From Where I Sit…

<Listening to a sermon is better than reading it.  Trust me, it is. If you want to listen along, click here.

John 3:1-16

Falling-asleep-forestNow there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.  He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform he signs you are doing if God were not with him. Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born from above.” “How can someone be born when they are not old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spoirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are a teacher in Israel,” Jesus said, “and you don’t understand these things?  Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.  I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you trust if I speak of heavenly things?  No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven, the Son of Man.  Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who trusts may have eternal life.  For God so love the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

From Where I Sit…

May we be born again today, God.

And again. And again. And again.

Until we are made absolutely new in you again in the end.

Amen

I’ve decided to write this sermon like a letter from camp because, well, I composed it at camp in one sitting.  There was another sermon started earlier in the week, but it withered, like “leaves of grass” as Whitman would say.  So, here we go:

“Dear Beloved,

I arrived at camp a few hours ago and can say that by all appearances none of our children are ready to leave…and may not be ready to leave when the time comes.

As I pulled onto the gravel road, I thought to myself, like those disciples said to Jesus on that mountain top, “It is good to be here, Lord.”  This last week has not been an easy one in many ways.  Summer’s lazy days are still full of mixed blessings: hurts and goodbyes, unexpected blessings, tough conversations and love notes…like this one.

The naturalist and first-rate American tree-hugger John Muir once wrote that, should you be troubled you need only “sit under a fern for a spell,” and you’d feel it all melt away.  He called the forest the first cathedral. Perhaps that’s what my spirit was anticipating as I pulled into camp.  Very truly I tell you, throughout the history of our religious heritage, we have sought the Divine in nature, felt the Divine in nature, found God in nature.  Even so much so that those early cathedrals put huge indoor pillars in place, mirroring those trees Muir marveled at.

But, as that cantankerous pastor Lilly Daniels says, it’s easy to find God in the sunset. Everyone can find God in the beautiful sunset. It’s harder to find God in the cranky and messy and infuriating and broken people around you.  This is also very true.

So running to the forest, to nature, has always been a refuge when God has been hard to find in others.

But less than anything about the forest, perhaps the real spiritual gift of the forest is that, for most of us…and definitely all of us here in suburban “glory”…it provides a different point of view, a new perspective on life.  There is a reason that we use the idiom, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” From where we sit, it’s difficult to see everything clearly sometimes.

Very truly I tell you, in difficult moments in our lives, where we get lost in the tree of the moment, it is difficult to see the forest of grace and love we’re wandering in, by God.

Rhonda the boys and I spent time in Banner Elk this last Fall where we got to see the glory of God displayed on the leaves.  And here at Camp Agape, in the forests just outside of Raleigh, I hear the kids tell me, more than one, dare I say most, that in those forests they first started to take their faith seriously, the full glory of God showing on their faces.

The new point of view that they gain there (dare I suggest that they’re even born again and again?) gives them new eyes to see the world.  I’d even call them Christ-eyes to see the world, their own lives included, in a different way.  From where they sit in this forest, things look different. The sacredness drips like sap from most every moment.

And in a time in their life, in those Middle School years that can be very difficult, where it can sometimes feel as if they’re perishing more than flourishing, it’s a good change of perspective for many of them.

I do wonder how long we’ll have escapes, places to offer us new points of view in the world. According to the UN, 18 million acres, or land roughly the size of Panama, is unsustainably deforested every year.  This is certainly not meant to be a letter to convince you to save the forests, it’s just a question I’m pondering in the forest.

Because I’m very grateful for the forest, and especially this forest, which has apparently both strengthened people in their faith in Christ, strengthened their bodies and bonds, and strengthened their appreciation for God’s creation.

And if I’m grateful for something, I usually respond with thanksgiving in caring and tender ways.

Nicodemus can’t understand that Jesus is inviting him to a new point of view on life, a new perspective.  Perhaps he believes, as a Pharisee, that his religious training and social status has given him enough perspective for life.

And then he meets Jesus and Jesus tells him to do the impossible, to be born again, or in other words, put on God’s salvation eyes for a while and see things differently.  “How can I do this?” he wonders.  John Muir might tell him to crawl under a fern…but that will only do so much.

Nicodemus wanders away in a forest of confusion at Jesus’ command.  But sometimes we have to wander a bit, get lost in the forest a bit, even a spiritual forest, to gain a new point of view.

Fear not, Beloved, Nicodemus will gain a new perspective one day.  He’ll do so by looking up at a forest of three cross-shaped trees, one on which Jesus died.  And he’ll take that body of Christ and, as the Gospel of John tells us, will bury Jesus like a seed in a new tomb.

And then Jesus is born again.  And Nicodemus…and you…and me…and those forest-loving kids along with him, with the Christ buried within us, too.

It’s interesting, under the tree of the cross of ultimate love we can gain a new perspective on so many things: our lives, one another, even our North Carolina forests that we’ve been given as a gift of God.  And somehow pondering that cross, that Christ-perspective in these forests gives me the ability to do that harder thing: see God in everyday people and tough situations.

Very truly I tell you this from where I sit in these trees.  It’s funny: many times we run to the forest to find God.  It’s almost like we have to get down to the ground to see things from above.  Kind of like Jesus got down in the tomb to show us the love from above.

Anyway, pool time is almost over, and I see kids getting icy pops and no matter how much I’m thinking relatively deep thoughts, I don’t want miss out on that.

So, Beloved, from the forests of Agape where it appears that God in Jesus has shown up again amidst the trees to provide a new perspective on life, I wish you much love and hope and new life.

Gratefully,  Pt…

Sure…

<Want to listen instead of read? You really should.  And you really should click here>

Matthew 9:35-10:8

processed_eed31ad3-0260-4e90-8cb7-7eba08131f6c35Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
10:1Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

Sure…

Number us amongst the apostles today, Lord

            Remind us that we’re called

                        And remind us that the kingdom of heaven has come near.

                                    And then make us into such a kingdom.

