sermon for Easter Sunrise

­­­­­John 20:1-18


Let’s flip to hymn 237 and sing a couple stanzas of “I Come to the Garden Alone.”

I’ve never sung that in a Sunday service, much less given it pride of place amid Easter. But it reflects John’s telling of this early morning, of Mary Magdalene who begins alone, who has some strange encounters, fetches friends and fellow followers of Jesus, and then again winds up alone in the garden after the others leave.

Certainly that first feels fitting for sunrise service. Though you may not have Mary’s tenacity to linger after the rest of the congregation has come and gone, the early, solitary aspect feels applicable. We’re not quite alone, but it is a small gathering. We brave the early hours—even if not while it was still dark like for Mary Magdalene. But I do believe braving it is the correct term for our early, lonely trip to this worship service. Though (unlike Mary) we come expecting resurrection, expecting life, still there’s the challenge of what that’s going to mean. Those difficult reflections can require courage and bravery to address how this story could possibly fit into our lives. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So this early, quiet worship service may feel somewhat like Mary’s coming to the garden alone.

I want to disagree with that opening line from the song, though, and also with the refrain. First, it’s vital to note that she didn’t—and you don’t—actually arrive alone. There are others. You have a congregation, a set of siblings here who abide with you in figuring out this faith. But let’s press beyond that. The song gets some of my point, even while not appreciating it: Mary Magdalene wasn’t alone if there were dewy roses there in the garden and the birds who hushed their singing. As we’re in the garden, our eyes also awaken to faith’s expanding horizons and expectations of sharing in this wide community.

For simple starters, we are community with the birds, who don’t need our preaching to know the good news because—far from hushed—they were singing their Alleluias while it was still dark, before the sun had risen. In the breadth of garden community, there are also bees. Even as 30,000 ladies have recently repopulated our hives, bees help share the good news—in the words of a 1600 year old Easter prayer—as God’s servants who provide the wax for the resurrection paschal candle flame in the darkness.

And for another sense of how good news spreads, we gather this morning with lilies and tulips and daffodils. Their color is the vibrancy of new life, proclaiming the resurrection to us. More, their sweet aroma is the fragrance of Christ. That phrase comes from 2nd Corinthians, a delightfully unusual passage which says “thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (2:14-16). Maybe as we worship with this Easter garden this morning, we have a sense of this scent, a notion of what the aroma is about. We can smell what Jesus smells like, smell what salvation means, smell new life.

But to ponder that differently, might it also be in the smell of cooking ham, which may be a specific Easter fragrance in your household or memory? Even though it meant the death of the pig, it could be a smell “from life to life,” of sustenance, of community, of giving ourselves for the sake of another’s wellbeing.

I don’t want to force that to make the pig seem overly generous; after all, it didn’t have much choice. But to draw the connection for us, I suspect some of our aroma of Christ would have to smell like sweat, like BO, like we’ve been hard at work, toiling, serving and giving ourselves to each other for each other. We may not come out smelling like roses, but that would have to embody how Christ would smell.

You are sent with Christ’s scent. Our relationship with Jesus, as Jim Wallis reminds, is personal but not private. If we tarry alone with Jesus, we’re missing the point of our faith and the spread of new life. We don’t come to or remain in the garden alone, but always join in the ever-expanding triumphal procession, bearing the aroma of life from God to every place.

On the other hand, the song seems to overlook another aspect of loneliness. The refrain went “and he walks with me, and he talks with me…” But that was only very briefly true for Mary Magdalene. She couldn’t claim “the joy we share as we tarry there” since she barely had a chance to identify Jesus with her before he said “don’t hold onto me” and then was again gone.

That is harder still for us arriving this morning. We don’t get to see him to believe it. He neither walks with you nor talks with you in any tangible way. What we have largely is feeling of absence. That fits with actual Mary more than the version from the song. This reading is most embodied in her uncertain tears. Even when surrounded by angels and gardeners and flowers and birds, her grief is isolating. Nobody knows the troubles and sorrows you’ve seen. They are your own.

But that isolation, while a hard reality, is the past struggle and death of Good Friday. A dead end. Today, the resurrection moves us beyond grief and Jesus moves to new beginnings. Yet that’s not easy; in the culminating moment of this Holy Week’s theme of “God’s passion to liberate the oppressed,” this still involves risk, the risk of new life. There is risk since we often define ourselves by the old ways, by what we lost. Mary was a follower of Jesus, but could follow him no longer. She knew traditions and liturgies for funerals, had practices of how to mourn the dead. But she also had to relinquish those as she was sent with new life. She is sent to see the community around her in the instruction to take the message to her fellow disciples. It may be spoken in tears, but also is part of the practice of breaking through them.

The riskiest part of this freeing proclamation is almost certainly that we still feel defined and confined by death, isolated from God. The resurrection can hardly seem to apply to us when we still know way too much of the old life and have far too few glimmers of new.

But breaking out of that deadly isolation, the good news confronts us with another gardening metaphor of abundance: Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single [isolated, lonely] grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Bursting with Jesus from cold, dark, confines we join together: “Now the green blade rises! Love is come again!”


