“When Heaven and Earth are Joined”

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Third Sunday of Easter + April 15, 2018

Reading: Luke 24:36b-48


Our culture shares a lot of stories of people coming back to us from the dead in one form or another; maybe they are born out of our longing to feel a connection with the people we miss. Many of the most common stories tell of someone coming back in a spiritual, non-physical form: the voice of a loved one speaks through a medium; see-through spirits remain in the places that were important to them. In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi continues to appear after his death in a bluish ghost-like form, giving Luke Skywalker guidance. In all these “spiritual return” stories, a person’s body is gone, but they are still able to reach the land of the living in non-physical ways.

Other stories of the dead returning are more physical. Stories of zombies or vampires seem to tell us of people whose bodies have remained, but whose spirits or identities have gone. In Game of Thrones many characters come back from the dead, bodies and all: some are changed or empty (or ice zombies); but others are raised to be essentially the same person they were before their death. The land of the living gets them back again.

The Bible actually contains a lot of stories of people coming back from the dead; Jesus is not entirely unique in that regard. Lazarus might be the most famous of the people who came back: Jesus raised him from the dead after Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days, and even though the people warned him — in the elegant language of the King James Bible — “Lord, by this time he stinketh.” (John 11). Jesus also raised a couple of other people that we know about: a widow’s son (Luke 7:11-17) and the daughter of a synagogue leader (Matt. 9:18-26). In the Old Testament, both the prophet Elijah and his protégé, Elisha, raised children from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32-37), and King Saul used a medium to talk to the dead prophet Samuel (1 Sam. 28). My favorite of these biblical stories is when St. Paul preached and preached late into the night, and a young man sitting in the window fell asleep “while Paul talked still longer,” and the young man fell out the window, down three stories, and died. Paul went downstairs, raised the young man back to life, said to the people, “don’t be alarmed,” and then went on preaching (Acts 20:7-12).

The story of Jesus’s resurrection doesn’t really fit into any of these models, though. We can divide these other stories, mostly, into either “spiritual returns” or “physical returns.” Jesus’s resurrection messes up that boundary. In today’s gospel reading, the disciples are gathered together in a room when suddenly Jesus appears among them. And in the story that came right before this one, the resurrected Christ sat at a table with a couple of other disciples before suddenly “he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:28-32). That’s behavior we usually associate spirit-types. And yet in today’s reading we also hear how Jesus ate a piece of fish — something the resurrected Christ also does in other stories (John 21:9-14) — and something that requires a working, physical body.

I don’t know about you all, but that is hard for me to wrap my brain around. Was Jesus’s resurrection physical — did his body return to life? Yes — he even told his disciples to touch the wounds left by his crucifixion. Could Jesus appear and disappear at will, whether or not walls were in the way? Apparently, yes to that, too. How can all those things be true at once?

I decided to check in with the commentary we’ve been reading in our Monday Night Bible Study group. In that book the biblical scholar N. T. Wright suggested that Christ’s resurrected body, which is physical enough to digest fish and yet not entirely bound by the normal rules of a physical body…that resurrected body was at home “in both the dimensions of God’s world, in both heaven and earth. […] If our mental pictures of ‘heaven’ need adjusting to allow for this startling possibility, so be it.”[1]

Christ’s resurrected body was one more, even bigger way that God showed us that in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, heaven and earth came together. That resurrected body was both totally earthly and totally miraculous, revealing to us the nature of Christ. God’s perfect realm and the broken worldly realm, the eternal and the mortal, the divine and human — these things were united in Christ so that we, too, might be restored to unity with God. As the ancient Easter Proclamation says of Christ’s resurrection day: “This is the night when heaven and earth are joined, things human and things divine.”[2]

People experienced this unity of the divine and the human in Jesus’s life too: they saw this man, dusty from travel, bitten by bugs, hungry like they were, and maybe even he stanketh sometimes too…they saw him heal people and multiply food. In his teachings they heard the clarity of God’s truth. Through his anger at those who mistreated others, they glimpsed God’s justice; through his compassion and forgiveness they felt God’s love and grace. In Jesus they saw God at work.

Jesus’s arrest and humiliation and crucifixion must have called all of this into question. Suffering usually makes us question whether God is on someone’s side, or whether God is there, or whether God is real. The disciples must have questioned if they’d had it all wrong, if they’d been foolish to think that God was there with and in that carpenter’s son from Nazareth. The first thing the resurrected Christ does when he sees them is explain, from the scriptures: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.” Of course God had not abandoned Jesus: God had shown over and over, throughout the history of Israel, that God is able to work through the horrible things humans do to one another, that God can bring new meaning and new life out of suffering and even death. Yet this can be so hard to believe — for the disciples, and for us.

When God resurrected Jesus, God showed once and for all that Jesus was sent by God, was God’s messiah, was God’s Son, was even — as Christians soon came to confess — God made flesh, fully divine and fully human. And the resurrection was a sign that Jesus’s work was not done; death had not stopped it. He rose to pass his mission on to his disciples. He not only explained to them that he was the messiah; he also taught them “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.” Now the Church was to be Christ’s Body, the people through whom God would continue to touch the earth.

