Monthly Archives: April 2014

He’ll be coming ’round the mountain when he comes: A Resurrection Sunday Sermon

Text: John 20:1-18

Note: this was a write up of a practice version of the sermon, somewhat different words but the same word.

Last week we were gathered here for Palm Sunday – triumphant procession – cheering for the one who came in the name of the Lord, cheering for the coronation of Messiah, Lord, and King.  Surely this was the moment he would take his throne, boot Rome to the curb, and take Israel to heights previously unknown on the world stage.  Only… they did not know what it meant to be Messiah in the way of Jesus Christ. How often we do not know what it means to be people of the way of Jesus Christ?  We too celebrate triumph at times when we do not know what we are doing.

The week progressed and the unexpected kept happening, Jesus didn’t cater to the people of power, he didn’t play the military game to secure a kingdom but instead he befriended – at the expense of those people – the poor, the outcast, the widow.  These are not what strong kingdoms are made of, what is he doing?  Never mind he was simply doing what he’d been doing all along.  There was nothing new… why did we expect something different than the same ol’ Jesus who from the beginning had announced that he came that the lame should walk, the blind shall see, and the poor shall have good news preached to them.  This Jesus, this messiah, doesn’t play politics in earthly kingdoms… he is playing a different game and no coronation celebration was going to change to that.

And the week continues and Jesus speaks of uprooting establishment, tearing down a temple, a dying messiah.  Jesus overturns far more than the money tables but all our expectations – and they should have seen it coming, for God’s sake we should have seen it coming… but we didn’t, and we don’t.  And Jesus scattered us once again out from our safety like recklessly sown seed on the highways and byways of Jerusalem and beyond.

And even his disciples don’t know why this happening, even the disciples are confused.  So plans are made about betrayal.  And the signs are shown of denial. On Thursday when Jesus commands us to love one another and serve one another in love, Peter refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet.  He thinks the Lord shouldn’t be a servant – he just doesn’t understand, Jesus is who Jesus is, in birth, in live, pre-death, death… and after death.  Jesus has – in fact – come to serve. And then Peter, once he thinks getting his feet washed gets him some kind of secured place in Christ’s kingdom, wants to have all of him washed… because Peter still doesn’t understand that following Christ isn’t about being made clean for the kingdom but about participating in the very dirty kingdom work of bathing the world in love.

The kingdom work is about coming to those who are damaged goods and naming that we too are damaged goods and then together participating in the life of the messiah who becomes damaged goods but made those broken places, those scarred memories, and those shattered dreams sacred.  Bathing the wounds in gracious love – making us all, damaged goods that we are, infused with the Holy and whole in the Spirit.

This is my body – broken for you… (no, not you Lord!)  This is my blood poured out for you.

This act wasn’t meant to be some spiritualized ritual of pretending at brokenness because the very next day after he said it we gathered again and we witnessed – maybe not through our eyes but through trusted eyes – as Jesus marched again the streets of Jerusalem, not in triumph this time but as a mocked and failed savior at the hands of an uncaring empire and control-minded religious structures – and he was killed.  Broken, shattered, and poured out.  And the disciples watched from afar because they did not know what they were watching and they did not know what to make of it…. So they watched from afar and then they scattered and hid.

This has been our week, and then we wake up – as early as is our want (or maybe in some cases way early than we’d want) – and when we wake up, we proclaim that He is risen.  We email it, facebook it, tweet it, shout it, cheer it, hallmark it, liturgically proclaim and sing it, trumpet and play it on any and all instrument we can find.  He is risen indeed… …but do we believe it?  Do we understand it?  What, if anything, is different because of it?

Are our Easter proclamations any more informed than the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday when the crowds thought they were proclaiming the victory of their king?  Does our cries of ‘He is Risen’ have any more substance behind it than the crowds proclamation that ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord – Hosanna! Hosanna!?!?!’

We say that there is an empty tomb, like that is good news.  But it wasn’t for the disciples.  It was just what it always was – another act to be questioned.  Another thing that wasn’t supposed to be.  They don’t see an empty tomb and think resurrection – they think grave robbers.  The empty tomb is not demonstrative of death having no sting… its demonstrative of their empty hearts and dreams.  It is a further descent, not the beginning of ascendant hope.  And perhaps all good news starts this way – its starts before we even know it – or know what we are seeing and participating in.

