When’s Easter?

sermon on Luke 24:13-35


This Bible story set on Easter evening fits for us a week out from Easter. We may ask ourselves what difference it has made in this week. Has the resurrection changed anything and helped us in these days? Has it redeemed anything? Saved us? What of that good news has gone with us, or what has gone away? Did you wish it would mean more, would do something better for you?

Those two people in the reading heard the same report we did: Jesus is not in the tomb. The proclamation is he’s been raised. They also had that message in their ears: Alleluia. Christ is risen.

But it didn’t help. They remained confused. They were still overcome with sadness. They kept trying to figure it out, to analyze it—to theologize or psychologize or mythologize or even eulogize the meaning as they went back on the slow, sometimes painful journey into regular old life, the life without Jesus.

They could repeat what had happened in those days. They even knew it would happen: Jesus had said he would die and on the third day rise again. They’ve got the creed right. But it didn’t seem to help those two disciples: After everything else, we thought this was it, this was the time, this was the solution, this was the way out.

It’s marked by maybe the saddest phrase we can speak or feel: we were hoping. We had hoped. It holds the bitterest of endings, the completely collapsing disappointment, utterly lonely lost-ness of all that could have been, was supposed to be.

It’s a phrase that glowers in our lives, when there is simply no more chance, no way, that the feeling of good is in the past: I had hoped to be able to have children. We had hoped the test results were not that, that the treatment would work. I had hoped to get into that school, to make the team, to make friends. I had hoped that this job was a good fit. We hoped our efforts could’ve been effective. I had hoped to avoid the accident. We hoped the election returns would come in with a few more votes to count. We’d hoped we were done with snow! I had hoped to live long enough… We were hoping this relationship would work out. I’d hoped I made the right decision. I hoped I’d get help. We were hoping, we had hoped. We used to have hope, but the hope is gone, has left us with only despair, an unhappy ending.

So sad and shut up, such past tense hope. There aren’t back-up possibilities then, and plan B’s and ready alternatives and second-best choices. With Everything pinned on it, when hope is gone, there’s nothing left. All is lost except hollow tears, aimless steps, disenchanted thoughts. I’m sorry even to mention it, to call them to mind. I grieve with you in each overwhelming, all-encompassing instance.

So Easter certainly ought to speak to that. Jesus needs to make a difference.

That is what we proclaimed last week: death itself is undone, so all the other dead endings have pathways out. It’s the start of a whole new creation, beyond all the old, a new 8th day that makes a difference, a new thing, a new hope. We celebrated not just for a pleasant little diversion, not just observing tradition. It wasn’t to spice up death, to dress it up, to put roses on a grave, make believe that things could be cheery and pretty, while ignoring the reality we really knew.

No, we said this changed everything. God’s blessing totally unleashed to set us free from all that had trapped us, all that held us back, all that left us in despair. We said that. Maybe even momentarily believed it, right?

But then we went out, back into the other existence, the normal rhythms, the close encounters with stuff that saps hope. From the blahs to frantic, from mild uncertainty to drowning despair, if you had a week at all like me, you could feel hopes slipping out of your fingers, unable to be gripped and held close to your heart. It wasn’t that I forgot. It was just that Easter didn’t eventually seem to matter much. I felt like I was facing it all without inspiration from the Holy Spirit, without God’s love, without the unstoppable Jesus.

In such moments, I go on the hunt. I don’t want to give up. I want to present-tense-hope it can and will be better. Because I’m desperate, I want Jesus. Feeling hopeless, I all but beg for hope.

Those two disciples were trudging along, trying to figure it out. It may be hoping against hope, but they’re still talking it through, looking for answers. It’s over, seeming there’s nothing possible, but they keep looking.

I want to share a bit of a companion who walked along on my hunt this week, from the autobiography of Catholic monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton. I was reading it as one of my Lenten disciplines, but I’m not very disciplined and not all that diligent at devotion; even those good things can be too much and fall by the wayside. So I am only a third of the way through the book even though we’re beyond Lent. This week in a few pages before bed I read this passage on looking for God and goodness and direction and meaning but not being able to see it. I’m going to share an extended chunk. It’s also beautiful, as we’re celebrating Earth Day Sunday. Writing about when Hitler came to power, and when he himself wasn’t a believer, Merton said:

People seem to think that [horrors of war are] in some way a proof that no merciful God exists… On the contrary… There is not a flower that opens, not a seed that falls into the ground, and not an ear of wheat that nods on the end of its stalk in the wind that does not preach and proclaim the greatness and the mercy of God to the whole world.

