Called to be funny looking

Live from Mevo from Christ Episcopal Church on Vimeo.

On the morning of the third day after Jesus had been crucified, Mary Magdalene went to the garden tomb where he had hastily been laid as the sun was setting and the Feast of the Passover was beginning. She took with her spices, planning to prepare Jesus’ body for a proper and final burial. There was no part of her that could even imagine that Jesus wasn’t going to be right where she left him late Friday afternoon. When Mary arrived at the tomb, much to her surprise and sadness, she found the stone rolled away and Jesus’ body missing. As she turned away from this most disconcerting scene, Mary found herself face-to-face with a man whom she presumed to be the gardener. The man who stood before her didn’t look like anyone she had ever met before, let alone the man who she had followed and supported for the last three years, the man whose teaching had formed her into the follower of God she had become. There was nothing she recognized in the face of the man, until he opened his mouth and said to her, “Mary!”

Have you ever wondered about how strange that story is? Mary had spent years of her life working alongside Jesus, and yet, in that moment she was totally unable to recognize him, and she was not alone. Later that day, two disciples were sulking their way back to Emmaus when Jesus came alongside them, and they didn’t recognize him at any point during the seven-mile hike. That night, while ten of the disciples were locked up by fear in the upper room, Jesus appeared before them and they were terrified because they did not recognize him. It would seem that the resurrected Jesus didn’t look like the Jesus that his disciples had come to know and love. The resurrected body of Christ looked different. The resurrected body of Christ look odd. Maybe even the resurrected body of Christ looked a bit funny.

In his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul had to deal with all kinds of issues in their common life. There were issues of class, power, and privilege. The poor were being excluded from sharing in the Eucharistic feast. Folks who prayed in tongues were looking down on everyone else. Those in need were being systematically ignored. It is clear that Paul was frustrated with how everyone who claimed to be following in the Way of Jesus all seemed to be operating in isolation from one another. Christianity in Corinth was about me and my Jesus, and Paul felt compelled to write a letter admonishing them that true Christianity in the Way of Jesus is a team sport. There are no lone rangers in this life of faith, but rather, the reality of church is that we are stuck together just like the various parts of our body are stuck together, sometimes privileged and sometimes forced to work alongside one another for the common good.

We can’t all be loud mouths for Jesus. Not everyone is called to walk along the margins as the feet of Christ. The thought of being a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on might be terrifying for you. None of that means that you are less a part of the body of Christ as it is made incarnate here at Christ Church, Bowling Green. In fact, without lungs, muscle, eyes, hands, tendons, bones, and a nervous system this body cannot live fully into who we are called to be. While I can imagine that the eye might want to look down upon the descending colon, the hard reality of living in a community of faith is that God has placed each of us here with great intention for the good of not just the members of Christ Church, but for the good of Bowling Green, Warren County, and the world.

Here’s the rub, however. The Christ Church Bowling Green incarnation of the Body of Christ is pretty nice looking. We have a beautiful physical plant that is well-appointed and well-maintained. We are nicely dressed, our music is fine, and our ministry is multi-faceted. We are well staffed with great people who love Jesus. We are very well funded. As a result, we have the real danger of becoming like narcissus, getting stuck admiring our own beauty and forgetting that the call of the Body of Christ is to be messy. One of our real challenges of our health is losing sight of the reality that the resurrected body of Christ didn’t look like people expected it to look.

This week, Laura, Karen, Becca, Kellie and I had the chance to gather with 400 other Christian formation ministers to grow in our vocations. At the opening Eucharist, Dr. Catherine Meeks, Executive Director of the Absalom Jones Center for Racial Healing preached. In her sermon, Dr. Meeks suggested that our calling as disciples of Jesus is to follow in the pattern of Jesus and his resurrected life by looking funny. When we dream the big dreams of God. When we imagine that the reconciliation of all the world to God is possible by way of big hairy audacious goals like ending racism, classism, sexism, and poverty. When we dream beyond our comfort zone by engaging in relationship and sharing breakfast with those who are experiencing homelessness in our Cloister Community, Dr. Meeks suggests that it is only natural for people to look at us funny. “We [our institutions, our budgets, our desire for church to be comfortable] are invested in not being funny looking, but funny looking is what we are supposed to be,” she argued. “Jesus was kind of funny looking. Always doing funny looking stuff.”