The Ins and Odds of Revelation

sermon for 4th Sun of Easter

Revelation5:11-4; John10:22-30; Psalm23; Acts9:36-43
Throughout this season of Easter, we’re hearing from Revelation, from start to finish—from the first chapter all the way to the very final words of our Bibles. Normally we would try to avoid it, thinking of this book as so foreign to our faith, yet in this part of our three-year cycle of lectionary readings, we are exposed to eight Sundays of Revelation. The Greek title, Apocalypse, is about, indeed, revealing or unveiling, about making something known. But our typical conception is that this is a strange and frightful book with mysterious interpretations, obscuring rather than revealing or clarifying our faith.

It may also, then, seem unusual that these readings we hear don’t seem to have much of the curious imagery and mysterious messages we associate with Revelation. I paged through this week to find out what we’re skipping past, and here’s a partial list: We skip someone man-like with white hair and fiery eyes and bypass lukewarm Christians and various markings on foreheads. We went past an open door to heaven and “casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea” (from the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”) as well as the fiery lake burning with sulfur. There would have been the famous four horsemen and Armageddon the sun black as sackcloth and 100-pound hailstones and stars falling from the sky and a bottomless pit. There’s a talking eagle and carnivorous armor-wearing locusts that sting like scorpions. A pregnant woman wearing the sun contrasts with the whore of Babylon (sorry for the language). Plus Revelation has loads of sevens: seven trumpets, seven seals on a scroll, seven stars and seven lampstands, seven plagues, seven angels, and seven thunders, seven mountains and seven kings and also a lot of three-and-a-halfs, as half of seven and maybe implicitly imperfect. There’s a seven-headed dragon and a great battle and the beast is conquered by the blood of the Lamb (an important concept we’ll come back to). There’s “Glory, glory! Hallelujah” (of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”), and “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (of “Hallelujah Chorus”). There’s “Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling! Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes!  The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria!” Okay, that last part I actually took from the movie “Ghostbusters.”

So if there’s all this other stuff—the creepy stuff and the strange and crazily unusual—we may wonder why our assigned Bible readings for this season ignore it. It’s even more noticeable given what we are picking up. For example, last week we heard the chorus of all creation singing “power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing,” and this week that choir’s anthem is “blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might.” There’s some variation, but not lots. They could’ve chosen a reading that showed some of the diversity of this peculiar book, that exposed us to something less repetitive and picked up the whacky wild weirdness of anything skipped.

So why skip it? Why bypass so much that seems to be the popularly intriguing or memorably fascinating parts?

One reason the Revised Common Lectionary may not choose those parts of Revelation is that they so often have been misread, misused. By skipping them, it is not only a protection for our beliefs, but also a protection for our neighbors on this planet who have been harmed by wrong readings of Revelation. Such wrong reading has most often tried to forecast, as if these images were predicting what might happen in the future.

That isn’t for just a few religious nuts who let their fundamentalism and literalism get the better of them. Rather, it has huge marketing sales, and shapes perceptions of all us Christians, and these problems even warp foreign policy of our nation. A theology invented just about 100 years ago not only came up with the rapture and naming antichrists, but still more outrageously claimed that humans can force the endtimes to begin through the political situation established in the Middle East, that Jesus will return when Israel has enough control, and when Jesus comes he’ll wipe out those Jewish people they’d formerly acted like they were helping. This Christian Zionism is convoluted and disgusting and is part of what makes our tax dollars contribute $10 million per day to Israeli military. To set some of this straight and not be deceived into strange misbelief is part of why I’m eager for you to experience the facts on the ground in the Holy Land with me this fall.

But I’ll say right now that Revelation was not written predicting what’s coming. It was written about the reality Christians were already facing. For them, it wasn’t just fantasy, imagination, and invention but real symbolism. They knew what this all meant because they knew their Bible and knew current events. They knew Babylon was the epitome of the Bible’s bad guys and knew seven hills meant Rome, the current imperial oppressor. It wasn’t language for us to decode or assign meaning that would only apply at some obscure point in history when the so-called stars aligned. It was sort of a graphic novel, a comic book portrayal of life as they already knew it, using classic creative imagery borrowed from the Bible, the Jewish Scriptures.

That isn’t exactly our circumstance. If I’m behind on the news or if I need to explain in a sermon why climate change is real and relevant, then we can’t do what Revelation was doing. The same if you don’t know the stories of Elijah and Elisha raising people from the dead to see the parallels in the Acts reading, or if you didn’t recognize that the “Ghostbusters” line wasn’t actually part of the Bible. Those realities for us change the playing field as we encounter Revelation.

What isn’t different, or may at least have remarkable parallels for us, is what those early Christians were going through. That they were using stories of faith, using the Bible to understand their circumstances is a valuable model for us. Faith isn’t locked up back in the past, nor waiting for some mysterious impending turning point, but is about God’s presence with you and assurances now.

Revelation, at its heart, is a message of encouragement, about persevering, about hope that endures. It becomes almost a refrain repeated over and over in the book. There is a long litany of all the terrible stuff, but then suddenly hope returns, reassurance is voiced, good news triumphs. A professor at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, Barbara Rossing, phrases it that “just when we’re expecting more destruction” then comes a “salvation interlude.”* That can be too true and too relatable for our lives, that you expect catastrophe after catastrophe, calamity after calamity, the other shoe dropping, and more bad news, when you can’t catch a break, and things continue to go wrong, and doubts really haunt, and the temptation is to give up. You know those moments? If so, you need a salvation interlude!

