What Would the Avas Have Us Do?

My middle school years marked the heyday of the What Would Jesus Do era.  WWJD made its way onto license plates, t-shirts, and of course, bracelets.  No self-respecting Manheim Township Middle School 7th grader who considered themselves a Christian was without a WWJD bracelet in every color that the Provident Bookstore had to offer.  Later in life, I was surprised to learn that those bracelets that were all the rage in the early 90s come from a theology that is based on a novel written in 1896 that sought to teach Christian Socialism and the Social Gospel.  Lost somewhere in the hype of being seen as properly Christian by wearing the right bracelet was the reality that What Would Jesus Do? is a shockingly countercultural question.

In the last few days, we’ve been reminded of what Jesus would do.  He would eat dinner with sinners and tax collectors.  He would turn the tables in the Temple and call to account a system of religion that was built upon on the backs of the faithful poor.  He would stand up against the challenges of the Pharisees and Scribes, unafraid that it might cost him his reputation.  He would challenge his followers to love one another.  He would get down on his hands and knees and wash their feet.  He would willingly be betrayed and handed over to be mocked, scourged, beaten, and ultimately killed in the name of love. And on this night, we are brought to mind, yet again, that Jesus would rise from the dead and in so doing defeat death forever.

As the Exsultet that Deacon Kellie sang so beautifully says so eloquently, “this is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave.”  That’s what Jesus would do.  That’s what Jesus did do.  And so, we gather on this most holy night to recall the events of salvation history throughout time.  We remember the covenant that God made with all of creation after the flood, that by the sign of the rainbow we would be reminded of God’s promise to bring us back into relationship by another way.  We remember the Exodus, and how on the banks of the Red Sea, God opened the waters so that God’s chosen people might begin their journey to the Promised Land.  We remember the testimony of the prophet Isaiah, and how every time a prophet proclaimed God’s judgement upon the people, it was followed by the promise of restoration and renewal.  We remember the vision of Zephaniah and the assurance that one day all people will be drawn into the loving embrace of God’s forgiveness.

This night isn’t simply about the events of the past, however.  If tonight was only about things that had already happened, we’d be stuck looking for the living among the dead.  No, what we are about on this night is what comes next.  Our question isn’t just “What did Jesus do?”, but “What would Jesus do in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 2019?”  So, on a night in which we recall the various ways in which God has called us back into right relationship, it is also especially appropriate that we baptize new members into the household of God.  Through water and the Holy Spirit, we welcome two Avas into the ongoing story of God’s salvation history.  Alongside them, and with their sponsors, we recommit ourselves to what it means to follow the resurrected Jesus in world today, and we promise to seek God’s help as we work to take our place in the resurrected life.

It is interesting to me that both of our newly baptized members are named Ava.  Ava is a variant on the first name ever given, Eve, which is likely familiar to most of us.  Eve was the wife of Adam.  His name, Adam, wasn’t really a name, but is simply the generic word for humankind.  It is based on the world for dirt, from which God made humanity.  Eve, on the other hand, is the Hebrew word for life.  It seems particularly appropriate tonight, as we seek to encounter the resurrected Jesus alongside the two Avas, that we might reframe that age-old question.  Not, what would Jesus do, but maybe tonight we ponder, what would Eve do?  What would these Avas have us do?  How will we live life differently as a result of the promises that we’ve made with them?  What brings life, true life, eternal life, the resurrected life into the world?  On this night in which we celebrate that Jesus Christ is risen, still, from the dead, to what kind of life does the resurrection call us?  Let’s not be about looking for the living among the dead, but rather, let’s be about looking for stories of the resurrection life among those who are living it.  So, while what would Jesus do is an important question to ask, this Easter, I invite you to carry with you our two Avas and instead ask, ‘What would Ava, life, real, abundant, resurrection life, have me do?  Amen.

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Celebrating Resurrection

Our website is still grumpy, so audio isn’t available, but my Easter sermon can still be read here.


