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.

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.

A Christian’s Way

A sermon based on Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 7:13-20 preached March 26th, 2017

Sermon audio

I learned a new word yesterday: Funambulist.

A man named Jean-Francios Gravelet, born in 1825, was perhaps the greatest of them: he was a tight-rope walker. His most spectacular feat was walking a three-inch thick tightrope across a 1,000-foot chasm over Niagara Falls.

Newspapers from all across the country followed him to the Falls that day—most of them speculating how bad his inevitable plunge into the raging water would be. It was a vertical drop of 165 feet. Right before he began his 1,000-foot dare-devil walk, he offered to carry a volunteer over on his back. Surprisingly, no one took him up on it.

He made it across. The walk took him a little over 17 minutes. He stopped to rest at one point. He also decided it would be fun to stand on one leg for a bit, which drew cheers from the gathered crowd. It was almost as if he was playing around out there. Loving every minute of it. Like what he was doing wasn’t a matter of life and death, but more like child’s play. As he was planning his walk, he said once that he considered it an easy task. By all accounts, he made it look easy, too.

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As we make our way through Matthew chapter 7, the final chapter of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, let’s not forget where we started.

That first step we took, those first words we heard from Jesus. The Beatitudes, that series of blesseds, spell out a decisively new way of walking. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount is a fleshing out of the bones that are the Beatitudes. Since we’re weeks and weeks along now, with only the closing words left to go, it would be very easy for us to divorce these words about wide and narrow gates, false prophets, and good and bad fruit from good and bad trees, from the very first words of the Sermon, the ones about meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and how we should be glad when the rest of the world persecutes and insults us for not living in the world’s ways.

We started our sermon series on the Sermon on the Mount on a fifth Sunday. We were gathered in the Chapel that morning, and we went from one Beatitude to the next. And when we got to that last one: Blessed are you who are insulted and persecuted, I said that this last beatitude doesn’t really apply to us because we don’t suffer persecution for our faith. But, I think I might want to change my mind. Or at least respond to it in a more nuanced way.

It’s easy being Christian in America. The word not only doesn’t get any of us in trouble. It actually makes our way easier. We trust a Christian. All a politician needs to do is call them self a Christian, and all the sudden we stop asking hard questions about what they believe and how and why it matters to them. Being a Christian is easy. But following Jesus—that another matter entirely.

We live in a time when being a Christian and following Jesus are two different things. Anybody can call themselves whatever they want, but like Jesus declares in another translation of this passage, even wolves can dress themselves up in sheep costumes. You can dress yourself up as a healthy tree, but it’s the quality of the fruit you bear that will give you away. Calling ourselves Christians—that’s easy. Following Jesus is hard.

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Some people talk about a flash moment in their lives when all the sudden they were saved. A moment when time split into two—before Christ and after Christ. There’s nothing particularly wrong with a conversion like this. I have a story that goes a bit like that. Maybe you do, too. But if these words from Jesus have anything to do with it, a moment is not what matters. There may or may not be a moment in your life when you became Christian, but these words from the latter part of the Sermon on the Mount put much more emphasis on what happens after that. How we follow is much more important to Jesus than anything we call ourselves.

Following Jesus isn’t a one-time choice. It isn’t an event. It’s a movement along a path. It’s a step forward, and then another, and then a million more after that. And each step is a choice—a choice about how we will walk through this world, this life, this hour, this minute. It’s a call to look at the right things while we take this journey. A choice about what we will carry in our hearts, in our minds, in our mouths along the way. The words we use, we direction we move. And at the heart of this journey, this constant following after Jesus, step by step, is holy discernment. This is what separates followers of Jesus from those who merely call themselves Christians and leave it at that.

Being Christian takes a decal for the back of your car. Following Jesus takes discernment. The way of discipleship—the Jesus Way—is narrow. It’s a 1,000 foot walk across a tightrope. Every step a measured one, a prayer-filled one. According to Jesus, the Way isn’t safe. It’ll be treacherous, and hard, and confounding. You might lose your balance and fall down and have to get back up again, but maybe falling is exactly how you know you’re on it—because walking this Way is not easy.

If Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, as He calls Himself in another part of scripture, and if the Way is narrow, then it cannot be up to us to walk it. If we choose to give ourselves to the Way—a way of speaking and thinking, imagining and praying—we cannot follow Jesus any which way we like. There are many ways to walk these days. Lots of paths to give ourselves to. Is the route we take, the way we talk, the way we treat each other—the way we do everything—is it congruent with the Way of Jesus?

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Deuteronomy is one of the greatest books of the bible. All thirty chapters of it is Moses, Israel’s leader, preaching his last sermon to his people.

Moses brought them out from the way of slavery in Egypt and then through the desert, and now to the Promised Land. Their way had been difficult. At many moments, the Israelites—thirsty, hungry, and tired—wanted to give up, go back to Egypt, willingly give themselves back to the way of slavery. If it hadn’t been for Moses, they might have done so. Deuteronomy is Moses’s last moments with his people. His time has come to an end. He will ascend a mountain, look out at the vista of the Land God has promised, and die. But before that, Moses reiterates the Way. He says to the Israelites,

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. Choose.

Choose not once, but over and over again. If your hearts turn away, if you leave the narrow Way, destruction is certain. So, pick your way carefully.

The wide way, according to Moses, is a way filled with death and curses, but it’s more enticing, and it’s certainly easier to walk. But don’t do it. You might not get lost, but you’ll certainly lose yourselves in it. Instead, hold fast to God. Love the Lord your God. Listen to His voice. Hold on for dear life to the narrow way. Prayerfully discern each and every step forward.

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Friends, we can find salvation anywhere. It’s offered to us a million times a day in a million different ways. One thousand new religions bloom every day. But all of them are a part of the wide way—the way leading to destruction. If we give ourselves to those ways, those voices, we will quickly get lost, but the dangerous thing is we’ll never know we’re lost. We might even think we’re found. That we’ve figured out salvation. But really, we’ll be far from it.

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So, how do we know where we are? Which way is the right way—the narrow way—and how do we find it? For that, we should turn to 1 John chapter 4.

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and even now is already in the world.

The author of 1 John goes on to say that most people speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them, and they listen to the world. This is the wide way.

Test each and every spirit, discern everything you hear, everything you say, everything others say and do—compare it to the Way of Jesus. Hold it up to the Way of Jesus, and if it doesn’t fit, if it isn’t cross-shaped, reject it. Run far away from it. Do not give yourselves to it. Not only will it be a waste of your time; it will also lie to you, unravel you, bully you into conforming to its ways. And its ways may be far different than the Way of Jesus.

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The way of Jesus has certain qualities to it. We need to know those qualities in order to discern our way—to test the spirits.

The litmus test to it all is the Cross. The cross is the way of Jesus We are to walk the way of the cross. This is the Way of death that leads to real life. Death to self leads to life in Christ. It’s completely counter-cultural and lop-sided, but the Way of Jesus is the way of servanthood and humility, that will lead us to true freedom. Freedom in Christ.

Try convincing your next-door neighbor of that one!

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The truth is we will constantly mistake the wide way for the narrow way—life on our terms is much easier than life on God’s terms.

But for every one of our missteps on this high wire act of walking the Way, may God’s grace be there like a net below us to catch us, make the landing a soft one, and set us back on the Jesus Way.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Animate

A sermon based on Acts 2:1-21 and Ezekiel 37:1-14 preached on May 24th, 2015.

 Sermon audio

Happy Pentecost!

Today, we come together to give witness to the moment when Christ’s church was birthed into the world. Pentecost comes 50 days after the Easter resurrection and 10 days after the ascension of Jesus.

Pentecost is the festival of flame and wind—the moment when the wind of the Spirit, the same Spirit that blew over the waters at our planet’s infancy, comes to God’s people and infuses us with new vitality and brand new being. Pentecost is that moment when we, like the apostles on that very first Pentecost, stop being passive hearers, watchers, consumers, spectators of our Lord’s message—hidden away in our closets where no one can find us—and for the first time walk out into the world embodying the ministry and presence of Jesus for all around us to see.

Pentecost is the Jesus follower’s coming-out party, and therefore the birth of the Church. But we don’t walk out of our hideaways under our own power. We do so because the Holy Spirit animates our lifeless bodies, provoking us to speech and arousing us to action.

