I Died, Christ Lives

sermon on Galatians 1 & 2

 

I’d like to issue an apology to you.

I’m sorry for being just me.

More to the point, I apologize that I went quick as I could through college straight to seminary to become a pastor. I can’t say I passed it all with easy flying colors, but I eventually got the proper accreditations to be validated for this.

In that direct trajectory, I apologize I didn’t have the foresight to have been a rich lawyer steeped in rabid atheism beforehand. I wasn’t even one who strayed from the church for a time.

I further apologize for not having something thrilling like a prison record and awful criminal past to show how far I was gone and how much my life has changed, to illustrate my conversion.

In spite of a bit of homophobia when I was part of a fundamentalist youth group, and that I remain a male in a patriarchal culture, and a white person in this racist society, still I don’t have all that oppressive or hate-filled of a personal history behind me.

Heck, I’m even kind of a local boy, a native Wisconsinite. I could’ve had the wherewithal at least to be from somewhere a little questionable, outside of the norm, slightly shady. Like Illinois.

I know it’s not a flashy resume for grace and God’s unconditional welcome. And I apologize for that inconvenience for you as I preach.

I also know it seems backward, that I’m apologizing for not having done something wrong, but the lack of such experience may still be a problematic distraction. Although I’ll continue to have plenty of real reasons to apologize to you, if in these ways today it may seem like I’m a goodie-two-shoes, then you have the odd impetus not to trust this message of grace, instead saying, “What does he know anyway?!”

Now, a number of you don’t really like Paul. That’s a fine attitude, but you probably don’t like Paul for the wrong reasons. You may have some idea of him as curmudgeonly and strict and chauvinistic and who knows what else. I’ll defend him against those, because I find him absolutely full of life and love as he points so clearly to Jesus and away from all the other garbage.

Still, Paul should be awfully unlikeable, not for what he is, but what he was. He names it of himself at the start of this letter to the Galatian churches. He says he was violent and was a persecutor, trying to destroy gatherings of Christians. Not in the form of bombing churches, but doing everything he could to make life both miserable and brief for followers of Jesus. But then it changed. What he thought was right was wrong. Jesus got to him, and the good news worked on him, and he saw things very, very differently. It was a revelation.

So here’s the conundrum: his message of God’s love seems more valid because it was so far from his past, such a change. He’s believable exactly because you’d have doubted anybody like him would ever say it.

In Bible study this week, we sought examples of what it would be like to be confronted with one who had threatened to kill you now allegedly not only on your side, but a prime witness testifying on your behalf. We thought of presidents, and racists who saw the light, of convicts who reformed their ways.

My categories to start leaned in that direction, that the very things that could have disqualified me or made me not to be relied on would be seen as benefits, as qualifications. It reverses what would usually make a credible message and messenger, the paradox that the worse you were the better you are.

Some churches use this model. Where the stronger story of a conversion experience is an endorsement of potential. The sense that the calling comes from God and not from humans can also hold sway, as a person says God laid it on their heart to preach the word, so it doesn’t go through denominational channels like seminary, just as Paul said he didn’t get permission from any church hierarchy.

But the funny thing is that those attempts to show grace’s freedom can end up becoming legalistic all over again. The effort to show no qualification becomes its own qualifier. It’s not in our personal stories (or the lack of them), but only and always centered in Jesus. Certain characteristics may make it occasionally seem more shocking but don’t make it more true.

So apologies again that you’ve only got me as a preacher. But you’ve still got Jesus.

I’ll similarly accept your confession that you’re only you, except for Jesus.

Paul was also dealing with that in his community, their search for personal proof or verification though this can only be trusted. It remains unseen. In that time, within this Bible reading, there were two qualifiers operating, ways they tried to become insiders and find some certainty they were doing okay. One was a restricted diet, keeping kosher. The other was circumcision. I trace Paul as particularly against circumcision because it clearly left out half of all people: women who couldn’t wear such a mark of being an insider and would never have that proof. But at the root, the problem with either is an insistence that Jesus isn’t enough, that you need something else, something more, that there is a way to prove you’ve got it.

We still struggle with this. We still want it verified. We operate as if God’s love has contingencies. In some way, we want it to be dependent on us, don’t really like that God loves you not because of who you are or anything you’ve done but for Christ’s sake. We want to know what to do, how to become more spiritual or more peaceful or more generous, to be converted from our old ways. That may happen, but not per se, for an end result. Those would be incidental byproducts.

