The Good Shepherd, Sheep, and a Sty

4th Sunday of Easter (John10:11-18; Psalm23; 1John3:16-24)
Two images for this sermon and this Good Shepherd Sunday. First, John Muir began seeking to protect Yosemite first because it was being over-grazed by sheep, eating the place bare. Second, at the Leadership Retreat a week ago, while Tim was teaching, a small voice came from the back of the room: “Big Tim! Big Tim! I just used the potty!” (Three-year-old Ned Redmann)

Let’s clear this up straightaway: We are the sheep. And that means you are not the Shepherd.

That’s a reminder because we tend to picture ourselves as take-charge folks, as independent thinkers, as self-made men (and, indeed, this is too often the dominant, domineering, sexist, so-called “manly” way of thinking and self-made women somehow don’t even get a category). We imagine we know best in looking out for our own interest or think we are generally pretty caring and kind.

But when Jesus says, “I AM the good shepherd,” it means that you are not. We are at best bad shepherds. That gets reiterated all too frequently through scripture, where shepherding was the symbol of rulers, and those rulers tended to be bad shepherds, neglecting the flocks in their care. We’d quickly admit, biblical precedent is right and it’s not just an ancient problem to have self-interested leaders lacking concern for their constituents.

Opposed to bad shepherds, then, we might presume it’s good to be a sheep, at least being fluffy and cute. But the more defining characteristic of sheep is that they go astray following their appetites. Sheep continue grazing, face in the ground, and end up getting lost while they’ve been focused only on filling their bellies. The prophet Ezekiel uses this imagery to accuse us of butting each other out of the way and muddying the waters with our feet, damaging it for those who come after us. We trample and foul it up for others, he says. (see Ezekiel 34) We’re greedy.

This is where we are really sheepish, not to use that term for being shy but for being self-absorbed and ravenous and inattentive to our surroundings. It’s bad enough that we’re making a mess, or to use a good crass version, we’re defecating where we eat; we pollute the place that supplies our wellbeing. The larger systemic ecological problem is that our selfishness also causes harm to the poor people of the planet and to other life trying to survive and future generations of our families and any other creature. We sheep are messing up the place and making it unlivable.

While we’re hanging around these thoughts of the tail-end of a sheep and noticing just how much this all stinks, this is a perfect time to re-examine a word that, I think, gets misinterpreted or elevated to sound more special than it should. The word is “stewardship.” It seems to me that we picture being a steward as something holy, church-y, trying to act like God, which we mistake to mean being important and in charge.

Yet this word begins with a very specific context, and that’s where the meaning of our faith also dwells. See, the word “steward” comes from the Old English “sty-warden,” meaning one who kept the sty, spending their time cleaning up after sheep and pigs and all the livestock filth. So a steward isn’t a big boss or nice maître d’. Stewards cared for crap, and hung out amid the stink, knee deep in it.

So your holy and pious vocation, the noblest calling from God, isn’t to elevate you above the mess, but to get a shovel and get to work. Though you may notice that my main expertise only involves a pooper scooper, that I haven’t done a whole lot of barn work, I’m going to continue speaking authoritatively on “duty.” With that, I can tell you that Martin Luther looked at your lowly life and identified it as a highly important role, stamped with more divine approval than being a clergyperson dressed in fancy robes.

This amazing job? Doing diapers. Luther wrote that, if we were trying to be rational, we’d turn up our nose and say, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my spouse, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery life involves?” But, he continued, Christian faith “looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as [if] with the costliest gold and jewels.”* That’s a different image of a filled diaper—to regard it as if covered in gold and jewels! We can also apply that to other stinky situations of your life, where you’re up to your neck in it, things that aren’t glamorous but sure are held dear and important to God.

In spite of this prevalence of poop, we shouldn’t presume that stewardship is perpetually serving on that literal clean-up committee. The sty where you serve is found in all kinds of nitty-gritty details of life. So mostly we think of stewardship related to finances, those tedious kitchen table-type talks of sorting out where money should go and what you can or can’t buy.

