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.

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.

Resurrection Phobia: Sermon for June 5, 2016

logoEvery week I try to post the sermon I preach at The Congregational Church in Exeter on this page. This week I’m not doing so for two reasons. First, it’s our Music Celebration Sunday in Exeter, which means the Word is being proclaimed through song.

Second, I preached on the lectionary text for this week in a different way. Several months ago I ventured back to my old hometown, Atlanta, in order to record a sermon for Day1. Day1 is an ecumenical radio and internet broadcast featuring preachers from a variety of Protestant denominations. If you’ve never heard of Day1, take this opportunity to check them out. Each week preachers from across traditions engage the lectionary text in new ways. It’s an example of ecumenical work at its best.

This week I preached on Luke 7:11-17, and talked about “Resurrection Phobia”, and the ways we choose fear over hope. You can read, and listen, here: Day 1: Resurrection Phobia

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.

“The Reports of My Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”: A Letter from the “Dying” Church

To my mourners:

Sometimes the dying are the first to know. While others believe you are invincible, you quietly go around collecting pamphlets from hospice and making final arrangements. But sometimes, more rarely, the dying are the last to know. While they feel alive and vital, others are picking out their headstone. Lately I’m feeling like I’m in the latter camp.

I hear that I am dying. This is a shock to me because I had no idea. I’m a good two millennia old so I think I’ve gotten to know myself pretty well, and I certainly have had tougher times than this. In my earliest days, in fact, my very existence was in question. So picture my surprise when I hear that those who have known me for only a fraction of my days are counting down to my demise.

150400_10100264762650368_2031715009_nI think what makes it all the more surprising is that many of the ones who are saying I am dying are not just observers. They are actually a part of me. A recent part, perhaps, but a part none-the-less. Because I, the church, am more than just another institution. I am, in fact, the body of Christ; the living and continuing presence of Jesus in the world. And all who believe in Christ are a member of this body, just like all believers in the past have been members of this body. To be the church is to be Christ’s body in the world.

With that in mind, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that I am dying. Let’s say that death is even somewhat imminent. Let’s say that the body of the church, the body of Christ, is indeed about to die.

Well, here’s what I know about Christ’s body. It has died before, and it has risen again. Resurrection. That’s the whole message of Easter. Death occurs, but death does not win. The body rises stronger. And we, who are Easter people, should know that and not fear the end.

But beyond that, am I really dying? Because I’m not so sure that’s true. Yes, fewer people are attending church. Yes, as that happens some churches are closing down. Yes, the church’s influence in society is not what it used to be. But does that really mean I’m dying? Or does that just mean that the church is entering a new phase of life, just like it has before and will again? Maybe, in fact, a better phase?

Here’s the thing. There’s a difference between death and change. Just because I am no longer the way you (or your parents, or your grandparents) remember it growing up does not mean I am dying. Just because you don’t see what you want or like when you look at the church does not mean that death is imminent. Because, and this is sometimes hard to accept, as much as you may like to believe otherwise, the church is not dependent upon your comfort or approval for its life.

So here’s my question: Do you want to continue to sit and mourn around a death bed that I do not inhabit? Or do you want to be Easter people, and live in the Resurrection? If it’s the former, fine, but don’t call that church. Call it what you want, but don’t put the words “body of Christ” on that funeral.

But if it’s the latter, if you want to live as a Resurrection people, here’s a few thoughts on what you can do:

1. Read Scripture: I know, I know. There are many forms of revelation, the Bible has been used to justify some terrible things, etc., etc. But the Bible is the story of communities of faith learning how to live, and change, and grow together. And when we lose Biblical literacy we lose our story, and we lose our hope. And too many Christian have given up on really knowing the Bible.

We need to be able to talk about Moses and the Israelites taking the risk of leaving Egypt, getting lost, and then finding the promised land. We need the early Christians of the Book of Acts to tell us what it meant to be the church together in those early days. We need Paul’s letters to small local churches struggling to figure out who they are and what that means. We need it all.

2. Take risks:

Every local church I’ve known that has died has one thing in common: for too long in their lives they were risk averse. Maybe in the last years of their lives that changed and they were willing to risk everything, but they didn’t get to that place without years of choosing “safety” over choosing a bold witness to Christ’s love. No one wanted to rock the boat. No one wanted to risk losing a few members. No one wanted fail. And so, slowly, the local church became so afraid of making a move that it just withered in place.

But every local church I know that has thrived has one thing in common: they took risks. Not reckless risks. But risks. They took financial risks to expand growing ministries. They took leaps of faith when calling pastors and other staff, and did not try to find a candidate who wouldn’t make waves. They took risks when it came to social issues. And, most of all, they took these risks without sabotaging themselves because they feared their own success.

3. Reject negativity:

No one likes to be around negative people. (Well, possibly with the exception of other negative people.) And yet, the church is often a negative place. Church meetings are filled with anxiety about money or arguments about bylaws. Community life is uninspiring and tedious. And gossip and “parking lot meetings” are far too often the rule of life in the church. Who wants to be a part of that? Anyone who doesn’t enjoy drama won’t stay at a church like that for long.