One really insidious form is with prayers for healing, that it should mean somehow our believing will be evidenced in our bodies, and that then there’s a right way for our bodies to look or be or feel if God is with us. Health and wellness are taken as marks of faith.

But Paul very clearly refuses to look at his body. I have died, he says. A dead body isn’t much of a place to hunt for evidence of goodness and blessing. So we instead look only to the body of Jesus. Since through his crucifixion, as God has died, all have died. And, with Easter, you’re already a new creation, as good as raised from death to new life. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Another of the main forms of losing focus on Jesus as we try to be right is in making church about what we do. About getting our lives in order. About your involvement here. About doing good in the world. About striving for justice and being on the right side of some cause. I know you carry burdens that you ought to be better, that you should do more in the community, that you want this to make more of a difference. Again, those can happen, but not because of our efforts, but as byproducts of grace.

Austin Channing Brown for our book discussion this week wrote of the goal in reconciliation like the wolf lying down with the lamb. No matter how good you are with animals or how woke for racial justice, good luck on that without Jesus.

Again though, Paul says we have died. Dead people may not do much good in the community, can’t be rallied to be better people, won’t fix creation. Try giving a pep talk to a crowd of dead folks and you won’t expect much for results.

That’s why sermons aren’t pep talks. They aren’t encouragements to go back out there and try harder. They aren’t motivational self-helps. They aren’t lists of things you should be doing. Partly it’s because none of that works, none of it makes you more godly or more loving, none of it is all that effective, trying to convince a bunch of dead people.

But it’s also that none of it really matters. It’s so trifling and a distraction from the main thing. God came to be with you, to love you, to be in relationship. God died for you, and speaks the word now that raises you, fills you with new eternal life. God is restoring creation and all relations, but you want to get trivial and make it about the little things you do? It’s like you’ve been freely admitted to the college of your dreams and then figure it’s dependent on how pointy your pencils are sharpened. It’s as good as irrelevant!

You want to be better, are worried about how much you need to do, don’t feel like you are good enough? Well Paul asks, will we get it right all the time? Clearly not. We’re still going to be sinners. But that doesn’t invalidate Christ, since nothing we do or don’t do can prove or disprove God’s love. So Paul won’t worry about what to eat or what to wear or how holy he’s acting. In Luther’s terms, we don’t even get too hung up on right decisions. His advice was to “be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.”*

When the emphasis falls back on the trivia of oughts and shoulds as if those are the important thing, as if this is about anything we can do, then we’re tearing down the identity and the relationship and the righteousness that is only established in grace. We’re looking for life in our essentially dead selves rather than in the gift from God. We’re trying to muster resurrection on our own, when in the end our confidence, our joyful message is: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

*Luther’s works vol48, p282

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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

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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!”

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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.
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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…
 
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!
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‘Tis the Season

a newsletter article

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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

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Ashes and New Life

sermon for Ash Wednesday        (from Matthew 6 & Joel 2)

I like Ash Wednesday. Maybe like you, I find it moving, though—also perhaps like you—I don’t really understand it.

For starters there’s even the simple question of whether or not you’re supposed to keep wearing the ashes after worship. I mean, Jesus warns about practicing our piety before others on the street corners. That would seem to say that if you’re headed to the store after worship or back to work, then maybe you shouldn’t be a show-off with your ashy forehead, acting dismal and disfigured and unwashed. But on the other hand, clearly we must be putting it on, wearing that black stain for a definite reason, right? So if we’re immediately wiping it off, then why bother being marked in the first place?

That’s even more difficult to answer when we realize the external isn’t what we’re focusing on, but the internal. The prophet Joel said that it isn’t our clothing we tear to lament, but rend our hearts. Not so much our appearance but our attitude, “with weeping and with mourning” he says.

That goes with the confession of sins, which raises more conflicting questions, since this strong repentance can seem like we’re dwelling on our faults. It can seem depressing, or maybe even masochistic. In our society, you don’t admit any weakness or shortcoming. We’re trained to put on a strong face and act as if everything is okay and be tough enough to pull ourselves up as individuals. When my sister was doing job interviews, there was always a question “what’s your biggest fault?” She joked about responding with back-handed self-congratulatory compliments, “I’m a perfectionist” or “I spend too much time at work.”

And yet, counter-culturally, we gather here confessing our actual sins, owning up to what we’ve done wrong, acknowledging brokenness. So is this just about being pessimists or losers? Are we trying to feel ashamed, to rub in a sense of unworthiness or guilt?

