“What does this babbler want to say?”

sermon on Acts 17:16-34

There’s something strange in this speech, but not how the crowd expects.

I do like the line “in whom we live and move and have our being.” There’s reasonable stuff on perceiving our Creator and connection to God, neighbor, and creation.

But it’s strange in its ambiguity, its lack of specificity. It seems to try to deal with a generic God, refusing to name anything more explicit. At our heart, however, we reside scandalously in a particularity. That’s ignored here, left indistinguishable, without Jesus.

Starting next week, we’ll hear from one of Paul’s letters and his actual words, and I hope you’ll notice it’s just thick with Jesus, through and through, absolutely grounded and inescapably reverberating with Jesus, in relationship, totally in love with you.

Even the story of Paul’s own conversion two weeks ago wasn’t just a transformational spiritual experience or cognitive comprehension of God. A voice immediately declared, “I’m Jesus, whom you’re persecuting.” That was clearly the focus, the main point and central identity, reshaping relationship.

That contrasts with today’s speech with only sidelong allusions and no direct mention of Jesus at all. Maybe when we hear about one who came back from the dead we think of Jesus, because we expect it in church after Easter. But if we’d never heard of Jesus, it’s tough to imagine this would offer much clarity.

Something I read this week noted this speech has long been a model for how we interact in interfaith settings, with other religions, or even for converting people. But, other risks aside, it’s tough to imagine what they’d be converting to, since this never seems to resolve or define. It remains somehow spiritual and not religious. Maybe that’s even part of its appeal.

Yet I can’t help but be wary of how it minimizes distinctions while manipulatively co-opting others’ beliefs. It shoots for a lowest common denominator, and fails to capture so much of what we identify in being created in the image of God, in sacrificial love, in proclaiming forgiveness instead of just rules for righteousness, in identifying with the least of these, of the God who abides with us through suffering and brings us through death. Those rather particular aspects for us get left out when we overgeneralize and we bypass Jesus.

I’m also concerned in the speech that the expertise isn’t with the ones who have been worshipping but in the religion-splaining one who says, “let me tell you what you’ve actually been doing.” This is the risk whenever we try to declare, “Well we pretty much all believe the same thing anyway.” Buddhists don’t need to hear they’re going to your heaven. Native Americans shouldn’t be told they have basically the same view of nature as you. There’s danger in how we treat the Old Testament/Hebrew scriptures for Jewish siblings who share them with us. I even have to confess some hesitancy about our African song liturgy, and that fine divide whether we’re being enriched by another’s experience and appreciating their identity, taking it seriously or just playing around to feel good about it.

That wariness pairs with the description in the reading of the Athenians, that they thought of themselves as cosmopolitan into wanting to be cutting edge and up-to-date and open-minded. If this applies to us, we run the risk of chasing flights of fancy, unmoored from any solid definition and lasting identity. Whether we’re talking about our taste in worship or our personal lives, we know we shouldn’t give in to fads and be distracted by the latest popular craze, so impulsive as to be unable to keep our attention on what is important and instead always wanting a change. If we define ourselves as too open, we may not hold to who we truly are.

A really helpful term for this set of dangers is “moralistic therapeutic deism.”* Somehow a trend develops that basically we end up with a disengaged God, with religion mainly for how we can feel good about ourselves. This little God is only involved for the sake of guidelines for our behavior—broad categories of “be nice to each other, respect differences, enjoy life”—and our practice becomes pursuit of our self-assured sense of success.

I’m actually hoping that sinks in a bit and strikes you. We too much suspect church is for learning how to be good people, that your investment here is supposed to pay off in increasing your happiness (and, if it doesn’t, then you’d be better off looking elsewhere), and that whatever is proclaimed here should affirm positions you already hold, your political loyalties or efforts in relationships. Church gets boiled down to a weekly pat on the back.

But that’s not our fundamental basis. Boiling this down, sorting through all the accumulated extras, coming back to our foundation and bedrock leaves us with Jesus. For us, that identity is rather specific and rather vital. We don’t operate by general metaphors of new birth emerging from the compost of old death. This isn’t love generally, not vague notions of benign warm spirituality.

We have the scandalous particularity of putting a name on all of this, on saying that when we look for explanations and engagements and hope, we are looking for God in the person of Jesus. It is his life, his death and resurrection, that bear the clearest witness for us. It is his teaching that guides us. It is his promise that sustains us. It is in him that we live and move and have our being, and simultaneously in us that Jesus lives and moves and has his being.

I want you to hear good news in that. I want you to be able to recognize that existence isn’t bound up in how you’re doing with some set of expectations. It’s not in morals or right worship or how well you’re doing at being happy. It’s not waiting for you to get it figured out and to sign on. If this is God, God must be big enough to be in whom we all exist. That means your existence is inseparable from God, from Jesus, from the one who wills life for you, whose work and dedication and passion in the universe is for your sustenance.

As the speech ended in Athens, some of the folks said they needed to keep pondering and hear more. Others scoffed and left. That’s still the case. This sermon might help some of you and others will simply walk away. You might claim that’s just fine, that everybody can discover their own answers and their own approaches to the divine. Or you might be troubled, knowing loved ones who aren’t plugged in to church, and you feel they’re missing out and wondering why the message didn’t work for them.

On either side, it invites us to evaluate why this is important. Do we look for church mainly as a social club? Or our outlet for doing good in the world? Is our practice here any different than another worshipping community, including next door in the Covenant Room? Why does this faith of ours matter? Why continue to deliberate over it and try to understand? How is being identified with Jesus important, vital, necessary for life?

