Camp Calumet Sermon: “No John Trumbull”

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Matthew 10:24-39

And that’s your Gospel reading. When I’m all ready to preach some peace and love for staff week and confirmation camp at Calumet, Jesus goes all “not peace but a sword” on me. Whoa Jesus.

’Til I moved to New England, I lived most of my adult life in Atlanta, the capital of hip hop. So naturally, when I need a little help, I turn there.

So – some of you may be familiar with a little musical called Hamilton. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a hip hop musical based on exactly what you’d expect a hip hop musical to be about: the life of a real OG, our nation’s first treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton. Written by American actor, rapper, and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, it’s all at once dream-like and a painfully realistic, clear-eyed journey through the Revolution and our nation’s founding.

Now, those of you who are Hamilton superfans will know of another release called the Hamilton Mixtape, in which legendary hip hop and R&B artists had all kinds of fun performing the numbers, adding lyrics, adding their own spin. And the Mixtape also included some deleted numbers from the show.

The first track on the album is one such number. Called “No John Trumbull,” the number was supposed to open the second act, after the Revolution has been won, and after the audience has been left with American pride running through their veins, thinking of how nice and romantic that whole Revolution thing was, similar to a painting by John Trumbull, the artist who captured the famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. 

After the Revolution, the real work of governing begins for Alexander Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers. In what was originally meant to open that second act, legendary artists the Roots give us this short number:

You ever seen a painting by John Trumbull?

Founding fathers in a line, looking all humble

Patiently waiting to sign a declaration, to start a nation,

no sign of disagreement,

Not one grumble?

The reality is messier and richer, kids.

The reality is not a pretty picture, kids.

Every cabinet meeting’s like a full on rumble.

What you’re about to witness is no John Trumbull.” (1)

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John Trumbull’s depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.

We romanticize history, but history is messy. It’s no romantic painting, No John Trumbull. Living together is hard. Governing and leading is hard. Messy. I’m from Alabama. I’m not sure, but there’s a decent chance that my ancestors may have owned and abused other humans in the horror of American slavery. Then there was segregation and the KKK. American history, as any Alabama student who’s paying attention knows, is not pretty. It’s complicated. It’s messy. It’s real.

Good thing we have the church, right?

[Cough]

We spend a lot of time talking about peace and love in the church, and so we should. But we get to feeling too good about ourselves and we often confuse love with being nice. We paint ourselves a John Trumbull — clean lines, nice. Always getting along.

No sign of disagreement, not one grumble.

The reality is messier and richer, kids.

The reality is not a pretty picture, kids.

We try so hard to make out like the church is nice. We like being nice. We’re in New England, for God’s sake, the most polite place since… well, the first England, where the Founding Fathers came from. Being nice seems uncomplicated. Everyone likes you, and people don’t get mad at you too often. And we imagine the early church as this nice place where people shared everything and people loved each other and there was no conflict, no sign of disagreement, not one grumble.
The reality is messier and richer, kids.

The reality is not a pretty picture, kids.
Then there’s the stereotypes about Jesus: meek and mild, nice guy, carries sheep, stares peacefully into distance. We see it in paintings a lot.

But this Gospel reading is no John Trumbull.

Jesus, meek & mild, and talking about how he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword.

And try as we might, the modern church isn’t always nice either. Some of you, unfortunately, know this first hand. If you don’t, ask your pastor their craziest “person who wasn’t nice in their last call” story. Or don’t. Because it’s similar to opening Google and typing “my dog swallowed ….” and waiting for Google to fill in the predictive search. The possibilities are endless and pretty gross.

Some folks think we’ve fallen from grace since those first days of the early church as described in Acts. As nice as that is to think, you’d be wrong there too. Paul is all over the Corinthians for being first century jerks, where everybody had their favorite teacher and they wouldn’t listen to anyone else. “I follow Paul! I follow Apollos!”

If you read those epistles closely, you’ll see that, long before Ms. Beatrice came for the property committee over the color of the carpet, Theomestros came for Agatha over eating meat dedicated to idols.

The reality is messier and richer, kids.

The reality is not a pretty picture, kids.

‘Kay. I get it. No more Reverend Nice Church. So if we’re not a nice church, what kind of church are we?

Assuming Jesus really meant all of this stuff, which I feel like is generally a good idea, it would seem that being nice isn’t an option, but we know that Jesus has also called us to love one another.

And real love is no John Trumbull. It’s messier and richer, kids.

Love often isn’t nice. Love is hard.

Sometimes you have to deal with difficult people or tell people what they don’t want to hear or speak your truth and trust the other person to still love you anyway. Love can get messy, but it’s also real — more beautiful than any painting.

In the church, you will find bickering and anger, but you will also find people who are trying their hardest to follow Jesus and to welcome everyone in and to seek justice and really love one another. And that’s hard stuff.

The truth is that real love, real justice, takes work. Too often when we’re nice, we don’t want to rock the boat. But the truth is that sometimes that boat needs rocking. The world is imperfect, and people are getting hurt every day, and we’re called to stand up and do something about that, because defending vulnerable people is what love looks like — and that can be hard. We’ll disagree on who and what and how to rock what boat and when.

Every council meeting’s like a full on rumble

What you’re about to witness is no John Trumbull.

The difference between niceness and love is the difference between a painting of a nature scene and the beauty you see around you in this place. One is beautiful, with no bugs or humidity, but it’s also only a shadow of the real thing. The other one is actual wilderness, where the weather isn’t always nice and where you can be uncomfortable and sometimes even get hurt — but it’s deep, and real, and beautiful, with real water and real trees and real fresh air. You can touch the trees and feel the breeze. It’s difficult for me to stand on the shores of Lake Ossipee and not feel something, even if it’s hot, or there are bugs. It’s real.

This week in confirmation camp we’re talking about the ways that God shows up here at camp and back home in your church — we call it Holy Things, things like water and fire and and table —  the ways that God shows up in the midst of our mess and still calls us beloved, makes us new, makes us whole.

Paraphrasing Martha Whitmore Hickman, we are not perfect. [We’re not even always nice.] Instead, we are loved. And that’s real.

If you want, I can talk to you about the mess and the pain that I’ve seen in church and the ways I’ve gotten hurt. I’ve had my heart broken by church people a few times. But I can’t talk about that without talking about the love I’ve found in the Church, and not just in some far away spiritual sense, but in a real sense, the kind I can see and hear and touch and taste: in Bread, Wine, Water, and Words, and in these messy people we call the Church. In real people who wrapped their arms around me and told me that I was loved and good enough when the world had told me otherwise. Those who made my baptismal promises real, more than just words on a page. I am loved. So are you.

We’re not perfect, but God keeps showing up among us.

The reality is messier and richer, kids. And it’s more beautiful than any John Trumbull.

It’s messier because we’re sinners. It’s richer because God has made us saints.

And so let us, beloved, gather around this table where God shows up and makes all things new. It’s no picture perfect painting. It’s much messier, and richer, than that.

What you’re about to witness is no John Trumbull. It’s better. It’s love. Amen.

1. “No John Trumbull,” Hamilton Mixtape, 2016. If you’re a Spotify user, you can listen here. [Caution: some songs may not be appropriate for small children.]

Going Green: “Tell Me Something Good!”

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Flashback to 1974.

Matthew 9:35-10:8

I just want to go on record and say that I hate almost any statement that starts with “these days.” Because quite often, people, no matter how old they are or aren’t, are just speaking for what they’ve seen as adults, not the actual reality and scope of human history.

For example, no, we are not more violent these days. That is a ridiculous statement if you’ve ever read a history book. Violence is a human problem, not a modern one.

I’m willing to make an exception for substantive claims based on big changes to the way we relate to each other — and the 24 hour news cycle is one of those changes, exacerbated by the immediate availability of breaking news information right on our smart phones.

We hear news, all day, every day.

Just this week:

A man opened fire on Republicans practicing for the annual congressional baseball game. Steve Scalise, House majority whip, was among the injured.

We learned from the President himself that he is personally under investigation.

The police officer who shot Philando Castile was acquitted of manslaughter charges.

A fire in London claimed the lives of many people — the exact toll we don’t know yet, but it’s now soared to over 50.

A US warship collided with a much larger merchant vessel off the coast of Japan. Seven US sailors are presumed dead.

And finally, just yesterday, Bill Cosby’s sexual assault trial is declared a mistrial, while another trial in Massachusetts has landed a young woman behind bars for encouraging the suicide of her friend.

There is so much pain, and many of us are getting it all in real time, right on our smart phones. Every time I hear the telltale :do do doop: alert, my stomach drops. It’s rarely good news.

In all of this bad news, I’m reminded of the 1974 hit by Rufus and Chaka Khan:
“Tell me something good!”

And then you come to church. We all come here for a wide variety of reasons: some of you have been coming here for years because you love this church, its mission, and its people. Some of you have been coming here for only a short while, but you come because you love the liturgy and you love the warmth of the people here. But hopefully you all come for the same primary reason, whether you’ve been coming here for decades or whether you only just started:

You need to hear some Good News.
“Tell me something good!”