The resurrected body of Christ was funny looking, and as the Body of Christ still on earth, the Church is supposed to be funny looking too. We are called to live in a way that is at odds with what society deems to be beautiful. As we follow Jesus in radiating God’s love to all, things are going to get messy, and the truth is, they already are. I know in myself how uncomfortable I am when I feel like people are looking at me funny. I know how disconcerting it is to not have all the answers, when the rules seem to constantly be changing, when I can’t simply do a quick cost-benefit analysis and know the single right answer. I know that deep down in my DNA is a desire to conform to the patterns that the world expects of me, but I am also convinced that those patterns that are traditionally defined as beauty are a lie.

True beauty is found when each of us who are called to be disciples of Jesus Christ are utilizing the gifts that were given to us in our baptism for the building up of the Church and the restoration of the world. I am grateful for all those who shared their gifts to that good and perfect end in the year that has passed. For our retiring vestry members sharing their gifts of administration. For our breakfast teams, stretching their gifts of hospitality. For our Sacred Conversations group offering their gifts of mercy. For our pastoral care team utilizing their gifts of compassion. Sunday school teachers offering their gifts of teaching. The Wednesday Community Lunch sharing gifts of hospitality, helps, and compassion. The list goes on and on.

2019 seems to be a year in which we are being called to learn and grow together. Growth is never easy and rarely beautiful. Growing can mean awkwardness, as we get used to new opportunities. Growing can mean pain, as we stretch beyond our normal level of comfort. Growing can mean stress, as we are invited to move in new and different ways. But growing also means increased capacity for love. Growing means new chances to radiate God’s love. Growing means a greater reliance on prayer, a deeper trust in God, and a fuller awareness of our giftedness. As Christ Episcopal Church comes upon our 175th year of being the Episcopal Branch of the resurrected (and sometimes funny looking) Body of Christ in downtown Bowling Green, I am grateful for your gifts, for the chance to stretch and grow, and for the funny looking stuff God is calling us to do. Amen.

A review of Jake Owensby’s “A Resurrection Shaped Life”

There is a temptation in our instant gratification culture to skip past the difficult stuff.  By way of the well-worn refrain, “its Friday, but Sunday’s coming,” Christians prove ourselves to be complicit in this system of ignoring the pain that life so often brings.  The truth is, however, that we cannot get to Easter Sunday without living into the hard truth and searing pain that is Good Friday.  In A Resurrection Shaped Life, Jake Owensby invites readers to experience the fullness of the life of faith – only getting to resurrection once we’ve admitted that death, pain, and grief are real forces acting on our lives.

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A Resurrection Shaped Life is a relatively short book. Six chapters, each with a set of reflection questions at the end, give the reader the opportunity to mine deeply the truths contained within.  Like a beautiful Burial Office service, Owensby bookends the difficult, but rewarding, work of redeeming grief and shame through the power of the resurrection with a stunningly powerful prelude and postlude.  If you are prone to skipping the prologue and epilogue of a text, take note that these seem to be intentionally named differently in order to invite you in to an experience of the holy.  In that same vein, Owensby does a masterful job of taking commonly used theological words and concepts and turning the crystal on them in unique and solidly orthodox ways.  He has keen ability to make what is old new again.  Just to name a few, he offers crafty redefinitions of compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

My nerdy excitement about theological definitions aside, what really drew me into this book was the way in which the author weaves together his own personal story with God’s story as told through Scripture.  Again and again, Owensby cracks open his own life story, difficult as it is, in order to help the reader see how the story of God through Jesus Christ seeks to redeem hardship, not simply take it away, through resurrection living.  The stories will be hard for some to read.  I’m not one who is prone to the expression of human emotion, but even I found myself caught short in the stories of his abusive father and the death of his young sister.*

To get to resurrection living, Owensby is unafraid of taking us all the way through Holy Week.  Through the careful weaving of story, he takes us deep into angst, fear, sadness, and anger, and brings us back out on the other side with grace, compassion, and justice.  I would heartily recommend this book as a text for Lenten devotion.  An individual, or better yet a group of people committed to meeting weekly – a Sunday school class, contemplative prayer group, or even a church staff, could read one chapter a week for the first five and half weeks of Lent, and then re-read the whole book, a chapter a day, through Holy Week.  No matter how you read it, A Resurrection Shaped Life offers readers the opportunity to find themselves within the stories, to reflect deeply on God’s dream for each of us in creation, and to take seriously the work of redeeming grief, shame, and loss.

Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Jake Owensby’s A Resurrection Shaped Life and read it prayerfully.  You will not regret it.


* I should note, these two stories are unrelated, as far as I can tell.

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!

Worship, Learn, AND Serve – a sermon

Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or you can read it below.


I’m not sure why, but recently, it seems I have been engaged in more than my fair share of conversations about our mission and vision.  It was just a few weeks ago that I based an entire sermon on our mission statement, so I don’t really want to rehash all of it here, but this week, I realized something that I feel I need to share with you.  After more than six months of living with and speaking aloud our mission statement, I came to the realization that it is strung together with an “and” and not an “or.”  We are a community of Christ’s servants who seek to worship God with joy and wonder, learn and grow together, AND radiate God’s love to all.  This means that in addition to our mission being a statement about who we are as a community, I think it also serves as a call for each of us as individuals.  It isn’t that some are over here doing the worship bit, while others worry about learning and growing, and still others are in the kitchen radiating God’s love.  Rather, we are each called to engage in all three areas of mission and ministry here at Christ Church.  Worship is the proper response to God’s grace.  Being a disciple literally means being a student of the teachings of God.  The fullness of our life in Christ is exemplified in the ministry of service, reaching out and radiating God’s love to all.  Sure, each of us is maybe better equipped to fulfill one part of this mission than the others, but the truth of the matter is that all are called to serve God by way of worship, discipleship, and outreach.

In my experience, it is most difficult to convince people to engage in the outreach component of the life of faith.  We get showing up for worship, and most of us enjoy learning about God, but for some reason, many have been convinced that the call to serve is reserved for a small group who are particularly gifted in some way.  “Oh, I can’t cook.”  “I couldn’t possibly help with Room in the Inn.”  “I wouldn’t know what to say if I visited someone in the hospital.”  Most members of most congregations are quite content to write checks so that somebody else can radiate God’s love on their behalf.  Here at Christ Church, however, we are not “or” Christians.  We are “and” Christians.  Our Gospel lesson for today makes it clear that following Jesus requires us, all of us, to serve.

This story immediately follows last week’s lesson about Jesus healing a demon possessed man in the Synagogue at Capernaum.  As the crowd buzzed with excitement about the authority of Jesus’ teaching and his ability to cast out demons, Jesus and his disciples retired to Simon Peter’s house for the evening.  Upon arriving there, the group was made aware that Simon Peter’s mother-in-law had taken ill.  The substantial news coverage of the number of people who have died from the flu this year might remind us that a fever isn’t as innocuous as we have come to believe.  In a world before antibiotics, Peter’s mother-in-law’s fever could very well have been a death sentence.  At the very least, and like every other illness and demon possession in Marks’ Gospel, her fever had rendered her as good as dead by keeping her from the fullness of her ministry and setting her outside of her relationships.

Here I feel the need to pause to make mention of how this text has been used very poorly in the past.  Too often, the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law has been told as a story that was meant to “keep women in their place” by highlighting that her ministry was a ministry of service.  Some translations say that after she was healed she “began to wait on them” or “prepared a meal for them,” and while that was the traditional role of women in first century Palestine, what Mark describes happening is of much deeper significance.

First, we should note that Jesus did not heal Peter’s mother-in-law in the same way he healed many in the crowd later that evening.  In the Greek, Jesus did something far greater than heal her.  Jesus raised her up.  It is the same word John uses to describe what happened to Lazarus.  It is the same word that Mark will later use to describe the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter Day.  What Jesus did for her was far more powerful than the many healings he would do that evening.  He turned her weakness into strength.  He raised her from her as-good-as-deadness and restored her to fullness.  It didn’t take her any time at all to recuperate. Immediately she got up and served them.