With such questions and the speech’s language about judgment, I don’t want you to hear that as the verdict of whether you’ve done enough, understood enough, believed enough. Think about what it means to live in harmony with the universe, in accord with the one in whom we live and move and have our being, what it means to have a life shaped by and like Jesus, what it looks like to be invited to live with love, and our core definition as being loved.

There’s a different sort of good news in this identity. Whereas the Athenians, seemed to have a casual disengagement that could either take or leave it, that didn’t really seem to care if that was the shape of existence, for us finding ourselves with Jesus in this living, moving, breathing embodied relationship, it—maybe paradoxically—opens us to others, including to be conversant with new understandings.

Because relationship always means becoming something more, our faith shouldn’t be the same as it was last year or when we were younger. Far from the mindless rigidity of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” our trust and faith are honed with humility in relationship, in dialogue with other people, other religions and denominations, including in ongoing partnership here at the MCC. It involves engaging our time and place, of current struggles, of new insights from science. We have a unique and particular sense of existence, so we should and must pay attention to those new things, to be learning and continually re-evaluating.

Besides new questions, we remain with the old ones. A famous Roman Catholic statement on interfaith relations from 50 years ago said:

[People] expect from the various religions answers to the unsolved riddles of the human condition, which today, even as in former times, deeply stir [our] hearts: What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? Which is the road to true happiness? What…after death? What, finally, is that ultimate inexpressible mystery which encompasses our existence: whence do we come, and where are we going?**

With those questions, you may be asking—as the crowd has it in the New Revised Standard Version—“What does this babbler want to say?”

The proclamation of Paul and of Nick, the word of God is this: If those seem like big questions you might be coming down on the wrong side of or losing your grip on, if you’re discouraged or confused, or worried about others, then remember with the God “who made the world and everything in it,” that there is no way to stray, because you are held as a beloved child of God, in whom “you live and move and have your being.”

And this one made known to us as Jesus, who forgives sins, who judges not based on your merits or understanding or efforts, but based on his passion and love for you, sees you as eternally beloved and worth giving up his life for, this one who was crucified, died, and was buried, and raised from the dead for you. That is the basis of our hope, the center of our identity, the shape of all existence. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

* see Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean, p14

** Nostra Aetate, 1965 http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651028_nostra-aetate_en.html


Here’s the reading, with the speech:
16While Paul was waiting in Athens, he was upset to see all the idols in the city. 17He went to the Jewish meeting place to speak to the Jews and to anyone who worshiped with them. Day after day he also spoke to everyone he met in the market. 18Some of them were Epicureans and some were Stoics, and they started arguing with him. People were asking, “What is this know-it-all trying to say?” Some even said, “Paul must be preaching about strange spirits! That’s what he means when he talks about Jesus and about people rising from death.”
19They brought Paul before a council called Mars Hill, and said, “Tell us what your new teaching is all about. 20We have heard you say some strange things, and we want to know what you mean.” 21More than anything else the people of Athens and the foreigners living there loved to hear and to talk about anything new.
22So Paul stood up in front of the council and said: “People of Athens, I see that you are very spiritual. 23As I was going through your city and looking at the things you worship, I found an altar with the words, ‘To an Unknown God.’ You worship this God, but you don’t really know who it is. So I want to tell you. 24This God made the world and everything in it and is Lord of heaven and earth, and this God doesn’t live in temples built by human hands. 25and doesn’t need help from anyone. No! God gives life, breath, and everything else to all people. 26From one person God made all peoples who live on earth, and decided the time and place for each. 27To seek God, each and every one of us may surely feel and discover that God is not far away, but near, 28for ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; just as some of your poets have said, ‘We are children of God.’
29“Since we are God’s children, we must not think that God is like an idol made out of gold or silver or stone. God isn’t like anything that humans have thought up and made. 30In the past, God forgave all this because people did not know what they were doing. But now God says that everyone everywhere must repent 31and God has set a day to judge the world’s people with fairness. And the chosen judge is a human. God has given trust in this to all of us by raising this one from death.”
32As soon as the people heard Paul say that a man had been raised from death, some of them started laughing. Others said, “We will hear you talk about this some other time.” 33When Paul left the council meeting, 34some of the people put their faith in the Lord and went with Paul. One of them was a council member named Dionysius. A woman named Damaris and several others also put their faith in the Lord.   (adapted Contemporary English Version)

Prison Earth Day

sermon on Acts 16:19-34 and on Earth Day


Earth Day and a prison Bible reading, with an edge of economic impact. It begs the question of how we assign the roles. Where are we in this story? And where is Earth?

I want to start with clarifying what I believe is not the answer, and hope to pry you free from this faulty faith. For too long, too many loud voices have asserted a view that metaphorically Earth would be the prison in this story, and God’s salvation would be to spring us free, unleash from this mortal coil, to escape the bonds of the flesh and soil, to make an eternal getaway and fly away to the sky. Over and over I’ll remind you: that is not Scripture’s story. We are not imprisoned on this planet or in our bodies or with this life.

Yes, there may be much we lament—maybe even feeling like too much—from natural disasters to a slow spring for greening growth, from wars and corruption to prison to cranky relationships, sore muscles to diseases, death or small blemishes.  We’d like to be free of those.

But God isn’t trying to get us away from here. God is trying to fulfill life here. On earth…as it is in heaven. It is GOOD, God sees over and over, daily in the creation story in the first chapter of our Bible. That goodness wasn’t because it was special paradise so different from now. It’s because God delights in what God has made, including this world, and including you.

God so loves this good world that God longed to be with you, couldn’t bear to be separate, and so came rushing into our arms as Jesus, to love us not only when things are in the cheery honeymoon of life, but through all the hurt and sorrow and difficulty.

