Dreading Lent: An Alternative Proposal

IMG_2223A few weeks ago I was standing in the check-out line of our village market. The selection of cards by the cash register had just made their changeover from Valentine’s Day to Easter, despite the fact Lent had not yet even begun. That’s not a huge surprise, of course. The Easter candy has been out for weeks now.

But on this day, one of the cards struck my eye. The front read “The best part about Easter is the Lent is over.” They lost the theologian in me right there because, oddly enough, I’ve always thought that the best part of Easter was the whole Resurrection thing. But I opened the card anyway and found this in the center: “I really hate giving up stuff I love”.

My first thought was, “then you’re really going to hate Christianity”. I say that because, as Bonhoeffer and others have reminded us, discipleship is costly. Jesus wasn’t kidding around when he told his disciples to sell all they owned and follow him. Sacrifice is woven into the very fabric of Christian faith.

But my second thought was about how so many people believe that “giving something up” is what Lent is all about. If you are around church folks at all the week before Lent you’ll hear the question “What are you giving up for Lent?” more than a few times. And you’re likely to also hear a list of everyday items: meat, sugar, soda, tobacco, alcohol, chocolate, or even Facebook.

And, if that works for you, go for it. If giving up some sort of indulgence deepens your spiritual walk during these forty days, then no one should tell you not to do it. But, if you’re like most people I know, giving something up for forty days feels more like running a marathon.  For that reason too often people of faith approach Lent with the dread with which most people approach the dentist. By the time they get to Easter Sunday they can’t wait to tear into a Snickers bar or sign back on to Facebook again. And sometimes they have a sense that they’ve run a long race, but nothing has really changed.

Again, maybe it’s different for you, and that separation from potato chips or red meat has deepened your spiritual life in a meaningful way. But, if it hasn’t, I want to suggest that maybe “giving up” is not the only way to observe a holy Lent.

What if instead of giving up you took something on? What if you added dedicated prayer time each morning? Or, what if you committed to reading a couple of chapters of Scripture each day? What if you took on the challenge of going to worship every week during Lent, with no excuses?

And, what if you took something on that could, in some small way, change the world? What if you gave an hour each week to volunteering at the food bank? Or what if you gave up using plastic bottles in order to help the environment? What if you drove less and walked more?

Of course all of these things still require some degree of “giving up”. If you pray or read Scripture, you may have to “give up” some time you’d normally spend online or watching television. If you volunteer some extra hours you may have to give up a few hours of downtime. If you make an environmentally conscious choice you may have to give up the convenience of driving somewhere quickly or grabbing a bottled water.


IMG_2224But you may find you’re giving up other things too. You may find you’re giving up your feelings of hopelessness. You may find you’re giving up your feelings of helplessness. Your feelings of isolation. Your feelings of disconnection. Your feelings of insignificance.

All of those can be pretty incredible things to give up for Lent.

In the end, Lent is not about a forty day marathon of deprivation. It’s about looking inside, finding the places where we feel disconnected to God, and taking up the challenge of going deeper. It’s about walking with Jesus for forty days because we are so overwhelmed by his love for us. And, it’s about preparing for what is next. Because the empty tomb is not the finish line. It’s just the start of a long and wonderful journey. And Lent is a time to get ready.

The First of the Resurrections: A sermon for Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013

150400_10100264762650368_2031715009_nAlleluia, Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed, and on Easter morning we are filled with reminders of resurrection and new life. There’s music, and flowers, an Easter egg hunt, and more. On Easter morning we are filled with joy, and filled with hope.

But it is such a contrast from what was happening here in this sanctuary just two nights ago. Good Friday is the most somber day of the church year. No music, no candles, no flowers. We told the story of Christ’s betrayal and death. And then we prayed and left in silence.

Good Friday is about the worst that the world can do. And on Friday we prayed for the pain of the world. We took turns lifting up and naming the things that make this world so hard: war, addiction, abuse, environmental concerns, bullying, oppression. We named them one by one, and then we sat in silence, and prayed for a better world.

And today we come back. We come back because we believe that Good Friday doesn’t have the last word. We come back because as much as we live in a broken world, we believe that something better is possible. We come back because we want to see resurrection for ourselves.

On the first Easter morning nearly 2000 years ago, Mary went back. She went back to the tomb where she and a handful of others had laid Jesus two nights before. She went back because she was looking for something, what she may not have even been sure of.

Mary was expecting to see that tomb sealed up. She was expecting to see the grave. She was expecting to find memories, but not much hope.