Christians today — we — are still baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and into his mission; we are baptized into the divine-human connection. This morning we welcomed Zack, Keala, Kaydence, Rylan, and Luke “into the Body of Christ and into the mission we share.” With them we remembered that, we too, inherited the purpose Jesus passed on to those first disciples: “to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace.”[3]

The work we do as part of this mission may not be as out-of-this-world as a resurrected body that can both eat fish and disappear. But we do seek to practice repentance and forgiveness; we fill fuel bags to help the hungry children in our community; we support one another in our troubles; we help with Habitat for Humanity builds and make quilts to be distributed around the world; we share our faith with our children and our neighbors. In all these ways that God works through us, the divine continues to touch the earth, just as it did in Jesus Christ. Amen.


[1] N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), pp. 300.

[2] From Thomas Pavlechko’s transcription of the “Easter Proclamation: Exsultet.”

[3] From the liturgy for Holy Baptism in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006) pp. 227-231.

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The End is Only the Beginning

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + The Resurrection of Our Lord + April 1, 2018

Reading: Mark 16:1-8


The end is only the beginning.[1]

Because otherwise, this is a really unsettling ending to the gospel reading on Easter morning, right? These faithful women heard the news — “[Jesus] has been raised!” — “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” In the earliest copies we have of the Gospel of Mark, which was the first gospel written down, that’s it. The end.

But the end is only the beginning.

And maybe that’s part of why the women were so afraid that they “said nothing to anyone.” I mean, granted, I’m sure the main reasons for their reaction had to do with the sheer and otherworldly unexpectedness of what they found at the tomb. The Gospel of Mark tell us that these same three women — Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome — witnessed Jesus’s crucifixion (Mark 15:40-41). And now they came to his tomb, ready to care for his dead body. That’s the kind of terrible scene they prepared themselves for. But instead, when they get to the tomb, they see that the huge stone has been rolled away already. And what would your first thought be in that situation? They had just seen Jesus arrested by the authorities, the riots at his trial, his public torture and humiliation, and finally his gruesome execution, and now all of his followers were in hiding — so maybe they saw that stone rolled away and could only think in panic: “What are they doing to him now?”

And then they entered the tomb and saw a stranger sitting where Jesus’s body should have been. And he told them that something supernatural had happened: Jesus had been raised from the dead. The man that they had watched die on a cross — they would see him again, alive. And maybe that supernatural message was way too much to take in from a strange man sitting in their dead friend’s grave. It makes total sense to me that they would just go blank with “terror and amazement;” or jump to the conclusion that this stranger was lying to them and yet another horrible thing was being done to them, to Jesus and his followers and his legacy; or that they wouldn’t think at all, just start running as their whole world turned chaotic for the second time in a week.

But even after that initial burst of terror and confusion had settled, there were more questions to deal with. If Jesus had been raised from the dead, how would that affect their lives? Maybe that was a reason to be afraid, too…or at least intimidated.

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Bob Quinn, “The Empty Tomb.” Bronze. See more images here.

These three women — like the twelve disciples, like many others — had been following Jesus from Galilee and helping to support his ministry (again, Mark 15:40-41). They had followed him all the way to Jerusalem, about 100 miles. They followed him while he healed people and cast out demons — Mary Magdalene was one of those he freed from demons (Mark 16:9); they followed him while he fed thousands with a just a few loaves of bread and some fish; they followed him while he clarified the ancient laws and taught about God’s love; they followed him while he rioted in the Temple and challenged the authorities; they followed him all the way to the cross. Witnessing his life on earth, they had felt God’s pull to follow Jesus, to support him, to be part of his mission — even though it demanded everything from them; even though it got dangerous.

Jesus’s life had changed their lives — not just a little, but totally. Jesus had changed their priorities, their plans, their relationships. Everything had been transformed by that pull towards the life of Jesus.

And maybe when he died, they felt like their transformation might die, too. In the last day, while Jesus’s body laid in the tomb, had they thought about what they would do next? Maybe they felt like everything Jesus meant had been extinguished. Maybe they were thinking about admitting defeat and returning to their old lives.

But now — a resurrection. Jesus had been given new life. And if Jesus’s “regular” life had pulled them into a new way of being, had so fully transformed them — what would Jesus’s resurrected life demand of them? These women suddenly found themselves called, pulled into something bigger and more life-changing than they could have expected– and maybe that was terrifying at first. Because now this was about more than a prophet, a healer, a wise man of God; this was about even more than another revolutionary — this was about something completely new, something no one could expect, something that reconfigured history and opened up a future no one could imagine. Now this was about death and resurrection: the death of the way things always had been, of all mortal dealings and plans, and the resurrection of God’s future.

The end is only the beginning. The old ways must die, because everything is being made new.

Christians hold that the resurrection of Jesus was a cosmological change. Jesus was the first to be raised to new life, and his resurrection ignited the transformation of the whole world: one day we will all be raised, all of creation will be raised to new life, fully redeemed from the evil ways of the world, “set free from bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:21), made whole in God’s future. In the resurrection of Jesus, the transformation has only just begun.

God’s work is as big as the world, as all of history and all the future days: but often it is through our everyday actions that God works the transforming power of the resurrection.

