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.

Advertisements

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.

2017-04-16 10.03.31

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

Confessing our Sins in Easter

For the last few years, Saint Paul’s has taken part in a growing practice in the Church to forego the Confession during Easter Season.  We’re not going to do it this year, for a few reasons.  First, I’m pretty sure nobody got it.  Most people didn’t notice it was missing and those who did, I’m sure didn’t have a clue why.  Heck, by the end of last Easter Season, I wasn’t even sure why.  Which leads me to my second reason, a practice I thought had historical roots, seem to not.  I’ve made mistakes before, and I will again, but I do hate it when I go digging for the reason I thought I knew for doing something and I can find no record of it.  I’d nearly forgotten all of this until I began reading through the lessons for Easter 2B and found this gem in 1 John.

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9, NRSV)

On Easter Day, I preached that what makes the story of Jesus different is that he rose from the dead on the third day.  What that means for us is that we have been given victory over death: that we can live resurrection lives right here and now, through the forgiveness of sin.  Failing to confess our sins keeps us from living in the fullness of joy that comes with kingdom living, and we should take every opportunity to confess, repent, and ask forgiveness.  Especially, it now occurs to me, in Easter.  Without the realization of our own sinfulness, we have no need of a savior.  Easter Season reminds us that we have a savior: one who lived as an example for us, died as a scapegoat for us, rose from the grave as a harbinger of joy for us, and sent his Spirit as an advocate for us.  The key to unlocking that treasure trove of gifts is the confession of sin.

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen. (BCP, 360)

The Disciples’ Fear

Every year, on the Sunday after Easter, Episcopalians hear the same Gospel lesson.  The story is affectionately referred to as the story of “Doubting Thomas,” and while he plays a prominent role in the story, Thomas is not the focus of my attention today.  Instead, for whatever reason, I’ve found myself chewing on the 10 other disciples on that first night.

John tells us that it was evening.  It was getting dark outside and the day was over, but nobody was getting ready for bed.  Instead, the disciples had made their way back to the upper room and locked the doors “for fear of the Jews.”  When we read this story in isolation, it is easy to forget that Jesus has already made a post-resurrection appearance in John’s Gospel.  Earlier that morning, very early indeed, Mary Magdalene had made her way to the tomb and found it open.  After telling Peter and another disciple about it, she made her way back to the garden where the profound weight of the last 3 days came sweeping in upon her.  She sat down outside the empty tomb and began to weep, when Jesus came and called her by name.  Off she went again, running to find the disciples to tell them, “I have seen the Lord!”

It is about 12 hours later when the scene in the upper room opens up, and the disciples are locked up tight.  Their fear doesn’t stem from what happened on Thursday night and Friday anymore.  Instead, they are afraid because of what happened this morning.  Jesus is alive and on the loose, and there are a lot of people who are going to be awfully ticked off about the empty tomb.  Those who put Jesus to death will no doubt assume that someone has stolen his body, and the first suspects will be his closest companions.  The disciples are locked in the upper room because they know that the case of Jesus’ missing body means that their death warrants have already been signed, and they are terrified.

Nine of the ten disciples who were in the upper room that night will eventually die for their faith.  All of them will be persecuted in one way or another.  Once they experience the risen Jesus, they’ll have the strength to stand up for his Kingdom, but as the story from John 20 opens, they aren’t there yet.  They’re yet to be transformed by the power of the resurrection.  I wonder, as I sit in the comfort of my office, in a country where there is a 0% chance of my being persecuted for my faith, let alone killed because of it, have I had that transforming experience?

A week later, the disciples are back in the upper room and the door is still locked.  It takes time, even once we’ve seen the risen Christ face-to-face, to step out in faith.  I wonder, if I’ve had my transforming experience, what is still holding me back?  What is holding you back?  What are you afraid of?  What makes you keep the door locked?