:dododoop!: News alert:

“New rabbi, Jesus, going about all the cities and villages, teaches in synagogues, proclaims the good news of the kingdom, and cures numerous diseases.”

These days, we don’t much hear good news. Those in Israel in the first century didn’t either.

Jesus shares some Good News with people in another age where good news was sorely needed: the Israelites were oppressed by Rome. They saw their neighbors killed for no reason in their occupied homeland. They often feared for their own lives. And they reached out to Jesus with the same cry we have today:

“Tell me something good!”

And he did. He healed their sick and he proclaimed the coming kingdom — fear not, beloved, the pain you see today will not always be. God is coming. God is here.

We’ve heard the church described as a filling station, a place where we can refresh ourselves for the week to come, where we can dare sit in our divided world with people of multiple political persuasions and leave with good news of God’s good grace for all of us, and with hope for the world — that the pain we see today will not always be. God is coming. God is here.

Summer is when the church goes green and stays green for quite awhile: my stole, the paraments. We call this “ordinary time.” You may assume that we call it ordinary time because it stands in contrast to the seasons of the church year: it’s not Advent, it’s not Lent, it’s not Christmas or Easter or Pentecost. It’s just ordinary. Plain. Nothing happening here.

But you’ll notice in your bulletin that each Sunday from here on out will be numbered — “second Sunday after Pentecost.” “Third Sunday after Pentecost.” Through the summer and deep into the fall, we will count: “Tenth Sunday after Pentecost.” “Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.”

And so on.

What “ordinary” actually means isn’t “plain.” It means “counted days.” “Ordered days.”

Pentecost was a big day for the disciples and a big day for us: the Holy Spirit made its appearance. We added new members and confirmed one of our own in a beautiful service. We finished up our yearly telling of the story of Jesus and today, we begin to tell the story of the church in ordered, counted days.

There is no longer a followable story of Jesus to tell. Now we hear the teachings of Jesus and we begin to imagine what they mean for our story. Our story, together, week by week.

Because the truth, beloved, is that we don’t live most of our lives in Advent, waiting for something to happen, or in Easter, when we celebrate. Most of us live the majority of our lives in counted, ordinary days, when we get up, we do what must be done, we hopefully grow, and we go to bed.

But most of you know that it’s in the ordinary days, at least as much as in the high and low seasons, that we begin to figure out who we really are. It’s in those times that we focus and we order our days and we hopefully grow as human beings. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to really grow as a professional or a parent or a human being during the hectic seasons of our lives. When things finally settle down and become ordinary, we say, “Okay, now I can focus on personal growth.”

Maybe that’s why the church, in all its wisdom, painted this season green, the color of growth. This is when, week in and week out, after a week of hearing horrible news in the headlines, we come together and we all say to the church together:

“Tell me something good.”

In today’s Gospel story, the church in all its wisdom includes this story: one where Jesus tells and shows the good news — fear not, beloved, the pain you see today will not always be. God is coming. God is here.

And that’s not the end of the story. Because you see, the Gospel would be boring and cheap if it weren’t participatory.

It’s natural to hear news and then spread it. For every recent big story that has broken in recent years, I have heard phones go off and immediately, people begin to turn to their neighbors and face the screens towards them or whisper what just happened. And if the story is big enough, people get on their feet to react: depending on what the story is, there are protests, or vigils, or service days organized immediately. News is meant to be shared — in word and in action. If it’s not shared, friends, it’s just not big news.

Obvious statement of the morning: we are not the only people who need to hear Good News these days. We’re not the only people getting more depressing news by the minute on our smartphones and tablets and laptops. We’ve got the whole world crying out:

“Tell me something good!”

So let’s tell them: Fear not, beloved, the pain you see today will not always be. God is coming. God is here. You just have to look.

This summer, our liturgy is explicitly for beginners, and for you. Each piece, you might have noticed, is explained: what it is, why we do it, and why it matters. So that we can, in these ordinary days, grow. So that we can hear the Good News and be sent out by our assisting minister each week: “Go in peace, share the Good News!” and the congregation responds: [wait]

And the sign outside beckons for people to come share life with us. The slogan, shamelessly stolen from a Lutheran church in Atlanta, is pure good news and invitation: a message to the community that we exist for them, with an open invitation — come hear some good news. Come share life with us.

And so, during these ordinary days, when things have slowed to a summer’s crawl and we are no longer tied up in the obligations of winter and spring, let’s grow, as creation outside deepens its green. Because, and I mean every word of this: God knows people need to hear some good news these days.

So let’s go — tell ‘em something good. Amen.

Trinity Sunday: The Doubting Faithful


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One of my friend Jessie’s many Katahdin photos.

Matthew 28:16-20

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”

My friend Jessie hiked the Appalachian Trail last year. This year, she ventured to Nepal to hike. In a few days, she’s headed off to Burkina Faso to serve with the Peace Corps.

As I was hiking briefly along the Trail in the Berkshires with her last summer, I began to feel the weight of my day pack and the incline of the hill and it occurred to me: why do we like discomfort? We were making ourselves uncomfortable on purpose. In Jessie’s case, it was for the cause of walking all the way from Georgia to Maine, a venture some might say was foolish. She had some serious doubts about whether she’d finish, doubts that every AT hiker has — as they say, “no pain, no rain, no Maine” — but she did it. When she reached the base of Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail, she signed the camp log with her trail name, Thin Mint, saying “Thin Mint never thought she’d make it this far.”

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”

Now a Southern Baptist youth group assembled in Alabama in the early 2000s and professed faith in Jesus. They raised their hands and worshiped Jesus, but some doubted. Fifteen years later, one of those teenagers knelt as her bishop and her community laid hands on her and ordained her. She thought she’d never make it that far.

That was me.

Now the people gathered together in South Hadley, Massachusetts, to worship Jesus. But some doubted. Some were hurting from things that were happening in their lives. Some had intellectual doubts. Some weren’t sure what they believed anymore. But they still came, even though a few of them didn’t know why.

Doubt is uncomfortable. It’s been cast down by the Church for years as a lack of faith, as dangerous to our mortal souls. Others have been shamed for it: “If you would just pray and not doubt, you would be healed.” Still others have been accused of betraying Jesus simply for asking questions.

But if we cannot ask our questions and express our doubts in church, where can we?

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost. The Church in all its wisdom put this day on the calendar one week after the Holy Spirit makes its appearance in our yearly retelling of the story of Jesus.

The Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Trinity: Creator, Christ, and Holy Ghost.
The Trinity: Parent, Child, and Special Effect.

The Trinity: an impossible doctrine to explain to anyone who is not a Christian. It’s just bad math, quite frankly. 3=1 and 1=3? God is one, but three, all at the same time?

My Episcopal priest friend posted on Facebook this week that she’s sick and has been prescribed cough syrup, and she was honestly hoping that codeine it would make the Trinity make a little more sense. As far as I know, she had no luck.

A favorite professor of mine in college, who taught a class on world religions, would do her best to answer our questions on religion and even theology. A faithful Episcopalian, she was the first person I ever met who claimed to be both a Democrat and a Christian. Up to that point, to quote King George in the musical Hamilton, “I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.”

This professor fascinated me, not simply for claiming what I once thought were competing identities. She fascinated me because she was the first Christian I met who was willing to say, as an answer to questions about theology, that she didn’t know.

Pastors everywhere are tasked with explaining the Trinity today. How does it work? How is God one, but also three, but also one?

I don’t know.

You might as well ask an educated anteater to explain astrophysics. Do I believe it? Yes. Can I explain it? Well, I can try, but every metaphor you try to give to the inexplicable falls apart rather quickly.

Do I sometimes have my doubts simply because there’s no perfect way of explaining or understanding an infinite and inexplicable God? Of course. And I think it’s about time we got more honest about that — I’m no better at this whole faith thing than you are. In fact, I have had the privilege of being the pastor to countless people who have far more faith than I do. I just happen to be okay with the discomfort of leading and doubting and following all at the same time. And to be honest, I never thought I’d make it this far, but here I am.

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”

This weekend, while many of you enjoyed the nice summer weather, Bob, LauraLee, and I ventured to Springfield for synod assembly. There was someone there from LEAD, an organization within our denomination that provides materials for study and spiritual formation. The presenter said that the biggest thing standing in the way of people being active in their churches, of talking about faith with their neighbors, and of serving is this: they don’t feel confident enough or articulate enough to explain doctrines. Like the doctrine, I suppose, of the Trinity.

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”

Some doubted. We don’t know who. Could’ve been any of them. Could’ve even been most of them. Matthew didn’t say it was only a few.

But all of them received the charge and promise that followed: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

This is where it occurs to me that if Jesus had wanted to single out the doubters and send them away, he would have. He didn’t.

Instead, the doubters get sent with everyone else. Go, doubters. “Preach faith until you have faith.” (1) And remember: I am with you always, to the end of time. Jesus draws no lines between those who are certain and those who doubt on that day, and neither do we. We draw no lines between those of us who can accurately explain and expound upon theology and those who just know there’s something about this Jesus guy that keeps them coming back, but for the record, I’m in the second group.

Doubt is uncomfortable. Faith is uncomfortable. This whole church thing is uncomfortable. And maybe you think you could never be a leader, but I can tell you that there’s at least one person in this room — me — who’s felt the same way. But here I am. And here you are.