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That’s the message of this passage from Ezekiel. Ezekiel is led by God into the middle of a desert—lifeless and silent. God asks him to preach a sermon to a cemetery—not even that, really, a bone yard. Imagine vultures circling overhead. How creepy is this story?!

I visited one of my mentors and pastor friends a year ago and we toured one of the oldest cemeteries in his town of Greenville, SC. I didn’t know he was taking me there. He just said he wanted to show me the quiet neighborhood. Who preaches sermons to the lifeless?

The valley of bones Ezekiel preaches to represents the people of Israel in exile. Cut-off, dried-up, outside of the fertile land of that they flourished in for so long. Cast outside into the desert wastelands of Babylon. The dry bones in this story are Israelites experiencing social desolation—who are beyond the point where they still have hope of returning back to life as they knew it before. These bones Ezekiel sees in this vision are hopelessly lifeless. There’s no future for them.

What these exiled people needed was a resurrection for their entire community—to be lifted out of their hopelessness and have their very bones rattled awake by the Spirit of God. Stuck in a place that only dealt them death, that was their only prospect for life.

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The Holy Spirit stirs us to action. She rattles us awake and breathes life into our lifelessness. She moves these dry bones of ours until there is flesh on them again—and nurtures strength in us until we learn how to walk again. The challenge and invitation of Pentecost is to have our bones be moved until we are stirred to action, and our tongues animated until they take on speech and begin proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel to those around us.

On that first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, she takes the disciples and she shoves them out of their complacency, and into a world and among a people who need to hear a word from Jesus.

In the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost, the disciples had been cooped up. They met for worship, they had all their committee meetings (in Acts 1, they voted on who was going to replace Judas as the new 12th disciple), they gathered around their tables to discuss their models and strategies, they made their budget, they cooked meals for one another, but still they stayed cooped up—frozen inside their own church building—too scared to take the Good News outside their walls. When the Holy Spirit comes, she turns fear into power, confusion into clarity, and silence into communication.

That first Pentecost Day, the Holy Spirit blew in and through the disciples and she stirred them awake, coaxing them out of their paralysis and into life, and giving them new tongues so they could break their silence. The disciples who before had no voice were now speaking in languages other than their own so that all could talk to others around them, and they understood those who spoke to them in their own languages. That’s what the Holy Spirit can do: She animates what was once dead and arouses it to life and gives us what we need to embody, in ourselves—in you and in me—the person of Christ, so that in our speech, in our very selves—deep within our bones—we take on the very person of Jesus Christ—until the Gospel we proclaim with our words and our lives is the same Gospel Jesus proclaimed with His words and His life.

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The question this passage from Ezekiel should have us ask is this: Will our bones be shaken awake? Will the very core of who we are—our very marrow—take on new life? That’s the question God asks Ezekiel. That’s God’s question to His people in this passage: Can these bones live?

Looking out at the wasteland in front of him, Ezekiel answers God in a smart and honest way. He stares into this bone yard that the Spirit led him into, and all he sees is dried-up nothingness. A parched and hopeless sight. The very center of the people of God, all the way down to the hollowness of their bones—their essential selves, their deepest being—is gone. Their spirits are in exile. Ezekiel answers out of that hopelessness by turning the question back to God:

God only you know, Ezekiel replies.

Can Huntington find its way out of the wilderness of heroine addiction? When we look out over the landscape of that issue, there’s no sign of life there. So, God, only you know.

How about the wasteland of gangs in inner cities across our country? The wreckage of hunger across this community? How about the silence that functions like death and falls so hard onto communities oppressed by hatred and social and spiritual separation? For communities and races and social classes all across this nation who, no matter what they do, will always be less-than in the eyes of others? Isn’t cruelty like that: a lifeless desert? Can these bones live?

The Holy Spirit moves the unmovable and stirs to life what seemed lost forever to death—bringing speech to silent situations. The answer’s Yes, these bones can live.

God’s Spirit injects hope into lifeless communities and brings vitality where there was once only lifelessness. And empowered with this same Holy Spirit, we can be participants in that reanimation of creation. God used Ezekiel to take those broken bones and piece them back together again. God can use us to do the same for all those around us who are experiencing a sort of death in their lives.