More importantly, who is going to believe we are being honest about saying we have faith in Christ if our churches are like this? Because if someone says that Christian faith is all about redemption and new life and hope, and then turns around and shows someone a church that is full of pettiness and negativity, no one is going to buy it. Yes, Christians are human and make mistakes, but our default mode should be about living in God’s grace, not living in fear.

4. Recognize grace and practice gratitude:

This follows on the last point. Christians are called to recognize God’s grace in their lives. It’s sort of the point. It’s why you all sing “Amazing Grace” so much. But understanding grace on an intellectual level, and really knowing you have received grace are two different things. And here’s how you know that you really understand God’s grace: you can’t do anything but say “thank you”. Gratitude is the most natural response to grace, and it’s what the Christian life is all about. Christians do what they do not to earn their way to heaven, but to say “thank you” to all of the grace that God has already provided.

So why don’t churches live that way? Why is so much of Christian community life about the anxiety of not having enough? Why is it about mourning what we don’t have instead of celebrating what we do?

People in recovery, perhaps some of the most aware people in the world about the grace they have received, have a practice called gratitude lists. When everything looks like it’s going to hell, they sit down and write down what they are grateful for in their lives. Sometimes it starts small (I’m alive, I have enough to eat, I have enough for today) but often it grows into something more (I have more than I need, I have a community that loves me, I have meaning). What would it look like if your church made a gratitude list? Could you do it? If not, that may be part of the problem. Help those in your community to cultivate grateful hearts, and you will transform your local church.

5. Live for others, not for yourselves:

When you talk to churches in transition I ask them about their greatest challenge. “We need more people,” is what you will hear a lot. Some go further and are a little more blunt: “We need more people to join so we can pay our bills.” For some churches, too many, bringing new people in is not about welcoming them to a community of faith. It’s about ensuring the local church’s survival. And the reality is that people can see that desperation from a mile away. And no one joins a church, or any other organization, just to be another name on the books or another pledge card in the plate. And no one should.

What if instead of asking people to build up your church, you asked how your church could help build up others? What if the focus wasn’t so much on healing yourself, but on helping those who need it the most? What if your greatest priority wasn’t saving the church you know, but instead sharing that church with others and giving them the freedom to help change it?

And what if we lived together like the Resurrection is real, and is happening still? Because it is. And because we have work to do.

With love from the empty tomb,

The Church

P.S. – Of course one person cannot speak for the church. But if we believers are really the church, each of us can speak as a part of the church. So what do you have to say, church? Are you dying? Or are you ready to live?

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…

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.

Rise: A Sermon on Everyday Resurrections – June 9, 2013

nain - tissot-resurrection-nain777x561When I was a kid, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up: I really wanted to be a pilot. I was convinced that I was going to go to one of the service academies and then I was going to learn to fly. My bedroom had pictures of airplanes on the walls, and I even was a Civil Air Patrol cadet. I knew that flying was going to be my life.

But one day, when I was about 12, I went to the eye doctor. And he was asking me about school and what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I told him that I wanted to be a pilot. And he immediately said, “But you can’t be a pilot…you don’t have 20/20 eyesight!”

I was heartbroken. It sounds so trivial now, but at age 12, I really thought my life was over. And in a way, it was…not my actual life, but the life that I had always seen myself living.

Today’s reading from the Gospel is about something more serious. It’s about a young man whose life, to everyone who knew him, literally seemed to be over. He is walking into a town and he runs into a funeral procession. A young man has died, and he’s being carried out of town.

And the man’s mother, who is also a widow, is weeping. And Jesus sees her and he says “don’t cry”. He goes and touches the platform they are carrying the body on and he says “young man, I say to you, rise”. And the man sat up, and started to talk.

Scripture says the crowd was “seized with fear”. That’s fair. If I saw that at a funeral I’d probably be a little afraid too. But then, when the shock wore off, they all began to praise God and to understand who Jesus was and what he was capable of doing. And slowly the news about Jesus began to spread.

The Christian faith is centered around the concept of resurrection. It’s why Easter is the most important day of the church year for Christians. Jesus himself defeats the grave, and lives again. And we tend to think that resurrection is something that happened only to Jesus.

But then there are stories like this, where resurrection happens to someone else. It’s still because of Jesus, but it’s not Jesus. And someone whose life was over, rises again. There are a few examples of this in Scripture, where Jesus brings new life where it seemed like there was no hope.

But the really good news for you and I is that resurrection doesn’t have to be so dramatic or literal as someone rising again from the dead. Most often, resurrection happens when we think that there is no hope. It happens when we feel like our lives are over. It happens when we think, “I’m as good as dead”.

But this is such a huge part of what it means to know Christ. It means that when our life feels like it’s over, God’s love and grace somehow get the last word, and we find that we somehow live again.

