How was Easter just last Sunday?

I don't know about you but for me the emotion, the pace and even the struggle of my Lent discipline feel many moons ago this week  . . . as do the moments of singing with gusto "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" and "Christ, the Lord is Risen Today!"

But because Easter is a season of the year not just one day, I'm trying to stick with the texts for a just a little bit longer this year.

Though I went with the Luke text for my sermon, I love the John's telling of story too.

In John 20, Jesus meets Mary Magdalene at tomb crying, calls her by name, and she believes instantly that her Teacher is alive.

Then Jesus says to her something that startles me as a reader every time: "Do not hold on to me!"

One commentator describes how interpretations through the ages have tried to understand these words:

"They range from the absurd (Jesus' wounds were still sore) to the fanciful (Having heard of the Eucharistic meal, Mary was wanting Jesus to serve her Holy Communion) to the risqué (Jesus' risen body was naked, so touching was inappropriate!)."

But out of Jesus' mouth, we hear this explanation of his response to Mary saying: "for I haven't yet ascended to the Father."

Or Jesus wasn't finished with his resurrection work. There would be more people to see and meet!

Let me stop here and let you know how I want to protest!

Doesn't Mary deserve all the face time she wants? Hasn't she been through enough drama? Did Jesus really have to say that to her? (Bottom line: I want my Jesus to be gentler to sad Mary's soul).

But what powerful words these are: "Do not hold on to me!"

The more I've thought about them, the more I realize there wasn't any better thing for Jesus to say.

How many times do you and I live with fists clenched onto what we have and to what we know?

How many times do we find ourselves attached to relationships that are nothing more than a security blanket?

How many times do we find something "that works" in our businesses or churches and just want to do over and over?  (Hey, if it succeeded in the past, then I'm sure it will work again, right?)

But to all of this, our resurrected Lord says to us as he did to Mary that day, "Do not hold on to me!"

Jesus says let GO of the grand moment. Let GO of the people keep you stuck.

Let GO of the doctrines that we would keep you here at the tomb crying (and there's tons of these aren't there?)

Most of all, our Teacher continued to teach. He says resurrection is a living thing! If it moves, we move. If it dances, we dance. If it re-arranges our schedules, we rearrange!

As much as any of us think we understand God, the purpose of our life, or even think we're "too old" to make any big changes, Jesus says let me show you the world from my resurrected lens.

In the kingdom of God, nothing ever stays the same! Nothing.

And while the actual resurrection event is a great one, resurrection is a verb.

It's dipping our toes into all the great unknowns. It's springing wide our doors to new possibilities. It's the best work in fact. The work that has the ability to bring more life to our souls, our homes or our churches more than a blow out Easter day celebration ever could!

So, thank you Jesus for telling Mary to "Not hold on to me." Thank you for telling us the same.  For if we just stayed put with you at the tomb, we'd miss out on the adventures you want to give us!  Keep us moving, Lord. Keep us moving. 

AMEN

A Sermon for Easter from Luke 24:1-12

Preached at Springfield Christian Church, Springfield, VA

When we think of Easter the words, “an average ordinary day” do not come to mind, do they?

Nope, we think of new clothes. We think of bunnies. We think of chocolates in the shape of a crosses (which of course gives us less guilt in eating them). We think of big, bright and bold worship services with more people in the pews than normal And we think of that great revelation at that empty tomb!

But the truth be told, the first Easter morning began as “an average ordinary day.” It was a day for those closest to Jesus filled with grief, yes, but also going through the motions of what was required of them according to Jewish customs.

Several of the female disciples gather at Jesus’ tomb. They bring with them spices they’d personally gathered. They want to anoint Jesus’ body and further complete the burial process—a sign of devotion and respect. This was their last chance to do anything for Jesus in bodily form.

It’s the ancient version of the “pick out a nice suit,” “buy a pretty casket” and “make sure you have the nicest plot in the cemetery.” We, like the women that day, do these tasks when someone dies not because we enjoy them but because it’s some of the last strings of connection to our loved one. It’s an ordinary part of what it means to lay someone to rest.

And for the women who loved Jesus the most, I can imagine with tears rolling down their cheeks, they wanted this morning to be a special one—the last encounter, their last memories with their favorite teacher.

Then, the greatest surprise happens.

Luke tells us that when the women arrived at the tomb, the stone was rolled away and the body was not there.

Panic, fear, and anger must have been running through the veins of Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the Mother of James and the others.

Who could have taken Jesus’ body?

Where was he now?

And why would someone be so cruel?

We might wonder: shouldn’t they know exactly what was going on? But there was no time for more thinking because before seconds passed, scripture tells us that “suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.”

Instinctively, Mary, Mary and Joanna bow to the ground and cover their faces, believing this was the most proper response. But still unsure what was going on.

The angel messengers had something to offer:

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.”

It took the angel’s further explanation—reminding them of all Jesus had taught and all he’d said, point by point for them to begin to understand.

Or, “Women, wake up! The best news you could ever imagine is HERE!”

Then, thoughts in Mary, Mary and Joanna’s minds start rolling. For in fact, they DO remember Jesus’ words. He’d had so much to say about death not defeating him. And so what were they waiting for? This is news worth sharing. Luke tells us that they leave the tomb and go and tell the 12 male disciples.

However, I want to stop here and point out one important word that we don’t hear within this encounter: believe.

We hear nothing of the women believing what they angel told them, only that they’re REPORTING to the others what they heard. (There is a HUGE difference between those two).

(You can tell someone you love them. But if you don’t say it with conviction from belief, what good are your words?)

Yet, kudos to the women of course for keeping the story going—for telling the others was an important next step.

BUT (and but seems to be the favorite words of Luke’s telling of this story, he uses it 6 times in only 12 verses!), when the men heard, scripture tells us that “these words seemed to them an idle tale.”

One commentary says that the translation “idle tale” is a generous one for it comes from the Greek word, leros which could be better translated as “delirious.”

This news of resurrection, according to them was delirious, stupid or just plain crazy.

Only a fool would believe that Jesus is alive!

Of course, there’s Peter, who needs some time to get all of this straight. Luke gives us another BUT saying that Peter runs back to the tomb to see the stone rolled away for himself. He’s amazed yet there’s no mention of belief either.

So this is what I have to offer you about the scripture from Luke 24:

On that resurrection morning, Jesus was not there. Jesus was risen. It was the best news. And no one believed it!

Sit with that for a moment.

It was the best news that no one believed. 

Really. And oh how we all have our two cents to offer about that.  We might want to say: “Shame on them!”

But does it really surprise us that no one magically “got” the good news and joyfully proclaimed it?

Doesn’t resurrection—if we truly believe it—require us to leap from completely from what we know into the land of the Great Mystery?

Doesn’t resurrection ask us to change—when we experience it—in more profound ways than we ever thought possible?

Consider this, throughout history, until several centuries ago, there was a fact that just about everybody on this planet could agree on. Can you guess what it is?

No one could leave planet Earth and survive. The earth is for us. The heavens are for the stars. Stay put!

However, as the space age of the 1960s began to buzz with excitement and furor—all of this thinking slowly began to shift. As the Soviet Union successfully propelled the first man up into space, he lived and came back, then, well maybe everything we’ve clung to for the possibilities for our lives was wrong? Maybe the heavens were not just for the planets, the moons and the stars, but safe for us too?

An ordinary day turned extraordinary on July 20, 1969—day that millions of Americans and countless others around the world too were glued to their television screens to watch. Neil Armstrong step foot for the first time onto the lunar surface saying (and you all know it) “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”  

Though previously a seemingly improbable, impossible, laughable event, it happens.

The moon in the night sky hasn’t looked the same since!

But, this is what made me curious this week: did seeing this event come true shift the paradigm of “we belong right here” vs “we belong out there” in space? Did flocks of people start to beat down NASA’s doors after that wanting to go to space?