There is not an act of kindness or generosity, not an act of sacrifice done, or a word of peace and gentleness spoken, not a child’s prayer uttered, that does not sing hymns to God…

All of these things, all creatures, every graceful movement, every ordered act of the human will, all are sent to us as prophets from God. But because of our stubbornness they come to us only to blind us further…

We refuse to hear the million different voices through which God speaks to us, and every refusal hardens us more and more against [God’s] grace—and yet God continues to speak to us…

God, how often in the last centuries have you not come down to us, speaking to us in our mountains and groves and hills, and telling us what was to come upon us, and we have not heard you. How long shall we continue to be deaf to your voice?

When I [traveled], your love went with me, although I could not know it, and could not make myself aware of it…

I was not sure where I was going, and I could not see…But you saw further and clearer than I…and you were even then preparing for me…my shelter and my home. And when I thought there was no God and no love and no mercy, you were leading me all the while.

(Seven Storey Mountain, p128-130)

In front of our eyes, through our lives is God’s tireless relentless effort for the good, the constant loving pursuit of life on your behalf. Yet we don’t know, don’t understand. For all of our searching and trying to figure it out, for all the truth that is right around us, we remain lost and despairing.

The two followers of Jesus walked the road with Jesus, with him right next to them, with the solution to their sadness, the very constant presence of hope, but didn’t (or couldn’t?) even know it.

We wander into here today, still looking, for what God would have to say, for reassurance, for some sort of possibility when in way too many ways it seems there isn’t anything left. We look and listen and ponder and still don’t see.

But Jesus walks in with you. He walks along as the Scriptures are opened and reveals himself in them. And he sets this table, an unknown stranger in our midst, and vanishes and isn’t visible as himself even as soon as you’d come to know that he was here. But in the breaking of the bread, as he himself takes it, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to you, he is here for you.

That is why we do these things week after week. This isn’t just a week later, gone by. As every Sunday, this is a celebration of resurrection, of the new creation, of Easter all over again. We gather with opening the Scriptures so Jesus can be illuminated in them. We gather at this table, because it is here he might be made known.

I can’t guarantee that you’ll see. I can’t make it happen. You can’t make it happen for yourself. But still more than in sprouting flowers or acts of sacrificial kindness or the path ahead that leads homeward, in this small and simple practice of ongoing Easter, this preaching and communion, this Word and Sacrament come to be reliable places where when all is lost, you may be found again, where when you’re wondering where Jesus is he may be revealed, where your hope may be restored, and life itself.

I can’t pull back the curtain. I can’t offer explanations. That would go back to theologizing and the fruitless trying to figure it out on our own. I can’t say how it functions to restore you, can’t detail what it means for Jesus to encounter your despair, how he deals with that to overcome your sadness.

But I trust he’s here. And I pray that once again you can go out with joy, with confidence, with hope, at least for another week.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.


Wanted: Dead or Alive

 Easter sermon on Luke 24:1-12

I was wondering about my place, about our places in this Easter Bible reading.

It may seem egotistical, but I think of my outfit for worship as pretty dazzling clothes. And if I invite John Rowe in his sport coat and necktie to stand up here with me, then we’d be two men in dazzling clothes! Since I’m stationed to deliver a message about resurrection, I can make the leap to picture us like those greeters in the reading.

It doesn’t call those two men angels, so we could probably just picture a coupla schnazzy dressers hanging around the cemetery Sunday morning with gossip, except the actual word isn’t just schnazzy or dazzling, but—even flashier—that their clothes looked like “lightning.” I can’t claim that, and neither can John. Maybe it involves more sequins? I guess you can sit down.

Continuing to look for our place in the reading, I then notice the women. These faithful women had been with Jesus since early in the story, aiding him, evidently wealthy enough to support him and his entourage.

As followers, they were there for his teaching, healing the sick, helping the poor, had been with him to feast and celebrate, through confusions and confrontations, radical inclusions and shocking expectations. They traveled with him as his face was set to Jerusalem, were with the multitude who acclaimed Jesus as a king of peace when he arrived last Sunday, with him at his last supper, as he was betrayed, arrested, condemned, demeaned, as he was crucified, died, and was buried.

That’s plenty of experience for these faithful women. They faced some daunting challenges, some daring mission, some horrible sadness, and now some creepy mystery. They’ve faced a lot, yet nevertheless they persisted.