As I noted just a moment ago, it is upon this word “serve” that plenty of bad theology has been built.  Rather than being a proof-text for why women shouldn’t be ordained or preach or teach in seminaries, what Mark is actually saying here is that she ministered to them.  The Greek word translated as “serve” is diakonai, from which we get the word Deacon.  It could be said that Peter’s mother-in-law was the first Deacon in the Christian Way.  Well before Philip, Stephen, and the rest, she was set apart in a ministry of table service and support.  Rather than a text that can be used to subjugate the call of women into ministry, this story seems to be an invitation to see women as fully part of the Gospel work from the very beginning.

Even more important is how Mark uses this word elsewhere in his Gospel.  While Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted by the Devil after his baptism by John, Mark says that Angels waited (diakonai) on him. When Jesus was crucified, Mark tells us that all his male disciples fled.  Judas turned him over to the Temple Authorities, Peter denied him three times, and the other ten were nowhere to be found.  Yet, in that moment of pain and sadness, several women were there.  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, are named, but there were others.   These were the women, Mark tells us, who had accompanied Jesus as disciples while he was in Galilee, and who had provided for him, served him, ministered to him, diakonai’d for him, along the way.  It is not unreasonable to think that, even though her son-in-law had failed his Lord that day, maybe Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was still there, supporting Jesus in prayer and grief.

Finally, Jesus even uses diakonai to describe his own ministry in Mark 10:45.  My New Testament Professor, John Yieh, called this verse the key to understanding Mark’s Gospel.  “For the Son of Man came not to be served (diakonai), but to serve (diakonai) and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  For those who follow Jesus, service (diakonai) is the basic building block of discipleship.  Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, then, is not healed simply to fulfil her role as a 1st century woman or to serve as the exemplar of what women are called to be in the church, but in being raised up to serve, she is the first true disciple of Jesus Christ.

Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from her fevered bondage in order that she might live fully into her identity as a disciple through loving service.  We who have been set free from our bondage to sin are called to the same.  We are called to worship by acknowledging the holiness of God in word, song, and sacrament.  We are called to learn and grow by engaging in practices of discipleship and Christian formation so that we can deepen our relationship with God through Christ.  AND, we are called to serve, diakonai, by working for justice and peace; by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the stranger; and by visiting the sick and imprisoned.  We may not perform the same sort of miracles that Jesus did, but we can serve with the same goal in mind: joining with God in restoring all people to right relationship with God and with one another and living into the abundant life of grace.  Ultimately, we worship, we learn, AND we serve because it is who God calls us to be in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The Great Multitude

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“After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”

The Revelation of John gets short shrift in many Episcopal circles.  It shows up on nine different Sundays in the three year lectionary cycle, an average of three times a year, but I can probably count on none fingers the number of times I’ve heard Revelation preached on a Sunday.  If I’ve heard it, it was probably in the context of the Burial Office wherein the latter half of Sunday’s lesson (in the BCP lectionary) is one of the six recommended New Testament lessons.  I say all this not to condemn my fellow preachers, but to convict myself as well, since over the last decade, I’ve been preaching roughly 50% of the Sundays every year.

I wonder why we are so Revelation averse?  It probably has something to do with the wider Christian culture’s seeming obsession with it.  Episcopalians tend to shy away from stuff that makes us seem “like them,” to our detriment.  Even more likely is the reality that we just don’t have much training in the topic.  Seminary electives on apocalyptic literature, while available, are probably taught every three years, and are certainly scarcely registered for.  With such vivid imagery, most of which must be taken metaphorically, it seems downright dangerous to tackle Revelation not having done your homework.  So, rather than take the time to dig in, we opt for safer texts like Ecclesiasticus, 1 John, or Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes.

