The Foothold of Faith

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on June 11th, 2017

Sermon audio

Hobby wind-surfer, Adam Cowles, realized he was way off-course when he spotted a cargo ship. He was windsurfing the Swansea Bay, not too far from his house, but after a few hours of delightful distraction, Adam found himself in strange territory. He had unwittingly made his way into the Bristol Channel, 140 miles away from home.

The water that day was freezing cold. If he fell in, he’d be in serious trouble. If there came a lull in the wind, Adam could have found himself stranded. Opposite the cargo ship, Adam could see land, so he surfed his way to shore and walked into a nearby bar, soaking wet.

The locals must have seen sights like him before, because even though he was still dripping wet when he walked into that pub, the patrons thought and said nothing of it. They even bought him a beer.

Adam began to tell them his story.

They told him how far away from home he was. 140 miles. He was astonished. And then he was embarrassed when he had to call his wife, asking her to make the 280-mile round trip to pick him up. She was not happy.

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Wind is so prevalent inside of scripture that one could easily call it a character. A living force rather than an object or an atmospheric phenomenon.

God shows up in the beginning of the opening act, in the very first lines of our story in Genesis 1, as wind. This is the form in which the Spirit of God makes way into creation, and then helps creation take its shape out of what was before simply chaos and nonsense. The second verse in all of scripture says it this way:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

This is how God shows up. In a breeze. And that happens over and over again throughout God’s story—our story, too.

Consider the moment of the Exodus, when the Hebrew people, enslaved for two centuries in Egypt, make their way across the Red Sea and to the other side, outrunning Pharaoh and his army and into freedom. The Sea was split in two that day by a strong eastward wind.

And then there’s Jonah, the stubborn prophet, who tried his best to outrun God after God asked him to do something that made no sense to him. Throughout the Book of Jonah, he’s stopped, over and over again, to the point where it gets comedic, by wind and sea, by whale and wave.

We try our best but there’s no escaping the Spirit of God.

There’s at least two stories in each of the four Gospels, where fisherman disciples are out on a boat on the Galilee Sea. Terrified by brewing storms and rising waters, Jesus comes to calm the waves and the rain and brings them through. These are messages for us about how when we are caught in the scary seas of our own lives, when the water rises too high all around us, Jesus comes to us and subsides our fears and says to us the same thing he said to His disciples in those moments:

Peace be with you.

Last and certainly not least is the story we have in the Book of Acts where Luke gives us a glimpse of Paul’s travelogue. To get to the churches he has planted, Paul and his own team of disciples, servants, doctors, and scribes cross the Mediterranean Sea and sail up the Aegean between present-dayPaul Turkey and Greece, and north into the Sea of Marmara. Some of these voyages brought disaster. Pirates, shipwreck. Loss of cargo and loss of life. Throughout scripture, water and wind give life but they also take it away.

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dSo when Paul writes from a prison in Rome to the young believers in Ephesus—and by extension, to us—he has been wind-tossed, beat up, lost at sea, and then found again. Paul knows a thing or two about what it is to be blown about by wind. And he warns us, right at the get-go, here at the very beginning of Chapter 2,

Do not be blown about by the wind. Once you lived your entire lives wandering off-course in this perverse world….You were the offspring of the prince of the power of the air. He once owned you and controlled you.

I don’t know what kind of devil you believe in. We talk so little about evil and its personifications. Certainly, the personification of evil into some being with the proper name, Satan, is not as much a creature found in scripture as it is one that has been imagined in the tales of subsequent works of fiction: Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. We need to keep our stories straight.

We’ll talk more about this when we reach Chapter 4 of Ephesians, but for now, suffice it to say, here Paul describes some sort of evil or persuasive power, but he doesn’t give it a name or a form. It’s as if Paul is describing that thing mentioned in the first two verses of Genesis 1, a sort of earthly chaos, life and creation without shape, or meaning, or form. Life without God. That is a sort of evil in and of itself.

Paul is warning us against living in a way that’s uncritical, where we get swept up by the power of the air, picked up by every breeze that comes our way. Life lived empty and persuadable, easily manipulated by anything and everything around us. We can get picked up and pushed around wherever the breeze takes us, like that empty plastic bag at the beginning of the movie American Beauty. This is the prince of the power of the air. This is an opportunistic presence that will sweep us off our feet any chance it gets.

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We live in a culture full of wind-blown people. Too often, we get caught up in the prevailing winds of our day, and before we know it we’re like that empty plastic bag that gets knocked around by forces both visible and invisible. We get taken anywhere it pushes us.

What Paul is inviting all of us to see is a new way to live and move. Paul’s words here are a sort of prelude to the important and biblical idea of living in but not of the world. We cannot be blown about. Persuadable. Pushed about. We must find our footing. We must be discerning, keen, wise, sharp, perceptive, insightful, critical. You’ve heard the phrase,

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for everything.

This is God’s way of saying a similar thing. Find your footing.

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Paul knew something about wind. He was a tentmaker.

These days, if a person calls him- or herself a tentmaker, there’s a good chance they’re a Pastor who specializes in creating new churches. Paul did that, but before he ever entered into the ministry he actually made tents. This is how he made a living, even while he sailed the seas, planting churches.

So, Paul knew a thing of two about wind. How to shelter oneself against it. How to build a structure that can withstand it. Build them strong, resilient, and with a big footprint so they hold up to the power of the air and the elements. Everything thrown at it.

As we mature in our faith, as we walk forward slowly in the Way of Jesus, following in His footsteps, we too become strong against the breezes that try to blow us off course.

It is with rope and ground pegs, poles and stakes that a tent becomes secure even in the most chaotic of climates. It’s the power of God’s grace that does the same thing for our minds, our hearts, our spirits. God’s grace pins us to solid ground, can keep us from being blown off course. Grace is the foothold of our faith.

I mentioned a few weeks ago when we began our look into Ephesians, that God’s grace given to us is not an end in itself. Grace is not the end of any conversation, as in, “but for the grace of God go I.” Grace is always the beginning of the conversation. Grace was in the wind that blew the disciples out of their tiny house on Pentecost, and it’s the power we have been given by God to walk out of here and do God’s work—in and for the world.