And God was so in love, so in favor, so enamored of life on this Earth that God not only was born here, to live here, but raised from death as well. In this Easter season, we celebrate continuity of the new creation. After crucifixion, God certainly could’ve said, “Pfft! I’m outta here! To heck with that place!” (Or, being God, I suppose could’ve directly meant it in saying, “To Hell with them!”) Instead, the resurrection puts an exclamation point on God’s insistence for life in this world, in existence we already know, of Jesus’ commitment to how things go here in this place, not in some heaven lightyears away.

So if we’re looking for the location of our Bible story, the prison break cannot be understood as God liberating the select set of Christians or the humans or whoever from the jail Earth.

What if we reverse it, then? What if, instead of the Earth as the prison, it’s the Earth in prison?

There’s plenty I like about that notion (even while disliking what it means). First of all, that it upends the troublesome theology of the other. It refuses to see creation as bad and further recognizes the bondage that our ways place on Earth. We humans want everything under our control, or enslaved to secure our selfish benefit. We limit nature as resources for us to use. We seek to tame wilderness, or else to exterminate it.

This employs the wrong reading of the creation story in taking permission to be domineering, to dominate and subdue as brutal masters, to ignore wellbeing of all else while presuming we preserve our own isolated me-first advantage. That model is nothing we’d associate with Jesus as loving Lord, who willingly laid down his life for the good of others. It is not the character of our God, and is not what God would intend for us.

Yet our rampage is rampant. It’s plain in mountaintops removed and groundwater poisoned by fracking, in these ecosystems detained entirely under our control. It’s evident with polar bears and coral reefs and elephants captive to our whims and shortsightedness, with birds whose migration and mating is malfunctioning because our actions have managed to keep them from their natural rhythms. Birds may be mobile. But trees can’t run away. They are locked in place to face the emerald ash borers and pine bark beetles. It’s the white nose syndrome that means bats won’t be flying free from hibernation caves this spring.

As our children readily recognized for us, our persecuting power over the earth is clear in clearcutting forest, drying out evergreens into deserts, plowing up prairie, pumping out aquifers, changing the chemistry of our atmosphere, and every project where we constrain the livelihood of life and ridiculously refer to it as “development.” We might as well see each and every as expansions of the prison industrial complex for the incarceration of creation.

The condemning death sentence of such tendencies is summarized in a saying from a native American* woman that was on a poster I had in my bedroom growing up: “When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that you can’t eat money.”

If we’re following this parallel reading, if the Earth has been imprisoned by our human society and culture, maybe our role for a positive change could be associated with the jailer from the Bible story, as God’s Holy Spirit is converting us, calling us to new life, from the waters of our birth. Maybe we hope to be among those of a new perspective, who don’t extract and deplete the planet, don’t trap it under the threat of death, who don’t claim maximum security while minimizing actual life, but recognize that God’s salvation is to liberate, to free, to release from captivity to fears and diminished existence, not only for human benefit but on behalf of all life and we heed the call to serve as caretakers.

Maybe there’s still more. Maybe that possibility for us as jailers-turned-caretakers could lead us to a third consideration. Not that the Earth is bad and good people are stuck here. Not that humans are bad and Earth is stuck with us. What about the apparent notion that sin and abuse are bad and God is striving to liberate us and all creatures from what would inhibit life, to give us freedom to live together well?

Our hint of this may be that in the Bible story the jailer’s life is bound to the inmates. God’s work wasn’t just to free Paul and Silas, but also to free the jailer. They, then, could share in new relationship—not of hierarchies of fear and oppression and inevitably leading to death on the one side or the other (either execution for the prisoners or suicide for the guard if they escaped), but a relationship of blessing and celebration and company of rejoicing—joy that spreads among the other prisoners and to the jailer’s family and on from there—a relationship of binding up wounds and healing and caring and striving for life.

This is God’s abundant Easter work for you, among us on this Earth Day, and—indeed—every day. It is striving to break you free from your individual prisons that confine you into thinking you’re not good enough, that your wrongs are inescapable, that your existence is worthless, that you’re too harmful for life around you, whether the broader planet or closer relationships. That captivity to sin from which you cannot free yourself keeps restricting you and holds you trapped in the negative. In forgiveness and holy inspiration full of creativity, right now Jesus is liberating you from that prison cell, undoing your lock and those chains that have stifled your wellbeing and sense of yourself.

And this is also how God is operating in systems that ensnare us. God is mutually working to free humans and the planet when systemic oppression often overlaps—that people with darker skin are apt to live closer to pollution, that lesser developed nations will suffer worse effects of climate change, that the little guys trying to do the right thing can’t fund fake corporate science reports, that those who have done less harm and can afford less opportunity to purchase the get-out-of-jail free card are caught, and that really such situations are no good for any of us, even those who think they’re winning.

From Pope Francis to secular organizations now recognize these systems are interconnected, that none of our projects stand alone. Environmental work is bound to racial justice,

which is tied to economic wellbeing,

which is part of the body of health care,

which interfaces with your body image,

which stands against capitalist propaganda,

and is united with sustainable agriculture,

which is part and parcel with the global peace movement,

which attends to school systems,

which confronts gun violence,

which is linked with immigration and refugee relations,

and relates to those actually physically in prison or trying to re-enter society,

which is amid your daily life,

which is of course constrained with politics,

which is wholly related to our religious practice,

which must be a congregation of every creature, from small to large, near on these grounds to original stars.

In the old image of a food chain, all creatures would suffer if any link were broken. Well, we now know that’s a web of creation more than simple chains, that my wellbeing is dependent on your wellbeing which is connected to Earth’s stability, that everything is hitched to everything else (as John Muir said) and we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality (as Martin Luther King put it, for a very different reason, but with a very similar end result).