Amen

The other night I was reading some poetry, some of it is included in your bulletin actually…at the back.  I’ll get to the specific poems in a second.

But I was reading some poetry and I came into the living room and said to Rhonda, “Poetry makes life worth living.”

And she looked at me and she said, “Really?  Because for me, cheese makes life worth living.”

And I posted this conversation on Facebook, mostly because I was so dumbfounded, and apparently everyone thought that it was their job to vote on who was more right, and in the boxing match between poetry and cheese, cheese wins, hands down.

At least amongst our Facebook friends.

Disappointingly, there is no cheese today in church.  Well, at least not the kind you eat…I’m pretty cheesy, though.

No, no cheese.  Just bread and wine.  And some poetry.

Because, and this is a short sermon, so let’s not beat around the bush here: Jesus sends the apostles out into the world to tell the world a very specific thing, that the kingdom of God has come near.  And he sends them out into the world to do very specific things, like cast out demons and cure the sick and raise the dead and make the untouchable lepers touchable again.

And I just have to ask you, and myself truthfully, what are we doing?

Because here’s my thought, and here’s my fear:  we’ll go to Alexandria, Virginia and we’ll say, “The kingdom of God is near!” after a deranged gunman obviously held by some sort of evil intent had just tried to mow down members of congress.

And we’ll say this to them and they’ll look at us and go, “Sure…”

Here’s my thought, here’s my fear: we’ll go to Kabul after that suicide bomb, or Manchester, or pick a place, and we’ll say “The kingdom of God has come near” and amidst the broken hearts and broken bones we’ll hear the disbelieving refrain of, “Sure…”

Here’s my thought, and here’s my fear: we’ll stop saying that “the kingdom of God has come near” to those placed where shadows and evil have broken through the peace, and instead will just keep saying it in suburbia with our 2.5 kids and half-million dollar houses, the drug problems of our children not withstanding and the greed in our hearts not withstanding, and we’ll say “the kingdom of God has come near” and everyone will look around at relative ease and say, “Sure!”…and nothing changes.

Here’s my thought, and here’s my fear: we’ll stop saying “the kingdom of God has come near” to families who need to hear it, and we’ll stop hearing it from families that need to speak it to us, because we’re so segregated by race and politics that we won’t be able to speak it to one another.  Sure…that’s happening already.

I feel that, these days, we have an abundance of words and talking points and talking heads and tweets and verdicts and news headlines, but we have a poverty of meaning…and even this phrase, “The kingdom of God has come near” is impoverished by both overuse by overzealous televangelists, and underuse by people who have lost hope, belief, or any sense of what it means anymore.

Which is why, I think, that we need poetry in these days.  Because poetry is like words, but rearranged and slanted and pointed into arrows that can cut through apathy and despair and hurt and anger and depression and fear and get to the beating heart of a person to remind them that it is still beating, by God.

Good poetry, at least, can do that.  And Jesus used a form of that good poetry in quoting the Psalms and telling parables.

Bad poetry, though…well, you’re better off with the cheese if you encounter some bad poetry.

But go with me on this, ok?  Let’s look at that first poem, not the Father’s Day Blessing by O’Donohue, but the one on the other side of that page.  These are both by Nayyirah Waheed, and African American poet who has really been speaking to me lately.

But that top one:

Sometimes the night wakes in

the middle of me.

And

I can do nothing

But

Become

The

moon

I’ve yet to hear a better description of depression or grief than, “Sometimes the night wakes in the middle of me.”  And when I look at Arlington, Virginia and that tragic shooting, and I look at Kabul and Manchester and London and who knows where else, the only image that comes to mind now is that the night, the shadows, woke up in the middle of those moments.  A societal depression.  A societal grief that is the result of a sick society that we have today, sick with hatred for other people and partisan vitriol and systemic greed and classism and racism and every ism that you can imagine.

And remember…Jesus commands the apostles, commands us, to heal the sick.  What are we doing about that?

But so to go into those moments where the scary, frigid night has disrupted the middle of peace and to proclaim, “the kingdom of God is near!” Or, another way of hearing and saying that, “God is not far away!  God is on the ground, on the scene, and I’m here to show you that”…well, what do you think we are doing when we say that but becoming a moon, reflecting God’s son/sun?

This last week I was at Camp Agape hanging with the counselors for their “Pastor in the hotseat” time of staff training.  I fielded and answered a bunch of questions, from aliens to my thoughts on hell to ghosts.  But one question in particular had me saying something like this, “And so I am convinced that God is constantly redeeming everything through Christ.  Everything.  And we take a part in that redemption at God’s invitation.”

And I have to remind myself of that conviction, especially when I find myself cynical or defeated by the never ending news cycle that peddles in fear or when public trials don’t go the way I think they should, or when the massive systems of this world that keep the poor poor, the wealthy wealthy, and if feels like the world is ending, I must remember the promise of Jesus that he is “with us always to the end of the age.”  And if that is true, then we are constantly in the presence and process of redemption. Which brings us to that last poem, which I think encompasses that feeling so well:

I don’t pay attention to the

World ending

It has ended for me

Many times

And began again in the morning

I don’t take that as vapid optimism, either.  Optimism is blindly believing the best because you can’t handle the worst.  Hope, on the other hand…which is how I take that poem…hope is staring the worst straight in the eye and knowing that it cannot overcome you.  The world may end, but it begins again, by God.

Because the kingdom of God has come near.  Everywhere you go. Wherever the body of Christ is, the kingdom of God has come near.  In your personal life.  In the larger world. On the killing fields. Everywhere.

And it is at this point where you look at me and say, “You expect me to buy all that pastor? The kingdom of God has come near?”

To which I say,

Sure…

Comebacks and Remakes and a God Who Won’t Stay Gone for Long

<Listen along to hear the part where I take a shot across the bow of misogyny.  Click here for that experience…>

Acts 2:1-21

confirmation.jpg1When the day of Pentecost had come, [the apostles] were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ ”

Remakes and Comebacks and a God Who Won’t Stay Gone for Long

Fall upon us freshly today, Lord.