When my friend Jessie finished the Appalachian Trail, she wrote, “So many people have told me that they themselves couldn’t do a thru hike or something like it; that it’s unattainable for them. The point I’d like to drive home is that I am not exceptional, and this hike, while difficult in certain ways, does not make me special. The hardest thing about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for me was deciding to go; after that it was no more dangerous than walking down the street in Atlanta. …When it came down it, all I did was walk for my allotted number of hours each day, stubbornly. Anyone can do this, and they have. Sometimes when I was unhappy with how my walking was going I would remind myself that blind people and 4 year olds have done this.” (2) 

We all have doubts. We have doubts about whether we should be here and whether we’re faithful enough and whether we believe hard enough. But the truth is that all we have to do is show up, and even when we don’t do that, the Holy Spirit still has a way of finding us. So don’t worry if you’ve got doubts. Look around. You’re not the only one.

Doubt is uncomfortable, but discomfort is how we accomplish things and it’s how we grow. It’s the only way Jessie got from Georgia to Maine — a stubbornness and a willingness to just keep walking and a high tolerance for discomfort.

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”

May God bless you with both doubts and the assurance that you are not alone. I’d like to leave you with a Benedictine blessing posted on Facebook by a friend this week:

“May the Creator bless you with discomfort
at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you will live deep in your heart.

May the Son bless you with anger
at injustice and oppression, and exploitation of people and the earth, so that you will work for justice and peace.

May the Spirit bless you with tears
to shed for those who suffer, so that you will reach out your hand to comfort them.

And may God almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless you with foolishness
to think that you can make a difference in the world, so that you will do all the things which others say cannot be done.” (3)

Discomfort is part of doing difficult things, just as doubt is part of faith. But take heart, my friends: discomfort has its own advantages, and doubts or no doubts, we are all loved, we are all called, we are all sent: doubters too. Amen.

(1) Quote attributed to John Wesley, founder of Methodism.
(2) You can read more about Jessie’s adventures here.
(3) 
Traditional Benedictine blessing, lightly edited for Trinity Sunday.

Pentecost: Life is a Team Sport

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“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place…”

Acts 2:1-21

Today, like last week, is a special day: we welcome Shianne, a person of musical talent and keen insight on faith — who will claim the promises made for her in baptism for herself in confirmation. And we’ll welcome Mary and Faye, who’ve been joining us for awhile now, as they affirm their baptism and officially join our fold.

Not only am I overjoyed to welcome these beloved people, but I confess, I’m overjoyed for their many gifts too — Faye’s keen theological insight and bent for mysticism, Mary’s warm smile and steady resilience and accordion playing, and Shianne’s mad flute skills and infectious laugh (and she’s a budding theologian herself) and her deep love for and commitment to her friends, family, and church.

Each of these people can do things that no one else here can do. Each of you can do things no one else here can do. It takes all kinds.

I saw a story this week, here in the height of graduation season, about how high school valedictorians don’t often grow up to become millionaires or the world’s innovators. Though 90% of them end up in professional careers (like doctors and lawyers) and a little under half go on to get graduate degrees, they don’t usually grow up to become famous innovators. Because, apparently, academic success encourages conformity rather than free thought. Real geniuses, the video posited, tend to struggle in school. (1)

I couldn’t help thinking, “That may be so, but thank God someone is really good at learning the rules and playing the game well! We need ordinary doctors!”

We need ordinary doctors and lawyers and accountants and teachers. We need ordinary construction workers and mechanics and plumbers and factory workers and farmers.

Society wouldn’t run without all kinds of humans.

Life is a team sport, people. Let’s stop figuring out who’s inferior to whom.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.”

Blink twice and you might miss that opening as if it were some insignificant detail. But then you remember that Luke, the guy who wrote Acts, was probably a physician, and doctors don’t tend to give insignificant details.

This was for all of them. No one could be missing.

They all get the same gift, but at the same time, they don’t. There’s a reason we talk about the Holy Spirit in terms of fire and wind. These are not things that we can control. These are not all things whose forms, intensities, or effects always look the same.

It won’t take long before Paul will start writing of the fruits of the spirit and the different gifts of the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians, a letter Paul wrote to church folks who couldn’t stop bickering, Paul wrote, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7, NRSV).

He’ll write to the folks in Rome about how it’s the Spirit who makes the church work. It’s why we’ve got folks willing to preach, others willing to teach Sunday school, others who are good at serving others or providing hospitality or visiting people in the hospital or cleaning out the gutters. The Holy Spirit makes this whole messy church thing work. Our differences make the world work.

Life is a team sport, people.

I talk about it all the time, as do all of us: we are a deeply divided nation. I find myself continually deeply disturbed at how we don’t just disagree between parties anymore — we occupy entirely different realities.

I read a New York Times article this week about how we assume, politically, that we are so divided because of filter bubbles and what we call “confirmation bias”: we gravitate towards opinions that are already the same as ours.

This article posited that maybe we’re conflating confirmation bias — wanting what we think to be confirmed —- with the related desirability bias — wanting to be told what we want to hear. Confirmation bias and desirability bias usually are the same for us in our politics: what we want to believe is what we believe. But it’s not always true of life: quite often we think bad things will happen even if we don’t want them to. In other words, a pessimist doesn’t want to believe that the world to burn, they just believe it will.

But in order to change your politics, you have to want to believe something different. It doesn’t usually matter, if the facts presented contradict our beliefs — we cling ever more tightly to the reality that we want to believe. The article was pessimistically entitled, “You’re Not Going to Change Your Mind.” (2)

But we’ve all changed our minds on something hard before. We all have things we used to believe strongly that we don’t anymore. At least for me, it’s always been because I knew somebody — somebody who was affected directly by whatever thing I had an opinion about.

As Harvey Milk, the first openly LGBTQ elected official, and how he used to say “They vote for us 2 to 1 if they know they know one of us.”

Things change when you know someone.

We all agree that we don’t like the state of things. But if anything’s going to change, as much as we hate it, we need each other. We need someone who believes differently and has a completely different experience than we do.

Life is a team sport, people.

I’m not going to say something trite about how if we all just talked we’d work our problems out. I hate it when people do that.

Talk!? Why didn’t we think of that?!

But you know, maybe things might get better if we stopped yelling at each other on the Internet and over the dinner table and started meeting with a common identity to ask and answer questions we can all wrestle with:

Why are we here?
What keeps you up at night?
What keeps you going?
What is precious to you?
And finally,
What can we do together?

There are many places this can happen, but it’s been happening for centuries in places of worship. Religion has for sure been a destructive force in the world, but it also has a way of helping us get real. It asks us who we are and why we’re here and where we’re going and it doesn’t work if we all have the same experience and gifts and opinions. We need each other.

Life is a team sport, people.

Of course, it’s not easy to do life together. The Holy Spirit is wind and flame: it can be comforting, like a campfire or a gentle breeze — or it can be highly uncomfortable.
The same is true of church.

But “when the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.”

We are here together. You — Shianne, Mary, Faye, and all the rest of you — you are part of us. You have experience that no one else here has. You can do things no one else can do. And it won’t always be easy, but we’re here, and we’re together. And I’m glad you’re on our team. Amen.

(1) The study referenced is outlined here.
(2) Read the Times article yourself here.

Easter 7 / Ascension: Water – It’s an Identity Thing.

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The Colorado River from the Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, TX.

Acts 1:6-14

When Bodhi was born, both Ken and Bonnie, his proud grandparents, called me separately to make sure I knew. This kiddo was a church kid from the start.

I dropped by that afternoon to meet Bodhi and visit his parents. Admittedly, I wasn’t feeling great when I left the house: I was stressed, and I had gotten tied up in other matters so that it was it was almost rush hour in Springfield by the time I left. It was just one of those days everyone has when I was wondering why I do what I do and what the heck I was doing in Massachusetts. Then, because of my adversarial relationship with my GPS and my newness to the area, I got lost along the way.

But when I got there, saw the joy in his parents’ faces, and held this new little life, it all faded away. I was reminded that there is still hope and love and hope new life in the world, despite all the stress. I remembered, suddenly, clearly, why I do what I do, and exactly what I’m doing in Massachusetts. That was Bodhi’s first gift to me. He helped me remember who I am.

Identity is important to us as human beings.

This week, I had the opportunity to go to Austin, Texas. Austin has quite a reputation and a well-known sense of identity. This is Austin, and this is who it is: as they say, “Keep Austin weird.” It’s an identity thing.

With my friend in Austin, Braxton, at work for most of one day, I set off to explore. Braxton gave me a scavenger hunt of things to find related to Austin’s unique identity: an all-organic hipster food truck. A dude on a stand up paddle board on the river in the middle of the city. A cool cowboy hat. A five way intersection. Hip cowboy boots. Socially woke graffiti. Someone playing the mandolin.

This is who Austin is.