If ever there was a safe Sunday on which a preacher might tackle some of the broader themes in Revelation, All Saints’ Sunday might be it.  We are already dabbling in that place where we can’t speak from any real knowledge.  Though we say, every Sunday (I hope), that we believe in the resurrection of the dead, it is hard to really grasp what that means.  So, when faced with a lesson in which John is given a glimpse of the heavenly city, with the great multitude that no one could count gathered around the throne, maybe we take shot at it, confessing that no one really knows what it means to be a part of the Church Triumphant, and yet giving thanks for the millions of Christians who have paved the way for us to one day take our place in that heavenly chorus that shouts “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

For me, the image of the Great Multitude is a comforting one, as I ponder not only those great heroes of the faith who are included, but the countless number of faithful disciples whose faith has impacted my own, without either of us knowing it.  I think of the arthritic hands I’ve seen knitting prayer shawls, the careful reverence of a pall being placed upon a casket, the hours priests have spent in their studies crafting sermons, and the hundreds of breakfast casseroles I’ve consumed over the years.  I think of faithful volunteers in elementary schools, food pantries, Sunday liturgies, and backpack blessings.  I think of all those folks who work tirelessly behind the scenes to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, I give thanks for their dedication, and I look forward to that day when I don my white rob and take my place before the throne to join the chorus, making a joyful noise for the Lord of our salvation.

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

Peter’s Resurrection Moment -a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it below


It had been almost a week since that awkward encounter.  Jesus had probably long since forgiven Peter for it, but if Peter is anything like me, he had spent the last six days working those few minutes over in his mind again and again and again.  Six days ago, Jesus and his disciples were on the outskirts of Caesarea Philippi, a city on the coast of the Mediterranean that was 100% Roman: where Herod had built a Temple in honor of Caesar, and after his death, Philip the Tetrarch gave it the name Caesarea – Caesar Town.  There, in the shadow of an entire city built to honor the power of Rome, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

You can almost see them trying to avoid answering the question.  Like a classroom full of Middle Schoolers, no one wanted to make eye contact with Jesus.  Somebody muttered John the Baptist, which was a ridiculous answer.  John hadn’t even been dead a year; how could Jesus be John the Baptist.  Another person piped up, “Elijah,” which seemed more sensible.  Elijah was the one who was to return and prepare the way for the Messiah.  Another voice suggested “Jeremiah or some other prophet,” which was, again, not totally unreasonable.  Jesus pressed further.  With the Temple Complex of Caesar and Pan rising in the background, Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”  Peter, God love him, couldn’t contain himself.  He knew the right answer and wanted Jesus to know he knew it too.  “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter blurted out, without a care in the world as to where he was standing or who might hear him.  It just so happens that Caesar also carried the title “Son of God,” but that didn’t matter to Peter.   Jesus was the Son of the true God.  Jesus was the one who had been sent to rid Israel of their Roman occupiers.  Jesus was the one who would raise up an army, tear down the Temples built to pagan gods, and return the throne of David to its rightful place.  Jesus was here to rule with power and might, and Peter was ready to fight.

Jesus praised Peter for his forthrightness.  “Blessed are you, Simon… For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…”  Peter was riding high, but Jesus continued to speak, telling the whole group that the Messiah wasn’t going to be about power and might; that the Messiah wouldn’t be raising up an army; but that the Messiah, he, Jesus, their Rabbi and friend, would be going to Jerusalem where he would suffer at the hand of the religious leadership, and be killed, and, mind you, on the third day rise again.

“God forbit it, Lord!”  Again, Peter bowed up and blurted words out before he could even think.  This wasn’t right, it wasn’t how it was supposed to work.  Peter hadn’t left his wife and career to traipse around the Sinai Peninsula for years only to watch Jesus be killed, and so Peter balked.  He looked right in the face of Jesus and said, “No!”  And Jesus looked right back at him and said, “Get behind me, Satan!”  Talk about awkward.  The discernment that Peter had just done so well was flung right out the window.  From “my Father in Heaven revealed this to you” to “you have set your mind not on divine things but on human things” in the course of about 90 seconds.  The rest of the disciples went back to staring at theirs shoes, and for six days, it seems, nobody made mention of “the event.” Then suddenly, Jesus looked back at Peter and along with James and John, invited him on an afternoon hike up Mount Tabor.