Let us hear your voice in the many languages we speak

            In the language of lawyers

            In the language of doctors

            In the language of engineers and accountants

            In the language of stay-at-home dads and moms

            In the language of Republicans, Independents, Democrats, and Libertarians

            In the language of the wealthy and the struggling to make ends meet

            And, especially today, in the language of teenager.

Help us to hear you in all of our many languages

For you have called us all.

Amen

Today, Beloved, I’m afraid that most of you just get to eavesdrop on a sermon.  This particular sermon is going to be directed mostly at these few rows of shining and embarrassed faces sitting here.

And I know that you are all beginning to realize what Jungian scholar James Hollis says, “you are the only person who is constantly present in every scene of that long-running drama we call life,” so I want you to see yourself and some truths about yourself in this text from Acts today:

First, the disciples were all gathered together in one place.  This is significant because, here’s the thing: I really do not think that there is such a thing as a solitary Christian.  There are certainly solitary Jesus-followers, but if they are really, truly following Jesus, they will not be solitary for long because God in Jesus always leads us to gather together.

We must gather together because if we stay alone for too long we forget what God looks like.  Yes, we do.  Because if we stay together for too long, we might begin to think that God looks a little too much like us. You.  You might begin to think that God dislikes the people you dislikes, really likes the things you likes, and even thinks exactly the same thoughts that you think.

You need other people around you to remind you that, if we are to trust the Genesis story, God created humanity in God’s own image…all of humanity bears an image of God, and no one image has a monopoly on that.

So the Christian story is the best kind of story, especially to Americans, because the Christian story is a comeback story.  That is, Christians, when they’re following God in Jesus, will naturally come back together: to eat bread and drink wine, remembering God’s gifts to us. To sing and dance, to hear the scriptures, and recall just why it is we’re following this crazy prophet in our lives.

This is all a long way of me saying that I expect to see you again next week.  Confirmation is not graduation, no matter how much the churches have equated the two.  You cannot graduate from God, Beloved.

Second thought to ponder: just why do we follow this crazy Rabbi who we profess is the embodiment of God on earth?  Well, it’s a complicated story, and I would gander it’s different for everyone on some level.  In fact, having sat with many of you over coffee (OK, I had the coffee, you all had hot chocolate or tea or lemonade…and Josh Lewis ate about 2/3rds of my donuts), but at some level I think we all in some way realize that we follow this Jesus guy because, well, it’s through the message of God in Jesus that we see the ability to really remake things: our world, our selves, our possessions…everything.

And, America loves a good remake, right?  Just look at Hollywood.  You’re too young to know it, but Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers…all remakes.  And for you older folks, think Maltese Falcon, that 1941 Humphry Bogart and Mary Astor classic is actually a remake of an early 1931 film, a newer “talky” as they called them back then.

We love remakes because we love the same old story told in a new way, which is essentially what we do every week in church, by the way.  But this is the thing: there will come a point and time in your life when you will make a major mistake.  Maybe a couple points and times in your life.  And I need you to know that, if the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection says any one thing loud and clear, it is that everything can be redeemed, anything can be remade, even you.

And when you think that your life is stuck in the same old story, just remember that God specializes in the remake.

So do not believe the narratives out there, narratives that seem loudest in high school for some reason, that say that you are screwed up for good.  We’re all screwed up on one way or another.  From the oldest in here to the youngest in here.  As the author and theologian Ann Lamott once wrote, “Every one of us is screwed up, clingy, and scared.” And she’s right, which means we have to stick together…going back to my first point.

And I have to think that these disciples, even though they had been with Jesus, seen him after his death, were still in that upper room screwed up, clingy, and scared of the world.  And while the dominant view of the world is that you have to be good and perfect to have good things happen to you, these screwed up, clingy, and scared disciples are the ones who receive the Holy Spirit.  Not the kinds in the castle.  Not the hyper-religious folks in the temple.  But these men and women (yes, women were there folks…Jesus had women disciples, they just rarely go named because that seems to threaten many men), but these women and men with little distinction in all of their crazy confusion are the ones to receive the Holy Spirit.

God can redeem and remake even the screwed up, clingy, and scared parts of us, people.

Which brings me to my third point, and it’s one where I’ll use a quote from Christian psychotherapist Ian Morgan Cron, and it is this: “Christianity is not something you do as much as something that gets done to you.”

Think about it.  God had, by all appearances, left the disciples again.  Yeah, sure, Jesus promised that God would show up again, but there are a lot of empty promises in this world, and perhaps, just for a second, they thought that might be one of them.  Just like when Jesus was crucified and buried, God has left the disciples again.

But here’s a sneaky little truth that I hope you’ll remember in your life: though it might appear that God is gone, God never stays gone for long.

And notice that these disciples don’t go out seeking the Holy Spirit.  They don’t go out inviting Jesus into their heart or any such thing. God will not be controlled, people! Instead, the Holy Spirit like a violent, untamable wind, breaks through the room, through the locked hearts, through the locked doors, through the skeptical minds, and descends upon them.  And this follows the great testimony of Scripture where people didn’t sign up to follow Jesus like you would at a job fair, but rather Jesus calls out to the disciples and brings them along, just like God called out to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and Miriam, and Ruth, and even Jesus’ mother Mary.

Which gives a lot of hope and freedom to those of us who often find ourselves skeptical and doubting when it comes to everything in this world, especially faith.  I am naturally skeptical.  It’s both a blessing and a curse.  And I know many of you are blessed and cursed in this way, too.

But just as Paul was absolutely surprised that Jesus would call out to him on the road to Damascus, today, tomorrow, when you’re 22 and not sure what’s going on in your life, when you’re 51 and having a midlife crisis, do not be surprised when God in Jesus happens to you.

It has happened to me again and again in this life, and it always catches me off guard.

And I need to leave you with one more thought here, Beloved, because this text is so rich and full that it’s like a ripe tree with different kind of fruits that, the more you pick at it, the sweeter it gets.