On Good Friday, each year, we hear the story of Jesus’ Passion read from John’s Gospel. Each year, we hear Pilate and Jesus going back and forth in an argument it seems neither side wants to win. Pilate, for his part, really doesn’t want to kill Jesus. He knows that the impulse to have him crucified is born out of fear and jealousy, but he feels stuck, unless the King of the Jews can somehow help him out. Jesus, on the other hand, really seems to want to die. It is the culmination of his life and ministry that he should be betrayed into the hands of sinners and crucified. At one point, about mid-argument, Pilate flat-out asks Jesus, “Are you a king?” Jesus replies, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate’s response to Jesus haunts me every time I hear it. “What is truth?” Having risen through the ranks of Roman politics to become a puppet king, I’m guessing Pilate isn’t really sure what truth is anymore. He’s compromised his integrity so often, he’s forgotten how to be truthful, and I think he asks Jesus with genuine intrigue. In hours since Good Friday, I’ve given a lot of thought to Pilate’s question. What is truth? In my best moments, I’ve gone deep, pondering the truths upon which I base my life. Mostly, my questioning has brought forth more mundane answers. The most common answer I’ve come up with to answer the question “what is truth” is that dead people don’t come back to life. In fact, it is upon this truth that the miracle of Easter hinges. Dead people don’t come back to life, and so the resurrection of Jesus is something which should be celebrated.

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a guy named Sam. Sam is a retired Medical Examiner from the Midwest. As you can guess, Sam has seen just about everything, but one story stands out among all the others. One night, Sam received a call at his home at about 2 o’clock in the morning. Outside of town, there was a man who needed to be pronounced dead: he had keeled over after a night of drinking at his favorite watering hole. Sam gathered himself, got dressed, and drove a little ways out into the country where he found a hole-in-the-wall bar full of patrons in various states of drunkenness lamenting over the dead man lying cold and motionless on the floor. There were no visible signs of life: no heartbeat or breathing; but Sam began his work as usual by giving the dead man a shot of atropine and adrenaline and doing a few chest compressions.

Suddenly, the dead man started to breathe. Then, he opened his eyes. The bartender quickly called 911 again, and the once-dead-man was rushed off to the hospital. Sam said that before the doors closed on the ambulance, several drinks were already waiting for him on the bar. A rousing celebration ensued, until, at about 4:30 in the morning, Sam decided to call his wife for a ride home. Thinking about how Sam’s wife must have felt when she answered the phone at 4:30 AM and heard her slightly-inebriated-miracle-worker-Medical-Examiner husband on the other end can help us understand the truth that dead people aren’t supposed to come back to life. Thinking about how Sam must have felt making that call, helps me understand the truth that when they do, we ought to celebrate.

Last we saw Jesus, he was dead. Really dead. Having cried out “It is finished,” he gave up his spirit. When the solider pierced his side, an unholy mixture of blood and water poured out from his suffocated lungs. Jesus was taken down from the cross, and after a moment alone with his mother, his body was quickly covered in spices, wrapped in linen, and placed in a freshly hewn tomb. The stone was rolled in front, a seal was made, and guards were set to watch 24/7 to make sure nobody stole the body of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was dead. Really, really dead.

Early on Sunday morning, a group of three women, Mary, Mary, and Salome, gathered to prepare the spices and ointments they would use to properly embalm Jesus. As they began their solemn procession to the grave, there was no thought in their minds that Jesus might be resurrected from the dead. Their worry was about who would roll the stone away from the tomb, not whether or not Jesus would be inside. There was no hope of resurrection that first Easter morning. The male disciples were locked up tight, while a small cadre of mourning women set out to ritually clean the body of their dead friend. As they approached the place where they last saw Jesus, something wasn’t right. The stone that they had worried about was already rolled away. A bit confused, they entered the tomb anyway, perhaps grateful that somebody had already done the challenging work for them. As they took stock of the situation, it immediately became clear that their friend is gone, and they were shocked. Dead people don’t come back to life.

