Sermon for Sunday, April 1, 2018 || Easter B || Mark 16:1-8
Good morning. I am so glad to be worshiping with you on this Easter morning. And I’m so glad that I got to read the last eight verses of Mark’s Gospel a minute ago because they hold some good news I never noticed before this week. Unlike the other accounts of the Gospel, Mark focuses entirely on the women’s walk to the tomb and their conversation with the young man in the white robe. The Risen Christ doesn’t actually appear in these verses, and we’re left in that unsettling moment when the women run off and don’t tell anybody because they’re afraid. Of course, they must have said something eventually or else this story wouldn’t have made it into the Gospel.
I can imagine Mary and Mary and Salome recounting their story to the disciples later on. “We got up early that morning and bought some spices to anoint his body. We had no idea how we were going to move the stone, but we went anyway, and when we got there –”Continue reading “Rolling Away the Stone”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 16, 2017 || Easter Day, Year A || John 20:1-18
On three occasions over the last couple years, I have left Home Depot laden with weather-treated boards and decking screws. I brought the materials home, lugged them to the backyard, and set about shaping them into rudimentary boxes. I’m not much of a carpenter, so “rudimentary” is actual quite a compliment. Thankfully, all these boxes have to do is sit in the sun and rain, full of soil and compost and manure.
You see, my wife Leah has become quite the gardener since we moved to Mystic. There was a single three foot by six foot box in the yard when we arrived, a remnant from a previous occupant. I built another the same size, and, let me tell you, the tomatoes Leah grew that first year were…mwah…delicioso! I put in a 4 x 8 bed last fall, which now has little stalks of garlic reaching through the soil. And a few weeks ago, I knocked together the last box, a long narrow one, 12 x 2, for peas. Needless to say, the surface area for gardening at the rectory has tripled in the last year, and I am looking forward to eating the results.Continue reading “Two Gardens”→
Sermon for Sunday, April 3, 2016 || Easter 2C || John 20:19-31
Both my first and last names come from the Bible. To be sure, a large portion of names used in the United States do, but many if not most of them do not share the dubious pedigree of mine. Every Hannah out there gets to claim as her namesake a woman of complete devotion to God. Every Matthew and Mark and Luke and John out there gets to share a name with a writer of the Gospel. But me? I get the guy who ate the fruit he wasn’t supposed to eat and then shifted the blame to his wife. And I get the Doubter – and that’s Doubter with a capital “D.”
And while I don’t have much energy to defend Adam’s poor decision-making, I do get a bit revved up whenever I hear someone label the disciple Thomas as “Doubting,” as if it’s his first name. As if he’s one of the seven dwarfs: “I know you’ve met Grumpy and Happy and Bashful, but have you met Doubting?” This really irks me – and not simply because Thomas and I share a name. No. Calling him the Doubter is not just unfair (why single him out?); calling him the doubter is actually a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel. So let’s unpack Thomas a bit, and hopefully by the end of this sermon we will see that doubt is not an evil thing.
Once we move past the caricature of Thomas as the Doubter, we see a fuller picture of him form. He is one of the more visible disciples in the Gospel of John; indeed, after Peter, he is tied with Philip for most lines of dialogue. When we look at his interactions with Jesus as a whole, we discover a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions.
We see his deep faith in today’s lesson. When the other disciples find him, he sets this condition: “Unless I put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Then when he meets Jesus, he never actually follows through. He sees Jesus there in the flesh, and then makes the most startling claim of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel: “My Lord and my God.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep faith.
Earlier, about halfway through the story, Jesus receives news that his friend Lazarus is dying. The trouble is that Lazarus lives only about two miles from Jerusalem, and things are pretty hot for Jesus there. In fact, the immediate result of Jesus raising Lazarus was to confirm in the chief priest’s mind the necessity that Jesus be put to death. The disciples know how dangerous it is for Jesus to head towards Jerusalem. But it’s Thomas who persuades them, saying: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Yes, Thomas is a man of deep convictions.
Soon after, Jesus is having that famous meal with his friends in the upper room. His arrest is imminent, but before they go out to Gethsemane, Jesus speaks many words of truth to his friends. We often quote some of these words at funerals: “In my father’s house there are many dwelling-places…You know they way to the place where I am going.” Here Thomas interrupts Jesus: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” To this Jesus responds: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” A deep answer to a deep and desperate question. Yes, Thomas is a man of deep questions.
When you combine faith, convictions, and questions, do you know what often results? It’s the recipe for Doubt. Our faith gives us a reason to ask deep questions about God and life and what it all means. These deep questions do not have readily apparent or digestible answers; if they did, they wouldn’t be deep questions. Conviction gives us perseverance, which allows faith to exist within the sphere of uncertainty. This is actually where faith thrives. Certainty is the enemy of faith because it leads to stagnation, or worse, fundamentalism. Doubt, on the other hand, gives us the fuel to push on our beliefs, examine them, strengthen them.
And yet, our Gospel passage today seems to set doubt up as the enemy of belief, to put them on opposite sides of a dichotomy. After all, Jesus chastises Thomas: “Do not doubt but believe.” Except that’s not what he says. Our English translation takes some liberties to get the word “doubt” out of the Greek word that’s on Jesus’ lips. Another translation reads like this: “No more disbelief. Believe!” (CEB). In English, when we add the prefixes “un–” or “dis–” to something, we give it the opposite meaning, right? Kind and Unkind. Belief and disbelief. That’s exactly what happens in Greek when you add the letter “a–” to the front of a word.* In today’s passage, Jesus says just such a pair of opposites. Belief and unbelief. Not belief and doubt.
