This Isn’t How This Was Supposed to Go: Sermon for Easter 2019

If you came here last Easter, you might remember the children’s sermon.

Let me remind you. I was trying to talk about surprises, and how Easter was a big surprise because Jesus was dead, and then rose again. So, I had these candles. They were just regular birthday cake candles. I lit them one by one, and then blew them out. 

That’s where the trouble began. It turned out that the matches burned more quickly than I expected, and some ashes fell on the floor. The candles did too, and wax dripped everywhere. The end result is that my friends tell me I’m not supposed to use fire anymore in children’s sermons.

But the big problem came during the finale. I had one of those trick birthday candles that you blow out and then they re-light themselves. The idea was that, just as Christ wasn’t supposed to rise again, the candle wasn’t supposed to light itself again.

And so I blew out the candle, and waited. And waited. And nothing happened. 

I always worry about what kids take away from children’s sermons, but I worried about this one in particular. Did I ruin some kid’s faith? Years from now are they going to think this whole Easter thing is a hoax because the candle didn’t come back on?

But that day mostly I just walked away from that whole thing thinking “This isn’t how this was supposed to go.”

That’s actually not a bad place to start on Easter morning. Because this story is, at its core, one about things not going the way they were supposed to go. On that first Easter morning three women were going to the tomb to do what they couldn’t on the day that Christ died. It had been the Sabbath, and so they hadn’t been able to prepare the body for burial until now.

But when they got to the door, and it was open. They heave stone had been rolled away. And when they went inside there was no body. And they were deeply upset because this wasn’t how this was supposed to go

But, they were used to that…because Jesus’ life hadn’t gone the way it was supposed to go. His friends and disciples had thought that he was something special. He was supposed to change everything. He had brought them such hope. They thought he could he be the Messiah who would change everything. And yet, in the end, the world destroyed him. On Good Friday the powers that be killed him, and buried him. That wasn’t the way it was supposed to go at all.

And now all they wanted to do was give him the proper burial he’d been denied, but they couldn’t find his body. They couldn’t even let Jesus rest in peace. And that wasn’t how it was supposed to go either.

But as they went into a tomb, they saw two men in dazzling clothes. Angels. And they asked them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen”.

It was unbelievable. Quite literally. Because when the three women went back to the rest of the disciples, they didn’t believe them. One, Peter, had to go see for himself, and he found the same thing they did And you can almost picture the women being like, “Really, Peter? We already told you he wasn’t there.”

But, that wasn’t how it was supposed to go either. Women weren’t supposed to be trusted with news like that. Surely if Jesus were to come back he’d go tell the men first, right? I mean, they were the important ones. Nothing about this was making sense.

I think about that first Easter morning, about how nothing was going the way it was supposed to go, and I think about this world. Because, truth be told, this world is broken It is not bad, because nothing God creates is bad…but it is broken

The planet itself is in crisis. We are at a critical turning point. The world is filled with war and violence…early this morning attacks on churches in Sri Lanka killed hundreds of people. Meanwhile from Pittsburgh to New Zealand to Parkland, senseless violence and bigotry reign supreme And all around us, unkindness and incivility continue to rule the day, even at the highest levels. This is the example that we are giving to our kids. This is the world that we are happening on to the next generation, essentially saying to them “this is your mess to clean up”.

And sometimes, I imagine God looking down on God’s good creation, full of so much promise and potential, and saying, “This isn’t how this was supposed to go”. 

The reality, though, is that on some level that’s always been true of this world. After all, Jesus was the living embodiment of God’s love and goodness, and look what happened to him? Not even Jesus could escape being broken by this world

And yet…that was not the last word.

Because on Easter morning, when those three women went to the tombs, expecting only to see the broken body of this man they had loved so deeply…he wasn’t there. And these angels were talking about how he was alive. And absolutely none of it made sense, because no one comes back from the dead This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

But yet, it was true…he was risen…he was alive. The world had done its absolute worst to Jesus. But in the end, God’s love was stronger than that. God’s love was stronger even than death. 

The angels ask the women “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” In their defense, I think they were just doing what made sense. It was the last place they had seen him. I think about that question, though, and I think maybe it was the angels, not the women who didn’t understand.

I think the women, who unlike the angels lived in this world, knew that sometimes you look for the living among the dead because there are so many broken places around us. 

And I think that they were pretty incredible, because they dared to go to one of those broken places and do this small act of kindness, this taking care of Jesus’ body, because they knew it was just a small sign of love, of mercy, and of justice. 

Why do you look for the living among the dead? Because sometimes we have to dare to do so. And because they did, because they were the first who dared to go to find Jesus, they were the first ones to know something amazing had happened

I’ll close with this. I grew up in a staunchly evangelical area. People would often invite others to church by asking, “Have you found Jesus?” And those of us who weren’t really into that would often ask, in fake seriousness,“Why? Is he missing?”

I don’t think Jesus is missing now anymore than he was that first Easter morning. I think he’s still around, showing us that God’s love is bigger than the worst the world can do. I think he’s doing some unexpected things. And I think that if we aren’t careful, we could miss them pretty easily

The reality is that the signs of resurrection are all around us. They’re in the people who know who overcome great obstacles. They’re in the hope that new generations bring. They’re in signs that maybe the world can change for the better. And I believe God is behind that. 

I think God is saying, “This isn’t how this was supposed to go…and so now we are going to fix this”

That’s the message of Easter.  And so the work for us becomes the same as the work for those three women that morning: Go and tell everyone what you have seen. God’s love could not be destroyed. God’s love has won the day. Christ is risen, and so now may we rise.

Because that is how it’s supposed to go.

Risen Together: Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2018

On very rare occasions, Easter falls on April 1st. Or, as we often call it, April Fool’s Day. So, as we were preparing for worship today many of us who are clergy wondered if that meant we needed to make our sermons funny. 

My spouse is a pastor as well so we started to tell each other bad Easter knock-knock jokes as a way of preparing. Mine was this:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Not Jesus!

Yeah…they groaned at the sunrise service too.

So, don’t worry, I’m not going to tell any more of those, but I’ve heard a lot of people saying this year that Easter is an April Fool’s story in the sense that when everyone thought Jesus was dead and buried and that hope was gone, God’s love and grace had the last laugh. It’s as if Jesus jumped from the tomb with confetti and yelled “April Fools”!

But the Gospel story we read today reminds me that it didn’t happen quite like that. You see, that first Easter, Jesus wasn’t playing a joke on his friends, hiding out in a tomb, waiting to surprise them. Jesus was plain and simply dead. The worst that the world could do had been done to him. He had been betrayed, abandoned, beaten, and crucified. 

On Friday night they had hastily buried him before the Jewish sabbath began, which is what his faith required. It had needed to be done so quickly that they hadn’t been able to prepare his body fully before the sun set. And so on Sunday morning, after the sabbath had ended, three women, three friends of Jesus who had loved his dearly, went back to his tomb to finish.

As they were walking there, they thought about the big, heavy stone that had been rolled across the entrance to the tomb, and they asked themselves, “who will roll it away for us”? It was far too heavy for them. And as the tomb came into view, they saw something that only compounded their grief and fear; they saw that the tomb was open. And looking inside, they couldn’t find Jesus. And they assumed that something even worse had happened, and that his last resting place had been disturbed. They wondered why, even in death, Jesus couldn’t find any peace.

