The Way Things Can Be

Despite the protests of fearful and cynical individuals who decry that “we are who we are,” and that “things are doomed to stay the same,” and that “it doesn’t do any good to do any good because nothing ever changes” – that’s not the proclamation of the Gospel!

We are indeed a sinful people. We do terrible things and terrible things are done to us. Just this week saw yet another innocent black man die at the hands of the police and people all across the country have tribalized themselves, again, putting up walls of division rather than avenues of connection. 

We are a people sick and tired – whether we’re sick and tired in our boring and monotonous lives, or we’re sick and tired of all the horrendous things that keep happening no matter how hard we declare that other people need to change.

And so much of this is because we have failed to open our eyes to all of the wild possibilities that life after Easter makes possible. We have been freed from the tyranny of sin and death – they no longer have control over us. And yet, we keep insisting that they are the most important things in the world. It’s why we spend more money on the military than we do on social uplift. It’s why we ask to tell people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps even when they don’t own any boots. It’s why we keep viewing people through the lens of sin rather than the lens of grace. 

But here’s the good news, the really truly good news of life after easter: If God can raise a crucified and dead Jesus from the grave, then never again can we be so sure of what is and isn’t possible. 

Jesus is alive! 

Because of Easter, we don’t believe in rejection – we believe in resurrection. We aren’t defined by what we’ve failed to do – we are defined by what Jesus has done. We can’t stay shackled to the way things were or are – God has sent us free for the way things can be. 

Here are some tunes that can help us wrestle with the already but not yet of what it means to be a Christian in the world today:

Mandolin Orange’s “Wildfire” tells the epic narrative of slavery, sin, and The South coupled with guitar, mandolin, and haunting harmonies. The duo from Chapel Hill, North Carolina use the metaphor of a wildfire to convey how hatred has always rested at the heart of “the Land of the Free” and spreads, frighteningly, even now. 

Kevin Morby released “Beautiful Strangers” in 2016 as a protest song that feels/sounds more like a hymn than it does an anthem of hoped-for societal change. All of the proceeds from the song have gone to Everytown For Gun Safety (a nonprofit aimed at gun violence prevention) and Morby still plays the song at every live performance in order to help “spread the word.” The percussion propels the song forward, the acoustic guitar is wonderfully melodic, but its Morby’s voice and lyrics that remain long after the song ends. 

Do yourself a favor: Carve our 15 minutes to sit down and listen through the entirety of Ross Gay’s incredible poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” set to the flowing synths of Bon Iver. The poem proclaims a degree of wonder for that which has been given in addition to that which has been taken away (Job 1.21). And, because I don’t know how else to convey it, the whole thing feels alive. Enjoy. 

Unnecessary Goodness

Luke 24.36b-48

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

The women go to the cemetery in the darkness. Lo and behold – Jesus’ tomb is empty! The women have a chance encounter with a man in white and they leave afraid. So afraid, in fact, that they say nothing to anyone.

But then they do, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing right now. They go back to the other disciples with declarations of resurrection, “He is risen! The story isn’t over! This is just the beginning! Everything has been made new!”

And how do the disciples respond? “Ya’ll are crazy – That’s not possible.”

None of the disciples expected the resurrection, despite Jesus telling them it would happen on three separate occasions, despite all the parables that hinge on death being the prerequisite to new life, despite Jesus doing all sorts of things that ran counter to what the world believed possible.

And even when Jesus appears to them, making a way through locked doors, they couldn’t really believe it. All of the post-resurrection appearances, the moments we might call life after Easter, are mixed with fear, doubt, hope, and, of all things, food. And still, they don’t know what to believe.

It’s easy to pick on the disciples – It’s even fun to call out their faithlessness because it often makes us feel better about ourselves. But we can’t really blame the disciples for feeling and experiencing what they felt and experienced.

All of it is rather unbelievable.

Jesus forgives his crucifiers from the cross.

Jesus reaches out to sinners and outcasts for no reason other than the fact that they are sinners and outcasts.

Jesus speaks truth to power knowing full and well what the consequences will be.

Jesus invites gobs of people to join in a revolution of the heart where the needs of others are more important than anything else.

And we killed him for it.

But then he came back. 

And not only did he come back, he came back to those who denied him, who betrayed him, and who abandoned him.

The disciples are talking about the craziness they’ve heard from the women who went to the tomb and all of the sudden Jesus himself stands among them. “Peace my friends!” They are terrified, they think it must be a ghost. Jesus says, “What’s wrong with all of you? Look at me. I am flesh and bone.” The disciples come out from hiding behind tables and chairs to take a closer inspection and then Jesus says, “While you’re at it, have you got anything to eat? I’m starving.” And one of the disciples hands Jesus a piece of broiled fish, and Jesus scarfs it down in one bite.