We should note that, in the original meaning, this wasn’t only the worst things that could happen, not just being thrown to the lions in the gladiator pits or persecutions threatening genocide or the capital-M martyrdom of dying for faith. Professor Rossing also points out that the word we have here as “the great ordeal” (in older versions “the great tribulation”) that word (thlipseos) isn’t about state oppression but applies more to “social, economic, and religious marginalization.” This is about choosing to live in a way that doesn’t make reasonable sense to society, because of your convictions hazarding to confront prevalent wrongs. One example would be that understanding God as Creator could lead to hurting your pocket book by divesting from fossil fuels. Even though it would cost you, it is believing the cost is worse by not doing it. Still at this point in history, that faithful decision would result in being marginalized socially, economically, and maybe even, unfortunately, religiously. Would you choose that? Are you ready for that uphill struggle? Are you able to persist in doing what you believe is right? Can you continue on when you’re frustrated and exhausted?

We’re at this intense point in the season of Easter. You can feel the move deeper and deeper into it. We go from the surprise proclamation of resurrection on to the second week where Easter means a commissioning for us and where we also, with Thomas, ask what it means if it seems too hard to believe and we just can’t quite grasp it for ourselves yet. Then last week was the moment of asking what Easter means for our regular daily lives, what this has to do with our jobs and school and distractions and meals and being at home. And now, on this 4th Sunday of Easter, there’s the still harder question of what good news could mean when we’re facing too much bad news, what this new beginning of Easter means when we’re stuck in too much that’s old and rotten and harmful.

Matching the trajectory of the 23rd Psalm, with Shepherding gifts we’ve been sustained in green pastures and led beside still waters and along right pathways. But then we get to the darkness, to valleys of the shadow of death. Yet the Psalm declares, “I fear no evil, for thou art with me.” That’s the message we’ve been hearing in these passages from Revelation, too.

And that may be the central reason the lectionary skips the gruesome and awful scenes, that whole long list we went through before. Those passages aren’t interesting or entertaining but are about your reality. And your life already has too much nastiness and violence and sadness. You don’t come to church for caricatures of corrupt leaders and images of intolerant injustice, don’t come to be entertained by bad news. You come needing a salvation interlude, needing God. You need Jesus, you come here in need of relief, for hope, for good news, for a way to endure, for encouragement to continue striving for justice.

This is where you gather with that band of saints, “the great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” to know that you are joined in the hymn of all creation, to be reminded that you are not alone in your sufferings or struggles to do right, to be assured that you will come through the great ordeal, that God will wipe out hunger and wipe away your tears, that power and might don’t belong to those who oppress and manipulate and threaten, but belong to God and the Lamb, forever.

The most amazing, the wildest image in Revelation that appears over and over is of this Lamb who was slain, slaughtered yet alive. The portrayal in this last book of the Bible, then, is not of a bullying God coming to conquer and wipeout the infidels with a battle sword in a violent bloodbath. Just the opposite, here nonviolence triumphs, a victory not in murdering but in dying and rising. This features death and resurrection, the one who was killed as alive, of the one who was despised as adored on the throne, of the Lamb of God who has become the Shepherd, of Jesus. Today the vision is those who wash in the blood of the Lamb, a vision that your sufferings are the sufferings of Jesus. In your suffering, he suffers. Yet those are not the end. The story continues that he will bring you also to newness of life. This is all so that you may hold onto and trust that, as Jesus himself says, “I give them life, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

This is how we continue to proclaim: Alleluia! Christ is risen!




Setting things Rights

sermon for 3rd Sunday of Easter

John21:1-19; Revelation5:11-4; Acts9:1-20; Psalm30
The purpose of this reading—which I mentioned last week was a later postscript to the Gospel of John—could be seen as trying to set things right. Actually, the whole season of Easter could be seen as God’s ongoing effort to set things right, to overturn wrongs, to stop injustice through the ever-expanding kingdom of God, to overcome death with life. Last week, that setting right focused on making sure sins are forgiven and that those who doubt and are uncertain are still welcomed and given what they need.

So what exactly is being set right in this week’s reading? Depending on the perspective, one view of the purpose for this section being added is either setting right or else turning unfortunate. This view observes that John’s Gospel is quite different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and that John promotes sharing of love in close-bound relationships, laying down our lives for each other as a beloved community. It could be that John’s congregation or set of followers had some different understanding, then, than the others who followed the Matthew-Mark-Luke synoptic-style of believers. Notably, in John’s Gospel Peter is much less central. He is more simply among the disciples rather than being their spokesperson. So maybe instead of a community of equals, this addition to John’s Gospel reinforces the other vison of Peter’s leadership, helping John’s group to integrate with the larger church by accepting this figure as central, who would become bishop of Rome, a role eventually enshrined in the hierarchy of the pope.