But then, they saw a man sitting there dressed in white. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed!” 

Now, that’s probably the most unhelpful thing you could say in that situation. “Do not be alarmed.” And yet, the man knew why they were there. He said, “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.”

Scripture tells us that the three women were “seized” by “terror and amazement”, and that they ran from that place. 

That’s fair. If I went to my friend’s grave and someone said, “oh, they’re not dead anymore” I think I might be running too. At the very best, I might think that someone was playing a particularly cruel April Fool’s Day joke on me.

But this was no joke. There was no prank. This was something different entirely. This was Resurrection. The world had done its best to destroy God’s love and grace, embodied in Jesus Christ. But God’s love and grace refused to stay in the ground. God’s love and grace triumphed over even death. 

That was the first miracle. But the second was this; the second was getting the world to believe it.

Like the three women at the tomb, we hear a truth that we can’t yet fully process or believe. A hope rises in us, and we begin to wonder, “Can this possibly be true?” “Can what was once destroyed live once more?”

It’s no wonder that the three women had trouble believing. And it’s no wonder that we sometimes do too. Because though we live nearly two thousand years later, though we know what our faith teaches, though we know that the stone was rolled away, and Jesus was not there, sometimes that is still as hard for us to believe as it was for those women at the tomb. 

That’s no surprise. That’s no surprise because we live in a world that is sometimes so broken. We live in a world where children are afraid to go to school, where neighbors distrust neighbors, and where corruption and abuses of power speak louder than kindness and understanding. 

It has often been said that Christians are Easter people living in a Good Friday world. We are people who believe in the promise of new life, but we live in a world where we are surrounded by pain and suffering. 

I get that, but I wonder if the truth isn’t closer to this. I wonder if we don’t live in a Good Friday morning so much as we live in a very early on Sunday morning – before anyone has heard the good news – world. I wonder if we live in a world much like those women did on that morning, when they had heard an unbelievable story, and were running from the grave terrified and amazed, and yet, they dared to hope that maybe, just maybe it was true.

I think that for those of us who want to follow a Resurrected Christ, we live like Jesus’s friend did in those earliest hours. We live in the hope that these rumors of Resurrection are true, even as we acknowledge the reality of the world around us. We live as people who come at dawn, prepared to weep, and yet who are met with the baffling evidence that perhaps something amazing has happened. 

And so, we start to spread the news. Tentatively at first, and to one another.

“Christ is risen?” We ask, in hushed tones. 

“Could it be true? Is Christ risen?” Our friends whisper back.

And later, dumbfounded, the first ones to see him would begin to tell one another. “It’s true. Christ is risen.” 

And slowly, the news begins to sink in. “Christ is risen. Christ is risen! Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

And we respond to one another, “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!” 

And then we begin to tell the world, “Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

For Christians, the work of our life is to live in such a way that we witness to the victory of God’s love and grace, even in the face of the brokenness of the world. We spread the good news of resurrection not by what we say so much as by how we live, and how we work for new life in this world. We live in such a way that even on the hardest days, we can proclaim through our every action that “Christ is risen” and that there is hope.

A funny thing happens when you live that way. You start to see hope and resurrection everywhere you look.

Last night I went to a meeting held in a nondescript room here in town. A friend of mine just celebrated one year of sobriety, and she was celebrating by speaking and getting her medallion. And as I listened to her speak, all I could think was “Alleluia! Christ is risen, and she is risen too.”

And then about a week ago, I watched some high school kids do some amazing things, standing up for themselves and for their classmates in the face of violence, and all I could think was “Alleluia! Christ is risen, and they are risen too!”

And so often I sit in my office talking with someone who has survived something unimaginable, someone who is still fighting day to day to believe that the Resurrection is true, even for them. And though they might not yet believe it yet, I can still see it, and I think to myself, “Alleluia! Christ is risen, and they are risen too.”

Recently someone who has found their way out of their own metaphorical tombs, told me this: “Resurrection is real and can never be taken away.”

That’s true. That’s true for me, and that’s true for everyone. Even you, the person who might be sitting there today, wondering if it’s even true for you. It is. “Christ is risen, and you are risen too.” It’s not an April Fool’s joke. Just like Christ, your resurrection is real, and it can never be taken away from you.

When God Jumps In: Sermon for Easter, 2017

An audio podcast of this sermon is available here or on iTunes

There’s a story about a guy who falls in a hole.

A man is out walking one day and all of a sudden he trips and falls into this deep hole. He lands at the bottom and no matter what he tries, he’s stuck. So he starts to call out to the people that he knows are passing by.

“Help me!” He says. “Get me out of here!”

Eventually someone comes by. She looks down at him and he says “help me”. She’s says “okay”. And she’s a doctor, and so she writes him a prescription and throws it down to him.

sky-ditch-eye-holeStill stuck, he waits for the next person to come. And this time it’s a minister. And he looks down in the hole and the guy says “help me”. So the minster says, “I’ll help you”. And he says a prayer for him and then moves on.

But down there at the bottom of the hole, the man is still stuck.

I’ll come back to that story, but first I want to talk about the story. That story is the reason we’re all here today. On Easter morning we proclaim an incredible truth. It starts with this: nearly 2,000 years ago, Jesus Christ was dead and buried.

And three days later, early in the morning, his friends were still devastated. And so they went to his tomb. But when they got there they found that the heavy stone that blocked the door had been rolled away, and Jesus wasn’t where they had left him.

They were, understandably, distressed. That’s because in the moment they didn’t know that the fact Jesus wasn’t there is the best part of the story. Because the world had done the absolute worst that it could to Jesus. It had put him in the ground, and closed the tomb. But Jesus would not stay put. Love would not consent to remaining buried. Light would not tolerate being snuffed out.

Put another way, Jesus was down at the bottom of the hole, but he wouldn’t stay there.

That’s good news for us. And that’s good news for the guy from that first story, the one who was there at the bottom of his own hole, looking for a way to get out. The doctor couldn’t save him. The minister couldn’t save him. No one could save him, and things looked bleak.

But then a third person came by. And, if you’ve ever watched the show The West Wing you might have heard this story before. The third person was the guy’s friend. And when the guy saw him from the bottom of the hole he yelled out “Friend! You have to help me.”

And so the friend did what the best of friends do. He jumped into the hole himself.

Now the first guy couldn’t believe it. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Now we’re both down here.”

“Yeah,” said the second guy. “But I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

The most stunning part of the Easter story, the most amazing part of our faith, is this: God loves us enough to jump into the hole with us and to show us the way out.

In the church we believe that Jesus was more than just a great guy, though he was certainly that. We believe that Jesus is nothing less than God-with-us. Jesus is God loving this world so much that God chooses to actively participate in our world.

This means that God is not some divine chess player in the sky who moves us around like pawns, occasionally making us fall into holes. Instead, God chooses to be on the board with us. It means that God doesn’t just come to the edge of the holes that are of this world’s making, but God loves us enough to jump in with us, and show us the way out.

And that is what Jesus did in his life. In a time when injustice, cor

Easter guy in hole

A picture drawn by a child in church during the Easter sermon on Sunday: The friend who jumps in the hole.

ruption, and cruelty reigned, he jumped down into the hole. And on Easter morning, he got back out.

Now, we hear this story today, and we have the benefit of 2,000 years of hindsight. You came to church this morning knowing how it goes. It’s no surprise to us that the tomb is empty, and Christ is risen.