The disciples are together, screwed up, clingy, maybe scared, and the Holy Spirit comes upon them, God happens to them, Christ happens to them, and then these little tongues of fire appear on their heads, a sign of Divine presence, enlightenment.  And God has certainly done this before.  God led Israel with a pillar of fire in the Exodus.  God showed up to Moses as a burning bush that wasn’t consumed.  God came as fire upon the altar to Baal at Elijah’s bidding.

Fire, this energy that humanity stumbled upon and harnessed back when our ancestors lived in caves.  Fire, this heat that transforms even the hardest substances into moldable liquid.  We’ve always been fascinated by it, scared of it, comforted by it.  No wonder God uses it to get our attention: it always does.

The ancient Greek philosopher Hereclitus once wrote, “This world was and is and shall be ever-living fire.”  I love this thought because it brings me back to something that we glimpse in this story from Acts: all of these people were gathered together from all the known and far-flung parts of the ancient world, and each one of them heard the gifts of the Holy Spirit in their own language.  Which means, to me, that God is present and active everywhere, an ever-living fire sparking and flaring, something we don’t own but can coax out of every moment in any place, by God.

As Father Richard Rohr says, “Low-level religions put all their emphasis on creating sacred places, sacred time, and sacred actions.” He goes on, “While I fully appreciate the need for this, unfortunately, it leaves the majority of life ‘un-sacred.’ Your task is to find the good, the true, and the beautiful in everything, even and most especially the problematic. The bad is never strong enough to counteract the good.”

And perhaps that’s the perfect way to end and celebrate this Confirmation rite today, with that thought on our hearts and lips.  Because God has happened to you, Beloved.  And we’re gathered here together, reminded that while God doesn’t look like any one of us, God’s image is in every one of us, and this and every moment is sparking and flaring with divine grace, a refiner’s fire that has the power to redeem and remake us and everything, again and again.

So our task, now, is to give into the fire, to be moldable, and in doing so find the good, the true, and the beautiful, dare I say ‘the sacred’ in everything, even and most especially the problematic.  The bad is never strong enough to counteract the good, Beloved. And in the days of attacks on London, Manchester, Kabul, and who knows where else, that’s important for you all to bear witness to.

The bad is never strong enough to counteract the good. Never.  Because God never stays gone for long.

Amen.

confirmation-2.jpg

On Being Cut Off and Gaining Vision

<To listen to the sermon, click here. It’s better with the singing and the laughs…>

John 14:15-21

Kimberly-Napier-Personal-Life-Coach-An-invitation-to-an-open-heart[Jesus said to the disciples:] 15“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
18“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

On Being Cut Off and Gaining Vision

There are very few times when I will ditch a sermon and write a completely different one on Saturday of the week, but this is one of those times.  So that sermon title in your bulletin isn’t the sermon title for today anymore because, well, I had a very interesting weekend.

As many of you know, I was accepted into a program offered by Wake Forest Divinity for early career clergy…of which I’m the only Lutheran…where, over theses two years, we spend a few days together every other month listening to and talking with civic, business, and political leaders about the challenges facing North Carolina.

This weekend we talked specifically about racial prejudice in the voting booth, the history of the separation of Church and State, and I found myself sitting across from State Representative Graig Meyer talking to him about how he sees his own faith life impacting his work as a state congressman.

He then invited us back to his office where we threw some Bruce Springsteen onto his record player and rocked out a bit singing,

Born in the USA

I was

Born in the USA

I was…

It was a challenging weekend in many ways because I saw clearly how, sometimes, people are indeed left orphaned in this world: left orphaned by our own choices, by systems that are set up to keep the powerful in power and keep the weak from changing that.  How we are left orphaned in our own cocoons and echo chambers as we only listen to and pay attention to people who already agree with us.

In the ancient world, to be left orphaned was not simply to be left without parental guardians, though there is that.  The problem with having no parental guardian in the ancient world was that you had no one to advocate for you in the public sphere.  Children were the most vulnerable people in that world, and I would contend that they still are, and to be left without a guardian meant that you were at the mercy of a system in which you had no voice, no advocate, to care for you.

Think on that for a moment, and then think on our work with Mnene Parish in Zimbabwe.

And so when Jesus says that he will not leave the disciples orphaned, he’s talking about leaving them cut off.

And it got me to thinking about all the ways we’re cut off in this world.

Need cuts us off.  The Presiding Bishops of the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches, Bishop Michael Curry and our own Bishop Eaton, have called Lutherans and Episcopalians to fast on the 21st of each month starting this month…and does anyone know what day today is?  Great job planning a church picnic on this day…

But the day of fasting is intended to bring awareness to the greater world, and to our own bodies, about the reality of hunger in this world because by the 21st of each month most SNAP benefits in most families using them have been used up, making the last week of the month the hardest week of the month for low income families.

Hunger affects children first in this world, leaving them orphaned.  And, I think this is true: my belly has never known real hunger, which has left me orphaned to the real pain of my brothers and sisters.  If I only feel compassion for them but not concern for the systems set up to keep the hungry starving, I’m really only being sentimental and not being loving.

This world can make us feel cut off, orphaned. I see it happening all over the place, to children and adults, as loneliness is rampant in a world where we always feel totally connected.  I mean, think on that: we are the most globally connected we have ever been in the history of humankind, and yet so many of us feel all alone in this life, orphaned from others and even from ourselves.  Our kids feel it.  The fascination with this new Netflix series _13 Reasons Why_, which I admittedly have not seen, that focuses on a teen’s suicide should be an indicator to us adults that children are certainly still a very vulnerable population in this world, often feeling orphaned in ways we don’t realize.

And, to be honest, sometimes that doesn’t leave you.  Some of us adults still feel that way often, alone and disconnected in this world, as the death of singer Chris Cornell this last week hammers home.