According to a recent Gallop poll, a large group of Americans were asked: “Are you interested in going to the moon if you could?”

Only 27% said yes, which is roughly one fourth of all Americans. I’ll say it again, only 27% of the population they had any interest in space—even seeing it being done again and again and even with 40+ years of even better technology in place to make the journey safer.

Nope! Nobody wanted to go!

The stat could be summed up by this statement: we’re comfortable right here where we are!

And furthermore, isn’t it true that there are countless documentaries played on the science channels in the year 2016 which tell us the man on the moon is all a hoax? It was simply a made up story for political purposes? There are so people who STILL don’t believe it happened in the first place.

And such IS where we land with our resurrection story with those first disciples. The resurrection asked for a complete life re-orientation. And that’s tough stuff. And many still don’t believe.

Yet, consider again what the angels say to the women.

They ask: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Or in other words WHY are you staying here? Jesus is not here. The past is through. It’s finished.

Jesus is over HERE. Jesus has opened up a world beyond what we can see!  Jesus made a way for us to participate fully in the kingdom of God. Jesus has opened up for us the blessed life forevermore.

If you want to keep following Jesus, the angels are saying, YOU CAN’T STAY PUT and You can’t be over here!

You can’t live in the past.

You can’t be defined by what was.

You have to lift up your eyes, oh disciples, toward what is to come. You’ve got to be on the move!

I want you to know I understand embodying resurrection IS hard work. Many of us don’t want to be on a journey like that. It’s so difficult! We like it just fine over here, where we’ve always been.

A preacher friend of mine, Anna Carter Florence said once about this, text,

“If the dead don’t stay dead what can you count on?”

For if something is going to be dead (and of course we don’t like that) at least we get the consultation prize is knowing what we know, right? There’s a comfort in the finality of death, isn’t there? It’s something we can lean on. KNOWLEDGE

But this is the message of Easter, my friends, we can no longer lean on what we know.

But you might say, preacher, “If I don’t get what I know, then what do I have?”

I’ll tell you, what you have, you have Jesus.

The resurrection gives us Jesus.

Jesus is the one we can count on. Jesus is the one that will lead us to our future. Jesus is what we have in this world.

It’s the best news we could ever experience called resurrection!

But hear me say, the ask of resurrection is NOT to check our brains at the door. But it is to allow God and what God offered us through Jesus to be the center of our story.

And though there are many who might call our faith a scam. Or a hoax. Or just a delirious tale.

And though we not not believe. Or want to believe.  This does not change the fact that resurrection morning was the best news the world ever got.

That what we see is not all there is.That we don’t have to be defined by the failures of our past.

And most of all that our faith is one of surprises.

For when we least expect it, for when we’re clueless and not even paying attention on an ordinary day—new life can find us. It did to those women at the tomb! This is such good news. Such good news for today and every Sunday of the year.

Today, church, let the resurrection not be the best news news none of us believed!

AMEN

A sermon preached at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church, Reston, VA

on the occasion of Rev. Dr. Jean Robinson-Casey's anniversary as pastor  1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

10672323_10152821467981875_592023526533303968_nA kindergarten teacher gave her class a “show and tell” assignment. She said: bring something to school tomorrow that represents your religion.

The first child got in front of the class and said, “My name is Benjamin and I am Jewish and this is the Star of David.”

The second child got in front of her class and said, “My name is Mary, I am Catholic and this is the Crucifix.”

The third child got up in front of his class and said, “My name is Tommy and I am Baptist and this is a casserole.”

And it’s true, when it comes to death, we know how to make a good casserole (and not just the Baptists).

We also know how to visit funeral homes and even write sympathy cards.

But, when days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months after someone’s beloved has passed what do we do?

Usually nothing.

But I believe our Jewish brothers and sisters have it going on when it comes to grief. Have you ever grieved alongside a Jewish family?

One of my favorite practices of a Jewish season of grief is called Shiva.

Shiva is the 7-day time period after the loved one dies when the family and friends gather on a nightly basis at home usually with the Rabbi to say prayers and remember the life of their beloved. Night after night after night. For seven whole days (and sometimes beyond).

During the Shiva period, mourners also do not participate in parties, concerts, TV, movies, or similar events that are celebratory in nature. Those who visit the house in mourning pay their respects by sitting on low stools or even on the floor. Mirrors are covered throughout the house. And often the mourner wears a torn black ribbon on their clothes as a sign that the loss of the loved one has torn a piece of their hearts. Candles are burned.

Then at exactly a year after the passing of the loved one another special ceremony is held to mark the end of the life again. In my opinion, these are some beautiful rituals!

But no matter how long we grieve or don’t grieve for the losses in our life, if we’re Christian, Jewish or Muslim, there’s always an expectation of an expiration date for grief no matter the culture. Isn’t there?

But often our grief has a life cycle of its own.

I don’t want to be the pastor this morning that tells you not to grieve, not to pour out your heart to God when the situation asks for it.

I don’t want to be the pastor who tells you to have any shame when life hits you with an unbearable loss.

I don’t want to be the pastor who says don’t cry if you need to, even in public (which I have to tell you my husband, Kevin hates when I cry in public because he always says people are then looking at him, thinking that it’s his fault when it’s not).

No, this morning, I don’t want to be anti-grief at all.

But I am going to ask you this morning this one question, “How long will you grieve?”

How long?

This morning, in our Old Testament lesson, we encounter two powerful leaders transitioning toward how the promptings of God’s leadings. And one was asked the question, “How long will you grieve?”

One man was priest in chief in all the land. The other man was the king. The king is told by the priest that he would soon no longer be king. The king doesn’t like this news (of course). And the priest doesn’t like giving it. But this does not change the facts.

Grief enters the picture.

But the Lord says the priest struggling with the change, “How long will you grieve?”

How long?

Let’s talk more about WHO these two men are.

First, there’s Samuel, the priest. He’s an honorable man before God whose calling came even before he was born!

His mother Hannah prayed so hard for him that when onlookers saw her in the temple crying out to God they assumed she was drunk. But thanks to Hannah’s prayers and the Lord’s hand on his life, Samuel listened rightly from a young age.

Remember his famous call story? Samuel lives in the temple of the Lord alongside the high priest at the time, Eli.

One night Samuel hears the voice of something calling. It comes not once, not twice but three times. And Eli tells him when he heard the third time to say, “Speak, Lord for your servant is listening.”

And from this point on, as Samuel began to play a major role in the spiritual life of the nation of Israel: he was God’s mouthpiece.

As the people cried out to be a nation “like everyone else” and not be ruled by judges but by kings, it was Samuel’s role to anoint the first king of the land.

This brings us to our second character of the day, Saul. Scripture tells us that he’s good looking and a head taller than everyone else. And of course being tall and handsome makes for a great leader, right?

But, Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, the smallest and least important tribe of the nation—so still unlikely choice when picking kings if it came down to a popularity contest. But back in chapter 9 of the book of I Samuel, we learn, though, that Saul is God’s man. At age 30, he descends the throne. The very first king in all of Israel!

And Saul’s a good king until . . . he stops listening to the One who put him on the throne. He becomes more afraid of what the people say about him rather than God.  He can no longer be trusted to do as God asks him to do. According to God, Saul must go. Samuel needs to break the news to him.

Can you imagine what this meeting of “You’re fired!” felt like, especially for Samuel?

For, Samuel had invested so much of himself in Saul.

Samuel was Saul’s go to advisor, teacher and trainer.

Samuel had laid aside his ego so that Saul could do his thing and shine.

And now it seemed like all of this hard work was for nothing! A dream cut short.

If we go back a couple of verses, we learn that when Samuel first hears this news from the Lord, he “was troubled and called out to the Lord all that night.”

If that is not a picture of grief,  I don’t know what is! For we see Samuel:

Crying out.

Not sleeping.