In search of someone on a stand up paddle board, I walked from Braxton’s house over to the nearest extension of the Colorado River: Longhorn Dam and Lady Bird Lake. The Colorado River is an integral part of Austin’s cityscape, but regardless, I would’ve gone looking for it anyway. If there is a prominent body of water in any place I visit, I can’t help but to gravitate towards it. I’ve never been quite sure why — maybe it’s some primal instinct telling me to find water. Maybe my DNA hasn’t caught up to indoor plumbing. 

No matter my motivations, to be able to set my feet in the water helps me to feel connected to a place, like I’m really there, grounded, in that place. It helps me to get introduced to who a place is, and it helps remind me of who I am.

Of course, there’s the spiritual stuff too: water makes me think of baptism, of being claimed by God, and of God’s presence in that place. Last summer when I was at Camp Calumet, our synod camp in New Hampshire, and tasked with doing children’s devotions, and I talked about Calumet’s identity, and everyone’s desire to bring Calumet home to their church, and pointed out that what’s beautiful about Calumet is also beautiful about everyone’s church: bread and wine, loving people, God’s Word, and water (in the lake and in the font). And yes, while at Calumet, I spent a lot of time sitting by Lake Ossipee. Water reminds me of who I am, and of whose I am. It’s an identity thing.

Even before I could articulate any connection of water to God or baptism or anything of the sort, I felt it. As a teenager I used to get all mystical when I listened to a Jars of Clay song called “River Constantine” as I stared out across any wide river. My favorite lyrics were, “River deep / Could I know you as well as you know me … will we travel faster, farther than these legs could ever trustworthy be?” (1)

I loved the uncertainty of it all: “will we travel faster farther than these legs could ever trustworthy be?” I was raised in a “name it and claim it” denomination, but I’ve always been a realist. I’ve never wanted God to guarantee me success, as if I were some Old Testament hero. Plenty of people who thought that God was guaranteeing them success have failed, or worse, they’ve been misguided and done terrible things in God’s name. Instead, what I’ve always wanted instead was a guarantee of God’s presence, and that, we all received when Jesus ascended. Water reminds me of that promise of presence, of who I am, and of whose I am. It’s an identity thing.

Today we celebrate the ascension, or as a lady in Amsterdam described it to me once when explaining why the post office was closed, “When Jesus… [mumbles while waving her hand upwards].” It’s not a holiday we easily connect to, here at the end of Easter. We just put the cap on the white of Easter and break out the red of Pentecost for next week and stare up and imagine Jesus floating upwards (like on the cover of your bulletin). But there’s a little more to connect with than that — besides an excuse to climb a mountain (shameless plug: we’re hiking this coming Saturday, meet at the church at 9AM).

Look, we talk about it all the time — the world seems to be going crazy, and a lot of things are uncertain. Though it may feel particularly acute these days, this has always been true, and this will be true for the foreseeable future. There are times when we aren’t sure if we’ll be up to the task of living, much less raising kids, in this time in history.

Though we think of the ascension as an awe-inspiring event, in reality, the world must have been so confusing and anxiety-producing for the disciples: their leader was executed, and then resurrected, and now they saw him carried off into the clouds from a mountain, leaving them with a whole lot of work and hardship in front of them. They lived, after all, in Israel, their homeland that was being militarily occupied by Rome, a superpower.

And so, it’s understandable that in the Acts reading from today, they would ask Jesus for a little comfort: “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6). I think they were secretly hoping he’d come and kick Rome’s butt and make everything okay and make the road ahead smooth for them.

Of course, he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus responds not with a Roman or Pharisaic butt kicking, but with instructions: they are to be witnesses of what they’ve seen and heard. At the end of Matthew he adds, famously: “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

God doesn’t guarantee success or help us spike the football or make the path easy. God does promise love and presence, and we remember those in baptism. In baptism we are beloved. In baptism we are sealed with the Holy Spirit who is with us forever. We remember who we are, and whose we are. It’s an identity thing.

Before I left for Austin, I wanted to do one quick thing to get ready for Bodhi’s baptism today: change the sign. I’d asked Bodhi’s parents the week before to make sure that it was a welcome gesture. We’ve done this for baptisms before, but this time I refined the message a bit. “Bodhi is a child of God” is broadcasting the message that God has already spoken and that we’ll recognize in his baptism in a few minutes. And putting it on the sign was as much a message for the future as the present.

You see, my friend Kathleen grew up Lutheran and has a baptismal banner she received as a baby that says, in felt letters, “Kathleen is Jesus’ child.” As cheesy as she acknowledges that it is, it’s something she treasures on the days when it’s easy to feel abandoned, off course, or unloved. When the message she hears from the world outside is anything but what the banner says, she takes comfort in these words from her home church: she belongs to Jesus. It’s an identity thing. (2)

She is sharp and witty and sarcastic and tough, and she loves that felt banner.

So I hope someday Bodhi will see a photo of the sign and remember that, no matter what message the world gives him about himself, no matter how hard things get or how uncertain the world is, God has already spoken the truth: Bodhi, like all of us, is a child of God.

And we, his church, are here to make a promise to always remind him of his belovedness. I hope that, just as Bodhi reminded me on the day of his birth who I am, that I — and we, his family, church family, and his beloved friends and neighbors — will be able to do the same thing for him in the years to come. No matter what the world says to you, Bodhi, you are beloved. To remind you of that, you have water, and you have us.
It’s an identity thing.

Jesus says, “You are witnesses of these things.” Today, you, no matter what your relationship to Bodhi’s family, are witnesses of God’s love for Bodhi, which is the same for God’s love of all of us — and we have water as a reminder. We are so loved.

We are witnesses. And today we promise that, in the years to come, we’ll continue to remind Bodhi, his siblings and his parents and his grandparents, and each other, of who we are: God’s children. We have water — in the font, in your sink, in the river and wherever you go,  as a reminder: you are loved, you are claimed, and you are God’s child, and surely God is with you, even to the end of the age.

This is church, and this is who we are. It’s an identity thing. Amen.

1. Jars of Clay, “River Constantine,” If I Left the Zoo, Essential Records, 1999.
2. Personal conversation (shared with permission) with the Rev. Kathleen Royston, Mount Olivet United Methodist Church, Arlington, VA.

When the Holy Spirit Shows Up — in the Form of a Bunch of New Englanders

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Sometimes the Holy Spirit shows up looking like this! 🙂
Photo: our 2016 picnic at the summit of Mt. Holyoke to celebrate the Ascension of Our Lord — happening again this year on June 3. Email Pr. Anna at oslcpastor@comcast.net for more information!)

Acts 17:22-31
John 14:15-21

Since moving to New England, it’s becoming clearer than ever to me how the places that we occupy shape us, and how God shapes us through those places.

Just for example, when I lived in the South, I was largely not in tune with the temperature outside. It mostly went from “cool,” to “kinda cold,” to “warm,” to “really stinking hot,” but I didn’t have to pay much attention to it other than turning on the central electric heat and AC at the right times and occasionally opening a window when it was really nice outside. I also had to pay attention to it in order to dress correctly (especially while I lived in Atlanta and often traveled via foot or bike). But indoors? It didn’t really affect me. If the weather got really extreme, and by “really extreme” we meant a really hot day or an inch of snow, we just stayed inside.

These days, however, I live differently. Here, in a place where air conditioning in every building is not a guarantee, and where about 1-4” of winter snow is no more worth commenting on than a spring rainstorm. Nothing really stops here unless the weather really does get pretty crazy — which looks less like an inch of snow and more like fifteen with snow blindness.

It was pretty intimidating when I first moved here. To move one’s whole life across the country and come to a town where I knew no one except those of you that I’d met once or twice before — in a place where the weather does crazy things and it was going to be my responsibility to survive — was a little scary.

Jesus said, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.” (John 14:18)

Our Gospel today is Jesus talking to his disciples before the crucifixion. He promises to send the Holy Spirit — which he calls this Greek word “paraclete” that doesn’t have a good translation in English. It means “advocate,” which is how our translation rendered it, but it also means “comforter,” “counselor,” “intercessor,” “consoler,” and a number of other things.

And Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

We’ve often imagined this as Jesus sending us a spirit of inner peace. And it’s certainly that.

But I remember something different about when I moved here. “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you,” was about you as much as it was about a simple feeling, maybe even more.

This doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit didn’t show up. Quite the contrary. The Holy Spirit showed up big time.

It just happened to show up in the form of a bunch of New Englanders. In having an already-stocked pantry when I moved in, in meals delivered to my doorstep, in lessons about how to deal with snow and ice and cooling my house even without the aid of AC.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

Through you, I learned to acclimate to the crazy weather and I learned about the area and I found a home I’ve grown quite fond of. I became more connected to the weather outside. Where I once was a Southerner addicted to air conditioning, I now look at overdressed Southerners who complain about the heat like they have four heads: of course you’re hot, honey. You have on long sleeves.

For sure, the places that we are in shape us — at least in part because the Holy Spirit is always after us: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

The Greeks in our first reading had also been shaped by the space they occupied — a story which Paul tells like this: “I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

We need each other. As Nadia Bolz-Weber says, “The hearing of the Word implies having someone right there doing the telling.” (1)

Often, the Holy Spirit shows up in us. 