Grace is the fuel, the power source God gives us to start something—to go out from here, or wherever else we are, as agents of God’s love, as keepers of God’s Message, as sharers of God’s mercy. Grace is designed and given to us by God to take us places. It is first unmerited benefit, yes; but it’s also Divine enablement. Grace is given to us to get us going!

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Through grace, we gain a foothold in our faith, stand up tall in Christ, and then become agents of grace—taking it and using it. Paul writes,

For it is by grace you have been saved. You have received it through faith. It was not our plan or effort, it’s God’s gift. Pure and simple. You didn’t earn it.

That’s verse 8. It’s one of the most beloved in all of scripture, but I’m afraid it’s too often misunderstood. People use it to convince themselves that works—doing stuff with and because our faith—isn’t important. But what Paul says is, Take God’s gift of grace, freely given to you—yes, it’s never earned, it’s always a gift—but then do something with it. Use it. Pay it forward. Grace is never the end of the conversation; it’s always the beginning of one. God’s grace is given to us in order to be put to work through us. Grace is God’s enabling power for growth.

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If you feel like you’re trudging through life right now under your own power, if you’ve lost your footing, if you’ve exhausted yourself that way, let me re-introduce you to grace. Author Anne Lamott says,

When you’re out of good ideas, what you’re left with is God.

She describes grace as spiritual WD-40 or water wings, if that works better. And all you have to do to find grace is to say “Help,” preferably out loud. Shout it into the heavens if you have to. The heavens will hear you. “But watch out!” Anne Lamott says. The moment you say that word, “Help!”, the moment you find grace, buckle up! Because, powered by the Holy Wind of God as it always is, God’s grace will take you places you never intended to go!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Joining In

A sermon based on Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on June 4th, 2017

Sermon audio

Today we celebrate the many ways that God gives us new being. How we are forever and constantly invited into a life that is not ours but something given to us.

Pentecost is when we the Church realize that our life, our vitality, our meaning and purpose aren’t something that comes from within us. It all comes from somewhere else. Beyond us. We are not who we are on our own.

On the morning of that first Pentecost, the disciples were held up in a tiny room. Their minds, hearts, lives—their very purpose was gone, shrunk down and withered away. Frozen in fear. They thought they were alone. Abandoned. Orphaned. Left to themselves to make life work from here on out. Then they heard a rumble that came from the heavens.

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It is through Holy Spirit that we are given live, purpose, vitality. Holy Spirit represented by tongues of fire, tongues of speech, wind, and water.

Pentecost fire is not the sort that burns. It’s the sort that refines. Cleanses. Helps something made hard and rigid melt down into something pliable, shapeable, able to be remolded again.

Tongues of speech. Not the strange jibber-jabber heard in Holiness churches, but a new language that’s given to us so that we may understand one another and be understood by one another. We read the story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel where God confuses the languages of the people until they can no longer understand one another. What happens in Acts 2, on Pentecost, is the undoing of Babel.

Now, on this day, with the presence of the Holy Spirit with us, we have the ability to understand one another again. We borrow language that isn’t ours, and with it, we speak. We speak in the varied languages of our lives. We understand and are understood. And that’s a tremendous gift: to be understood. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit who speaks among us and between us.

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Holy Spirit comes upon us as wind, reminding us that we are born from borrowed breath. It is God’s breath that inflated Adam’s empty lungs and gave him life. The same is true of us. Until God breathes Holy Spirit into us, we have no life.

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And water. The waters of baptism are poured out upon us as a sign of this gift, the Holy Spirit. Water is another reminder that we are not our own. Without water, we wither away. It’s another life-giving gift. Something that we do not and cannot give ourselves; water is given to us. With the waters of baptism, we say that with God and with the people of God, we find ourselves. That being human is to belong. That to belong is to be human.

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Each one of these—tongues of fire, tongues of speech, wind, and water. They are all things that invite us into bigger life. Holy Spirit life.

Andrew, Brennan, Leela, nothing magical has happened today. But you did do something wondrous just now: In a world that prizes individualism—do it yourself-ism—you have just proclaimed with your presence and your voice that you will no longer live your life alone. You have in a few different ways, declared that doing life together, joining in, is the only way for you to find your purpose, your life, your shape, your language, your breath, yourself.

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The same is true for all of us. We all need to be reminded of the together-way. Life not only lived but formed and given meaning in and through the practice of Holy Spirit-community. And just like the disciples on that first Pentecost, this is just the beginning of our journey together.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

God’s First Move

A sermon based on Psalm 85:8-13 and Ephesians 1:3-14 preached May 14th, 2017

The world is so much bigger than we think.

There’s a book by Emma Donoghue, and the tie-in movie—both entitled Room—about a young mother named Joy and her 5-year old son named Jack. Jack’s mother has been held captive inside a 12 by 12-foot garden shed for 7 years, for all of Jack’s life plus another 2 before he came along. This 12-foot square room is all that Jack has ever known. He calls it “Room.” It’s his whole world.

When young Jack began asking questions and remembering their answers, his mother Joy decided it was best to tell him there was nothing more than these four walls that surrounded them—the ceiling a few feet above their heads. There were no windows in Room. Just a skylight above that gave them nothing to look at but blue sky and white clouds. The light of the sun and the dark of night was nothing more to Jack than a one-dimensional covering that he must have imagined existed just a few feet above Room’s ceiling. Jack’s world was tiny and simple.

When Jack turned 5, his mother decided he was old enough to comprehend the bigger picture. The black and white TV in Room, she told him, projected images of real human beings—other people who existed in the world and lived hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles away. We can hear Jack asking,

What’s a mile?

Joy tried her best to tell Jack that the world is filled with billions of people who were just like them. That people had to drive cars to get from one place to another because the places they needed to go were so far away. All this was lost on Jack. He didn’t believe her. How could he? He’d never known anything bigger than the cramped and dark 144 square feet of a garden shed.

At one point in the movie, Jack refuses his mother’s big words about this immense world she is talking about. He shouts,

I want a different story!

His mother quickly replies:

No! This is the story you get!!

Jack’s mind is no bigger than what his eyes can see, his ears can hear, and all they know are the tin walls of a ramshackle shed, the static-y murmur of a black and white TV.