But to the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning, it was more than a surprise. It was shocking. Jesus wasn’t there, but an angel was telling them, “Jesus has been raised from the dead. Go tell the others, and Jesus will meet you.”

It sounds impossible to them, but they go anyway. And Scripture tells us that the women “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell” the others.

I love that phrase: “with fear and great joy”. I love it not because I like the idea of being afraid, but because I believe we can all relate. I love it because fear and joy are the natural reaction to the surprise of resurrection.

They had no idea what was happening. But they did know that it was something big. They didn’t have words to describe it yet, but in their hearts they had started to believe that resurrection was possible. And so, they ran.

And it was while they are running that they meet Jesus along the way. And seeing him, they know that it’s all true.

Like I said, we have hindsight faith. We are not surprised by resurrection the way that those disciples were. But maybe we should be. Maybe the news that resurrection is possible should be that jarring to us. Maybe it should cause us run quickly, ready to tell the world, wrestling between our fear and joy every step of the way.

But then again, maybe in some ways resurrection really does still sometimes surprise us. And maybe when it does we understand Easter more clearly than we ever could, even on a beautiful Easter morning.

Have you ever been down in a hole? Have you ever been there wondering how in the world you would ever get out? Have you ever felt like the people who are walking by aren’t really getting it? And have you ever had an experience of grace, maybe one where you felt God nearby, or maybe one when someone else jumped in the hole with you and showed you the way out?

IMG_4389 2

The sun coming up over the Squamscott River on Easter morning.

 

If so, you get what resurrection means. You get what it means to balance fear and joy as you climb your way out. And you get that those two things are the essential elements of hope.

I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that it was only when the women were running with that hope, with the first inklings that new life might be possible, that they ran into Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but I need hope like that. I need to know that somewhere between my joy in life and my fear for the world, resurrection is true. I need to know that I worship a God who loves not just me, but the whole world enough to jump down into the darkest places with us. Because in days like this, when so often it feels like the whole world is stuck down at the bottom of an ever-deepening hole, who better to show us how to get out?

But more that that, every time we are shown the way out, every time we are given a little taste of resurrection, we become a part of this work too.

Martin Luther once said that it was the job of Christians to become “little Christs” to one another. That’s a tall order, and I know I’m never going to get that exactly right.
But I think I know what he meant by that. I think he meant that in a world where too many fall through the cracks and into deep holes, it’s our job to be like Christ, and to jump in after them. It’s our job to say “hey, a friend of mine once showed me the way out too.”

And so, maybe right now more than ever we who would follow Christ are called to be the people who jump into some pretty deep holes.

When violence and war drive some down into the depths, we jump in with them, and we work for peace.

When fear and ignorance shut the doors of our hearts to others, we jump in, and we open them wide again.

When addiction drives down our friends and our communities, we jump in, and we support recovery.

And whenever injustice causes any beloved child of God to be pushed into a hole, we jump in, and we work to make it right.

Resurrection happened on that Easter morning all those centuries ago. But it didn’t end that day. Resurrection is happening still. The work that Christ began on Easter morning continues. But the really amazing thing is that Christ no longer does it alone. He calls us to do this work with us.

On Easter we decide: will I stay here, unmoved by resurrection? Or am I ready to jump in?

May we always have just enough joy to allow us to conquer our fear, and to give us just enough hope to take the plunge.

Lenten Stories: Sermon for March 5, 2017

Wednesday night some of us gathered here in the sanctuary for Ash Wednesday worship. I joked then about the overflow crowd. You know, there are three packed services in every church year: Christmas, Easter, and Ash Wednesday.

That’s not true, of course. On Christmas and Easter the church makes some joyous proclamations. Christ is born. Christ is risen. It’s no wonder that the pews are full for each service.

On Ash Wednesday, though, we tell you you’re going to die. So, that’s not really the way to draw in the crowds.

Lent_2017_Cover_f888c1e7-3e2f-4568-83ca-b951e7fdde4e_large

Lent 2017 Still Speaking Devotional

I get that. And I also get that Lent, the season whose first Sunday we are observing today, is probably the most dreaded part of the church year. Our hymns get a little slower and more introspective. We don’t have flowers in the sanctuary. We put up purple to symbolize repentance from sin. And you can kind of feel the whole church get a little more serious and pensive.

So, if church feels a little different this time of year, a little slower and harder, I get it. It does to me too. And yet, I’ve always believed in the power of Lent to make Easter even more joyous. I’ll tell you why, but first I want to look at the text.

Jesus was led out into the wilderness for forty days to be, as Scripture puts it, “tempted by the devil”. And while he is out there, Jesus faces a lot of temptations. He’s fasting, so he’s really hungry, and the devil says to him “you know, if you just told these stones to become bread, they would.” But Jesus refuses saying “we don’t live by bread alone”.

Then the devil takes Jesus up to the top of the temple in Jerusalem and says, “you know, if you’re really God’s son, you could just jump and he angels would catch you.” But Jesus says, “Don’t put God to the test.”

And finally the devil took Jesus up to a high mountain, one where Jesus could see every kingdom, and he says “all you have to do is worship me, and this could all be yours.”

But Jesus says, “away with you, satan, I will only worship and serve God.” And Scripture tells us that the devil left, and angels came to wait on Jesus.

Jesus was tempted for forty days. And he wasn’t even in the comfort of his home, or his friends. He was along, in the wilderness, wrestling with the powers of death and destruction. And he overcame evil incarnate itself. It’s amazing.

But he was doing all of this not just to prove a point. This wasn’t some kind of spiritual marathon whose medal he would then wear. He was doing this because something even harder was coming. Jesus was doing this because he was preparing to walk down a road that would lead to his betrayal, and crucifixion, and death. Jesus was doing this in order to grow strong enough for what was to come.

It’s no coincidence that our Lent is forty days long too. Because, while we are not preparing for betrayal and death, we are preparing for what comes next. We’re getting ready for Easter. We’re getting ready for that Sunday morning next month when we will come to church and the flowers will overflow the chancel, the choir will sing victorious hymns, and the whole world will feel like it is alive once again.

But, more than that, we are preparing to be the people who will proclaim Easter with our lives. We are getting ready to go out in the world and glorify God by loving the world. We are soon going to be given this joyful work to do, and that’s why right now we have to do the hard work of Lent.

And Lent is hard work. It’s not joyless work, but it is hard. Because Lent is about more than giving up candy, or coffee, or meat, or Facebook, or whatever else. Lent was never just about “giving up” anything. Lent is also not about just praying more, or reading Scripture everyday. Lent was never just about “taking something on” either.

Instead, Lent is about this: growing closer to God. And the way we are often called to do that, is by looking in ourselves, and removing the things that are keeping us separated from God.

Jesus had to wrestle with the devil in the wilderness. I think that in Lent we are called to wrestle with our own demons. We are called into the wildernesses of our lives, maybe even the one within us, to confront the things that tempt us, and that hold us back.

What those things are, what form those demons each of us wrestle with, will be different for us all. Maybe it’s resentment. Maybe addiction. Maybe the judgement of others Maybe self-doubt. Maybe fear. Maybe some combination, some cocktail of pain and regret and alienation from others.

Whatever is in there, whatever we don’t want to face, it’s a good chance that it’s our real Lenten work. And Lent is the perfect time to grow closer to God, and then to get in there and wrestle with our demons, and kick those suckers out.