Counting the minutes on the clock till morning.

(And we’ve all been there too).

But as time passes, the Lord comes to Samuel again and says: “How long will you grieve?”

How long?

I want to stop right here and check in with what I think some of you might be wondering about your preacher this morning:

“Don’t I know what Sunday this is? Don’t I know what occasion I came for? Did I get confused? Don’t I know that a Pastor’s anniversary service is supposed to be about celebration, not all this depressing talk about grief?”

Yes, I know. And I know that you love your dear Pastor Jean and Clyde. And I love them too. And I’m so glad you set this day aside every year to celebrate their ministry among you.

But this is the word of the Lord for today: how long will you grieve?

It’s a word that asks us about all the places in our lives where we are stuck.

It’s a word that asks us where we’ve been paralyzed by the vision that we have for our lives that's not working out.

It’s a word that moves us to action: to lay down the losses that we can’t just seem to get over SO that God’s fresh new wind can blow it’s way through us again.

I don’t know about you, but if I were to make a list of the grief like this, the list would be long.

All of this is leads to grief my friend. Real grief.

And as a church family we’ve got our grief lists too.

And to this, the Lord says, “How long will you grief?”

How long?

I guess, church, we all have a choice.

The Lord says to us, fine. Have your grief if you want it. Have your sleepless nights if you want it. Have your vision of your life if you want it.

But if you are ready for something better, then grieve no more. Let what is dead be dead.

The morning has broken. A new day is here. Open your eyes to see it.

Consider what happened next with our guy, Samuel. As we go back to I Samuel 16 new possibilities come into Samuel’s view.

God shows Samuel that he is NOT through with him yet.

From God, Samuel receives specific instructions on how to proceed. He’s told to go to Bethlehem. He’s told find the sons of Jesse. He’s told that when he reaches the village, he’ll know which one of the young men will be the next leader.

Samuel is confused (as we often are) but he’s attentive to the voice of the Spirit. He listens! And the most unexpected leader emerges.

David, who is young, small and most certainly NOT ready for a gig on the national stage is presented last.

Samuel hears this: “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Or in other words, Samuel: the tall man is out. The little man is in.

Get your head out of the rear view mirror and look up ahead. See I am doing a new thing, do you not see it?

How long will you grieve, Samuel?

How long?

I once heard a story from one of my colleagues about a young couple that attended his congregation.

This couple, I learned from my pastor friend were so in love when he married them, so compatible, so full of great plans for their future of children, vacations and the young wife even wrote a plan for how they’d celebrate the best holiday traditions while they were still engaged.

But, then 2 months into their fairytale like marriage the husband was driving home from work and was instantly killed one evening by a tracker trailer.

You look up the word “unfair” in the dictionary and there should be a reference to the newspaper story about this day. Car accidents should never happen. And the most certainly should not happen to bright 20 somethings.

My pastor friend went on to tell me more about this widow. How she began a daily ritual a couple of days after the funeral.

Every morning, she’d go to graveside, take her coffee and read aloud from one of her devotional books or other literature she liked.

When anyone asked why she did this, the widow would always answer, “Because it’s how I feel close to him.”

We want to say awww don’t we? It’s a beautiful expression of the timeless bonds of love, isn’t it?

But then when I asked my pastor friend what I thought was a basic question, “How long ago since this husband died?” the pastor said to me, “The wreck was 23 years ago!"

I gasped. The pastor went on: "Though she gets regular invitations to re-imagine her life with new friends, new activities and even new romantic partners, this woman will not stop grieving. She won’t stop going to the grave every morning.”

And in our own ways church, we are no better off than this woman stuck in a grief ritual that took her from the land of the living.

We’ve also gotten stuck on what we hoped our family would be! We too have gotten stuck on what we wished our career could be! We’ve gotten stuck on what somebody else said our church should be by now!

And in our grief, we’ve forgotten the resurrection power of our Lord. We’ve forgotten to dream a dream and live into something new, the new that our all-knowing Lord has prepared for us all along.

So church, do you want to move into the new?

lettinggoFCCGrantMacDonaldI can’t think of any better way on this anniversary of your pastors, than to commit to yourself this morning to grieve no more on what the Martin Luther King, Jr. Christian Church is not.

I can’t think of any better way to live into where Pastor Jean and Clyde are leading you in the future than to lay aside the losses of the past.

I can’t think of any better way to be good stewards of the ministry that God has given you in this place than to mark this day, to mark this day as the day when you grieved no more.

To claim this is a day when you said to Jesus, “I am going to trust you.”

“I am going to follow you.”

“I am going to step out on faith with you  . . . even if what I really want to do is run for the covers at in bed at home.”

And most of all: “I am going to grieve for the past no more. I am going to say yes, Lord. Yes, Lord to what you have for me.”

So, church, how long will you grieve?

Let's leave the tombs and follow our resurrected Lord.

AMEN

A Sermon Preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK on Isaiah 6:1-8

It’s strange to put the words “good” and “death” in the same phrase as I’m doing with the sermon title isn’t it?

Because when we think death, we think grief, sadness, loss, and weeping.

And if we’re from the church, when I say death, you might think casseroles and church ladies.

(Oh, I love some good funeral food, don’t you?) 

But good AND death? Nope.

Those aren’t words we’d pair together at all. For, death is a word that speaks to a separation, a pain that for most of us is just too much to bear. Death speaks of lose of a hope that we’ve channeled in a particular direction. Death is the end. And by death, I don’t just mean when a particular person dies but the death of a job, death of a friendship, or death of a dream that we’d planned on our life upon. Lots of things can die in our life all the time.

None of these “ending” experiences are good, are they? In fact, they are very, very bad.

But can any good come from death? Any good at all?

By this, I don’t mean adding expressions like “Everything happens for a reason” or “God makes everything beautiful in His time” that are empathy busters for the pain we feel during times of grief, but rather I’m wondering can death bring about any good?

Such is a question I want to explore this morning with our Isaiah text set before us.

I posed this question to Kevin this week, “Honey, can you think of any story in modern times when the death of a famous person brought about something good, when something better happened that could have happened because of a death?”

(You see, I was fishing for a good sermon illustration).

He told me I asked too many hard questions. Then, he said, “How about Hitler?”

“Oh” I said, “I can’t talk about Hitler. That’s so intense and a little clique.”

So since I can’t offer you a great example of what it means to have a good death (other than Hitler), I thought at this point, we’d just dive into Isaiah.

Isaiah 6 within this historical context: “In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord.”

It seems like a phrase that could have easily been left out, couldn’t it? We didn’t really need to know this, did we? Isn’t the spiritual stuff that follows more important?

If you are like me you might be thinking, “Who in the world is King Uzziah?” You might even say, “I’ve been in church so many years and never heard of him!”

Good question. And today is our day to learn.

King Uzziah was the 11th king to rule after King David in the house of Judah. If you had to make a list of good kings in Israel’s history and the bad kings, Uzziah would most certainly be on the good king list.

We learn a lot about him in II Chronicles 26 as it tells us that Uzziah took the throne when he was only 16 years old and ruled the nation for 52 years in Jerusalem.

His accomplishments were many. He led Israel in battle against their archenemies the Philistines and won! Uzziah’s army was bar none with all the best gear.

He engineered a building project in Jerusalem, constructing towers at the gates of the city.

He “got folks to work” as modern Presidential campaigns often promise to do, through his plentiful agricultural projects.

And best of all scripture tells us that he loved God and sought to put God first in his life. When prophets such as Zechariah came to declare the word of the Lord to him, scripture says, “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.”

I tell you all of this because I believe it’s important for understand that King Uzziah was a larger than life figure in history at this time.

He was the JFK of the 1950s.

He was the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the 1960s.

He was the twin towers in New York of the 2000s.