I won’t give away the ending. It’s a profound story you must see for yourself. But, this I will say: Room is a story that should make us wonder about the vast entirety of the world—maybe even the cosmos—and our place in it.

Throughout, questions should bubble up in our minds: This world and this life we live in it, do we believe it’s only as big as what we’ve seen and been told by others, or do we know more? Could it be that we move about this vast planet of ours in our tiny little circles so repetitively that we lose perspective? In an effort to be comfortable with our own small version and vision of things, maybe we have taken the vast dimensions of God’s immense creation and shrunk it down into our own versions of a 12 by 12-foot room.

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Just like 5-year-old Jack, in order to grow to maturity, to know the truth about creation, the God who made it, and our place in it, we must first be made aware of how large the gap is between our tiny vision of things and God’s immeasurable power and grace. What else is there but what we can see through our own skylights?

No matter what we’ve been told, no matter how far we’ve traveled or how wide our eyes are as we go along our way, what Paul wants us to know, right off the bat is that everything about God, the grace He gives, the love He has for us, the plans He’s made for us—they’re all much bigger and louder, more wondrous and glorious than we could ever know. This is Paul’s message to those first Christians in Ephesus. And it’s still an important message for us. First, we must be told that, in the grand scheme of things, the only reason why we’re significant is because God has adopted us as his family through Jesus Christ, and because of this, we do not, cannot, live in our own world. This is God’s world, and in order to know our place in it, we must hand ourselves over to God—to persistently and intentionally give ourselves over to ways of Christ Jesus.

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In the original language this whole passage, verses 3 through 14, is one huge, marvelous, run-on sentence. At 201 words, it’s the longest sentence in all of scripture.

Paul must have thought that the urgency of these words was great enough to warrant the abandonment of proper punctuation and syntax. This news is so good that even a comma would disturb the power inside of this sentence! It’s enough to give any English teacher a coronary.

But the largeness, the grammatical abandonment, of this colossal, run-on sentence should be excused, even by the most strident of grammar Nazis, because its lack of punctuation and its sheer size echoes the gracious abundance of its subject: God.

This one-sentence passage is a torrent of God-activity that refuses to pause or come up for air. It’s an avalanche of blessing that gathers size and strength with every tumbling word, all of it mirroring God’s lavish generosity. How can we keep from singing? How can we stop talking about how amazing God is?! This is the Gospel. This is Good News that will not wait!

Right away, through this torrent of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, the message is clear: in order to grow into the life that God has for us, in order to grow into spiritual maturity, what last week we identified as the goal of the Christian life, we must abandon all our shallow notions of who God is, all of our tiny twelve-by-twelve, Room-sized views of things, all of our too-small perceptions of how the world works and how God works in the world, and give ourselves over to the magnificence of what God is doing through Christ Jesus—the salvation He is working within us and among us, as well as far beyond us. God is not merely a part of our lives. That’s way too small and backwards, Paul says here at the outset of Ephesians. We are a part of God’s life.

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In order to open our eyes and then our lives to all this magnificence, Paul fills his run-on sentence with seven action verbs: blessed, chose, destined, bestowed, lavished, made known, and gather up.

None of these verbs have us as their subject. God’s the One doing all the action here. We are the objects of all of these verbs. We do not bless, choose, destine, bestow, lavish, make known, or gather up ourselves. God’s the One who blesses, chooses, destines, bestows, lavishes us. God is the One who makes known to us who we are, and gathers us up.

God’s the first Mover. In this salvation life, we do not begin on our own. These verbs, they’re God’s ways of jump-starting the work of salvation inside of us and among us. God has the first move. All of our action is merely a reaction to all that God has done and is doing for us in Christ Jesus, His Son and our Lord.

These words are in chapter 1 of this letter for a reason. Paul wants us to know this from the start or else all of our starts will be false ones. Let us not waste any more of our time thinking that we are the ones who make any of this happen. Let’s not live one more second of our lives—including our life together as Church—under the delusion that we’re the ones who make something of ourselves. Notions like that are just as tiny as 5-year-old Jack looking up at a tiny patch of blue through a sky light thinking he’s seen the whole world. God has made room for us to stretch our vision. To see things we have never and will never be able to see on our own.

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The older we get, the less we know. You’ve heard that before. In our younger years, we think we know it all. But as we growth into maturity, as we step out into the world, we slowly begin to realize how small we are inside of it.

It’s those moments when we stand beside the ocean, as the song goes, and find ourselves small and insignificant in the vast array of God’s creation, that we begin to realize how tiny we are and how little we know. The moment we realize this is a moment of amazing grace. It’s the instance when we abandon all those overinflated thoughts we have about ourselves, when we slowly let go of our own significance and begin to find ourselves all over again in the vast and Divine family of things. This is the first step into spiritual maturity. When in one way or another, we say,

God, this is all you and none of me

As Paul writes,

It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.

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I hope I don’t give away the ending of Room if I tell you that 5-year old Jack and his mother, Joy, are finally freed from the confines of their 12 by 12-foot world.

Once outside of Room, Jack sees the immense glory of creation—what was once a mere rumor that he refused to believe. At the end of the film, we hear Jack say:

I’ve been in the world 37 hours. I’ve seen pancakes, and stairs, and birds, and windows, and hundreds of cars. And clouds, and police, and doctors, and grandma and grandpa. But Mommy says grandma and grandpa don’t live together in the hammock house anymore. Grandma lives there with her friend Leo now. And Grandpa lives far away.

I’ve seen persons with different faces, and bigness, and smells, talking all together. The world’s like the black and white TV in Room, but it’s on, all at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen.

There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. It never stops. Plus, the world’s always changing brightness, and hotness. And there’s invisible germs floating everywhere. When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I’m five, I know EVERYTHING!

And the book-readers and the movie-goers and God himself laughs, and we all say:

Jack, You haven’t seen anything yet!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Holy Soil

A sermon based Psalm 24 and Ephesians 1:1-2 preached on May 7th, 2017

It won’t be long now that we will have a Community Gardens in Barboursville. Just a block this way, along Depot Street, the field has been tilled. The soil has been stirred. Filled again with carbon dioxide. It’s breathing again. This is how land becomes ripe for growth. When its lungs can expand.