I admit that I struggled with what to talk about this morning after the week we’ve had in the news. We established long ago that telling you what to think about the facts of politics is not only deeply theologically wrong but also above my pay grade, but at the same time, it is also part of my job description to help you make sense of the world and figure out your place in it and our place in it as Lutherans and as Christians.

As we say in the South when faced with a nearly impossible task that we still must find a way to solve: Welp. Get out the duct tape and here we go.

We talk a lot about “fake news” these days, and we’ve got so much information getting thrown at us that that a portion of what we see every day is bound to be objectively false. On top of that, a shocking number of us lack the basic skills necessary to distinguish between verifiable facts and these entirely fabricated untruths. This is true of people on the right and the left — we’re anxious and drowning in a sea of information and we’re mired in controversy and the only thing we know right now is that we’re here together.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

Remember: sometimes the Holy Spirit shows up in other people. In this divided nation, this is a place where die-hard Republicans and blue-blooded Democrats and independents and third party folks and people who don’t or can’t vote come to the same table and eat the same bread and worship the same God every single week. This is a place where liberals and conservatives eat dinner together and hold each other’s children and giggle with one another’s grandchildren.

And that seems really nice, but it doesn’t always mean it’s easy or comfortable. It doesn’t mean that sometimes we don’t have wildly different interpretations of the news or even what it means to be the Church these days.

You see, the Holy Spirit has a way of stirring things up. The images at Pentecost for the Holy Spirit aren’t exactly cute and fuzzy: tongues of fire. Rushing wind.

The Holy Spirit has a way of stirring things up, of turning things upside down, of pushing us to be more than we were before.

Now, make no mistake: the Gospel has political implications. However, one of my pet peeves is when people use the word “Gospel” when they clearly don’t mean “Good News.”

The Gospel is Good News. For for all people. If it’s not Good News for all people, it’s not the Gospel.

If there’s one thing we must resist, it’s the politicization of values. We must speak up for the voiceless. We must include the un-included. Christianity is not partisan: it demands that we care for and love and serve all.

We must love each other and the world, even when it’s hard. Because God is love. Because love, even and maybe especially when it’s difficult, is the work of the Holy Spirit.

And it’s not always easy or comforting, but this kind of love is Good News for all people.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

Jesus shows up in bread and wine. Jesus shows up in baptismal water.

Jesus shows up in the Word of God proclaimed — and that means that sometimes, Jesus shows up in us.

“Hearing the Word of God implies someone right there doing the telling.” (ibid)

One way or another, Jesus always shows up in love.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

So let’s continue to remind each other. Let’s continue to look for the ways the Holy Spirit shows up here, especially in each other. In this divided nation in this divided world, it won’t be easy. Life together with other people is always hard work, and it seems even harder these days. We will fight and we will struggle and we’ll mess up and offend each other and sometimes, we will have to deal with the all-too-familiar discomfort of having someone we love deeply occupy an entirely different reality than we do. But we will love, and God will be here.

Theologian Fredrich Beuchner put it this way:
“Wherever people love each other and are true to each other and take risks for each other, God is with them and they are doing God’s will.”

So let this be a place where we love each other and are true to each other, where we take risks for each other both by having hard conversations and by speaking up for those in danger and defending the vulnerable — and by trusting each other that each of us is trying to follow Jesus the best way we know how.

And you know — the places that you occupy really do shape you. Just as I came to get used to ice and snow and heat without AC because of you, just as some of the Athenians were open to Paul’s message because they had left space open in their minds for an unknown god — this place and this environment can shape us, too. If we can find a way to continue to live together here and do good in the world despite our differences, maybe it’ll shape how we live out there. And maybe, just maybe, this place can help shape our little corner of the world. Maybe, because of us, the nation and the world can be just a little less divided than they were before.

Jesus said, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

May love find you in this place: no matter who you are, where you came from, whom or what you love, or what you hold as a political reality. The bread and wine are for you. The love in this church is for you.

You are invited into the mystery of the unknown — of figuring out what God would have us do and be in the world. And the best part of all is that the Holy Spirit, one way or another, always finds us. God will not leave us orphaned in this crazy world: God is coming to us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Accidental Saints.

“Gimmie Shelter”: Rolling Stones, Living Stones, Cornerstone

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1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

Have you ever thought about what your life would be like if it were a movie?

Yeah, of course you have. I mean, maybe you have. I have.

Most people imagine which esteemed acting professional would portray them. As for me, I’ve given way more thought to the music. Well, at least one part of it.

The opening sequence, as you trace the rural roads through Alabama to begin the portrayal of my childhood, is “Gimmie Shelter” by the Rolling Stones.

The wavering electric guitar reflects the roads shimmering in the Alabama summer heat as peanut and cotton fields roll past.

I don’t know what happens after that. I just like music.

And “Gimmie Shelter” is a song that could be a precursor to any of our lives, though admittedly it’s more contemporary to some of our lives than others. But my Baby Boomer father, a Vietnam vet who loves good music, helped raise me, and the Rolling Stones taught me about the state of the world as they knew it, and it is the way I came to understand it, through my own experience and through the news:

“Oh, a storm is threat’ning

My very life today

If I don’t get some shelter

Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

War, children, it’s just a shot away

It’s just a shot away…” (1)

This outlook may seem bleak, but it gave me a realistic picture of what the world was like — in 1969 when the song came out, in 2001, and in 2017. It’s just a shot away.

Disaster hangs out on our doorstep all the time. On a personal, national, and international scale, we’re usually closer to the brink of catastrophe than we think — it’s just that sometimes we’re more aware of how crazy things have gotten than others.

Even when it comes to a joyful day like Mother’s Day, we know that this is not a day of joy for everyone. Some of us have longed to shelter a child but have been unable to conceive or adopt. Others have experienced pain at the hands of children and grandchildren whom we long to shelter. Finally, not all of us have received comfort and shelter from our mothers and grandmothers. Some of us have experienced mostly pain and abuse and long for reconciliation that may never come.

Our government and world, too, teeters on the edge of disaster.

In early April 2017, the Huffington Post High Line published an article called “This is How the Next World War Starts,” describing how US intelligence planes have been barrel rolled by Russian fighters in recent months. This kind of thing isn’t unheard of ever, but it seems, according to the article, to be happening with increasing frequency: how the next world war could start “With one miscalculation, by one startled pilot, at 400 miles an hour.” (2)

Though it’s been happening with increasing frequency, we come close to having huge, international, war-causing incidents all the time. It’s just that our governments are usually able to avoid them through diplomacy.

But with our government looking as if it’s increasingly dividing into warring factions, our confidence in its ability to avoid such things and protect us is going down.

Welcome to the United States of Anxiety. Population us.

I admit, I’ve been diving into the news lately: North Korean nukes. US troops destined for Afghanistan. Russian meddling. FBI directors. French elections.

If we don’t get some shelter, yeah, we’re gonna fade away.

Resurrection is good hope for despair, but what use is resurrection when you’re scared of the trauma in the first place? When you’re afraid of disaster striking? We say, I guess, that we should hope in God and not any earthly leaders in the White House or Congress or the state house, but the truth is that no sane person is entirely unconcerned with what’s going on in any of those places. The promise of heaven, no matter how strongly you believe in it, doesn’t mean that sometimes things don’t go horribly. God being in control, however you mean it, has never meant that people don’t suffer.

Oh, a storm is threat’ning

Our very life today

If we don’t get some shelter

Yeah, we’re gonna fade away”

One response to anxiety is to double down — on everything you think and believe. This, after all, is where religious fundamentalism often comes from: it is a response to anxiety. It is a need to be sure — sure that we are correct. 

Our favorite shelter, after all, is being right. It’s being safe through being superior and powerful and righteous.

And let’s be honest: sometimes the Bible makes it easy to take this shelter. After all, Jesus said, and we read this morning: “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

If there’s anything I’m quite sure Jesus doesn’t want us to do, it’s to prooftext our own Scriptures to prove our faith’s superiority, as if faith superiority were a competition to be won.

But if it’s not an affirmation than we’re right, what are we supposed to do with Jesus’ claim to be the way, the truth, and the life? You could throw it out entirely as an exclusive claim — some Christians have — but what does that say about how seriously we take the Bible as part of our identity? Any position you take as a churchgoer on such a well known Scripture is going to cause a stir.

“War, children — it’s just a shot away”

We need shelter from our state of anxiety. We need assurance. But if this isn’t assurance that we’re right, then what is it assurance of?

New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, a professor at Vanderbilt Divinity a.k.a. Vanderbilt pastor school and a Jew, once told a conference crowd that she had some Christian students who worried about her salvation — being a Jew and all. A New Testament scholar herself, she began to imagine a scenario like this:

She went on to tell a story about how she imagines the final judgement if Jesus is in reality the person he is in the New Testament that she studies. She said that she imagines herself dying and going to the pearly gates and St. Peter is there, and he lets some guys in ahead of her, turns around and opens the gates for her. The guys turn around and say, ‘Hey, wait. A Jew? What is this? She didn’t ask Jesus into her heart. She didn’t go to church. She’s Jewish, for God’s sake! Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one gets to the Father except through me!’”