And for the purposes of our Bible story on this Earth Day, Martin Luther said** that you have been set totally free and are obligated to no one, which also means you are totally captive and obligated to all. Your chains are gone, and that has served to reinforce your connection to everyone and everything else. The life-sucking bonds that imprisoned you have been released. Now you are free for the life-giving bonds that tie you to live faithfully and lovingly with God, your neighbor, and creation.

That is the good news of life this Easter season, breaking free from tomb and gloom, and resurrecting you with Jesus and with all that God so loves.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!


* actually First Nations filmmaker, Alanis Obomsawin

** “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” – see “Freedom of a Christian”


Converting the Converted

sermon on Acts 9:1-19a


It’s the prototypical conversion story: the blinding flash of light, a disembodied voice, the knock-your-socks-off shock of it, getting up, dusting off, and finding life entirely changed.

You may know somebody who talks about having such a template of conversion. There’s perhaps a chance some of you have a personal story that fits this form.

But this is no mandatory pattern. There is constantly conversion without these phenomenal details. That’s important at the outset, because our faith can be too frequently defined by subjective experience, and in a way that excludes those without it and actually excludes a focus on God. If you haven’t felt the warm presence of the Holy Spirit. If you haven’t accepted Jesus into your heart. If you haven’t given yourself over to a higher power. If you haven’t clearly heard God speaking to you. If you haven’t wept about your sins and prayed formulaic words. If you haven’t gone forward for an altar call. And for that, God bless Billy Graham, but good riddance to him. He may have been the most definitive of the past century in categorizing insiders and outsiders, with the only way to get to be an insider involving an eternally-weighted decision.

Against that mold, we should notice in today’s reading there isn’t just that single standard conversion experience, but two. This is always referred to as “The Conversion of Paul” but is just as much the re-conversion of Ananias.

Paul may get the banner attention for a couple reasons. It may be that his seems more supernatural, with the beam of light and the voice only he could hear and getting knocked down in the middle of the highway, blind to the world around him. We like the mystical details.

It could also be that his conversion seems more substantial. Again, this is the archetypal 180° turnaround, going from the worst bad guy to become the best, the nastiest and most violent persecutor of the faith to the one who will contribute more to its spread and its theology than anybody else in the history of Christianity. It makes for such a good story.

But I also have to voice reluctance about favoring Paul’s episode. The first reason is that, because it is so extraordinary, it is also extremely rare. Quite likely none of us would have anything in store to make feasible such a remarkable reversal, a worst-to-first sort of sweep. As the epitome of experience, however, it would be better to see our smaller stories reflected in his, rather than dismissed as insignificant.

The other hesitancy involves how our culture has ruled out the possibility of conversion, has eliminated the opportunity, limits all future possibility. For how fast so much is changing at this point in history, we seem to have arrived at a time where people are the one thing that can’t change.

It strikes me first in how we treat those who wind up with a criminal record. It becomes a permanent stain, where somebody is practically unable to find employment because of a felony conviction. Or to move into a neighborhood for being seen irredeemably as a sexual deviant. We’ve lost the concept of reform, or restorative justice, or rehabilitation as a purpose of prison, no longer even a possibility of paying a debt to society, since it is a perpetual state of indebtedness, a lifelong confinement, whether they are sentenced to be stuck behind bars or face the relentlessly punishing confinements of life alongside a society that won’t allow a place for them. “Criminal” remains such a defining label that it too often completely takes over an identity and any other characteristic or potential.

(A side note: trying to overcome such restricted livelihood is why Just Bakery is here next week. Please remember that and support them.)

There may be some grounds to argue, but it strikes me that our therapeutic practices also impose similar restrictions with practically no way out of the liabilities to identity. One can only be a recovering alcoholic, never formerly an alcoholic. It’s always “My name is Bill and I’m an alcoholic” and never again simply “My name is Bill.” Or a recovering Catholic, in the jokiness that gets used sometimes. The damage is left as permanent.

But I don’t think Paul would’ve referred to himself by saying “I’m Paul and I’m a recovering persecutor.” That is too stuck in the old, defined by the former identity. Paul’s language, rather, was “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” When Paul tells this story in his letters about how he used to be hateful, it isn’t because that negativity still has a hold on him or because he’s still trying to crawl out from under those pressures, but precisely to indicate that he’s living in a radical and remarkable newness where something so awful can no longer define him in the least, a grace and forgiveness that looks past that entirely, where it exists only as the indicator of what he is now…

much like the nail holes in Jesus’ hands and scars that Thomas reached out to touch last week. Those were no longer injuries for Jesus, but more like trophies of what had been conquered, overcome, what used to hurt him but had been taken over by life. In a way that we much too often refuse to allow for ourselves or those around us, Paul’s conversion means he’s been taken over by a new beginning of life.

I so much today want you to hear that, to have that, to know that voice of Jesus calling and beckoning you to eliminate and forget your negative labels and realize a new beginning, a fresh start, a clean bill of life.

So even while expecting that a grand total of few to none of us would be the type to declare that our lives were a mess before Christ and now everything is hunky-dory, coming up roses, picture perfect—given that we live in a hard and complicated real world and none of us is perfect and we do still struggle, I want you to find yourself in Paul’s conversion.

That is, after all, what happens as we declare again and again that commission from Jesus for the forgiveness of all your sins. It’s as we continue this season of Easter and the promise not only of a resurrected but a resurrecting Lord, as he comes to meet you and offer himself, his life for you, in the meal of this table each week. It’s with the assurance in Paul’s own words that, having been baptized into a death like Jesus, you will be united to walk in newness of life with him.

That is conversion, a Damascus road experience, even though I expect there’s plenty where it doesn’t seem remarkable, where life doesn’t seem spectacularly new, doesn’t feel stunningly right, where we don’t leap for joy but end up plodding ahead. See, being a Christian doesn’t suddenly make everything just right and isn’t a rapid U-turn on life’s problems.

