Seeing Easter, Practicing Resurrection

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

Sermon audio

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

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

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

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

Emily Dickinson once wrote,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go to Galilee,

Jesus says to the two Mary’s.

There, the disciples will see Him.

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

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

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

Go to Barboursville, West Virginia.

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

There you will see me.

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

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

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

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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Temples and Tombs

A sermon based on Psalm 19 and John 2:13-22 preached on March 8th, 2015

Sermon audio

If ever we had a notion that Jesus was always a nice, smiley, guy—the first ever hippy, always peaceable and calm—then this story of Jesus cleansing the Temple should dispel that real quick.

There are people who read this passage and doubt that Jesus could have used the whip in his hands to hit others with—not only the animals but also people, chasing them all out of the temple.

We have a hard time thinking of Jesus losing his cool like this. We prefer a careful, kind, and considerate Jesus. The truth is, though, that there’s no reason to believe Jesus used his whip on only the cattle and the sheep.

We don’t like our Jesus wild and out of control like this. We like our Jesus domesticated. Even-keel. In easy to swallow tablet form. So, it’s right to start of by admitting that this story startles us. It’s an unsettling portrayal of a Messiah who we’re most of the time very comfortable with.

It’s right for this story to leave us with a queasy feeling. Just as Jesus upsets the tables of the moneychangers and chases both the animals and the people out of the Temple, so should this story upset our sensibilities and chase out our assumptions about Jesus. Maybe we’ve become too comfortable with Jesus. Maybe he’s a whole lot more than we have ever imagined before. We’re right to let this version of Jesus upend every one of our notions.

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Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola refer to this story as Jesus’ Temple tantrum. And what a big Temple tantrum it is!

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place this story at the very end of their Gospels—right in the middle of Jesus’ last week on earth—just days before he was arrested, tried, and crucified. And odds are Matthew, Mark, and Luke are right. Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple most likely happened later on in his ministry, not at the beginning where John places it here. In fact, upsetting the Temple like this was certainly enough to get him hung on a cross. This is the probably the stunt that did Jesus in.

But John places this story up front, all the way up here in chapter 2, as a foreshadowing of things to come. Here, even this early in John’s gospel, Jesus refers to his upcoming crucifixion and resurrection.

But, that’s not the only difference between John’s version of this story and all the rest of them. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the reason Jesus gives for his anger is that the moneychangers were taking advantage of the poor peasants who were coming to the Temple, just trying to do what the Law required, just trying to be faithful people.

There’s no mention of that here in John’s version, though. The reason Jesus gives for his Temple tantrum in John’s gospel is that the Temple has become a place for business. But there’s a problem with that reason. The Temple needed to be a place for business. How else would it function? You can’t find pigeons or goats for sacrifice just anywhere. And moneychangers were needed because good Jewish folks came from all over with who knows how many different forms of currency. They needed to be exchanged for Temple tokens. That’s what they used to buy the birds and animals with. And John says nothing about price gouging here.

So, when Jesus raises his voice and shouts that his Father’s house has become a marketplace, what he’s getting at is that everything about the Temple—absolutely every aspect of it—is distraction. It’s not real worship, it’s all just hastle. Buying and sacrificing of animals. The haggling with the vendors. Pushing through the crowds. What’s worshipful about any of that? What good is all that it for? What Jesus is saying is that this whole place isn’t at all necessary.

So when Jesus turns over the tables of the moneychangers, demands the ending of all the buying and selling, and chases everyone and everything out with a whip, he’s really announcing the end of this way of relating to God. The Temple, Jesus says, needs to go.

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We domesticate this story by making church guidelines that state that no one can use this building to sell things for a profit. No flea markets, or bazaars, or private sales inside the church building. Those policies aren’t bad, but if that’s all we’re getting from this story, then we’re not going far enough with it. It has much, much more to say to us.

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The Jewish leaders that day confront Jesus and ask him,

By what authority are you doing all these things? What miraculous sign will you show us?

Jesus responds,

Destroy this Temple and in three days, I’ll raise it back up again.

The Temple needs to go. From now on Jesus himself will be the Temple—the human Temple. One not made of earthly things like stone, brick, marble and mortar, but one made of heavenly things.