After years of sitting there, breathless and dense—compacted—a boring, lifeless, barren field is now being readied for cultivation. Readied for life. Readied for resurrection. Resurrection is what happens when what was once buried deep in the ground—breathless—comes to life again. When what was once stuck in place, unable to move or grow, is given vitality, meaning, and purpose. What was once fallow and inconsequential becomes vibrant and dynamic and life-giving once more. Resurrection is the process of readying the soil of our hearts and minds and lives so that we can grow, cultivate something new and holy among us—with God’s help. This is the Message of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

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Today, we’re diving into this life-giving letter written to the young church in Ephesus. This letter is only six chapters long. Any one of you can read it in a space of fifteen minutes, but don’t let its short length fool you. The book of Ephesians is nothing less than a Christian Opus. It’s been compared over and over again to a piece of music that stirs the soul to life. Many have said about Ephesians that it’s the one book in all of scripture that has woken them up to Jesus-alive, God-alive. One man said about Ephesians that through reading it, studying its words,

he saw a new world…Everything was new. I had a new outlook, new experiences, new attitudes to other people. I loved God. Jesus Christ became the Center of everything…I had been quickened; I was really alive!

Ephesians was John Calvin’s favorite letter. It seems as though nobody can read Ephesians without being moved to wonder and worship. What’s more, Ephesians is, for our time, the most contemporary and relevant book in the entire Bible. Its words—the promises made inside of it—have much for us in our current context. It speaks of community in a world of disunity. It promises reconciliation in time of estrangement and hostility. All of these 1st Century notions are also 21st Century ones.

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But, what makes the letter to the Ephesians so important for us—for we who call ourselves the Church of Jesus Christ—is that it doesn’t just offer us words of comfort and hope. It doesn’t simply encourage us to endure in this life, to hunker down in prayer and keep on believing. Instead, Ephesians gives the Church an action plan. It’s here to encourage us to become movers and shakers, to get in on the project of God. Pastor Eugene Peterson call this holy endeavor “Practicing Resurrection.” In a sense, Ephesians tells us what to do with Easter. Its main point is nothing less than the entire point of our Christian faith. Where all this walking in the Way of Jesus leads us. We practice our faith for a purpose. The point of it all is to grow into Christian maturity.

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I’ve been going to church since the day I was born. Maybe you have too. I can’t think of a Sunday when my family was in town and we didn’t go to church. When I wasn’t encouraged to attend Logos or Vacation Bible School, Youth Group, Sunday School. But have you ever wondered why? This thing called Church—why do we do this? Or maybe that’s the wrong question.

All this being Church—attending worship and spaghetti luncheons—where’s it all taking us? Where is all of this going? What’s the point of this? Is it all repetition for repetition’s sake? We are Church, but why and to what end? Ephesians answers this question: the point of all this is to grow into Christian maturity.

Much like the journey of physical maturity, however treacherous it is, spiritual maturity is about growing up in God. But Paul doesn’t just say that and assume we know what he’s talking about. He goes on to tell us what growing to Christian maturity looks like. Just like physical maturity, the right conditions for growing into a mature faith requires much care, the right kind of nourishment, guidance. So, we’re going to spend these summer months slowly combing through this letter to the church in Ephesus. It’s written to encourage us to grow into the full stature of Christ Jesus, right here in the holy soil into which we have been planted.

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I hope to a certain extent that the idea of spiritual maturity in Christ is a new one to you. It’s relatively new to me, also.

I bet that if you asked the average Christian what the goal of the Christian life was, he or she would say something about getting into heaven at life’s end. I think that’s a fine hope. I share in that hope, too. But there’s many a Christian who spend their life holding their breath, waiting for their reward in the afterlife, because it’s never occurred to them that there’s purpose for living this life too, and it has nothing to do with waiting for what comes next.

Hoping for a distant tomorrow seems like a lousy way to live your life today. God has something for us right where we are. On earth as it is in heaven, as Jesus prayed. Eternal life starts right here and right now—in the holy soil of earth. This is where Church starts. When a family of the faithful begins to realize together that living this Christian life is about practicing heaven on earth together—helping each other grow up together into the full stature of our living Lord, Jesus Christ.

Practicing resurrection, holding each other in the holy soil of Easter, all the while prayerfully encouraging one another toward full spiritual maturity—it happens with feet firmly planted on earth. Church is how we all get grafted into God’s salvation story. Church is the community garden of Christian growth. What others have called the Colony of Heaven.

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These first two verses of Ephesians are short, but they contain multitudes. They get us thinking about all that matters as we set out to grow into the full stature of Christ with and for each other. Growing into full Christian maturity takes one part grace as well as one part peace.

Grace and peace,

Paul writes.

This mention of grace and peace is a whole lot more than a greeting that Paul uses. With these two words, he’s laying out the landscape of our growth. It is first through grace, and then through peace, that we will mature into the full stature of Christ Jesus.

This summer, as we move from one passage of Ephesians to the next, we will have the very welcome opportunity to think more deeply about these two Divine promises, grace and peace. But for now, it’s important to talk a bit about them here at the beginning. Too often, we think and speak about God’s grace as if it’s an end in itself. We say things like,

There but for the grace of God go I.

Most of the time when we use the word, it’s too often the end, and not the beginning, of our conversations.

Grace too easily degenerates into the notion that being a Christian means simply believing in Jesus Christ and that’s it. It’s too often spoken of as our excuse for never growing in our faith—for staying in place in our faith—for our never being interested growing. Grace too often is mis-used as a means to inactivity. We see it as a good reason to sit back on our heels in our life of faith. There’s no reason to do more or be more because God’s grace holds us. It’s not that this isn’t true, but it’s hardly what scripture has to say about grace. If we listen closely to what Ephesians has to tell us—even what the second verse here has to say—grace starts to look more like the beginning of the salvation story instead of its end.

“Grace and peace,” Paul says. In that order, too. Grace is the beginning of our faith. It’s the first word God speaks to us through Christ in the lifelong conversation that God wants to have with us! Paul wants us to think of grace as the seed that’s sown into the holy soil of our lives—right at the beginning. And it is by grace that this seed grows. Becomes something living and breathing.

