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.

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Worship(fully)

A sermon based on Isaiah 61 and Luke 1:39-45 preached on November 27th, 2016

Advent is a conspiracy. Advent is that secret plan that no one seems to know about—that hidden part of Christmas that everyone overlooks. Advent is God’s conspiracy, a rude invasion of the Holy into our hearts and lives. But in order to see this divine scheme at work among us, we need to look underneath all the Christmas pollution out there. We need to put our ear up to a different door—listen for another sound, a much quieter one, one softer than the ringing of silver bells or cash registers.

The word con-spire means to breathe with, to sync ourselves up with another. A group of people conspiring together gather with one another and they make a plan, they go over it again and again until everyone understands everyone else, until everyone involved knows exactly what their part is and how their part syncs up with everyone else’s part—until they’re all on the same page, until they’re acting as one, until they so intimately know how they and everyone else is involved it’s almost like they’re one body, breathing together.

Advent is a conspiracy. It’s an invitation into a plan hatched by God. God will invade the world by coming into it in human form. At first, only a few will know or even care—a teenager named Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, later a few shepherds—so unimportant to the world that they don’t even have names! Advent is a con-spiracy, a way for human beings like you and I to breathe deep and make room for the Spirit of God to invade, inspire, to sync our every inhalation and exhalation—to make every one of our exaltations—with, to, and for God.

The invitation of Advent is to go through this Christmas season living and breathing in new and different patterns than the rest of the world. As others anxiously and breathlessly scurry about all around us, we the faithful have been invited this season to breathe deeply and worship fully.

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Each of the gospel writers approach the story of Jesus in a different way. If the gospel according to Matthew is like a research paper, then Mark’s is more like a blog post—much shorter and to the point. And if the gospel according to John is like one of Shakespeare’s plays, then the gospel according to Luke is like a Broadway musical. Luke’s gospel starts with 5 different musical numbers: Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, sings of the great things God will do through his son; there’s the angel’s song to the shepherds announcing the birth of God into the world; there’s Simeon’s song that he shouts at the time of Jesus’ christening; and today’s song, a duet of two pregnant women: Elizabeth and Mary, cousins who come together to rejoice in their shared fortune—God is doing something new and extravagant for the world, and for some inexplicable and wondrous reason, He has chosen to do it through the two of them!

We call Mary’s song the Magnificat because Mary sings about how her heart magnifies or glorifies the Lord. The original word that Mary sings here starts with the prefix mega-, as in megaphone. As these two women sing, they use their outdoor voices to exclaim their news. They shout over the rooftops, they exclaim their praise to the heavens, more confident than ever before that God hears their song—has heard their long-held prayers and now, finally, has an answer to all the injustice in the world. These two women breathe in deeply, and with big breath from big lungs, they use big notes to sing big songs to God!

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The Velvet Revolution of East Germany started slowly. Protesters began to gather at the foot of the Berlin Wall. Every Monday evening, they came together and lit candles—just dozen or so at first. They sang songs out of hymnals with one another. Singing became their main act of protest. Over two months, the dozen or so grew into a little more than a 1,000 people, and then into over 300,000—half the citizens of the city.

These 300,000 gathered together each Monday evening, and sang songs of protest and justice and hope, until their song was loud enough for the people inside of government halls to hear them—until their voices pierced the thick walls of all the unjust laws in place in East Germany, until the people’s songs were loud enough to send the Berlin Wall crumbling down to the ground. Later, when someone asked one of the officers of the Stasi, the East German secret police, why they did not crush this protest like they had so many others, the officer replied,

We had no contingency plan for song.

The right songs, sung loudly by enough people can change the world. Mary and Elizabeth knew that. Revolutions begin with a single note beginning a single song; and somehow that song grows loud enough to send even the strongest of walls crumbling down to the ground.

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If we pay attention to the words of Mary’s song, it won’t take us long to figure out that they haven’t come true yet. Mary’s words are full of hope. Mary knows that she’s giving birth to something new—it’s something that God is doing—but this thing that God is doing through her and through Jesus will not come true overnight. Even God’s plans take time. Mary sings of powerful people being pulled down from their thrones, never to rule again. The hungry will be fed with good things and the rich will be sent away empty-handed.