Years ago, a church received a rather large donation from an anonymous source and the community of faith began debating what to do with the money. There were suggestions of adding a new stained glass window behind the altar. Someone mentioned that the roof was looking worse for the wear and it might be time to go ahead and replace yet. The youth wanted new bean bags chairs.

They argued and argued until the oldest woman in the room, seen as a grandmother by just about everyone else – a pillar of the church, slowly rose to her feet and said, “Give me the money. I know what to do with it.”

The next day she took the money to the local homeless shelter and told them to spend the money on feeding the hungry.

The following Sunday she stood among her church family and announced what she had done with the money. At first there was disgruntled shuffling among the pews, a few murmured slights, when finally a man shouted at her: “How could you do that? We could’ve used that money! And you gave it away to other people! You don’t even know if they believe in Jesus!”

To which the woman calmly replied, “Maybe they don’t believe in Jesus, but I do. I do.”

Robert Farrar Capon said that, “Food is the daily sacrament of unnecessary goodness, ordained for a continual remembrance that the world will always be more delicious than it is useful.”

In the gospel stories Jesus is forever sharing meals with other people and, on a few notable occasions, he makes more wine and more food available for others just to keep the celebration going. 

And it was Jesus’ table fellowship that most confounded his critics. Whether it was a lunch time sandwich over at Zacchaeus’ house or sharing food with crowds undeserving, Jesus’ willingness to eat and share food with others was a foretaste of both what we experience now and will enjoy at the Supper of the Lamb.

Perhaps that’s why we Methodists are so good at hosting meals – we always make more food than anyone can eat and we send people home with food to last for days!

Why do we share food? Why do we give ourselves over to music that moves us? Why do we spend our time painting, or reading, or daydreaming? We do those things because they’re fun. Pure and simple.

But it’s about more than that too. Half of all the most remarkable things we do in this life, the simple delights of rejoicing in the wonder of creation, they are hidden in the world that longs to come to fruition. 

Let me put it this way: For all of the loveliness this world has to offer, it is all temporary and finite. The food is consumed. The bottle sits empty. The record spins at the end without a needle in the groove. On and on.

We, to use the language of scripture, are strangers in a strange land, we live in a time of impermanence. But God has given us good appetites not to consume what the world offers and then toss it away. God has given us appetites to taste goodness and hunger to make it better.

And that’s why we share recipes with friends and family, it’s why we give away books that we love, it’s why we talk forever and ever about movies and TV shows and YouTube videos – we delight in delighting others.

Whenever we love the things we’ve been given, whether it’s broiled fish or a hardback book or a vinyl album or a perfectly knit sweater or tomatoes from the garden, when we love those things for what they are, we catch glimpses and tastes and feelings of what is to come.

The breads and the pastries, the cheeses and the wines, and the singing and the dancing will go into the Supper of the Lamb because we do!

Jesus, just on the other side of resurrection appears to his friends and promptly ingests a fish stick. We could easily brush this aside as a random detail included by Luke, but it is not random – it is a signpost of the delight of resurrection! It is an ever ringing reminder of the goodness God has given to us right now, and will continue to give to us forever and ever.

But even if the reference to seafood on Easter isn’t enough – Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a whole lot of things, and most of those things have to do with food! Mustard seeds, and grain of wheat, fig trees, leavened bread! He hands over bread and wine on his final evening and says they are body and blood! 

Resurrection, believe it or not, is forever inextricably tied up with our food and love of it. It is quite literally by the death of corn, cabbage, and collards that we have lived until today.

Think of bread! It is the great sacrament of life only possible by death.

Unless a seed dies, there is no wheat.

Without wheat being ground and pulverized there is no flour.

Unless carbohydrates are destroyed by yeast there is no rising.

Without the murder of yeast by fire and heat there is no bread.

And without the consumption of bread by the likes of you and me, there is no you and me.

Out of death, life! Resurrection!

The God we worship is the God of transportation and transformation – God is forever delivering people from one place to another, and working in the world to help guide us from who we are to who we can be.

The things of life can do that – there truly are meals, movies, and musicals that change us after consuming them. They can do so because we are in the time called Life After Easter. 

Despite the protests of fearful and cynical individuals who decry that we are who we are, and that things are doomed to stay the same, and that it doesn’t do any good to do any good because nothing ever changes – that’s not the proclamation of the Gospel!

We are indeed a sinful people. We do terrible things and terrible things are done to us. Just this week saw yet another innocent black man die at the hands of the police and people all across the country have tribalized themselves, again, putting up walls of division rather than avenues of connection. 

We are a people sick and tired – whether we’re sick and tired in our boring and monotonous lives, or we’re sick and tired of all the horrendous things that keep happening no matter how hard we declare that other people need to change.

But life after Easter makes all sorts of things possible that would otherwise be impossible.