But when she gets there, the stone is gone. Jesus isn’t in the tomb. And her first reaction is not, “Christ is risen”. It’s to find the gardner and say “what did you do with him?” Mary thought that what was bad had somehow gotten worse.

But then, something happens. She looks at that gardner again. He speaks to her. And her eyes are opened, and she knows it’s him.

What Mary saw that day was more than unexpected. It was improbable.  It was resurrection.

Now, you and I, we may not have literally stood outside an empty tomb. We may not have seen Jesus literally rise from the grave. But that doesn’t mean that we are not also witnesses to the resurrection.

When Jesus rose again, it was more than a man being raised from the dead. It was the triumph of love over the worst that the world could do. It was proof that in the end love wins. It was the first resurrection of many, and, even more spectacular, you and I have seen some of them.

You see, resurrection comes in many forms. And if we dare, like Mary, to go to the hardest and most broken places in our lives, we will see it too.

A year and a half ago, Hurricane Irene swept through our Valley. A few days ago I was looking at pictures of the destruction. And then yesterday I drove over those same roads and went into some of those same buildings. A community has rebuilt itself. That is resurrection.

A man I know had been bullied repeatedly as a high school student years before. He had endured slurs and name-calling day in and out until the point he thought he just couldn’t take it anymore. And yet, he found a way to keep going. And now he works to reach out to kids like him who are going through the same things, and to give them hope. That is resurrection.

A woman I know found herself slipping deeper and deeper into addiction. The more she tried to stop drinking, the more she wanted to drink. She though she was hopeless. But one day she walked into a room full of people who had all faced the same thing, and she sat and listened to their stories, and she told them hers. And for several years now, she has been sober. That is resurrection.

Chances are, you know a few stories about resurrection too. Ether you’ve lived them, or you’ve seen them. And if you have, you can’t help but be transformed by them.

When Mary saw that Jesus lived once more, she couldn’t keep it to herself. Scripture tells us she had to go and tell everyone. She was the first one to see it, and the first one to proclaim it.

I don’t think we are all that different. When we see a story of new life, when we see a story of love triumphing over hate or ignorance or fear or violence, we can’t help but tell it. We share it with each other. It goes viral in our conversations, over telephone lines, and on our Facebook lines. When we see a story that inspires us, it becomes a resurrection story, and we can’t keep quiet.

And that’s what being a Christian is about. It’s about believing in a resurrection so incredible that you can’t keep quiet. You have to show the world what you have seen.

Now, I don’t mean by that that you need to be beating everyone over the head with a Bible, or shouting from a street corner. Really, if you want to be a good witness to the resurrection, you probably don’t even need to do a whole lot of talking. In order to show the world what you have seen, you have to do something much harder. You have to live it.

There’s a quite attributed to St. Francis. He probably didn’t say these words, but he said something pretty close, and in the same spirit: Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.

He was right. It’s not enough to just tell the world what you know. You have to actually live your life in a way that shows that you believe it. You can’t claim to believe in the triumph of God’s love over a Good Friday world and then live as though the deck is stacked, and as though you can’t do anything to change it. You can’t say you believe in the triumph of love on Sunday morning, but then live like you don’t the rest of the week.

Instead, you can choose this. You can choose to preach the Easter story, not just today, but everyday. You can choose to cultivate hope, to encourage transformation, to stand alongside the oppressed, to work for justice, to side with the powerless, and to bind up the brokenhearted. You can choose to give the best of yourself to the God whose love was to great to be contained by the tomb, and not to a culture that tells you the tomb is the final word.

Between this Easter, and next Easter, you can be a witness to the Resurrection, and you can witness more resurrections than you could ever believe. Because if you look at the world with Resurrection eyes, you’ll find that resurrection is everywhere. Maybe even in yourself.

We are a world in need of new life. We are a world in need of love. We are a world in need of resurrection. And who better to help than the people who believe in the one who was Resurrected?

That’s our job as Christians. Deep in our hearts, we know that. We know that, or else we wouldn’t be here today.

There is a world waiting for the stones to be rolled away. And it’s time to go out and meet Christ in it. In our hearts. In our homes. In our communities. And in our world. New life is coming. And it starts with him.

Alleluia, Christ is risen…

Journey Through Lent: Day 32

Copyright, AP

Copyright, AP

Many Christians are preparing for Easter, which is coming up in just a few days on March 31st. It’s one of the few things that Christians churches agree on and celebrate in common, and on Easter Sunday every church in this valley will be celebrating the good news of new life.