And so we find Mary lamenting, ‘Where is the body, that I may pay it the proper respect and bury him as he is due.  Please not more mockery, not more shame, just let me do this one thing as it should be.’  And Mary turns and encounters Jesus but she doesn’t recognize him (would we?, we might presumptuously assume so, but we wouldn’t have) so she thinks he’s a gardener.  And he is, he is THE Gardner.  He is the planter and nurturer of seeds, he prunes and waters, he weeds and braces, he is the THE Gardner of all life but she she thinks he is just “a” gardener.  “Just tell me where his body has been taken.” And he looks at her and calls her by name, “Mary” and that’s all it took, he names her, and she knows him – Teacher.

But when she goes to tell the disciples they don’t believe her of course… they will have to encounter him for themselves and when they do – you know what happens?  They do what they have always done – they get scared, they don’t understand and they lock themselves back into the upper room.   He is Risen – but what in the world does that mean?

Jesus will say to them – my peace I give to you – Jesus will tell them not to be afraid –Jesus will tell them to go into the world to preach and act on the receiving and giving of peace.  Jesus will tell them to feed and tend the sheep, Jesus will tell them to teach and baptism to bless and build up… that is to say Jesus will tell them that what resurrection means is exactly what he has always meant.  Jesus is what he always was… nothing has changed… and yet everything has changed.  Jesus laid it all on the line in the greatest demonstration of practicing what he preached – but what he preaches it doesn’t change, its just more of what it always was.

C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia contrasts old Narnia with new Narnia by likening it to the difference between seeing something in a mirror and then beholding the real thing.  They are the same – but the second is more the same than the first image ever was, the same… and yet more so.  This is like the experience of the risen Christ.

Jesus is the same Jesus and yet more Jesus than ever before.  Jesus came to reveal to us the nature and character of God.  God loves the world so much that God would engage death – so much that God would die, on our behalf.  And we know now, empty tomb and all / Risen Christ encountered,  that life cannot be contained by death, God who is love – God who is life, cannot be held in death.  That the tomb and the stone, and no number of stones, could hold God down.  Death cannot hold sway over life.  God the gardener has planted seeds and those seeds will sprout – will burst up, will grow and flourish and proclaim life and life abundant.  Because they cannot – will not – be held down.  And so Jesus went to all the places where life was least likely… as  Jew he went to Samaria, he sent his followers to Gentiles, he touched lepers, he healed women who were unnamable and allowed the most impure of people to touch and clean him.  Because God is not about pushing down, adding guilt, causing shame, or walling off and claiming in and casting out.  God is about life.  We play a justice game, a world of retribution and punishment.  And we get caught up in unending cycles of violence and hurt.  You hurt me so I’ll hurt you.  You did wrong so I’ll punish you … And to that whole game Jesus says – do that to me and then I’ll let it go, I will show that we can just stop the cycle… and promote life.  Eye for an eye is killing us – literally.  And I am the God of life, not death….

So for those who denied him – Jesus loved them and entrusted them again with the kingdom.  Those who killed him – Jesus offered peace.  To those who take him for granted Jesus returns them nothing but love.  Its about redemption not retribution.

The Easter story is the same story that Jesus has preached at every turn.  That God wants life to win over death.  That God is gardener of all life and wishes all life to prosper – all people – all animals – and manner of life… to prosper and grow.

I got the song “He’ll be coming around the mountain when he comes” stuck in my head with regards to this sermon almost a month ago.  I found out that the song really is about Jesus.  It was sung about Jesus and the second coming… or more exactly about the chariot he’ll be riding.  And its about how will we know him, how will we recognize him.  And it’s a great question because no-one, not one person, not Mary or the twelve, or the those on the Emmaus road or Paul on the Damascas road… no one recognizes Jesus when he comes.  So how will we?

And it may just be that the answer is easier than we imagine – because Jesus is who he has always been.  A gardener bringing life from death.  A lover who makes wounds sacred and gives peace in exchange for hate, and redemption in exchange for violence, love in exchange for fear, service in exchange for jealously, and life in exchange for death.

How will we know him?  Because we will find him sewing life in places of death.  He will in the back alley, at an AA meeting, in the women’s shelter, or the morgue.  We will find him on the battle field – not with a gun in hand – but with the children of yet another generation slain in the name of retribution and hate.  We will find him among those enslaved in sex trades around the world and in our neighbor’s basement.  We will find him in the line for a bowl of soul, or incarcerated, or hanging out on Sunday morning with hipster “nones” who want nothing to do with church.  How will we know him?  It won’t because he’ll be sitting in a pew next to you.  He won’t look our part – he will look least like what we expect but exactly like he always has.  We will know him because he will be the one creating peace and mercy in the harshest and driest landscapes of our world.   We will know him by his love.