If we breathe in the holy breath offered to uξs at Pentecost, we participate in a redoing of creation itself when the wind of God first blew over the waters. What God does at Pentecost is animate an entire community—recreating us to be a part of a brand new way of creation. Pentecost happens when communities are brought back to life. That’s the business the Holy Spirit is in. It’s death in reverse. She animates what was once still and stuck in place. She reinvigorates those who for far too long lived in despair, and she revitalizes what was once a wasteland.

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At Pentecost we celebrate that, with the Holy Spirit, the animating presence of life—stirring us to action, encouraging us, and urging us on—that nothing, absolutely nothing is beyond redemption. These bones can live. Today, we are asked to embody that hope—that “ Yes!” from God.

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This story from Ezekiel makes me wonder about something: Are our expectations big enough?

Ezekiel stared out at a field of dried up bones and was one honest comment away from saying to God,

You gotta be kidding me with this! These bones can’t live! Look at them, God! Of course they can’t!!

You know he wanted to say it. That was the truth as he saw it. But led by the Spirit of God, Ezekiel took on a hope that wasn’t his—confronting an apparently dead situation, and wondering out loud if it could be restored back to life.

Maybe God knows what he’s doing, so I’ll do what God has asked me to do.

And God’s Spirit connected bone-to-bone, and placed sinews onto them, and bound those bones back together again. And then God put breath back inside of them and let them live again—giving a future to a people who thought they didn’t have one.

Jesus said with our prayers mountains can move. So, let me ask it again on this Pentecost Sunday: Are our expectations of what God can do big enough?

Pastor Mark Batterson says is this way:

Bold prayers honor God, and God honors bold prayers. God isn’t offended by your biggest dreams or boldest prayers. God is offended by anything less. If your prayers aren’t impossible to you, they are insulting to God.

Are your problems bigger than God, he asks, Or is God bigger than your problems?

Our biggest problem, he suggests, is our small view of God.

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Pentecost is when we take time to celebrate a God who brings life to dead situations, when the Holy Spirit turns a dead end into a highway. When she shakes us awake, sends us out, and empowers us to be difference-makers in and for the world. God has the power to create life where it seems only death exists. Do we know that?

May our bones be moved by the Holy Spirit just as the bones of those disciples were moved on that very first Pentecost Day. And may God animate, revitalize, and reinvigorate our bones—the very core of us—for service and witness to the Gospel of his son and our Savior.

Happy Pentecost!

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

Alleluia! Amen!

Choosing Sabbath: More Life

A sermon on Exodus 20:8-17 and Mark 2:23-3:6, the 3rd in a series on Choosing Sabbath, preached July 27th, 2014.

Sermon audio

Throughout the gospels, the Pharisees don’t come off looking so good.

It seems like they’re always spying on Jesus—staking him out wherever he goes—ready to pounce whenever Jesus does anything that they think violates Old Testament law. They come off as sticklers and tattle tails, and it’s easy for us to make them into villains. They spent way too much effort and time antagonizing Jesus. Don’t they have anything better to do?

But here’s the thing, in their day, the Pharisees were regarded well as keepers of the Jewish faith. They cared how others observed ancient religious rituals, and they tried their best to uphold their own traditional understanding of being faithful in a world they felt was moving away from tradition.

It was important for the Pharisee that the Jewish people kept the Law of Moses as it had always been practiced in the decades and centuries and millennia before, and they saw it as their duty to remind others how important it was to keep at it—to uphold the faith and practice it just as their ancestors had. But as time went on, throughout the years and the centuries, the Pharisees turned what was meant to be guidelines into a strict set of rules. They lost sight of the spirit of the Law of Moses and they became sticklers about keeping to its letter instead.

So in Jesus’ day, the faith of the Pharisees had devolved into an effort to keep rules, to stay away from violating religious law. It had hardened into a set of things to do and things to stay away from doing—a rigid way of life where staying inside the lines mattered more than anything else.

Think about that, though. Doesn’t that sound like us—at least sometimes? Haven’t some of us Christians, like the Pharisees, taken the heart of our Christian faith—the heart of Jesus’ teachings and whittled it down to rule-keeping? Don’t we sometimes forget the spirit of our faith and distill the Gospel’s message down to lifeless rule-following? And haven’t some of us been taught that if we don’t walk the straight and narrow pathway, we’re in danger of falling out of relationship with God? Like the Pharisees, sometimes we Christians make the mistake of thinking that faith is all about following a stringent set of guidelines. And there’s at least two ways we do that:

There’s something I’ll call “a faith of negatives.” A faith of negatives is a fairly predominant understanding of how to be and act Christian, and it says this:

As long as I avoid certain behaviors—dancing, drinking, smoking, saying bad words, then I’m good with God and God is good with me.