We have been treed from the terrible tyranny of sin and death, they no longer have control over us and what we do, even though we keep insisting that they are the most important things in the world. It’s why we retreat to the comfort of our own domains while rejoicing in calls out the specks in other peoples’ eyes. It’s why we implore others to pull themselves up by their bootstraps even when they don’t have any boots to begin with. It’s why we keeping viewing people through the lens of sin rather than the lens of grace.

But here’s the Good News, the really good news of life after Easter – If God can raise a crucified Jesus from the grave, then never again can we be so sure of what is and isn’t possible. 

Jesus was dead and forsaken in a tomb, but God refused to leave him there. 

In the time called life after Easter, we don’t believe in dejection – we believe in resurrection.

In the time called life after Easter, we aren’t defined by what we’ve failed to do – we are defined by what Jesus has done.

In the time called life after Easter, we can’t stay shackled to the way things were or are- God has set us free for the way things can be. Amen.

Unexpected

Mark 16.1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought 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. 

There is something a little terrible about preaching to an empty sanctuary on Easter Sunday. It’s just me and the camera. It’s empty as a tomb. 

Over the years I have written plenty of sermons, most of them alone in the corner of a coffee shop. But offering a sermon in an empty room? I never thought it possible, but I’ve been doing it for more than a year.

And yet, isn’t this also the triumph of the resurrection? Jesus is not a prisoner in this sanctuary. We can’t keep him still anywhere. He is out and about and on his way to Galilee with other things to do. Thanks be to God.

He is risen!

He is risen indeed!

It happened on a Sunday.

The Gospel is reluctant to give us too many details about the whole thing: We don’t read of the grief the women undoubtedly felt as they went to anoint Jesus’ body. We don’t learn of the disciples’ next plans now that their Master is dead and forsaken in a tomb. We don’t really receive much of anything save for the fact that the women go to the tomb without knowing how they will roll away the stone.

And yet, when they arrive, the stone is not where it’s supposed to be. They peak their heads inside and discover a young man dressed in white.

He says, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus, but he ain’t here. He was dead, but now he is resurrected. 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 this is how the story ends: The women run from the tomb as fast as they can and they say nothing to anyone because they are afraid.

Easter.

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

And fear.

I think we all know something of fear this year, perhaps more than any other year. Many of us are still waiting for the chance to get a vaccine, many of us haven’t seen those we love in more than a year, and still yet many of us know someone, or a family, or a friend who suffered tremendously or even died because of the coronavirus.

However, the God of scripture is the God who brings life out of death.

That’s the heart of the Christian proclamation and, for some reason, it’s not what we often hear from the church, particularly on Easter. Instead we’re more likely to hear about how “Easter teaches us that the world needs more love in it,” or “Easter is the symbol of the necessity of transformation,” or “Easter is about the enduring symbols of ultimate truth.”

Notice: in each of those Easter claims, they’re entirely about us, how we respond, and what we do next.

If that’s all Easter has to offer then we should leave it all behind. 

Thankfully, the New Testament says something very different.

He is not here. He is Risen.

God is the One doing the things that get done. 

The disciples, even the women, they do nothing to contribute to the resurrection. They are merely witnesses. And, when they do respond, they run away in fear. 

And perhaps fear is the proper way to respond to the proclamation of Easter because it was, and always will be, entirely unexpected.

The women go to the tomb in the morning for the same reasons that many of us go to cemeteries – we want to connect, somehow, to those who are no longer among the living; we want to seek closure; we want to pay our respects.

But nobody, now or then, goes to a cemetery expecting someone to raise from the dead.

All of the other Easter stuff, the connections to spring and daffodils and butterflies emerging from cocoons, the eggs and the candy, they’re all good and fine, but they don’t have anything to do with the resurrection of the dead.

Hearing about the need to love one another or finding ultimate truth, doesn’t send a group of people running from a tomb, it doesn’t set the faithless disciples on a course to reshape entire societies, it doesn’t result in a faith that is still turning the world upside down. 

Let me put it plainly – What happened on Easter was so unexpected and so earth-shattering that it ignited a tiny band of mediocre fishermen and other marginalized people, all of whom were discredited by the world, because they followed a man who had been publicly executed by the highest authorities of church and state. 

Maybe it was enough to simply hear Jesus’ teachings, or eat some of the miraculous loaves and fishes to set them on fire. But I doubt it. It’s not good news to work so hard for things to change, and to love your enemies, and to pray for those who persecute you, unless the One who shared those words was, in fact, God in the flesh who died and rose again.

The resurrection is what makes everything in the life of faith intelligible. 

The earliest disciples, those hiding away in the upper room after the crucifixion and those walking to the tomb that first Easter morning had not a hope in the world. Their entire worldview was nailed to a cross. But then on Easter he came back.

No wonder they were afraid. 