Then suddenly, and angelic figure spoke to them and said the unthinkable, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” If resurrections are something to be celebrated, then these women have a strange way of throwing a party, at least in Mark’s version of the story. Rather than running out to spread the good news. Rather than popping open champagne in celebration. Rather than experiencing the joy of the resurrection. Mark tells us that they were gripped with fear. That they fled from the tomb. That they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

That’s the way Mark’s Gospel originally ended, if the scholars are to be believed. It is an awfully unsettling way to end the book titled “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” People have tried to fix Mark’s Gospel, desperate to insert the truth that resurrections are meant to be celebrated. That we are here today means that somebody told something to someone, but Mark would have us sit in the awe and oddity of it all. Mark would have us wrestle, for just a little while longer with the truth that dead men don’t come back to life. In case you’ve forgotten, Jesus was dead. So dead that even some of his closest friends couldn’t imagine a way in which he could be alive. But now, Jesus is alive. Even some two-thousand years later, Jesus is still alive. He is active in our hearts and minds. He is at work in our homes, schools, and businesses. He is calling us to meet him in Galilee, where the resurrection will be celebrated and the Good News will be shared. He is calling us to believe the truth, the nonsensical, perplexing, amazing Good News that one dead man did come back to life, and in so doing, destroyed the power of death forever.

God took on flesh and lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ. God took all our suffering in through the Passion of Jesus and died. Really died. And on the third day, God did the impossible and brought Jesus back to life. That is the Gospel truth, and it is certainly worth celebrating. So, rejoice dear friends, and give thanks, for Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Searching in the Dark

Audio is available on the Christ Church website.


One of my favorite youth ministry games is called Sardines.  For those of you who are sadly unfamiliar with Sardines, it is something of a distant cousin to hide-and-seek.  Everyone gathers in a room while the first person heads off to find a hiding place.  After each passing minute, another member of the group heads out, in search of the first.  When you find that first person, you join them in their hiding place, until, smushed together like sardines, all the seekers but one are hiding in the same spot.  In my experience, the best time to play Sardines is around midnight, during a youth group lock-in, when the lights in the church are all turned off.  Well, at least that’s true most of the time.  A few years ago, in Foley, we had a college group staying in our education building while on a Habitat for Humanity spring break trip.  During one of their late-night games of Sardines, someone had the brilliant idea to hide in an upper cabinet in one of our classrooms.  It was the sort of decision one makes in the darkness.  It did not end well for the student or the cabinet.  Still, despite the occasionally foolish decision that arises after midnight, there is something exciting about seeking in the dark, as senses are heightened, and expectation grows.

On this Easter morning, we find Mary Magdalene searching in the dark.  After witnessing the gruesome death of her beloved friend and Rabbi on Friday afternoon, Mary spent all day Saturday searching in the dark.  How had it all gone so wrong?  Where were his disciples?  Why didn’t the fight for him?  Why didn’t Jesus come down from the cross?  Mary spent the Passover Sabbath lost in the darkness of fear, shame, and grief.  After what must have been another sleepless night, she couldn’t wait any longer.  She had to go see the tomb.  She needed a place to weep, a location upon which to pour out all her grief.  So, while it was still dark, literally before the sun came up, but more accurately, figuratively with the light of hope extinguished from her soul, Mary made her way to the tomb, searching in the dark for closure, if nothing else.  She fully expected to arrive in the garden, take a seat in front of the still sealed tomb, and pay her respects.  Despite having heard Jesus on multiple occasions assure his disciples that on the third day, he would rise again, nobody, especially not Mary, expected him to be anything but dead and buried.

Imagine her surprise when she finally got close enough to see the tomb and realized that the stone had been rolled away.  Still in the dark, Mary jumps to the only obvious conclusion she can imagine, someone has stolen the body of Jesus, her dear Rabbi, her confidant, her healer, and her friend.  I’m not sure she thought it was possible for things to get darker than they had been since late Friday afternoon, but in an instant the darkness got darker.  Searching for meaning, for help, for solace, quickly Mary ran to find Peter and John[1] to help her make sense of the growing darkness that surrounded her.  “They have taken the Lord!” she cried, and when the disciples took off running, she too returned to the tomb.