So what he’s really saying to Thomas is this: “Don’t jettison your belief all in one go. I know you have deep questions, but you have deep conviction too. Your faith is still there in the midst of your doubts. But here I am. It’s really me.” And that’s when Thomas drops to his knees and proclaims: “My Lord and my God.”
We all have our doubts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been brushing my teeth or pumping gas and been stricken by a wave of doubt. What if this is all just a bunch of hokum? Even if there is a God, why would God care about lil’ ole me? And those are just the entry level doubts, the nagging ones that don’t really have a particular trigger. Bigger ones surface when we confront egregious disappointment or untimely death or heinous acts of evil like what took place in Pakistan on Easter Day.
But remember, doubt is not something to be feared. Doubt is not something to ward off at all costs. In fact, doing everything in your power never to doubt is the way to dangerous fundamentalism. Jesus never said not to doubt. He said simply: “Believe!” And belief in the Risen Christ – the One who overcame the power of death itself – can survive an onslaught of doubt. In the power of the resurrection, eternal life swallowed up death. In the same way, belief fueled by the enduring promises of God swallows doubt into itself. Just as death is part of life, doubt becomes a part of belief – the part that keeps it moving and growing and alive.
Thomas was a man of deep faith, deep convictions, and deep questions. He desired to follow Jesus no matter the cost; he wanted so fervently to know the way; and in the end he proclaimed Jesus for who he really is: “My Lord and my God.” I’m sure Thomas had his doubts. After all, he was off wandering on his own during those frightening days. I’m sure he was processing his confusion, wondering how it all went wrong. But in the midst of his confusion, his teetering belief, the Risen Christ comes and calls him back: “No more disbelief. Believe!”
When you are struggling with your own doubts – about God, about yourself – remember that doubt is a part of belief, not the opposite. And remember that you’re not alone in your doubts. Don’t be afraid to be like Thomas, who heads back to the upper room even though he hasn’t seen Jesus yet. Ask your deep question. Share your struggle with us. I guarantee you someone else will say, “Oh, me too.” And together, with God’s help, we will find deeper wells of faith and conviction, which will compel us to drop to our knees in front of the Risen Christ and proclaim: “My Lord and my God.”
* Some of these survive in English: atheism (NOT God), anaerobic exercise (NOT exercise that gets your heart pumping).
Sermon for Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 || Easter C || Luke 24:1-12
Good morning, and welcome to St. Mark’s Church on this Feast of the Resurrection. You know, every Sunday is a Feast of the Resurrection, but today is special. Do you know why? Because today is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox – and that makes today Easter. So if a late night talk show host ever jumps out of a cab and asks you how to calculate the date of Easter, now you know.
Today is also special because of the week we’ve just had here at St. Mark’s. We’ve walked with Jesus from his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to the last supper with his friends to his agony in the garden, to his betrayal and arrest and trial, to his crucifixion, to his burial in the tomb. We’ve been through the darkness of Good Friday; we’ve been to the foot of the cross. Now the dawn breaks on Sunday morning, and once again we set off, walking this time with the women and their spiced ointments.
I doubt they slept much the last two nights, Mary Magdalene and the other women who rose early on the first day of the week to minister to their dead Lord. Every time they shut their eyes, I’m sure they saw the silhouette of Jesus’ cross in the distance, his limp body barely recognizable because of his torturous hours hanging there. No, I doubt these women slept much, though if they did finally fall into fitful slumber, it was because they cried themselves to sleep. When all you have left is your tears, you’d want to hoard them; but that’s when they flow all the more freely.
I’m sure the tears began again when they awoke early Sunday morning. New grief is like that. Each morning you wake and remember again that your loved one is gone, and again the pain stabs you anew, just as fresh as the first time. They bear the rawness of their grief by taking on a mission; after all, staying busy is one way to soften the blow. And so the women take up their burden of fragrant spices and trudge out into the darkness in order to arrive at the tomb at first light.
Out of deep troves of love and compassion, these brave women are ready to care for the body of their Lord and to prepare it for proper burial. It turns out Mary and her friends are making the happiest mistake in the history of mistakes. They are ready to wash and anoint a lifeless body, but what they find is no body at all. They find an empty tomb. For a horrible moment, their grief threatens to overwhelm them because the mission they were planning to perform – the one they had been clinging to since his death – is gone now, too. They didn’t think they could be more desolate, but they are wrong. For this horrible moment, the empty tomb magnifies their desolation.
But into this scene of despair and grief comes the sudden presence of two gleaming messengers. They enlighten the woman as to their happy mistake: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has arisen.”
The messengers continue talking, but the women have ears only for that last word: “Arisen!” For the first time since Friday, they remember Jesus’ words, and first one, then another, then another breaks out into a tentative smile. “Could it be true?” they ask each other.
“Yes, yes, yes it could.”
“Jesus never lied to us.”
“How could we forget his words?”
Then one repeats the messengers’ question: “Why are we looking for the living among the dead?”