It says that we are good Christians because we adhere to purity codes and we stay away from doing what we consider impure.

The 2nd I’ll call “effort Christianity” that says:

As long as I read my bible 20 minutes a day, and pray for at least 10 minutes a day, and follow all the guidelines in the bible, then God will be impressed with me and reward me for my efforts!

Here’s the problem with both of those understandings: they assume we gain our own salvation—that we are the ones in charge of earning a spot on God’s good side. That our own effort sways God’s opinion of us.

These were the mistakes the Pharisees made.

They were well intentioned people of faith, but they thought their ability to stay away from doing certain things as well as their own effort to adhere to the letter of the Law of Moses were the ultimate expressions of being faithful.

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So when the Pharisees see Jesus’ disciples picking heads of wheat as they walked through a field, they jumped on him. Jesus was breaking the rules, coloring outside the lines. Doesn’t he or his disciples have any regard at all for the Sabbath? Clearly the Sabbath doesn’t mean anything to Jesus if this is what he does on it!

Technically speaking, the Pharisees were right. If you follow the letter of the law, Jesus had violated the Sabbath. Calling the disciples out for picking heads of wheat was a little knit-picky, but healing that man’s withered hand was out of line—a clear violation of the Sabbath as it was laid out in the Old Testament.

The man’s withered hand was not life threatening—there was no need for Jesus to heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus knew his bible well enough to know that healing a person was considered work, and he should have waited til the next day to do it. But Jesus knew what was more important here: If he had waited ’til tomorrow wouldn’t that mean he loved the Law of Moses more than he loved the man with the withered hand?

People are always more important than the Sabbath. Sabbath is for people—it’s for our rest, for our liberation and freedom. And isn’t healing a man’s withered hand the very definition of liberation and freedom?

See, the Pharisees had the em-PHAS-is on the wrong sy-LAB-le. In an effort to practice Sabbath faithfully, they completely missed its point. God intended the Sabbath to give us more life, not to keep life from happening. God gave us Sabbath not as a burden but as a gift. Not a prohibition, but an invitation. Sabbath was never designed to be about “No”, it’s about “Yes”—a day to affirm God’s goodness and say “Yes” to life lived in full relationship with God and one another.

Sabbath is about more life.

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I have a hard time with “No.”

If you tell me I can’t do something, I at least want to know why. I follow rules just fine, but you’ve got to give me a great explanation of why a rule exists. If you take the time to explain to me the upside of a rule—the kind of behavior it invites me to practice and participate in rather than telling me what it prevents me from doing—you have a better chance of convincing me to share your vision and follow along. A rule stated positively goes much farther with most of us than one stated negatively.

The last 5 of the 10 Commandments are stated negatively. They are prohibitions. But I wonder what would happen if we flipped them around and turned them into positive statements. Let’s look at this: The 6th commandment, verse 13 in your inserts:

Do not kill.

Fair enough. Killing is bad. I’m on board. But what if we made it an affirmation instead of a prohibition?

Respect life as sacred in all its forms. All life has dignity and beauty.

See, that’s compelling! That invites us in to a much bigger vision of what God wants for us! It doesn’t simply ask us to avoid killing, it invites us to uphold life.

The 7th commandment:

Do not commit adultery.

Fine by me. Adultery destroys relationships.

But how about this:

Respect your family and your part in family life. Respect your relationships. Respect your own bodies and those of others.

See that’s so much better! Stated that way, this commandment is not merely about the temptation to cheat. Positively stated, it reminds us of the great gifts that come when we invest ourselves completely in our partners and our families.

Do not steal.

How about:

Respect the property of others.

Yes, see this isn’t only about what we shouldn’t do. This not about following rules. This is about how we treat people!

Commandment 9:

Do not falsely testify against your neighbor.

Stated positively:

Respect others by being honest and truthful. Stay away from gossip and uphold each others’ dignity.

And the last one:

Do not desire or covet your neighbors’ house, wife, property.