But as universally true as that might sound not all Christian churches will be celebrating on the 31st. Orthodox Christians, the second largest Christian denominational group after Roman Catholics, won’t be celebrating Easter until May 5th. Orthodox Christians follow a different calendar from Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians, which means often times we celebrate Easter (and Christmas) on other days.

So, who’s right? I mean, there can’t really be two Easter’s right? Doesn’t someone have to be wrong?

When I was growing up in the South, I often heard people who attended certain Christian churches in town tell me that Catholics “weren’t really Christians”. That always struck me as odd. My own immediate family wasn’t Catholic, but most of my extended family was, and I knew them to be good Christian people.

Later on I heard others say the same thing about my own religious tradition for a variety of reasons. Some were old arguments like the fact we baptize babies instead of adults. Others were newer, like the fact we allow women to preach and gays and lesbians to marry. And because of that, despite the fact I’ve given my life to serving Christ, I’ve been told repeatedly I’m not a “real Christian”.

And this is what I’ve learned along the way: “real Christians” don’t all look, think, talk, or worship the same way. And if anyone tells me they have the market on Christian truth cornered, that’s enough to make me wary. The truth of the matter is that good Christians disagree on any number of thing, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t Christians.

Nearly 400 years ago, the people who would later form my own Congregational tradition landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims were escaping a place that told them that there was only one way to be Christian. But the church they started here in New England at first repeated the mistakes of those who had forced them out of England. They persecuted other Christians who didn’t agree with their own version of Christianity, and they said they weren’t “real Christians”.

We now understand that they were very wrong. That’s one reason why the church that is now descended from them, the United Church of Christ, is wary about judging the validity of the Christian faith of others. We understand that with each new generation there are new challenges, and new understandings of what it means to be Christian. We are open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and to the presence of Christ in other churches.

For that reason, I’ve found Christ while attending Mass at the Catholic parish in Brattleboro. I’ve seen him while worshipping at Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. I’ve felt him while visiting Orthodox cathedrals. And I’ve known he was close while worshipping at my own UCC parish. I’ve found that if you open your heart up to Christ’s love, you can find him all over the place.

Come March 31st, like churches in many places, my church will celebrate the holiest day of our year. But I’ll keep in mind those other Christians who are still waiting for their Easter. And I’ll also keep in mind those Christians whose understandings of what it means to be faithful are so different from my own.

My only hope is that they might do the same for me, and for other Christians whose faith might look different than their own. I’ve always believed that a desire to see Christ in others is a true mark of a Christian. Perhaps the same is true for seeing Christ in the churches of others as well.

Doubting Thomas, and You, and Me – Sermon for April 15, 2012

Carvaggio’s “Incredulity of St. Thomas”

Last Sunday most of you were here for Easter. We had an uplifting service celebrating faith in Christ and in the resurrection. We read together the story of how Christ rose again, and appeared to those he love, and how the message that God’s love still lived began to spread.

It’s hard to leave church on Easter morning and not feel some sense of joy, and some sense of faith. I leave Easter services, like Christmas services, on a sort of “faith high”. I feel surrounded by witnesses to God’s love, and this time of year I feel particularly close to God. Lent is over, and joy has filled the church.

So, we come back to church this week, and we expect the hard stuff to be over. We expect an easier story, or a celebration, right?

Except that’s not exactly what we get. The story we read today starts on that first Easter Sunday. After Jesus has appeared to Mary in the garden, he goes to the room where the rest of his disciples are holed up. And they’re afraid. The writer doesn’t tell us whether Mary had gotten to them yet to tell them the news that he was risen, but I’m guessing she did. And even still, they are scared.

And suddenly Jesus appears, despite the locked doors, and they can see the wounds in his hands and his side. And he says “peace be with you”. And they believe.

But one disciple was missing. And this would probably be me. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus came back. Maybe he was at the store. Maybe he was running late after work. Maybe he was stuck in traffic. For whatever reason, Thomas arrives and all the other disciples tell him Jesus was just here. I’ll bet they even said to him something like, “Thomas, you won’t believe this!”

And he doesn’t. Thomas tells them, “Unless I see it for myself, and can touch his wounds, I won’t believe.”

Have you ever wondered how Thomas must have felt right then? Were the disciples pranksters, maybe, and he thought they were playing a joke on him? Or were they telling the truth, and if so, why hadn’t Jesus stayed around for him to see him too? All he knew was that the other ten remaining disciples were in on something, and he wasn’t.

But the next week, he is there again. He’s with them, and he still hasn’t seen Jesus. And all of a sudden the same thing happens. Jesus appears and tells Thomas to put his hands on his, and feel the wounds from the nails.  And he does. And he believes.