Author and teacher Stephen Rankin writes that grace, properly understood, is “the enabling power” through which we can make our way to Christian maturity. Grace is the fuel that powers our spiritual development. It’s the vitamin and the mineral in the holy soil of our faith that starts us off in our story of our growth and into the full stature of Christ.

In a similar way, peace—this second word Paul uses here—is another vital element in our growing into Christ-likeness. Peace is the foundation, the stability of ground that our faith needs to grow safely. Grace and peace. We need both. Neither of them are ends in themselves. As we will learn as we move forward in Ephesians, the end of our faith is full spiritual maturity.

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As we move through this letter to the church in Ephesus, I think it will become clear to us that it is also a letter to us, the church in Barboursville, West Virginia. Easter resurrection, Christian maturity, and growth into the full stature of Christ happens in the holy soil beneath the feet of wherever Christ’s people gather—as we practice being church with and for one another. Together, we use the fuel of God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to nurture each other in this holy soil of Easter life.

Our whole purpose for existing is to practice resurrection together. To infuse the living promise of Easter into each other’s blood and bones, minds and hearts. That’s church in essence: The groundwork of God’s salvation. Holy soil. A people on our way to maturity in the world of God-alive, Jesus-alive!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Easter Unfolding

A sermon based on Psalm 116 and Luke 24:13-35 preached on April 30th, 2017

Sermon audio

The ability to see is granted gently.

Throughout scripture, God’s very presence is described as light. The kind of light that overwhelms us, the kind our eyes are not built to withstand or make any sense of.

When God comes to His people, it’s always with a blinding truth that none of us are able to handle. Think of Moses at the burning bush. On fire but not consumed. Think of Sinai, the mountain that only Moses could ascend. He climbed into God’s radiating company. After those mountaintop conversations with God, Moses had to cover his face with a veil, or else the afterglow of God was enough to blind the Israelites.

I imagine every time he stood atop Sinai, Moses shook all over from a reverent fear—an overwhelmed and overwhelming sense of the Holy that not one of us are built to witness. Not many of us could withstand such a sight.

God knows this about us. God was careful with Moses, and God is gentle with us, too. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. That’s why Easter comes not all at once, but over all these days and weeks after Jesus’ resurrection. God unfolds the Truth of Easter slowly. One sign at a time, and only when our eyes and ears, hearts and minds are ready to see it.

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No one has ever found Emmaus. Thousands, perhaps millions, of maps have been unfolded, unearthed, and unrolled from their ancient containers, combed over with magnifying glasses in case its name has faded away, but Emmaus has never been discovered. Perhaps it was never a place—or at least no place in particular.

And Cleopas. Who’s Cleopas? We don’t know really. He wasn’t one of the Twelve, but he was a disciple of Jesus all the same. He and his unnamed traveling companion—they were walking away. Away from Jerusalem. And toward who knows where or what. Maybe they didn’t even know. All they knew was that something they had given their lives to had come to an end. It all had unraveled in the course of the last three days. Along the way to Emmaus, they recounted their time with Jesus to each other. All the places He had taken them.

Wouldn’t we like to know all they were saying to each other. They must have recounted His words. His teachings. They must have laughed at themselves for never understanding any of His parables. What was Jesus trying to say, anyway?!

They must have had conversations along the Road about all the healings they witnessed. The way Jesus talked about God as if He knew God’s own heart—or had God’s own mind. What’s not to be astonished by? How could they ever forget?

They must have recounted that last week with Jesus over and over again while they walked away. The conflict in the Temple. That last meal together. The words Jesus had spoken around that table—this is my body broken;  this is my blood poured. Those sleepy moments in the Garden of Gethsemane when their Master went off on His own to pray. The two of them must have poured over every detail of what happened next. The arrest. The chaos of it. It all happened so fast. The next time they saw Jesus, He was hanging on a cross. Then the burial. How many tears were shed along that road as these last few days unfolded again and again in their memories? How do you walk away from all that?

They were going back to their old lives. They were walking away from the last three years of following Jesus. All of it having unraveled into nothing right in front of them.

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It’s in the thick of their grief, the fog of all this loss, that Jesus comes along. Appearing to them as a fellow companion along their journey away. Anonymous. Just a stranger keeping them company. He walks with them slowly. Nobody’s in a rush here. There’s nowhere specific to go now—nothing left to do anymore, or so they thought. This is slow time along a lost and dusty road. Jesus had so much to share with them. So much to prove to them, but Jesus is patient with them. God grants us the ability to see, but He grants it to us gently. Our eyes adjust slowly to new rays of light. Jesus knows this about us.

It’s along a road like this, with stories shared like these, that the truth of Easter should strike us not as an event that occurred, but a path on which we stand. A journey we take. A direction we walk. Easter, as well as the resurrection that comes with it, they are not one-time events frozen in place along a timeline. They are a constant unfolding of truth that takes place right in front of us. Easter resurrection is a way for us to encounter Jesus no matter when or where we are.

Emmaus maybe be a lost destination so far as maps are concerned, but we know where it is, because we’ve been there before. Emmaus is all the in-between places in our lives. It’s the ground we stand on when we don’t know exactly where we stand or what we stand for. There are many Emmauses. It’s in the middle of these Emmaus moments that Jesus arrives.

What are you discussing as you walk along?

He says.

Jesus companions with us in these places, but He doesn’t reveal himself—not at first, not in any obvious way—because He knows that our faith cannot yet handle a revelation. We aren’t yet ready for that. Faith cannot be forced upon us. It cannot be coerced. Faith—that is, having eyes to see and ears to hear Jesus—does not come all at once. It must be gradually unfolded in front of us. We are brought to sight slowly. As poet Denise Levertov puts it, every step we take is a sort of arrival. God is patient with His people.

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There are moments in our lives when we feel like we’re headed in no specific direction at all. When we lose sight of our purpose and our path. So, we walk away. Away from life as we knew it before. In our grief and hurt, we think that every step forward—away from a life that once was—will distance us from our past.

Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. That first question He asks the two along the road is Jesus’ way of reminding them of who they are and whose they are. In effect, Jesus comes along and says,

Let me re-tell you your story. It’s God’s story, too.

Jesus won’t let them walk away. God’s story is the biblical story, and we have been a part of it from the very beginning. Jesus won’t let them walk away because first and foremost, this is a story of a God who relentlessly pursues us. Who will not let us go. Who will not let us forget our story. And that’s when Jesus takes over. He tells the two everything that God has been doing. He starts with Moses—all that God has done for His people as God guided them away from slavery in Egypt and into the freedom and abundance of the Promised Land.

Jesus didn’t stop there. He told them about all the prophets who came along after that to guide God’s people in the right direction. Throughout history, those who lose their hope in God—who forget their salvation story—they walk away. But over and over again, God pursued them, retaught them their own story, and set them back on right paths again.

Along the road to Emmaus, as Jesus unfolds God’s story for the two disciples, their hearts are kindled inside of them. Brought to flame. And with each one of Jesus’ words, the two disciples begin piecing back together what they thought was forever broken. Maybe the Jesus story does have a future. Who are we to say that God’s story has an ending? Maybe there’s more.

Easter slowly unfolds in front of these two disciples along the Emmaus road. They start gaining eyes to see some vague notion of a future for themselves. Their hearts are brought to flame as the Holy Spirit speaking into them. But they needed more nudging. We all do. Our eyes are never opened fully. The Easter news of resurrection is too big for us to see all at once. There’s always more that needs revealing. It was only when they stopped and gathered around table, as Jesus broke bread with the two, that something in them was shaken awake.

How many times had they gathered around table with Jesus and shared bread with him? How many times had Jesus hosted a meal with them, inviting the hungry and the lost to be nourished, to recover who they are while sitting around table? This happens over and over again. Countless times. It was around table that their eyes were opened. When bread is shared, all heaven breaks loose.

They recognize Jesus right then. In table fellowship. This should remind us of Communion, of course, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that Luke intends here. After all, it was the two disciples who invited Jesus to stay and eat with them. Jesus was their guest. With hearts burning inside of them, they couldn’t yet let go of this mysterious traveler. They wanted more time with Him. Having been invited to their table, though, Jesus quickly becomes their Heavenly Host, taking bread and breaking it in front of them. It was then, in that moment when Jesus took bread and broke it, that their burning hearts were broken open and they could see!

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Friends, Easter is still unfolding right in front of us. There is no end to God’s story. Salvation is still working itself out right in front us, with every step we take along the Way. Emmaus is nowhere in particular. Emmaus is everywhere. Emmaus always happens. Easter is always unfolding in front of us. In all of our journeys, do we have eyes to see Jesus with us?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Birthmarks

A sermon based on 1 Peter 1:3-10 and John 20:19-29 preached on April 23rd, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s Easter evening. The disciples are huddled together in a room too small for them. They’re sweating because the air is stagnant. They’re fearful for lack of courage or purpose. Three days ago, their courage and purpose had been crucified on a cross just outside Jerusalem. His name was Jesus.

Yes, there were rumors about. Earlier that morning, the two Marys had run back to the locked room they were huddled in. Out of breath from running, but also from whatever it is that happens to us when fear mixes with joy, they told the disciples that Jesus was alive. Walking, talking, breathing. Having conversations with them. But, for those first disciples, rumors and stories, conjecture and hearsay were good for nothing. How can anyone believe that Jesus is alive without first having seen Him? That’s the deep Easter question we have, isn’t it, friends?

Sometimes faith is easy. There are moments, perhaps many of them, when believing in that which we have not seen with our own two eyes comes effortlessly. But there are also moments when our faith lacks the strength to carry us very far—out of our own locked rooms.

There they were—Jesus’ disciples, who knows how many of them—certainly more than 11—hiding behind locked doors, whispering to each other out of fear of being discovered, certain that if they made too much noise or emerged out of the cubbyhole of a room they were in, they’d end up on a cross just like their Master had.

It’s a wonder that the Jesus movement was birthed at all. For their faith to take on life, those first disciples had to emerge from the grave of that small, locked room. In a sense, they had already buried themselves inside those 4 walls. They had barred the door shut—it was locked from the inside—that door was like a tombstone they had rolled in front of their own grave. All indications would lead us to think that they were calling it quits.

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Whenever we read this passage in worship or in Sunday School class, or a bible study, the word doubt inevitably becomes a part of our conversation.

But there’s something much more sinister at play here. Doubt we can handle. We can live with doubt. In fact, it’s hard for us not to. But hope. Hope is something that none of us can survive without. If all we see wherever we look are walls, barriers, locked doors that keep us in, that hold us prisoner—especially when those doors are locked from the inside—then we’ve given up hope. And what else is there if we do not have hope?

Whenever fear takes up more space in our lives than hope, death wins. Life grows smaller. The walls around us get thicker, they move in closer. And there we are, cramped with fear. As good as dead. We all know what it’s like to be stuck in place; it feels like dying—or at least a sort of smaller death.

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It is right in the middle of this cramped space, this room filled with fear and death and hopelessness, that we hear a voice we recognize:

Peace be with you!

Jesus says. Heads turn. Mouths fall open. The women were right! Jesus is standing among them. He speaks real words from His real mouth. Looking at the disciples through His real eyes. There He is standing among them in the middle of that cubbyhole of a room. And whether it actually happened or it just felt like it, the walls of that room retreated. The space inside grew bigger, fuller. And suddenly, the disciples could breathe again. In that tiny space, life quickly replaced death.

Peace be with you!

And after saying those words, Jesus breathed on them, inflating their lungs again, reviving their hopelessness, giving new energy—God-energy to their bodies worn down and failing, bringing new birth to their dying spirits. In that moment, everything seemed to expand. Walls. Eyes. Lungs.

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Let’s dive a little deeper.

Did you ever notice how many times Jesus’ hands and side are mentioned in this passage? Three. Three times in 11 short verses. This should get our attention.