This question echoes down through the centuries, and we find ourselves asking it when we read the beginning of the final chapter of Luke’s account of the Gospel. Why do you look for the living among the dead? How often in our day-to-day lives could we hear the gleaming messengers ask us this question? How often do we trudge down our own well-worn paths to life-defeating things hoping this time – maybe this time – something life-affirming will happen?
Perhaps you’ve had a string of boyfriends who were real losers. Your friends tell you so at every opportunity, but you’ve got a blind spot for the proverbial bad boy. They treat you with no respect. From time to time they’ve even called you a name that I can’t say during this sermon. And yet you meet another one and all the signs are there, but you dive in headfirst anyway. To you the gleaming messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Perhaps you’ve been sober for three months. Your sponsor hands you your chip and slaps you on the back. You’ve got a couple of other three-month chips in a drawer somewhere, but that’s not on your mind right now. On your way home from the meeting, you run into an old buddy from back in the day. The next morning, you stagger to the drawer and toss the newest chip in. Maybe you’ll get another one in a few months time, but for today your salvation is at the bottom of a bottle. To you, the messengers say, “Why do you look for living among the dead?”
Perhaps you work through your family vacation because you’ve got too many projects on your plate. Or you’ve given into the tiny fearful voice that says you’re too old or too sick or too broken to make a difference in someone else’s life. Or you spend every waking hour mindlessly surfing YouTube and Facebook and Instagram. Or…or…or… Every one of us has a few life-defeating paths that we have no trouble finding. To each of us, the messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”The Resurrection of Jesus Christ spurred this question all those centuries ago. The women made the happy mistake of looking for a dead messiah, when the Risen One was alive again. Our life-defeating paths lead to tombs, as well, but they are not empty, for our dead messiahs are there waiting to suck the life from us. But the tomb of the Risen Lord is empty, and a new, life-affirming path stretches from that tomb and reaches into eternity.
Today, on this first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, on this special Feast of the Resurrection, we see most clearly this new, life-affirming path stretching from our feet off to the sun-drenched horizon. As we walk it together and with our Risen Lord, we will pass by so many people going the opposite way down the life-defeating paths. This may be due to their own choices or because they are caught up in systems that will never produce anything but defeat; systems of poverty, injustice, racism, apathy.
But as we walk this life-affirming path, we have the opportunity to be apostles like those brave women, to show people the power of the Risen Christ in our lives, to hook arms with folks going the other way and help turn them around. We have the opportunity to be the gleaming messengers who ask one simple question. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
And then we have the glorious opportunity to share the heart of the Good News. “He is not here, but has arisen.”
*I preached a version of this sermon at Easter in 2013. The old version had a lot of problems (mostly, it was two or three sermons smushed into one, which is a sign of lazy thinking and writing on my part). I think this rewrite fixes those things. Of course, in a few years time I might think the same thing about this version, too. And so it goes…
Sermon for Sunday, April 12, 2015 || Easter 2B; Psalm 133
Ecce Quam Bonum! I first heard these three Latin words in the fall of the year 2000 when I was a senior in high school. I stepped out of the car and stared in awe at the soaring Gothic architecture of the buildings arranged around the quad of a little college tucked away in the mountains of Tennessee. Ecce Quam Bonum! As a prospective student, those words were words of welcome to me: “Behold how good!” they proclaimed. These are the opening words of our psalm today, Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” Walking towards the beautiful sandstone chapel on that visit, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted to experience living together in unity at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennesee. The next fall I matriculated, and the four years I spent at Sewanee were years of friendship, formation, discernment of call, and lots and lots of singing.
Even though I didn’t know how to sing at the time, I still loved to do it, so I joined the University Choir my first month of college. That choir became my family for four years. The intensity of being in the choir at Sewanee matched that of playing a varsity sport. We did everything together. Several times a week, I got to sing with that special community. It was a gift to be able to add my voice to that group. The fellowship of the choir at Sewanee made real for me those three Latin words: Ecce Quam Bonum, Behold how good!
The words of Psalm 133, which we sang a few minutes ago speak of the desire for joyful, harmonious fellowship with our brothers and sisters. Three other readings join this psalm, and each speaks about community and fellowship. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke paints a happily-ever-after picture of the apostles and their companions, in which the “whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (4:32). In the First Letter of John, the writer says, “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1:3). In the Gospel, the Risen Christ appears to the disciples as a group, grants them peace, and breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. Thomas is not with the disciples at the time, so as a group they seek him out and tell him the good news. A week later, when Thomas has returned to their fellowship, Jesus once again appears, and Thomas believes.
In just a few minutes we are baptizing two eight-month-old babies (two wonderful, beautiful babies, if I say so myself), and I can’t think of better lessons to accompany such a joyous occasion. The sacrament of Baptism celebrates the inward movement of God in a person’s life by outwardly welcoming that person into God’s family the Church. We baptize infants because we believe God is moving in all people, regardless of their ability to recognize or verbalize such movement. We baptize infants so that their earliest memories will be ones of being loved and cherished by a community of faith.
The “outward sign of inward grace” definition of a sacrament is tried and true, but it is also well worn, so let’s expand our understanding of what’s going on in baptism with a less academic and more musical metaphor.