He is Risen, are we?  He does not rise for his sake but for ours.  We need not ask who he is, but who we are in response.  Will we be people of retribution, exclusion, and hate?  Or will we too play the gardener.  Go to places that reek of death, get our hands dirty and through your damaged selves bleeding into the world and sew love and life.  Nurture redemption and healing.  And live and love in such a way that we all might rise with the one who is risen.

Christ IS risen, he is risen inDEED.

Thanks be to God.

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Who is Jesus… on the cross?

That’s right, who do we say Jesus is, when Jesus is on the cross?

Going back awhile (oh about 13 years or so) I have been very intrigued by the above question.  But let’s take a step back first.  It is one thing to answer the question of who Jesus is upon birth, in his ministry of calling his first disciples, and in his healing and teaching.  We say “God with us,” we might quote scripture with him being the “Son of God” or “Son of Man” or maybe just “the Messiah.” Of course it is very hard to pin Jesus down to saying more than “that’s who you say I am,” or “okay but don’t tell anyone.”  Jesus makes “I am” statements but they aren’t so clear as all that… and of course in John’s Gospel he does ramble for a good while about being “one with the Father” but then in John 17:20-23 he makes clear that he is praying that we are as “one” together as Jesus is with the Father, and that their oneness would be extended to include us in the same oneness together (sorry if that’s not clear… but he really is rambling – or John is, or the Spirit is… whoever – rambling is the “order” of the day).  Jesus, it seems to me, imagines that Jesus is no more one with the Father than we might be one with each other and even with God.  So it hardly makes a great case for Jesus as God, or a strong case for his being unique in his oneness with God.

So who is Jesus?  If this isn’t answered by the Bible with clear authority (and I would argue that it is not, though it certainly provides fertile ground for faithful imagination) the early traditions claimed Jesus not simply as Messiah, Lord, and Son of God… but as God.  (There is quite a bit written by smarter and more informed people than myself on the subject so I’m not going to tarry here.)  Perhaps this comes from asking, who was the risen Christ, and who is Jesus today?

The Church began to pray to Jesus, we come to understand God through Jesus, we imagined the great act of God on behalf of the fulfillment of creation as coming again through Jesus in his “second” coming.  (One might ask why Jesus has “gone away” necessitating his “coming again” but again I won’t take that rabbit trail, and I’ll try to get to my point.)  When we ask of this Jesus, who are you – we imagine no other answer than ‘God.’

But now I want to back up again… I want to return to this week in our liturgical year.  I want to inquire – in a Pilate kind of way, I think – of the Jesus of triumphant entry, of eye’s wide open betrayal, of doubt ridden abandonment from his friends, his followers, even from his God, and of the crucifixion and death… I want to inquire of this Jesus, who are you?

I imagine what he will say.  He will say, “well who do you say that I am?”

And that’s the rub of it all – Jesus just doesn’t want to be pinned down into any easy to understand identity.  But let me tell you from experience.  (Having done this on more than one occasion.)  If you gather a group of passionate Christians together and tell them that on the cross God dies… they will not respond in the affirmative to the thought (but from experience I can say you will also have a really good conversation ensue).  We can imagine Jesus as God in just about any place or time – even the manger of a stable as a babbling infant – better than we can wrap our minds around the idea that God dies on the cross. We imagine that somehow Jesus can be God in all other times but that God pulls some divine magic to make sure God doesn’t die when Jesus does.  And… I don’t know.  God hasn’t let me in on the secret.  It’s a mystery to me.  But I’ll admit the philosopher’s training in me struggles with the inconsistency of claiming Jesus is God and yet trying to claim that God doesn’t die.  I’m not content with some spiritualized attempt to imagine that just the incarnation of God dies, but not the God behind ‘the Jesus.’   I don’t know what really happens – my faith is mixed in with lots of doubts, and nothing about my journey as a follower of Jesus is predicated on the absolute truth of my interpretation or understanding of how all this works.  If Jesus was actually married, if Mary wasn’t a virgin, if God admitted to not being perfect in some kind of cosmic confession booth… none of these thing would come to me as a shock.  They would not rock my faith or cause me to doubt any more than I already do.  But I still question.  I still seek to know with a very lower case “k.” Not because I want to pin God down… but because I really think there are powerful takeaways for my life in this story at the heart of the story of Jesus.

If the whole of God was on that cross.  Not just a sliver, not just a fleshy sub-part, not just a prophet, not just a sacrificial lamb or substitute person to represent the idea or corporation of all people, not just a sent out image like some billboard evangelist, not just a child of promise… but THE promise AND the PROMISEER wholly, complete, and total ?  That’s really scary.  How can the world survive that loss?  Why would God risk that?  We aren’t really worth all that, are we?