After all, though this happened suddenly for Paul, it certainly didn’t magically make everything better; rather he lost his prominence and self-assurance and put his life at risk and was arrested and eventually killed for this conversion experience, for listening to Jesus. Even before the end of this chapter there will be threats against his life. This isn’t a piece of cake with everything going swimmingly.

Another interesting detail in this story: once Paul heard that Jesus was calling him, he never says another word this whole passage. This from the guy who, as we said, becomes the most important voice ever in Christianity (aside from Jesus himself). Not one more word in this entire passage. He’s simply converted.

That makes the second conversion somehow more impressive as the harder one. That’s for Ananias. Now, he’s a small character. Out of the whole Bible and entire history of Christianity, this is the only place he appears, the vital but small role he has, to enable the most definitive Christian. That’s important for us insignificant folks. We may further relate to this little everyday Christian, who, as Jesus calls out to him, has to argue back. He resists. He makes it into a dialogue, a debate, with deliberation. He says he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to forgive Paul or to involve him in this work. He wants to keep this dangerous guy safely at arm’s length. Ananias straight up labels Paul as an evildoer and says he has no interest in following Jesus’ instructions. But he, too, is converted. He goes and speaks the good news from Jesus to Paul.

And if most of us have not felt the glorious but simple vision of Paul’s conversion, I expect we may have lots of experience with this Ananias conversion, with the arguments and deliberations and doubts, with not really wanting to do what Jesus wants of us, of taking a while to figure it out and be motivated and believe what we need to.

In all, there are both sides of this sharing new life in Christ, of being Easter people. Like Paul, we have hard change in not staying with our former ways, giving them up. Like Ananias, we face hard change in allowing new people in and adapting. There’s the difficulty of really allowing forgiveness to sink in, that your wrongs are not held against you, and there’s that really unpleasant task of being the one to offer and practice giving forgiveness. There’s hearing Jesus for the first time when maybe your life had been tuned to a very different signal, and there’s trying not to drown out his voice, to let it blend in as static, but instead continuing to have your life clearly and definitively shaped by his calling.

One relief or positive note in this story, amid those difficulties of conversion, is that Jesus wins the argument. Whether suddenly in a flash, or slowly through deliberation and reasoning. And not only that he wins, but that his purpose does, his purpose of sharing life, and spreading it.

So as you come here week after week to be converted yet again and raised to new life in Jesus once more and called to his purpose over and over, it is so that you may know the abundance of his life, for you and for all this world.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.



Must be present to win?

sermon on John 20:19-31


There’s a lot in this passage. It’s John’s version of Pentecost, and also of the Great Commission, his culmination or final clarification of the story. The believers receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and are sent with the power that God alone could have, with forgiveness and grace. Oh, and the small detail that the risen Jesus appears behind locked doors to offer greetings and blessing.

incredulityBut for all of that, we are still most drawn to Thomas, this one who missed out and then is struggling to believe.

This is a standard story for this 2nd Sunday of Easter, since it’s set today. Or at least the second part is. In the first, the followers of Jesus were together on Easter evening. After hearing the morning’s news from Mary Magdalene that Jesus was risen and had come to comfort her and wipe away her tears and reassure her faith, after that Jesus’ followers for some reason evidently decided it was a good time just to lay low, to hide out, to linger behind locked doors.

Before we get to Thomas, let’s pause with that fearful crew trying to barricade themselves in, pause to ponder: Why does the resurrection make them more afraid and not less? Is it supposing that the authorities who couldn’t kill Jesus and keep him dead will come after them instead, since they might be easier to bump off?

Or are they actually afraid of this newfound power? That the good news of life somehow becomes for them bad news? That precisely no longer having anything to fear from death means that they should be encouraged to stand up and confront the deadly powers and violent authorities? Does having the assurance of hope, the promise of nothing to lose actually seem riskier?

Or is it confining that they would not want to share this good news? Is it easier to keep enemies as enemies and not have to face the possibility of reconciliation, not have to see that forgiveness and God’s love could be for those we’d prefer to despise or keep ignoring? Did it all get too big, that they liked the teachings of Jesus, but actually having him as the Lord and Creator of life means having to share more broadly than we’d selfishly want? It’s not a very desirable commissioning, to be sent back out to those who would oppose you or cause you worry, with a message that God desires better life for them, along with you.

But against that trying to stay secluded, to keep others at bay, Jesus broke through the locked doors and won’t allow belief or blessing to stay cooped up and so directly sent them out. For these followers stifled in anxiety and sorely at odds with those around them, Jesus speaks peace: peace for them, and peace to share.

Already what I hope you’re hearing, then, is Jesus showing up to confront and fulfill the deepest need, meeting people, restoring them, and expanding it still further. It’s about life continuing. He did it with Mary, isolated in her grief, and sent her instead with good news of relationship. He did it for those trapped followers, in sharing and spreading peace and reconciliation.

Then we get to Thomas. Thomas who missed out. Thomas who wanted to believe about the resurrection. Thomas who needed the good news. Thomas who longed for Jesus.

Now, we don’t know why Thomas wasn’t there Easter evening…if it was an excused absence…where he was instead. Maybe it was that his grief or his fear was so intensely isolating he just really needed to be alone by himself. While I don’t disparage that—and can deeply feel that introverted need myself—still we have to notice that in this case it came with liability: if Thomas wanted to be alone, it left him separated from the rest of the believers.

For them, even though they also were sad and scared and all of that, still being together as community was the right place to be, as it enabled the chance to receive the Holy Spirit’s reassurance and encouragement. That is a valuable note about our practice of community here: it is risky to be away, since this is the surest place to meet Jesus, as we’ll hear, to be able to receive blessing and good news and what you need.

