Monday, April 6, 2015

An Easter Sermon

Easter 2015
John 20:1-18
April 5, 2015

Do you like surprises? I wonder if Mary Magdalene liked surprises. I imagine her journey to the tomb in the pre-dawn darkness was not really that exciting. She could not have been expecting anything good to happen in that garden, least of all any surprises. It’s unclear why she was going to the grave, at least as John tells it, but the last thing she probably expected was to find it empty. She knew the situation—how much the religious leaders had hated Jesus, how they would go to any length to get rid of him. So when she found that the stone had been rolled away, her first thought was that this was one horrible surprise. Not only did those people have to stir things up to get Jesus killed, now they (or someone else) had broken into his tomb and taken the body. Where was the justice? How could this happen and make this horrible day even worse?
She raced back to tell the men. Surely, they would be mortified by this surprise, too. But they were not, it seems. They did run to look at the tomb, and their more thorough inspection than Mary’s showed them a grave that did not look robbed. They looked inside, and then they left. It’s kind of a strange story. We never quite get to know what they may have understood, or not. They didn’t even seem all that surprised by this strange surprise.
But Mary was. Whatever the men may have decided to go and do next, Mary remained in the garden, surprised and saddened by what she did not understand. And then, what she least expected to happen, did. And we don’t expect it, either, I suppose, if we really admit it. We pride ourselves on being reasonable people. We know how life and death work. What dies stays dead. Once the heart stops, it’s over. Once the lungs give out, it’s done. That is how living and dying work. No negotiating. No surprises. This is what we know.
This is what Mary knew, standing there, in the middle of a garden. Then, a man approached. She didn’t recognize him. [The narrator lets us know who it is—a surprise for us, but at least we’re informed!] She spoke to him; all she wanted was to know where she could find her Lord. She did not want any more surprises.
But then, what do you know?! Surprise! It wasn’t the gardener Mary was talking to, after all. And there was nowhere to look for her Lord, except right in front of her! There he was! Surprise! The one she had thought was gone forever was standing right there! Surprise!
The surprise was almost too wonderful to be believed! She had scarcely imagined this could happen! What was dead was supposed to stay dead, but oh how she had wished that he was not dead! She had left on Friday thinking this could not be possible—things could not end this way…and now, she knew things had not ended that way! Surprise!
Does Easter surprise us? Does it catch us off-guard? Are we so intent on looking for a Jesus we thought was dead and gone that we miss him standing right in front of us? This is the good news Mary experienced in the garden that day, that Jesus was right there with her, had not left her and the others alone after all, and was not overcome by the evil and sin of those in power. And this is the good news that we celebrate on Easter—not only that death is overcome, and not only that God does indeed reign over all things, but that we are claimed by resurrection, too. We are part of this story. We see the empty tomb. We see the risen Savior. Our names are called and we are invited to share the same news that Mary does: “I have seen the Lord!” What looks like the end is not the end, any more! Surprise!
Surprise! This is our story! This is the end of the story that we have been waiting for, for two days…for a week…for a lifetime! The ending is not what we had expected, perhaps. It doesn’t make sense, by the standards of science and biology that we know. Life doesn’t end with death, now. The dead doesn’t stay dead, now. The stone is rolled away. The tomb is empty. Surprise! Is this what you were looking for when you showed up? Maybe not…
Much of life actually does surprise us. Things don’t work out the way we want or expect. Life takes us by surprise. Death takes us by surprise. God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want them answered. Sometimes, things fall apart. Sometimes, things hang together when we think it’s all over. Surprise! Often, we are reminded of how little we actually control, despite our best efforts to control it all! Surprise!
Easter is about surprises. The story is one big “Surprise!” right here at the end of it. Maybe it doesn’t take us by surprise any more—we’ve read and heard it for so long. Maybe it seems like it’s just another old, old story. And well it should be. Because it is the reason for our hope, the surprise that we depend on happening, the unexpected that makes all our endings less final. Death does not win. Evil does not prevail. Sin is not the victor. Surprise! Resurrection is possible! And we are resurrection people—we receive the promise of resurrection, even when we have “good Friday” days in our lives. Even when we stand looking into the grave, we are resurrection people. Surprise! The promise is ours, too, because we are claimed by Christ, the resurrected Christ, and we look forward to what life is like in resurrection, not death and dark tombs.
“I have seen the Lord!” Really? What are you talking about? That can’t be! But it is! Surprise! “I have seen the Lord!”
You have come to meet him here today…and surprise! He has come to meet you, too! Now, you go and tell others, “I have seen the Lord!” and don’t keep this surprise to yourself!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Holy Saturday

