful shepherd and a good samaritan.

Questions are important things. And, sadly, we often limit their importance to the answers they provide. But questions contain their own answers. To ask a question is to reveal, to disclose something about the person asking the question. There is no such thing as a question that is morally and intellectually or even politically neutral. 

Imagine a spouse returns home from work a little later than usual and their partner asks, “Did you get the groceries?” Behind that question are a bunch of assumptions, perhaps the person forgot or has forgotten them before. Maybe the question is really pushing toward why the spouse was late. And so on.

Or imagine a kid returns home from school with a tear in his eye and asks his mother, “Why are Johnny’s parents getting divorced?” Of course, there is an obvious nature to the question, but behind the question there is perhaps the fear of his own parents getting divorced, or it happening to him in the future, or what’s going to happen to his friend. And on and on. 

Questions have agendas whether we like to think they do or not. Questions, before they are even answered, imply something about what is important, what is true, and they are all full of assumptions.

Jesus is asked a question. To whom will the woman be married to in the Resurrection? The implication, the question behind the question, is that these people do not believe in the possibility of any resurrection and they want to trap Jesus in his places. 

Jesus has two choices in terms of an answer. His first option would be to pick or specify which of the seven brothers would be the partner in the great beyond. Jesus could pick her first husband, or her last husband, or the one right in the middle of the whole thing. But none of them make particularly good sense because ultimately, 6 of the former husbands would be left hanging in the wind. 

And then there’s option number 2: Jesus could admit that the Sadducees have a good point – they might be on to something with the inherent assumption in their question. The woman can’t be the wife of any of the brothers in the resurrection so therefore there must not be a resurrection!

But Jesus doesn’t go with either of those – instead he breaks through with an answer previously unthought of. He simply asserts the resurrection is a whole new ballgame to which the present rules and assumptions about marriage no longer apply. And he doesn’t stop there, he takes is a step further to claim that even the Torah proves the resurrection. You see, since God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were not all alive at the same time, and for God to be their God they must all be alive together in some other-than-earthly state, it means that the resurrection is real, and its real even for them. 

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For Jesus, the whole focus here is to build up anticipation of his passion, his own death and resurrection. He’s not trying to paint a picture about whose still with who on the other side of death. Instead, he’s merely asserting a radically powerful truth, the people we marry and bury in this life don’t belong to us in the resurrection.

And that’s Good News.

However, for some of us this might, in fact, sound like bad news. We shudder to think of a time where we will lose the people we’ve taken hold of in this life – we don’t want to imagine a moment in which the person wearing the ring is no longer bound by that ring. 

But that’s exactly the kind of assumption that Jesus is trying to overturn. 

Its why we say, “Till death do us part.”

The Sadducees, in their question, held desperately tight to a understanding of relationships such that women literally belong to men as a wife would belong to her husband. They understood women as property, something to be traded and treated as such. I mean, their question about marriage in heaven might as well have been about who a cow would belonged to in heaven having been sold over and over again in this life. 

Jesus said, “In this age people are married and are given in marriage. But I tell you in the age to come this woman with be equal with even the angels, she will be a beloved daughter of God – nothing more, less, or else.” 

What a Word! Just mull on that for a moment! Imagine what it would’ve been like for the woman in the story to have heard those words of the lips of Jesus, hell imagine any woman today in an oppressive or overwhelming relationship. She would have known that in the age to come, in the kingdom Jesus’ inaugurates, she would not be defined by the man she married, she would no longer be defined by anything other than the fact that she was a child of God.

Friends, there are people, great numbers of people who need to hear what Jesus has to say. This little nugget of the gospel could bring them a remarkable sense of peace. 

Jesus changes everything. This is the story I want to tell people when I hear them talk about their better half, or their lesser half. No one becomes less of a person when they get married. Or at least they shouldn’t. We are unique and beautiful and wondrous because that’s exactly who God created us to be. And yet, of course, we were made to be in community, but that doesn’t mean we lose part of who we are by being connected with other people. If anything, the point of connection is to give us the freedom and the strength to flourish as God made us.

The Sadducees carry their own assumption. Whoever this Jesus guy is, he’s just bringing more of the same. He’s coming in here with his promises of a different world and a different future. But they can only see that in the terms already dictated by the world.