The first and last time, it’s Jesus who brings up these scars of His. The second time Jesus’ scars are mentioned, it’s Thomas who brushes aside the witness of his fellow disciples. They have told him that they had seen the Lord, and in his stubbornness, the first thing that Thomas brings up is that he needs to see those scars—the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, the lash marks in his side. That’s a curious thing! Have we ever thought about that? What’s so important about Jesus’ marks—these scars He had—that they’re the first thing Thomas says he needs to see, the first thing Jesus shows to His disciples, and the first thing that Jesus shows to Thomas a week later?

There seems to be no question about it: Jesus’ disciples were waiting to see the marks. It’s the most important detail of Jesus’ identity now—that His body now has scars. If we ever had the notion that the body of the resurrected Jesus would be blemish-free—glowing in radiance, white with light, healed by God, then we are assuming too much. In fact, we’d be assuming the opposite of what those first disciples assumed. The resurrected Jesus—the One high and lifted up—the One who is with us now in the power of the Holy Spirit—is perfect, but even in His perfection, He has scars. And these scars aren’t just something left over from His life on earth; these marks He has make Him our Lord and our God.

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Our bodies bear witness to the brutalities of this all-too-human life of ours. They’re marked up all over. Our skin tells our stories for us. Our bodies are our best diaries. Written upon them is every bit of our past. Over the landscape of our own bodies we encounter the countless moments of our lives. Our bodies are living signposts marking where we have been and what we have accomplished. They remember where we have stumbled, but they insist on getting back up onto our feet to try again—which in a way is its own tiny resurrection, or if that’s too much, it’s at least resilience, our hope becoming stronger than our fear. Our bodies are living testaments to the God-filled conviction that says: no matter what this world throws at us, we have within us completely resilient spirits. Our marks—physical, spiritual, emotional—do not make us less than human; they are the very things that show forth God’s power to bring us to new birth.

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Friends, we belong to a Wounded Healer. Jesus’ scars—the ones in His hands and sides—are not incidental. They are the story He has to tell. They are God’s story.

Jesus isn’t our Lord without those wounds. What He endured for us on the cross shall not be erased. We do not forget his crucifixion, because without Good Friday, there is no Easter. Without the marks, we would not be here. Without the holes in His hands and sides, we would not be whole. The Church was birthed by those marks on Jesus’ resurrected body. And without them, the Church would have died before it ever came to life.

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Do you know what this means, friends? It means that our faith is birthed from Jesus’ marks. So, the only way to be Church—to live our lives authentically and in witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ—is to bear our marks. To go out from this place, and into all our places, and show the wounds in our hands and sides. By so doing, we show others that Jesus’ church is far from being a group of people who celebrate their own perfection or holiness. Instead, we are people who are willing to roll up our sleeves and show others the side of ourselves that’s filled with wounds—wounds of body, heart, spirit, and soul. They will know we are Christians by our marks. Our marks make us fully alive! God-alive, Jesus-alive, Easter-alive!

And if we do that—if we are willing to be as vulnerable as Jesus was when He entered into that room appearing to his people, wounds and all, then we will bring light to darkened hearts, hope to fear-filled souls, life to people living their lives half-dead, and maybe, hopefully, lead them to recognize Jesus in much the same way that Thomas did that evening.

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Thomas’ eyes were opened when he saw Jesus. And from his mouth came the most profound statement of faith that we have in any of the gospels:

My Lord and my God!

he said.

The Church was given birth that night with those words from Thomas. It is with that declaration of faith along with the breath that Jesus breathed into those disciples—both, bringing them to life—that the Church still has its life.

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Friends, we still have limited vision and blinding doubts. We’re often crippled by the same kind of fear that those first disciples had, and that fear causes us to do the same thing it did to them: to keep all held up inside, to keep our faith hidden by these four walls, to hesitate to take the Good News of Jesus-alive out with us—to share it and wear it. To live our days, hours, minutes in witness to our resurrected Lord. It is into our anxiety—that thing that tells us over and over again that our faith is a private thing—that Jesus speaks those same words He did to those first disciples:

Peace be with you.

Jesus says it over and over again. Three times in this passage, and many more times to us. And he’ll continue speaking peace to us until we finally understand what He’s trying to tell us. Christ’s peace is a whole lot more than something that calms our fears. This is Shalom. This is a peace that empowers us and drags us into maturity, wholeness, completeness. Jesus breathes this peace into us. With His breath, Jesus gives us life—He births the Church in the same way God brought creation to life when His Spirit swept over the waters and stirred the cosmos to life.

With this Shalom, we catch our breath and are made into new beings. This is the breath that marks us for second birth. And once we catch Jesus’ breath, once we’re birthed by the Holy Spirit—given our vitality and our mission—we go out from this place and bear witness to our Lord by bearing His marks in all we say, and in all we do.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

Seeing Easter, Practicing Resurrection

A sermon based on Isaiah 52:1-2, 7-12 and Matthew 28:1-10 preached on April 16th, 2017

Sermon audio

It’s stunning how sparse the gospels are about that first Easter morning. All four of the gospels tell the greatest story ever told, and each of the writers was free to use as many words, paragraphs, pages as they needed to do so. But they all tell the Easter story in 10 verses or less. That’s it. Maybe a half a chapter. I want more. I want details. There’s so much about that first Easter morning that’s left unsaid.

It’s not as if the writers of the gospels are impatient when it comes to details. They all devote more than half their pages to the last week of Jesus’ life. Details galore! We know more about those last six days of Jesus life and ministry than all the rest combined. But the Resurrection? What we have is bare bones. The language is sparse—void of any detail. If there was any story in all of scripture to write chapters upon chapters about, this is it! Tell us more about the empty tomb, the angel who moved the stone, the earthquake it all caused.

Why is the story of Easter told so sparsely—with plain, hurried, ambiguous, fuzzy language? Maybe it’s because the gospel writers had no words for what happened that day. Maybe the story of Easter is so insufficiently told because we have no words for resurrection. It isn’t something that any of us bump up against every day.

If our best language is honed from all the ordinary, everyday stuff of our lives, from our repetitive experiences—grocery shopping, folding clothes, making eggs, cleaning up after our children—then we’re going to be speechless here. Resurrection isn’t like any of that. The only one with words that morning was the angel.

Emily Dickinson once wrote,

The truth must dazzle gradually or else every person would go blind.