Maybe Thomas just happened to miss out. One of my colleagues liked to suggest he was out on a falafel run, picking up some supper to go for the rest. So maybe it was an errand. Maybe he thought the gathering was pointless, not worth his time. Maybe he had a conflict on his calendar and wanted to be with the believers but couldn’t, and made the hard choice to go with his previously scheduled programming. Maybe you were still on spring break last week and missed our Easter gathering here. Maybe you awaited guests and felt the obligation to them instead. Maybe it was just…something else. There’s always another place you could be and may even want to be, other good things happening.

Still, it’s worth observing that Jesus didn’t encounter Thomas in those other places, wherever else he was. Or, perhaps to say it better: Thomas didn’t encounter Jesus. Jesus knew what Thomas needed; as soon as he came into the room he was addressing Thomas’s request. So we could presume that Jesus might have been trying to find Thomas, to deal with his concern and meet his need the whole rest of the week.

I’d say it’s reasonable to expect that Thomas encountered the risen Jesus as the lady behind the counter at the falafel shop. And amid the crowds he was passing in the marketplace. And Jesus probably showed up in the hotel clerk on spring break. And was pumping gas by an off ramp. He arrived amid the awaited guests, and also outsiders kept at bay. And he was wherever it was Thomas thought he had something better to do. And Jesus was also very likely there with Thomas when he was so sad and lonesome.

But Thomas couldn’t recognize it. He didn’t know. He couldn’t spot Jesus in those places. Even if Jesus was coming to find him and help him, still Thomas figured he was lacking, was missing out, didn’t get what he needed…until that second Sunday gathering.

So it’s certainly not that Jesus is locked in this place, that here behind our closed doors is the only place Jesus could show up to meet us. He’s surely on the loose and working in the world and present absolutely everywhere you go. But you may not recognize him. You may not be able to receive from him. You may in some way first need to be here amid the gathered community to be found by him.

The other really remarkable thing is that amid those gathered believers on that 2nd Sunday of Easter, Jesus seemed to come specifically to find Thomas in his need. He has barely said a howdy to the rest of the clan, but zeroes in directly on Thomas and shows up especially because Thomas needs him.

That must be true in this place, too, though it can feel like a counterintuitive truth. We often expect that we’re closer to God when everything is going well, that on our best days is when we’re most blessed, that cleanliness is close to godliness, and that we’re ready to praise when we ourselves are so happy and excited and enthusiastic, that faith is riding high at the top of the wave. But this truth is that Jesus comes into the mess and the sorrow and isolating grief and low points when everything is going wrong, precisely to find you in your moment of need.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, in other places Jesus leaves the 99 sheep to go in search of the lost one, and he says that he is the doctor who has come not for those who are feeling healthy and doing just fine but for the sick. He finds the outcasts and welcomes them in. And restores sinners to holy community. And takes the children in his arms. And on and on. He is a scarred and heartfelt Lord, on the lookout for our scared and hurt-filled lives, our times of need, our deepest longings and worst worries.

So if you arrive amid this community today and think you’ve got it all figured out and are happy and not needing much, well, if that happens to be your position, I’m really glad you’re still in the right place, but I’ll say with only a little overstatement that Jesus might not need to bother much with you today.

But if you arrive here and all is not well, if you’re longing and hurting, if you have felt left out, if you’re overwhelmed by what scares you or saddens you or what has failed, if it seems that everyone is against you or that everyone else got to have what you’ve missed out on, and exactly if none of this seems like you can quite believe it…then counterintuitively and with immense difficulty, it is exactly for you that Jesus shows up.

It may be the hardest for you to see, to believe, to know—but Jesus comes today and right now into this room, comes directly to you, and says, “I am here for you. I am here with life everlasting that cannot be stopped. I am here to wipe your tears. I am here to embrace and surround you with love. I am here to forgive you. I am here to foster the reconciliation that’s more than you could hope. I give you peace—peace such as the world cannot give—for your fears and anxieties. I breathe my Spirit into you, inspiring you, filling you with purpose. I am here to respond to your needs, offering my very self, that you may go back out from here and live, that you may have life.”

It is for you that Jesus was risen. He was raised to resurrect you, too, to demonstrate your injuries can no longer ultimately harm you. And so precisely in the lowest moments, we exclaim the highest praise: Alleluia! Christ is risen!


“I don’t know.”

Easter sermon on John 20:1-18


It’s kind of a strange story, so let’s see if we can figure this out:

I heard this morning there was a rabbit roaming around…with eggs. To carry a basket full of eggs, I presume it was some sort of gargantuan bigfoot bunny, which must walk upright, since it couldn’t go hippity-hoppity without spilling eggs. My understanding is that this rabbit was distributing the eggs in surprising locations. Now, I don’t think anybody claims the irregular rabbit laid the eggs, but I’m still not clear if the rabbit stole from our MCC coop, or contracted with magical chickens for specialty eggs in a rainbow of colors, or what. They must be unusual eggs, to come in stripy assortments of vibrant gem tones and pleasant pastels. And with unusual fillings, I think, too, not just plain ol’ yokes.

What do we say about that? Can we figure out how that all came together? Can we know what’s going on here?

There’s an explanation involving connections to the earth and natural cycles, that bunnies and eggs are about spring and fertility and reproduction and abundance and how life persists in nature around us, and therefore can also be celebrated by us.

Sure, I’m in favor of those things. It’s not wrong as an explanation. But it still misses the mark. It explains away the strangeness. I mean, this is a bunny in a bow tie benevolently bouncing along with wicker-ware brimming with brightly shellacked chocolate avian hatchables! That’s not normal!