And then Jesus walks up, listens to their question that’s really an accusation, and says, “Excuse me! A new world is colliding with the old. Behold, I am doing a new thing, a thing beyond even your wildest imaginations. In this world, the world you’re so wedded to, the world of the here and the now, there is death. But in the world I’m bringing there is life and life abundant! In this world, right now, people are owned, people are belittled, people are made to feel less than whole. But in the world to come, all people are children of the Living God.”

Jesus sees more than we can. He knows that the cross is waiting for him and he knows that the tomb won’t hold him. He knows that we are far too content with the status quo and that we still treat people as if they are less than whole. And so he says, “Come to my table. Take some bread and wine. See in this meal how the labels we place on ourselves and others start to disappear. This is the beginning of the end. But of course there really is no end. Because God is the God of the living. And whether you are married or buried, to God you are alive.” Amen. 

The Dinner Party

Luke 14.7-14

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

When he was invited to the dinner party he knew it was a mistake. To begin with, he had never been to a dinner party before and this one was being hosted by all the religious big-wigs in the area. 

But the invitation had come nonetheless, and the host wanted him to be there.

He mulled over the possibility of going for a few days, weighing out the pros and cons. From what he could tell, it would be a boring evening. These weren’t really the type of people known for being fun. But they were the people with power, and he apparently had a place at the table. So he decided to go.

When he got to the house he was immediately overwhelmed with the opulence. It was as if it had been taken right out of a Better Homes & Gardens magazine, and he was worried about touching anything and everything. 

He had spent hours fretting over what to wear, and even though he settled on jeans and a button up shirt, he was clearly underdressed. The men were in suits and the women were in long flowing dresses.

Nevertheless, he politely tiptoed through room after room, with the occasional nod toward one of the other guests until he heard a simple bell ringing from the other side of the house, and assumed the time had come for the dinner party to begin.

Hero-Dinner-Party

He entered the dining room and was bombarded by the bartender who wanted to know his order.

“Got any wine?” He asked.

“Why sir, we have the cave filled to the brim with a great variety of years and regions! Shall I make a recommendation?”

“How about you bring me a glass of the stuff that you can’t get rid of, that’ll be fine.”

And with that the bartender started off in a fit of rage.

The man then turned toward the dining room table and took in its perfection. The settings were beautiful and the napkins looked as if a professional origami artist had spent hours creating unique folds for each plate. He felt all of the eyes in the room on him as he made his way over to the table, but before he could pull out a chair, the man next to him winced and reached for his lower back.

“Something wrong?” He asked.

The man was doubled over now and said, “I threw my back out this morning and I thought I had worked it out but now I feel like I can’t move.”

So he took the man by the hand, led him over to the table, pushed some of the plates and cups and cutlery out of the way, and laid the man down. He fussed around for a few minutes poking here and there while muttering a few things under his breath and immediately everyone gathered around in a tight circle with their jaws on the floor.

“Has he no decency?

“Where are his manners?”

And finally, the host entered only to exclaim, “What in the world do you think you’re doing?”

The man looked up from his make shift examining table and simply shrugged his shoulders and said, “If it was your kid, or your spouse, who was hurting, wouldn’t you drop everything to do something about it?”

And no one said a word.

The man with the back problem promptly got off the table, now fit as a fiddle, and the hired help rushed in to put everything back in its proper place.

With a wave of the hand the host encouraged everyone to find their seats so the feast could begin.

And yet the man, who had already offended everyone in the room, noticed that all the guests rushed to get to the seats as close to the host as possible.

He stood there in silence, observing the frantic frenzy of power dynamics, and contended himself to remain silent until they noticed that he had not taken the remaining seat.

And so it was in the midst of a profoundly uncomfortable silence that all the eyes fell upon him once again.

“Hey, the next time any of you go to a party, don’t sit in the best places. Someone more important than you might’ve been invited, and then you’re going to have to give up your seat to go sit in the last place. So, don’t you think it would be better to start off at the end, and that way the host can come and raise you up to a better place?”

Again, no one said a word.

The man took it as a sign that he should keep going. 