If we want to get to Easter, if we want to rise up with Christ in the morning, then we have to be willing to face the things that we worry could kill us. We have to be willing to face the wilderness, and rely on God to bring us through. Because we can’t hope to change the world if we cannot face ourselves first.

I was reminded of how important that can be. A friend of mine from college is now a physician working in family medicine. Most years she gives up Facebook for Lent, but this year she decided to do something else. This year she is staying on Facebook in order to write daily posts about her patients, with their permission, and about the choices they are making in their lives in order to live more fully, and serve the world. She is calling them “Lent stories”.

Now, let me say first that while this might sound sort of sweet and sentimental, like a Hallmark card, my friend first practiced medicine as a Navy doctor assigned to care for US Marines in Kuwait during the war on terror. She understands the gritty realities of life. But that’s what makes these so great.

This week she told the story of a patient who came in for a routine medical clearance form so that she could study better environmental practices in Sri Lanka. And then there was the story of the man whose liver transplant wasn’t working, but whose first response when told was “okay, let’s get to work. Let’s fix this.”

There was the story of the mother with three sets of twins. (Yes, three.) She was going back to school. And there was the story of Mrs. S., who after years of abuse from her husband, decided that she and her 12 year old daughter would be leaving him this week. She told her doctor, “We are worth more than that. My daughter deserves more than that and I intend to model behavior that she can be proud of.”

These are stories of hope and transformation. They are stories of overcoming the demons of life and finding new life. And they are Lent stories.

Every one of us has a Lenten story waiting to be told. This is the season where we write it. So what is your Lent story? What is the story that you want to be able to tell the world come Easter morning?

Whatever it is, that’s what the work of Lent can be for you this year. Draw close to God, and then dig deep. Walk into the wilderness, and know that God will be with you every step of the way. Amen?

The Gift of Forgetting Our Place: Sermon for Easter 2016

Many of you know I grew up in the South. And, one of the things I remember hearing about growing up, at school and in the neighborhood was the importance of “knowing your place”. Where I grew up, for instance, children were supposed to know their place and to be quiet and obedient.

Girls were supposed to know their place too. I remember trying to play Little League baseball with my friends. I loved baseball, and I could hit or throw better than almost any boy I knew. But when I tried to play, the everyone made it very clear to me that I had forgotten my place.

That was pretty frustrating. But, sometimes, things were a little more serious than baseball.

Where I grew up there was a train track that ran through the center of town, and it was literally a dividing line. If you were white, you lived on one side of that track. And if you were black, you lived on the other side. I don’t remember anyone ever teaching me that, but I do know that we all knew it. And I know that we all were all expected to know our place relative to it.

Things like that don’t just happen in the South. And they didn’t just happen in the past either. There is still injustice today, and there has been for longer than we know. And throughout history, time and again, when someone has “forgotten their place”, at least in the eyes of people with power, there have been heavy consequences.

Jesus knew about that. He was a Jewish man living where the Roman Empire controlled everything. He wasn’t a citizen, and he had no rights. And even in his own community, he really had no standing. He was just the son of a carpenter. No money. No power.

But, when he grew into a man and started to attract followers, that’s when things became really dangerous. He was teaching the crowds. He was healing people. He was being talked about like a new king. And that was dangerous, because there he was, showing the Romans and the religious officials and the powers that be, that he had forgotten his place.

And so, they decided to remind him. They arrested Jesus, convicted him, and sentenced him to die by crucifixion, a punishment that only a non-Roman citizen could receive. Even by his manner of death they tried to put him in his place. And as his tomb was sealed, they thought they had succeeded.

That’s the story of Good Friday. It’s a grim one, perhaps one we don’t want to hear on Easter morning. And yet, it’s one we hear everyday. That’s because this world, while not a bad place, is a badly broken place. It’s filled with pain and suffering, war and violence, hatred and injustice.

And if you listen too much to the world that surrounds us, you might believe that this is the way it’s supposed to be. And you might believe that there’s nothing you can do to change that.

Put another way, you might know your place, and you might even accept it.
That’s not surprising, really. You can’t be a realist and live in this world without being aware of what surrounds us. But accepting it, and accepting your place in the whole thing? That’s not mandatory. We may live in a Good Friday world, but the doesn’t mean we have to have Good Friday faith. We don’t have to accept our place as passive participants in that world.

picmonkey_image-1That’s especially true because of what today’s Scripture tells us. On the first day after the Sabbath, at her first opportunity, Mary went to Jesus’ tomb. But when she got there the stone that was supposed to be sealing it had been rolled away, and Jesus was gone.

Mary went to the man she believed was the gardener and asked what happened, and in that moment the possibility that Jesus had risen was so ridiculous, so unbelievable, that at first she didn’t even realize that she was talking to Jesus himself. Even Mary, perhaps his most devoted follower, couldn’t believe that somehow Jesus wouldn’t accept his place and that, somehow, Jesus wouldn’t just stay put.

That’s the good news of Easter. When the world told Jesus he had forgotten his place, he showed them that he did indeed know it, and it wasn’t in the tomb.
And that good news still matters today. Because for all the ways the world tries to extinguish hope, for all the ways it tries to put that God’s love back in the tomb, it just will not stay put.

That’s true no matter what. And that’s why even in a world dominated by injustice, by narcissism and self-interest, by a culture where too many look out only for themselves and those like them, Jesus reminds us that’s not who we are supposed to be. That’s not real life. That’s not real wholeness. And that’s not real hope.

Put quite simply, that’s not our real place.

I believe at some level we all know that, and that today we are here, because, at some level, we believe in a better way. We believe just as he was risen 2000 years ago, he is still risen today.

And, because of that, we begin to know our real place in the world.

One of the greatest examples of moral courage I know comes from the stories of the young African-American students of the 1960’s who tried to integrate lunch counters throughout the South. They would enter these restaurants and stage sit-ins, staying perfectly still even in the face of verbal taunts and horrible violence.

The students were often accused of forgetting their place. But how wrong those accusations were. They knew their place, and it was sitting right there at those lunch counters.

So many of those who participated in those sit-ins were people of faith. They believed in a real way in the Jesus who knew his rightful place, and so rose again, and they drew strength from a faith that said they would rise to theirs too.

That is an Easter faith. It is a faith that rejects the lies of hate and violence, fear and bigotry. It is a faith teaches us our real place and that raises us up with Christ.

Easter wasn’t a one time event that happened 2000 years ago. Easter still happens, every day of the year and all around us. Because Christ triumphed over death all those years ago, we now rise in the face of a whole new set of tombs, and the Easter story lives on.

It lives on when an addict lays down their addiction and chooses life. It lives on when a gay kid, bullied for years, refuses to believe that they are anything less than God’s beloved. It lives on when we cross lines that were drawn by fear, and extend our hands to those who at first glance seem nothing like us.

But mostly it lives on when we forget our place, and least the one that the world tells us about. And it lives on when we start proclaiming an Easter faith that says that no living person’s place is in the figurative tombs of this world.

That’s the good news of Easter. But that’s also the easy part, because there is a challenge. Even in good news there is always a challenge.

And the challenge is this: if Jesus doesn’t stay put, than neither can we. After all, Mary went looking for him just three days after what was supposed to be the ultimate end, and found he wasn’t where they had put him.