God started with those three women at the tomb: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. We know that they did eventually tell the other followers of Jesus what they saw and heard at the tomb. And those followers — the Church — took on the resurrected life of Christ. They healed people; they freed people from guilt and demons; they fed the hungry; they clarified Jesus’s teachings; they preached about God’s love; they challenged the authorities and the status quo when they were out of line with God’s will. God pulled them — even with all their imperfections — into the work of transformation; God called them to die to the ways of the world and to rise into the resurrected life of Christ, into God’s future.

God continues transforming the world through each person that feels the pull of Christ’s resurrected life.

In 1960 Lucille Bridges convinced her husband, Abon, that they should let their six-year-old daughter help integrate the New Orleans school system. And so Ruby Bridges became the first African-American student to attend William Frantz Elementary. On that first day the other parents boycotted, rushing into the school to take their children home when Ruby entered. All the teachers refused to teach at a school where a black child was enrolled — all the teachers except Barbara Henry, who taught Ruby one-on-one.

On the second day of Ruby’s enrollment, one parent broke the boycott: Methodist minister Lloyd Anderson Foreman marched his five-year-old daughter, Pam, through a crowd of angry protesters to get her to school. Slowly other parents sent their children back to school, although Mrs. Henry continued to teach Ruby alone for over a year.

Four federal marshals escorted Ruby to school every day, through the crowds of people wanting to put a stop to integration. Some of them threw things at Ruby; some threatened her; one woman threatened to poison her every day, and so Ruby was only allowed to eat food she had brought from home. Yet Ruby seemed undaunted, and even somehow remained cheerful.[2]

Ruby Bridges

Federal marshals escorting Ruby Bridges from school, 1960. Via Wiki Gallery.

Her attitude drew the attention of psychiatrist Robert Coles, and he began to meet with her to try and figure out how a young child could remain so strong while crowds of adults yelled and threatened her every day, while she was ostracized to a separate classroom, even a separate teacher. Mrs. Henry told Dr. Coles that she saw Ruby moving her lips while she came to school every day. So Dr. Coles asked Ruby, “Who were you talking to?”

Ruby answered, “I was talking to God and praying for the people in the street. […] I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they need praying for?”

“Where did you learn that?” Dr. Coles asked her.

“From my mommy and daddy and from the minister at church. I pray every morning and every afternoon when I go home.”[3]

In this one story there are so many people answering God’s resurrection call. Ruby’s parents deciding to send her to integrate this school; and, along with their minister, teaching her to pray even for her enemies. Barbara Henry, choosing to separate herself from the other teachers’ boycott even though she was new in town, and facing danger and ridicule in order to teach Ruby. Lloyd Anderson Foreman, who changed the tides just by sending his daughter to her school. The U.S. marshals who, in doing their duty, helped to usher in a new world. Robert Coles, who helped counsel Ruby and her family, and whose work provided insights that would help others facing conflict. And of course Ruby Bridges herself, who at six years old found herself thrust into a terrifying situation and faced it with courage and grace given by God.

All these people were thrust into a terrifying situation. The usual way of things in the South was dying, but many people were fighting to keep it alive. Still, God was working to transform things, to bring about resurrection and new life, a new way of things. And God called these and many other people to be a part of that transformation — and they answered that resurrection call.

The end is only the beginning. The old ways must die, because everything is being made new. Through the resurrection God pulls us into God’s future.

This morning we meet the strange messenger at the empty tomb. This morning we hear the good news: “Jesus has been raised!” This morning we stare into the empty tomb and wonder, “What does this mean for us? How does this change our lives?”

And maybe that question should shake us up, like the three women were shaken up two thousand years ago. Because the story of resurrection begins by reminding us that we must die to the way things are in this world: we must die to our personal sins and to the webs of sin the world traps us in; we must die to our apathy; we must die to our hopelessness and our fear; we must die to our prejudices and our greed and our selfishness and our idols. The world as we know it must die to its abuses of power and humans and all creation. These things must die, so that God can raise all creation — so that God can raise us — to radically new and unfamiliar life.

God is pulling us into God’s future. God is transforming our lives. God is renewing the world.

The end is only the beginning.

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!


[1] Taken from a section heading in Emerson B. Powery’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, ed. Brian K. Blount, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), Mark 16:1-8, pp. 151-152.

[2] “Ruby Bridges,” Wikipedia. Available online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruby_Bridges. Accessed April 1, 2018.

[3] Peter W. Marty, “When Ruby Birdges prayed for her enemies,” The Christian Century, March 24, 2017. Available online: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/when-ruby-bridges-prayed-her-enemies Accessed March 28, 2018.

A Lenten Journey to the Easter Vigil: God the Creator

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Lenten Midweek Service + February 21, 2018


The theme for our midweek services is “A Lenten Journey to the Easter Vigil”[1] — a great theme, since the essential purpose of Lent is to prepare for Easter. So on each of these Wednesday evenings we will gather to focus on one of the scripture readings we will hear at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday evening: readings that are all about how God has saved God’s people over and over again throughout history, until finally we get to hear the greatest story: the story of the resurrection of Jesus.

And I love the Easter Vigil worship service so much that I will definitely be using this as an opportunity to explain some things about it and to talk about how beautiful and awesome it is. Here we go.