“Where has all the humility gone? There is a great and wonderful joy, known only to a few, that comes with humility. It comes not because humility earns you anything, but it brings a newfound sense of joy from not having to be in control of every little thing. You can finally enjoy the party instead of trying to be responsible for it.”

The other guests started to fidget uncomfortably in the chairs.

“Look at yourselves. If you keep showing up at these things and only choose the best seats, you’re going to cut yourselves off from all the other places and all the other people at the table, who, in my experience, are the ones who have the most fun. I know some of you would rather die that have sit in the back, but dying to all of this is the best thing you could ever do.”

The man started to really feel the words bubbling up within him and he began swinging his arms with ferocity spilling wine all over the oriental rug.

He stared deeply into the eyes of everyone around the table, all of the winners of the community, people who were so self-satisfied with all they had done and earned, and he began to pity them. He instantly knew that, to them, this was the most important moment of their week – sitting around a table, jockeying for power, doing everything they could to impress the person to their left and right. 

So he continued, “Just go ahead and die to everything you think you’ve done and earned for yourself. None of you are as good as you think you are anyway. And if, only if, you’re able to die to that, maybe you can actually start enjoying yourself.”

And he sat down.

Over the next hour the guests ate in silence as the courses of food were brought out in proper order. They were either so moved by his words or infuriated by them that they did not know what to do or what to say. 

The evening quickly came to its inevitable conclusion and the guests began to express their gratitude to the host, promising to return the favor by having the host come to their respective places, and the man felt another rally coming.

“You need to throw away the book.”

“What did you say?”

“You need to toss it out to the trash and leave it there forever.”

“What book?”

“The one you’ve been keeping in your head about who owes you what. You’re so stupidly stuck in your bookkeeping that you’re trying to keep the world together and you can’t even see how quickly its ripping at the seams. Why don’t you just let it all go? I mean, what good does it do you to climb the social ladder by inviting people just to have them invite you back. You already have all of this. Next time, try inviting the wrong people. Think about how much fun you could have at the table surrounded by the last, least, lost, little, and dead. I promise you this: you will never really be happy until the bookkeeping stops, until you learn how to let go of your clenched hand, so that someone else can grab hold and bring you onto the dance floor of life.”

The guests, again, looked upon the scene with disbelief at a man with no sense of manners at all and they, along with the host, fumed.

“Anyway,” he began, “Thanks for the evening I guess. The wine was okay, the food was good, and the conversation was to die for.” And with that he left.

It was only then that one of the guests worked up the courage to ask the host a question: “Who was that guy?”

And the host replied, “His name is Jesus. And I could just kill him for everything he did and said tonight.”

Parables-of-Jesus

If we want to take Jesus’ words from the parable at the dinner party literally, that’s fine, but it’s a quick recipe for a ruined evening. If we invite the wrong people over, they’re not going to invite us to their houses, nor would we really want to go to theirs in the first place. But, again, these parables aren’t here for us to understand how we are supposed to be living, but they function to show how God lives for us.

Jesus destroys the exceptions of the dinner party crowd and he does it throughout his ministry. He is a critical Lord, though we often forget that part of him. He’s critical because he wants to destroy all of our favorite and foolish expectations. Being first, found, big, important, and alive matter little in the kingdom of God. They matter little because Jesus didn’t come to make the first firster, or the found founder, or the important importanter, or the alive aliver. He came to raise the dead.

And we can die, we can die to the desire to sit at the best places, we can die to the bookkeeping that keeps us awake at night. We really can die to all of that because Jesus already has. 

Look: It’s as if Jesus is sneaking into the dinner parties of our lives, seeing our jockeying and our comparing and our bookkeeping, just to whisper into our ears: “Why are you doing all of this when I already threw out the book on you? Why are you keeping score when God doesn’t? God already nailed all of your sins to my cross, past-present-future. Go ahead and die to all of that so you can finally start having some fun.”

So hear Jesus today, hear him through scripture and song and silence and sermon, hear him through the sacrament to which we are invited at the table. For as much as we would like to argue against it, we are the poor, the cripple, the lame, and the blind. We are the ones invited to Christ’s dinner party, an invitation we cannot repay, and he wants us to have fun. Amen.