And so, 2,000 years later, where is Jesus now? What is he up to? And where does he want us to be?

That’s the big question. Each of us needs to find what is holding us back in our old places, and to remember our real places in this world. For each of us it will look a little different. I cannot tell you where yours is exactly, but I can tell you this: wherever it is, there will be life, and there will be light, and you will be more fully yourself in that place than you have ever been before.

And I can tell you this as well: you don’t have to find that place alone.
Last night some of us gathered here for the Easter vigil. It is an ancient Christian tradition that on the night before Easter new believers were baptized and welcomed, and the Paschal light was lit for the first time. That’s why the Paschal candle is burning this morning next to the baptismal font. It’s a visible sign that Jesus has risen.

That same flame burns now for all of us. It’s a sign that we are Christ’s, and that our place is with him. And it’s also a reminder that we have a job to do, and that is to carry this light out into the world, and to remind others of their place as well.

Because their place is as beloved children of God. Their place is as the ones for whom Christ also rose. Their place is as people who belong not in the tombs, but in the light.

Proclaiming that truth is the work of Easter.

And so, together we do that work. And as we seek to follow a Jesus who for our own good just won’t stay put, may we learn to forget our place, at least the one that the world has told us to accept. And may we guide one another by the light of Christ out of the tombs, and to a truer place than we have ever known. Amen?

Alarming and Amazing: A Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2015

Mark 16:1-8
16:1 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.

16:2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.

16:3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

16:4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back.

16:5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.

16:6 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.

16:7 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.”

16:8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

It is Easter Sunday in the church. It’s the day of flowers and trumpets, Easter egg hunts and the Alleluia chorus. It is a day of joy, one without compare, and no celebration is too big on this holiest of Sundays.

But I’d like for you to humor me for a moment, because before I talk about Sunday, first I was to talk about Thursday.

Last Thursday night we had our annual Holy Week Tenebrae service here. In that service the Gospel story of Christ’s last hours is told in pieces, and one by one the lights here in the sanctuary are lowered until we are left in almost total darkness. And Thursday night we left the sanctuary in silence and we waited for Good Friday, and for the day when the world did the worst it could to a man who was God’s love personified.

We do that in the church during Holy Week. We go through the motions of remembering Christ’s betrayal, and suffering, and death. And we are remembering something from the past, something that happened all those centuries ago. But in a larger way, we are telling a story that still makes sense today.

Because the reality is that though today is Easter morning, we live in a Good Friday world so much of the time. We live in a world where violence, addiction, injustice, hatred and poverty all too often surround us. A world where we see pain and suffering up close. And a world that some days may feel just as dark as the sanctuary was on Thursday night, and just as dark as the tomb was all those centuries ago.

But…what if it doesn’t have to be that way?

The Gospel today tells us that on the morning after the Sabbath, on the first day that they could, three women went to the tomb where Jesus had been buried. One of them was Mary Magdalene, and another was Mary, the mother of Jesus. And they hadn’t been able to properly prepare him for burial on Friday and so there they were, his mother and two women who had loved him, grieving deeply for Jesus and all the hope they had lost when he died. And they were trying desperately to just be able to say goodbye properly; to just have that one moment.

And as they walked they had one big problem: They didn’t know how to roll the stone away from the tomb.

That was a problem because in front of the tomb, the people who had buried Jesus had put this huge, heavy stone blocking the entrance. And they just had no idea how they were going to move that, and how they were going to be able to get in to prepare Jesus’ body.

And it’s while they are still trying to figure out how to do it, while they are really just talking about logistics, that they come upon the tomb and discover something shocking: the stone is gone! And they walk into the tomb and Jesus is nowhere in sight. Instead a man dressed in a robe is just sitting there.

Scripture tells us that the women were quote-unquote “alarmed”.

That’s one way to put it.

My guess, though, is that as they stood there in that empty tomb, with a stone inexplicably rolled away and the body of their son and brother gone, they were more than a little “alarmed”.

And the guy in the glowing white robe, the one they’ve never seen before, very helpfully says to them, “Don’t be alarmed!”

(I could be wrong, but I think “don’t be alarmed” is sort of the Biblical equivalent of, “Don’t be mad…I can explain this.”)

So, “Don’t be alarmed,” he says, “you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here.”

He tells the women to go on ahead to Galilee, and tell the other disciples. And he tells them, “you will see him there!”

And Scripture tells us that they did something that may seem surprising: they ran away, and they were afraid.

IMG_5277_2The three women had just seen the most unimaginable, amazing thing they had ever seen. They’d been given news that was literally unbelievable. And contrary to the way we think of Easter, their first reaction was not joy or awe or celebration. It was alarm. And fear.

Truth be told, I think I would be alarmed too. Because none of this makes sense. Stones don’t roll away on their own. People don’t rise from the dead. And, and this is the big one, we don’t get the kind of second chances that they’d just been given.

Because that’s what Resurrection is all about. It’s about second chances. It’s about a new lease on life. It’s about the world meeting God’s love in the flesh and responding not with joy but with fear. And it’s about that love still having the last word anyway, and even then not to condemn us, but to love us even more.

It’s about the biggest, heaviest, most immobile stones in our lives being rolled aside like they are nothing. Because, compared to God’s love for us, they are.

Most Christians would say that the cross is the sign of our faith. But I’ve heard it said before that maybe there should be another one. And, maybe, it should be a stone.

Because in the end even the cross could not destroy God’s love. And it is that rolled away stone that tells us that truth.

And so, here we are, about 2,000 years later after that first Easter morning. And despite all that has happened since, despite every attempt of the world to roll that stone back and seal love into that tomb, it hasn’t happened yet. And even in the hardest of days, God’s love still somehow rises again.

That is amazing. And, truth be told, that is alarming. And here’s why: because it means there is hope. And hope is messy business.

It’s messy because here is what hope does: it makes you change your plans. Hope makes you go from someone who is walking to the tomb of their friend to perform one of the saddest final acts of love imaginable to someone who is running from the graveyard believing that maybe, just maybe, what that man in white said is true. Maybe Resurrection is real.

You go from accepting as inevitable the worst case scenario to believing in the possibility of new life.

And you go from the comfort of complacency, to the affliction of knowing there is something better waiting.

Resurrection is joyful.

Eventually.

But, truth be told, first it shakes you up and it changes everything. It is “alarming”. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

I was curious about that word “alarming” this week, and so I went back to the original language, the Greek in which the New Testament was first written. And like so many things, that word doesn’t exactly translate well. Because the original word that was used when they first wrote this story down can mean “alarmed” but it can also mean something else: “amazed”.

I don’t think it’s an accident that you can confuse the two. Because when it comes to Resurrection, when it comes to the new life that is offered in Christ’s love, “alarmed” and “amazed” are two sides of the same coin. It is amazing, but the alarming part is that once you know Resurrection, nothing will ever be the same again.

Because the truth is this: at some point in our lives, we have all been in the tombs. We have given up hope, we have felt pain, we have lost what we loved. We have questioned how a world can allow so much suffering. And, perhaps, we’ve wondered where God is in all of it.

That’s human. And that’s what any good person would ask. But it’s not the end of the story. Because the end of the story, and the start of a whole new one, comes from the man who sits in that same tomb saying “he’s not here…he’s been raised.”