At a Jewish Passover Seder, the youngest child sings a question over and over throughout the liturgy of the meal. Following the rules of tradition, she notices how this meal is different than the family’s usual meal: the rituals are different, the foods are different, and everything seems more important. Everything about this meal is special. So four times, the child asks, “Why is tonight different from all other nights?” And the older people teach the youngest generation the stories of their people and the saving works of God.[2]

The Easter Vigil might inspire us to ask the same question. It’s a worship service so different from our usual Sunday worship: we begin by gathering outside around a fire; we go through more rituals, and we add more Bible readings; there are more candles in the nave; and everything seems more special, more important. Attending the service for the first time, we might ask: Why all this extra-special stuff? Why a longer service? Why come to church on a Saturday night? “Why is tonight different from all other nights?”

The first song we hear together at the Vigil answers that question. That first song is called the Exsultet or the Easter Proclamation. Over and over again the Easter Proclamation sings “This is the night!”:

This is the night in which, in ancient times, you delivered our forebears, the children of Israel, and led them, dry-shod through the Sea.

This is the night in which the darkness of sin has been purged away by the rising brightness.

This is the night in which heaven and earth are joined, things human and things divine.

The Easter Vigil takes all of God’s saving works from all of history, and brings them into this moment, right here, right now. We gather in darkness, our nave bare of its usual ornaments after Maundy Thursday’s ritual of stripping the altar, and the somberness of Good Friday’s service hangs around as our last memory of worship here. We gather in darkness, carrying thoughts of whatever evil currently haunts the news headlines or our own lives. And together we celebrate the good news of Easter: this is the night when Christ was raised from the dead. And the idea of time fades to the background as we remember the work of our eternal God. This is the night when it’s all happening, everything God has ever done to save God’s people, all God continues to do for us. This is the night when God creates light in the darkness, hope out of hopelessness, life out of death. This is the night.

And then we hear those stories of what God has done. God holding up the waters of the Red Sea for Israel to escape. Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones being restored to life, a symbol of what God was about to do for Israel. But the first story we tell is The First Story: God creating the world.

Reading: Genesis 1:1-2:4a

This Creation story explains why we begin celebrating Easter on Saturday night. Some people — and some churches — think of the Easter Vigil as “keeping vigil,” like waiting by the tomb of Christ for him to rise in the morning. The church I went to in high school actually had people dress up as Roman centurions and stand outside the church in shifts from Good Friday evening till Easter Sunday morning. But that is not what we do in the Lutheran church; we celebrate a vigil, like, “Oh my gosh, Jesus is risen! This is so amazing we all have to get together and stay up all night partying!” And we can already say “Jesus is risen!” on Saturday night, we can say “this is the night” when it all happened, because of the Jewish way of keeping time. In the Jewish tradition, a new day begins at sundown. This is because of the Creation story we just read, which says over and over: “And there was evening and there was morning: the first day.” So according to the Jewish way of keeping time, each day begins with God bringing light out of darkness.

And that means that Jesus’s third day in the tomb began when the sun set on Saturday, and sometime before the women disciples discovered the empty tomb during the early hours of dawn on Sunday, sometime in those hours of darkness, God raised Jesus from the dead. Sometime during that night, God again created light out of darkness, hope out of hopelessness, life out of death. God acted, and that action was so grand and so cosmically meaningful that it can only be compared to Creation itself. Christ’s resurrection, we believe, is the beginning of God’s re-creation of the whole world.

So we begin our Easter readings with this Creation story because it is the first story of God doing what God does. Creating light. Creating life. Bringing order out of chaos. Making sense of things. Giving food and creating beauty and blessing us.

As we spend our time this Lent preparing for the Easter celebration, we might reflect on all the ways we still need God to be who God is. The Creator, who gives us light, who helps us make sense out of our lives, who brings newness and life. The Re-Creator, who restores relationships, who forgives sin and makes us new, who works to transform our world. Looking toward the Easter Vigil, we are reminded to claim all that God does in the Creation story for right now. This is the night. This is the moment. God is creating and recreating now, in our lives, in our world. Thanks be to God.


[1] From Sundays and Seasons, Year B 2018, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2017) pp. 100-101.

[2] This way of beginning to talk about the Easter Vigil, as well as the basis for much of my interpretation of the Vigil, come from Gail Ramshaw’s The Three Day Feast: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004), kindle edition.

A Glimpse of Glory

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church + The Transfiguration of Our Lord + February 11, 2018

Reading: Mark 9:2-9


A few years ago I helped lead a group of college students on a service trip to New Orleans. We stayed in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Even seven years after Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth bore obvious scars of the natural disaster: injured buildings; FEMA’s spray paint; abandoned houses, reminders of neighbors who left to shelter with family in other cities and never returned.

Our home for the week was the Lower Ninth Ward Village, a warehouse turned into a community center — or rather, turning into a community center. It was clear that a lot of work had gone into the place: walls were painted with bright murals; a garden grew in the backyard; one of the rooms had been converted into a computer lab for the neighborhood’s students. This place was an amazing refuge and beacon of hope for its community. But it was also clear that this was a work in progress: we kept discovering, as we cooked, that the kitchen was missing some basic equipment; one afternoon we saw a rat scurry across the kitchen floor, and we hurried to move ALL of our groceries behind the protective walls of the fridge.

On one of our first mornings, one of the young women described the huge bugs she’d seen in our sleeping room the night before. She said she had kept awake for a while, imagining all the kinds of bugs could be crawling around the floor, crawling up the legs of her cot, wondering if they could be dangerous. Finally, she said, she’d fallen asleep, reminding herself, in all seriousness: “God won’t let a bug kill me.”