Peter remarks that he is impressed that they can quote the Gospel of John but motions for them to look behind them, where a man with dark olive skin, black hair, and knowing eyes is standing. “‘I did say that,’ he said. Because I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but through me. It is not through your expectations or claims, and it is not through your church’s rules and proclamations that people get to God, but by my rules. I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father except through my Word. And she’s in.” (2)

Paradoxically, I find this freeing. I find this claim itself to be shelter from the storm of always having to be right. If no one comes to the Father except through Jesus is actually true, the central claim is that it’s not up to me. Or you. 

We don’t have to get it right. We wouldn’t get it right if we tried. Believe it or not, even with Google at our fingertips, God still knows more than we do. Christ, not us, is the cornerstone, as our epistle reading from St. Peter said today. And we, in turn, are freed to be living stones: shelter for one another.

Earlier in the passage Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? … you know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:2,4)

“If I don’t get some shelter
Yeah, I’m gonna fade away”

Jesus offers shelter. Yes, in the eternal sense — this is a claim that someday, somehow, there’s hope that things will be alright in the end and we’ll all be with Jesus forever.

But for the moments when we’re not thinking about forever because we’re so anxious about today, there is also shelter.

If we actually believe that Jesus is the way, and the cornerstone, we mean that Jesus makes the rules, that God is an independent being whose grace we cannot control, and that who is in and who is out is not up to us.

We don’t have to be right. That is shelter enough.

I also confess that when I first read this passage this week, I thought of Howie, our beloved brother who died at the very end of last year. This passage was the Gospel for his funeral.

The night of his calling hours and the day of his funeral and in the days which preceded, I heard over and over stories of how generous and kind Howie was. How easily he cared for people, never wanting to be recognized.

On the day of his funeral, I remarked how in this passage, Jesus also says, “You know the way to the place where I am going” (14:4). I said, “I think that what is the simplest and most profound thing about Howie’s faith is how quiet and sure it was. It never drew attention to itself, instead, pointing the way for others. He was most concerned for others because he seemed to know, as Jesus tells us, that he knew the way. A little later in this passage Jesus will say “I am the Way.” Howie knew Jesus, God made flesh, the God that is love itself. Howie knew Love. Howie knew the way.”

Howie, like so many saints before him, showed us how to shelter others with our love. Howie was a living stone. And he was proud to be part of the sheltering structure that is the love of this church. I have, over the last year and a half, watched you shelter each other with love: offering a hug, giving emotional support, providing food, offering to do chores for those who can’t do them, giving each other rides —  I could go on. When I first started pastoring, I gloried in how well I could take care of my congregation. When I was a few years in, I realized that the real gift is allowing you to teach me about what love means.

“The floods is threat’ning
My very life today
Gimme, gimme shelter
Or I’m gonna fade away…”

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?…And you know the way to the place where I am going.”” (14:2, 4)

“I tell you love, sister, it’s just a kiss away…”

We know the way. So let love shelter us, and let us shelter each other. Let the cornerstone, Christ, keep us living stones in place as we offer shelter from the world. We are loved. We are love. We are shelter. Amen.

1. “Gimmie Shelter,” The Rolling Stones, written by Jagger/Richards, from Let it Bleed, Dekka Records/ABKCO, 1969.
2. David Wood, “This is How the Next World War Starts,” Huffington Post High Line, 4 April 2017, http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/trump-russia-putin-military-crisis/
3. Amy-Jill Levine, remarks given at Reconciling Ministries Network conference Bible study, Vanderbilit Divinity School, 2007.

Easter 4: The Good Shepherd is Fierce

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Diego, Pastor Anna’s ridiculously photogenic (sheep)dog.

John 10:1-10

Because I was on vacation this past week, my sermon is, admittedly, recycled — I first preached this to my congregation in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2012, during my second full year as their pastor. You all might remember even better than they that it was in the spring of 2012 that the Boston marathon bombing happened and it was, for me, only one of many times that I’ve had to rethink what to preach based on what has happened in the world. Since you all had quite a closer perspective on those events because most of you were only 90 minutes down the interstate at the time, I thought this might be interesting for you to hear.

And also, in light of the events swirling today — possible nuclear war, immigration, terror, fear, health care, Russia, tax plans, and so on, and on, and on — I thought this was a good message to recycle for Good Shepherd Sunday, as we figure out what the heck is happening in our world and what our role is in it as Christian people.

———

I was working on our Wednesday night Bible study on Monday morning when it happened. My friend Katie in Seattle, whose husband Nathan I have run everything from 5Ks to half marathons with for years, sent me a text message. “Turn on the news,” she said. “Two bombs have gone off at the Boston Marathon.”

I immediately found it online. Two bombs had gone off in Boston only a few minutes before. There was no word yet on how many people were injured. There was definitely no word on who could have been responsible. There was only chaos as we all tried to figure out who was hurt, where the bombs had been, and why.

After finding out that every friend I had in Boston who’d be likely to be watching the marathon was safe, my mind spun a thousand directions. Bombs at a marathon? Marathons and road races have become a big part of my life in recent years, and as the pictures flowed in, I saw a familiar scene — a finish line, with runners crossing. The finishers’ chute, which belongs only to those who have run the race and endured. I saw the cheering crowds, the mile markers. But these photos were tainted with something horribly unfamiliar. Beyond the runners, beside the finish line, in the middle of the crowd, a wall of flame. An explosion. The photo that sticks in my mind the most was taken just at the moment the first bomb went off. No one had even had time to react yet to the horror that was unfolding. 

In the hours and days that have followed, my Facebook feed and other sources have filled up with calls to prayer for Boston. Over and over, I saw it, and little else: “Pray for Boston.” But something didn’t quite sit right with me about that. Not necessarily the call to prayer itself, but the fact that that was the only thing I was hearing.
Finally, I saw a post that put into words what had been bothering me so much.

A clergywoman in Boston posted:

“You know what phrase I’m getting tired of hearing? ‘We offer our prayers for Boston.’ There’s nothing at all wrong with the phrase, I’m just tired of needing to hear it so frequently. ‘Our hearts go out to the…’ ‘We are saddened and angered to…”

As she said, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with offering our prayers. When we feel so helpless, that’s often the only thing that we feel that we can do. And connecting with God, asking God to offer comfort, is one of the most powerful things that we can do. We have done it today. I hope that we continue to do so in the coming weeks. But as this Boston clergywoman went on to point out, that’s not all we can do, or should do.

She says, “Just this: religious leaders have a lot to say about the culture of violence. We can’t speak powerfully if we look like a bunch of harmless frumps. It’s so easy to ignore earnest, drab little people [only] spouting bromides about peace, love and understanding. I want you to be fierce. I want you to be compelling. I want you to sound powerful, look powerful and be powerful…. America needs your strong voice, your passion, your intensity. If you’re going to pray for us, and I know you will, also send out something as tough as we are.”

(A note: that was one of my first impressions of New Englanders as the strong, pragmatic, and boldly courageous people I have come to know you to be.)
It is true — our culture is steeped in violence. Violent video games, violent movies, violent music. Over and over again we see violence, everywhere we look we see violence. We don’t have much regard for human life and the truth is, we hardly ever really have in history. This isn’t a generational problem, but a human one. Only the mediums through which violent images are transported ever really changes.

Today’s reading is where Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. All the hymns we’ll sing today are among my nerdy favorites. For the occasions when I manage to get sentimental, they make me all teary: “The King of Love my Shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never / I never lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.”

Those words have always felt like a big and much-needed hug. The words of today’s text, too, tend to make us feel loved and safe, for obvious reasons. We live in a crazy world. Lord knows, we need hugs from God these days.

But this week I heard something else. After seeing the photos of the bombing and reading the news stories and then reading that Boston pastor’s blog post, I read this text in a different way. I thought about how shepherds are gentle with the sheep, but also fiercely protective. Any shepherd who is all gentle, meek and mild, is going to end up wolf bait. (ooh ha ha.) And the text itself talks a lot about the gate, the thief, the need for the shepherd to be protective as well as gentle. 

And now we come to my yearly confession, happening every fourth Sunday of Easter: I don’t particularly like to think of pastors as shepherds. The biblical witness primarily describes God as the Shepherd, not any person. And who do we pastors think we are? Jesus? We’re human, while the rest of you are smelly sheep? If that were the case, I would be offended on your behalf.

No. I like a different image for the pastor.

A mentor of mine years ago gave me a metaphor that I still hold to.

She likes to think of it this way: that pastors are not the shepherds so much as the sheepdogs. The sheepdogs are set apart from the sheep to lead them the way that the shepherd wants. They lead them according to his voice. They watch over the sheep and guard them from all the same predators that the shepherd looks out for. Sheepdogs are no better than the sheep; all are the shepherd’s creatures.

This image is one reason that I love border collies so much. It’s one reason that I got Diego.

For those of you that I’ve managed not to tell yet, my dog Diego is part border collie. He’s black and white, with a border collie’s trademark white stripe between his eyes. His eyes are light brown and compelling. Border collies are unique sheepdogs because they direct the sheep not by nipping at or barking at them, but they direct them with their eyes. They are also incredibly smart, though sometimes Diego, well… as my friend Samuel says, he could stand to be more smart and less clever. Diego and I have a lot in common.