Religion can do it, too, though.  As the Reverend William Sloane Coffin rightly says, “Too many religious people make faith their aim.  They think ‘the greatest of these ‘ is faith, and faith defined as all but infallible doctrine.  These are the dogmatic, divisive Christians, more concerned with freezing the doctrine than warming the heart.  If faith can be exclusive, love can only be inclusive.”

Such faith led to the killing of Mennonites in the 16th Century.  Such faith leads to the abuse of Christians today in many countries not friendly to Christians.  Such faith leads to the abuse of many Muslims and minorities today in this country.

You know, in this cohort I’m meeting with 14 other pastors from across the state.  One of them is the pastor of Raleigh Mennonite in the Mordecai neighborhood here, and about halfway through the conference she brought up the fact that it was only 10 years ago that the Lutheran Church apologized the Mennonites for abusing and massacring them in the 16th Century.  And it occurred to me that, 500 years ago, we would have never sat at the same table…and would be worse for it.

There are so many ways we’re cut off in this world, so many ways to orphan others and to be orphaned.

You know, in this gospel lesson when Jesus encourages the disciples to “follow his commandments” and the Holy Spirit will come upon them, he’s not talking about the 10 Commandments, or a list of behavioral moralisms, or anything like that.  You need only look one chapter previous in the Bible to see his reference point.  Because just a few verses previous to this one he tells his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

The follower of Christ, then, is the one who loves.  And love has this wonderful way of never leaving anyone orphaned in the world because it compels you to be with them and for them.  Which is why God has sent us the Spirit, and why the Spirit sends us out in love.

Because our obsession over anything: money, religion, criticism, depression, being right, being in control…well…to quote that good reverend again, “(Obsession) is blinding.  Love, by contrast, is visionary.”

Visionary: because it sees those the world overlooks and advocates on their behalf.

Visionary: because it sees in you what God sees in you…even when you can’t see it, and you are worth loving, by God.

Visionary: because though religion has been used to hurt it has, at its core, the potential to heal, too.  The word “religion” literally broken down, “re-ligio” where we get the word “ligament” which connects our bodies and keeps us together, religion can indeed reconnect us to God and to one another and to ourselves when the Divine love of God comes through.

Visionary: because although the world cannot see Jesus, as this Gospel lesson says, we can.  We have the vision for Jesus in the stranger, in the abused, in the outcast, in the corporate fat cat, in the one contemplating suicide, in the bread and wine.  We see Jesus in every place where love can be found, infused, encouraged, enlivened in the Spirit.

God in Christ has given us a vision for love in a world full of systems who cannot see and are intent at cutting people off, Beloved.  What will you do with that vision?

 

 

On Figuring Out What the Holiest Thing Is and Not Letting it Get Stolen

<Want to listen along? Click here. Listening is better than reading when it comes to sermons. It’s like the difference between hearing a piece music and reading a piece music>

John 10:1-10

images

This, literally, was the CD that was stolen.

[Jesus said:] 1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

On Figuring Out What the Holiest Thing is and Not Letting It Get Stolen

Gracious One,

You are the good shepherd

And we are grateful, because so often

We are poor shepherds

And even poorer sheep

Listening to a number of voices

In a world of voices.

Bring our attention to you today

That we might know your voice

As you know ours.

Amen.

So, living in Chicago for twelve years, you get used to some things, many of which are good: public transportation, eating Thai food after 11pm, and in Rhonda’s first apartment we could open the windows and hear the cheer of the Cubs game even before it came through the TV screen.

Those are things we enjoyed getting used to.

But some of the things you got used to were not so good: 11% taxes on items bought in the city, paying 10$ an hour to park downtown, and, of course, having your car broken into.

Oh yes, all Chicagoans have their cars broken into.  It’s a right of passage.

My first year living in the city, I was teaching middle school in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, and overnight my car was broken into, window smashed, glass everywhere.  They rifled through the floor boards, the glove compartment, and this was back in the day where tape decks were standard in cars, and so I had a portable CD player that plugged into my tape deck, remember those things?

And so, of course my CD player took flight, and for a teacher only making 12K a year, that was a rough reality.  But while they took my CD player, I found the CD laying on the passenger seat.  Which means the burglar looked at the CD player, opened it, spied my taste in music, and decided it wasn’t worth stealing…

And, to be honest, I was a little embarrassed that they thought so poorly of my taste in music.  When you’re filling out the report and the officer said, “What’s missing?” and you mention your CD player and they say, “And the CD’s” and you’re like, “No…they left those…” and the officer smirks, well…

That was the first time my car was broken into. It would happen three more times in Chicago.  Until we learned the ultimate trick, of course, to keep your car from being broken into.

What do you hold to be most valuable?

This is a question at the heart of many discussions going on in many arenas today, including the public arena of our shared governance. How do our policies and laws give voice to our common values?

What do we hold to be most valuable?  What is holy to you?

If we can get personal for a moment, judging by the way we act sometimes, you’d think we hold our mistakes and our faults and our flaws and those guilty regrets that we have in the timeline of our past to be the most valuable things in our lives.

Think on it, how we nurture the memory of our mistakes and our flaws or our various shames.  We tend them like shepherds tend their flocks, looking after their every need to be acknowledged again and again.  We invite our mistakes and our shame, often things we should feel no shame about, to lie down in the green pastures of our thoughts, there to graze peacefully at 4am.  We bring them to the cool waters of obsession, giving them life-giving sources of power to continue long past their expiration date.

We spread the table of our consciousness before them, even in the presence of those things that could probably kill them if we let it: like forgiveness that we don’t truly believe works, or forgetfulness that we secretly don’t want to take place because, well, if we forget our bad memories, what will we use to beat ourselves up with again when we get too happy?

The spiritual sickness of overblown pride is not balanced with self-hating guilt, Beloved.

The bald and beautiful New Mexican monastic, Richard Rohr says that sometimes we must “forgive reality for being what it is.”  We have a hard time doing that, keeping the reality of our mistakes behind the locked doors of our hearts, never letting them escape into the wide expanse of love and forgiveness that Christ, the Good Shepherd, offers us.