None of this has happened yet. The ways of the world haven’t changed all that much—they’re still the same as they have always been. But just like Mary, we don’t wait to sing our songs of hope. Like the protesters of the Velvet Revolution, we don’t wait until all the walls of injustice have come crumbling down to the ground before we start our song. We sing now. And the song we sing is a song of hope, and this song is called Advent. Hope is at the center of the Advent conspiracy. Hope is the very engine of the Almighty who comes to us in Jesus Christ. And this hope we have is not of the naïve and cheery sort. It’s not the watered-down sort of hope that fills Hallmark cards. It’s not the kind of hope we have when we toss our coins in fountains and send up wishes. The hope we sing of at Advent is of the determined sort. It’s gritty hope. This sort of hope has friction. Advent hope is the kind of hope that dares to stare into the face of darkness—the darkness of our lives and the darkness of the world—and dares to confront it.

The hope of Advent gives us what it takes to lift our single voice and dare to shout out into a meaningless world, to take a world completely ambivalent and impersonal and apathetic, and sing into it something real and meaningful and substantial. Mary’s Magnificat has been echoed over and over again throughout history in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. as he sung his “I have a dream.” In the words of Maya Angelou as she tells the story about why the caged bird sings. In the still-sung and powerful words of We Shall Overcome…One Day, One Day. Advent is a conspiracy. A conspiracy of hope. A breathing-in to make room in ourselves and in our world for God to do something new and significant and vital.

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Starting this Wednesday evening, we will gather together in the Fellowship Hall for this year’s Advent bible study. Each week we will look an often overlooked and surprising truth about the story of Christmas using a book entitled Hidden Christmas by Timothy Keller. You don’t have to read the book to be a part of the bible study, but you can if you’d like.

Timothy Keller thinks that there are a few things about Christmas that we still don’t seem to get—that no matter how many times we’ve read the Christmas story or attended an Advent Bible Study, or come to church on Christmas Eve or any one of these Sundays in Advent, there’s something that God is doing at Christmas that continues to fly under our radar screens. Keller says that the most surprising and under-acknowledged thing about Christmas is the message that the world’s hope comes from outside of it. You could call that the central confession of Christmas, the conspiracy of all conspiracies: that in a world full of people who break their backs to claim self-sufficiency, inside a culture that loves to proclaim its independence and autonomy, we who call ourselves Christian confess the opposite.

Our hope comes not from self-reliance but only and fully through reliance on something or, rather Someone outside of us. Our Greatest Hope has never dwelled within of us; our Greatest Hope comes to us from the outside. And our task this Advent: to ask for this hope to fall upon us. To actively wait for it. To look beyond ourselves for it. To worship fully—to live our lives breathing in God’s Spirit deeply, knowing that, just like air, the living, breathing Hope of God is what gives us our life—and that it comes to us from outside of us.

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Friends, this Advent, be a part of the conspiracy! Breathe deeply. Make room for the Spirit of God to invade and inspire you. Sync your every inhalation and exhalation—and make every one of your exaltations—with, to, and for God. Worship fully. Practice Divine-dependence. With big breath from big lungs, use big notes to sing big songs of hope to God, just as Mary and Elizabeth did—the sort of hope that comes from outside of you, so that your life may be infused with, and invaded and inspired by, the Spirit of God!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Don’t Forget to Breathe

A sermon based on 1 John 1:1-2:2 and John 20:19-31 preached on April 12th, 2015.

Happy Easter!

Today is what many in the Church refer to as Low Sunday. Today, there are fewer in attendance than there was last week. We have this idea that Easter is a day. 1 out of 365—the day we give out Easter baskets, have our egg hunts out in the lawn, get our knees dirty in the grass. It’s one out of 2 days of the year when shops like Target are closed.

But we Christians live by a different calendar, and according to our calendar, Easter is far from over. This Sunday is the 2nd Sunday of Easter, and we will celebrate the Good News of the resurrected Christ who lives and reigns among us for a total of 7 weeks. Everyone knows that Lent is 7 weeks long, but how many folks know that the season of Easter lasts just as long? This is the season of adjusting our eyes to new and brighter rays of light. And our eyes take time to adjust.