There’s something else. Diego and I often go running together, as border collies also have an untold amount of energy. Several times, I have passed figures on the street that Diego thought were threatening. Even when there was no reason that was discernible to me, he would let out a low, defensive growl as we passed. He’s also often done this to people in my life (my apologies if he’s done this to you). He’s also done it to big dogs who’ve gotten too close to me.

Curious and wondering why my dog would growl at random people, I looked it up. It turns out that border collies are fiercely protective of what they deem theirs. I think that makes them the perfect metaphor for what a pastor should be, and more broadly, what any Christian person should be. Nurturing, loving, offering direction at the call of the shepherd, and fiercely protective.

File this under “What my dog has taught me about ministry.”

I don’t find these fierce Christian voices in many places.

When I do, I find that they’re more offensive than defensive. I find that they are more about beating people over the head with the Bible than bringing the Gospel, which we often forget is supposed to be good news. I often find that pastors who speak out aren’t fighting for their congregations or for the least of these, they’re attacking people. And that’s another thing that Diego has taught me about ministry: he’s also taught me how not to do it. Often, pastors and other Christians growl and bark at the wrong people. They attack people who aren’t actually a threat.

You’ll notice that Jesus talks about “laying down his life for the sheep.” He talks about how no one will take his life from him, but he will lay it down and pick it back up again. He’s defending the sheep, not trying to see wolves all around him. He is in control, he lays down his life and takes it back up again. Any good sheep or sheepdog who trusts the shepherd has no reason to be defensive.

Yes, pastors, and Christians of all stripes, should be fierce. Secure in the shepherd’s care, we should be brave, ready to speak, ready to act, at the direction of the Shepherd.

Yes, Christians should be fierce. We should offer our prayers, and then we should go out into the world to speak. To speak, to yell, to scream out against the things that harm the sheep: a culture of fear. A culture of violence. A lack of regard for the humanity and dignity of each person. As Thomas Merton said, “We must guard the image of [humanity], for it is the image of God.”

One of my favorite lines in the Gospel of John is right before the crucifixion: When Jesus is about to give himself up, when he is resolved to lay down his life for the sheep, he says “The ruler of this world is driven out.”

Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, and darkness flees. Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, and Satan gets out of town. Jesus lays down his life for the sheep, and the sheep are protected, saved from the powers of darkness.

Jesus has given us an example: to lay down our lives for the sheep. To speak, no matter what the cost. To feed and protect the sheep. To be God’s protective love to the world.

When I heard the news of the events in Boston, I was upset. But I was also angry. I wanted to offer more than my prayers. Too often, we offer our prayers, post something on Facebook, and move on with our lives, content to be powerless to change anything.

Listen: none of these problems can or will be solved in Congress. No President, and no party, will do it for us. We have to do much more than change security regulations or immigration laws to prevent bombings like this. We have to change hearts. We have to fiercely guard the image of God, and be brave, because the road of nonviolence is, ironically, the scariest. It is easier to hide behind a veneer of strength than to follow Jesus’ way.

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The Good Shepherd gives everything. The sheep (and the sheepdogs) follow the shepherd to the end. There is no room for safety in the Christian religion.

We follow knowing that Jesus saves us. We follow knowing that the ruler of this world has been driven out. We follow in security and calm confidence, trusting that the Shepherd is in control.

So what shall we do in the face of so much upheaval?
Bottom line: the Good Shepherd, who is in control, loves you fiercely. Therefore, be fierce, as the Good Shepherd is fierce. Amen.

Easter 2: The Introduction of and an Admonition from Saint Thomas

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John 20:19-31

One of the dangerous things about a job like mine — where part of the time you’re producing ideas — is that, because of the way inspiration works, sometimes your best work happens right as you were blithely wasting time. And that tends to happen when you’re using any available mental energy left over from Holy Week, which is none, cramming everything in to your last week before you go on vacation so that you can really take a break.

So I was on Facebook this week…

… and my friend Karen posted that she was working on her sermon (as I should have been at the time) and, because this week’s Gospel reading is about Thomas, she couldn’t stop thinking about the introduction of another Thomas — Thomas Jefferson — in the musical Hamilton. As many of you who have heard me or Lyn and Abby Roberts talk in the last two years already know, Hamilton is the hip hop musical about treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton and his role in the Revolution and the early years of America.

In the musical, the actor who plays Jefferson plays Marquis de Lafayette in the first act, because during the Revolutionary War itself, Jefferson was the ambassador to France. In the second act, however, Jefferson — or Thomas, as he’s called for most of the musical — opens the second act with a jazzy number called, well, “What’d I Miss?” That, plus getting the inspiration to rap at Vigil, helped me to produce something a little shorter than the dry bones, but enjoyable, I hope nonetheless.

The other thing that happened was that I ran into a roadblock with my sermon and went to get drinks with my friend Lorraine, who’ll be your guest preacher and presider next week. She and I had fun irreverently describing matters from Thomas’s perspective and how unfairly the church has treated him in calling him “Doubting Thomas” through the centuries.

And so that’s when this happened: an intro in the style of Hamilton followed by what I think Thomas would say to the Church today. You can help me out by snapping.

“How does the Son of God who’s risen from the dead
And appeared to Mary live —
Are you ready for more yet?
Appears to eleven of ‘em in the Upper Room*
A miracle is seen — Jesus risen from the tomb
But someone hasn’t heard the resurrection promise
You simply must meet Thomas, Thomas!”

(*No one knows the precise number of disciples present, though one can assume that is was actually ten (minus Thomas and Judas). But in hip hop, sometimes you need syllables, so I went with Eleven.)

What follows is a much less catchy letter to the church from the Apostle Thomas.

My dearest Church,

My name is Thomas, and I have a beef with you.

You see, I was a martyr. But you don’t call me “Thomas the Martyr.”

I was a saint, but you Protestants especially so rarely refer to me as “Saint Thomas.”

I went to India — India — to spread the Gospel. But you don’t call me “Thomas the Missionary to India.” 

I was a disciple that accompanied Jesus, saw him crucified. I was the only one not hiding when Jesus appeared to the disciples the first time. John straight up told you that everyone else was hiding out of fear. I wasn’t. But you don’t call me “Brave Thomas.” Oh no.

But I miss one resurrection appearance and I become “doubting Thomas” for centuries.

Look, I get it.

It seems, the way John wrote this, that I don’t have that much faith because I don’t believe the other disciples when they tell me that Jesus had appeared to them.

Easy for you to say, man.

You know the end of the story. You hold four accounts of the resurrection in your hands on the regular. I did not have that luxury.

Put yourself in my shoes. Your friend and beloved teacher just died a brutal and horrible death, and you and your friends are somewhat concerned that the same thing might happen to you. But you, Thomas, always the bold, practical one, decide that you’re not going to hide like the rest of them. You’re going out, no matter the consequences. And the disciples needed milk and wine and I drew the short straw. Whatever.

Then, when you get back from the market, your friends come to you all of a sudden and say, “We have seen the Lord!” The Lord — the guy you all are mourning. The dead one.

What would you say? Honestly? If you’d believe immediately, you’re probably pretty easy to pull pranks on. I’m just saying.

Look, maybe it was a lack of faith. But it happened one time, in the midst of a lot bigger things — you know, like Jesus coming back from the dead. And I’m a little worried about what my reputation as “Doubting Thomas” says about you, church. It was only the beginning of a long history of defining people based on one bad look, one mistake, one perceived mistake, one moment.

Believe me: for the rest of my life I thought of myself as Doubting Thomas, too.

You probably do it to yourselves, too. Who is the worst version of you that you define yourself by? Are you the Liar? The Betrayer? The Addict? The Black Sheep of the Family? The Victim? The Racist? The Bully? The Crazy One?

No, you’re not.

Any more than I, the real human Thomas, am Doubting Thomas. And this is not just about me getting my ancient wool undies in a wad.

It’s contrary to the Gospel of the Risen Lord that I saw with my own eyes.

If there’s one thing I know, it’s when we start to define ourselves by what we’ve done or haven’t done, this whole church thing falls apart. After that, it all turns into a ladder climbing game just like everything else.

But this Church thing isn’t supposed to be just like everything else. This Church thing isn’t even supposed to be about us. When we make it about us, or about any other person, we miss the miracle of resurrection and new life standing right in front of us.

We miss God.

Look, we all fail. Human failure is nothing new. Whether you screwed up big by, you know, denying Jesus three times (no one calls Peter “the Denier,” I might add) or whether you just happened to miss an appearance of the risen Christ, we all need a second chance. Or a third. Or a fourth. Et cetera.

Because I’m not saying that John made any mistakes in what he told you. That story is how it went down.

It’s just that people focus too much on me, Thomas, when what John was writing was a story about Jesus.

I missed the boat. I didn’t believe my fellow disciples — not Mary, and not the guys. I admit, I got really sarcastic with the “Look, unless I put my fingers in the wounds….” that really was in poor taste, I admit, whether the Messiah was dead or alive, and the church has, not surprisingly, entirely missed the subtlety of my humor there.

But focus on Jesus instead of me for a second. It’s a story about Jesus, after all.