We’re still being dazzled, gradually, by the resurrection promise of Easter. The light of it is too much to handle all at once.

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Have you ever noticed that Easter is not as heavily commercialized as Christmas? Yes, there’s still a huge section in every store that’s full of Easter candy, baskets, eggs, and green cellophane straw, but Easter is not nearly the overly materialistic juggernaut that Christmas is. Why is that?

Presbyterian pastor, Frederick Buechner wonders about that on paper when he asserts that Easter is entirely different than Christmas. Christmas, Jesus is a tiny baby, and we’ve all held a tiny baby in our hands. We can comprehend such a thing as that. We know what cradles look like, so it doesn’t take much for us to imagine what a manger stall might be. There’s so much about Christmas that’s ordinary, every day. As Matthew and Luke tell their nativity stories, we can see it happen in our mind’s eye. It’s as familiar as life itself.

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At first the only thing the two Marys had to go on was an empty tomb, and there’s nothing about emptiness for us to hold onto.Easter is elusive. It escapes our grasp.

Matthew says that Mary took hold of Jesus’ feet, but that’s about all anyone in our story could handle in those first moments. And as Easter went onward, everyone who saw the resurrected Jesus had nothing to grab on to. Jesus raised from death to life overwhelms us. That’s why Easter can’t be stapled down by manufacturers of toys or electronics, clothes or jewelry. We have no idea what to make of resurrection. In order to talk about it, we have to borrow language from angels.

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Not only is our language and imagination too small to adequately describe the Good News of the empty tomb and Jesus alive among us. So is creation. With the truth of the empty tomb, the earth itself shook. That’s what happens when heaven invades earth. Earth is overwhelmed. The natural world loses its moorings. It has to make way for a thing this big! God’s news of resurrection cannot, will not leave the earth, this cosmos, or any one of us in it, unmoved. Resurrection is a Divine alarm clock that shakes us all awake—that stirs an inattentive world to life.

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The guards who stood watch outside Jesus’ tomb were to make sure everything stayed right where it was supposed to—but with one look at the angel descending from the heavens, they became like dead men. An interesting detail, isn’t it?! On a day full of new life, amid a moment when God invades the earth with Easter-vitality, the guards become like dead men.

We should all be stunned by the resurrection of Jesus, but it’s only the unbelieving among us who are stopped dead in their tracks, frozen in place. It’s the women, the ones who believed—as fearful as they were in that moment—who move into action, joy-filled, fear-filled action. Easter is that moment when we who believe are jump-started alive and awake—full of fear, yes, but also more alive than we’ve ever been!

And we’re not the only ones stirred to joyful and fearful action. All of creation is jump-started by the promise of resurrection. This news of the angels is enough to rattle heaven and earth. Even the stones shout out with joy. Absolutely nothing is unmoved by the promise of Jesus-alive! The earthquake is a message God sends: Not a single one of us can meet the resurrected Jesus without being shaken all the way down to our very bones.

To meet Jesus is for the ground to give way beneath our feet, for everything we thought was settled about our lives—not least, the notions we have about the way the world works, and the way that God works in the world—to be thrown out of kilter. Easter is the seismic center of God’s story and ours, and it jolts awake those of us who too easily become comfortable in our faith. That’s what God’s Good News does.

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According to Matthew, it’s only the two Mary’s who see Jesus that first Easter morning. None of the other disciples lay eyes on the resurrected Jesus that day. They’re left to catch up with what God is doing by traveling back home to Galilee.

Go to Galilee,

Jesus says to the two Mary’s.

There, the disciples will see Him.

The tomb is empty. We can look inside if we want to. But there’s nothing there. Yes, it was occupied yesterday, but if there’s anything for us to be sure of about Easter, it’s that yesterday—all of our yesterdays—don’t matter anymore. Easter brings an end to all of our yesterdays, and it sets us on our feet toward our tomorrows. Go to Galilee, Jesus says. There the disciples will find their Lord.

Do you know what that means, friends?  It means that we have been anticipated! By the time we have any clue about what God is up to on Easter morning, the tomb has already been emptied. By that time, He had already made His way to Galilee! And from now on, we who call ourselves disciples will spend our lives catching up to Jesus. That’s the message in all of this! Go to Galilee, He says. God always has a head start on us! Seeing Easter and practicing resurrection means going to Galilee.

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Galilee was home for those 11 disciples. That first Easter day, the followers of Jesus spent their afternoon walking away from Jerusalem and back home. That’s where Jesus wanted them—in their own neighborhoods, strolling the streets, in the shops along the dusty roads of their own hometown. With and among the locals. That, friends, is how we practice resurrection. By going to Galilee, which is a way of saying, “Take the news of Jesus-alive and resurrected back home with you!” Spend slow time making Easter and the reality of resurrection that comes with it a reality for everyone you see. And do it every day, in your coming and going, right where you find yourself the most. Practice resurrection while you work, and play; while you do the dishes, as you watch out your window at the neighborhood kids playing kickball. See Easter as you visit the sick in hospitals. As you go to work, or buy your groceries, or do your laundry.

Go to Barboursville, West Virginia.

If we were there that first Easter morning, that’s what Jesus would have said to us.

There you will see me.

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Go to Galilee. Because that’s where resurrection happens. Go to Galilee! Because that’s where eternal life begins. Right here, right now. As in heaven, so on earth. Go to Galilee! Because Easter is underway, and it unfolds right where we find ourselves. Go to Galilee! Don’t wait for the future before you find abundant life. It’s all right here. In front of us! Go to Galilee—all those tens of thousands of Galilees around us!

So don’t stay here. Go. If there’s anything true about Easter, it’s that Jesus never stays put. Even tombs with big boulders blocking the entrance can’t keep Him penned in. We will not find Jesus where we think we will. He’s ahead of us. He’s made our way for us, and we will have to leave a day’s worth of footprints in order to catch up to Him. So, keep walking. That’s the Easter life. That’s also the life of discipleship.

May we pray to be dazzled by the Truth of Easter, not all at once but gradually—slowly stirred awake and alive by the resurrection promise of this and every day! May we, too, make our way to Galilee, for there we will see Him.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.