Jesus asks him, “Do you believe because you have seen me?” And he tells him, “Blessed are those who do not see yet believe.”

I’ve always felt bad for Thomas. He was asked to do what the other disciples didn’t have to do. He had to believe sight unseen. Probably any of the others would have had the same struggle. And yet, we all know Thomas as “doubting Thomas”. I wonder how long after this happened did it take for the other disciples to call him that. “Oh, that’s doubting Thomas. Jesus had to come and let him touch his hands before he believed.”

I’d hate to be remembered only my greatest moment of doubt. Because I’ve had them. And I could be, “doubting Emily” pretty easily. And I guess a lot of us could be something similar. But as much as Thomas sort of gets this label as the disciple who didn’t believe, he’s always been my favorite. Because of all of them he’s the one I think most of us can relate to. Because most of us understand what it is to live between faith and doubt.

We think of faith and doubt as opposites. But that’s not really true. Faith and apathy are more opposite than faith and doubt. But doubt is often a key part of the journey of faith. It’s a stop along the way that most of us make more than once. And when we find ourselves there, it’s not an indication of us being bad Christians or disbelievers. It’s a sign that we are taking our relationship with God seriously enough that we are letting ourselves be honest, and we are letting ourselves start a journey without knowing exactly sure where we are going.

Thomas was like that. As much as he is “doubting Thomas”, he’s also known to millions as Saint Thomas. Christian tradition holds that he set sail for India and was the first to spread the Christian there. In the end his doubt, his desire to know Jesus for himself, was what brought him faith. And that faith gave him the strength to bring that message to so many others. And if you go to India today, St. Thomas is the one who didn’t just doubt, but who believed, and who helped others to do so as well.

But he was lucky, right? I mean, he got to see Jesus, to touch Jesus, to know Jesus, in a way you and I don’t. Doubting Thomas may have become a saint, but what hope is there for me, or for you?

I was reading a story recently about a woman in her 30’s who one day had this overwhelming spiritual experience. She knew God was present, and she felt God calling her to do something new, and scary, and hard. But she felt God so clearly that day, that she couldn’t deny it. It’s the sort of spiritual experience most of us want. The moment of clarity. The clear marching orders. It’s like Thomas getting to touch Jesus’ hand.

The young woman did go out, and for the next 50 years she did amazing things. But inside she doubted. She wrestled with faith. She had what Christian writers for centuries have called a “dark night of the soul”. Sometimes she even questioned the existence of God. Her lack of faith bothered her.

The other disciples may have called her, “Doubting Theresa”. But you and I know her as Mother Theresa, the woman whose life many call saint-like. I used to see pictures of her and think, she must be so holy. So full of faith. She must be so certain of what she is doing. But in the last few years, we’ve learned that wasn’t the case. She was like us. And she was like Thomas.

We Protestants don’t canonize saints anymore, but our Catholic brothers and sisters do. And Mother Theresa is very close to becoming a saint. She’s already been beatified. Even with her doubts, she was found worthy of this title.

Or, maybe, because of her doubts.

We all doubt. At least all of us who see faith as a journey, and not a one time stop. Our faith gets shaken, we question it, we wonder why Jesus doesn’t appear to us when everyone around us seems to have seen him. We may even feel a bit ashamed of our doubt.

I wonder if Thomas did that first week. Why couldn’t he just accept what the others said? Why did he have to see for himself? I wonder if the next Sunday he thought about not going back. He wasn’t “one of them” anymore. He was the doubter. The one who hadn’t seen.

And yet, he went back. And maybe he went back because he had loved Jesus so much that he needed to hear them talk about him, even if he wasn’t so convinced it was true yet. Maybe he went back because it was easier than being alone. Maybe he went back because he thought maybe, just maybe, Jesus would come again. For whatever reason, we went back to that community in his hour of greatest doubt, just like many of you come here every week, and that day Jesus showed up and he believed.

Doubt can be the thing that propels us to faith. It can be what shakes us up. It can be what pushes us out of the doors of our once comfortable places and into a new, and better, world. Doubt can be the ticket that starts our journey to new life. It can be a sign not of the absence of God, but of God working in us to do something new.

I’ll close with this. During the time in my life of greatest doubt I went to a lecture by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. I know I’ve shared this story with some of you before, but it’s worth sharing again as we talk about journeying in faith while filled with doubt.