Six days is a long time to stew on something.  I wonder just how down in the dumps Peter was feeling as they made the slow climb?  What did he expect when they arrived at the top?  Were James and John invited as witnesses for his further rebuke?  Was it a regularly scheduled prayer day?  Whatever Peter might have guessed was going to happen that day, the Transfiguration wasn’t it.  As Jesus’ face shone with the brightness of the sun and his clothes reflected a dazzling white, Peter again found himself speaking faster than his brain could work.  “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three tents…”  While the words were still making their way out of his mouth, a cloud enveloped them and a voice from heaven spoke to them, and Peter joined James and John in fear and trembling.  Six days of uncomfortable silence.  Six days of avoiding Jesus’ passing glance.  Six days of wondering if he had pushed past the point of no return, and now Peter was in the midst of a vision of God atop a holy mountain, and all he could do was sputter and stammer and kneel down in fear and trepidation.

Note what happens next.  God doesn’t rebuke Peter.  Jesus doesn’t call him out.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t smite him on the spot.  Instead, Jesus walked over to the three of them, touched them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  Well, that’s not exactly what Jesus said to them.  In the Greek, what Jesus really said as his reached out in loving care to his three scared-to-death disciples was, “be raised, and fear not.”  The word translated as “get up” in the NRSV is the same word the angel will later use to describe what happened to Jesus on Easter morning.  “He is not here, he has been raised.”  In the depth of his despair, after nearly a week of anxiety, stress, and dis-ease, there on that mountain top, Peter was still talking faster than he could think, but it was precisely in that moment that Jesus gave Peter his own moment of resurrection.

As the Season of Epiphany comes to a close and we prepare ourselves for Lent, the story of the Transfiguration serves as something of a bridge.  Starting Wednesday and for forty days, we will purposefully spend time paying close attention to our tendency toward sin.   We will be invited to take stock of the ways in which our wills are at odds with the will of God.  Marked with an ashen cross, we will be made keenly aware of our mortality and dependence upon God.  Some of us will fast, giving something up that distracts us from the dream of God.  Others will take something on, finding a new prayer practices, devotions, or scriptural readings that are meant to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to God.  No matter how you plan to spend your Lent, I pray that you will have a Peter experience, and I mean both sides.  I pray that at some point in Lent, either in your private prayers or on Sunday morning, you have a profound awareness of the sin that has separated you from God.  I’m not asking you to spend six days in that place, but maybe six minutes.  Feel the pain, the fear, and the awkwardness of knowing that sometimes your best intentions aren’t a part of God’s plan and then be ready to feel God’s hand upon your shoulder.  Listen for Jesus as he offers you a resurrection moment.  “Be raised, and fear not” for God loves you, forgives you, and wants to build the Kingdom of Heaven with your help. Amen.

If, somewhere in the next eight weeks, you can find your way there: from the depths of your sinfulness to the heights of your resurrection moment, you will have been blessed to have the glory of God revealed to you.  In Hebrew, the word for glory means “weight” or “heaviness.”[1]  By the grace of God, what starts as the weight of our sin is transformed into the weight of Christ’s hand upon your shoulder, inviting you to be raised and fear not.  My prayer for you this Lent is that you feel the weight of God’s glory so that you can join with Jesus on Resurrection Day.  Amen.

[1] Elizabeth Palmer, “Sunday’s Coming” Christian Century Email 20 Feb 2017.

Realer than Real – a sermon

You can hear this sermon on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.


 

My favorite part of April Fools’ Day is waiting to see what “innovative technology” Google is going to introduce each year.  The first one I can remember was back in 2008 when Google announced Gmail Custom Time: the ability to make your email travel back in time.  When your boss asked why you didn’t send the proposal yesterday, you could run back to your office and email it dated two days ago.  You could even make it look like your boss had already read it.  People got really excited, until they figured out it wasn’t real.  My favorite was from 2012, when Google announced Gmail Tap, which would eliminate those clumsy little keyboards on your smart phone and replace it with a dot and a dash.  Sending a text or an email would be revolutionarily simple using Morse Code.  This year, Google announced Google Cardboard Plastic, a virtual reality device that was nothing more than a clear piece of plastic you wear over your face to help you experience actual reality.  The tagline for Google Cardboard Plastic was “What’s realer than real?  Probably nothing.  Or maybe something.  I doubt it though.”