After the tragedy, after goodbye, after loss and death, this morning they were no longer able to provide for Jesus’ needs, but at least to show the right respect to his corpse.

I figure they align with dedicated women, and a few non-women, here today, who have persisted through life’s ups and downs, sorrows and joys, through all the demands that come, striving to respond and meet them faithfully, as you are eager to do what’s right, as you want to be close to God.

Unfortunately, those women weren’t trusted and ended up sidelined, along with the shocking news they came to bear. The deeply egalitarian early church went on succumbing to neglect the goodness of this good news from faithfully apostolic women and instead ossified back into corrupting powers of patriarchal society, from which God’s Spirit is still trying to resuscitate us, call us out from deadly harm, so we, too, rise again, renewed for life in right relationship.

That tragic, failing edge, falling back to deadly ways makes me look for our place in the story neither with me and John cast as flashy angelic heralds, nor with our women who keep on keeping on, tenaciously continuing through life’s story.

We had the best news, the most incredible belief, liberating us for the sake of life that could not be stopped, and yet we somehow fell through and failed at it and kept backsliding and couldn’t break free. We give in to the ungodly. That makes me believe that our place in the story is with the dead.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” those dazzling messengers prompted outside of the tomb.

We must admit we draw these lines with self-confidence, never comprehending we could be wrong. We immediately say it’s either/or, dead or alive. In a cemetery, you claim your category simply by which side of the grass you’re on. I’d bet every one of you wants to tally yourself in the living column. Who here is alive?

Yet we begin to recognize it’s not so clear-cut or obvious.

This week there was an NPR story about pig brains.* (Not to nauseate you before ham lunch.) Scientists got pig heads from a slaughterhouse. We start with our unambiguous decision: severed pork skulls, living or dead? Dead! And yet the scientists pumped in a chemical cocktail of anti-seizure meds and ten hours after those cloven-hoofed cleaved-off craniums were officially dead, electrical signals kept sparking.

The story said, “The implications of this study have staggered ethicists, as they contemplate how this research… fits into the current understanding of what separates the living from the dead.” Because NPR is a classy outfit, they had the good taste to include a Princess Bride quote: “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.”

Now, I think that’s pretty cool research. But I’m not here for the details about it. I’m not here to tally what counts as all dead. I’m not here for the ethical conundrums. I’m not even here for good movie lines. And I’m certainly not trying to prove that Jesus, crucified and laid in the tomb, was not just “mostly dead” before he was alive again.

What struck me with this news story and the cutting-edge (butcher pun intended) research, is the element of surprise about what separates the living from the dead and questions of life vs. death. Those are old issues for us who come to church, especially during this Holy Week. We’ve known the blurriness of those lines all along, and known where we stand. Or perhaps lie. “We have been crucified with Christ, buried by baptism into death,” the early church proclaimed.

The lightning ambassadors at the tomb asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” To be honest, those faithful women weren’t looking for the living among the dead. They were expecting to find the dead among the dead. They thought they were alive, but that Jesus was firmly and forever removed from that category into the classification of dead. Period. Solid stop.

But Jesus undid that equation, not only for himself but for those women at the tomb seeking death, and for all of us, trapped in death and captive to its clutches. It’s an odd phrase for the standard framework, but here’s the truth: Jesus used to be dead. He isn’t anymore. You, too, used to be dead. No longer confined in the tomb, no longer finalized in death, no longer ended, no longer subject to the empire, no longer constrained by oppressions, no longer even trying to define the days by duties to do or how to avoid death as long as possible.

Jesus has stepped from the other side of our imaginary line, and left us realizing the line isn’t so clear as we name in statistics or in our scarediness and scarcity.

Why look for the living among the dead? Because that’s where Jesus comes to find us. He brings his life everywhere we’re entombed and doomed by death.

Yes, absolutely, this means the biggest thing: that death is not the end. That’s why our early service began in the memorial garden sharing communion. We are still and ever the communion of saints. The full graves and empty spots at our tables aren’t really the permanent reality. There is reunion feast and life to come. Separation is not final. Death does not last. Life is final and forever!

Still, this isn’t a hope on hold, a recourse only for what were allegedly last moments. If it’s about reunion beyond death, not just about one empty tomb long ago, but every final resting place becoming a mere rest stop on the way to fully renewed relationships, then it’s also about the so-called dead ends now, when things seem to be over. This must mean reconciliation, possibility, new beginnings, healing not just of fractured and failing bodies but of our interactions.