Sometimes that’s in small ways. I told you that story about how I wanted to be a pilot as a kid and one eye exam crushed those dreams. I look back now, and am thankful that’s not the route I took. It’s clear that, though my 12 year old self thought my life was over, God had other plans. And, frankly, better plans.

(And, to tell you the truth, now as an adult I don’t really like flying. I hate running into turbulence on a airliner, so being a military pilot probably wouldn’t have worked out so well.)

But there are more serious examples of resurrection too. When I lived in Nashville I learned about a ministry founded by an Episcopal priest there. They reached out to women who had been sex workers. Some had begun to be trafficked when they were only 11, 12, or 13 years old. They had known unspeakable violence, dehumanization and abuse, and many had turned to alcohol or drugs as the only way to deal with that trauma. Some had as many as ninety arrests. Most had come to believe that there was no other life they could live, and there was no hope.

But this priest said to them “there’s a way out. There was no judgement, no condemnation. Just hope. And the women moved into community together, and they got sober, and then they started working together on building a business called Thistle Farms. They made candles, bath soaps, lotions, and more. And they were able to learn a new way to support themselves, and to give back to the other women in the community. And the program has something like a 90% success rate, which is unheard of in recovery programs.

In the eyes of society, in the eyes of everyone who saw them, even in their own eyes, these women were as good as dead. And yet, what has happened to them is nothing short of a resurrection. What has happened to them is what happens when Jesus says “rise”, and you can do no other.

Maybe you’re hearing this story and you’re thinking “that’s pretty incredible, but my life isn’t that dramatic”. And maybe you’re also thinking one of two things: first, that you don’t have any need for resurrection. Or, second, that you do but for whatever reason resurrection can’t happen to you.

To the first point, I’m convinced that at some point in all of our lives we will need resurrection. Whether it’s fighting back from being sick, or getting out of a relationship that’s not good for us, or climbing back after losing a job or a business, or living again after grief, or recovering from addiction, or just finding hope when it feels like we are as good as dead…we will all need resurrection at some point. And if you haven’t needed it yet, or if you’re not needing it now, I hope you never will. But my guess is that at some level, at some point, we all do.

And the second issue is that you might think it can’t happen to you. You might look around and see other people climbing back from something. You might think that things change for them, but not for you. And you might think that you are too far gone to deserve the grace and the hope that others are receiving.

But grace and hope come regardless of whether or not we deserve them. They come because God loves us, and because God is capable of bringing resurrection to us no matter what. And sometimes, it’s just a matter of recognizing that resurrection when it comes.

Sometimes that’s hard to do. When the young man first sits back up, Scripture tells us that the people all around him are “seized with fear”. That’s fair. If I went to a funeral and the guy I was there to remember sat back up I’d probably be seized with fear too. But then they realize what happened and who did it and slowly they begin to glorify God, and to tell everyone that they know.

When resurrection happens in our own lives, it’s often less dramatic than a guy sitting up at his own funeral. But that doesn’t mean that it scares us any less. It’s pretty easy to be “seized with fear” when we suddenly see signs of new life.

Maybe that’s happened to you too. Maybe you have seen something start to turn around, and it has scared you to death. Maybe you weren’t expecting it, and now that things are changing it means that you actually have to respond and get involved and get excited. And maybe you have found that resurrection is sometimes both wonderful and highly inconvenient.

A friend of mine was diagnosed with HIV in the “bad old days” when anyone who was given that diagnosis was not expected to survive for long. And so he did what a lot of others he knew were doing at the time: he prepared to die. He quit his job, moved away, spent all his money, drank heavily, and got ready for the end. He didn’t think it would take long.

But then something happened. His doctor had him try out a mix of new medications. It was called a cocktail. And he started to get better. He still had the virus, but he was not as sick. And then he started to get to a place where it became clear he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And then the virus became virtually undetectable.

He realized he was going to live. Resurrection was happening. But almost in the same breath he realized that that meant he had change the way he was living. He’d been so busy preparing for death that now he had to go back out and get a job, and save some money, and stop drinking, and start making plans for what was now clearly a long future. And it terrified him. He was “seized with fear”. But slowly, with God’s grace, he started to rebuild. And he worked to create his own resurrection. And I look at his life now, and it’s pretty incredible. It’s as though Jesus has been standing there, saying “rise”, and he could do no other.

When resurrection comes to you, my guess is that at first it will look mighty inconvenient. And it is. Because you haven’t been expecting it. And you might be “seized with fear”. That’s okay. Feel the fear, and then participate in your own resurrection, building something new with God. You may have thought your life was over, that you were as good as dead, but God has other plans.

They might surprise you, or frustrate you, or throw everything you expected off, but in the end, you may find yourself praising God’s love and grace in ways you never expected. Resurrection is real. I know, because I’ve heard about it, I’ve seen it, and I’ve lived it. And it’s frightening. And it changes everything. But it is always worth it. Always.

Jesus once said, and he says to us still: Rise. Amen.