The music of God plays in each one of our hearts. You’ve heard the expression, “tugging on my heartstrings” to describe something that evokes compassion and sympathy. Well, God tuned those heartstrings to resonate with God’s music; that is, God’s desires, yearnings, hopes, and dreams for God’s creation. That’s why we feel a tug on our hearts when we see someone in need – because God is directing us to notice and help that person.
Within our hearts, sometimes the music of God is soft, a half-whispered lullaby, barely discernible over the din of the world. Sometimes the notes crescendo to a deafening fortissimo that knocks us, weeping, to our knees. Most often, the music sounds as the percussive TUB-thp of our hearts — a rhythm that, if you listen closely, beats in time with the rest of the performing forces of creation. I’m not a theoretical physicist, but what I’m describing might be considered a poetic version of some of the more modern theories of how the universe works – it’s all about vibration, right? That’s really all music is – collections of well-defined vibrations. We identify the source of that vibration – that resonance – as God.
Each one of us has the music of God resounding within, but the choir is incomplete until we have found each other, until we have joined together in fellowship as the chorus of God, so to speak. In Greek, this fellowship is called koinonia, but I’ve always thought that “fellowship” is a rather limp translation. For the sake of our metaphor, let’s translate koinonia as “harmony,” which lands much closer to the descriptive intent of the Greek word. Musical harmony is the collection of notes that add structure, color, tone, depth, and meaning to the main tune. This tune, called the “melody” is the music of God within us. The combination of our own unique passions and hardships; our successes and failures; our gifts and shortcomings; our hopes, our dreams, and our joys creates the harmony of the music of God.
In the sacrament of Holy Baptism, we welcome another soprano, alto, tenor, or bass into the choir. We await eagerly the subtle changes in timbre that these new lives will bring. Together, we sing the koinonia, the harmony, of the music of God to a world so accustomed only to noise and clatter. The sound of our anthems resonate with the movement of God in this world. This is the sacrament of Holy Baptism: new sound, new harmony, new resonance in the chorus of the music of God.
One of my favorite songs is called “One Voice,” by the band The Wailin’ Jennys. With each verse, another voice is added to the mix. By the third verse, each member of the band is weaving her voice with the other two. They sing:
This is the sound of voices three Singing together in harmony Surrendering to the mystery This is the sound of voices three This is the sound of all of us Singing with love and the will to trust Leave the rest behind it will turn to dust This is the sound of all of us
So Ecce Quam Bonum! Behold how good it is when we all sing together in harmony and surrender to the mystery of God’s movement in our lives. Behold how good it is when we welcome new life into God’s family and embrace the new life the resurrection brings. Behold how good it is when we invite others to join us as we add our harmonies to the melody of the music of God.
Sermon for Sunday, April 5, 2015 || Easter Sunday, Year B; John 20:1-18
Good morning, and welcome to St. Mark’s on this glorious Easter Sunday. This morning we walk with Mary Magdalene to the tomb and find it empty. And yet our emptiness doesn’t last for long because Jesus, the Risen Christ, stands there, shining before us, as the dew glistens on the early spring flowers blossoming in the garden.
But before we get to this beautiful encounter, I want to talk to you for a moment about my favorite comic strip. Calvin and Hobbes and I grew up together. Bill Watterson’s impeccable creation began its run about two months before my third birthday and ended just before I turned thirteen. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you I learned to read so I could consume Watterson’s genius. What attracted me to Calvin and Hobbes turns out to be the same element that makes our Christian faith so beautiful. The comic strip is all about the adventures of a young boy and his stuffed tiger. Yet while Calvin’s parents see only a stuffed tiger when they look at Hobbes, Calvin sees a living, breathing beast who might hug him or pounce on him depending on the tiger’s mood. For Calvin’s parents, the stuffed tiger is a “what.” It’s just another thing, a toy. But for Calvin, Hobbes is so much more than a “what.” Hobbes is a “who.”
In the same way, our Christian faith is based not on a “what,” but on a “who.” Yes, we have doctrine and catechism and creed, but none of those trappings matter if we forget the answer to the “who” question that undergirds them all. In the garden this morning, the Risen Christ asks Mary Magdalene this “who” question. Whom are you looking for? At first, Mary answers with a “what” response. She’s wondering what has happened to the body of her Lord. But when Jesus says her name, she recognizes him for who he is – he’s still Jesus, and yet he’s more somehow, as if the power of the resurrection made him a truer version of himself. I imagine Mary launching herself into his arms and their embrace lingering because she thought she had lost him – she had lost him – and yet here he is. You can try embracing a “what,” but only a “who” will embrace you back. The Risen Christ is the answer to this “who” question our faith asks.
Throughout the last two chapters of the Gospel according to John, Jesus appears to his friends five times. In each encounter, something could keep the disciples from recognizing the Risen Christ in their midst, but his presence dispels those barriers. The same barriers often stand in our way and keep us from embracing the Risen Christ in our midst. These barriers trick us into seeing just a stuffed tiger, so to speak, when Hobbes is standing there grinning with a pile of snowballs at the ready. I’d hazard to guess we’ve all known each of these barriers. But today, on this feast of the Resurrection, Jesus gives us the opportunity to answer his question anew and dispel those barriers once again. So whom are you looking for?