I think I kept a straight face when she said that. But inside I was shocked. How can you say “God won’t let a bug kill me” while we are sleeping in a building that once had floodwater rising up over its windows? While all around us buildings are still marked with codes showing whether any deceased people had been found inside? While our neighbors for the week are people who were already poor, suffering from a continuing history of systemic racism and poverty, and then were hit by a disaster, and now are still struggling to recover while most of the rest of their city has gone back to normal?

Saying “God won’t let a bug kill me,” especially in that particular place, with the stories we’d been hearing…it sounded hollow and insensitive and, well, maybe a little ridiculous. But, this young woman was only doing something that we all sometimes do, something we are trained to do by a culture that does not want to face suffering or failure or grief or death. She was using her faith as a barrier against her fear of suffering. She was thinking of God as a powerful, protective figure that will make everything go her way, at least most of the time.

But that is not a promise God makes to us. That is not who God is. And there’s a big danger in that thinking: because — as many of you have already learned all too well — there will come a day when something really bad will happen, something that a god who makes things go our way would never let happen, and we will be left wondering if that god really exists. And if that is the only god we know, we will be left wondering if God really exists, or cares about us.

Today in worship we remember and celebrate the story of Christ’s Transfiguration. And I think this story can seem as unreal and disconnected from our experiences as that false god who only lets nice things happen. Jesus suddenly transforms, his clothes blindingly white, and he speaks with two of the greatest Jewish figures of all time, men who had walked the earth a thousand years before. God’s voice declares from the sky: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

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Transfiguration – Mosaic along the entryway to the Basilica of St. Peter, Vatican City. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition

So few human beings in all of history have ever had — or even claimed to have had — such a direct experience of God’s power and glory, such a clear communication from heaven. So we probably come away from this story thinking, “Wow! What an amazing sight that would have been to see!” or “That must really have confirmed for those three disciples that Jesus was the messiah.” Or, if we are feeling cynical or doubtful this morning, “Yeah right, like this one actually happened.” In any case: how do we apply this story to the complications and questions of our life? How does this bright, shining vision of Christ’s glory have connection to our experiences, especially if we’re facing life’s most humbling or devastating moments: illness, death, loss, disappointment?

Here’s the thing that helps me: the Transfiguration was weird and out-of-this-world for Jesus’s disciples too. That’s why Peter fumbled around as he tried to react in the midst of all his awe and fear of what he’d just witnessed. This story is an out-of-place blip of shiny glory in a life otherwise spent staring life’s pain in the face. As far as we know, Jesus grew up like just about everybody else in his world: poor. In the years of his life we know most about, he wandered around with a rag-tag group of followers, surviving off of whatever food and shelter someone offered them, sometimes scavenging for their own food. And yes, he performed many, many healings: but those demonstrations of divine power also involved staring disease and death in the face, being surrounded by sick people, touching lepers. In Jesus, the God of all glory entered right into the midst of our suffering: experiencing pain physically and emotionally, spending time with the poor and the sick and the dying and the grieving and the angry people.

The Transfiguration occurred at a time when Jesus was really trying to drive home the point that the messiah, the Son of God, did not come to ward off suffering. The messiah would have to suffer and die. Those who wished to follow him would have to follow him into lives of suffering and sacrifice.

The story of the Transfiguration appears in three of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And in each of those books, it appears as part of the same sequence of events — which doesn’t often happen with stories, since the writers arranged each arranged the stories in their own ways. In all three tellings, the Transfiguration is preceded by Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter confessed, “You are the messiah.” And then Jesus explained exactly what that meant: he would undergo great suffering, be put to death, and after three days, rise again. Anyone who wanted to follow him would have to “take up their cross” (Matt. 16:13-28; Mark 8:27-9:1; Luke 9:18-27). All three gospels link this story to the Transfiguration, saying it was about a week later that Jesus took three disciples up the mountain, where they saw him change before their eyes. As they came down the mountain together, Jesus again reminded them that he would soon be made to suffer.

When they reached the rest of the disciples at the bottom of the mountain, a great crowd was waiting for them. The crowd had brought the disciples a boy who was possessed by an unclean spirit. The disciples had been unable to cast it out. So immediately after that moment of dazzling glory on the mountain, Jesus again came face-to-face with the suffering of the world. Jesus healed the boy, and then went on with his disciples, teaching them, yet again, that he was about to be betrayed and killed (Matt. 17:14-23; Mark 9:14-32; Luke 9:37-45).

We understand the Transfiguration best when we see that it is a glimpse of glory in the midst of a life turned towards human suffering. It’s like a peek behind-the-scenes, a vision of the glorious God present there in the suffering of Jesus; and it’s like a promise of the resurrection that would come after the crucifixion. The divine power in Jesus would not keep him from suffering, but it would bring God nearer to our suffering, right into death, and then the divine power would bring new life. That is the promise of the Transfiguration.

Maybe you have a memory bank of moments like the Transfiguration; memories or stories or Bible verses that remind you that God is with you even when life feels awful, that remind you that God will bring new life even from our tragedies.