King Uzziah was everything good that the nation of Judah built their hopes upon. And I can’t help but think that Isaiah looked up to him. He admired him. He saw how God was with him as he led and might have even wanted to be exactly like him. For 52 years he sat on the throne.

Uzziah however made one really huge mistake. He overstepped his bounds and began doing some of the priest’s work in the temple. God would not stand for such disobedience in the holiest of holy place. A sickness came upon him and he suddenly died.

News spread throughout the land that Uzziah died.

Can you imagine the shock? The horror? The fear? And for generations, remembering the exact place where they were when they learned the horrible news.

Isaiah’s hero was no more. He lost a giant figure in his life. And the nation was in mourning too. Everything about their future seemed uncertain.

But scripture reads, in the year, King Uzziah died, [Isaiah] saw the Lord.

What do we make of the connection between such? Why does this sentence read exactly as it does?

I believe because of the connection between the word good and death.

Consider situations and things in your own life that didn’t seem good in the moment but then later all became clear.

Things like- the terrible tasting cough syrup that your momma made you take when you were sick, but made you better sooner than if you’d hadn’t taken it.

Or things like the books your teachers made you read in the summers that kept your mind strong all year round, though you’d rather played outside with your friends and not read at all.

Or like the advice you took from your daddy to not buy your first car—though you really wanted one-- till you could afford the insurance and the gas money.

For an event to be “good” you see, it doesn’t always come without pain. Sometimes, the best things in life that happen to us can be very, very painful, can’t they?

And for Isaiah’s story, I believe that we get this one detail “in the year that King Uzziah died” because it says everything about his posture that day, to receive that the Lord had in store for him.

Because isn’t the message of our faith—when death comes then resurrection can follow?

82bd95d2e016693bdeda5fbe78befc16And in the case of Isaiah, this is what we can assume: his larger than life figure, this idol even had to die so that the new things of God could come. Death needed to come so that he could have EYES to see the glorious thing that was about to happen to him.

For Isaiah was about to have an opportunity to SEE something that few of living human beings ever get to see— “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty.” He was going to taste the heavenly glory as he saw seraphs attending about the Lord crying to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of host; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

It was the definition of an awesome experience if there was ever one. And Isaiah got it.

And in this awesome experience, Isaiah was about to get a calling to be prophet to a nation in crisis and be asked to respond. The Lord would ask him, “Who shall I send and who will go for us?”

Isaiah would then find the words to say, “Here am I: send me!”

And I believe that none of this would have happened if a death, a loss, a separation, hadn’t happened first. The death prepared Isaiah for all the new life to come!

The thing is that so many of us say with our lips that we “want to see God” or “we want to have more of God in our lives” or even that “we want fresh life in our church.” But we don’t really know what we’re asking for when we make such declarations.

For if we really want to see God, then, my friends, the news I have for all of us today is that death has got to come first.

It’s Trinity Sunday and my favorite time of year to pull out my favorite quote from Annie Dillard’s book Teaching a Stone to Talk who says this about the presence of God:

“It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

Our holy, holy, holy God full of power and might and just does not reveal Him or Herself to anybody. We have to be ready for it.

Something got to give. And it’s not going to be from God. It’s got to come from us.

We’ve got to be cleared of distractions.

We’ve got to let go of what exalted images of ourselves.

We’ve got to relinquish our sacred cows of the way things have always been.

And then the new calls, new experiences of God will come.

Recently, I read a book called, He Leadeth Me that tells the story of Walter Ciszek, an American priest who follow himself living and working in Russia at the time of the second World War.

It was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time because it gets at the heart of what relationship with God is about—surrender.

After begin taking captive in Russia and spending several years in solitary confinement waiting on his sentence for crimes he did not commit, he begins to realize that the only way he was going to survive was to let go of his own expectations of his life. Even though he’d lost so much, it just seemed like new deaths were coming all the time as his freedom was slowly taken away bit by bit.

Though he could have viewed what happened to him as unfair or unjust, he came to this conclusion: “For each of us, the trials will come in different ways and at different times--- for some, self may be easier to overcome than others—but we were created to do God’s will and not our own, to make our own wills conform to [God’s] and not visa versa.”

Or simply stated—Walter learned he needed to embrace death, loss and grief in his life so that God’s radical grace could take hold in his being more powerfully, so that even in prison he could more fully live!

So this is the truth I have to offer you today: if we want to see God, then death of what we want has got to come first.

You and I aren’t not the authors of our own lives—as much as we try to be, or want to be, or hope to be.

This doesn’t sound too much like good news this morning, does it?

But remember the title of the sermon again—a good death.

You might imagine when I was poking Kevin to help me with a sermon illustration I would not settle for his answer of Hitler. “Come on Kevin,” I said. “You’re smart, help me think of another good death.”

To which he looked me in the eyes and said, “Jesus.”

I smiled and thought to myself, “Duh. Of course Jesus.” (Why did I not think of that?)

For this is our faith we proclaim today my friends, that though death came to Jesus it was not the whole story. He arose! So, as we follow our resurrected Lord, our lives can have good deaths too. The lose of the best job we ever had doesn’t have to undo us. The lose of the dearest friend we’d ever known doesn’t have to undo us. The lose of the closeness of relationship with a child of ours doesn’t have to undo us.

No because we can believe that resurrection is on its way. Nothing is out of the realm of God’s redemption, my friend. Nothing. All things can be made new.

Death just has to come first. Though sorrow may last for the night, joy comes in the morning. And for this we can say thanks to God with hope.

AMEN

A Sermon Preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK on Luke 24:13-33

There’s a country song by Miranda Lambert that I became familiar with several years ago. I loved when it first came on the radio because it reminded me so much of the small town in Georgia where Kevin grew up and we were married. Maybe the words of, “Famous in a Small Town” might remind you of what it’s like to live in Weatherford.

I dreamed of going to Nashville
Put my money down and placed my bet
But I just got the first buck of the season
I made the front page of the Turner "Town Gazette"

Tyler and Casey broke up
It ended pretty quietly
We heard he was caught red-handed with her mama
That's just what they let us all believe

Every last one, route one, rural heart's got a story to tell
Every grandma, in law, ex girlfriend
Maybe knows you just a little too well
Whether you're late for church or you're stuck in jail
Hey words gonna get around
Everybody dies famous in a small town.

And if any of these words call to mind experiences you’ve had, then you’re right on track for understanding the mood of our gospel lesson for this morning. For in a small town outside of Jerusalem, word had gotten around town and somebody named Jesus just died famous.

And so, on Easter evening, it was all the talk at the local gathering places. It was all the talk at the village market. It was all the talk as the kids began to stir again after they’ve were cooped up by their parents during the Passover festival for days.

It was all the talk as two men, one who we know as Cleopas and the other without a name travel on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Jesus had just died and there was so much gossip to sort through!

But, as is with any good gossip, you don’t know exactly what to do with what you hear.Whose word do you believe the most?

And it all got all the murkier when another traveler started walking beside them. He overhears their conversation and approaches them with the question, “What are you discussing with each other while you were walking along?”

The travelers having no idea that Jesus—the man who had supposedly died—is among them. So Cleopas answers him saying, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

Or in other words, “Have you not been on Jerusalem’s Facebook page? Didn’t you see the nightly news? Have you not read the newspaper? EVERYONE knows what happened to Jesus . . .” the man who was mighty in deed and word before God and all people, the man that we hoped would be the one who would redeem Israel” but is no longer with us.

Oh, kind sir, do you live under a rock??

It’s a great sketch for a comedy show, isn’t it?

But Jesus plays along, listening carefully until it was his turn to speak. He’s got a lot to say, though not what you might think. Jesus does not tell the men who is. But, rather, he begins his teaching session.

I can imagine that these two disciples were pretty smart guys. The traditions of ancient scripture meant something to them. They’d heard these stories before. And they were all ears!