Easter is the radiant light that cannot be hidden. The great news of Jesus’ resurrection is too big to keep locked up, held down—and it’s too big for just one day. Some things are too loud to keep to ourselves, and the power of God to bring to life what was once dead is the loudest sound the world has ever heard.

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But sometimes it’s the silence that is deafening and the dark that blinds us. That’s where we find the disciples that first Easter evening: all locked-up, surrounded by 4 walls, doors barricaded shut out of fear—a fear that paralyzed them. Their eyes were having a hard time adjusting to the new and bright ray of light that Mary had brought them earlier that day.

I’ve seen the Lord!

She said to them.

Mary’s news didn’t release the disciples. Here they are still in bunker mode.

How ironic is it that the news of the empty tomb, the unleashing of death from its shackles, the astounding story that Mary shared with them of seeing Jesus, the Master Gardener, tilling the land for the new growth that is to come—how ironic is it that his disciples held themselves inside a tomb of their own making, refusing to emerge from it and show themselves to others?

Even a week later, they’re all still cooped-up inside the upper room—their hearts and lives contained, their breathing constricted, languishing shoulder to shoulder in that darkened space where they hoped to stay invisible to all the outside world. This is how the disciples celebrated that first Easter. Discouraged, in the dark, with the wind knocked out of them.

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When I was young, I remember coming downstairs on Saturday mornings to see that my mom was exercising in the living room to one of her Denise Austin workout videos.

I would be a couple feet away in the kitchen fixing some breakfast for myself, and I’d glance up to see Denise Austin in full 80’s-style workout gear—huge aerobic socks, her white Reebox, headband, perm and all.

In each one of her workout videos, Denise Austin, with her upbeat tone of voice, would remind her audience about every 8 seconds,

 Don’t forget to breathe!

As one who never exercised to anyone of Denise Austin’s videos, I would laugh whenever I heard her say that. Who would forget to breathe? Do we really need to be reminded of such things?

As one who works out to my own yoga videos these days, it turns out, Yes, we do in fact need to be reminded to breathe every once in a while.

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Not only is the Sunday after Easter Low Sunday, it’s also Bashing Thomas Day. Poor guy. You just say a couple words of defiance to a few of your friends in some room one day, and from then on, and into eternity, your whole life becomes defined by them.

But we’re not going to say much more about Thomas today, because there’s so much more to this moment than Thomas’ doubting. This is also the moment when the living Jesus—the One who was once dead—comes to each of his disciples and breathes new life into them. He literally breathes on each one of them. In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives the disciples a tiny Pentecost, saying to them as he exhales,

Receive the Holy Spirit!

This is Jesus saying to his disciples

Don’t forget to breathe!

This is Jesus coming to them that first Easter evening and sharing with them the same breath that swept over the waters on the first days of creation.

This is their and our Lord and Savior coming to His people—all of us who are held up in the tiny rooms of our own making, and sharing with us the wind that blows wild and free across the enormous landscapes of our world. This is Jesus giving CPR to dead men and women, rescuing them from the lifeless confines of that upper room, expanding our lungs and our lives so that with our breath we can tell the story of the One who lives and breathes in the world—and has for the last 2,000 years.

The presence of resurrected Jesus brings us back to life just as it did for Thomas and his fellow disciples those first two Sundays of Easter. That’s Easter breathing.

The Source of all life gives us our breath back. And on that tiny Pentecost, the heavy weight bearing down on top of their chests—all that fear that constricted their airways and kept their doors shackled up tight—was lifted and unlocked. And Jesus offers them peace. No more fear. Don’t forget to breathe.

Receive the Holy Spirit,

Jesus says. Then this:

If you forgive anyone’s sins, they’re forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.

See, forgiveness, friends, is like respiration itself. And the unwillingness to forgive is like holding our breath. When we refuse to forgive others we’re the ones who suffocate. Isn’t that the truth?We languish in the stale oxygen of something done to us that we haven’t forgiven another for, and when we do such things, all we’re doing is cutting off our own air supply—hurting ourselves.

The ability to forgive—to release ourselves and others from the dark and confining spaces where we and they are locked up—is like freeing our lungs to breathe in fresher air. Easter air.