Sometimes that may hit close to home, like in your house, which may even feel like its own tomb needing new life. But it’s also much more rampant, running across this world, against a sense of helplessness or hopelessness. Besides death creeping into our bodies and lives, we feel despair in these days declared dark, that we’re worried, attacked, captive to trauma in each headline, with the inescapable harms inflicted on the planet through systems we can’t seem to do anything about.

In another death this week that was not quite ultimate, I kept reading that the burning of Notre Dame was sad because we needed a good, beautiful place like that when the world seems such a bad, ugly place. I have to say, that feels a like looking for the living among the living, as if God is someplace separate from this world, as if we need an escape room, to flee our reality in order to have good or find God.

But Jesus comes into and through death to share life. So maybe Jesus is not looking to be shut behind the stone, re-buried in our buildings, but instead wants to be out roaming and rambling on behalf of life, showing up in memorial gardens and hospitals and in detention centers and during despair and depression, against destruction and domination. He’s in this service of a memorial meal in confusing communion, but also at your lunch table agitations and somber fearfulness that awaits Monday and Tuesday and each day.

Why do you look for the living among the dead? You think you’ll find life by turning over each secret stone? This isn’t about your hunts and searching. I’m sorry, but this isn’t about the road to recovery or your path to success or pursuit of happiness or seeking the meaning of life or spiritual direction. Those only contend with death. And all your looking won’t provide a way out, while it also ignores the greater truth.

You come here to remember the words of Jesus, what he told you. That’s what the flashy messengers mention. We look back to look forward. As you’re looking forward to leaving here, you don’t go out with something to do, to chase after. You go out free. You go with confidence, with faith. You may go out with joy. Because Jesus is on the loose to find you, and he leaves no stone unturned or unrolled away. You go out to live, to life, alive. The one who always looks among the dead finds you to give you life.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

* https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/04/17/714289322/scientists-restore-some-function-in-the-brains-of-dead-pigs


I Spy

sermon on Luke 18:31-19:10


Let’s look at three modes of practicing our faith, or versions of following Jesus.

The first simply looks at Jesus himself in the first part of this reading. In these weeks of Lent, we’ve heard that his face is set toward Jerusalem, and now he’s close. At Jericho, near the Dead Sea, it’s a climb from 850 feet below sea level up the desert mountains to Jerusalem 2500 feet above sea level. Jesus is almost there, with apparently full awareness of what he’s walking into. He says again today he’s expecting to be hurt by this, to be betrayed, insulted, and even to give up his life.

This is the big self-sacrifice sort of thing, and some people envision that exactly as what it means to be faithful, that it means being like Jesus, being willing to take any risk and confront danger and go against the grain and not do what’s easy, but really to stand up for what you believe in, putting life and limb on the line. That it’s in some way giving yourself up for others.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I wouldn’t say Jesus is looking to be flattered, but maybe we’d still identify this as praise, recognizing the validity and value of his way and striving to be a disciple in this quintessential form, of doing like Jesus. Indeed, it’s become so much the epitome example that we may even presume simply that that’s what it is to be a Christian, that you’re supposed to give up your wellbeing, your time and resources, your identity, to give up your life. It’s a high standard of expectations!

And if that’s what you imagine for practicing this faith and following Jesus, to do just what he does, and be like him, then you’re not exactly in line with the followers story, since those around Jesus didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. They’re physically following along, but don’t expect or understand that it should be like this at all!

So we move to the next version or mode of faith with the next person in the story. We get a blind beggar. This model is not the charging into danger version, not the one who forsakes security in order to encounter risk, but the one whose life is already at risk, already in trouble, already dealing with dangerous circumstances, for his own sake, who needs relief, some escape, some help, something other than his current state.

These are also apparent moments in our lives, when we are desperate and scared and searching. I occasionally have friends who never usually come show up at church after an accident or some sort of trauma, when the bottom seems to be falling out of life. It’s when I get phone calls as a pastor or people stopping into my office, as well. Faith (and maybe the church) can be a ready answer when there feels nowhere left to turn, no forthcoming answers, when you’ve exhausted possibility and you are exhausted.

For the vision-impaired person in the Bible reading, it wasn’t just an acute health crisis but also meant a breakdown in relationships as he was excluded from social circles and then the further struggle of financial strain. We can relate to the variety of those overlapping difficulties, when relationships break apart, when the assistance we need is falling short, when we’re worried about how the bills will come together, when our bodies won’t cooperate to be what we wish, when it is just plain hard to function in life.