And so, you get to choose whether you will be too. You are a part of this Resurrection. You are called to something better with God. And it may at times be alarmingly difficult, but it will be amazing.

And soon, you will see the signs of Resurrection all around you, in the most surprising of places. You will see it at the bedside of the 82 year old man who on Palm Sunday seemed headed for the grave but who on Good Friday was sitting up in his hospital bed talking and laughing.

You will see it in the face of the addict who is able to put down what was killing her and to live life clean and sober.

You will meet it in the form of the high school youth at our lock-in on Friday, who talked to me about their commitment to standing up to bullying if they see it at their school.

You will hear it in the words of the one who once hated those who were different from them, but now sees the image of God reflected back in every person they meet.

Ice thawing on Easter morning on the Squamscott River.

Ice thawing on Easter morning on the Squamscott River.

And you will even see it in the thawing river and the melting snowbanks, because even God’s creation itself knows about Resurrection, and it cannot keep quiet.

This Resurrection stuff; it’s everywhere if you look for it. And it’s waiting for you to walk past the rolled away stones, come out into the world, and be a part of it too. Because we have all been invited to this Resurrection. All of us. The stones keeping us in our tombs have been rolled away, and a new day is waiting.

Alleluia Christ is risen…may we rise with him. And may we be amazed. Amen.

New Still Speaking Writer’s Group Devotional Book for Lent

Re-Lent_-_web_largeIt’s hard to believe, but Lent is right around the corner. This year the Still Speaking Writers’ Group has once again released a devotional book for the season. Re-Lent is available for purchase now at UCC resources, and features a new devotional written by a member of the Writers’ Group for each day of the season. These devotionals are great for either individual use, or for small groups in your congregation. Check it out here: http://www.uccresources.com/products/re-lent-2015-lent-devotional-the-stillspeaking-writers-group?variant=1088054032

Emmaus Hearts: Sermon for May 5, 2014

I’ve been behind on posting sermons for the last couple of months as I’ve been preparing to move. But, here’s one from Sunday, May 5th, when we explored the Emmaus text. It also happened to be the sermon I preached before the vote to call me as the new pastor of The Congregational Church in Exeter and it contains some of the journey to this new call:

Luke 24:13-35
24:13 Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,

24:14 and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.

24:15 While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,

24:16 but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

24:17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.

24:18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

24:19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,

24:20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.

24:21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.

24:22 Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,

24:23 and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.

24:24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

24:25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!

24:26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”

24:27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

24:28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.

24:29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them.

24:30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.

24:31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

24:32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

24:33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.

24:34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”

24:35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

When I was in college I had a really close friend who I spent a lot of time with. We played rugby together, we were in some of the same clubs together, and we would hung out in the same group of friends. She was someone I thought I would have recognized anywhere.

After college we went off in different directions. She went off to law school in Washington, DC, and I stayed in Atlanta and went to seminary. And, we were both so busy that somehow we lost touch. And a few years later I was visiting Washington, and I was on the Metro, and I was wondering how she was doing and trying to figure out how I could reach her to let her know I was in town.

And as I was thinking about it all we pulled into the Metro station I stepped off the train, and headed up the platform in one direction. And I walked past this woman in the crowd going the other direction, and I looked right at her, even made eye contact. But I just kept going. And I got about ten steps past her when it clicked. We turned back around at the same time. And, of course, there was my good friend standing right there in front of me.

I was thinking about that story in relation to this week’s lectionary reading. Because here we have another story of missing what’s right in front of you. The disciples are walking down the road to Emmaus talking about Jesus, and you have to remember that we are still in the season of Easter and this story takes place on that first Easter Sunday. They haven’t seen the resurrected Christ yet, and really everything at this point is just rumors. They have heard the women went to Jesus tomb and found it empty, but they don’t have any idea what that means yet.

And so when a third person joins them and starts walking down the road with them, he asks “what are you talking about”? And they say, “are you the only person who hasn’t heard about this?” They tell him about Jesus, and how they had pinned all their hopes on him only to see him arrested, and dead and buried. And they tell him how some of the women had found the empty tomb and how the angel had told them that he was alive, but how there was no confirmation yet.

And when they are done telling the man this, he begins to teach them. As they keep walking he talks about Moses and the prophets and Messiah. And when they get to Emmaus the man starts to walk off, and the disciples beg him to stay for dinner and eat with them. And it is only when they get to the table, and only when the stranger takes the bread and breaks it, that Scripture tells us their eyes were opened and they realized that they had been in Christ’s presence the entire time.

I like this story because it makes me feel better to know that there are others who miss the obvious sometimes. Because, I like to think I’m perceptive, but I nearly missed that reunion with my friend in Washington, even though I looked right at her. And my guess is that the two disciples who were walking down the road in this story were no slouches either. They knew Jesus. They probably thought they would have recognized him anywhere. And yet, their eyes may as well have been closed. They were looking right at him, but it took them a while to really see Jesus.

I think this happens more that we like to admit. We think we see what’s right in front of us, but our vision is a little off. We think we know exactly who God is, and what God expects from us, but it takes a little extra nudge for us to really get it. And, we think we would know if God was walking with us on our journey, but sometimes we just don’t see it.

That last part is sometimes the hardest. Because the reality is that we are all on a journey. None of us, no matter how much we want to, gets to stay in one place forever. New things happen, unexpected things happen, hard things happen. The disciples walking that road knew about that. Their lives had been turned upside down, and they didn’t know what was going to happen next. They were afraid, and anxious, and they weren’t sure whether they could let themselves be hopeful. And so when Jesus joined them on the road, they couldn’t, or maybe they wouldn’t, see what was right in front of them.

This story reminds us that a large part of the Christian life is learning to see where Jesus is, and what he is calling us to do. And part of that is learning to see the world in new ways, and sometimes in ways that we would

There’s a story of a man who was blind and who decided to sail across the ocean. And he was interviewed by a news program by a pundit who believed he was foolish and that he was so limited by his abilities that he didn’t even understand what he was doing. And the sailor replied to him, “you are a lot more blind than I, because you cannot see” what is possible.

I think about the times in my life when I have been blind to the possibilities. And I think about the times on my journey when Christ has chosen to open my eyes, and when I have finally seen. We Christians call ourselves “Easter people”. Because unlike these disciples walking down the road, we know how the story ends. We know Christ is risen.

But that day, on that first Easter, those disciples became Easter people too. And I believe that that day, they finally had Easter eyes. They finally were given the gift of being able to see the resurrected Christ, and it changed everything.

After Jesus reveals himself they say to one another “weren’t our hearts burning within us when he was talking to us”? They finally recognize what they’ve been guided to all along, and they finally have the vision that only Easter eyes can give to them.

Now, you may be saying “when did I ever physically walk with Jesus, and see him face to face”? The disciples at least got the chance to see him. Why don’t I ever get that? And you’re right, I’ve never found myself sitting down to dinner with Jesus there in the flesh right across the table from me. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been there. They key is trusting the burning in your heart, and having the eyes to see it.

The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH

That’s a little like what the search process was like that brought me here today. Your search committee and I were walking on a journey together for months. We were getting to know one another, and we were opening our hearts up to new possibilities. We were discerning, and learning to see each other. And in the end, we all had this sense of call, this sense of burning in our hearts, that God was calling us to this place today. Now, I’m not saying that the search committee is Jesus, and Lord knows, literally, that I’m not. But I am saying that I truly believe Jesus was there with us on that road, opening our hearts up to one another, and opening our eyes up to the possibilities.

