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.

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Morning In a New Land

And Easter Morning sermon based on Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 and Matthew 28:1-10, preached on April 20th, 2014.

Sermon audio

The two Mary’s had no words. Not one. They woke up that morning to pay their respects on the 3rd day of Jesus’ death.

There were guards standing watch outside of the tomb. There needed to be. Jesus was a dangerous and unpredictable man in life, so those who killed him made absolutely sure that everything about his death stayed sealed. As long as the tomb stayed sealed, what could ever go wrong?

The Roman guards who stood watch by the tomb had sworn that nothing had taken place. Nothing that they could see anyway. The two Mary’s came around, but they kept their distance. Even if their greatest desire was to roll the stone away to anoint Jesus’ body there was no chance.

There were ancient rituals for the living to care for the dead, and those rituals had been taken away from the two Mary’s. Every respectable Jew deserved to be taken care of in death. But there were Roman guards and a huge stone in the way.

The Mary’s were too frightened to dare approach their Lord’s body as it hung on the cross on Friday. They had lost their Master and they were robbed of their chance to mourn in any proper way. It’s as if the Roman soldiers and the Jewish Sanhedrin had stolen Jesus away from them twice.

All the normal ways to grieve their loss had been greedily taken away from them. If they were honest, there was no reason to stay in Jerusalem. They really should just head home. But maybe it wasn’t safe to do that, either.

What was it that kept them there? Was it their fear? The suddenness of it all? Did it stun them?

The reality was that there wasn’t an easy way to walk away from Jesus, even though the tomb was sealed up tight—the story over. They had hoped too much, they had given their lives to him. Who could walk away from that?

But on Sunday morning, just as the sun was rising, they came to the tomb. Out of the corner of their dreary eyes they saw something. Surely these anxious and restless nights were catching up with them. When you’re tired you see things. Strange things. Everything your cloudy eyes see is filtered through your cloudy mind too. But both Mary’s confirmed with each other that they were seeing the same thing. Light. Just light. Almost like a bolt of lightning struck the very place of the tomb but stayed there. It was electric light. What they were seeing shocked them. There was no room for this in their exhausted minds. Whatever this was, it made no sense. There was no category in their heads that it fit under.

We claim on this Easter Sunday that Jesus was raised from the dead. Our shouts of “He is Risen!” have been exclaimed by millions, perhaps even billions every Easter morning for almost two millennia. It should not be easy for us to say these words. These words run up against everything we know about life and death and how they work.

But neither are they mere metaphor or allegory. When we say “He is Risen!”, we’re not simply saying that Jesus is risen in our hearts. We’re not sheepishly saying that maybe if we suspend everything we know about biology, cardiology, and neurology then maybe there’s a slight chance resurrection could be scientifically possible.

When we gather this morning, what we shout out to the world is that Jesus has been raised from the dead, that God did it, and that in this crazy occurrence, every category—everything we know about how this world works and how our bodies work can be upended by a God who has the power to do what most say cannot be done.

When we come to shout “He is risen!”, what we’re saying is that this is God’s land and God can break through the old structures that keep life and death in their place. God can stun us on a morning like this one, by ushering us all into a new world where death no longer claims life.

Jesus’ resurrection is not an absurd event within the old world but a sign and the starting point of a new world—a world where God disrupts the old order of things. The resurrection of Jesus ushers in a brand new way of being—a brand new creation altogether.

Easter morning is a morning in a new land.

Don’t be afraid, the angel says to the women. I know who you’re looking for. He isn’t here. Look inside the tomb if you need to.

Resurrection made as little sense to the first century Jewish mind as it does to ours. As far as any of the first disciples were concerned, resurrection just didn’t happen. Resurrection in the afterlife was an normal idea, but for a dead body to come to life again—there is nothing in the first century Jewish mind that has room to conceive of such a thing—it simply wasn’t a part of their thinking. The possibilities for it were zero.

So when the two Mary’s are invited into the tomb to see that Jesus is no longer inside—they were astounded. Matthews says that the guards became like dead men. A sudden mix of fear and joy overcame the 2 Mary’s and their eyes were opened to the stunning possibility that God has somehow climbed into the ordinary, everyday world where dead people stay dead and has shouted a brand new Word into it—a word of defiance. Death, you can no longer hold life!

Easter’s message gets even bolder than this, though. At Easter we come together to claim God’s truth to the rest of the world: that earth is crammed with heaven. That no longer is there space between heaven and earth, but that with Jesus’ triumphant victory over the cross and grave, the possibilities that we only thought heaven held are now possible right here on earth. For the two Mary’s, nothing remains as it was. The earth shakes with the invasion of heaven—earth’s stones are rolled away by heavenly beings.

Until that first Easter morning, heaven and earth were kept separate from one another. But as the angel rolled away that huge stone and the women saw nothing inside, something that they thought could only happen in heaven had now happened right here on earth and right in front of their eyes. God’s power to resurrect Jesus from the tomb joins heaven and earth together.

As we wake up this morning to the eye-opening and startling news of new life in Christ, we also have woken up to an earth that is now crammed with heaven. No wonder why the two Mary’s felt both fear and joy, no wonder they ran to tell the others. Something brand new had just occurred—something none of them thought possible.

Easter is morning in a new land.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that whenever angels show up in the gospels, the first words out of their mouth are, “Do not be afraid!”

It’s like the angel version of reading the Miranda Rights.

There is enormous surprise in seeing an angelic being strong enough to roll away an enormously heavy tombstone and a tomb that was supposed to be filled that is now perfectly empty. The women have nothing in their belief system to make meaning out of this. What happened that first Easter morning was entirely new.

As they ran back to tell the other disciples, I bet their minds were swirling. They were full of fear and joy and they didn’t know which one of those emotions was right. Could it be that both were right, both at the same time?

It is morning in a new land. A land where the normal categories of heaven-up-there and earth-down-here no longer exist.

On this Easter morning, we come together to claim that Jesus has been raised from the dead, we claim that life can no longer be bound by death—that the divisions that keep heaven away from earth are no longer there.

More than a stone has been rolled away. What happens on Easter rolls away all the divisions between heaven and earth. There is no longer “up there” and “down here”. With the resurrection of Jesus, God has claimed every space as heavenly space.

As the 2 women ran to tell the men what they had seen, with both fear and joy pulsing through their bodies, Jesus meets them.

It is not his spirit that greets them. It is not some apparition, but their Lord himself. The women fall to the ground in praise and wrap their arms around his feet.  Then Jesus says to them,

Don’t be afraid. Go and tell my brothers that I am going into Galilee. They will see me there.

Jesus meets us were we are and he says to us that we will see him—but we need to go. We cannot stay here. Jesus is out there beyond us, ahead of us. We will find him in those spaces where he is calling us to go—out into a new land where he is alive. Out into a world that has been renewed by the news of an empty tomb. There we will see him—in an earth that is now crammed with heaven.

Run and tell the others!

It is morning in a new land!

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

Alleluia! He is risen! He is risen indeed! 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.