We would prefer it if God kept suffering from happening in the first place. And I will always insist that getting angry with God after a tragedy or asking why God “let something happen” is a biblical reaction: there are psalms and whole books of devastated and furious laments in the Bible. Still we must remember what we have been shown and promised: what we see revealed in Jesus Christ is not a god who keeps us protected from all harm, but a God who is right there with us when we are suffering, a God who transfigures our suffering from something devastating to something meaningful (even if still painful), a God who leads us to new life even after death. Our lives may never be the same; but God will use the change for a new creation, a resurrection that — like Jesus’s resurrected body — bears the marks of the pain we suffered even while we begin our new life.

These were the promises that sustained the disciples through their years of persecution and martyrdom. These are the promises that we can lean on today, even when we come to our own times of suffering. Amen.

Close Encounters

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday of Easter + April 3, 2016

Readings: Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31


For the last month or so my guilty pleasure has been watching Fargo, the TV series, inspired by the Coen brothers film from the 1990s. In Season 2 there are constant — but not really connected or explained — references to alien life: What were those weird lights in the sky? Why is the young kid drawing flying saucers? Did the narrator just quote War of the Worlds?

(**mild spoiler alert for those who haven’t finished season 2 and care about the alien subplot line**)

In the last episodes there is a huge shoot-out at a motel: two warring Midwestern crime mobs face off in their last battle, and the police are caught in the middle. Suddenly, it appears: a giant flying saucer, hovering just a couple of hundred feet above the ground, shining beams of light down on the gunfire and fistfights. Everything comes to a halt as everyone stares up at this unbelievable sight. Then, just as suddenly, the spaceship disappears.

fargo

Photo Credit: Entertainment Weekly website

What I enjoyed most about this crazy scene was watching the characters react to their U.F.O. sighting. Peggy, a young woman who has never been fully hooked into reality, seems totally unfazed. She and her husband are making a run for it, and when he stops to stare at this thing in the sky, she just says: “It’s just a flying saucer, Ed. We gotta go!” When the saucer flies away, everyone goes back to the fight as if nothing had happened.[1]

A few days later, two of the most level-headed and competent characters in the show — a pair of police officers — talk about the UFO sighting. They’d both been eyewitnesses. Sheriff Larsson asks, “So…you gonna put that in your report, then?”

“What?” asks Officer Solverson, “‘Gunfight interrupted by spacecraft’?”

“Yeah…maybe leave that [as] subtext…”

Even though they both saw this giant flying saucer, neither of them finds the story believable…at least not believable enough for a police report.[2]

Jesus’s disciples witnessed something even more unbelievable than a flying saucer appearing in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; they saw a living man appear after they had seen him die.

Of course there are many ways we can attempt to prove that Christ’s resurrection really happened: the authors of the gospels did it themselves, writing about how Roman soldiers had been guarding the tomb, so the disciples couldn’t have stolen the body (Matt. 27:62-66); how the stone had already been rolled away when the first of the Jesus-followers showed up at the tomb (Luke 24:1-12; in Matt. 28, they see an angel roll the stone); how the resurrected Christ ate fish with the disciples, so he couldn’t have been just a ghost (Luke 24:36-42). Christian apologists from today add that those people who saw the resurrected Christ probably weren’t hallucinating or lying, because the whole lot of them chose to face persecution and even martyrdom rather than renege on their story about the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth.

But even with all those arguments, the resurrection is still unbelievable.

Officer Solverson could have written about the U.F.O. sighting in his report. He could have quoted multiple eyewitnesses. But still, I think he was wise to leave it out. No matter the proof, no one would have believed the report, because everybody knows flying saucers are a bunch of hooey.

And if “everybody knows” that, how much more does everybody know that dead bodies don’t come back to life. Even if we could prove it happened, it would still be unbelievable. We would find a way to doubt, because resurrection is just not how the world works.

So maybe we can understand why Thomas didn’t believe his friends’ report about receiving a visit from the resurrected Jesus. Sure, a whole group of his closest companions shared their eyewitness testimony. Sure, he had heard Jesus talk about dying and rising. Sure, he’d seen Lazarus raised from the dead with his own eyes (John 11). But still the resurrection was unbelievable. Maybe Thomas reasoned his way out of all the proof. Maybe his doubt was just a gut reaction. But in any case he was responding based on what he knew to be true of the world: death is death. People don’t come back.

Thomas didn’t believe otherwise until he’d experienced Jesus for himself, until he’d had a real close encounter, touched Jesus’s crucified body, heard Jesus speak to him. And then Thomas did more than admit that Jesus had been brought back to life. In that very moment Thomas made the most basic and yet most life-changing confession of the Christian faith. He looked at this man, crucified-and-resurrected, and exclaimed: “My Lord and my God!”

So how do we react to the unbelievable story of Christ’s resurrection?