But, again, this isn’t just about how extravagant of a vacation you can afford this summer. With stewardship, we recognize that the calling from God isn’t only about how you satisfy yourself but also how you care for others, how you invest yourself in spreading wellbeing; not just making your own mess but attending to others’. Again, it may not seem all that rational. You may think that if you’ve worked hard for your income you should be able to play hard and make your own choices and not have to sacrifice. You may think you’ve earned it, that you deserve a reward, that you’re entitled to a treat or a new purchase or some luxury time.

But that brings us back around to the appetites of sheep, right?, and imagining yourself to be a better shepherd in charge and in control, and back again to ecology.

The glimpse I hope you’re getting is that God isn’t a God to lord it over you. God is not the highest and mightiest, the most in control, fancy and luxurious, with the biggest palace up in heaven, most removed from the struggles and vulgar stink of everyday life. Our God is the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who gives himself and lays down his life for you. Jesus your Lord is sty-warden, hanging out here amid what’s disgusting and insignificant and despised in our world and of your life, simply out of devotion to you, for love. So Jesus wasn’t looking out for numero uno, or if he was it was because he didn’t count himself first. He wasn’t pushing others aside to try to get ahead. He didn’t sacrifice the well-being of others to make a place for himself, but offered himself to make a place for you.

This is the model of our faith, the shape of our lives. In our gospel reading Jesus proclaims, “I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep” because he cares for and knows them. Our 2nd reading took that word of good news and invited you to live into it saying: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

That “ought,” though, is tricky there. The struggle I have in putting these words together, and I think the Bible writers faced the same struggle, is that it can sound harsh or difficult. Telling you to love and to lay down your life, you may feel like arguing that you can’t be forced to love, that you shouldn’t have to make sacrifices. Just as Luther realized, you can’t approach this by reasoning through it, or you’ll just turn up your nose. We show our sheepishness is much too inherent.

But what Jesus the Good Shepherd is doing is changing sheep into shepherds. In his care and devotion to you, he is converting you from being self-serving sheep to expand your awareness that you may know others in the flock. In laying down his life for you, he is giving you his life, making you to be a good shepherd like him.

So while parents may grumble and be worn out by changing diapers in the middle of the night, they also don’t need to be forced into caring. Even the disliked and disagreeable tasks are transformed by love. And the love of Jesus is transforming you from being a hungry sheep only looking at your own appetite and taking whatever you can instead to lay down your life, to realize that life’s fulfillment is not found in having more than others but in what you share, what you can offer. This comes so naturally (at times) in our families, this love and willingness to offer ourselves.

But these days present an urgency of tending to our larger family, for the care of the earth around us. During this week of Earth Day, we again pause to recognize that we have been takers, thinking that we had every right and no problems in claiming bigger houses and new cars and countless electronic gizmos and a country with the largest military and unnecessary plastic objects and whatever we wanted for lunch.

In a time of ecological crisis, led by the Good Shepherd, we are called and invited to love, to lay down our lives, to see what we can do without, so we don’t foul up life for others but promote our shared wellbeing. It is in asking what we can sacrifice, and, if we really care, it may be in laying our lives on the line.

When that seems too frightening, too unpleasant, too unreasonable, then turn again to the Lamb of God who fills you with all joy and peace in believing, the God of life who lays down his life for you, and takes it up again, that you may enjoy his blessing and live with his life and abide among his flock forever.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us (ELW #789)

* Luther’s Works, vol45, pg39


Persistent Wounds, Unexplained Hurts, and a God of Life

2nd Sunday of Easter (12Apr15)

Our faith is surprising for its ongoing encounter with suffering. Even at Easter it’s life through death, gladness amid sadness, answers still shrouded in mystery. In spite of the resurrection, it is not that pain and sorrow are simply undone or erased.

I had a professor who talked about trying to peer under God’s robes, meaning wanting to peel back the coverings that are hiding God, to get a glimpse of the so-called naked God, to remove the mystery and see what’s really there, an unobstructed revelation. The larger point is that we don’t get that view of God. We can’t sneak a peek under God’s robes.

But as a consolation prize (if you will), I’ll show you mine. When I was dressed as a dove for BBQ and Soul Food, Dolores Gust commented on my chicken legs. So I’m not trying for a bawdy peep show, but to point out a scar. In elementary school on the first nice spring day, I was running out to recess in boots that were too big for me, and I biffed it across the pavement, getting a big scrape. About two weeks later, before they’d cleaned the sand from winter off the streets, I was on my skateboard and got a rock lodged under the wheel and tore off the fresh scab and re-gashed the same wounded knee, and still have a scar as a reminder.