If that leaves you questioning whether this passage is actually setting something right or was accepting a less-ideal turn of history, we’ll move on to something more favorable: the location of this reading. Last week, we ended still behind locked doors in Jerusalem, but this takes us back up north to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It’s not only a more pleasant, pastoral place of scenery, but also a return home. It is a logical subsequent step of the story, because we have to wonder what happened next.

And that parallels our own story. On Easter Sunday, amid fresh lilies and the joys of bottled up Alleluias and crowds in worship and brass and rich, sweet treats, amid the newness of the thrill, it seems almost anybody could believe. It seems not too good to be true, but just good. It seems—maybe most of all—like a pleasant diversion. Then Easter passed and Monday came and you went back to work and normal rhythms and then school resumed and homework and what happens in these busy spring weeks, what decisions need to be made, chores accomplished, details taken care of, and you couldn’t ignore the election forever, and now are thinking about what comes next.

While the disciples weren’t worried about presidential primaries and the state supreme court, those original followers of Jesus and witnesses to resurrection also soon must’ve fallen out of the radical newness, the exciting disruption of Easter, and returned to the rhythms of life. This reading is setting straight that vital matter, that we can’t keep the after-effects of Easter locked up, but need to, must encounter them at home and amid the flow of our lives if they are true and consequential.

So the disciples went home and have gotten on with life. Maybe we’d wish Easter would’ve made more of a difference for them, more impact, that life just plain couldn’t be the same afterward. But we know this is actually how it works. We want Jesus to have shown up and changed everything, for God to be so lively and present and amazing that each moment of our lives would be imbued with a radiant glow and holiness so pervasive that we’d all don haloes like in the paintings and share so much love, peace, goodwill it would overcome all our problems and all evil. It would be nice, but that’s just not how it goes, at least in my experience. Instead life kind of goes on. Work goes on. We get busy with living our days and occupying our time and trying to make sense of our world and to do something that feels worthwhile.

In that way, the disciples went fishing. Not a bad choice for spending some time. But it also was indicating the three-year pilgrimage with Jesus had come to an end. Although John didn’t tell the story of Jesus calling fishermen out of their boats to follow him, to “fish for people” as he says it in the other gospels, we can’t help but hear this story as the bookend to that. They’ve given up on catching people and gone back to their boats, back to their nets, back to their old life.

We might be disappointed in that, wanting them to be doing something more special or powerful, to be permanently changed by their close encounter with God and time with Jesus. But as they go fishing, they seem to have moved on…or moved back. Maybe they’re like the original college grads who have to move back into their parents’ basement, after transformative experiences, with other opportunities not panning out, returning to the family business and same old way of life.

But then Jesus shows up on the shore. What will that mean? Last week he sent them on a mission; will he criticize them for goofing off, rebuke them for so soon neglecting their calling? Will he tell them they should be doing something more important than fishing, lecture them to take more seriously God, resurrection, and Easter?

Well, actually, in this encounter, Jesus seems less concerned with any of that. There’s no proving himself with holes in his hands.  He doesn’t explain the Scriptures about suffering, dying, and rising.  He doesn’t seem motivated to share the peace or to breathe on them, giving them the Holy Spirit.  He doesn’t so much talk about forgiving sins or healing or teaching.  He doesn’t reiterate a call away from fishing boats to catch people or even—for that matter—mention God.

Instead, Jesus essentially says, “I will make you fishers of fish.” He tells them where to cast their nets so they can catch the lunkers, 153 fish all at once. And then he wants to have breakfast.

That is extremely important to tell in this story and is another thing being set right here, that is: following Jesus is not always about a call to forsake your old life and journey to a new strange way of being. It may be that for some, but for many—including, apparently, for much of this group of disciples, Jesus called them exactly to where they were, a calling to fish for fish and eat some brunch. In your calling and vocations, too, in your lives of work and engaging with family and the regular stuff at home, in your volunteering and all, a calling from Jesus is not necessarily more spectacular or glamorous or pious or rigorous, but may well be the blessing in your tasks as you already face them, and your skills already in use. It’s the guidance of how to fish, so to speak, and sharing a meal, of his presence with you right where you are.

Peter may be the exception in this case. Jesus is repeating a call to him away from fishing, toward shepherding. With that is another occasion of setting things right, with the issue of love for God or Jesus. Do you love God? That’s hard when you can’t see God (as the letter of 1st John will explicitly remind us) (4:20). Peter may have loved Jesus, but he was running out of chances to show that devotion. Soon Jesus would be gone. What then? Well, Jesus sets it right by saying that your love, your devotion ought well be given to those who are there, to sisters and brothers you can see, to care for the lost and tend the hungry, meeting needs around you of those Jesus also loves. That’s a good role, a worthy responsibility.

And in that particular calling, Jesus was also setting something else right for Peter. This story is notably paired to reverse the events on the night of Jesus’ arrest, when Peter was huddled at another charcoal fire and three times denied even knowing Jesus. Here, Jesus gave Peter the opportunity to undo his denial, to reclaim the relationship.

Now, for some of you, that may be extraordinarily good news, that you have a God of second chances, and third chances, and in this case fourth chances, and probably a lot more beyond that. It may be an amazing amount of grace, that no matter how much you feel you’ve strayed or done wrong or neglected God and faith and how you ought to be living that there’s room for a fresh start.