The second half of our Gospel reading this morning begins with tears. “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” Her sorrow could be a barrier keeping her from seeing the Risen Christ. Indeed, when she sees him, she thinks he’s the gardener. She even accuses him of stealing her Lord’s body. She’s hurting, and not even a vision of angels staunches her pain. In moments of sorrow, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Responding with his name won’t necessarily make the sorrow go away. But it will help us notice his presence in our midst, suffering with us, and offering us strong arms to carry our burdens when they become too heavy to bear alone.
Later that evening, “The doors of the house where the disciples had met where locked for fear of the Jews.” The disciples have hidden themselves away because they’re afraid they will be next for the cross. The fear is so palpable that it hangs in the room like fog, silencing all attempts at conversation and isolating each man with his own dark thoughts. But a locked door and fog of fear cannot stop the Risen Christ from appearing in their midst. He dispels their terror with a word of peace. In moments of fear, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” As we breathe out his name, we breathe in this same peace, the peace that passes all understanding.
The next week, Thomas is with them. He wasn’t in the house the last time, so he still hasn’t seen the Risen Christ. “I need to see him and touch to know you are telling the truth,” he says to his friends. His doubt is understandable. How could he possibly believe a story so incredible without some shred of proof? And yet when the Risen Christ stands before him, he falls to his knees and utters the most resounding declaration of faith in the whole Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” And all without ever touching Jesus. In moments of doubt, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” And in those moments, even the smallest, most doubtful voice we can muster is enough when we say, “You, Lord.”
Some time later, seven of Jesus’ friends are out on the Sea of Tiberias fishing. Or should I say trying to fish. They’re out all night and they catch nothing. You can imagine their frustration mounting as the morning sun gilds the clouds. But then someone on the beach beckons to them and tells them to cast the net one more time. And the bulging net is so full they can’t haul it in. In moments of frustration, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Saying his name helps us reorient ourselves to what matters and let go of our frustration long enough to try again, this time with Jesus’ posture of abundance replacing our frustrating and shriveled posture of scarcity.
Once on the beach, with the fish grilling away on a charcoal fire, the Risen Christ takes Simon Peter aside. He knows Peter feels ashamed for the way he acted on that terrifying night when Jesus was arrested. Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus. So three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” With each affirmation – “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” – Jesus replaces Peter’s shame with a new sense of worth. And with this new sense of worth comes a mission: “Feed my sheep.” In moments of shame, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Shame has a way of making us feel unworthy to say his name. And so he asks again and again until we know that his concern for us makes us worthy to respond: “I’m looking for you, Lord.” And for him to say, “Well, you found me, and no amount of shame will ever make you unworthy of my love.”
Sorrow. Fear. Doubt. Frustration. Shame. These are just a few of the barriers that can keep us from being aware of the Risen Christ in our midst. But in each case, Jesus does not let those barriers keep him from coming near, embracing us, and never letting us go. Never letting anyone go. This is the power of the Resurrection: the barrier is temporary, but the embrace is eternal. The “who” at the center of our faith outlives and outshines all of the “what” that we clutter our lives with. So when you leave this church today, go out into the world with Jesus’ question to Mary on your lips: “Whom are you looking for?” Today, tomorrow, every day, and on into eternity, make this your answer: “You, Lord. I’m looking for you.” And here the Risen Christ say to your soul, “You found me. And you have been found.”
Sermon for the Easter Vigil, Saturday, April 4, 2015
It’s great to have a baptism scheduled for the Easter Vigil, but we didn’t this year at St. Mark’s. I still wanted to bless the water of baptism before we renewed our baptismal covenant, so my father suggested I build the blessing into my sermon. At the vigil, you can preach before or after the transition from darkness to light, and this year I chose before.
Tonight, we began with fire. We kindled a new flame and processed the Light of Christ into the church. We gave “this marvelous and holy flame” to God during the chanting of the Exsultet, saying: “Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, the offering of this candle in your honor. May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, find it ever burning––he who gives his light to all creation.”
Then we heard the first words ever spoken in that creation; indeed, the Word spoken to call creation forth: “Let there be light!” Creation erupted from this Word and God flung wide the fiery fusion of the stars and billions of years later, here we sit. (I skipped a little bit of the story there.) Our worship this night returns to such primal origins to make sure we know the infinite and eternal reach of the event we are about to celebrate. As I said, tonight, we began with fire.
And now we move from one primal element to another – from fire to water.
(I pour the water into the baptismal font.)
“We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.” (These are the first words of our baptismal rite’s blessing of the water. The rest are contained throughout this sermon.) The fiery fusion of the stars is there a moment after the beginning, a moment after the blazing creativity of the Holy Spirit dances over the face of the deep. When we give thanks to God for the gift of water, we show our gratitude for one of the fundamental things that makes life possible. We might not normally thank God for water, especially where we live and in this day and age, because water is so plentiful and constant. But tonight we acknowledge the gift of this building block of life, which helps us focus on those things that sustain life.
“Through [water] you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise.” We heard this story a few minutes ago, too. Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and all the people of Israel stand at the edge of the sea with their enemies bearing down on them. The sea could be a barrier, but God causes it to be their protector and rearguard. They arrive on the other side, but the sea swallows up the Egyptians and all their trappings of war. As the water delivered the people from slavery in a foreign land, for us the water symbolizes freedom from all that enslaves us.