He was talking about the parting of the Red Sea and how we have this movie version in our heads where Moses lifted his arms and you could see across to the other side. The reality, he says, was more like this: the people put one foot into the water, tentatively, and the waters rolled back a little. And then they put another foot down, and the waters rolled back more. And so on, and so on, until they found they had safely reached the other shore.

It’s the same with doubt. You won’t see to the other shore. And you don’t have to. God is already there. And God is with you in the waters. Doubt as much as you need to, but leave just enough room for the faith that God will show you the next right step. And just keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s the life of doubt, and that’s the life of faith. Amen.

I Have Seen the Lord – Sermon for Easter, 2012

Alleluia, Christ is risen! (response)

Two nights ago, some of us gathered in the sanctuary here for Good Friday services. Together we read the story of the Passion, Christ’s trial, crucifixion, death, and burial together.

We did something new this year. Instead of just one person reading the Gospel, we split it up, and took parts, and read it with different voices. We sat with each other and listened. And after the service some of you told me that you really heard the story in a way you never had before, and it profoundly affected you.

It did me too. The story about how Christ’s love and compassion for us all was so threatening to some that they would kill him. The story about how God became human like you and I, and told us how to live and how to treat one another, and the world wouldn’t hear it. The story of how the world sometimes does its worst to those who deserve anything but.

It’s a hard story to hear. It gets to us. But not long after the story ended, like the rest of you, I got in my car, and went home, and had dinner, and started getting ready for Easter morning.

Two thousand years after the Christ’s death, we have that luxury. We have the luxury of being what some call “Easter people”. We know how the story plays out, and we know that Jesus does not stay in the tomb. As much as the story affects us when we hear it again, we have that consolation. Good Friday is not the end.

Now at this point you may be saying, “You’re right…Good Friday is not the end. So stop preaching the Good Friday sermon and get on with the Easter one.” And I will.

But before I do, I want you to think about this. What if you didn’t know? What if you were hearing the story I read you this morning for the first time? What if you had lost your friend who was love embodied, and you’d driven back home not with hope, but with a gut-wrenching sorrow?

That’s what his friends were going through. He was their teacher, and they were his disciples, but they were also his friends. And they had loved him. Even the ones who couldn’t bear to stay with him for the end, they loved him.

They loved him so much, that as soon as they could they went back to his grave. Maybe just to be close to him. They were good Jews, so they would never have gone to a grave on the Sabbath, but as soon as they could they went. Mary first.

She got there and the stone that had sealed the tomb was gone. And she looked in and so was Jesus. And she runs to Simon Peter and John and tells them, and they race each other to the tomb and look inside.

Nothing. Just a few cloths that had wrapped the body.

Simon Peter and John leave Mary there. She stays, weeping, until she hears a voice: “Why are you crying?” She thinks it’s the gardner. She says, “If you took him away, if you have him, just tell me. I’ll take him myself.”

And then the voice says her name, Mary, and she knows. She cries out, “Rabbi”. And she knows it is him. And Jesus picks her, the one who stayed, and wept, and searched, and sends her to tell the other disciples what she has seen.

Mary is the first witness to the risen Christ, the first to testify to what she has seen. The first to get to share the good news.

It’s an awesome task to be given. To see the risen Christ, and to be told by him to spread the word. Don’t keep it to yourself. Go…tell the ones who need to hear it the most, the ones mourning and in pain, that I am risen. Go and tell them, suffering and pain and hate and death did not win.

Mary got to do it first. She went and said, “I have seen the Lord.”

She was the first one Christ asked to do it. But that doesn’t mean she was the last to get the job. Because every person who would follow the risen Christ gets the same assignment. Everyone who would call themselves a Christian gets asked to do the same thing as Mary: go to the ones who need to hear it the most, and tell them you have seen the risen Christ.

It was an important job two thousand years ago, when the disciples mourned for the one they thought they had lost. But it’s still an important one today.

As much as we are Easter people, much of the time we still live in a Good Friday world. We’re still a world that chooses violence, and fear, and hate, too much of the time. Though Christ is risen, we often choose to act in the exact opposite way than what he taught us.

That means that on most mornings, a fair number of people are feeling the same way the disciples must have been that morning. They’re wondering where hope has gone. They’re crying out for another way. They’re listening for any news that suffering doesn’t win. That death doesn’t get the last word. That God is so good, and so full of grace, that God doesn’t give up on the world, and the stone rolls away from the tomb.

There is a world that needs to hear that. Maybe even you need to hear that. I know there are days when I need to hear that. And I don’t think I’m alone.

And that’s what the Easter story teaches me. That love wins. And that people need to hear that. And also, that I’m one of those people.