No one knows what happened during that one full day that Jesus laid in the tomb. Christian tradition states that he "descended to the dead" (though some of us leave that out of our version of the Apostles' Creed). Otherwise known as the harrowing of hell, this is when Jesus went to the realm of the dead and retrieved the souls of the righteous who had died since the beginning of time. This idea is based on verses from 1 Peter 3:

18 Christ himself suffered on account of sins, once for all, the righteous one on behalf of the unrighteous. He did this in order to bring you into the presence of God. Christ was put to death as a human, but made alive by the Spirit. 19 And it was by the Spirit that he went to preach to the spirits in prison. 20 In the past, these spirits were disobedient—when God patiently waited during the time of Noah. Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water.

Maybe you've taken time to wonder what, exactly, happened on that dark day so long ago. Maybe you've never really thought about it before. There's so little in scripture that suggests anything that happened on that particular Sabbath day that it's highly debated if the harrowing of hell may have occurred. Perhaps it's one of those questions we will just have to wait to have answered.

Whatever Jesus may have been doing in the tomb, those who had loved him surely spent that Sabbath day wrapped in the numbness and disbelief of those who grieve, having watched their beloved teacher wrapped in the clothes of death and laid in a borrowed tomb the evening before. We may feel their pain today, as we grieve something in our own lives. We may feel the frustration they had, of having to wait to finish the job of preparing and burying him properly. What do we feel is left undone this day? What are we waiting for, that we just want to get over with, but we can't do it right now?

Maybe Holy Saturday hasn't been part of your spiritual journey thus far. Making cinnamon rolls for the church's Easter breakfasts, practicing for sunrise services, and shopping for Easter dresses characterized most of the Holy Saturdays of my growing up years, once I was too old for Easter egg hunts. As far as I knew, Good Friday was over and all was about to be great, once Sunday came. Saturday just felt like the day in between. And I guess that's really just what it is. Holy Saturday: the day in between...but not a day to be ignored or skipped or rushed through for me, any more.

Presently, I'm sitting my church's sanctuary. Yesterday afternoon, a church member died. Tomorrow, we will baptize a baby. Today, I sit and wait. I have offered my congregation a space and time to make Holy Saturday part of their Holy Week observance. Several have come by. Some have shed tears as they walked through the Stations of the Cross that I taped up on the walls for today. Some have sat in quiet contemplation. (I wonder if the music I cued on my iPod was distracting to any of them...) I am thankful for this time. It is not wasted. If anything, it is spent in solidarity with the one who spent a whole day in the tomb, and with all who find themselves in tombs of any kind today. May we find that when tomorrow dawns, we may be surprised by grace once again, despite what today has held for us.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Good Friday

This liturgical year, we're concentrating on the gospel of Mark, so here are some thoughts I have from the crucifixion scene in Mark--Mark 15:16-47.

Of course, the irony is never lost on us, that the soldiers kneel before Jesus to honor him as a big joke, but we know the truth of the situation. I don't know if the whole scene, with the bogus trial and everything, where the charge is a truth that none of the people in power believe, is more difficult or less difficult for us who know the whole story to read through. It would be so much more comfortable to skip all the way to Sunday now, and not to go through the horror of today and the hollow sadness and loss of tomorrow. It's part of our story, though, so we read it and we live into it...and we learn from it. Many of us are not people in the habit of stopping and reflecting on our Good Fridays and our Holy Saturdays. There are new clothes to buy for the kids and there are Easter egg hunts; perhaps there is family in town or family coming for Easter. There is food to prepare, and Easter baskets, and all that other stuff. Heck, even though very few of those things are in store for me these next two days, I'll still be working on an Easter sermon, which will feel out of place...but one can't wait until Easter morning, especially when there is a sunrise service that needs a piano player...