That is, indeed, a central aspect of our faith, of repentance met by the embrace of forgiveness. We might even claim it’s the Spirit that does this work in us, of warming our hearts, of turning our minds, of returning our feet and rejuvenating our lives.

Yet I also have to confess that I have discomfort if it depends on devotion, on my sustained vigor, on being able to stay interested, on how long our attention spans are. One of the most disheartening phrases I hear is when somebody who has been away from church for a time exclaims, “I’m not going to miss a week!” Mostly they don’t even make it once. Or when they lose their goal of perfect attendance, then they feel like a failure and give up. Jesus may be ready to forgive 99 times, but what if I’ve only turned to repent 98 times? Even at three, Peter is aggravated, worn out on the process. How directly, how eagerly must we love for this to work out? Is it our responsibility to seize opportunities?

Sure, our God is able to restore Peter and set right his denial. Yes, our God is able to transform murderous terrifying Saul into missionary Paul, from persecutions into proclamation of life. Sorrow may last for the night but joy—indeed—come in the morning.

But we need a God who claims Peter during his denial, a God who embraces Saul even as he rebels, who puts up with Ananias refusing to heal, who doesn’t just overlook our failures but loves us all the way through them, who doesn’t give up on us when we ignore discipleship but will call us to fish for fish, who isn’t looking for us somewhere else but right where we are, at home over breakfast, who isn’t waiting for us to make amends or just encouraging us to mend our own brokenness, who is able to right our wrongs and to raise up our lives from the pit, bringing you also from death to new life, who is also there in sorrows and darkness and disappointment and death and redeeming it for us. We don’t need just a process for restoration and reconciliation, nothing that is so easily explained or apparently routine, but somehow we even more need the Revelation of a wild unbelievable newness of a slaughtered Lamb ruling as king, and angels and chickens and myriad thousands of unexpected tongues and every last creature singing in praise: Alleluia! Christ is risen!


We Need a Little Easter

sermon for Easter Day
(John20:1-19; 1Corinthians15:19-26; Acts10:34-43)