Surely, the sun had come up by now, but John makes no mention of it.  Darkness is still all around as Peter and John return home, having seen the empty tomb.  There is a flicker of hope, like a single flame in the midst of pitch blackness, in the belief of the other disciple, but that is quickly extinguished when all he can muster is to turn around and head home while Mary stays behind.  Still searching in the darkness, still weeping with tears that will not stop, still hoping to find Jesus’ body so that he can be laid to rest once more, she happens upon a man she assumes to be the gardener returning to work after the Sabbath.  Things have gotten so dark for Mary that she can’t even recognize Jesus when he is standing right in front of her, but with one word, everything changes.

Mary!

Suddenly, the light came flooding in.  The darkness of her fear was forced to flee.  The darkness of her sorrow was washed away.  The darkness of her hopelessness was put to flight.  Mary had searched and searched and searched in the darkness, and with a single word, she found the light of life.  Off she went, yet again, this time not searching in the darkness, but soaring in the light.  She found the disciples, still hiding in their own darkness and proclaimed to them the Good News of Easter.  “I have seen the Lord!”

I think one of the reasons that Easter continues to have such strong cultural significance, one of the reasons so many of us show up to Church this day, one of the reasons Facebook offers sharable Easter cards, is because all of us know what it is like to search for truth in the midst of darkness.  All of us have been where Mary was.  For some, our darkness comes as the result of the loss of a loved one.  For others, it is the destruction of a relationship.  For some, it is a struggle with addiction, illness, or anxiety.  Still others live in fear for where their next meal might come from, or find themselves anxious when there is more month than there is money.  Whatever it is that causes us to enter the darkness, none of us is immune to it.  All of us, from time to time, end up searching in the dark, and all of us hope to find our way back into the light.  Maybe you are still searching in the dark this morning.  That’s all right.  Even Peter, when he saw the empty tomb, wasn’t quite ready to believe that light was possible.  Still, we who have experienced the darkness of hopelessness, fear, and grief all gather each Easter because we know, deep down, that light entered the world in the person of Jesus Christ.  No matter how dark things might seem, we still gather and enjoy the brightness of the Easter lilies.  We worship with the help of brass and timpani.  We put on the pastel hues of our Easter finery.  And we make our shout, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

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But what then?  What happens when the seersucker gets put back in the closet, the bonnets get tucked away for another year, the ham bone gets made into soup, and the champagne loses its fizz?  What happens when the darkness comes creeping back?  What difference does Easter make come Monday afternoon?  That’s the story that is still to be told, the story that comes next Sunday.  As evening came that first Easter Day, the disciples had already locked themselves back into fear and darkness.  The light that had dawned that morning was already growing dim, when Jesus appeared in their midst.  See, the truth of Easter is that it doesn’t last only a day.  The power of Easter is available every day.  There is a reason our Easter Proclamation is, “Alleluia, Christ is risen” and not “Christ was risen.”  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  The light of Christ that burst forth on the first Easter Day can never be extinguished.    The light of Christ that entered the world on Easter Day will never go away.  Come Monday afternoon, no matter how dark things might feel for you, Jesus will be there, walking alongside you as the risen Lord and the bringer of hope.

Like a good game of Sardines, all of us have ended our search in the darkness here at Christ Episcopal Church this morning.  My Easter prayer is that next time you find yourself searching in the dark, you can find your way back here, where the love of God will never be withheld, the light of Christ will never grow dim, and joy of the Spirit will never fade away.  Alleluia!  Christ is Risen!  The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

[1] I follow the general consensus in assuming the disciple whom Jesus loved to be John the Evangelist.