Here on my arm is one where I upended my mom’s hot tea when I was a toddler. I don’t even remember it, but it still grieves her. On my hands you can see where I almost sawed off my finger at Scout camp and where I crashed my motorcycle.

If my hair is buzzed short, you can see a scar from the chicken pocks and also where I collided with a corner of the ceiling when I was in college playing Nerf guns with my friend’s little brother.

This front tooth is chipped from a BB gun. I didn’t shoot my eye out, but was in the ER long enough that I was late for my performance in The Sound of Music that evening. The longest lingering of my residual damage was the least traumatic. Despite orthodontists’ efforts my teeth and mouth are still weird from sucking my thumb until 2nd grade.

So there you go, both the literal and the figurative glimpse under my robes. And you may rightly ask, “What’s the point of all of that?”

Showing those past injuries and the after-effects can have a couple of typical reactions, between two poles. One side would be the observation that we never really recover from old wounds. The opposite would be the standard claim that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Neither of these are exactly expressions of our faith. But both can be persistent mantras, because they have some truth. Not just from old skateboarding injuries, but especially for our emotional suffering, we never can fully heal. The opposite of the old “sticks and stones” rhyme, we know that words sometimes hurt the worst. Old injuries always continue to affect us, whether we fall into the same old traps or are so cautious to avoid them. It may be your sense of trust, or your sense of shame, or some part of your inner spirit that’s been damaged and just can’t quite be as joyful, as good, as you’d wish.

We can still try to put a positive spin on that, which is where we come around to the “makes you stronger” perspective. Having been wronged may make you eager to stand up for justice. Maybe you view yourself as more resilient. Maybe we do learn from our mistakes and take them as growing experiences. There can be positive value in trying to take what has hurt us and make sense of it somehow. It can strive to redeem senseless suffering.

The thing is, though, that life is more complicated than we’d like, and God is more mysterious than we’d like. So your wounds and injuries aren’t necessarily because there is some bigger lesson for you, or because God has a plan for you to figure out, or because you need to get stronger. I might learn that playing with Nerf guns and jumping into a low ceiling is going to make my head bleed. My 2nd grade self probably would not be so easily reasoned with, to be convinced that thumb-sucking would be problematic later on in life.

But, much more importantly, there are too many ways we suffer that don’t make any sense, that are for no good reason, that are beyond any sort of measure we should expect. Trying to look for a larger, better “why” when you lose a job, or if you’re suffering abuse, or when a poor diagnosis comes. In financial, relational, or health catastrophes. Much less in the bad news scale of dumb governments, greedy corporations, military genocide, or natural disasters—those don’t come with simple, positive explanations. They just plain are wrong. We are trapped in sin. It doesn’t make sense. So aside from some suffering that may be intentionally constructive, be sought for a reason (like the incision for a surgery or the nonviolent resistance of the civil rights movement) if it’s forced or coerced or inflicted unwillingly—even if it causes a turning point in society, a beneficial improvement—even if the Holocaust makes us say “never again” or Tony Robinson makes us work on racial relations—still that doesn’t make those deaths okay or the suffering perpetrated on them somehow “worth it.”

And none of this gives us the chance to look under God’s robes and explain it all away. See, our God is not revealed in trying to rationalize some master plan for suffering. Our God isn’t about putting you through troubles and trials just to see how you fare or what you can learn or if you’ll grow from it. God is not seeking to make you stronger or to die trying. In fact, based on our cliché, Jesus was killed and not made stronger.

And it’s a death we can’t really rationalize or explain away. We have to hold in mystery. He died because we humans are too sinful and violent. He died because our institutions are corrupt. He died because he stood up to the religious authorities and resisted the Roman Empire. But we can’t say that his suffering was proportional, that he earned it, that it was justified. And, since this is a question of God, we’re left wondering why God couldn’t try to change Caesar some other way, to make evil powers have a change of heart or make them reform or never let them be born in the first place.