Probably it is better labeled as sincerity that peels back our masks and false pretensions, that won’t permit our claims to self-righteousness, to labeling ourselves as alright and calling others the problem. It may be a healthier way of seeing the world and interacting with others not to claim a place of privilege as so wholly self-sufficient, but to recognize our need, that we require assistance from others. Then we’ll see how it is met as a gift, as the sharing of community, whether in church or as a creature on earth.

And if we’re following Jesus’ instructions and guidance, to live lives of concern for others, to be generous and caring, then we need that re-orientation, that motivation. We’d have to acknowledge we could always do better at it, and that it is indeed worth trying.

That’s a positive explanation, a good way of talking about what we do in confession. Even more so, the word of forgiveness, of an entirely fresh start where you are not liable for the wrongs you’ve committed, is just about the most stunning word you can receive. More miraculous is that it comes not because you’ve earned it through restitution or retribution but only because God declares it, speaks that word to you.

Yet that positive, gracious side again doesn’t quite seem to fit with your smudge of ashes. If confession of sins is not to be depressing or dismal or disappointed, can we say something similar about that black cross that will be a stain on your forehead? Can it possibly be good news? As Tim and I are besmirching you, young and old alike, we’ll proclaim that reminder, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” That’s the dark heart of my struggles with this day. It feels mostly morbid, like an insistence on or fascination with death. I love you so much that it’s heart-wrenching to say to the youngest of you, and is miserably sad in other, older instances.

But we should admit remarkable miracle even in those words. It isn’t only about finitude, the too-sudden endings of death. Certainly it has nothing to do with you being worthless; after all, you are God’s good creation. And that God formed you from the dust is worth considering, in part since our food is from the soil and cultivated land is what gives us culture. We are indeed humans formed from the humus, we are earthlings, part of this vast system of relationships God established.

Still more, that you are dust is so much more than an earthling. The elements of your body were formed in the fusion of stars that have exploded, gone supernova, over the 13.8 billion years of this universe. You are stardust, and you yourself are the fruition that would not be possible without that vast history. That’s a stunning reminder.

The other side of it may feel somewhat less romantic, that you also return to dust. And yet it is a truth that our death sustains future life. Our excrement is tomorrow’s fertility. Our waste is recycled and becomes a recreation of God in fresh beginnings. As dead dinosaurs facilitate your lifestyle with fossil fuels, you’ll also find your way into God-knows-what kind of future. Perhaps that’s symbolized as last year’s Palm Sunday celebration returns today, the ashes of our past becoming a blessing for this moment.

But that also points toward something more. This isn’t only about death being an opportunity for other life or about the conservation of matter or ongoing usefulness of what had seemed exhausted and dead. As the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton said, “It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity.”* See, this day and the ashes also tie in with Jesus. Maybe that should be obvious, since we’re gathered in church. Yet those marks on your forehead make us need to ponder what we believe and why.

The odd puzzle in this part, the ongoing question it seems to raise is the triangle of our relationships with death and with Jesus. You return to the earth, but your future is not just in having your atoms recycled. In faith, we trust that your death is not the end, that our wrongs or sins or spiritless separation of death do not have the final word. Jesus is the final Word. We’re people who confess in the creed that we believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” But then why bother to be reminded today about death? Why dwell on that, if that’s not where our hope lies or our remains remain?

In our funeral services, the graveside committal says, “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our sister and we commit her body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Then right after that we pray to God, “Strengthen us in our weakness, calm our troubled spirits, and dispel our doubts and fears. In Christ’s rising from the dead, you conquered death and opened the gates to everlasting life.”

Just as when in a cemetery we are saying those temporary but still-too-long farewells to loved ones, encounters with death and mortality remain hard and sad. It’s still a problem. It’s not right and not okay, even if it’s not really final. We always need hope renewed and calm for our troubled spirits, not just at a graveside or deathbed, but even in the midst of a bleak, cold winter night.

So the cross on your head: is that a visible reminder that you’ve been claimed by Christ? That God is with you not just for afterlife, but even now in your dirtiness and difficult decisions? Is it the mark of death that can only be cleaned and washed away in the waters of baptism, where you were marked with an invisible cross for eternal life? Is that black smudge in the shape of Jesus’ cross not marking your death so much as that in his death he defeated death, that in him death dies?

What’s this all about, and why is it important for you, not only now but in these weeks until Easter, and long beyond?

Hymn: Ashes and New Life

Ashes and New Life

* In Lent Sourcebook I, pg18

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