To be a Christian is to be a witness to the Resurrection. And that’s not always easy. It’s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It’s easy to get sidetracked.

But that’s why it’s so important to put yourself in the places where you know you will hear the Resurrection story again and again.

I’m sometimes asked what the point of coming to church is. Does God love us more if we come, or get angry at us if we don’t? And my answer is, “no”. I don’t think God has some sort of a church attendance checklist.

Instead, I think this: I think church matters because it’s a community of witnesses to the Resurrection. I think it matters because when I see new life, when I see Resurrection, I know I can’t keep it to myself. I have to run and tell the ones I love who need to hear it the most.

And I think it matters because sometimes, when all of life feels a lot like Good Friday, I need to go to a place where I can hear there is an Easter. I need to go where other witnesses are running to from the tomb, shouting with Mary, “I have seen the Lord.”

I need that. I think we all do. I think we all need a place where we can tell the story together. Just like we told it together, and really heard it in a new way on Good Friday, how much more powerful can the story of Easter be when we deliberately tell it together? We need to tell the story of love that triumphs over everything. We need to tell the story of the Easter that comes after Good Friday. We need to tell the story of new life where none was thought possible. And we need to tell it together. Because each of us holds a piece of that story, and each of those pieces needs to be heard.

I’m thankful for all the little Resurrection stories I’ve heard over the past year. Thankful for all the reminders that Good Friday isn’t the end of the story, and that Easter is real. I’ve heard a hundred different Easter stories in this congregation this year. And most weren’t in April.

I’ve heard of new babies born, and those who were given up for dead regaining life. I’ve heard of new families begun, and old relationships mended. I’ve heard of marathons run, and addictions overcome. I’ve heard of judgements being discarded, and anger being transformed. I’ve heard of cancer in remission, and the indomitable spirit of those who aren’t but still fight. I’ve heard of two churches becoming one, and new witnesses walking in the doors. And I’ve heard of those who once were lost but now are found, and those who helped a valley that was nearly washed away to rise again. And those are just the stories of the ones who were here. There are so many others we still want to know.

We’ve celebrated Easter in this church nearly every week. And we’ve celebrated it in our hearts even more. Don’t let anyone tell you that those weren’t Resurrections. They were, because God was there giving new life in each one of them. And I look at each one and say, “I have seen the Lord.” May it be so this year, in Easter, and everyday.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen…

A Prayer for Good Friday

Let us pray:

Prince of Peace, redeemer of us all, crucified God, we have gathered at the foot of the cross, and at the entrance to the tomb, and we have rolled the stone across it.

The world sometimes does it’s worst, even to those who don’t deserve it. You know that, because you once lived as one of us, loved as one of us, and died as one of us.

Tonight we leave, as your disciples did centuries ago, knowing our friend is gone, and that a good man has died.

The ones who knew you and loved you could find no consolation that night. They mourned. Just as there have been nights when we have mourned. Just as there have been nights we have looked for mercy that didn’t seem to come.

And yet, some would dare to look for hope…

God, as you send us out into the world tonight, stay close to us. As we wrestle with the big questions; as we ask why there is pain, why there is suffering, why there is loss, do not leave us alone. Help us to find you in our hours of greatest doubt.

And at the right hour, draw us back together. To gather at the tomb. To look for the light. To look for you. For hope, for you, we will be waiting. Amen.

Lent, Mud Season, and Making Room for the Mess

The other day I stepped onto my driveway and my duck boot sunk down in mud deeper than my ankle. I knew it was the start of mud season here in Vermont, that mythical fifth season between winter and spring when mud covers everything. Our dirt roads turn to mud, our shoes are coated, and our pant cuffs show tell-tale signs. The mud gets everywhere.

I didn’t know about mud season until I moved here two years ago. People explained to me that the ground freezes so hard in the winter that it’s still not thawed when the piles of snow start to melt in early spring. The water has no way to go back down into the ground, so it stays on the surface, mixing with the dirt and making a mess of everything.

That’s fitting for Lent, which most years conveniently overlaps the mud.

In Lent we face the parts of our spiritual life that are the messiest, thickest, and the most inconvenient. We often find that even if we can hide the mess from others, we can’t hide it from ourselves. Like mud, it gets everywhere.

It is the mud season of our souls. The time when when look deeply at what’s inside of us, and start to find the places that we are trying to keep frozen and impenetrable to God’s grace. We all have them. They’re filled with fear, anger, prejudice, resentments. It’s easier when we keep them hidden and frozen because we know that once they see the light and start to melt we won’t be able to control the fallout. I think that’s why we are often so reluctant to really dive head first into Lent. Deep down we know that letting God into the deepest parts of our soul can make things messy.