“Yes, we need a little Christmas, right this very minute—need a little Christmas now!”
Alleluias may be more appropriate tunes for the day, but it strikes me that this category of songs for Easter is missing. We don’t even note that “it’s beginning to look a lot like Easter, ev’rywhere I go.”
If you can forgive this overlap of seasons, particularly so soon after you weren’t quite done with snowfall for the season, we might reflect that while Christmas can be summarized in the synecdoche of an evergreen wreath or a wrapped gift or a HoHoHo, somehow such aren’t so apparent for Easter. It is tougher to picture the embodiment of Easter, and I mean that quite literally with the body—an infant, a baby at Christmas we can wrap our minds—and arms!—around (even if that baby also contains the concept of God’s incarnation). But the body of Easter… well, that’s not so easy. Even the locale is less concrete, not so simple to visualize or represent. For Christmas, it was a manger, a feed trough. Here at Easter, we have an absence instead, looking through the open door, a stone rolled away, a place where something should’ve been but wasn’t. Emptied, a kenosis.
So it’s harder to say that it’s beginning to look a lot like Easter, because this isn’t so quickly captured. This festival of resurrection can’t truly be equated in a crocus poking out of the frost or the returned robin singing exuberantly, if off-key. Even in the extravagance of our lives, fed on the joys of hams and the richness of many jelly beans Sulia’s been eating and spirit-filled glasses of wine, it all becomes too regular to account for the peculiarity, the irregularity of Easter.
Yet we try to hold it with metaphors. We feast today, to acknowledge that everything else is fast by comparison, is lacking. We sing Alleluia again today to contrast with the dirge not just of Lent but of life. And against the stench of death, or maybe just the unremarkable odors that fail typically to excite our nostrils, that’s why we have the almost overwhelming sweetness of lilies today.
It’s also trying to be represented by this paschal candle. In ancient words, used by the church for 1500 years or so, the Easter proclamation exults: “the light of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ [is] reflected in the burning of this candle. We sing the glories of this pillar of fire,” continues the old song unrestrainedly, “the brightness of which is not diminished, even when its light it divided and borrowed”—all good notions of risen life in Jesus, and then this: “for it is fed by the melting wax which the bees, your servants, have made for the substance of this candle.” I’d place that among the most remarkably faithful language in the history of Christianity.
Still, as a symbol for Easter, that’s a lot of praise for a candle, something I recycled from old candles in a beat up pot on my stove, making a sticky mess of my kitchen, and which is burning imperfectly and making more sticky mess here now. But if the paschal candle is too highly praised, would Easter be better envisaged in a laser, or the innovation of LED bulbs, or the kilowatt candlepowers of a Batman searchlight, or—indeed—by the rising sun?
Again, we often look for analogies or glimpses. We use the surprise of the green blade rising from buried grain. Besides the turning of seasons and sprouting of new life from plants and barren trees starting to bud, we also look to all kinds of new beginnings and fresh starts in our lives. We attribute guesses of God’s work and the hints of blessing when sorrows pass, or serendipity smiles on us, or when illnesses give way to restored health. Or for this community’s still-recent beginning, you’ve got new pastors. I’m pleased for this fresh moment together and all that it will mean for us. But changing pastors is a pretty pale imitation of resurrection. I’m a different face, not a risen Lord (as if I even need to say it).
So I’m in favor of the analogies. I like all these things. I celebrate and delight in them and rejoice. But the cycle of seasons or the restoration of health is not what we have here today. This isn’t an example of rejuvenation or resuscitation. This doesn’t ask for our old logic, for rationalizing and explaining. This isn’t a rebirth or reincarnation or for our spiritual awakening. This isn’t looking for signs of life amid death. Indeed, Mary doesn’t stroll around the gardens spying for what’s germinating to infer signs of what remains and endures, as if that would assuage her weeping enough. She is looking, searching, begging after one thing only: Jesus. We probably shouldn’t dumb down this extraordinary proclamation with ordinary yet false equivalencies. The strange, peculiar, unusual message I proclaim to you today and which we share isn’t of those categories or symbolisms. This is not continuity, but radical disruption, life from the dead, resurrection. We share the weirdest Word: Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The poet John Updike was a Lutheran who described his faith as “angst besmogged.” With us in that way, here is part of his “Seven Stanzas at Easter”:
“Let us not mock God with metaphor, / analogy, sidestepping, transcendence; / making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the / faded credulity of earlier ages: let us walk through the door./ The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,/ not a stone in a story, / but the vast rock of materiality (Just as Natalie said)…
Let us not seek to make [Easter] less monstrous, / for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty, / lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are / embarrassed by the miracle
No mere parable, but an embarrassing miracle.”
With a Word so oddly enormous, it seems we would almost prefer to give in to slight dashes of spiritual leaven, trying to catch only a breath of new life rather than this filling of dead lungs, as if a hint of hope would be somehow more real than the strangeness of a stranger poking around the garden, out from his tomb, up to get his fingers dirty tending to the mess of our lives.
We do need a little Easter, right this very minute. We need this God on the loose, invading our imaginations and staking out our sufferings, not kept at bay by our senses of propriety and what’s sensible. We need not a hatchling spring chicken, but the full-fledged miracle of the dove’s peace, olive branch in its beak telling us the storm is over. Even when we pretend we just want to verify our proof—that they have moved the body, in Mary’s questioning, and when we locate it we’ll be able to put our finger on the answer—instead of our pretense, the angelic proclamation shows up, the intangible good news of “don’t hold on to me,” the weeping-be-gone of Jesus himself, real and somehow in the flesh.
We need a little Easter, since bad news is inescapable and troubles linger and lurk even in the readings of this good news and new life day. Besides Mary’s tears of loss, when Peter proclaims that “truly, God shows no partiality,” it is a noteworthy statement exactly because we know partiality all-too-terribly, among people as well as nations. Also in the reading are doubts, “most of all to be pitied.” We’re confronted by “the last enemy,” trying to confine us in our graves.
We need a little Easter now, and then we need more and more. We need a whole new creation worth of the stuff: for fragile lives that wait on the tenuous edge of intensive care. For those we love and those we depend on yet can never be sufficient. For insatiable longings. For maddening politicians who don’t seem to understand reality as it actually exists (is resurrection of the dead really so far-fetched compared to what they’re peddling?). For terrorists and attacks, shocking for still being shocking, where it infests and diseases us with each photo, with every last flash of news, with all our worries. We need new life. With a changing climate, leaving everything we thought we knew questionable and at risk. We need a new creation, can manage with nothing less. For this, we need Easter. We need not the diversion for a bit of joy and spring beauty and brunch. We need not just a hunkered-down gathering of loved ones or the distraction of basketball scores and celebrity gossip. Self-assurance and self-security won’t do. Mild surprises collapse. The kindly sense that we’re trying to help and throwing a bone of charity don’t cut it. The knick-knacks of relief just leave hungry dogs. And old men still don’t understand and young women go on weeping…
Until this. This inexplicable mystery. This proclamation of newness. Death has been undone. This is why so many of our shared stories are the blind seeing and deaf ears unstopped and troubled sinners forgiven and outcasts welcomed and doubting hearts grasping to believe. This isn’t incremental adjustment or surgical improvement. Our faith doesn’t take baby steps. This is God’s yes over all that would say no, a reverberating, echoing, surprising yes that won’t be stifled or shut up.
Life not only bursts the bonds of the tomb but bursts into our own hearts and ruptures the oldness of our lives. Again, Peter’s proclamation, through the power of this living Word, becomes the shape of our existence: God has anointed you “with the Holy Spirit and with power;” [he declares again, “to go] about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil!” The good news charges ahead, taking on flesh in us. Let loose your “Alleluias!” and proclaim that none of those fears and terrors, no weeping or abandonment, no divisions and injustices, not even death itself will have the last word. We are living in Christ Jesus and will not be stopped. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Judas, Easter life, and your place here

7th Sunday of Easter (17May15)

John17:6-19; Acts1:15-26; 1John5:9-13

Near the end of this Easter season of resurrection life and new beginnings, we drag back into the midst death and destruction and tragic endings.

Maybe it takes this long to be up for it. On Easter Sunday everything is bright, golden celebration (if not totally erasing death’s confusions). As the season progresses, dwelling deeper in newness of life, living into it, we can risk asking with Thomas about scars and lingering nail wounds, and how Jesus is made known in breaking the bread, and about those who aren’t part of this flock, and what we should be doing to stay connected to Jesus in the meantime.