Instead we nurture them, guarding them through the valley of the shadow of death when really we should just let them die, by God.

You know, one of the dangers of not forgiving ourselves is that it prevents us from truly forgiving others.  If we cannot forgive our biggest faults, how are we to forgive the faults of others?  Theologian and author Karen Armstrong provocatively posits in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life that when we fail to accept the forgiveness of God and fail to forgive ourselves, we will also fail to forgive others, compounding sin upon sin.  She writes, “If we are unable to accept our shadow (those realities about ourselves that we’d rather weren’t true), we are likely to hold a harsh view of the (more difficult) side of others.”

And I find this to be largely true.  People who are unduly hard on themselves are often unduly hard on others.

What do you hold most valuable, anyway?  What is holy to you?

I’ve told the story before of finding my grandmother’s checkbook after she died, going through it and seeing an accounting of her morals. Our checkbooks truly are moral documents. She was not perfect by any means. Let’s just say, I would not have wanted to be her pastor…she rarely had a good thing to say about any of them (except my father).  But she certainly put her pocketbook where her values were, giving to her church, her charities, her families first.

Sometimes we hold things as being the most valuable, and so we collect our things in our homes, our attics, our basements, our bellies, and yes, our cars, storing them up, secretly believing that perhaps this is what Jesus means when he says that he gives us “abundant life.”

Abundance of things.

But, as the poet Wendell Berry rightly notes, “Abundance (when it comes to the Gospel of John) cannot refer to material possessions, because life itself does not require material abundance, but rather material sufficiency…life itself, membership in the material world, is already an abundance.”

When Jesus says, “I have come to bring life abundant,” he can’t mean more stuff, he must mean more of life itself. Truly living.

And that is one of the things we see most clearly post-Easter: God believes life is the holiest thing: us. You. Me. Humanity. Health. Truly living.

This section of John has Jesus calling himself two large metaphors, both the Shepherd and the Gate through which the sheep enter the fold.  In reality, it’s just one metaphor because in the ancient herding practices of shepherds, they’d often lie down between the fence posts of the pen, literally becoming the gate for the sheep.

I have to think Jesus’ hearers understood that.

Which means that in lying there the shepherd also became the first line of defense against the thieves and animals that would be prone to steal and harm the sheep, giving himself for the life of the sheep if need be.  After all, if the lion eats the shepherd, it’ll be full and won’t eat the sheep.

I mean, look, the reality is that God in Jesus has proclaimed you and me the thing that God cares the most about. Not our right dogma; not our correct doctrine.  Not even our correct behavior, if you believe the scriptures.  Think about it: nobody on that fateful holy weekend behaved with dignity. Everyone ran away, everyone scattered like…well…like sheep without a shepherd, even as Jesus, the Good Shepherd, was hung on the rod and the staff of the cross.

And in that we are invited to take some comfort, by God.

If you can’t figure out what the holiest thing is to God, look at Easter.

Because the Good Shepherd, the gate, won’t let death and sin, our mistakes or our failures, or any material thing have the final say in our life.  We hear the voice of our Shepherd call alleluia from the tomb we threw him in, and even from our tombs, and we’re invited to know that voice, hear it, and follow out through that gate into new life.

So why, Beloved, do we treat our mistakes and our failures as the holiest things around, refusing them the right to die even as they keep us in the tombs of guilt and regret, when God in Christ treats us as the holiest thing around inviting us into a new life unencumbered by those failings?  Likewise, why do we treat material things as more important than life?

Look here: God has prepared a table before you in the presence of our mistakes and failings, and even in the presence of our accumulating material possessions, those enemies that try to steal away our lives and our attention, inviting us to eat and drink from a cup the overflows with mercy and hope and abundant life.  Surely goodness and mercy follow us from this table, so leave all that other stuff behind here.

All of that, like terrible soundtracks that replay over and over about things that we feel hurt or shame or regret over, they play and it sometimes feels like they can’t go away and we’re embarrassed.  Like the voices of thieves and bandits, they come before God in our hearts and minds, calling us to pay attention to them rather than to the voice of our Good Shepherd who repeats over and over again, “I love you. You are mine. I love you. You are mine. I’ll go to hell and back for you that you might live without that soundtrack…”

I mean, if you want to talk about the practical reality of Easter, it is that these voices no longer define us in the face of a God who will go through hell and back to be with us.

We must be worth it, even with all that baggage, or else why would God go to such lengths?  So we’re invited in light of Easter to unlock that door, to unbar that gate, to roll the stone away from wherever we’re holding that stuff, and let it be stolen away by the God who, like a Good Shepherd, like a good gate, calls to us and protects us from it and gets rid of it like the thief and the foe it is to our lives.

Because to God, we are the holiest thing, and God will do anything, even die, to make sure we’re never stolen away. Life itself is already an abundance.

Hey, you know how you prevent your car from getting broken into?

You leave the doors unlocked and just let it all go.  It’s not holy, anyway.

 

Sentimentality Chokes the Truth

02362_shepherdinromania_1024x1024I have a love-hate relationship with the image of “shepherd” when referring to God and/or Jesus.

Christians, myself included, love to do it.  But I kind of hate that we do it because, well, we often do it for the wrong reasons.  We often do it out of a sentimental idea of what a shepherd is, was, or does.

I’m meditating on the shepherd image this week because this coming Sunday is both Good Shepherd Sunday (where we’ll hear John 10:1-10 as well as Psalm 23), and also the Sunday when we’ll meet and vote on a new candidate to be one of our shepherds here at GSLC.

Uhm, it would do you good to read at least John 10:1-10 before continuing, ok?  Good. Onward.

On the one hand, we love to throw this image around liberally, honoring the fact that the image of God/Jesus as shepherd is very comforting and used through at least eight books in the New Testament, not to mention a number of places in the Hebrew Scriptures.