Easter Vigil 2017

You can hear my Easter Vigil sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


The Easter Vigil is the mother of all worship services.  In it, we combine the expectation of Advent, the joy of Christmas, the revelation of Epiphany, the sacrifice of Lent, the great celebration of Easter, and the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost.  We gather on a Saturday night, when it doesn’t yet feel quite like Easter, but it certainly is no longer Lent, and we do what Christians have been doing almost since the very beginning.  We rehearse the story of salvation history, we welcome new members of the body of Christ, we make our shout of Alleluia, we offer our prayers for the world, we hear the Good News of Jesus Christ proclaimed, and we break bread together.  There is room for precious little else in this service, which is why the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer call what his happening right now a homily rather than a sermon.  KISS is the name of the game.  Not, Keep It Simple Stupid, but Keep It Short.

As I’ve reflected upon my first Easter Vigil in several years, I find myself wondering why.  Why, Saturday night when Sunday morning is our habit?  Why, all the extra parts when it requires so much coordination?  Why, bother when it means a nearly two-hour service?  Why celebrate the Easter Vigil?  Our answer comes in the Exsultet, which Brittany so beautifully chanted for us earlier this evening.  We celebrate the Easter Vigil because “this is the night.”  This is the night of God’s salvation.  This is the night when God rescued the people of Israel from their bondage in Egypt.  This is the night when God saved all God’s people from their bondage to sin.  This is the night when God flung open the gates of hell and welcomed the faithful into life abundant.  This is the night, as the Exsultet says in the optional portion, “when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away… when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God.”  This is the night.  Moreover, we celebrate this particular night because, as Matthew’s account of the resurrection makes clear, Jesus didn’t wait until sun up to be raised.  “The stone wasn’t rolled away to let Jesus out, but to allow the first witnesses in.”[1]  It is on this night that Jesus rose victorious from the grave, and so we gather to sing praise, to celebrate, to welcome the newly baptized, and to shout as loud as we can that Jesus Christ is risen.

It is a night, not just of praise and joy, but a night of teaching as well.  Unlike any other service of the church year, tonight, we hear the full story of God’s plan for salvation.  We’ve heard of the beauty of creation and God’s never-failing promise after the flood.  We’ve heard of God’s salvation of Israel and the prophetic promise of restoration in the last days.  We are reminded that our story is a part of God’s much larger story, and we are invited to find our place in it.  The Easter Vigil is, despite the inside baseball of paschal candle lighting and Exsultet chanting, an evangelistic service.  It might be the closest thing we Episcopalians come to a tent revival.  As we listen to the story of God, we are invited to hear where we fall into it, and then, like the women at the tomb, we are propelled out of this place, with alleluia on our lips and joy in our hearts, to tell the story: the good news of God’s saving love in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is the night, my friends, the night of our salvation.  Rejoice, sing praise, and give thanks, for Jesus Christ is risen!  Amen.  Alleluia!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3226

Death and Taxes – an Easter Sermon

My Easter sermon can be heard on the Saint Paul’s website, or read on.

Death and taxes.  Every year, at about this time, I’m reminded of that old cliche that [outside of Baldwin County] the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. Whether you live in first century Palestine or twenty-first century America, you can be sure that (1) the government is going to get their fair share of your money and (2) dead people are going to stay dead.  Dead people simply do not come back to life.  And so it is, that early on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome do the completely normal thing after their dear friend died late on the eve of the Sabbath.  Having procured the spices they needed for embalming, the women set out for the tomb to do the hard work of preparing Jesus’ body for his final rest.  As they made the journey from the downtown market out past the city walls to the cemetery near the hill called Golgotha, the silence of the walk was interspersed only with the heaving sobs of those whose hopes have been dashed.  Meanwhile the very real question of how they would even get into the tomb lingered around them.  Despite the fact that Jesus had three times predicted his resurrection on the third day, no one: not the Chief Priests, not the Apostles, and certainly not these women had given a passing thought to the possibility that Jesus might not still be dead come Sunday morning.