“In [water] your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.” Jesus’ baptism began his public ministry of healing and bringing people closer to God. You might wonder why Jesus himself was baptized since John’s baptism was a path to repentance. What would Jesus need to repent if he knew no sin? With his baptism, Jesus foreshadows his death on the cross. He did not need to be baptized, not for the reasons the others coming out to the Jordan River did. But he chose baptism in order to wash in the same muddy water and to be in solidarity with his people. In the same way, he chose the cross, not because of his own guilt, but because of ours. In the river, Jesus swims in the sin of the people. And on the cross, the same sin hangs there with him.
“We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism.” We show our gratitude again, this time for specific water, the special water of Baptism. This water is like any other, except that we set it apart with prayer and blessing and ask the Holy Spirit to make it holy.
“In [the water of Baptism] we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” We borrow these words from the Apostle Paul, who wrote the church in Rome: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). A baptism is so much more than a ritual washing away of sin, says Paul. Indeed, in baptism we recognize that we have died and risen with Christ. Paul continues, just to make sure we understand his point: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).
“Therefore in joyful obedience to your Son, we bring into his fellowship those who come to him in faith, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” How could we not invite others into Christ’s fellowship after we have known the supreme gift of the Risen Christ being alive in us? But just in case we think that this new life is too precious to share, but must be hoarded like other precious things, Jesus himself commanded us to “Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
“Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.” We ask the Holy Spirit to infuse this ordinary water with the presence of God just like we will do later with ordinary bread and wine. We set the rite of baptism at this point in our service because it serves as the perfect hinge between death in the gloom of Friday and new life at dawn on Sunday. When you feel this water touch your skin in a few minutes after we renew our baptismal covenant, remember that you have died and risen with Christ. You belong not to the old things that are passing away. You belong to the new creation.
“To [Christ], to you (Lord), and to the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.”
Sermon for Easter Sunday, Year A || April 20, 2014 || Matthew 28:1-11
Good morning and welcome to St. Mark’s church on this beautiful Easter Sunday. As I see some unfamiliar faces out there, please allow me to do a quick introduction. My name is Adam Thomas, and my wife Leah and I moved to Mystic three months ago today so that I could become the rector of this wonderful church. In that short space of time, I have been overwhelmed by the welcome we received from this parish, and I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of this community. If this holiday of Easter brought you across our threshold for the first time today, I invite you to return again on a day of less fanfare, to join us, and to enhance our community with your presence.
On Good Friday two days ago, I didn’t finish my homily. Instead, I left those present with a cliffhanger. We were standing at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother and beloved friend. The powers of death and darkness and despair and fear and shame and domination were careening towards Golgotha, were bearing down on us, were about to crush us. Jesus had just said, “It is finished.” Jesus had just breathed his last.
That could have been the end. “It is finished,” might have been the final words of one ready to take his curtain call, to take his bow, to exit stage left. But if that were the case, we wouldn’t be here today. Today, we celebrate the resolution of the cliffhanger. Today, we witness Jesus Christ rise from the grave and leave entombed the powers that seek to separate us from God. Today, we turn away from those powers and embrace the truth that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
We wait in suspense three days for the resolution of the cliffhanger. And in that time removed from the foot of the cross, we realize that when Jesus said, “It is finished,” he meant, “It is accomplished.” It is completed. My work is fulfilled. He laid the trap for the powers that seek to separate us from God. He offered himself up as bait. And they took it. On this side of Easter, we look back on the dark events of Good Friday and see the full scope of the plan that Jesus only hinted at to his friends before his arrest.
On the cross, he lured those powers of separation in. He absorbed all our darkness and despair, our fear and shame, our desire to dominate, even the power of death itself. As he suffocated to death on the cross, they appeared to be winning. But it was all a setup. Their power died with him. And he left their wasted shells in the tomb when he rose triumphant.
Yet we still see the powers of separation active in our world today. They still seek to pull creation apart, to pull us apart. And so we might be left to wonder if Christ’s resurrection actually accomplished anything at all. We might be tempted to ask what good it did. These are fair questions to ask, and God knows we struggle with them. But in the midst of the struggle, God constantly calls us to look more carefully for God’s presence in all situations, to engage the suffering of this world on a deeper level, to see into the truth of things.
And when we do this, hope stirs in us. We see that while the forces Jesus lured to the cross still exist, their ultimate power is no more. They have lost. They just don’t know it yet. We live in a reality in which Christ is risen. The truth of the risen-ness of Christ permeates existence. Everyone and everything that can be redeemed, that belongs to God’s original intention for creation, rises with Christ. Everything else stays in the tomb.
In today’s Gospel reading, when the angel beckons the women to see the place where Jesus lay, I wonder what they see? A burial shroud in the corner, perhaps. But mostly just emptiness. Indeed, after the resurrection, the tomb was the burial place for emptiness. For nothingness. This emptiness, this nothingness is the eventual outcome of all those things Jesus lured to the cross. What the women don’t see is death and darkness and despair and fear and shame and domination all crowding for space, invisible in the emptiness of the tomb. There is no room for those things in a reality built on Christ’s risen-ness. Those things are being forced out of reality, forced to stay in the tomb where they belong.
So what does belong in a reality built on Christ’s risen-ness? All we need do is look at the opposites of the things left in the tomb.