I would wager a guess that few — if any — of us react with faith because we heard a convincing argument. Even C. S. Lewis, that great logical mind, who did spend much time debating the reasonability of Christian belief, who heard arguments and argued back, who studied the faith so carefully before becoming a Christian, and who, as a Christian, wrote many a logical defense of the faith…even C.S. Lewis, in the end, described his coming to faith as an experience of encountering God; and his confession almost echoes that of Doubting Thomas. In his autobiography he wrote:

You must picture me in [my room], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In…1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.[3]

It reminds me of a conversation I had with some friends from Vanderbilt Divinity School shortly after we’d all graduated. We were all about to embark on very different religious careers: one pastor, one hospital chaplain, two prison ministers, one director of religious life at a college, one scholar. Some of us had grown up in mainline traditions; some Southern Baptist; some, secular households; I’m sure at least one of us had been raised by hippies. What we had in common — besides being a bunch of white women — was that we were all very intellectual and rather skeptical, and we’d come to divinity school ready to doubt and question and challenge, and not entirely sure whether we were going to hold on to our faith through that process — or whether we even wanted to. My friend Sarah asked us: So, do you still believe in God?

I expected a variety of answers, but we all shared one. And it wasn’t what you might expect from a bunch of Vanderbilt eggheads, e.g. “Well, I had my doubts, but that paper by Kathryn Tanner really convinced me.” No. The answer we all shared was: “I can’t explain why. I have a lot of doubts, and I’ve even tried to stop believing…but I just feel like God won’t let me go.” It was not a well-reasoned argument; it was the reluctant confession of a bunch of doubters who’d had an encounter with the holy.

The main message of Martin Luther’s reforms was that it is faith alone that saves us: faith that God loves us and forgives us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet even for Luther this faith was more than believing that message to be a fact; it was primarily the result of an encounter with God. In the Small Catechism, in the section on the Apostle’s Creed, Luther wrote:

I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith…[4]

For Doubting Thomas, for C. S. Lewis, for Martin Luther, for many people I know personally, and for myself: believing in the God revealed in Jesus Christ is less about agreeing with certain statements, and more about encountering a God who won’t let us go — an encounter that drives us to exclaim “My Lord and my God!” sometimes even despite our doubt.

Jesus wouldn’t let Thomas get away with his doubt; instead, he appeared and said “Here I am. Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.”

How does God encounter you? Maybe you have had a “mountaintop experience” that changed your heart in an instant. Maybe there is something going on in worship or in the stories of the Bible that moves you. Maybe you look back on a life spent going to church on Sunday mornings, and you just feel like that’s where you belong. Maybe you found something in the life of faith that had been missing: peace, joy, forgiveness, acceptance. Maybe you simply find yourself here this morning, or praying by yourself, or thinking about God, and can’t put your finger on why.

Another question is: how can we, as the Church, help others to encounter God? Surely God can and does work on God’s own to reach out to people. But the Church is referred to as “the Body of Christ” frequently enough in scripture that I have come to see it as more than a description or a metaphor, but as a calling, as a mission. As Jesus says in today’s gospel reading: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Living out our mission as the Church is less about convincing people of the things we believe, and more about offering an encounter with the Body of Christ. Doubting Thomas came to believe because he encountered the Body of Christ.  In that moment Christ’s body bore the marks of crucifixion and death: it was vulnerable; it had known suffering; it had sacrificed. Yet it was also invigorated with new life: a life that didn’t survive, but triumphed over death.

How can we — the Church — be that Body of Christ for those around us? How do we best offer what Jesus offered to Thomas: Touch Christ’s hands, see Christ’s body, experience both the sacrifice, and the new life?

Let us pray: Open our hearts to your presence moving around us and between us and within us, until your glory and compassion are revealed not only to us, but in us. In the name of Jesus, crucified and risen, we pray. Amen.[5]


Sources of Inspiration:

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis, and Matt Skinner, “#477 – Second Sunday of Easter,” Sermon Brainwave podcast, March 27, 2016. Available online.

[1] Fargo: Year 2, “The Castle,” Ep. 9, directed by Adam Arkin, written by Noah Hawley and Steve Blackman, FX, originally aired Dec. 7, 2015.

[2] Fargo: Year 2, “Palindrome,” Ep. 10, directed by Adam Arkin, written by Noah Hawley, FX, originally aired Dec. 15, 2015.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, (London: Harvest Books, 1966) pp. 228-229.

[4] Martin Luther, “Small Catechism,” The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), Third Article to the Creed, 355-356.

[5] Adapted from an intercessory prayer provided by Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary resources for April 3, 2016 (2nd Sunday of Easter, Year C), available online at http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=134

Expect Life

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + The Resurrection of Our Lord + March 27, 2016

Readings: Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12


 

At dawn on a Sunday morning, about 2,000 years ago, a group of women walked toward a tomb. They were prepared to see death: they brought spices to wash a dead body, to wash away the scent of death from one they had loved so dearly.

And of course they were prepared to see death; they were walking toward the tomb where they’d seen Jesus’s dead body laid two nights before (Lk. 23:55). Of course they were prepared to see death; they had watched as Jesus hung on a cross; they had watched as he cried out “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and breathed his last (Lk. 23:46, 49). Of course they were prepared to see death; they’d seen so much of it in their lives already: friends who died in childbirth; children who didn’t survive to adulthood; fellow Jews killed on the orders of Pilate (Lk. 13:1). Disease, starvation, the cruelty of people in power, violent rebellion. They had seen so much death; they expected only to see more.

We can be a lot like those women. We, too, have seen so much death. Death pops up in news alerts on our phones or TV screens: another terrorist attack, in Brussels or Afghanistan; another shooting; another accident. Death gets closer to home, too: we hear diagnoses; we feel disease or pain in our own bodies; someone we love dies, slowly or suddenly. We have known death, too; and we expect to see more of it.