The breath of Jesus brings peace and the power to forgive, both of which unleash us from the closed-off rooms in our own hearts and lives, and free us to be new people, willing and able to be the “Good-News-presence” that Jesus wants us to be.

Jesus gives us the lungs we need to proclaim that Good News to a world that is suffocating in its own way—that has forgotten how to breathe.

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So, let’s take a deep breath. Go ahead. Take it in.

We are the disciples who wish to see the resurrected Jesus in our midst. We are the ones who long to have our eyes adjusted to the new rays of Easter light that come in through the cracks of all the walls we’ve built up around us. We are the ones who are being freed from all that holds us in place and constricts our airways. Jesus comes into our presence with lungs that breathe out, and skin that we can touch, and He shows himself to us so that we can be freed to believe.

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Notice the last 2 verses of our passage this morning:

Jesus did many other signs, one’s not recorded in this scroll…

There’s always more to the story, there’s always more to say, more to uncover, more to discover, isn’t there? It’s as if John, through this little disclaimer at the end of chapter 20, nudges us, and points beyond himself to all of us and says,

You get to see what’s next!

Because, my friends, Jesus is still appearing. Long past that first Easter, Jesus is the One who’s still at-large, on the loose—the One out there, moving as wild as those first winds that blew over the newly created world.

We’re the ones who get to tell the next part of the Jesus Story. We’re the disciples Jesus walks in on, showing us his hands and his side, urging us to believe, empowering us with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and entrusting us with the choice to forgive or hold out forgiving.

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It’s the risen Christ living among us who is the story-giver. But we’re the story-tellers: the ones invited to breathe in and out this sacred story, to live it or not, to tell it or not, to stay inside these walls and keep it to ourselves or not.

May Christ visit us and gift us with new breath, with lungs and hearts and minds big enough to share what we know with all those around us, because rooms this small can never hold a story as big as this one.

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But as you share your story, there’s just one thing to remember: the Holy Spirit is all around you, so don’t forget to breathe.

Happy Easter!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Coming Back to Life

A sermon based on Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45 preached April 6th, 2014.

Sermon audio

In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman’s character, “Red” Redding, tells the tale of what it’s like to be a prisoner. When you’re in prison, you see life only when you look up to the sky if ever they let you outside. In almost every other moment, you’re locked up behind bars. The cold steel of your cell is like a sort of death. Whenever you’re confined, whenever the air you breathe is stale and leaves your lungs needing something better, your heart still beats and your mind still moves along, but are you alive?

After years bound up behind bars, Red learns a lot about life mostly because he’s spent so much time experiencing death. Prison will compromise you if you let it. It can destroy you. In fact, prison is meant to destroy you.

They send you here for life, Red says, that’s exactly what they take. The part that counts anyways.

Each and every morning waking up in prison presents Red with a choice “to get busy living or to get busy dying”, he says.

Life is more than just heartbeat and brainwave, it’s also about meaning and purpose, and a lack of meaning and purpose feels a whole lot like death.

In a place like prison, where your body is bound up by thick concrete walls, how do you keep those walls from binding up your mind and heart, too? That’s one of the questions Red asks himself.

How do you find life when everything around you tells you you’re dead? And how do you, how can you, is it even possible to come back to life?

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How are we all less than alive? How does our world need to be delivered from death, and what parts of ourselves need to be brought back to life?

Death in our culture occurs everyday and in many different ways. And it doesn’t matter if we live behind iron bars and concrete walls or if life is taken from us in much more subtle ways.

We live in a world that deals death to us every single day. There are so many ways our lives can be taken away from us. There is job loss, hunger, disease. People take from us far more than they give. There is economic disparity, mounting evidence of climate change, and wars that never come to an end.

People are out there, and we are among them, who mourn the loss of meaning and hope. It’s easy to stare out into our country’s future and see nothing but more decay. More suffering. More despondency. Life seems to slip away from us bit by bit.

We live in a culture that deals death to us every day.

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Monster movies were popular in the late 20’s after the Great Depression. They emerged in popularity again in the 50’s during the Cold War, and since 9/11, the production of zombie movies has exploded in the U.S.

The TV series The Walking Dead is just the latest chapter of a historical phenomena. As it turns out, the regularity of zombie movies is somewhat a barometer of our own social and economic distress. And since the economic downturn in 2007, zombie-related business is one of the few areas of our economy that is doing well. Just in 2011 alone, all things “zombie” grew to be worth an estimated $5.7 billion.