All of this makes Jesus’ death for us pretty well inexplicable, unjustified, unfair, terrible, brutal, wrong.

caravaggioThat, at long last, brings us to today’s Gospel reading, telling us what we may know of God in Jesus. With it, here’s what I find to be a great representation, one of my favorite pieces of art. The artist is Caravaggio and it’s called “The Incredulity of St. Thomas.” I love Thomas’ raised eyebrows and the anxious onlooking of the others, indeed that it’s almost unbelievable that death didn’t win, that wrongs were righted, that Jesus is with us, in our midst.

This is a vital and meaningful portrayal of what our resurrection faith means, what our hope is. It marks this Easter season and is the very center of our faith. Again, we don’t get the full view under God’s robes to understand all that is behind the hiddenness and mystery. We don’t know why this is. But we can see that God didn’t stop the suffering and death. Neither does God simply erase it. For Jesus, those marks of being wronged and wounded are still there. There was no divine intervention that spared him from dying on the cross or that lashed out to smite those who were causing him pain. Neither does that all just go away after he rises from the dead. The terrible things are not ignored or forgotten as if they never happened. Jesus still bears those scars, those gaping holes, signs of the very thing that did him in. But those wounds are now only filled with wonder. They can do no more harm. They aren’t there for ouch or ew, but wow.

What does this mean for you? Even if we wish it were otherwise, God—for whatever reason—doesn’t work by yanking you out of harm’s way or sparing you hurts. Some problems you can use your wisdom to avoid. Others befall you without you being able to help it. If you put a positive spin on it, placing it as something small amid the larger flow of your life or of the universe, that may put the injury to good use, but still we can’t say that the bad was actually good. We simply don’t know enough to say that God was causing harm in order eventually to bring about some benefit.

Yet amid suffering, amid all that goes wrong, when life hurts too much and it’s more than you can bear, what you may indeed know, what you may trust, what you may cling to is that suffering and injury and injustice and death will not have the last word. Evil may do its worst, but God has more to say. God will overcome, will conquer death, will put it in its place. It is not ultimate. What has hurt you will not and does not define you. That you are loved by God, that you have life in God, that you are a child of God and member of this family is who you are. As horrible as things may be, as much as you have to face what you shouldn’t, as overwhelming as it gets, our God of healing, peace, forgiveness, life has more to come. Thomas is right; what we proclaim is almost unbelievable: Alleluia. Christ is risen.

Hymn: The Risen Christ (ELW #390)


Absentee Jesus on Easter

Mark16:1-8; 1Cor15:1-11; Acts10:34-43
There are four gospels, and three of ‘em have great stories with the resurrection: Jesus shows up to make huevos rancheros with blackened tilapia for a beach barbeque breakfast. Or he goes for a stroll incognito with a couple of friends, chatting and telling stories until—voila!—he is unmasked during supper’s “this bread is my body, given for you.” Or, in stuff we’ll hear next week, he suddenly appears behind locked doors blowing on his friends and letting them poke at his wounds, not to say “ew” but “wow!” Those accounts of meeting the risen Jesus are on the mark for our fleshy faith. We’re not just about angelic holograms or souls floating off to heaven, but about the here and now.

So I’m not saying that he was a live-fast-die-young kind of rebel, or that high cholesterol would’ve gotten him if the cross didn’t, but Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, of hanging out with sinners and partiers, which may sound familiar, like your kind of people. And that makes it only right that we enjoy lots of sweets today, ham and deviled eggs, good times with loved ones.

Coming at it from the other side, in harder circumstances we pray so fervently around hospital beds not because life is so miserably ungodly, but because with God we recognize how very good it is. Our Christian faith is nothing if not an affirmation of that. If we’re Jesus people, then sterile, bland, monotony won’t cut it, nor will disembodied escapism. We’re vivacious. We need good music (like we’re getting this morning!) and beauty (like the artwork of our new cross!) and delight. And we need it not to hoard, because trying to keep happiness to ourselves would just stifle it. We’re people who find our identity in sharing the love, in spreading the wealth.

Easter is that kind of holiday, the absolutely central mark that even when death tries to interrupt, when we’ve given all we can to our last breath, when obstacles try to deny its spread, even when sin threatens the worst, still God’s goodness breaks through for another beginning, for forgiveness, for new life. That’s not just going someplace when you die. In Jesus we see God’s commitment is not primarily otherworldly, but this-worldly. God cares for, loves, glories in, strives to preserve, and will tenaciously cling to this creation, and your place in it.