He walks these two through all the prophecies of old beginning with Moses. He carefully outlines for them how the prophecies foretold the coming a Messiah who would endure suffering and death but would rise again. He enlivens their hopes with the joyous possibilities that Jesus could be alive!

Just like some of us might feel going to a convention or a conference in our chosen profession, surrounded by thousands of people who think and engage the world like us, so these disciples were “geeking out” on Jesus. They could not get enough of what he was saying! Being with such a wise teacher with such a commanding presence was just so sweet! They wanted to learn as much as they could. So that when they finally reached their destination, they didn’t want their night with Jesus to end.

I know the feeling don’t you? Being engulfed in a conversation that you wish could go on forever or at least late into the night.

As for the disciples, they try to come up with whatever they can to keep things going longer! Verse 29 tells us that “they urged [Jesus] strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us’” And so Jesus did.

He stays for supper and joins them for a meal because what resurrection brought was conversation.

Conversation that was beyond the superficial stuff we normally fill the airwaves with the most—

“I am making chicken for dinner with a new recipe I just saw online” and “I bought a really nice pair of shoes today on sale.”

Conservation that was beyond the stuff we talk about when we think we’re talking about something more important—

“My son is was offered a new job last week that will give his family more financial security” and “Retirement really does suit me; I like not having to get up early in the mornings.”

Conversation that was beyond even the stuff we talk about in religious circles—

“We need to pray for so and so who is sick” and “I really liked that Bible study. Can we do something like that again?”

No, the conversation between the two disciples and Jesus that day was a heart to heart. It was conversation that touched tender points of discouragement, dreams and fears within their souls. It was a conversation that they needed answers on and needed answers now. For their beloved teacher had died and nothing would ever feel the same without him.

So, what really did all of this news around town mean?Jesus gave answers that were profound and like none they’d ever heard. And it was a lot to take in—so much so that they were in the dark about the LIGHT walking alongside of them for most of the talk until . . .

POOF! They all sat down together at the table, broke bread (which has a lot of unspoken allusions to our communion meal) and verse 31 tells us that “Their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”

Jesus vanishes—for his conversation task was over.

And we see the significance of what just occurred as the disciples respond to what has just happened to them.

They say: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

I resonate so deeply with this verse of scripture because I feel so much it’s what my work as pastor/ preacher is all about. If I am going to be a leader who helps a congregation have an experience with Jesus then I’ll know that I’ve done my job if they reflect back to me a version of your “hearts burning within you” story while I’ve been teaching.

I also resonate with me because I feel my own faith journey is rooted in conversation. I am who I am because of the countless folks I’ve encountered in my life who felt enough conviction about their faith to talk to me about it.

And in everyday life, when you and I break bread together or enjoy a cup of coffee and I can share my stories with you and be heard with empathy and you can share your stories with me and be heard with compassion—then to me this is a Road to Emmaus experience. We both learn something new for the journey. Why? Because Jesus is present! And what’s better than that?

But as much as I share my excitement for conversation with you this morning, I also know that for some of you it’s not your style.

You speak when spoken to. You share your deepest thoughts to someone maybe once a year. And a room full of people having conversation about a book or a faith experience makes you want to run for the hills and not come back till the room is cleared out. (And I affirm you though I might not understand you as much as I do the sharers).

But, if we are going to be Easter people, if we are going to be people—all of us who are following Jesus and experiencing Jesus’ resurrection power along the way, then the question is who are we going to talk to about it?

Because my friends, when resurrection comes to your life and mine, and I mean, mind boggling, I can’t believe this is happening, I never thought this was possible kind of new life resurrection, then you can’t NOT talk about it. It’s just too good news to share!

Jesus was alive and he couldn’t not converse with these disciples about the good news!

The disciples loved Jesus and they couldn’t not converse with one another about all that Jesus had meant in their lives!

And for all of us who’ve had a resurrection experience, we can’t not talk about it with each other.

When I was in Christian History class in seminary, one particular saint story caught my attention and it came from the life of Teresa of Avila.

Teresa, if you don’t know about her was a nun within the 15th century. Her writings like “The Inner Castle” make famous her mystical experiences of God in prayer. Teresa is a “straight from the hip” kind of saint especially on matters of prayer and what being in the presence of God feels like. In her time, people thought she was crazy sometimes because she endured great bouts of depression and sadness. But regardless of what others said about her “resurrection experiences” she was authentic voice during a difficult time in the church. She eventually became known as a great church reformer, though not given any recognition for such during her lifetime.

And this is one of her famous prayers: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Isn’t it just beautiful?

Though we might be afraid to talk about what God is doing in our lives, Christ has no body now in this place and time than yours.

Though we might not want to be perceived as the “overly religious one” in a group as the one who stops to pray when something good happens, Christ has no hands on earth but yours.

2004-08-08 13.12.58

Though we might not want to offend someone by bringing up the good news of what is happening in our church to someone who hasn’t been here in a while, Christ has no feet on earth but yours.

And I say all of this with an understanding of the context where I am preaching. This is Oklahoma. Christianity is everywhere. People pray before meals at restaurants all the time. People talk about this and that event with their church all the time. People quote Bible verses in places of secular business all the time.

I’m not talking about any of that.

I’m talking about the stuff of our lives that is deep and profound. The stuff that keeps you and me up at night. The worries that trouble our souls and make us want to weep—all the stuff that the disciples had at the forefront of their minds on the road to Emmaus that day.

When that stuff bubbles up and when God does a work in you or you’re desperate for God to change something in you, then you’ve got to talk about it.

Resurrection is not a silent way of life. It’s a vocal one.

It’s a way of life that comes not only in words but gestures of the heart, gestures like invitations to dinner. Gestures like long meals unrushed toward what comes next. Gestures like speaking truth when it wells up in our throats, “Were not our hearts burning within us while we talked?”

So, my friends, Christ has no body on earth but yours—so if we want our message of God’s love and acceptance for all to spread, then let’s start talking!

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed! We've got a great story to tell as it unfolds in you and me!

AMEN

Every year when I was a preaching pastor, I felt the anxiety rise the closer we got to Easter Sunday morning.

The expectations. The crowds. The desire of the people to hear something new and meaningful.

Though I had a mentor once tell me don't sweat it, just tell the story. The problem is that everyone already knows the story: Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. The women came to the tomb. They were afraid. They go tell the male disciples. They don't believe them. Yet, everything changes for the world on this Sunday morning. Death has been beat. New life is possible. Jesus is alive!

The last time I preached Easter in 2012,  I was over the Easter hoopla. I found myself fixated on the idea that resurrection is much more complicated than super happy hymns and families coming together in a church pew. Resurrection is hard work, I said. I ended by encouraging the congregation to not choose a resurrection path unless they were ready for their lives to be turned upside down. Because we need to remember what got Jesus to Easter morning: death!

On the way home this particular Sunday, Kevin told me that my sermon was a real downer. He wanted to know: "Where was the lighthearted mood from the pulpit?" But, I stood by what I said. Sermons are always about proclamations for a moment in time and that is where I was.

This week, I've been wondering if I were preaching Easter this year, what would it be about?

I'd land a bit more on the side of pro-Easter celebratory joy this year.  Not because I am any less aware of how cruel and harsh the realities of life are. And most certainly not because I've come to believe that resurrection's moments in our lives are any less work.

Rather, I would preach in this way because life is so difficult. I have come to believe that life's problems make Easter's joy so important.

For we all need days in our year (and in our liturgical calendar at church) to remember what it looks and feels like when hope comes, when grace surprises us, and as the old hymn goes "when love's redeeming work is done."

If I were preaching Easter this year, I would do so with full voice and lots of exclamation points written into my sermon manuscript.

In many ways I would be forcing upon myself a joy that isn't all there, but I would do it anyway because to follow Jesus is to claim our status as Easter people.

I would preach that we have to cling to good when it comes.

I would preach that the greatest good that ever came to the world was Jesus.