And I believe God does that every day, in a hundred different ways, for all of us. I believe we see through Easter eyes, because we as followers of Christ, we as believers in the Resurrection, are people who believe that the impossible happens.

And we are people who keep looking, and who keep meeting others on the journey, and who keep helping others to open their eyes to those possibilities too.

I’ll close with this. There was a story about a few years ago. you may have heard it. The Washington Post reported on a violinist who played in a Metro station in DC. He played for 45 straight minutes. Only six people stopped. He made about $32 and packed up and went home

The violinist’s name is Joshua Bell. He’s one of the most renowned classical musicians alive. Seats for most of his shows average $100. And he was playing one of the most complicated pieces ever.
And yet no one realized. Because no one was looking for it, and no one was ready to believe that an extraordinary musician would just come and play in the Metro station. And so he became just another guy trying to make a little money playing in the subway.
What if the kingdom of God is already surrounding us, and we just have to have eyes to see it? I believe it is. I believe the kingdom of God exists in many places in this world, and I believe Exeter is one of them. And I believe Jesus is giving us the vision to know how to serve this place, and love our neighbors and our world. And I believe Jesus is already with us on this journey, and has been for many years. And I believe that we will never walk alone. Amen.

The Starting Line: Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2014

 

Matthew 28:1-10
28:1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

28:2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.

1510920_863175217031290_4861732632584423079_n28:3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.

28:4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

28:5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.

28:6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.

28:7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”

28:8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

28:9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.

28:10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christians have been exchanging that greeting for centuries upon centuries. It’s the Easter story in one line. It’s why we are here today. And Christians of all backgrounds today, Greek Orthodox to Presbyterian, Roman Catholic to Lutheran, are repeating it in church, and to one another.

I’m not sure if they said it on that first Easter or not, but I’m sure they said something like it. It was Sunday morning, and the sabbath was over. It was the first chance that Mary Magdalene and Mary were able to go to visit Christ’s tomb. Scripture tells us that there was an earthquake, and the women looked up to see an angel sitting on the stone that had been rolled away from the tomb.

The angel tells them, “don’t be afraid”. Which, when you think about it, is probably what they needed to hear most right then. Because it had been a painful few days, filled with fear. They and lost the one they loved, the one who had given them so much hope and meaning. And here they were, at his tomb, and they couldn’t even find him.

So they hear, “don’t be afraid…he isn’t here.” And at first they must have felt like this whole journey had taken one more bad turn.

The angel tells them to look inside the tomb. Look around. Jesus has been raised. He’s going to Galilee. Go! See him there.

Scripture tells us that the women ran from that place. They ran with both “fear and great joy”. They ran to tell the others. And it was only when they had started running, that Christ met them on the road. Again, he tells them “don’t be afraid”. Go, and spread the word.

Scripture tells us that when Jesus saw the women he said, “greetings!” I guess when you are the resurrected Christ you don’t need to use the whole “alleluia, I am risen line”. But that day, I’ll bet the disciples were saying some variation of what we are today: “He is risen”. “Jesus is risen.” “Jesus is back.” “Jesus is here.”

And I’ll bet that like Mary and Mary Magdalene they did a lot of running too. Running to tell each other. Running to find Jesus. Running to go and see the empty tomb for themselves. And through it all they ran with both the “fear and great joy” that Scripture tells us about. Because they just heard the best news in the world, and I’ll bet at some level it terrified them. What if it wasn’t true?

And, even scarier, what if it was? What now?

Sometimes in the church we tend to treat Easter as a finish line. It’s the end of Lent, when we can finally give up whatever Lenten spiritual practices we had. And I’m sure today lots of people will be returning to red meat or candy or coffee. It’s also the end of Holy Week, when churches everywhere have multiple mid-week services. And it even coincides with the end of a long and cold winter, when it looked like spring would never come.

Today with the sanctuary filled with beautiful flowers, with the weather warming up, with the sun out, with the long days of Lent over, it feels like new life is all around us. It feels like we have made it.
And it is. And we have.

But it would be a mistake to think of Easter as the finish line. Because as much as Good Friday was an end in some ways, Easter is just the beginning. And as much as we went deeper in Lent, it wasn’t just a seasonal thing. It was preparation for today and what comes next.

Today is the day where we start running.

I’ll admit, I’ve always had a complicated relationship with running. I’ve never been very good at it, or very fast. But I’ve always admired people who run, particularly the ones who can run long distances. I can’t imagine running a marathon, and I can’t imagine covering 26.2 miles, but if someone chooses to do that, more power to them. It takes discipline and strength and endurance. It takes a commitment that is worthy of recognition.

This past week I went with Heidi to her home church for the one year anniversary service for the Boston Marathon bombing. Old South in Boston sits just feet away from the finish line of the Marathon, where the bombs went off a year ago. And at Old South it has been a year of recovery and a year of finding hope.

Heidi’s pastor, the Rev. Nancy Taylor, started the service by saying this: “The Christian life is like a marathon.”

And she’s right. The Christian life isn’t a sprint. It’s not something done quickly by going to church every Sunday morning, or even by observing Lent for forty days. Instead, the Christian life is a long journey, full of challenge, full of opportunities to quit. There are times when you wonder “is this worth it”?

There are times when you can’t remember why you signed up in the first place. And there are times when you doubt you can go on.

But there are also the times when you decide that as hard as it is, you will keep going. And somewhere out there on the course, filled with fear, but anticipating joy, you find Christ.

That day as Mary and Mary Magdalene ran, they knew something new had happened. That’s why they weren’t feeling just joy or fear, they were feeling both. And if you are here today, on Easter morning, standing at the starting line of another year, if you are serious about this whole Christian faith thing, you will likely feel the same. The joy of Easter morning, and just a little apprehension about what this means.

Because that Resurrection that happened two thousand years ago didn’t just change things for the disciples that day. It changed things for us. And every year we get this reminder of what happened, and what it means. And every year we choose to stand on this starting line once again, and to run.

Monday in Boston they are going to run the marathon again. When you think about it, that’s a show of hope. And if I was going to be running, I think that this year in particular I would be feeling both fear and joy in some intense ways.

The city has, of course, done a lot to commemorate this event, and to prepare for this run. But there’s one thing that happened that has touched me more than all the others. And the idea came out of Old South, that same church that was so touched by all of this a year ago.

A few months ago Old South asked people who knit to knit scarves for the runners who would be coming to Boston. They wanted them in blue and yellow, the colors of the marathon. And they thought if they were lucky they’d get a few hundred, just enough that they could give one to all the marathoners who come to their annual Blessing of the Athletes service.

And so around Boston, and across the country, and even in other countries, knitters went to work. And you should never underestimate knitting circles, it seems, because when all was said and done over 7,000 scarves arrived. The post office had to start making special deliveries in the final days.

And this weekend, as the city prepares again for the Marathon, parishioners are going out into the streets, and they are finding athletes, and offering them a scarf and saying “let us wrap you in courage and strength”. At first many of the runners asked how much they had to pay for them, and then when they were told that they were free and that they had been knitted to give them ever support, they broke down in tears. They knew that someone had taken the time to send love and comfort and courage to them, and it blew them away.