So resurrection stories of this being a bodily thing, details like dawn at the lakeshore, of close companions and compassion sharing tears, of being able to touch Jesus and eat with him and shoot the breeze and breathe the same air and getting fishing tips from him all are really true and valuable and essential for our faith.

Yet for those great stories in the other three gospels—one even with the promise “Remember, I am with you always”—today with the resurrection according to Mark, Jesus is not there on Easter, much less apparently with you always. In this version, Jesus is notable in his absence, where he doesn’t show up for repartee and hors d’oeuvres and there’s no gabbing with God moment, nor even the simplest reassurance that what has happened has indeed happened, that this whole resurrection business isn’t a figment of your imagination or a pious wish or a collective fiction. That’s the big benefit of those other versions, right? The crucified one shows up with a “Hello my name is Jesus” nametag and says, “Remember me? I’m back and better than ever!” We can grab him, take his pulse, fingerprint him. It feels like fact-checking, a verification, proof.

But Mark has emptiness, absence, vacancy. You go looking for Jesus where you last left him and instead find duct-taped to the tomb a sign that says “Room for rent.” He’s not there. We might, then, ask, “Well, where in the hell is he?” But that’s a question for yesterday, as our tradition has held it, when he descended to the dead, to preach to the spirits in prison. So instead we might now ask where in the world is he? We’ll get back to that shortly.

First, let’s consider what faith is. It says in one place, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb11:1). Or, in a similar vein, “who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom8:24-25). That’s plenty logical, if not festive or exciting or spectacularly triumphant. Compared with this missing person today, it’s much more appealing when the resurrected Jesus pops up behind locked doors or floats off the ground than this disappearing act in Mark. Or, to be accurate, I guess Jesus would first have to appear in order to disappear. Instead he’s just not there. No proofs. No tangible evidence. No CSI action on a shroud of Turin.

Yet this is what faith is about: the unseen. It’s about Jesus who doesn’t exactly show up when and how you want him. About a God’s blessings that don’t work like magic tricks or secret potions. Something that too often is quiet and unnoticed and, yes, unfortunately involving patience. This makes Mark’s version of the story a fit with our reality, leaving room for doubt, for this all being pretty unbelievable, and awfully uncertain.

Mark seems intentional about leaving such ambiguity and mystery, at least if we can trust the messenger dressed in white there at the tomb. And, as we’ll say again, we can only trust him. There’s nothing else to do. So that young man calmly explains where Jesus is off to. One commentator equated him with an administrative assistant greeting your arrival for an appointment by saying, “You’re looking for Jesus? Sorry. You just missed him. He’s got better things to do besides hanging around a tomb all day.”*

So what’s he got that’s so important? Where did Jesus need to rush off to so early this morning? Well, it’s not that he was avoiding you. Neither is it heaven, at least not yet. It’s not that Jesus was sick and tired of this boring old world and wanted out. Just the opposite. In fact, Jesus goes rushing right back into this world he and his Father so love. The messenger boy declares that Jesus is going back to Galilee, back to his home turf, back to where it all began.

To be clear, though, he’s not just back from the dead and headed for his old haunts. It’s not homecoming at his old stomping grounds. This isn’t revisiting the good old days, only with them being the new better days.

What this is saying, what it is pointing you toward, is that Jesus is active in your life, in your everyday world, in all the regular places you find yourself. His resurrected presence is at work when you’re at home, when your family is dearly annoying you, when your friends fall apart, in the drudgery of daily work, in strivings and successes and failures, when your doctor shows up with bad news, and when all the news seems to be bad news. That’s where Jesus is headed and already at work. With this business of eternal life and abundant grace and unconditional love, he’s taking this show on the road.

Except, as we’ve said, it’s not much of a show. It’s not so much glitz and glamor as it is mostly quiet and patient and subversive. It’s in persistent love, in rampant care, in gradual healings of brokenness. With those life-giving creative blessings, Jesus is also destructive—in destroying death, in undermining hatred, in eroding the old barriers of trespassing, in shutting up former standards that said you were no good, or that said you could exclude others of your choosing. If anything, your religion isn’t about freedom to discriminate, but binds you to neighbors who are least like you or least liked by you. That’s the kind of strange work that Jesus is up to out in the world.