Today, Easter, is the high point of the Christian year and yet it is always challenging. It is challenging because it was unexpected and there are no good analogies from human experience that can adequately convey it. 

Easter, to put it another way, cannot be explained.

But that’s the heart of Easter: it is unprecedented, unlooked-for, and unimaginable.

Some of us have no doubt seen or experienced what we might call miracles – we know someone who kicked a bad habit, or perhaps we’re aware of an unexplainable change in a medical diagnosis, or something happened that cannot be mere coincidence. But none of us have ever experienced someone dead in the grave for three days resurrected, let alone God in the flesh.

But someone did.

All of our faith, this whole thing we call church, is predicated on a handful of people from long ago who saw and experienced something so unexpected that it radically re-narrated everything in existence.

And all it took were three words: He is risen!

I know that it cannot be proved, I know it isn’t possible as we understand possibility. But I also know that this is a message that explains everything that happened afterward. He is risen! That is truly a piece of such Good News that it would shakes the foundations of the world from then until now. 

Hear the Good News: The battle is over. Even though the the ugly forces of sin and death insist on rearing their heads, it is only because they haven’t heard about the forfeit. We live in the in-between, the already-but-not-yet. The old is past; behold it has all become new.

The story of Easter, the thing that terrified the women, is the fact that the greatest enemies ever faced, sin and death themselves, are defeated in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, they have no power over us.

No matter what we encounter in this life here and now, there is one thing that will always hold true – the unexpected victory of Jesus. He is risen. 

Easter then, is and isn’t about us. It’s not about trying to get us to live better lives here and now, even though we probably should. It isn’t about making a commitment to making the world a better place, even though it wouldn’t hurt. 

Easter is about what God does for us.

In just about every other part of our lives, there are expectations.

And yet, Jesus is all about the unexpected.

Jesus doesn’t wait on the cross until we right all of our wrongs.

Jesus doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until there’s enough do-goodery in the world.

Instead, the proclamation of Easter is we don’t have to do anything, because the everything we’ve always needed is already done.

If Easter becomes anything less bizarre and unexpected 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, or ourselves, from the dead.

It happens in spite of us entirely, which is exactly what makes the Good News so good.

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

He is risen.

He is risen indeed. Amen. 

The Enormity Of Easter

Our God is loquacious – that is, God creates through speech. And we call the Good News Good News because its’ something that is received from someone else. 

Preaching, then, is a uniquely wonderful task because it is always evangelical, it is always sharing the Good News with those living in a world drowning in bad news.

Easter is a challenge to preachers because it is not natural, it is not expected, and there are no good analogies from human experience that can adequately convey it. Easter is not like the butterfly emerging from the cocoon, it is not the return of the deeply buried daffodils in the ground. Easter is about a man who was tortured to death by the powers and principalities, church and state working together, who died, and then 3 days later he came back!

How can preaching ever adequately reflect the enormity of Easter?

And yet, Easter Sunday is the day that makes all of our other Sundays intelligible. For, without Jesus’ resurrection, the whole of Christianity becomes a fool’s errand – unless Jesus is raised from the dead, then we shouldn’t teach our children to turn the other cheek, or go the extra mile for our neighbors, or pray for our enemies.

Therefore, as difficult as it may be to say something about Easter, we must say something on Easter. 

And perhaps that’s the actual beauty of it all. 

Some of us have no doubt seen/experienced miracles – we know someone who dropped a bad habit, or perhaps we’re aware of an unexplainable change in a diagnosis. But none of us have ever seen someone dead in the grave for three days resurrected, let alone God in the flesh.

But someone did.

All of our faith, this whole thing we call church, is predicated on a handful of people from long ago who saw and experienced something so unexpected that it radically re-narrated everything in existence. 

And all it took were three words: “He is Risen!” 

Easter is world shattering, it is deeply disruptive, and it changes everything now and forever. Easter is the totality of the Good News. And without it, we have nothing to say at all.

Here are some instrumental tunes that can help get us ready for the unexpected Good News of Easter. I encourage you to sit back and let the music wash over you and, hopefully, you’ll discover something about who you are, and whose you are, along the way:

Explosions In The Sky is an instrumental post-rock band from Austin, Texas. All of their music explores textures and sounds rather than following typical song structures like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus. To me, “The Birth And The Death Of A Day” sounds like Easter.

Sufjan Steven’ incredibly long titled instrumental track from his album “Come On Feel The Illinoise” is a short and evocative track ripe with recorders, flutes, harmonizing chorus, and various percussive rat-a-ma-tats; it’s one of those songs where you are not the same having listened to it.

White Denim’s “Back At The Farm” is a blistering and raucous instrumental psychedelic rock song. I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to listen to it without bashing my hands around in feeble attempts to “air-drum” along. If Easter really is a day of celebration, then White Denim is the kind of music I’ll be blaring after church!

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.