And what we expect, we prepare for. We don’t come bearing spices, but we may come bearing arms, or fear, or distrust. We go into the world bearing grief and anger, we go with our defenses up. We go ready to fight or to hide away, to keep other people out. We go ready to give up hope in life in the face of the reality of death, much like the women who approached the tomb of the person in whom they’d placed all their hopes.

The women arrived at the tomb, the stronghold of death. If there was any place to feel certain of death, to feel certain that death wins, this was it.

But death was gone. The stone was rolled away; a spring breeze whistled into the empty tomb. Two living men appeared and asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

wom-tomb_detail-new

Bob Quinn, “The Empty Tomb.” Bronze. (See more images here.)

They weren’t looking for the living. They were looking for the dead. They were prepared once again for the harsh reality that death had taken someone they loved. What they weren’t prepared for was life. They weren’t expecting the power of God.

“Jesus is not here,” the two men told the women, “but he has risen. Remember how he told you…that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” It was not a question (“Don’t you remember?”); it was a message, almost a command: “Remember.”

The women remembered. They remembered what Jesus had told them about God’s plan: how death would not be the end of their hope. They remembered all the paradoxes he had spoken: you will die, but not perish (Lk 21:16-18); those who lose their life will keep it (Lk 9:24, 17:33). They dropped their spices – their death-preparations – and ran to the disciples to share the news of life.

For thousands of years Christians have gathered to remember that very news, to tell again the same story the women told to the other disciples.

So what happens when we remember? What happens when we remember that on a Sunday morning, long ago, life took over the tomb? What happens when we remember that God’s power is the power of life: the power to create life; the power to break free an entire nation of slaves and give them a life of their own; the power to transform hearts and minds and lives; the power of resurrection?

When we remember, do we dare to change our expectations? Do we dare to stop expecting death and start expecting life?

“The Easter message calls [us] from [our] old belief in death to a new belief in life.”[1] And that means having hope that, contrary to all appearances, life is stronger than death.

Even while I wrote these words, I heard sirens wail outside: an ambulance or a firetruck. I had just scribbled a note to myself, a reminder to send a condolence card to a friend whose wife died suddenly in the middle of the night. And just to complete the picture, I took a peek at CNN.com. The headlines read: terror attacks, a massive after-school fight that left one teenage boy dead, and the testing of a military attack submarine. Those kinds of things can make the memories of God’s acts of life seem like idle talk or a fairy tale.

That’s what the disciples thought of the women’s message. They didn’t believe the story about the empty tomb and the strange messengers. Jesus was dead. That was the end.

Still, Peter got up and ran to the tomb. He had to check. What if the story was true? Peter desperately needed it to be true.

The last time we saw Peter in this story, he was sitting around a fire in the high priest’s courtyard. While inside Jesus was being mocked and beaten, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus.  Peter had just seen Jesus arrested, and he knew that execution was coming. And Peter knew that if word got out that he was one of Jesus’s followers, he would face death, too. So, expecting death to come for him, he hid from it; struggling just to survive, he denied Jesus, and Jesus saw it happen. It tore Peter apart; he left light of the fire, weeping (Lk. 22:54-61). Peter needed the story of the resurrection to be true, because he needed to say how sorry he was, he needed another chance to be a loyal disciple and friend. I can only imagine the rush of hope he felt when he peered breathlessly into the tomb and saw only a pile of cloths.

We need the message to be true, too. We need it because the more the world expects death, the more death it gets. We see the situation escalate every day in the way that some politicians (and voters, too) talk callously about bombings or people going hungry. We see it when we fear helping others, lest we get hurt. We put our trust in the power of death; expecting death to win, we figure we might as well live on its terms, terms like “kill or be killed” and revenge. And so when we take risks, whether with what we own or our lives or our moral code…we tend to bet on death rather than life.

But if we dare to expect life, that all changes. The risks we take will all be for the sake of life: we will risk making peace; we will risk forgiving; we will risk welcoming one another and loving one another. We will risk reveling in the moments of joy we are given. We will live on life’s paradoxically life-giving terms, terms like vulnerability and sacrifice and hope.

When we live expecting death, our struggle is only to survive – like Peter outside the high priest’s house. But when we live expecting life, our struggle is to build up all that makes for true life: justice, peace, truth, grace, love – like the disciples who, after the resurrection, dedicated their lives and even their deaths to spreading the word of Jesus Christ, the message that God’s love, grace, and justice is for all people.

So remember the Easter story. Remember all the stories of God bringing strength from weakness, victory from defeat, and life from death. And choose to see the world through these memories. Choose to expect life. Don’t live your life under the power of death; live your life in the promise and power of God. The promise and power of the resurrection.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia, alleluia.


 

Additional Sources of Inspiration

Curry, Michael (Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church), Easter 2016 message. Available online: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/03/23/easter-2016-message-from-presiding-bishop-michael-curry/

[1] Koester, Craig R., Commentary on Luke 24:1-12, Working Preacher, April 4, 2010. Available online http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=558

Monroe, Shawnthea, ”Living By the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary” (March 27, Easter Sunday) in The Christian Century, (Vol. 133, No. 6), March 16, 2016. Available online: http://christiancentury.org/article/2016-02/march-27-easter-sunday