I would preach that even when we are bearing our crosses, we serve a God who can make all things new.

Most of all I would preach that love never fails. It's what sustains us all our days-- the good and the bad alike.

I would ask the congregation to rejoice. For it is the day that the Lord has given us to especially rejoice.

But because I'm not preaching in a congregation this year, I leave my Easter musings with you.

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed! Let us be glad-- even if it is just for today. AMEN

I Want to Know Christ
Philippians 3:7-11
Preached: August 11, 2013, Martin Luther King Christian Church, Reston, VA

I always knew when I was younger that one day I’d want to be married. I would want to have a life partner—someone in whom I could share in all of life’s most memorable moments with and one day grow old beside.

By my teenaged years, I had expectations on how this might happen—mostly coming from the stories I’d heard from how my parents met.

From the time that I was small, when my sister and I would ask my mom about how she met my dad, she’d tell us about the day that she stood in registration line on her first day at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. As she waited her turn to sign up for her classes, her last name was Duncan and my father to-be was Evans, so naturally they found themselves in the same line—the D-E’s. And there they struck up a conversation and the beginnings of a friendship that led to a marriage began.

So, I too thought if I wanted to get married, all I’d have to do was go to college. And there on the first week would I meet the man who would make me his Mrs.

I’d arrive at college and bam! I’d walk on campus and say “Hello fine young men!” And, he’d be there.

Well— you can imagine how great this “bright” plan of mine worked out!

I was shy at the time and really didn’t like going out of my comfort zone of who invited me to tag along with them. I saturated myself in an all-girlfriend kind of community—eating, studying and going to the movies with girlfriends, not boys. I guess it kept me out of trouble, but that was about it.

Even still, I thought without any work, effort or sacrifice Mr. Right would make himself known to me: the man I most wanted to know and marry one day. In my head, I imagined he’d just knock on my door one day, introduce himself, we’d date and then we could just get on with our really happy lives.

Yes, I said I wanted to be in a relationship. But, no, I didn’t try to get to know any new young men.

Well—you know how that went. I didn’t really date anyone for the next four years.

When many of us think of our relationship with Christ, we approach it in a similar way that I did with dating in college. We say that we want to grow.

We say that we want to have a relationship with Christ that is vibrant.

But, we get stuck.

We get stuck in a version of faith that closely models what we were taught in children’s Sunday School back in 2nd grade children’s church.

We get stuck on the faith we observed in our grandparents but never truly made our own.

We get stuck when the most difficult life situations find us—throwing in all our cards and say, “Well, there must not really be a God. Because if there was a God this bad situation would not be happening to me!”

We get stuck even though most all of us understand this basic truth:

To be a Christian is to what? Follow Christ.

But we equate knowing Christ with church membership—showing up regularly on Sundays.

We equate knowing Christ with having hope of eternal life—resting on the fact that we know where we’ll go one day when we die.

We equate knowing Christ with doing unto others as we would have it done unto us—being a good person because that is how Jesus showed us to live when he was on earth.

And, while all of this is well and good and there’s noting wrong with any of these things, faith of that depends only on these sort of things becomes a sideline only type of faith. Yes, we say with our lips that we are a Christian but there’s no movement in our lives toward the direction of who Jesus actually was.

We say we are following Jesus but our life looks nothing like His did.

The apostle Paul has a few words to share with us about this found in his letter to the Philippian church. It’s a book of Paul clearly laying his feelings about how much this congregation meant to him and what he wanted Christ to be in his life.

It’s a book that Paul wrote from jail—during what was most likely the end of his life, a time when we was saying the things that he most wanted to say.

In fact, scholars feel that the book of Philippians is in fact that the book the one they are most sure that Paul wrote by hand. Put simply, Philippians is Paul’s heart put to paper.

And within this context we hear the Apostle Paul say, “But whatever was to my profit, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” And then he goes on to say in verse 10: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering, becoming like him in his death.”

These are familiar words. If we’ve been around church awhile, we’ve heard them a lot. We may just gloss over them with our ears thinking we understand already what they mean. Following Jesus is about death and resurrection . . . Ok, preacher, I’ve got that.

But pause with me for a moment.

Paul is elevating the supremacy of Christ by saying “whatever was to his profit (as we know from his life story that he used to be a very righteous law-abiding Jew), he now considers loss for the sake of Christ.”

But not only this, Paul says that he wants to know Christ in two particular ways.

The first is that he wants to know the power of Christ’s resurrection. And the second, is that Paul wants the fellowship of sharing in his suffering.

(Have congregation REPEAT).

Do you hear what we just said?

Paul says to know Christ is not what most of us think knowing Christ is about.

I heard nothing about joining a church. I heard nothing about having correct theology. I heard nothing about reading the Bible and praying so many hours a week. Or any sort of easy or straight forward task that any of us could just snap our fingers and achieve.

Paul says, “I want to know the power of Christ’s resurrection” and “ I want the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings.”

I’ve been struck by the simplicity and the profound nature of these two qualifiers over the past couple of weeks.

Paul tells us it is only about two things: resurrection and suffering. But, these aren’t small things . . .

Let’s start with resurrection. Resurrection is the word that most of us associate with the Easter season, isn’t it?

On Easter Sunday morning we sing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and “Up from the Grave He Arose” and we talk about how almost and amazing it is that Christ defeated the powers of sin and death and so we too can live forever more. It’s a happy day isn’t it? Full of bright flower dresses and new hats and lots of joy . . .

So following Jesus about resurrection—that might sound easy enough, right? We just have to show up in our Sunday best! Huh? Wrong!

Do we not remember all the stories that followed that bright Easter morning?

The stories of the men afraid in their scandals hiding in the upper room not believing the news that the women brought them about the empty tomb.

The stories of women like Mary finding Jesus in the garden outside the tomb holding so tightly on to Jesus that Jesus had to reprimand her saying: “Don’t cling to me.”

The stories of the disciples like Peter, filled with shame and grief having to have a conversation over and over again with Jesus about what he needed to do going forward at the seashore.

Resurrection is not about instant beauty or perfect circumstances. Resurrection is a process. Resurrection is a slow transformative process.

And while yes, resurrection is about new life and hope; its birth is not an easy process. Resurrection rattles of the foundations of what is normal, what is comfortable and most certainly what we might have expected before it comes.

It’s the power that dismantles every other power in our life that controls us, keeps us in bondage, or has any pull at all over our lives.

To want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection is much like a story that author Annie Dillard tells.

When speaking of the resurrection power of our Lord, she gives this advice:

“It is madness [for} ladies’ [to wear] straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. [Instead of passing out bulletins,] Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
To say that you want to know Christ is to be ready for resurrection power to shake your life upside down.

And in the same way, Paul also says that he wants to share in the fellowship of his Christ’s sufferings. To know Christ is to know Christ’s sufferings.

Sufferings . . . if you are like me, it’s never good when a sentence starts with this word is it? I hate suffering, what about you?

Suffering involves change not only in the way that resurrection is about change, but it is about pain and how pain changes us. Blood, sweat and tears as the saying goes. . . .

To know Christ, Paul says, we have to be ready to suffer.

To follow Christ is not to sign up for a ticket to life happiness (as some tv preachers—you know who they are might tell you) but it is to accept that in life, no matter how good we think we are, difficult situations are going to find us.

And in fact, the particular the MORE we begin to align our lives in the direction of Christ’s teachings, then the more we are going to get push back from the world.

It is as if Paul is saying, start following Christ and then get ready, because pain is going to come!

It’s going to be pain you or I didn’t ask for, didn’t make happen, or even is not the fault of our poor choices.

May I just take liberty to say that following Jesus sometimes means somebody is going to tell lies about us, somebody whom we love might leave us, or maybe even one day we are going to wake up and realize that our life has to take a completely different life path with some really hard choices.