Take that as my peculiar preface into cautioning against explaining away or writing off this strange Easter saga. We shouldn’t construe that Jesus rising from the dead means the indomitable spirit of life! that love conquers all!! that we shall overcome some day!!! that there are always fresh beginnings!!!! that those who die heroically standing up for what they believe in will never really perish from our memories!!!!!

Blah blah blah.

Again, there’s none of that that’s not true. And it may even find truth embodied in this story. But embodiment takes a body. It’s not just a metaphor. No arbitrary archetype.  Jesus isn’t just a symbol of humanity or a sign of love. Certainly there’s no hint in this Bible reading that it’s so easily and hollowly explained as the triumph of life or the revolutionary spirit any more than this is a story of Jesus popping out of his hole in the ground, rubbing his beady little eyes, glancing around, and declaring in his groundhoggiest grumble that the six more weeks of winter should be up and it’s time for spring. This day isn’t just a seasonal festival, that green things are alive and will return and grow after being dormant and dark through the winter, even though we’re mostly suckered into treating this as a benign holiday, showing up in nice bright cheery clothes to declare the doldrums of Lent behind us, gorge on jelly beans and ham, and look forward to summer.

That doesn’t allow the strangeness to stand. No, through and through this story is dealing with a specific particular, singular conundrum. So to give it credit, we should pay attention.

This account of Jesus’ death and resurrection is shocking and strange. If it were simply about a spirit of justice fighting against oppression, the story could’ve easily run that after Jesus was killed, his followers refused to back down and stormed the gates shouting “remember the Alamo!” and overthrew the authorities and set things right. Or at least that they went down in a blaze of glory. We know such stories. There are even examples from history around the time of Jesus.

But that’s not this strange story. Instead we’ve got Sunday morning and an empty tomb. Maybe to stick us with the strangeness and warn against claiming we’ve got it figured out, the first interpretation comes from Mary Magdalene saying, “We don’t know.” The body is gone and we don’t know where it got put. Right away, there’s something that we don’t understand, the re-entrenched mystery, the lack of clarity and resolution.

That “we don’t know where they’ve laid him” could lead to various speculations. We might transpose this to a Halloween setting and picture Dr. Frankenstein and Eye-gore scavenging as grave robbers. Or maybe like Mary oddly does, we guess a gardener was doing spring cleaning and tidying up by moving corpses around the cemetery?

Whatever it is, notice they’re on the lookout for a body. There’s no sense in here that Jesus is gone because his true self is now up in heaven, that his soul has floated away, that only his earthly remains…remain. No, that rather precisely misses the point. This isn’t our popular notion of death and loss and relocation. This is about a dead body, and eventually encountering a body back to life. Jesus was God in the flesh for us, and this still is in the flesh. The spiritual cannot be separated from that. It can’t get dug up from earth and dislodged from what we know. God is here and in this way. The gospel is insistent on that.

So, hearing the ridiculous report from Mary of this missing body, Peter and the other disciple go sprinting off to the graveyard, evidently needing to get there in a hurry because the dead guy is making a quick getaway and they need to catch up? I don’t know. They observe that—indeed—he’s gone, though the graveclothes are still there.

Then, in an odd verse without much clarification, it says that they “saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand that Jesus must rise from the dead.” And then they went home. I’m not sure what they were believing, if they didn’t understand what was happening to Jesus. Maybe they just finally believed what Mary told them, though her honesty is a miniscule detail to bother believing. Not much of godly faith there. The going home is also such a strange resolution. They didn’t put on their detective caps and exclaim, “We’ll get to the bottom of this.” They sort of seemed to shrug and go about life.

I worry about that for us: believing without understanding, we may sing Alleluias and then disregard the whole thing, shrug, finish spring break, and get on with what we were doing before.

Not Mary. She keeps trying to understand. And she keeps failing. She’s already begun her confession of faith, her creedal statement by saying that she doesn’t know. And twice more she repeats that, once to the angels, and once to incognito Jesus. Mary’s most faithful refrain is not knowing. “We do not know. I do not know. She did not know.” Three times here.

Amid not having a clue what was going on, while having so little figured out, while not understanding Easter much at all…and while admitting that, declaring it, confessing it through grief and tears and the conflict of doubt and hope, that’s when Jesus shows up to greet Mary, to comfort her, to stay in relationship with her, to redirect her faith, to lead her again into life.

And also with you.

What do we say about that? Can we figure out how that all came together? Can we know what’s going on here?

For us on this Easter I’d really like to be able to explain it all. It would be nice to understand clearly and believe without a doubt. It’d be satisfying to have a grip on the facts. Helpful to explicate it in terms of implications for cellular biology and the conservation of elements.

I’d like to identify how it is that Jesus disappeared from the graveyard but reappears in this bread, and then trace how from this bread he takes on flesh in you. I’d like to help you see that in a mirror.

In your flesh, I’d like to resolve what it means that death has been undone, and even more to clarify why death still seems so persistent, though it has already and finally lost. I’d like to illustrate and realize your imaginations of innovative beginnings and fresh starts and endless joy of life that is wholly new.

I’d like to invigorate and encourage you forward into life with this invincible insurgent Spirit that won’t be stopped or stooped in fear by the B.S. that the authorities keep trying to swamp you in.

I’d like to offer instructions on how you tap into this undying love and inspirational life, for when your days do seem blah and it’s hard to go on with your routines, and you’re confused and you just shrug and weep. I’d like to predict how this makes you a better person and forecast the process of reconciliation that it must entail, the peace you’ll receive.

I’d like to tell you how you’ll see Jesus, what it will sound like when he calls your name, when you’ll see dead loved ones again, how it keeps spreading and will finally culminate on earth, and evidently across the cosmos. I’d like to know.