On the other hand, we have to wrestle with the fact that in the ancient, first-century world of Judaism and early Christianity, shepherds had become part of the category of people that you couldn’t associate with and be considered “clean.”  A shepherd’s testimony wouldn’t hold water in court (and neither would a woman’s testimony). They were seen as unreliable.  And while the Hebrew writings did analogize a good king to being a good shepherd, it did so mostly as an appeal to an idyllic past that never really existed.  In short: they did it out of sentimentality, not esteem.

The shepherd, in that first century, was suspect. Scandalous.

[As a bit of an aside: It’s a wonder, then, that in the Gospel of Luke the shepherds are the first to hear of Jesus birth and “tell everyone,” even though their testimony wouldn’t hold up in court. And, likewise, it is women who first witness the resurrection and go and tell everyone, even though their testimony wouldn’t hold up in court. It’s almost as if Luke is telling you that the kind of scandalous people Jesus would associate with is the kind of scandalous person you should get used to both trusting and becoming!]

The idea of God, and particularly Jesus, as the Good Shepherd is, like all good metaphors, beautifully broken.  Yes, it can be comforting, but it should also be a bit scandalous.

This one you follow will keep you safe, but may not always take you places where you feel safe.

Early Christians used the 23rd Psalm as a model for the Christian life: you grazed on the green pages of the scriptures, were dunked in the cool waters of baptism, and anointed with healing oil.  You had a meal spread before you in the presence of everyone, including your enemies, and your cup ran over: obvious Eucharistic imagery for the early church. This was all catechism and discipleship imagery for the first Christians.

And, of course, you walked through the valley of the shadow of death, where the Shepherd’s rod and staff (perhaps the two pieces of wood that form a cross?), reassure you that you will be OK.

While that sounds comforting, it doesn’t sound like it’s entirely comfortable. And that’s the point.  The Christian life is not about being comfortable, it’s about going where the Shepherd leads.

In John 10:1-10 we have Jesus assuming a two-fold image, as both the shepherd and the gate through which the sheep enter the pasture.  It’s only really two-fold until you understand that the ancient, untrustworthy, unreliable-in-the-eyes-of-the-world shepherd would sleep in the gap between the fence posts at night, thereby becoming the gate not primarily to keep the sheep in (though there is that), but primarily to keep the thief out.

The shepherd as gate will even, if need be, become food for the hungry lion-thief.  The sheep are primarily safe because the shepherd will be with them, care for them, and die for them.  We miss this if we only think of Jesus as the gentle one who tenderly watches out for us.

Jesus is also the scandalous one who eats with the sinner, forgives us because we don’t know what we do, and gives of his life for us who so often listen to other siren voices.

The Good Shepherd is not about sentimentality. Sentimentality chokes the truth, the deeper truth that God/Jesus as shepherd is less about comfort and more about self-giving love.

If we see the Good Shepherd as some sort of strongman who, by their rightness of thought and correctness of doctrine, lead the sheep into the security and comfort of being the righteous ones “all the days of their lives,” we miss the bigger point.

The Good Shepherd is the one who, by their rightly-focused attention on the others, by their self-giving love and correctness of spirit, lead the sheep into those communal places where they can learn to be more like the shepherd, giving of their lives for the sake of the world, dwelling in that spirit, that “house of the Lord, forever.”

The Good Shepherd leads the sheep from the living death of “being comfortable” to the death-defying life of faith.  In the court of the world, the idea of giving of yourself for others doesn’t really hold water, at least not in the win-consume-achieve culture we’ve created for ourselves.  Sure, we sentimentalize it some with philanthropy awards, but if we’re really honest, we look after ourselves and our own first and foremost, and we kind of secretly want the good shepherd to protect that world.

And yet, that’s not where the shepherd is leading us.

The shepherd leads us to look past ourselves, across the cool-water river of baptism, into the valley of shadows.  And so we go there, following the Shepherd’s lead, knowing that, even if we end up losing our lives on this journey of giving of ourselves for the sake of others, the rod and the staff of the cross will never let death have the final say.

So, fellow flock-ers at Good Shepherd, how are we going to give of ourselves for the sake of Raleigh for the balance of 2017?  How are you, personally, going to give of yourself to ensure that we can support our orphans in Africa, call and welcome a new pastor to serve in our midst, and continue to feed the bodies and souls of those we see around us?

Church is not a place for sentimentality.  If we have too much of it, we miss the point of having a Good Shepherd at all.

See you in church.

Nothing Was Ever So Great

<Listen along by clicking here, and then you can experience the Jackson 5 in stereo sound>

Matthew 28:1-10

its-a-slideshow-about-nothing-1-638After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Nothing Was Ever So Great

I, for one, am glad that giraffe was born. Now we can all get back to life.  If it hadn’t been born, none of you would be here, we’d all still be glued to our phones. Can you imagine what the history books will say about this period?  “And then, during the months of March and April, nothing happened as everyone waited for the giraffe to be born…”

I may not be old, but I am also not-so-young anymore.  For instance, I’m old enough to remember when the show Seinfeld wasn’t in reruns.  I tuned in every Thursday night with my father and brothers to watch that show; it was our little family religion.  My mother opted not to watch, claiming the show made her (and us) dumber.

She may have been right.  After all it was a self-proclaimed “show about nothing.”

But, I would contend in Seinfeld’s defense, that nothing has its merits.

In fact, I would contend that Easter is actually “all about nothing,” a commonality that I perhaps share with my atheist friends, though for different reasons.

Here’s the thing: the great miracle about Easter is the nothingness that was found at the tomb that morning.  The emptiness. The vacuousness of it all.

If we’re quite honest with ourselves, we don’t really like this Easter story, at least not on the face of it. We don’t like it because it makes absolutely no sense.  The logical sequence that our minds enjoy operating under is thrown off with this story because, here’s how it is supposed to go.

“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And there they found Jesus’ body just as it had been left there three days ago.”