How about:

Be satisfied with and be grateful for all the gifts you have been given.

Do you see how these open us up instead of shut us down—how these commandments, positively stated, draw us into relationship with one another and offer us more life?!

The 10 Commandments were never were intended to tell us how not to live our lives, they were always intended to invite us into a new kind of life—a more abundant and compassionate version of life lived in harmony with family, neighbors, and God.

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And this kind of life comes about only when we choose Sabbath.

Sabbath isn’t about what we can’t do, it’s about what God invites us into. It’s not about avoiding anything; it’s about celebrating life more fully. Sabbath is about richer relationship with God and neighbor.

So when Jesus confronts the Pharisees with their negative understanding of Sabbath—a Sabbath of No’s—Jesus turns the conversation on its head and teaches them a lesson we all are still learning: Being faithful is not about strict adherence to some set of written guidelines. Faithfulness is about something much bigger and a whole lot more important.

It’s about saying Yes to God and Yes to our neighbors.

Yes, I will heal you. Yes, I will feed you. Yes, I will care for you. Yes, I will offer you rest, because God has first healed me, God has first fed me, God has first cared for me, and God has first offered me rest.

Let’s practice that kind of Sabbath—even if it gets us into trouble with the rule-keepers.

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

Alleluia! Amen!

Knowing His Voice

A sermon based on Psalm 23 and John 10:1-10  preached on May 11th, 2014.

Sermon audio

I’m not sure that I’ve ever noticed this myself, but maybe you have: every 4th Sunday of Easter has a passage where Jesus talks about sheep. Each year we return to some part of John chapter 10, all of which is about Jesus as the Good Shepherd and we his sheep.

Exploring this theme every year makes it hard to say something new about these passages in John, and I think it’s safe to say that none of us want to hear another sermon about how we are all just bunch of dimwitted sheeple. So that’s not the sermon I’m preaching today.

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Our Wednesday night bible study group just wrapped up the New Testament portion of Adam Hamilton’s book Making Sense of the Bible.

We dived head first into a bunch of things about the bible that most of the time we don’t get to stop and talk about—we talked about how the bible was put together, why we have the books we have, when they were written, and how they fit together.

We talked recently about how different the gospel according to John is from Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels. One way John’s gospel is different is it does not have any of Jesus’ parables in it, while the other three are packed with them.

Rather than having parables, John has “I Am” statements. And here in this passage we have one of them. Jesus says, “I Am the gate.” I have to say it’s one of Jesus’ more perplexing “I Am” statements.

We know the others well. There’s “I Am the Good Shepherd”. Jesus says that in v.11. There’s “I Am the vine and you are the branches”—that’s pretty, what a great little image that is! Hallmark couldn’t have said it better.

I Am the bread of life. I Am the way the truth and the life. I Am the light of the world. I could go on, there’s 8 of them in John’s gospel, but you get it. They’re all good-looking and they roll off the tongue nicely. They give us rich images of who Jesus is and how he comes to us as Savior and Lord. But this “I Am” statement? “I Am the gate.” …It’s not so pretty. What is this about a gate? How is Jesus like a gate?

When I think about a gate, I think about a barrier. A gate is something to cross over or through. They keep people out. We think of gates almost like tolls. There’s something we need to do to get on the other side of a gate. We need a ticket or money.

There’s all those jokes about St. Peter guarding the entrance to heaven at the pearly gates, and the premise of all those jokes is that everyone who stands on the outside of them needs to prove something about themselves to gain entrance. Somehow or another, we need to work our way through gates, don’t we? But if we think this is what Jesus is saying to us in this passage, then we’re not hearing him right.

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Flocks of sheep congregated on hillsides out in the country or just outside of towns. Several shepherds would assemble together—sort of like the passage from Luke’s gospel at Christmas, there were shepherds, plural, keeping watch over their flocks by night.

So all these sheep belonging to different shepherds would congregate together—I’m not sure sheep really mingle—but surely the separate flocks would get mixed together. The shepherds didn’t mind this at all. It wasn’t a problem, because whenever it was time for the shepherd to journey forward with his own flock, he would call out to his sheep and only those that belonged to him would come running. The sheep knew their own shepherd’s voice and responded.