With all of that, with seven weeks of Easter under our belts, we can finally muster the courage to be able to consider the worst, to look back to the night in which Jesus was betrayed, at last now to confront Judas and to ask who is excluded, left out, condemned, who doesn’t receive the good news of Easter.

After all, Judas comes up in two of our readings today. And, even though the lectionary for our 1st reading would’ve skipped the hardest verses, and the very point of the reading was to exclude him from the group of believers, still we need to understand the vital question of how he fits in.

In the gospel, Jesus refers to Judas as “the one destined to be lost.” A more direct translation would be as “the son of destruction” or might be paraphrased for us as “the biggest loser.” As the son of death, Judas there might be contrasted with Jesus the Son of God.

Yet for all of his infamy, the guy isn’t really a major character in the story. During Jesus’ life, Judas was just in the mix with the other 12 disciples. And after Good Friday he’s mostly not in the picture anymore.

But that disappearance presents a hard question for us as we gather here. While we may not place ourselves exactly in the same camp as Judas, at some point we have to ask: if he could blow it and get himself excluded or damned, eternally separated from God’s goodness, destined for destruction, well what would it take to lose our place? Just how much unlike Judas are we?

For that, we may ask what makes Judas so bad, what corrupted him. Maybe he betrayed Jesus because he wanted the 30 pieces of silver, he was greedy. Or it may be he didn’t agree with everything Jesus was doing. (Judas was critical of Jesus’ ministry once and it’s often assumed that he wanted Jesus to be a mighty military messiah.) Evaluating ourselves by those standards, we can indeed be greedy and make poor choices for really a trifling amount of gain. We also turn away from Jesus’ mission and want power and dig in our heels when things don’t go our way.

There’s one other description of why Judas betrayed Jesus: the devil made him do it. To me, that’s more terrifying because it’s so helpless. It isn’t about willpower or making wise decisions, but is entirely out of our control. We can fail hugely and suffer the consequences just because we get trapped in evil. We’re captive to sin. We’ll return to the question of how permanent that trap is, how much our wrongs imprison us or separate us from Jesus.

To continue with the story, though, Judas agrees to betray Jesus, and does it with a kiss. That alone could fill a sermon, on how our affection is warped and perverted to accomplish the opposite of love, how we can be two-faced, how when we get the closest is when we can do the most damage.

After that kiss, Judas mostly disappears. When Jesus is handed over to Pontius Pilate in Matthew’s Gospel, Judas repents and tries to return the silver. Of course, they don’t want to take it back. So Matthew says Judas goes and hangs himself.

Acts instead has this peculiar story of Judas using the money to buy a field and tripping and having his guts burst out. The ugly scene portrays a sense that our problems are visited back on us, with a further notion that the curse spreads, to those around us and even infects the land. That’s probably both fair and nasty.

That there are these two different stories of Judas’ death I believe means the Bible writers were trying to deal with this hard subject in all of its disappointing awkwardness, trying to come up with explanations: Would his friends and fellow followers of Jesus have ever been able to welcome Judas back after he handed over to death their teacher and our Lord? If he wasn’t part of the community any more, what would’ve become of him? Would he have found a different leader to follow? Would he have lived out his days lonely and sorrowful? Did he suffer more directly for the wrongs he perpetrated?

Christian history has inflated this to ghastly proportions, degrading Judas to be the worst person who ever lived, worthy of punishment only secondary to the devil. In Dante’s Inferno, Judas is in the lowest pit of hell, suffering the fate of being eternally clawed at and gnawed at by the devil’s sharp teeth, stuck headfirst in one slobbering, painful mouth of the grand demon. That image is literally being trapped in sin forever, without escape and no end in sight.

Not only does that raise bleak prospects for considering our own sins and failings and associations with evil. It’s also a pretty miserable destiny for one who, we’d have to admit, brought to completion the story of salvation. After all, without Judas, would Jesus have been arrested? And without that, then no crucifixion, and no resurrection! Without Judas doing wrong, Jesus cannot overcome wrong. Without the sin, would there be forgiveness?

That’s not to praise Judas, but to recognize first that he isn’t simply excluded from our story. He’s not like Voldemort as he-who-must-not-be-named in Harry Potter. He’s not like Haman, the villain in the book of Esther, whose name is shouted over and drowned out whenever that book is read in Jewish assemblies. Even if the Bible writers tried to write him off, Judas remains part of our story, and in that way part of our community. Even if we’re not ready to confront it, still Judas shows up weekly as part of our gathering in the reminder of the words “On the night in which he was betrayed…” a meal which, after all, was given to Judas and is given to us precisely for the forgiveness of sins.

That also reminds us God can work wonderful things out of our worst actions. Certainly we label current events that hopeful way: that sin or tragedy may yet be turned to something good, that a benefit may even come through death.

Much more, though, here you know your existence is centered by a God in Jesus who brings new life out of death, who confronts sin with forgiveness, who reciprocates to the kiss of betrayal with a kiss of peace. To all that would threaten to exclude you from community and dismember you from this body, Christ Jesus re-members you into being here.