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“What’s realer than real?” That seems to be the central question in today’s Gospel lesson.  The Easter story in John is about Mary, Thomas, and the rest of the disciples who seem stuck in the reality that Jesus is dead, when the realer reality was resurrection.  In fact, John tells us that his whole Gospel was written so that we might all come know that resurrection life is realer than the life of this age, and that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, each of us can experience that same kind of life.  “These are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”  There are three different Greek words that get translated as “life” in English Bibles.  Psyche, from which we get psychology, is the soul: the life force that is present within all living things.  Bios, the root word for biology, is one’s livelihood: the way in which one lives their life.  Zoe, the word John uses in today’s passage, is the spiritual life: the life given to those who have been reborn by water and the Spirit: eternal life.  The life that John wants for his readers is a life that is realer than real, it is life that moves beyond merely existing: life that is abundant and everlasting in God.

The life that John hopes for us is the life that Mary, Thomas, and the rest of the disciples just could not wrap their minds around.  Resurrection living is so vastly different from the life of this age, that it can be difficult to handle.  Last week, we heard the story of Mary Magdalene, the first person to see resurrected life.  She was so tied up in grief, anger and confusion that even when the resurrected Jesus was standing right in front of her, she couldn’t recognize him.  It wasn’t until Jesus spoke her name that Mary could recognize the reality of resurrection life.  After Mary had seen that a realer life was possible, Jesus made her the first apostle, sending her to find the disciples and proclaim the Good News of his resurrection.  Her message was as simple as it was impossible to believe, “I have seen the Lord!”

Despite Jesus having three times told them that he would be raised on the third day, despite hearing what Mary had experienced in the garden, despite John and Peter having seen the empty tomb for themselves, the disciples just couldn’t break out of the sad reality that surrounded them, and so they did the only thing they could think of: they huddled in their rented room and locked the door out of fear and doubt.  Suddenly, Jesus appeared in their midst, and he spoke a word of peace to them.  Mary saw Jesus, but it wasn’t until she heard him that she believed.  The disciples heard Jesus, but it wasn’t until they saw his hands and his side that they were able to believe.  Once they did, their fear and doubt were quickly replaced by joy and excitement.  After they had seen the resurrected life of Jesus, he made them apostles, sending them out in the power of the Spirit to share the Good News and to follow his example of loving service and the forgiveness of sins.  Thomas had missed this amazing encounter, and so the Apostles went looking for him.  When they found Thomas, they exclaimed a message as simple as it was impossible to believe, “We have seen the Lord!”

But Thomas couldn’t simply break out of the sad reality he was stuck in.  Despite Jesus promising on three different occasions that he’d rise again, despite having heard the word from Mary early on that first Easter Day, despite John and Peter having seen that the tomb was indeed empty, despite the new news from the whole group that Jesus had stood among them, Thomas still couldn’t quite believe that resurrection life was really possible.  He needed the same sort of proof that the rest of them had received: he needed to see those wounds with his own eyes; he needed to touch them with his own hands.  Thomas, like Mary and the rest, was so stricken by grief, doubt, and fear that he just couldn’t imagine that life could be any realer than the real heartache he was feeling.  It took a week, but Thomas got what he needed: a word of peace; a chance to see and to touch; and as a result he moved from simply being a disciple, to becoming the key evangelist in John’s Gospel.  From Thomas’ lips comes the first human proclamation of Jesus’ divinity, “My Lord and my God.”  Jesus blesses Thomas, and all those who would come to believe in the resurrection life despite never having the chance to see him, hear him, or touch him.