The blind man cried out “Have mercy on me!” I don’t know that that means he’s thinking his blindness is caused by sin, but our minds do often go there, wondering what we did to deserve our dire situations, if we’re being punished, if it could’ve been avoided.

Maybe the cry for mercy is just a yearning to be seen, to be noticed, to be included. The blind beggar—even before a question of regaining sight himself, of being able to see Jesus—is most eagerly hoping to be seen by Jesus, that when no one else cares or will help or pay attention, Jesus might. And Jesus does, indeed, see him and hear him and respond to him. Jesus declares him saved, well, reintegrated into society, no longer marginalized.

So he follows Jesus. We could picture him walking along with Jesus, from the outskirts of town back into a place among others.

But, of course, we also take the praising God and following Jesus as a necessary degree of response, another of the “shoulds” and “oughts” of faith. He had cried out in his desperation and longing, needing something different, hoping for something more. And he was heard and seen and seeing. So we presume he should be grateful, ought to respond with respective dedication, that it is indeed right—and maybe even a duty—for him to give thanks and praise, that his life should be changed, that he is supposed to recognize the change and live differently.

With that perspective or tendency, though, I want to point us to the third version, the third mode of faith. That’s Zacchaeus. And in our non-desperate moments, aside from emergencies or low times of depression, when life is just plugging along, his mode may have the most consistent fit for us.

Some versions of the Bible translate his lines to Jesus as “I will pay back” in the future tense, making it a response and change because of the love and grace Jesus has shown him. Certainly I hope that things can sometimes operate that way for us, that we are better people because we’ve been to church, that you are more loving and caring because you’ve been loved by Jesus, that your faith gives you confidence to act boldly.

But we should recognize that that’s partly a show we like to put on, wanting to seem good.

In that way, if we’re honest, we could name churches after this guy: St. Zacchaeus Lutheran Church. He’s our patron. See, when he talks about reimbursing those he has harmed, it’s actually pretty minimal, maybe some showboating PR, and not much change. It’s about like a politician saying, Well I always drive the speed limit, or a student asserting, But I never cheat on the final exam! It’s not actually a very convincing display of uprightness. In that society, any wealth he had at all would’ve been seen as an injustice, as coming by it dishonestly. It was always a zero-sum game and so if he was rich, it meant it was at the expense of others in his community, which is why they had good reason to look down on him and disparage him.

But Zacchaeus doesn’t show much remorse, doesn’t offer to liquidate his assets. They might’ve wished his encounter with Jesus could’ve even led him to renounce his career and take up a different line of work, or become a permanent follower of Jesus. He’s sure not taking on the empire or taking up his cross. Instead, our translation today highlights a show of self-justification, our claims to be trying hard even while continuing mostly in our old patterns. Zacchaeus says he was already at least minimally good, and wanted that to be enough.

We, too, cling to our claims that we’re good enough. We contribute to charitable causes. Even for a few bucks, we figure our support is saving the world in some small way. Or we watch our mouths on occasion, so that must count for something. Or we at least haven’t murdered anybody today. Or we want to be good. Pretty minimal standards.

Now, Jesus could’ve warned Zacchaeus that he was bound for hell if he didn’t do better, that he should sell all he had and give the money to the poor, could’ve said that the requirements were bigger and Zacchaeus was really supposed to live up to all of that. Instead, Jesus just says he’s hungry and coming over for supper.

We could say Zacchaeus was trying both physically and spiritually to climb up to see Jesus, but yet again what matters is that Jesus saw him. So it wasn’t what he had done right or what he promised to do right in the future. Jesus was there for him as he was, loving him as a child of God, identifying him as a member of the beloved community.

Our Savior Jesus calls it a game of hide and seek, but we insist on playing it backward. We think we need to go on the hunt for Jesus, to track him down, to see him, to do something special to be on the right path.

But he is the one who comes to find the lost, to seek you out wherever you are, whether you feel lost or wondering if you’re hidden or are far from him or imagine yourself right behind him. He sees you. He spies with his little eye. He finds you when you’re desperate. He finds you when you think you’re doing pretty well and when you should be doing better. He finds you when nobody else wants to. He finds you even by climbing up to Jerusalem and facing the fiercest powers and searching through the depths of death for you, losing himself to find you.

He’ll find you right here in this room this morning, and he’ll find you in all those rooms you’ll be in this week—bedrooms and boardrooms and bathrooms and classrooms and waiting rooms and more wherever you roam. Whether you’re looking for him or not, he has come to find you, to save you, to let you know you are not lost.

Ready or not, here he comes.