And it’s going to hurt!

Even more so, people might just steal our clothes, spit on us, speak all kinds of ill against us, and our stands for Jesus might even cost us our very lives. If it happened to Jesus, then why do we think it won’t happen to us?

Suffering is just part of the commitment.

I ask you church, do you still want to know Christ?

I began my sermon with this morning telling you that as a child I dreamed of getting married one day.

Well when I was in seminary, God answer such a prayer and brought into my life an amazing life partner named Kevin Hagan who would be God’s instrument of love, challenge and encouragement to me for all that lied ahead.

And all was well and great and all—you know things were going fine. A year and a half ago, Kevin was working on the leadership team of a non-profit in Alexandria and I was happy over there at Washington Plaza—until Kevin got a call one day that would lead to another call and then a visit and then another visit where he would be named the President of Feed The Children that just so happened to be in Oklahoma.

And you can imagine as excited as I was for this opportunity for Kevin, how I felt about that—Oklahoma.

I told Kevin, “They don’t like my kind of outspoken female pastor-ness out there.” His optimist self said, “Give it a try.”

And now after I’ve been out there part-time for 6 months I can say indeed my assumptions were right. They don’t like my kind. And Oklahoma is a 22 hour drive away from here. It can feel very lonely. And there have been many tears in our household as much as there have been celebratory moments of all the new experiences.

We have to be careful what we pray for.

Sometimes God’s biggest blessings to us can also come with pain. Sometimes God’s biggest blessings can involve resurrection that forces our world-view upside down.

And it is a process.

Notice with me that Paul said, “I want to know Christ.”

NOT, “I know Christ” or “I know Christ already.”

Paul is exhorting us by example to A PROCESS of knowing the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings.

Even for Paul it was never something he achieved or arrived at, it was about a relationship of wanting to know Christ more every day.

The last time I did a class preparing persons for baptism. I started the session by asking them if they were ready to die? “Have you lost your mind, Pastor?” their eyes said back to me in response.

And no, it wasn’t some sort of “hell fire and brimstone” are you sure you are saved sort of line of questioning. And no I had not lost my mind. I was serious. Were they ready to die?

Because as baptized believers who are desiring to know Christ, what we believe being immersed under the water and then coming back up symbolize the fact that we are dying to ourselves and being raised to a new kind of life.

The Christian life—at least as the Apostle Paul saw it was about death to our normal human experience. It was about the power of resurrection and sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings.

So I ask you church today, do you want to know Christ?

Do you want to walk in Jesus’ footsteps?

If you answer is yes, then I say, hold on for the ride of your life—for it will be a journey filled with the power of the resurrection AND the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings.

For those who commit afresh today to this way of dying to self and living for Christ, let the church say (AMEN).

When the World Doesn't Look the Same

Easter 2012: Mark 16:1-8

I don't know if you are like me, but when I make my choices in entertainment, especially in movies, one of my favorite weekend pastimes, there is only major requirement I have.

And that is: I like a good endings. I hope for  loose ends tied up. I want an ending where I feel like the story I've invested my 10, 12 or in some cases $15 was well spent. The alternative to this often is frustrating isn't it?  Investing hours of your time into a storyline, only to be disappointed in the end that you don't know what happens!  Stories that don't end in the imprisonment of all the bad guys, kissing and making up for all the "they are so perfect for each other couples" and the most hopeless of characters coming to their senses and making some good choices: I simply don't like them.

We go to movies to escape the drudgery, the monotony and the unsettling parts of our lives and so "happy endings" in somebody else's life seem to be such a big part of it. Without all plot lines settled in the end, we feel gypped.

In the same spirit, if we came to church this Easter morning hoping for a proclamation of the gospel where all was well in paradise, where we get the 100% perfect happy ending that we've been waiting for throughout the Lenten season, I have sad news for you.  In Mark's account of the resurrection story, we don't get it. We are left with a cliff hanging end of unforeseeable proportions. Without some further exploration of this text, we might feel like we are missing our Easter ending too.   

Though we read of the stone being rolled away, Jesus not being in the tomb and the angel appearing to the women saying, "Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here" which calls for us to shout words of joy, "Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed" Mark's account gives us no tidy ending. In fact, we are left with response that most preachers like to avoid at the end of verse 8.  The women, who heard, the news, "went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

Though there's this amazing, all-inspiring story of Jesus not being in the grave and an angel, yes dressed in a white robe telling Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome that Jesus was not there.  . .

And though the good news that Jesus had been predicting all along in his years of teaching and preaching-- that yes, I'll be crucified but on the 3rd day, I'll arise from the grave-- is coming true . . . Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed).

And  though the women are told specifically in verse seven, "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" and are given everything they need to take the next step . .

Scripture tells us that the women do nothing. They do nothing. For it is in terror and amazement of what has happened that these women say nothing.

Jesus does his part. The angel did his part. And the women were given the opportunity to respond and follow the orders. But they don't.

And for this reason, all seems lost. All seems ruined. How about this story for a happy Easter, celebration! It is a real downer, right?

Seems like a complete sour kind of ending doesn't it?

Such is why countless translators through the years have sought to insert an alternative ending to Mark chapter 16. If you have your Bible with you open it to Mark 16 now (or if not make a note to do so when you go home today). What you will notice is the presence of section of scripture that is known as the "alternative ending."

And though most of Bible translations contain these sections, almost all Biblical scholars agree that the addition of Jesus' resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene, to the two believers traveling along the road, the giving of the Great Commission and the ascension story were all most likely added 200 years later. For none of the earliest gospel manuscripts contain them.  In fact, if we study the original Greek as it flows from verses 1-8 and then verses 9-20, we find distinct changes in tone and tense of verbs. All in all, in all thoughtfulness, we can assume that Mark meant to end his gospel at verse 8.

But what a shame! It would be so much easier to have verses 9-20 to get the happy ending that we all crave.  It would be nice to have the later commentary on the story because it wouldn't force us to talk about resurrection in terms of how the women experienced it-- in terror and amazement.

It seems so un-church-like doesn't it to think about Easter in this way? Shouldn't have the women been shouting, "Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!" to all their friends? Shouldn't they been overjoyed to share Jesus, their teacher wasn't dead? Shouldn't have they been able to recognize in an instant how this proclamation was going to change their lives-- for if Jesus had conquered death, didn't that mean something good for them too?

But none of this was clear. None of it.

And although some Biblical commentators want to stop us at this point and make parallels between the response of the male disciples (all of those guys who fled the scene and didn't stay with Jesus at the cross) and the female disciples (saying, hey the women messed up too-- see women weren't up to the task of following Jesus either)-- I believe all of this thinking completely misses the point.

Because, really the resurrection was a lot to take in. More than these women could have ever imagined on the adventure of following Jesus.

I ask you this morning-- have you ever had an experience in your life that surprised the heck out of you? I mean, really, really surprised you in a mind-blowing, "I never saw this coming" kind of way?  An experience that maybe you hoped for or even prayed for but never thought in a million years would actually come true?

Well, if you have, then, I believe that you understand how truly bewildering it was for the women to find the empty tomb that early morn.

Sure, they'd heard Jesus mentioned this was going to happen. Sure, maybe even they'd been around at the home of Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus was raised. But, deep in their hearts, it was hard to believe that such was going to happen to their beloved teacher and friend. No, Jesus couldn't rise again. No way! Resurrection wasn't natural. No way. Death was a final event after all. We are born, we live and we die. It is just what human beings do. How could Jesus not be in the tomb?

Eyes crusted over. Hair uncombed. Shoes on but going through the motions of walking yet not quite sure where they were going.  Tears stains still on their cheeks. Tears in their eyes ready for water works to pour at anytime as the simplest of words of memories ever-present to set them off again.  The flood of shame, of uncertainty, of anger of loss: why did this happen to their Jesus?