To lead you again into life, I’d like to assure you that the fragrance of flowers and the warmth of sun and the trill of songbirds already understand the good news and embody it along with and ahead of you.

I believe and trust this all intensely. But most truly I don’t understand. Like Mary, my faithful refrain is: “I don’t know.” It’s strange and I can’t explain. All I can do for now—with great joy, full of hope, in comfort and compassion, continuing with the vaguest notion that it is the best good news ever—is to proclaim:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!


a new hymn:  Alleluia?

Alleluia Easter18




Easter sunrise sermon

John 20:1-18


Beginning in the graveyard, we confront the void of death.

Though we may we go for the memories—even calling ours here a “memorial” garden—still what we remember highlights what is lacking, the loss, people no longer with us.

As we began this morning, you may have been surrounded by names of those you had known and had loved. Or those markers of concluded lifespans may have called to mind other deaths, the absence and loss of people you are having to live without, the vacancy and emptiness it leaves, holes in your life that should rightly be filled by the presence of those you miss.

Early on Easter morning, that memorial garden is the right setting for us. It is where our story begins. I’ll say it again, because it contradicts normal understanding: our story does not end in a graveyard. We begin there.

This morning’s graveyard gathering did start in the usual way. A woman went to grieve, to mourn the worst as best she could, to deal with death, to confront loss and her sorrow. Mary Magdalene went to weep at the tomb of Jesus.

But instead of only looking back to recall the memories, instead of finding a hollower way forward without this dear one, instead of abysmal endings—instead Mary is confronted with presence, with a new hour of beginnings, with much more to come. Mary thought she would find nobody. But then—after she found no…body—then somebody found her. Jesus. Presence filled the location of lack. Death’s place had been displaced and transformed into life.

We might not have mistaken a memorial gardener this morning to be revealed as Jesus himself, but we did encounter that promise. Like Mary met by Jesus, we’re reminded those gravestones are not for weeping and wailing only but also stones that will cry out Alleluias, not only looking back but looking ahead, the transformation of joy, love coming again, rising to encounter Jesus amid the community of all the saints. That hope joins us in the joyful refrain:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In a variation of that same sense, we arrived into this space with an echo of an Easter evening encounter at Emmaus (Luke 24). Followers of Jesus were in lamentation, disappointed, not only doubt hounding them but despair as they walked away from Jerusalem, away from their hopes in Jesus, their longing apparently proven worthless.

But their void, too, became filled. As Mary hadn’t, neither did they recognize Jesus. When this compassionate stranger took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them, in this ritual, Jesus was made known to them. With the realization of his presence in the meal, he vanished from sight. Still, they found themselves opened to hope and could glimpse the goodness continuing, possibility restored to live again.

So for us this morning, after meeting life in the garden of death, we came in here and were given communion, the breaking of the bread, the presence of Jesus made known among us, showing up in the void, invisibly manifest. Again, maybe just a taste of the fullness, Jesus disappearing before we even knew to recognize he was here, but with the awareness that this practice provides for us, sustains us somehow. That little morsel placing on our lips again the glad refrain:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Beyond that, markers and memorials abound, of life triumphant over death, of love that shall overcome, of Jesus entering our void and drear. He comes in cheery chimes, in the skill of Emily’s fingers, the later blare of brass, in exuberant song bursting from your own lungs, words stifled too long, abounding in Alleluias:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Maybe Jesus finds you through this Easter garden, the death of the cross flowered with bright fragrant new life, greened from roughness of death, our dark and longing Maundy Thursday confessions now only found amid beauty. Maybe all gardens in this season become a sacrament of the end not being blankness of death’s void but the warm touch that calls back to life again, a burnt prairie’s blackness to health, the surprise of sprouts, the budding beauty, seeming more with each moment of spring days to shout:20180401_074522

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

More subdued but one of my favorite symbols of life shared and spreading is this paschal candle. A 1600 year old chant about this Easter candle marks the miracle that its “brightness is not diminished even when its light is divided and borrowed” for baptismal candles and lit again at funerals, shining reminders that Easter isn’t Jesus only as resurrected Lord but as resurrecting Lord. He shared our death so we may share his life. There is real consequence for us, too, in proclaiming:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

You may be brought out of the void of meaninglessness and fear by passion that strives ahead. We use the term passion for fierce commitments, driving determination. More, the passion of Jesus that led to his death fills you also with his Spirit. So even when sadness and obstacles would stand in the way, in his resurrection Jesus inspires you for his loving purpose to live on.

To help our understandings of Jesus through this Holy Week, we have been hearing again from Martin Luther King. This week is the 50th anniversary of his assassination, a death because of his passion to stand up for humanity—against racism, poverty, war, and more. In his final words the night before he was shot, Martin Luther King happened to say:

I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. I may not get there with you. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any [one]. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.*

And that’s what we believe, too, as we share this work, this ministry, this vocation of living God’s will. We are part of the community of struggle, of passion for humanity. So even when it’s hard and we’d have reason to be fearful, still we may be confident that the Spirit of Jesus lives on with us, and with Martin Luther King, we also can say, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” We also can say:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Or in proliferating examples, maybe today in full feast tables you see Jesus showing up with the embodiment of life that contradicts the void of the graveyard. Or in smiling faces with candy-filled baskets. Or in the pause of a holiday. Or the rising sunshine’s warmth. Or in your heart that yearns and hopes and expects there must be something more.

In this new hour that has come to dawn, though there’s so much not yet clear early in the morning and early in our understanding, this risen Jesus in disappearing disguises is arriving to find you. Already there’s the reverberation of his promise, an abundance of his life taking on flesh in us, unstoppable hints of good news, already and with more to come:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!


* April 3, 1968. “I See the Promised Land” in A Testament of Hope, p266.