Instead of death, we have life. We rise with Christ when we choose life-affirming paths, when we share our gifts and resources so that other may have life, and when we act sustainably so that all creation can enjoy the fullness of life.
Instead of darkness, we have light. We rise with Christ when we walk in the light, when our choices reflect values that prioritize strengthening relationships, and when we encourage others to shine with their own light.
Instead of despair, we have hope. We rise with Christ when we believe that the bounds of possibility are far wider than we can perceive, when we dare to dream of all the wonders we can do when we partner with God, and when we offer a grief-stricken friend a shoulder to cry on.
Instead of fear, we have trust. We rise with Christ when we surrender daily to God our fruitless desire to control the future, when we make choices relying on our faith, and when we ourselves practice trustworthiness and the keeping of promises.
Instead of shame, we have grace. We rise with Christ when we let go everything that keeps us from embracing God’s love, when we discover how graceful we are when we dance in concert with God’s movement, and when we look upon others and see the beautiful beings that God sees.
And instead of domination, we have freedom. We rise with Christ when we allow God to free us from everything that enslaves us, when we stop bowing down to modern-day material idols, and when we stop dominating others to ensure our own freedom.
Every time we choose life and light and hope and trust and grace and freedom, we resonate with the reality of Christ’s risen-ness. We leave the things Jesus lured to the cross where they belong – in the emptiness of the tomb. We become little pockets of Easter, outposts of the resurrection, beacons of true reality based on today’s proclamation: Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
NOTE: DevotiONEighty is off this week. It will return next Monday, April 8th.
(Sermon for Saturday, March 30, 2013 || The Easter Vigil || Year B || Luke 24:1-12)
I doubt they slept much the last two nights, the women who rose early on the first day of the week to minister to their dead Lord. Every time they shut their eyes, I’m sure they saw the silhouette of Jesus’ cross in the distance, his limp body all but unrecognizable because of his torturous hours hanging there. And because dead bodies never, ever look like the lives ones they were a moment before; especially Jesus’ body, he who was so full of abundant life that he was just giving of his abundance to anyone who asked. No, I doubt these women slept much, though if they did finally fall into fitful slumber, it was because they cried themselves to sleep. When all you have left is your tears, you’d want to hoard them; but that’s when they flow all the more freely.
I’m sure the tears began again when they awoke early on the first day of the week. New grief is like that. Each morning you wake and remember again that your loved one is gone, and again the pain stabs you anew, just as fresh as the first time. But even in the midst of their grief, these women took up their burdens of fragrant spices and trudged out into the darkness, so they could arrive at the tomb at first light.
But these brave women, who are ready to care for the body of their Lord, to do their duty out of love and compassion, are making the happiest mistake in the history of mistakes. They are prepared to wash and anoint a lifeless body, but what they find is no body at all. They find an empty tomb, save for a discarded burial shroud. Their grief threatens to overwhelm them because the duty they were planning to perform – the one they had been clinging to since his death – is gone now, too. They didn’t think they could be more desolate, but they were wrong. The empty tomb magnifies their desolation.
But into this scene of despair and grief comes the sudden presence of two gleaming messengers. They enlighten the woman as to their mistake: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has arisen.” Then they remind the women what Jesus had said about himself while they were all still in Galilee.
The women remember Jesus’ words, and first one, then another, then another breaks out into a tentative smile. “Could it be true?” they ask each other.
“Yes, yes, yes it could.”
“Jesus never lied to us.”
“How could we forget his words?”
Then one repeats the messengers’ question: “Why are we looking for the living among the dead?”
This question echoes down through the centuries, and we find ourselves asking it when we read the beginning of the final chapter of Luke’s account of the Gospel. Why do you look for the living among the dead? How often in our day-to-day lives could we hear the gleaming messengers asking us this question? How often do we trudge down the well-worn path to life-defeating things hoping this time – maybe this time – something life-affirming will happen?
Perhaps you’ve had a string of boyfriends who were real losers. Your friends tell you so at every opportunity, but you’ve got a blind spot for bad boys. They treat you with no respect. From time to time they’ve even called you a name that I can’t say during this sermon. And yet you meet another one and all the signs are there, but you dive in headfirst anyway. To you the gleaming messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Perhaps you’ve been sober for three months. Your sponsor hands you your chip and slaps you on the back. You’ve got a couple of other three-month chips in a drawer somewhere, but that’s not on your mind right now. On your way home from the meeting, you run into an old buddy from back in the day. The next morning, you stagger to the drawer and toss the newest chip in. Maybe you’ll get another one in a few months time. To you, the messengers say, “Why do you look for living among the dead?”
Perhaps you work through your family vacation because you’ve got too many projects on your plate. Or you spend every waking hour mindlessly surfing YouTube and Facebook. Or you derive your self-worth only by what others say of about you. To you – to all of us – the messengers say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ spurred this question all those centuries ago. The women made the happy mistake of looking for a dead Christ, when the Risen One was alive again. They brought to the tomb their grief, their tears, and their emptiness. And they left them there because the power of the Risen Christ outshone any desolation left in them.
When we look for life-affirming answers in the midst of life-defeating things, we replicate the women’s happy mistake, but with none of their good intentions. When we look for the living among the dead, we are trudging the well-worn path to the newly hewn grave where a dead messiah awaits. That way is full of tears and lifelessness.