It’s not surprising that Christians are so wary of the mess. We learn it from the very institutions dedicated to nurturing our faith. In the church we often prefer the neat, bright, and convenient to the reality that life is messy, and hard, and imperfect. We err on the side of keeping the surface clean, rather than digging deeper.

It’s why we don’t talk about the hard stuff in many churches. It’s why instead of having honest, life-changing, deep discussions, we often dwell on what’s easy to agree upon, or what is so inoffensive to anyone that it is uninspiring. We don’t talk about addiction, or depression, or economic justice, or inclusion of LGBT people, or any other topic that might cause division, even though there are many for whom talking about any one of those things would be a lifeline. Instead we create a church culture that is the spiritual equivalent of keeping up appearances.

People have come to believe church is a place where we want you show up in your Sunday best, rather than with mud on your shoes. I think that’s one reason churches are a lot more packed on Easter morning than on Good Friday, or any other day than Lent. We’ve taught church goers that we know how to find God on the best of days. But we rarely talk about how to find God on worst of them.

Which is why maybe we need the mud. Maybe we need the mess. Maybe we need the season where on the surface everything looks like it’s going to hell, but deep down we’re opening ourselves up to something new.

I’ve never seen a thriving church that hasn’t at some point in their life together been willing to risk letting God’s grace disrupt everything. They heard about the members they would lose. They heard about the donations that would dry up. They heard the cautions. And then they did it anyway. And new life sprang up.

I’ve often found that the most vital churches are the places that do Lent the best. They’re the places that don’t shy away from acknowledging the messiness of the spiritual life that, regardless of whether or not we’re talking about it, we’re all experiencing anyway. They become the churches that journey with parishioners as they go through their own spiritual mud seasons. And those parishioners become the ones who turn that place into something vital. Something life-giving. Something that has a lot to do with Resurrection.

I’ve been watching the people around where I live. They’re Vermonters. They’re used to things being messy. And so they also know what happens when the earth thaws, the water recedes, and spring breaks forth. This time of year sweetness comes in the maple syrup being cooked down from sap in sugar houses, and new signs of life come as nature wakes up. They know that after things get messy, they get good.

It’s taught me a lot about what Lent can be for the church. It can be the time hearts thaw the way the earth does, old barriers to God’s love melt away, what’s unknown is allowed in, and new life emerges in us all.

It can get muddy, but God can do incredible things with that mud.

Easter Sunday 2011: Running and Crying

Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

It’s the greatest news that we can hear, and we come on this day especially to hear it. Last Friday you came to church to hear about the man who was crucified, dead and buried. You left when we placed him in the tomb, and left the church in somber mourning.

But today, we come and we hear that Christ has risen from the grave. Death has been defeated, sin has been cast out, hope has arisen again. This is the day we are really looking forward to the rest of the church year It’s the day we are anticipating at Christmas when we celebrate a baby who has just come, because we know he is going to do incredible things. And it’s the day we are anticipating all through Lent, and especially on Good Friday, because we know that in the end God will not allow pain and suffering and death to be the last word.

This is the day that makes every other Sunday that we gather here make sense. We come every Sunday morning because it was a Sunday morning so long ago that Christ rose again and everything was changed. This is the most joyful, most promising day of the entire year.

It’s hard to remember that it didn’t start that way. On that first Easter morning so long ago, the disciples didn’t know the news yet. They thought they had seen the final word on Friday. They had watched Jesus be crucified. And they had watched him die. And they had watched him be buried.

The disciples were good Jews, and they would not have been near the tombs on the Sabbath day. So it was not until Sunday that they could go to mourn. But as soon as she could, Mary Magdalene went to the tombs. She had loved him so much. And just like any of us go to visit the graves of the ones we love, she went to see him. Maybe it made her feel a little closer to him. Maybe it made her feel a little less alone. Maybe it was the only thing that made the pain lessen just a little.

And she gets to the tomb and she looks and the stone has been taken away. And the tomb is open. And no one is there.

The only thing that she can think is that someone has moved his body. Maybe someone who didn’t want him to have a decent burial. Maybe someone who was too scared of what Jesus stood for to even let his followers have a place to go to mourn him.

She goes back and finds Simon Peter and John and she tells them, “They have taken Jesus and we don’t know where they’ve laid him.”