Dead people simply do not come back to life.  This fact is the reason we celebrate Easter at all.  The great anomaly in the life of Jesus isn’t that he was born in a cave or got lost in the Temple when he was twelve or was baptized at 30 in the Jordan River or that he preached about the Kingdom of God or even that he was killed on a cross as a traitor by the hands of Rome.  Jesus wasn’t the only person who did those things.  What is unique about Jesus is that he is the only person who rose from the dead after it was all over.

Unlike the women making their way to the tomb that first Easter day, we gather this Easter morning, fully expecting Jesus to be alive.  The tomb is going to be empty this year, just like it is every year.  I wonder, as you got ready to come to church today, did you gave any thought to the fact that dead people just don’t come back to life?  Have you thought about how ridiculous this story is?  Have you considered how hard it should be to believe that this man who died having been beaten, whipped, crucified, and speared was raised from the dead on the third day?  Does the difficulty of belief impact our lives in any real way?  Or, do we simply accept it at face value, and instead of giving it a moment’s thought, wake up early one Sunday a year, put on our seersucker suits and linen sun dresses, and come to Church to sing the usual favorite hymns, hunt for eggs, and perhaps most importantly, make grand-mama happy?

Dead people don’t come back to life. This is especially true when they don’t even know they are dead.  The fact of the matter is that most of us walk around dead most of the time.  We’re dead because we don’t know how to be fully alive.  We’re dead because we find it so easy to believe in the resurrection of Jesus that we don’t see how world altering it really is.  We’re dead because we fail to recognize the amazing gift God has given us in the resurrection of Jesus.  In the resurrection, Jesus invites the women, the disciples, and you and me to give up death and join with him in joy-filled Kingdom living, but you don’t have to take my word for it.

In the Collect for Easter Day, we pray that God would help us live in the joy of resurrection.  We pray this prayer because the world around us is not a world of joy or resurrection; it is, rather, a world of sadness and death.  Even those of us who don’t engage in the self-flagellation that is watching MSNBC or FoxNews 12 hours a day realize that the world is not as it should be.  Our Facebook feeds are filled with political diatribes, broken marriages, cancer diagnoses, and job worries.  Since the Great Recession, our workplaces are filled with less people doing more work on tighter deadlines with fewer dollars.  Our medicine cabinets are filled with drugs to combat hypertension from all the stress, high cholesterol from all the rushed McDonald’s drive-thru value meals, and attention deficit disorder from the myriad concerns pulling us in a thousand different directions.  The depression of Good Friday, we can understand.  The relentless waiting of Holy Saturday, we get.  The joy of resurrection on Easter Day is almost impossible to imagine…

…Which is why we pray to God for help.  Trying to give up death and live into the joy of the resurrection on our own is impossible, but through the grace of God, we are able to leave the tomb and live in joy more and more each day.  The resurrection is much more than a celebration of Jesus’ victory over death, it is our invitation into life: life in the Kingdom of God right here and right now.  As we pray for the joy of the resurrection, we ask to God to open our eyes to see his hand a work in the world around us.  We’re asking for the ability to see hope in the midst of hopelessness.  We’re asking for life in the midst of death.

Dead people don’t come back to life, but when Jesus does, it changes everything.  As the women arrive at the tomb and realize that the stone has already been rolled away, the whole world changes.  Jesus Christ is alive!  There is no resurrection encounter in Mark’s Gospel, only an invitation to return to Galilee to meet up with the risen Savior.  The invitation is as much for the disciples as it is for you and for me.  The risen Lord bids us to join him as he goes forth through time and space sharing the Good News that love always wins, that life after death is possible, and that everyone can join him in the community of joy.

Death and taxes may both be certainties in life, but Easter invites us to add one more item to that list: joy. The joy of the resurrection, the true joy of the Kingdom of God: that is what God promises each of us on Easter Day.  Joy beyond taxes, beyond death. Joy beyond all measure. Alleluia! Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!  Amen.