So this isn’t just a hypothetical question for Judas, of whether God could possibly forgive him or if he irreparably destroyed his place among the church crowd. No, this is a word for you. A word of forgiveness, of restoration, of remembering, of bringing you into new life, even if it means restoring ruptured pieces from the old life.

That association with Judas is important for us, vital for us to recognize. See, we often picture ourselves as the do-gooders, as those trying to do the right thing, as so helpful. Flip through our hymnal and the words pile up about how we feed the hungry or care for the distressed, about how we bring light to dark places.

But this is even more important for the other side. This is a word for when you know you’ve done wrong, when you’re the one needing help, when you’re not good enough, when you’re in the dark (which, after all, is at too many points in life and at its end). It’s for when you can’t be or aren’t part of this assembly, when you’re excluded from church. It’s a word for when you’re lonely and feeling abandoned and in danger, when things just won’t go right, when you’re in what sure feels like hell and that damned Satan is gnawing on you.

Here is this vitally essential word for you once again: there is no curse, no wrong that can separate you from the love of God, from the blessing and life of Jesus our Lord. Our faith proclaims that Jesus has toppled the gates of hell. In these very words I proclaim to you, he has freed you from the shackles of your sin and throws away the key. He fills your dead lungs with the Spirit of new life.

In one fun mark of the reversal that you yourself will proclaim, instead of guts bursting out as a sign of punishment, notice that in our hymn we’ll be singing that is “shouts of holy joy [that] outburst.” That’s the only way for it to be. After all, Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: The Strife is O’er, the Battle Done (ELW #366)


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!



‘Tis the Season

a newsletter article


It had begun to be so nice and spring-y outside. Crocuses were blooming in the church courtyard gardens. Maple trees had blossoming buds and robins were hopping about.

Today as I type this, however, there’s snow again! A cheerful little ditty is in my brain, which starts, “Christmas is coming. The goose is getting fat.” Except the snow is an anomaly and Christmas isn’t coming. Easter is. But there’s no melodic round about the fatted ham (or rabbit?) for this season. Nevertheless, as Easter is coming, we may ask why this season is when it is, why we celebrate it now.

An obvious initial question is why the heck Easter jumps around so much. Christmas has the sense to stay put on December 25th. All Saints can confine itself to the first Sunday of November. So what gives, Easter? The short answer (which still isn’t very simple) is that Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.

That can vary anywhere from March 22 to April 25. This year it’s April 5. In 2013, it was on Pastor Tim’s birthday (March 31), and will be again in 2024. It’s been on April 8 twice in my 11 years here. In 2007, it was March 23 and in 2011 April 24 (the second earliest and latest possible), and the next time we’ll hit such an early extreme isn’t until 2160!

That’s already as clear as the mud my dog tracks in during these days. So another obvious question is why on earth we’d want such a variable date. For this, we turn to our Jewish heritage. In Exodus 11, we find Moses preparing to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. After nine nasty plagues, Moses warned of the final plague: death to the firstborn, humans and livestock alike, anybody without a special lamb’s blood marker for the destroyer to pass-over their door. It was so terrible that Pharaoh told the people to skedaddle, to get out of there, to go now. They left in such a hurry they didn’t even have time for their bread to rise. This is the central salvation story of our Old Testament, and the people were instructed to commemorate the event with a festival of unleavened bread on the 14th day of the 1st month every year.

But that’s not January 14th, so we’re back to some peculiar dating. The calendar of the Bible (and most ancient societies) was lunar-based rather than our solar version. Time was set by the moon, rather than the earth’s journey around the sun. A new month began with the new moon. The 14th day would be the full moon. I don’t know whether they called this the first month of a new year because the Exodus meant the start of people’s new life or because it was spring, the start of the growing season, and the exodus paralleled that sense of new life. Either way fits.

One more notch of time-keeping: in Jewish practice, a new day begins at sunset. So the sabbath (Saturday) starts at sunset on our Friday. (Think of Genesis 1, “There was evening and there was morning, the first day.”)

Why it all matters for us is that Jesus was celebrating the festival of unleavened bread with his disciples, eating the Passover meal at the start of Friday (our Thursday evening), on the night in which he was betrayed, before he was crucified on Friday afternoon. On the third day (1. Friday, 2. Saturday, 3. Sunday) he rose again.

(Confused yet? For one notch more complexity, the Gospel of John tells the significance differently. Instead of eating the feast with his friends, John says Passover that year fell on Saturday, so Jesus died as the lamb of salvation to prepare for the festival.)

If you’d like a simpler statement: Easter is at this time of year because it makes sense. It is our festival of new life, which actually does fit with breeding rabbits and reproducing chickens and sprouting plants.

A larger point: the discrediting story is often repeated that Christians co-opted pagan holidays, that Christmas stole the date for the popular Festival of the Unconquered Sun, and Easter tried to take over spring fertility rites. We would, however, do better to see that our festivals from their very origins are connected to the rhythms of life on this planet, that God-given natural life provides an echo or a lens for what our faith asserts. Easter is a festival of new life. And seeing that in the world all around you validates and helps you better to believe Jesus is working it in your life, too.

Happy Almost Easter!

+ nick