It’s okay for God to give up a son for us… but for God to risk God’s own eternal annihilation for us?  What if the resurrection didn’t happen?  What if that was the end?  What if…

I sure hope God knew what God was doing.  Jesus doesn’t seem all that sure in the garden.  Was that just an act?  What if God didn’t know… what if God surmised but wasn’t certain? Or forget that… what if God was certain… to a point.  What if God knew that it should work… has no reason not to work…  Is it responsible for God to put it all at risk on the gamble that it would work?  And what did working even look like?  How do we even know?

I want to know… but it seems I do not need to know.

But here is what I look and imagine and feel and wonder about this week… this week that God dies.

  • God really does know what it means to suffer, not from hearing cries, not from an emotional substitute.  God suffers in God’s self.
  • God knows what it means to stare death in the face wishing it could have gone a bit differently.  God has regrets… regrets about friends’ actions, communal activities, even regrets about God’s own chosen course of action.  God agrees – this is not the way it’s supposed to be, but God rolls with it anyway.
  • God is willing and able to risk the death of beloved reality for the hope of greater life on the other side.  God even imagines that proper engagement of death is a fertile ground for new emerging hope (Yellowstone fires anyone?)… that death is a servant to life though we have to think beyond ourselves to see it sometimes.
  • God really does think we are worth it.  God has gambled on us – does gamble on us – and there is nothing, not logic or fear or stubborn waywardness or orthodoxy or hate or hesitancy or… well there just ain’t anything that will prevent God from giving up everything for us.

God. Everything. For Us.

It is all on the line.

That’s why all the right answers, or good theology, or learned scriptural analysis, or long-held tradition aside… that’s why when I look up on the cross this Friday I will won’t just say, “Jesus died for me.” I won’t join the centurion in Matthew saying, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” I will say God is dead… dead… dead.  I will sit there in awe (both awe as awful, and awe as uncomprehending overwhelmedness).  Because it’s a pretty amazing thing to put the shoe on the other foot and imagine that we worship a God who would let us put God to death – rather than the other way around.  I will sit in that space and imagine how anyone goes on after that.  And on Sunday?  Well… we’ll see when we get there.

But when we get there, whatever we see, I hope I hold on to the knowledge that death isn’t so scary.  That we are worth the risk.  And that allowing us to burn ourselves down to see what rises is about the biggest affirmation of abundant life I can imagine.

Thanks be to God.

What’s NEXT: Almost Parting Thoughts

The NEXT 2014 conference was centered on three words: Lead / Create / Discern. However, the three words I moved through in that time were:  Awe / Inadequacy / Humbled.

Awe

There are so many great ideas, leaders, conversations that I was awed by the creativity. I could not help but imagine God looking down on creation again, and again, and again and thinking, “It is good.”  In a conversation that could have been about all that was wrong, it was instead about all that goodness, the opportunities.  The combined generative creativity was awe inspiring.  There was not denial here about the death in the life of what it has and does mean to be church.  But that wasn’t the word that was made flesh.  It was not not-true that the church is dying, but it also was not true. Is not true.

Inadequacy

I can’t help it.  I feel so very ordinary, uncreative, and yes – inadequate – next to all these innovative leaders and passionate followers. Don’t rush in to console me please. I know I have gifts too – I’m not completely unqualified for the calling to which I have been called.  I will be challenged by this, and I will find a way to grab hold of something – or something will grab hold of me – in a way authentic to who I am and who my community is, God knows what God is doing. But I guess what I mean to say is…

Humbled

I feel humbled when I’m surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, a chorus of dedicated and loving people. I look around and think: the church is in very good hands and to anyone who thinks this tomb is empty… or that it is even a tomb. I say ‘stand back’ because some abundant life is going to trample all over that doom and gloom. I am humbled like the Psalmist who utters, “who am I that you are mindful of me.” And even while we are talking about the church that is next… what struck me was how much this church is right now. Springing up. Something new. Seeking the welfare of the city.  Exile? It never looked so good.

And then this happened… in a service of prayer little slips of paper full of all our fears were read out loud.  And I realized I’m no more afraid, no more attentive to my own inadequacy, no more paralyzed by the sense of what might happen if I fail big in a place that doesn’t seem like it can handle one more failure than everyone else in this room.  We are humbled by each other, united by fears, and led to hope.  That was the final word.  Hope.  I found this most strongly in our weakest moment when I felt united by our fears, and convicted by the sense that all of that fear wasn’t holding the Spirit of God back from leading us. Not. One. Bit. I’m ready for what’s next, are you?