We live in a world of logical sequence.  We make meaning out of everything, and point A must lead to point B.  In fact, we sing about this, you sing about this.  I know you do.  I know you do because you cannot hear the songs of St. Michael, St. Jermain, St. Jackie, St. Tito, and St. Marlon without singing it.

Oh, Beloved, it wouldn’t be an Easter sermon if we didn’t do some singing, and you know this one…because we take great joy in singing,

A B C

Easy as

1 2 3

Simple as

Do re me

A B C

1 2 3

Baby you and me girl…

This is how our lives operate: logically, in order, A leads to B leads to C.   I like to be able to count on a few things in life: The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Warm coffee will cure most any bad mood. And dead people stay dead.

We lead logical lives.  Logic makes sense. Logic is wisdom.

At least, that’s what we’d like to believe.  But it’s just not true with God.  For as much as we pretend our lives are logical, this weird and strange, illogical phenomenon has entered each of our lives in one way or another, and disrupts the whole thing: love. And if the apostle is right, God is love embodied.

Love defies logic.  Love defies straight lines and the rules of physics.  And love, Beloved, is what led that tomb to lay empty that early morning.  God loves us so much, God won’t stay out of our lives, even when we try to bury God.

Love does not belong to the phylum of logic, but rather to the phylum of “alternative wisdom”…which is not like “alternative facts.”

Alternative wisdom is the wisdom that defies logic, bends the conventional, and speaks a truth deeper than A leads to B leads to C.  Alternative wisdom is the wisdom that flows from the places of our lives that have been emptied by life: the battle with cancer, the empty side of the bed after a loved one has gone, the empty syringe that used to fill with drugs but which you don’t need anymore, the cracks in a heart broken open again and again so that it is now nimble and still beating and not that rigid stone it used to be.

Alternative wisdom that comes from thinking you’re going to die, and you find yourself still breathing.  And it’s a wisdom that, hidden deep in its, promise, assures that even in death there is more to come.  If Jesus’ tomb is empty, then so is yours, Beloved.

Alternative wisdom is that wisdom that flows out of a deep truth that dares to suggest in a world addicted to violence and mind-bogglingly big bombs and terrorist attacks and school shootings that in-spite-of-it all, life cannot be stopped by death.

It is a wisdom that stumbles upon the nothingness of the empty tomb and takes great joy because if even death does not have the final say than, indeed, we have nothing to fear in life.

Jesus embodies such wisdom, and we who gather around the story week after week here at Good Shepherd long to embody it, too, and sometimes do when we’re at our best.  When we’re at our worst, well, then we just need to hear it again and again because this love has a history of turning lives around, emptying graves, and even doing that rare miracle of turning the cynical heart into a hopeful one.

The church has often messed this story up.  We’ve often passed God off as this angry loan-shark who has loaned us life and we better do something good and pay back the times we mess up because, well, it’s all on loan.  The church has often peddled the idea that our sin and God’s mercy come in equal parts.  That is: our badness is only balanced by God’s mercy.

But that’s not the story of Easter, friends.  If Easter tells us anything it is that God has infinitely more mercy than we have sin, and so when we show up at the tombs of our mistakes and our griefs like these poor disciples showing up at Jesus’ tomb probably sad and regretful that they stood by and watched him die, afraid those mistakes will define us in the end, that we’re messed up for good, that we’ll only be known by the worst parts of us, we find that God has already moved on with a love that cannot be stopped, dragging us away from that tomb along with him because he loves us too much to let us stay dead.

Let me say it another way: when you visit those tombs of your lives, the mistakes that you can’t let go of, the hurts and pains and scars others have left on you that don’t lead to wisdom but only lead to fear, Easter is here to tell you that God is in the business of dragging you away from that place, resurrecting you along with Jesus because those things won’t define you in this life.

Part of the reason we’ve lost the alternative wisdom of love is because we’re so full of the residue that comes from our insanely logical living that there’s no room left for love.  The residue that has filled our lives with cynicism and busyness and anger and hurt and resentment.

All of those things bind us, Beloved, like burial clothes, and keep us dead.

But if St. Irenaeus is correct, and “the glory of God is a human being fully alive,” then Easter indeed invites us into a different way of being and living and moving in the world.  A way that gives testimony to what that pervasive peddler of alternative wisdom William Sloane Coffin says, “powerless love winning over loveless power.”

So, what story does your life give testimony to?

One of the best peddlers of alternative wisdom are children.  And I don’t mean that in any romantic or sentimentalized way.  Trust me, as a Dad, I know that children are as much pain as they are pleasant.  But if you wonder why I’m so open to having them serve up here in worship it is because they teach me, us, about God and God’s wisdom all the time.

For instance, my son Finn, who is 4, on Good Friday as he was going down for a nap said to my wife Rhonda, “Mommy, I’m going to talk to God for a bit.”  To which she said, “Ok…” and then he followed up with, “But you can’t see God because God is camouflaged.”

And indeed God is, in that moment camouflaged as a sleep 4 year old boy, spouting alternative wisdom in the face of a world that claims that the only real thing is the thing you can touch, taste, see, hear, and feel.  But in that moment he spoke to something that can’t be sensed in that way, something that can’t be held as much as it holds you; something that can’t be seen as much as you know that you are deeply and truly seen; something that can only be tasted in bread and wine; something that can only be heard with the ears of the heart.

Something that points to the nothingness of an empty tomb and says, “That is good news for you and me!  God is camouflaged in this nothingness found here!”

Good news because it means that God’s love cannot be killed, and because of that we are free to truly live.

In your bulletins you’ll find at the end a poem by Mary Oliver, it’s the last part of her poem “When Death Comes,” and today I’m going to encourage all of us to choose St. Irenaeus over the Jackson 5 and embrace an alternative wisdom that encourages to truly live in a world addicted to tombs being filled.

Today, we are Easter people, brothers and sisters addicted to the love of a God who encourages us to be married to amazement, to take the world into our arms, not visiting life like a scared tourist, but living because God in Christ lives and nothing was found in that tomb.

Because, on Easter, nothing was ever so great.