They were lost in a sea of unanswered questions, of last words that should have been said, that needed to be said. They were caught up in the power of grief as it came to strike them and sought to bury them too in pain that was more than they knew how to bear.

Of course they were in shock. So of course they were afraid.

One commentator even unofficially diagnoses the women with what we know in modern times as post traumatic stress-- both from the trauma of the crucifixion and of the jarring news to their tear stained faces that indeed Jesus was not there. Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed.  It was such good news that they just couldn't take it all end. The women were speechless.

If you happen to be a fan of YouTube, you might already be familiar with a video of Sarah Churman that has gotten millions of hits since its posting in September of last year. Sarah was born with a rare genetic deformity that means she’s missing the hair in her inner ear that transmits sound to the brain. She was fitted with her first hearing aid at age 2, but even with that technology she could only hear some vibrations and loud noises. She compensated throughout her life by becoming adept at reading people’s lips. She’d worked so hard to compensate in other ways; the thought of being able to hear just seemed out of the realm of possibility

But in late 2011, Sarah was fitted with a device called the Esteem Inner Ear Stimulator, an implantable hearing aid for the specific kind of hearing loss Sarah suffered. On the popular YouTube video, you can see a video of Sarah Churnam hearing for the very first time at age 29.

I have to say that it is quite moving to watch. As Sarah hears for the very first time her own voice: her laugh, her tears, the sounds of others around her, it's a reality she never could have imagined, not under any circumstances, not in any amount of time.  Not in her wildest dreams did she ever believe such would come true, but it does. And in response, she weeps. And weeps and weeps.

Imagine hearing for the first time the sound of her husband. Imagine hearing the chatter of your child for the first time.  Imagine all of this.

And when it happens, Sarah is stuck dead in her tracks for minutes, upon minutes. Smiling. Full of joy but paralyzed to move toward anything at first. Sarah's life would never be the same.

And, likewise, paralyzed in their tracks too the women who heard the news of the resurrection were overwhelmed too. Everything they knew, believed and staked their lives on? changed.

Resurrection of their Lord begged them to consider.  What if Jesus was the real deal: God with us? What if Jesus' healings all those years had really come from God?  What if the kingdom of God, the abundant life they'd be hoping for was real?

Resurrection clouded their view from what had always been. Resurrection shifted their gaze from their own pain to what God could do in their pain, how God could restore their broken spirits. Above all, resurrection meant they were going to have to spend some time re-learning the stories on which they'd based their life.

What if the end was not the end?

What if new life could come from the most unlikely of places?

What if God could be trusted to care, and protect and guide them their entire life through and beyond too?

And, what if God trusted them so much and all of the Christ followers to come-- like us-- to keep the story going?

What if the ending was not about Jesus saying or doing this or that, but people like us being a part of the world not being the same?

Then, if resurrection was real,  everything was going to have to change.  No more shrinking into the back of the crowds. No more taking the worst news at face value. No more being a second class citizen. No more being exclusive of people who looked just like them. No more.  In resurrection the world did not look the same.

And, though the ending of Mark's gospel is still an unresolved cliff hanger, so we want to ask ourselves, what did the women do next? How long were they afraid? How long did they not say anything to anyone? With our 2000 year plus perspective,  history tells us the rest of the story. And the rest of the story is that we know the story.  We know the story because eventually they did tell the story. And upon each telling and re-telling of the good news: "Christ is risen; Christ is risen indeed" the world never looked the same. We are living the story now.

I know this morning, I'm telling most of you a story that is not unfamiliar to you at all. In fact, you hear it every year. You've sure got Jesus is risen thing down. You know it well. You could recite it to a friend easily, just like I did with the children sermon this morning.

But, what I wonder is resurrection real for you, more than just a word that floats off your tongue in the spring time? I need to tell you today that resurrection, my friends, is not a noun and just an excuse to have a holiday celebrate, but it is a verb that asks of us action. And it is a verb that is meant to be inserted into the sentences of our lives not only on days like today but throughout all the moments of our lives.

We are called to action because of the gift of the resurrection. We are called to the action of being storytellers of the change. To be active bearers of this good story to our families to our friends, to our communities, to anyone who will listen.

At times, this story as each and everyone one of us experiences it, is going to overwhelm us. Sure, we might just have to be quiet for awhile in awe of what life altering news might do to our plans. Sure, we might even have to do some running away from time to time to get the  enormity of emotions out of our system so we can begin to act on what we see and feel.

But, regardless our call is to tell. Our call is to be the story. Our call is to keep writing and writing the chapters of the gospel tale so that the goodness of Jesus Christ that we've experienced it can be experienced by others too.   

Today: I tell you because of the resurrection, we've got chapters to write together, we've got a story to finish. Come again next week because we've got to live out resurrection together.

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed!

AMEN

Today, Whitney Houston took me to church.

This afternoon from 12 noon- 4 pm I watched the entire Whitney Houston funeral via the life stream. By the end, as her body left the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey while Whitney's version of "I Will Always Loved You" played, I was in tears. I couldn't believe how moved I became or how not restless I was through the entire service.

Initially, I sat down to watch the service out of pure vocational obligation-- when religion holds a promote place in the public square (i.e. a church service is featured prominently on national tv) I feel it is my pastoral responsiblity to watch. But, I kept watching because of the poignant, faith-filled words and that the most unlikely of preachers and speakers brought to the gathering.

Though I am a child of the 80s and grew up dancing around the house with a hairbrush singing, "I Want to Dance with Somebody," I wouldn't have not considered myself a die-hard Whitney fan. In fact, have been among the folks who have stood back during the media spectacle of the past week saying under my breath, "What is all this fuss about? It's not like we knew her personally." But, maybe all of us just thought we did.

The bright light of fame begins to convince us, with any well-known celebrity, that we are their friend too. It is easy to believe that we too grew up on their same street as a child, shared a coffee meeting with them last week or in some cases, or that we've read journals of their deepest thoughts. With such a bright light, it's true, I like millions of others, I believed too, that I knew Whitney (even though such is of course false).  Even with all the illusions of a celebrity's passing, death is death. And, death evokes sadness. When death comes too soon, when mothers bury daughters, when teenage daughters face life without their mothers, and when the future seems spoiled in the questions of "what could have been?" we cry.  What a daughter, what a mother, and what a voice that we'll never hear in this life again!

In this grief, all of us went to church.

As the sermon began, Rev. Marvin Winans, a family friend, commented how much he respected Cissy Houston (Whitney's mom's) leadership in bringing the funeral to her childhood church. While pressure in the planning process intensified to include a large public concert or memorial service, Mama Houston (as they called her) stuck to her gut. Knowing that her baby was brought into the world in church, she'd need to go from the world from it too.  And, Marvin Winans, went on to say to Cissy directly, "You were responsible for bringing the world to church today."

And for the entire four hours of non-interrupted television on CNN, we, as onlookers, sat with grief of a music icon gone with God's hope of resurrection given at the center. 

From Tyler Perry really getting into a message about grace leading us our life through, as it did for Whitney to Kevin Costner describing their shared Baptist upbringing and abiding friendship, to family members and other business associates highlighting Whitney's spiritual compass and love of scripture, even with all of the demons she went to battle with: it was church. The funeral was authentic, life-giving, straight talking, love filled, church. For me, it was four hours well spent of  spirit filled connection with God with other faith seekers-- nevermind how famous, affluent, poor or unknown they may be. Together in person, on cable news, or via the internet, we went to church.

In this trip to church, the spirit from which this service flowed represented for me the best of what this place can be:

Thank you Whitney for taking us to church today. The spirit of the life you lead, the legacy you left behind, and the faith that carried you (even when life seemed like too big of load to carry you sought to keep going and learning from your mistakes) uplifted our hearts. And, though we will miss you in this life, we know this after church today: your spirit soars on praise of your Creator. Can I get an Amen?