Even when it is standing right in front of you, believing in resurrection life is not easy.  Jesus knew that those of us who would follow after the Apostles would have to work hard to keep the faith.  Unlike it was for Mary Magdalene, Jesus probably won’t be standing before you, calling you by name.  Unlike it was for the disciples, Jesus isn’t likely to appear out of thin air in our midst and offer us his peace.  Unlike it was for Thomas, Jesus won’t be inviting you to place your hand in his side anytime soon.  We are those who Jesus said would have to be blessed by believing without having seen him, heard him, or touched him.  We are those who will have to overcome the empirical evidence that suggests that, more often than not, grief and anger, confusion, fear, and doubt are as real as it gets.  John wrote his Gospel to tell you that there is something realer than the reality of this life.  Resurrection life is available to everyone who hands their life over to God and enters a relationship with the resurrected Jesus.  This new way of living after the miracle of the resurrection takes grief, anger, and confusion and turns them into the peace that passes all understanding.  Resurrection life takes doubt and worry and turns them into a joy that is complete.  Resurrection life takes estrangement and sorrow and turns them into deep relationships of trust, compassion, and love.  Resurrection life takes real life and makes it realer.

When that peace is sustained by the Spirit, when that joy grows through ongoing relationship, when that love becomes so ingrained as to simply be a part of who you are, you’ve found the sort of life that is infinitely realer than you could ever ask or imagine.  That kind of living can turn even the most timid disciples into apostles and evangelists, sent by the Spirit to proclaim by word and example the Good News that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; the Good News that resurrection life is available for everyone who believes in him; the Good News that life can be something more than nightmare it so often seems to be.  Google’s April Fools’ joke was onto something.  There is something realer than real: resurrection life. Amen.

Why Resurrection? Some thoughts on D009 #EpiscopalResurrection #GC78

While there are several critiques of the content over at EpiscopalResurrection.org, the one we tend to hear most often is about our choice of the word “resurrection.”  Many of the authors of the Memorial and enacting resolutions were critical of the Task Force for Re-Imagining The Episcopal Church’s (TREC) choice to use the image of Lazarus in its Letter to the Church (September 2014).  I was not one of them.  Instead, I applauded TREC for the boldness of their choice.

Until we admit that old ways of being the Church are failing, (miserably according to my friend Susan Brown Snook) we have no motivation to take the necessary steps toward new life.  It is my sincere hope that the 78th General Convention will be able to admit death in order to be open to new life, which is why I am proud to be listed as an endorser on Resolution D009, “Revitalization of Congregations.”

The goal of Resolution D009 is to put in concrete terms what TREC left a little too airy in their Final Report, namely their invitation to “enter into a season of sustained focus on what it means for us in this moment, in our various local contexts, to follow Jesus, together, into the neighborhood, and to travel lightly.”  In D009, we’ve asked General Convention to set aside $1 million in order to begin creating the structures that will be required to help congregations who though they admit they are dead, are readily seeking resurrection.  While this seems like a lot of money, it is really only a drop in the bucket of the investment that must be made if we are going to help revitalize our existing congregations, and it is our hope that the Development Office will, alongside their work raising funds for new church plants, begin to fund a Congregation Revitalization Venture Fund that will fund grants to existing congregations with high potential for growth.

Of course, none of this will work if we just throw money at the problem.  Instead, the funds are only one part of a four-pronged approach to identify, support, and facilitate congregational revitalization.

D009 calls for the creation of a Churchwide Staff position to oversee the whole process and to coordinate training possibilities for congregational leaders.  We seek to create a network of regional consultants who have had success revitalizing congregations who will be trained to coach others in that work.  Together with the staff officer, these consultants will work to develop best practices and offer training opportunities for clergy AND LAY LEADERS from congregations which have been identified as having a high growth potential to help facilitate the hard work required to re-vision their purpose, use of space, outreach to their communities, evangelism efforts, and new ways of proclaiming the gospel of Christ.

The Church will not be revitalized over night, and the harsh reality is that not every congregation can be (or even wants to be) saved, but with the right resources focused in the right places, we believe that many Episcopal Congregations can find new ways of being Church that will speak to the needs of a rapidly changing world.  Resurrection is possible, but it requires 1) that we admit we’re dead, 2) faith that God is still in the business of resurrection, and 3) an openness to change for the sake of the Gospel.  Time will tell if The Episcopal Church can successfully navigate all three of these requirements, but it is our prayer that we can move beyond the crisis of today into a hope-filled future.