And that’s also why you’re here, to hear about it. Our typical phrase is that you have to see it to believe it. But with this tomb-abandoning, already-on-the-move, not-showing-up-where-you-try-to-pigeonhole-him kind of Lord Jesus, you don’t get the stunning revelations first, only to let you believe it afterward. Instead, the way our God works is the reverse: you have to believe it to see it.

Again, that’s why you’re here. Because faith and hope come from hearing. You gather in church, tuning in your ears so that your vision may be focused on finding Jesus active in the world around you. It’s the only way for it to work. The message came in that delivery boy sending the disciples back home to find resurrected Jesus. It came in Peter hanging out with those he wouldn’t have even looked at, declaring to them that Jesus is Lord of all, not just of some. It came in Paul’s preaching that this news is of first importance, the most vital thing not just for eternity but for right now. It comes even in my words for you: Jesus is up and on the loose, already ahead of you. He is at work, spreading life at all times and in all places. That’s what you’ve got to look forward to. Alleluia! Christ is risen!



Waiting on Good Friday

(a sermon for Easter people)


Before we get too overwhelmed by the depressing, deadly seriousness of this, can I pause and ask: Doesn’t that point of the story seem like an annoying commercial break? They put Jesus there…for now. You can probably picture it, in part because of bad made-for-TV adaptations of the Bible, when we’d find more drama and more value in sticking to the book version. But there’s also the feeling because this break toys with our emotions, like producers and advertisers on television do. It’s not an ending, but leaves you in suspense for what comes next.

That’s in spite of this point in the story of Jesus being presented with so much tragic finality. He’s expired, dead, buried. And yet we can hardly help but hear it as a cliffhanger. As the big stone slams shut, sealing closed that new tomb, we can envision the camera angle panning backward. We know there’s something more to come, even before the screen goes black and switches to ads for cell phones and shampoo and all those other things that try to claim our interest.

Yet unlike the televised word from the sponsors, within the Gospel reading, we don’t have the benefit of distractions to fill the pause. Yes, I said commercials can be beneficial, for passing the time, even for making us believe that other things are more important. Instead, in this reading we’re left with no pleasant disruptions or musical intermissions. Just a long hard pause. From this whole huge reading today, the last words we hear are “the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” The next verse would resume “Early on the first day of the week.” So the crucifixion, the death, the burial of Jesus take place before sunset on Friday. It’s not until early Sunday morning (“while it was still dark”) that the time out is finally over and we get back to the story, to wrap it all up with the dramatic conclusion. That’s a terrible, miserable wait, if we were on the edge of our seats, holding our breath for how it would be resolved.

Now, we have seen this movie before. We know what’s coming. We may really like the ending, even if it’s not a surprise. But we don’t get to skip to the end. We have to suffer through the long wait, albeit with all kinds of nice distractions of real-life channel surfing to divert our attention instead to spring weather and yard work and family gatherings and fish fries and spring break vacations and, of course, a basketball game.

I’m not arguing against those other points of life. We believe the God-given-ness in daily details are exactly the reason why Jesus lived and died among us and for us. So it’s not that we should be sitting here quietly in the sanctuary waiting for Easter finally to dawn. Neither should we pretend amnesia. We do indeed wait to celebrate the resurrection, but it’s not like we don’t know that that’s coming. As important as Good Friday is, and central as the cross is for our symbols and the shape of our faith, still if Sunday hadn’t come then we wouldn’t be gathered on this Friday. This dark day can only be called Good in the light of what’s coming. The filled tomb is worth our attention because it will be emptied. We don’t need to ignore those outcomes today, or to act as if we don’t know what comes after the commercial break.

Yet here in this moment, we are confronted with the pause, with a moment for reflection. We might even say it forces us to ponder this part of the story, to face it and accept it. We can’t just quickly skip on to the resolution of a happy ending. We are Easter people always stuck on Good Friday. We believe and trust that we’ll be part of what’s coming, but we don’t have it yet. We’re still waiting.