What would happen if we could just stop and "be" on Good Friday and Holy Saturday? What would we feel? What voice would we hear? How would we respond?

What strikes me further about this scene in Mark is the complete misunderstanding of Jesus by so many people. It makes me wonder if we're not foolish to think we can understand Jesus so well today, as I feel like some people claim to do. With the Holy Spirit, we can certainly claim to understand much more than the disciples did, but how often do we really get it "right"? Would we have scoffed at him, too? (Maybe I'm selling us all short, though. If you ask my church members, they'll tell you I'm better at asking questions than answering them...)

There's much more that could be said on this Good Friday, but I will leave you with this. Perhaps you might share your thoughts below (if the comment feature is working properly).

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Maundy Thursday

Why can't we wash each other's feet?

I decided to read John 13:1-20 today, since it's Maundy Thursday. My understanding is that this day is so named because of Jesus' mandate ("mandatum" in Latin, which was somehow shortened to "maundy") to wash each other's feet in John 13. Jesus does also give the command that his disciples love each other in John 13.

It's the eve of the crucifixion. Jesus gathers with his disciples to share what he knows is one last meal with them. And they still don't get it. He's already told them--more than once--what's going to happen. What will it take for them to understand?

So he does something ridiculous. Maybe up to this point we could argue that all his talk of serving and love has been that--just talk (I don't think I'd actually argue that, but for the sake of this post, we could think about saying that...)...well, and some pretty impressive miracles, too, actually! To drive his points home that the disciples have to (1) be part of him and the Father and (2) love in a different kind of way than mere "earthly love," Jesus gets up and does one of the ickiest servant's jobs. In fact, even though we in our modern American culture have clean feet, for the most part, albeit perhaps slightly sweaty (I speak for myself, now!), we just don't wash each other's feet! We don't do it! If washing each other's feet is Jesus' real command, then we are not on board!

Nope. Not gonna happen, Jesus. My shoes are staying on and my feet are staying put. Who are we? Are we Peter--"no way, Jesus--you can't serve me by washing my feet!"? No, we're someone else--someone who wasn't even there, I guess. Sure, our culture is different, but we do plenty of other stuff Jesus commands (and some people claim Jesus commands things the gospels never even recorded!). Why can't we let our feet be washed? Why can't we wash each other's feet? What is so wrong with this command, this profound act of selfless love that we in America--except for a couple denominations that call it a sacrament--won't do it? Something to think about on this "Maundy" Thursday.

A Sermon for Holy Thursday

Here's what I preached for my church's Holy Thursday service this evening.