That’s church, y’all. That’s a church finding a way to visibly show a city that Christ’s love is breaking into a place that had been so filled with pain and senseless violence. That’s a church standing, literally, at a finish line the had been torn apart and saying “what now”. And that’s finding your way back to the starting line and deciding to run again. That’s resurrection.

Resurrection happens all the time. We only have to have eyes to see it. But first, we need a willingness to run the race.

Today we are standing at the starting line again. We are preparing to run this race of witnessing to the resurrection for another year. We are going to have times when we run with ease. Times when the course gets tougher. And times when we have to lean on one another to make it up the hill. But, together, come fear or come joy or come both, we can get there.

So, take your marks.

Get set.

And go.

Alleluia! Christ is risen…

Between Sundays: A sermon for Palm Sunday, and beyond.

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Matthew 21:1-11
21:1 When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,

21:2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.

21:3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.”

21:4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

21:5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

21:6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them;

21:7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.

21:8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.

21:9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

21:10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

21:11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Today is the only day of the church year where you come to church and we give you not only your regular bulletin, but this palm frond too. If you aren’t expecting it, that probably seems a little odd.

Your palm fronds mean of course that it’s Palm Sunday. Which means we are getting close to the end of Lent, and are starting Holy Week. Next Sunday you’ll hopefully be here to help up celebrate the holiest day of the Christian year, Easter.

But today we have these palms to contend with, and what, from the outside, must look like a very strange tradition.

On Palm Sunday we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We remember how he rode into the city on a donkey, and the crowds were waiting for him. They had heard about him. They loved him. They threw their coats on the ground, and spread their palms out on the road, and they cheered as he came in. They were looking for the Messiah and they were sure it was him.

So all these centuries later we Christians gather in churches and collect these palms and wave them. We celebrate a great parade that took place long ago, the coming of the Messiah to Jerusalem. And we are so, so close to Easter. We almost want to take this day as a warm-up, a celebration before the big celebration.

And if you read the story today knowing nothing about what happens between Sundays, you could. But you all know that something happens between Sundays. And the story isn’t as straight-forward as it seems. Stories about Jesus seldom are.

When I was in college I saw a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical traces the events of Holy Week and I was struck by the crowd, the chorus of singers that followed Jesus. As they waived palms on one Sunday they shouted his praises and sung and called out to him. But as the week went on, they changed. And by Friday, those same people once shouting their admiration were calling for his death.

It’s always stuck with me. That change in feeling. I think of it every year during Holy Week. Jesus goes from the exalted one to the one who is offered up as a sacrifice by the crowd. There’s something fitting about the fact that in many churches the palms from Palm Sunday are saved until the following Ash Wednesday, when they are then burned and turned into the ashes we wear as a symbol of our humaness and fraility and mistakes. Sometimes we turn from Christ, and we get it wrong.

We don’t like to dwell on that. We don’t like to dwell on the reality that Christ was betrayed, and denied, and abandoned. We like to stick with the Palm Sunday and Easter joy, not the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday pain.

Holy Week, fittingly, is the holiest week of the church year. It’s also the busiest. And many pastors, whether we admit it or not, know that when we announce the extra services that week there’s sort of a heavy sigh.

I get it. We’re all busy. Sunday morning feels hard enough for many good Christians. Thursday night, after a long day at work, is even tougher. You just want to go home, have dinner, and either tackle the pile of laundry or have a few precious hours to yourself. You probably don’t want to take the car out one more time, drive to church, and sit through another service, and one that’s not so joyful at that.

No one will blame you if you don’t. No pastor I know takes attendance, and, truth be told, we clergy all have our own Netflix queue and stack of unfinished novels that we might longingly look at on our way out of our own doors. But the occupational hazard of being clergy means we can’t call out on Holy Week. Which means the messages of the stories we hear on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday can’t go unheard by us.

That’s good because what we hear about Jesus on those two nights is the same as what we hear every day in our offices. But we don’t talk about that much. Because most churches are good at doing Sundays. But sometimes not so good at acknowledging what comes between Sundays.

On Sunday mornings we often focus on the joy. We sing uplifting hymns. We hear hopeful sermons. We smile. We shake hands. We dress up. We talk about grace and blessings and gratitude. That’s not a bad thing.

But when many of our parishioners leave on Sunday, they step into a different world. Between Sundays I visit with people who are facing a struggle that few in their lives  understand. They’re sick or injured. Dying or bereaved. Or depressed, heart-broken, betrayed, alone, and wrestling with doubt.

And if you come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter, you might not think we in the church know anything about that. But if you come between Sundays, you’ll find a faith that knows what that is like. More than that, you’ll find a God who knows what that is like.

To me, the most comforting part of Holy Week is not the waving of triumphal palms on one Sunday morning, or the flowers and joyous hymns on the next. It’s what happens in between.

It’s Jesus on Maundy Thursday sharing a table with the people he loved the most. It’s him washing their feet, and showing that the mark of a true leader is whether they can serve others.  And it’s Jesus still loving those disciples even though he knew that, at best, they would abandon him, and at worst, they would betray him. And it’s Jesus in the garden, alone, heart-broken, and struggling between what he wanted to do and what he knew he had to do.

And on Good Friday, it continues. The world turns against him, and the ones who cheered his entry in Jerusalem instead cheer his death. He suffers. He calls out to a God who does not seem to answer. He doubts. He feels pain, and loss, and grief. And in the end he loses the life he knew.

I’m sometimes asked by those who are going through a difficult time whether God is angry when they have doubts, or when they wonder why God doesn’t seem to be answering prayers. They ask if God understands when we suffer, or when we feel alone.

When they do, I point first not to the Christ of Palm Sunday or Easter, but to the Christ of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The one who lived as one of us. Who loved as one of us. Who doubted as one of us. Who suffered as one of us. And who died as one of us.

And only then do I point to the Christ who rose again, and overcame the worst that the world could throw at him.

I sometimes worry that we forget the lessons of Holy Week the rest of the year. Some churches even cancel mid-week services due to low attendance, and instead roll all the stories into a “Passion Sunday” service on Palm Sunday. But when we forget Holy Week, I wonder if we are losing that time we once had to sit with Christ in his own human struggles? And I wonder if when we lose that time, we lose our ability to learn to sit with others in their struggle, and with ourselves in our own?

But what would Christian life look like if we took that time. What if we became known not just as the people who knew what to do on Sundays, but the ones who knew how to stay with you when your life was falling apart, just as Christ asks us to do on Maundy Thursday? Or the ones who could stand by and still love and respect you even when you call out your doubts, as Jesus did on the cross? What would happen if we weren’t just know for our Easter Sunday celebrations, but for our Thursday night solidarity? Our Friday afternoon compassion?

We have the capacity to be those people. We have it because Christ has called us to be those people. All we have to do is be willing to make the journey with him. Not just on Sundays, but on the days between. The world has plenty of Sunday morning Christians. It needs a few more of the weekday ones.

Today, we wave our palms. We shout Hosanna. We look ahead to the Resurrection. But when you leave, consider taking them with you. Consider keeping them this year as a reminder of who we are on Palm Sunday. And then, when the times get hard, and the week grows tougher, look at them as a reminder of who you could be. Not the person in the crowd who yells out what everyone else is yelling, but the person instead who believed what they said on Sunday, and who will follow Christ on this journey. Even a journey that continues between Sundays.

Christ is waiting for us there. May we join him on this holy path. Amen.