But the good news of the Resurrection is this: when we arrive at the tomb, at rock bottom, at the ends of our ropes, we will find the Living Christ shining radiantly in the midst of our dead messiahs. We will find his empty tomb, which is ready to receive all of our muck, all of our bad choices, all of our life-defeating tendencies. When we deposit all of our dead ends there, we can leave the tomb unencumbered, and chase off after the Risen Christ, fresh, free, and born anew.
DevotiONEighty will be taking a break during the week following Easter. It will return next Monday, April 16th. In the meantime, here is my sermon for the Easter Vigil from Saturday evening. –Adam
(Sermon for Saturday, April 7, 2012 || The Easter Vigil || John 20:1-18 )
If you’ve ever been to a Bible study that I’ve led, then you know that I have a lot of favorite scenes in the Gospel according to John. But the one we just read is easily in the top three. What always strikes me about the scene is the movement from Mary’s desolation when she weeps at the empty tomb to her utter elation when she recognizes the resurrected Christ. John paints the scene with a special tenderness he reserves for only the most intimate of moments between Jesus and his followers. John focuses our attention on this intimate moment, the first reaction to Jesus’ resurrection, because the moment of the resurrection itself is far too mysterious and far too momentous for John to attempt to narrate. That moment belongs to God alone. And so John gives us a sliver of Mary Magdalene’s story – her move from desolation to elation when she realizes that Jesus is still with her as he promised he always would be. And the pivotal moment of this story is Jesus calling her by name.
Names are rare in the Gospel according to John. I went back and counted, and in the entire 21 chapters of the Gospel, Jesus calls exactly four people by name. There’s Simon Peter, first among the disciples. There’s Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back to life. There’s Philip, who had been with Jesus from the beginning. And then there’s Mary, who heads to the tomb before dawn on the first day of the week. In each of the special moments when Jesus calls these four people by name, he is somehow affirming or strengthening his relationships with them.
The first thing Jesus does when he meets Simon is give him the nickname “Peter,” which means “Rock,” which is a pretty cool nickname. We invest all kinds of theological motivation to this name because of Peter being the “rock” on which the church is built. But if they were any two people besides Jesus and Peter, we would see the nicknaming as a sign that their relationship is moving into the territory of good friendship. At the end of the Gospel, Jesus says Peter’s name three times, and this naming reasserts the relationship that Peter had denied three times during Jesus’ trial. In the end, their relationship is repaired because Jesus calls Peter by name.
The Gospel describes Lazarus as “one whom Jesus loves.” When Lazarus dies, Jesus is days away, and Lazarus’s sisters make the faithful accusation that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died at all. So Jesus goes to the tomb and shouts out, “Lazarus, come out.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Lazarus, I raise you from the dead.” Rather, he says, “Come out.” Jesus calls Lazarus by name, but does not give Lazarus the option of remaining in the tomb. The naming is joined to Jesus’ command to return to his family and his friendship with Jesus.
Jesus calls Philip by name after Philip says to him, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.” Jesus replies, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus calls Philip by name in the midst of wondering how Philip could possibly not know him yet after being with him from the beginning. With this, Jesus calls Philip into deeper, more committed relationship with him.
And then there’s Mary Magdalene, who is weeping at the empty tomb. She is desolate, thinking that her Lord’s body had been stolen and possibly desecrated by the people who put him to death. With tears and the fog of despair clouding her vision, she sees the gardener, who asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Could this gardener be in collusion with the body-snatchers, she wonders? And she accuses him of being in on the plot. But then he says the all-important word: “Mary.” And she turns and the desolation vanishes in an instant of delight. And new elation, new hope, new life surges in to fill the void. “Teacher!” she shouts, and I imagine her jumping into his arms. Then Jesus gives her a task – to be the first to proclaim his resurrection.
So why does Jesus saying her name change the story? Why is this the pivotal word? As with Peter, Lazarus, and Philip, saying Mary’s name proves Jesus’ relationship with Mary. Her name is the outward sign of her inward identity. In this way, names are quite sacramental. Know a name and you know something of the person. Who among us didn’t feel elation when we found out our high school crush did, in fact, know our names? On the flip side, take away a name and you begin to take away the humanity of the person. How many Jews had their names erased and exchanged for numbers in the concentration camps?
Saying Mary’s name is Jesus’ shorthand for saying that he has returned just as he promised and that life would never be the same again because their relationship would never end. Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus foreshadowed this when he said, “[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice.” Later in the same passage, Jesus talks about the command from his Father that he “give up” his life in order to “take it up again.” Thus, Jesus links the power of the resurrection with the power of naming, which is really shorthand for the power of relationship.
This is the good news of the resurrection: Christ rose from the dead to show us that nothing, not even death, has the power to keep him from remaining in relationship with us. Christ knows each of our names. They are written in the book of life. They are written on his heart, just as his name is written on ours. As Jesus called Peter, Lazarus, Philip, and Mary to deeper relationship by saying their names, he calls to each of us. He calls to each of us, speaking our names, and thus ourselves, into being.
These names of ours are special things – they carry within them the promise of eternal relationship with God in Christ through the power of the resurrection. So the next time you find yourself in a moment of silence, a moment of peace at the center of the maelstrom of busyness that marks our lives today, just be still. Be still and listen. Be still and listen for the resurrected Christ calling you by name.