“Shovel It In”
Holy Thursday Sermon
April 2, 2015 
On this Thursday of Holy Week, maybe we’re used to hearing a scripture reading from the New Testament. We think about Jesus and his last meal with his disciples. This church has a history of remembering that meal with vivid and lifelike portrayal! Some traditions read about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet on this day, following his mandate in John 13 (where the name “Maundy Thursday” comes from). But we have just read from Exodus. Does it seem out of place to you? Is it a story you’re not so familiar with?
Maybe it is. But sometimes when we gather and remember the stories of Jesus, it helps us understand more when we also remember the stories Jesus knew. When Jesus and his disciples gathered in that upper room on the night before he was crucified, they would have shared together this same story. They were all there in Jerusalem to remember this story together. It was a yearly event—the festival of Passover. They sat together at table and recalled the story of their redemption. Each person had a part to play—the oldest said these words and the youngest said these words. There were symbolic foods and drinks, as well as the “real” meal that they shared. It all went by a certain script, as they relived the story of their people’s deliverance from slavery and into God’s hands.
            But we don’t observe Passover. What do we even know of Passover? Why do we care about this unfamiliar story? What does it mean to us, tonight, as we wait for what will come between now and Sunday?
            Well, Passover is about a meal—but not just any meal. It’s about getting together to share in a meal that means more than just food and drink. The Israelites were told what to eat, how to prepare it, what to do with the leftovers, and even how to dress and how to eat the meal. The date of this meal is to be marked and remembered each year; it is to become the first month of the year for them, even, Exodus tells us—it must be a big deal! The cuisine is specific: an unblemished lamb, unleavened bread (because there’s no time to let it rise), and bitter herbs. There is a sign for them to use—blood of the lamb is to be put around the door. And their attitude is to be one of urgency—“Shovel it in!” they are told! Something amazing and horrifying is about to happen, after you eat this meal—and then you will see your own redemption coming, out of what seems like horrible carnage.
            Yes, that’s the story of Passover: a story that is to be remembered yearly, at a gathering of all the people. A story that tells them who and whose they are—not some earthly Pharaoh’s chattel, subject to some Egyptian gods, but beings called children by the God of the universe—the God of Heavenly Forces—the God whose angel army strikes down those who stand in the way!
            So, let’s remember that story, even as we’ve gathered tonight on this Holy Thursday to remember another story, too. People may say there’s no need for remembering, for ritual—maybe ritual is useless and time-wasting. Maybe remembering all too often leaves us stuck in the past. Maybe what we’re doing here is pointless.
            Or maybe not. You see, we’ve come here to be together and to remember together for several reasons. We need each other. We need to come together and remember the old, old stories because all too often we are tempted to forget who we are—that we might just be enslaved in so many ways, like the children of Israel were.
            We remember because doing so connects us with other people around the world who may not be just like us, but who share this exact same story. Remembering connect us with the people of God—the body of Christ—across time and space. Our story is cosmic, not just a folktale of long, long ago!
            We remember because it connects us with God. How can we tell the stories of the God who calls us beloved without drawing closer to that God, who renews, sustains, and redeems us from the messes we all too expertly get ourselves into? We remember together because we need God—both individually and as a group.
            We remember and we share together in ritual because we believe that even through the very simple act of doing this again and again—gathering for a ritual meal often (at least once a month) and retelling the story of our faith during a week set aside (holy week)—God is changing us and the world around us, as we grow into this story and live out its meaning every day.
            But we are not people who have gathered tonight to remember only the Passover. We do not stand around a table, our robes on, our sandals fastened, our loins girded, ready to shovel in roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and flat bread. This is not the only story we have come to share.
            Tonight, we peek in on another Passover supper. We see a gathering in an upper room. But as we settle down to hear “the usual script,” something goes awry. The teacher—the leader—is not saying the right things. He’s not doing it right! Instead of remembering that first Passover, he messes the whole thing up!! He picks up that bread and he says, “This is my body, broken for you.” WHAT?! He picks up that cup of ceremonial wine and he says, “This is my blood, shed for you.” Wait, Jesus! You’re getting it all wrong! That’s not how the story goes! What’s gotten into you?!
            What is it that’s gotten into him? Is it the entry he made into town at the beginning of the week? Is it fatigue, from all that has been going on with the religious authorities? Is it fear? What is going wrong here?
            Well, as we understand it now, this Passover meal was not like all the others that had happened before. No, this Passover meal would change how a small group of people (which would soon grow to thousands, and more!) would think of Passover forever. Nothing would ever be the same again, after this Passover meal with Jesus!
            Sure, everything tasted the same. The meal was set the same as it had been every year of their lives. Everything started out “normal.” But now it was different. The lamb and the herbs took a back seat to the bread and the wine. Jesus took what was there and changed it. This Passover meal, celebrating a great day of deliverance for the people of God, turned in to something different, became a meal that was about God doing something new.
            For Jesus, there was urgency of a new kind. For all of them, there was suddenly an unknown they had never experienced before on Passover. They had thought they knew what was going to happen on this night, but boy, were they in for a surprise! Soon they would find out that nothing would ever be the same again. Something awful and horrifying would happen, like on that first Passover, but this time would be very different.
            It must have sounded strange to them—“this is my body” and “this is my blood.” How were they to know then, that what was about to happen would forever transform the lamb, the bread, and the wine, as they understood it? The bread. The wine. Jesus’ body and blood.
            What about the lamb? Well, yeah, then there was the lamb that was part of the Passover meal. That poor, sacrificial little lamb. An unblemished one, the Lord had called for, all those years ago. And if the cost of one was too great or one whole lamb was too much for a household, the people were to go in together, to share that expense. Lambs were precious. Unblemished lambs were indescribably special. Years and years after that first Passover, there would be a big business around the need for special, unblemished lambs. There would be shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over temple flocks at night. There would be lamb upon lamb raised carefully, just so that they could be offered up to God, as penance for the brokenness of a people.
            What about that lamb? Well, that lamb, the one whose blood protected the people from the angel of death, way back when, would become something else, or rather, someone else, with this “new” Passover meal. This new Lamb would be the one serving the meal. That is what had gotten in to Jesus. He knew what was coming. He knew the story of Passover all too well…and he knew how he was becoming the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. And he stood to tell his disciples, “Shovel it in! You don’t yet know what is about to happen, but you need the strength of my body and my blood, for the work for which you have been called and sent to do, and for the spectacle that you are about to witness. So shovel it in!”
            Approach this table tonight, remembering not just a meal that happened years and years ago, and not just a reenactment of that meal that went awry, when Jesus and his disciples met together on a fateful night in Jerusalem, about two thousand years ago. Approach this table tonight, remembering that you know who that Lamb of God is—you know what this story is all about—and you know that God offers you grace to get through the rest of this week, to share in the story with others, to come to the Table as those who need each other and need God’s grace more than we can say, and to face the truth of death and resurrection that comes with following Jesus. Hear now, the invitation:

Tonight we gather around the Lord’s Table. It’s a table so large that there’s room for all to come and share in this most holy of meals. Tonight let us break the bread of blessing and share in the cup of salvation.  Let us gather to remember and celebrate.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Daily Lenten Post, Day 37

One of the lectionary readings for this Sunday is 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, and my morning devotional suggested reading that today. I'm going to paste the whole passage below and then write some thoughts on it.

The resurrection

15 Brothers and sisters, I want to call your attention to the good news that I preached to you, which you also received and in which you stand. You are being saved through it if you hold on to the message I preached to you, unless somehow you believed it for nothing. I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve, and then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at once—most of them are still alive to this day, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, as if I were born at the wrong time. I’m the least important of the apostles. I don’t deserve to be called an apostle, because I harassed God’s church. 10 I am what I am by God’s grace, and God’s grace hasn’t been for nothing. In fact, I have worked harder than all the others—that is, it wasn’t me but the grace of God that is with me. 11 So then, whether you heard the message from me or them, this is what we preach and this is what you have believed.

Do you ever feel like you have believed for nothing? Do you get caught up in the debates and the fighting about whose belief is "right"? It's so tempting to do so. It's so tempting to use faith as a weapon because it feels better to be "right" than to be just about anything else. For all of Paul's work, for all the teaching that he did to bring people to Christ, what mattered most was only this gospel--this good news--"in which you stand": that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again.

That's the message Paul wanted the Corinthians to know. and he didn't care if they heard it from him or from someone else. That's the good news they were supposed to be living into and sharing with others, not debating about which teacher was the "right" teacher, or which spiritual gift is the "best" one, or any of that mess. It may be comforting to us that the people of the early church had just as many arguments as we do, but that doesn't mean we're supposed to continue to dwell in them and forget about the good news we have received and that we are supposed to be living, too.

Easter is almost here. Let's learn to stand in the good news, so as to proclaim it and be a church that believes it and isn't caught up in our own mess any more. I don't exactly know what that would take, but I have hope for resurrection, so I know it's possible!