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It gets me thinking about all the different voices we hear out there calling to us—trying to gain our attention. We live in a loud world where it’s increasingly hard to find a voice we can trust. We have at least 3 24-hour news networks constantly feeding us information and what they say is intentionally repetitive because each of those stations know that the more we hear something the more we begin to believe it ourselves.

Instead of being invited to sit down at 6:30 every evening to hear a discerning take on the events of the day like past generations would do, today we are confronted with a news-sharing culture that comes at us with all the subtly of water from a fire hose. We’re deluged by way too many voices coming at us from way too many directions—radio, TV, internet, smartphones, microphones, and megaphones. Which voices are we to listen to, and which ones are we to follow?

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Recognizing and then responding to the right voice is not just a problem for our age, though. It was also a problem in Jesus’s time too. There were many false teachers who claimed themselves to be the Messiah. They gathered followers and taught them wrong-headed and wrong-hearted ideas. Many of these false Messiahs preyed upon their followers and often exploited them. Jesus speaks in this passage about thieves and outlaws who climb over the walls of sheep pens and take off with a sheep or two. Jesus is, in part, referring to the false Messiahs of his time. These false Messiah’s, Jesus says, only come to steal, kill, and destroy. But the Good Shepherd comes to give life. Jesus comes so that we may have life and have it in abundance.

These days we aren’t so much confused about false messiahs. Or are we? Maybe it’s just not so clear-cut.

Aren’t these voices that inundate us everyday through all these different channels we have—are they not trying to lead us somewhere? Are they not trying to convince us to trust and follow them? Are they not trying to offer us a sort of salvation—at least salvation from something? The voices we hear entice us with promises of a better future, a way out of our problems, a fatter wallet, a thinner waistline. Each of these voices offer us their own version of abundant life—and they think that it’s up to them to define for us what that is. And don’t we sometimes believe them?

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The Good Shepherd’s words in this passage should make us think about several things. All the beliefs and ideologies we get from TV, radio, magazines. All the stuff, the habits, the activities, and the hobbies we fill our life with—all this stuff that the voices in our world offer to us—are they really life-giving?

What Jesus says here should make us think about how we spend most of our days. We should be critical of all the voices we hear in our culture—do they really give us abundant life or are they robbing us of it?

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Gates do something other than keep people out. Gates also protect those who are on the inside of them.

Out in the hillside there were wolves that threatened to carry off any sheep they could get their mouths on. So the shepherd had to act as the gate—the shepherd himself had to be the barrier that protected his flock from all those things out there that could harm it. Shepherds would risk their life for the good of every one of his sheep. They would stand in between their sheep and anything that sought to harm them or lead them astray.

Jesus is the gate that protects us from all the things that try to steal us away from him. It is the Good Shepherd whose looks over us no matter whatever it is out there that tries to grab a hold of us. But of course we have a responsibility to keep our ears open. To listen up for the ways that the Good Shepherd speaks to us and instructs us.

Do we know his voice?

We hear many voices these days. In one way or another, all of them tell us how we need to live our lives. All of them want to persuade us to follow their lead, to flock their way. If we are not discerning enough—if we are not familiar with the voice of Jesus, then we will continue to be swept away by all these other voices out there.

The challenge of this passage for us is this: Are we able to ignore the voices that speak half-truths to us about ourselves?

Can we tell the difference between the voices of those one know us and love us and the voices that speak fear into us and want to lead us down wrong pathways? Can we cut through all the loud voices around us, all the noise-pollution of our culture, and hone-in on the one voice of Jesus? And out of all those voices that offer us “ bigger, better, thinner, faster, more”, do we know what abundant life really is? Because, here it is, the abundant life that Jesus offers us has nothing to do with the abundant life that any other voice out there is trying to convince us of. Abundant life is never about filling ourselves with more and more stuff. It’s not about filling our lives with more and more activities. Real abundant life can only be found when we listen to the voice of Jesus and follow. Abundant life is a by-product of knowing his voice and going where it leads us.

Let us train our ears to listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd.

May we be better able to discern Jesus’ voice calling out to us through all the other gunk we hear as we move through our days and throughout the world. And when our Good Shepherd calls to us, may we drop all that other stuff and follow.

All praises to the one who calls us by name, who made it all and finds it beautiful.

Alleluia! Amen.

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.