Rather than just a metaphor for our economic woes, “the walking dead” is also a metaphor for our growing social fears.

Zombies are brain-dead beings. They are people who are really no-people. They are beings whose agency and faculties have been taken from them. All zombies do is wander meaninglessly and mindlessly. They’re the un-savable and disillusioned monsters who roam the landscapes of our towns.

Many say that their popularity is a sign of our collective disillusionment and our growing sense that our world has forgotten about us and has left us behind. I think it’s safe to say that, as a nation, our collective disillusionment is on the rise. And when an entire people feel left behind and forgotten about—when we all get the sense of our increasing lack of meaning and purpose in the world—when we feel like our agency is taken away from us by others, it feels a whole lot like death.

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Brian Blount is the President of the Union Presbyterian Seminary, the school I attended, and he recently wrote a book called Invasion of the Dead. He talks about the rise in Zombie popularity too.

In a world like ours, he writes, death is always believable.

He says that we are all the walking dead. We all need to have life breathed back into us. We all need to be shown that there is something stronger than the power of death. This sort of death that has brought about the popularity of zombie culture in our nation is really a loss of meaningfulness and purpose that many in our culture are mourning.

This is a deep kind of loss. We live in a world that ceases to live because it no longer knows how to. It’s a world that has lost its breath and it doesn’t know how or where to regain it—a world that doesn’t know about new life. Our culture has forgotten about the power of resurrection, so instead of dealing in life, it revels in its own dying.

We are a people who have forgotten that coming back to life is possible—that we have a God who calls us out of our tombs, who raises us from our graves not only in the next life but raises us from the many different sorts of graves we find ourselves confined in during this life. We have a God who calls us out of death to live new and reclaimed lives right now.

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Jesus calls Lazarus out from the tomb by name. Lazarus hears Jesus speak to him and he follows Jesus’ voice and emerges from death. Through the power and grace of God through Jesus, Lazarus is given life again.

Jesus calls us out of our tombs, out of the dark, confining spaces of our lives—out of our despondency. Jesus rolls away stones and has harsh words to speak to any force that seeks to imprison us, to anything that locks us in and keeps us from experiencing life in its fullest sense.

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We are a people who need to hear the same Good News Jesus shared with Martha:

I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never die.

We desperately need to hear the same words Lazarus heard from Jesus,

Come out!

Emerge from everything that confines you, from everything that locks you in. Death has no power. Death will never claim our lives because we follow the voice of the One who brings us back to life, who revives us and breathes his Spirit into our lungs, and into our hearts. And the kind of life that Jesus resuscitates us with is the kind that never dies—even after our lives are through.

O God, take these dry bones and our worn-out and disillusioned hearts and bring us to life everlasting!

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Red gets out of jail after a 60-year sentence, he finds his way back into life on the outside by taking a job bagging groceries at the Foodway. The freedom he has being able to walk down the street, into shops, to take the bus to work. This is all new life.

Tim Robbins’ character, Andy Dufresne, told Red long ago that if ever Red got out of jail, he should make his way out to a field in a nearby town. There’s a tree, there, Andy said. Andy tells Red that there he’ll find a rock—a black volcanic one that has no business being there. After that, Andy tells Red,

Make your way West to the Mexican Pacific and find me there.

Red buys a compass and finds his way to this field. Underneath the tree, he gets on his hands and knees and after a few minutes, he finds the rock and throws it aside. Red finds a tin box buried beneath dirt. Andy had left it for him years back. Red opens the box and finds a letter.

Remember, Red, he reads, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well. Your friend, Andy.

At the close of the movie Red says,

I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend, and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. But most of all, I hope.

Let us put our hope in God’s ability to bring all of God’s people to new life—to call us out of all the dark places we feel buried in.

May we, like Lazarus, hear Jesus telling us to emerge from those spaces that claim our lives. May we put our hope in the God who raises us up, the God who revives our dry bones, our disillusioned hearts, breathes life into the parts us that know death too well, and sets us free.

May God bring us back to life.

All praises to the One who made it and finds it beautiful. Alleluia! Amen.