The two disciples have to see it for themselves. They start out and they don’t walk, but they run. You can picture them running towards the tomb, John pulling ahead. That had to know what happened.
They look in the tomb, and all they see are the linens that he was wrapped in. And they don’t understand. And Scripture tells us that maybe, maybe, they were starting to believe something extraordinary had happened. But they didn’t know yet, and so the disciples went home.

But not Mary. She refused to leave.

I picture her there, standing outside the tomb baffled. Weeping. Looking for some answers. Looking for some explanations in a world that made no sense in that moment. She didn’t hear the man come up behind her or recognize the voice that asked her gently, “Why are you crying?”

She thinks it’s the gardner, and she says, “They’ve taken him. They’ve taken him away and I don’t know where he has gone.” And then she turns. And then she sees him.

Mary became the first Christian preacher ever that Easter morning. She saw him first, and she went first to tell the story. Jesus gives her the job of telling the disciples he is back for the first time. The empty tombs, the discarded linens, they weren’t enough. And so he lets her see, and he tells her to tell them he is back.
You have to wonder what those first hours were like. Before telephones. Before email. Can you imagine the disbelief when she went and told the disciples what had happened? Can you imagine the words being passed from one person to another, each more skeptical than the last. They wanted to believe, but it sounded so unlikely.

Who would ever believe the story of a man risen from the dead? A man who loved so extravagantly and without reservation, that he would give his life for the whole world? A man who had come back? That first day, I wonder who would have believed Mary. But I also wonder, who wanted to believe?

We’re not so different here today.

Here we stand, on the other end of Christendom, and we want to believe. Gone are the days that people would just show up to church on Easter morning without a second thought. Gone are the times when you moved to a new town and found your new church. Gone are the years when you didn’t ask folks whether they went to church but rather where.

We sometimes mourn those days. We sometimes worry they will never come back again. We sometimes look fearfully at the future and wonder what faith will look like.

A friend asked me once why I spent all my time working for a dying institution. They meant the church. They look at declining attendance rates and think that we are just another business striving to meet our bottom line. But they’re wrong.

The truth is that if we believe in Christ, we have to believe that the body of Christ, the church, will never die. That God will never allow that to happen. It may not look like what it looks like now, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be good. In fact, I believe it can be better.

We are in a new era in the life of the church. One in which people choose to come on Sundays not because their neighbors go. Not because they don’t want people to talk. Not because it’s what they’ve always done. But because they genuinely believe. Or, at least, they want to.

I think about Simon Peter and John. They saw with their own eyes the empty tomb, and they wanted to believe. And so Jesus sent word to them through Mary that he was back. And everything changed.
I see so many people who want to come to believe. I always tell people that I counsel who have doubts about their faith that in many ways our doubts are the surest signs of our belief. They are the spiritual equivalents of us running to the tomb doors to see what has happened. They are the same as us weeping openly for a Christ we want to find.

And we will not be left alone. And if Christ came to those who were unsure on Easter morning, he will come to us.

This morning, we celebrate that fact. That Christ has risen again and we are not left at the entrance to a tomb. We are not left to cry without consolation. We are not left to go home baffled. We are only embraced in the sure love of a Christ who loves us regardless of anything else in this world.

And that’s the message to proclaim. Because, like Mary, we are given a proclamation to make as our tears are dried. We are given a story to carry to a world that needs it now more than ever. We are given a common ministry.

Look around our world. Have we ever really lived into the true meaning of Easter? Even in the years of packed cathedrals and overflowing membership rosters, did we really live by the Gospel? Or is that maybe the work of our generations, and those yet to come?

There is good news to preach. Compassion for those who need it most. Healing for those in pain. Justice for those who need it. Peace for the whole world. It is needed, now more than ever. And the Christ who stood at the door of a tomb and comforted Mary before he sent her to proclaim it? He’s standing here with us today. Telling us he is risen, and telling us to tell everyone that good news.

Yesterday a friend of mine from seminary led a stations of the cross service in Liverpool, England, where he pastors. He led the worshipers through the heart of a city that probably had no idea what was happening all around them. He led them finally to the broken down remnants of a burned out church that had been bombed in the Nazi Blitzkrieg of World War II and never rebuilt. And they worshipped there. They found Christ there.

In so many ways standing at that bombed out church was like standing at the door of the tomb and looking inside. It was the most unlikely place to find Jesus risen again, and yet he was there at both places wiping away our tears and sending us out to proclaim the message again to a new generation. If Christ can show us new life in the broken places of the world. In the bombed out churches. In the graveyards. Then Christ can surely take root in our heart and in the hearts of those with whom we share that love.

Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. Amen.