Jesus is the new Temple we travel to. It is in Him that we will meet God. It is He who will offer sacrifice for us. It is He who we journey towards.

Jesus is our pilgrimage. No need for anything else. Jesus represents God for us. Just He, and He alone. Everything else is too small to contain God. Even the vastness of the Jerusalem Temple—all 38 acres of it—is too small for God.

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There’s a lot of Lent left. We’re about halfway through, and there is a light up ahead—off in the distance.

Easter morning is that light at the end of Lent. That morning, we will be invited to peer into the tomb of Jesus to find out for ourselves that it is indeed empty. There’s no one in there. Not anymore there isn’t!

There are spaces too small for God. And on Easter morning we will come proclaiming that God doesn’t stay in containers. Not even a tomb can hold onto God!

Temples and tombs, Temples and tombs. Both are too small for Jesus!

But for now, here on this third Sunday in Lent, we come as pilgrims to this church. But this building is not our destination. It’s not where we stop; it’s only where we pause for a moment.

Think of Kuhn Memorial Presbyterian Church and every other church out there more like training facilities—they’re vocational counseling centers for the Christian disciple, charging stations—use your own metaphor, because you get what I mean. We don’t come to church on Sunday mornings because our faith resides here. This building is way too small for that.

To do something I never thought I’d ever do and use a NASCAR analogy in a sermon, this building is our like our pit stop. We take on fuel and a couple new tires, and then we have what we need to race the next couple laps.

We aren’t asked to stay here. Our vocation as a people of God in Jesus Christ is out there, the field we play on and the game we train for—they’re outside these walls.

This place is not the Mecca to our pilgrimage. It’s just a stop along the way. Church is important, but it isn’t a God-box. We shouldn’t think of church as a place we go to for some experience with God. Church is more like the place we’re sent from, where we are engaged and equipped with what we need, and ready to partner with God in our daily lives—the place where we fine-tune our eyes, our ears, and our hearts so that we can see God at work out there. It is in this church that we build missionaries for out there.

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And this is where we need to return again to the queasiness that this story brings to our stomachs and our hearts, because not only does Jesus’ anger flip upside-down our notions of him as a peacenik.

With his Temple tantrum, Jesus is also giving his church a stern challenge here, saying to us all that neither ultimate truth nor ultimate meaning reside in any of our institutions or organizations—not even in our churches. We should allow this story not only to speak to us, but also to let it speak against us. If we ever confuse church membership with Christian discipleship, then we’re not listening to this Jesus—the One who raises a ruckus inside of a church building. If we ever get confused and think that being a member of a church or attending worship on Sunday mornings are ends in themselves, then we aren’t hearing this Jesus.

Jesus’ romp through the Temple should make us swallow hard and ask ourselves honest questions: Just like the ancient Israelites who bought pigeons and goats to sacrifice year in and year out at Passover, don’t we too find ourselves, at least occasionally, simply going through the motions?

Don’t we sometimes confuse our status as church members with our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ? And don’t we Christians often confuse our effort to uphold the institution of the Church as our vocation, when Jesus wants our hearts and minds set on much bigger things?

See, their animal sacrifice, our status as church members, and this institution we call church—it’s not that they’re wrong, but they’re really just containers, and God doesn’t stay inside of containers.

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Friends, our God is alive and out there. And that’s where our calling as Christians resides—out there. The race is run out there.

This building and our Sunday morning worship in it—it’s just a watering hole we pause at along the way for a little bit of a breather and some refreshment.

Temples and tombs, temples and tombs. Temples don’t hold a thing, and neither do tombs. They’re both way too small for God.

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An unsettling word for us church people? Yes, I think it is. And thanks be to God for it!

Jesus doesn’t call us to be church people. Jesus calls us to be Jesus people.

This table-overturning God doesn’t want us to get too comfortable anywhere, because when we get too comfortable, that’s a sure sign that we’ve stopped paying attention to Jesus.

If what happened on that first Easter morning is any indication, our God doesn’t stay in one place for too long at all!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Coming Back to Life

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

Sermon audio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come out!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the close of the movie Red says,

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

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

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

May God bring us back to life.

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