In the meantime, in these last verses are two characters, one as a guide for us, the other as a model of what not to do. The first is Joseph of Arimathea, who takes the body of Jesus down from the cross. In that, we might notice that he obeys the law. He goes to Pilate and asks for permission. It’s an interesting detail, and an ongoing struggle for us. Pilate, after all, was the one in charge who executed Jesus. We mark him in infamy each time we say in the Creed that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” He himself said he had power to release Jesus, but didn’t do that. And yet Joseph of Arimathea obeys him.

So we Christians who say that Christ is King, that Jesus is Lord, that we have no God but God and not Caesar, not the rulers and powers of our age, we who expect that our citizenship is in heaven and seek to dwell in the kingdom of God, we’ve got this ongoing struggle of how to respond when governments and authorities and society don’t live up to our standards, when they may be corrupt and do the wrong thing.

If we’re picturing this like a modern movie, it’s easy to imagine that when the hero gets killed—when the villain takes out the good guy—it could create an insurrection, a rebellion, an uprising, that all his followers would seize that moment of martyrdom, trying to avenge their fallen leader—what we might call “pulling a Peter.” Yet with the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, doesn’t pick a fight with the bad guys. Surrounded by wrong, he tries to do right. That may guide how we react and interact, in advocacy, or in trying to make bad situations better.

The other character and example for us may be more about our relationship with God in Jesus. Nicodemus first showed up on a Sunday in mid-March. As we were reminded today, he had come to Jesus by night. He was a leader of the Pharisees, a consummate religious insider, but he was in the dark, still questioning, wondering what Jesus was up to, trying to figure out how Jesus was making God’s presence known.

He’s still unenlightened with Jesus’ death. He’s trying to do the right thing and show extraordinary devotion, but he’s got it confused. He’s treating Jesus like a king, but like a dead king. This funeral ceremony that Nicodemus has planned is more lavish than the re-burial of King Richard III, who had to linger half a millennium for the honor. Nicodemus shows up with all kinds of embalming spices and a hundred pounds of ointments. He’s going to bury Jesus, and—by God—it’s going to be in style. It’s ridiculously elaborate.

But it’s also ridiculous because it shows Nicodemus absolutely doesn’t get it. The fool is squandering devotion on the past, while entirely failing to recognize what is yet to come. For him, this is the sad fanfare of the closing credits and not a commercial break before the real excitement resumes.

If we think that’s all she wrote for God’s story of blessing in Jesus, then we’ve got another think coming. We’ve underestimated God’s insistence on righting our wrongs, on persisting through our failures, on loving us beyond hatred, on renovating our brokenness, on showering grace on the tragedies of our sinfulness. We fail even to see that our sinfulness isn’t so much in being evil like Pontius Pilate instead of obedient like Joseph of Arimathea. The rotten core of our sin is that we don’t expect more from God. We misbelieve. We try to spray some air freshener in a tomb and perfume on the dead guy and say, “Oh, doesn’t he look so natural and peaceful.”

Jesus won’t put up with that, though, won’t lay in a casket, dressed up by an undertaker. And he sure won’t just rest in peace. So we’d better reset our expectations and keep our eyes peeled for more to come from him and for us.

There’s a phrase that fits well for this moment, for this long tragic pause, with uncertainty of what comes next and how to deal with it. I learned it at Dan Banda’s funeral last autumn. His mantra was, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”

Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried. But somehow it wasn’t goodbye, not the end. It was tragic and wrong, but the story wasn’t over. There’s more to come.

That seems easy enough to gloss past heading toward Easter morning with this old story. But even more, we should be expecting more of God right now. Because this is Jesus’ story, it is also ours. This message is hardest for us, in moments like for Dan Banda’s son. Josh was in college in upper Michigan when he was told his dad had died suddenly. It’s hard enough to see his own story continuing well after that terrible break. It’s a time when we’d content ourselves with looking back, with getting on with distractions of life. It is a miserable interruption.

Yet that pause is even more unsettling and breathtaking since the move with Jesus from Good Friday toward Easter means that sickness, separation, death, despair, resentment, injustice, the shattering of hopes—these may be terrible fractures and fearsome pauses, but still they are only commas. God in Jesus has more to come.

Waiting with that vision is how this time may be called Good.