Notice what he did. Jesus didn’t scold me or label me “doubting Thomas.” He gave the other disciples a whole week to try to convince me, and then he showed up himself. He showed up and he blessed us and he looked at me and said “This is my body. Reach out your hands. It’s really me.”

Turns out, Church, that’s what you do every Sunday. Every Sunday you gather together just like the disciples did. You gather together, and just like us, some of you are sure you’ve seen Jesus and some of you not so sure this isn’t a bunch of bullhockey and for some of you, the level of your belief just depends on the Sunday. But Jesus still shows up, blesses you, gathers you around the table and says to you: “This is my body, given for you. It’s really me.” In bread. In wine. In water. In Words. In all of us.

Jesus is here, too, if you know how to look.  And I think you do. You’re the Church, after all.

Yours in Christ through the Ages,
Saint Thomas

——————————-

I know. Writing a letter from a dead guy about how he got shorted by the church was not a normal way to spend a weekend. But you don’t keep me around because I’m normal.

The good news is redemption: that, like Thomas, you deserve to be known by more than your mishaps and mistakes and your questions and your doubts. Because think too much about yourself and other people, and you miss the real miracle of church: that the risen Jesus is here, offering himself.

Because the Church’s story is still a story about God, not us. The Church’s story is one where Jesus’ response to doubt is not wrath, but instead to show up every single time, no matter who believes or doesn’t believe, and say: “This is my body, given for you.”

Jesus is here — let the church rejoice, and all God’s people say: Amen.

Easter 1: The Thunder of Joy

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Easter faces! Pastor Anna and Robert “Bob” Stehlin, our assisting minister for Easter Day.

Matthew 28:1-10

For all our fretting in the institutional church that its numbers are shrinking and its influence waning, Easter still draws a crowd. It’s still acknowledged and recognized by our wider culture, even though it tends to culturally play second fiddle to Christmas because well, people like babies and presents, and the Christmas narrative gives us both.

But Easter remains, calling the church to open its arms even wider than usual to everyone on Easter morning: we get to meet new people, including the families of beloved members and other out of town visitors and folks who can’t make it at other times of year. Easter is our all hands on deck day, our Super Bowl, when we remember how Jesus came back from 28-3… no, just kidding.

There’s something bigger here than just a big comeback and there’s definitely something bigger than bunnies and eggs though believe me, I will be enjoying my share of chocolate today.

(A feast day is a feast day.)

But seriously, other than the feast day element, the bunnies and eggs don’t make that much sense in light of the Gospel story. Admittedly. You heard it from the pulpit. In the words of the late Robin Williams and children everywhere, “Bunnies don’t lay eggs!”

But then, I guess crosses and tombs don’t make for fun children’s decorations.

Just this week, Late Show host and faithful progressive Roman Catholic Stephen Colbert described Easter as only a liturgical church person really could: “Jesus is the reason we celebrate Easter, okay? He’s why we have the eggs! It’s the true miracle of Easter that Jesus emerged from the tomb and made that bunny lay an egg. And then the bunny did goeth forth to hide those eggs… this is the Word of the Lord.” (1)

You may miss the idea or even get offended if you don’t know that Colbert is a faithful Catholic.
His point, of course, is not to make fun of Easter, but to poke fun at how we get wrapped up in the details of our celebrations of spring and egg hunts when there’s actually a much better, older story that you can’t get at Target. And, that story, given the absence of any bunnies or eggs in this service, is why you’re actually here. I hope. I did not dress in white to recall the Easter bunny, but you can tell your kids whatever you like to get them to like church. That’s fine.

Look, I’m not here to make you feel guilty. Quite the opposite, actually. Eat all the Cadbury eggs you like today. I will be!
I’m not here to do what pastors have too often done on holy days: tell you to put aside the fun stuff and focus on a serious, somber thing for a moment. Not at all.

Today is a joyful day, and Lord knows we need some joy these days. But it’s bigger than egg hunts and the Easter bunny and the details of what’s for lunch.

You see, in a world where governments gas their own citizens and we’re all a little more on edge than usual, in a world where we’ve got a lot more fear than love and a lot more death than new hope, Easter finds us just as the weather warms up and creation, too, comes back to life.

And quite frankly, that’s even better than a chocolate bunny. And I love chocolate.

Because people debate whether God is real all the time, but one thing that we cannot deny is that death is real. We see it all the time. In our lives, on the news, on social media.

Dead refugees washed up on the beach. Videos of ISIS killings.

And closer to home, we cope with injustice and fear and death of our own. We struggle with violence of every stripe. We struggle with the opioid epidemic that has taken so many brilliant people from among us.

And in our own personal lives, we hear of sudden deaths of friends and loved ones. It all starts to wear on you. Sometimes, if you’re like me, you think that if you hear of one more shooting or one more cancer diagnosis or one more missile launched, you might lose hope entirely.

Death is real and, thanks to technology, it’s more in our faces than ever, and it’s terrifying. We hug our loved ones close and we pray death won’t touch any of us any time soon despite our fears.

But you didn’t come to church to have an existential crisis. You came to hear the story of the empty tomb.

In that story that we read from Matthew’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene and the mysterious “other Mary” head over to the tomb to visit Jesus’ grave, like any of us have done for loved ones whom death has taken from us.

Then all of a sudden the earth shakes and, well, you know the rest.

Just last night at the Vigil, we remembered the ancient Easter proclamation that says “let this holy building shake with joy.” (2)

Well, it’s about to. This morning’s sermon is participatory. (Don’t worry Paul, there won’t be anything to repair.)

You see, since ancient times Easter has been much more profound than Easter eggs, which only help us celebrate something bigger — springtime. New life. The end of death and the beginning of hope.

With death always in front of our faces, today we dare celebrate in hope. We dare dance and be happy. We dare make this holy building shake with joy.

Because Jesus was dead on Friday. Real dead. Dead dead.

And now the earth shakes and the tomb is empty ad we stand with the women at the tomb in baffled hope and wonder the same thing: Are we crazy?

Is it crazy that you came here, when so many went to brunch? (If you got forced to come, you may think so.)

Yeah. We are. And today we’ve come together in our illogical hope that someday, somehow, even the tragedy death we see today will be swallowed up in victory too and all things shall be made right. It’s illogical, yes. But it’s what gets some of us up in the morning despite our nihilistic tendencies and today, we’re all invited. Today, we dare to have hope that death’s days are numbered.

Scholar N.T. Wright laments at how often we attend to Easter out of obligation, murmuring alleluias instead of shouting them. He writes: “Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to [the Lenten] forty days of fasting and gloom?” (3)

And so, adults, children, youth, wake up — this is where you come in.
St. John Chrysostom lived in about the 300s and was considered one of the greatest preachers of the early church. His Easter homily is still a feature in churches around the world as a tradition arose around it: stomping out death. And so, before we go to the table, in celebration of Christ’s victory over death, you are invited into the ancient tradition of stomping out death. In the early church, after the long Lenten fast and the observation of Holy Week and the Great Three Days, it was a tradition to read St. John’s Easter homily at the Easter celebration and for the whole congregation to stomp their feet at every mention of the word “death,” symbolizing how death has been defeated and put under our feet.

We’ve come through Lent and Holy Week to Easter. And now, I’ll be preaching John’s short but rousing Easter homily in celebration, and you, for your part, are welcome to listen, enjoy, and stamp your feet in victory whenever you hear the word “death.” And thus, we remember the thunder at the tomb. And thus, this building shakes with joy.

Let’s try it: “death.” Good.

Here we go.

Are there any who are devout lovers of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival! Are there any who are grateful servants? Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord! Are there any weary from fasting? Let them now receive their due!

If any have been working from the first hour observing of Lent, let them receive their reward. If any have come after the third hour, let them with gratitude join in the feast! Those who arrived after the sixth hour, let them not doubt; for they shall not be short-changed. Those who have tarried until the ninth hour, let them not hesitate; but let them come too. And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let them not be afraid by reason of their delay. For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.

The Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour, even as to those who toiled from the beginning. To one and all the Lord gives generously…. The Lord honors every deed and commends their intention. Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! First and last alike, receive your reward. Rich and poor, rejoice together! Conscientious and lazy, celebrate the day! You who have kept the fast, and you who have not, rejoice this day, for the table is bountifully spread! The calf is a fat one — let us feast like royalty! Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the banquet of faith. Enjoy the bounty of God’s goodness!

Let no one grieve being poor, for God’s universal reign has been revealed.

Let no one lament their constant failings, for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free.

The Lord has destroyed death by enduring it. The Lord vanquished death when he descended into it. The Lord put death in turmoil even as it tasted of his flesh. Isaiah foretold this when he said,”You, O Death, were sent into chaos when he encountered you below.” Death was in chaos having been eclipsed. Death was in chaos having been mocked. Death was in chaos having been destroyed. Death was in chaos having been abolished. Death was in turmoil having been made captive. Death grasped a corpse, and met God. Death seized earth, and encountered heaven. Death took what it saw, and was overcome by what it could not see.

O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and death is cast down! …Christ is risen, and life is set free! Christ is risen, and the tomb is empty! For Christ, having risen, is only the firstborn of those who have fallen asleep. To Christ be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!” (4) 

And that, my friends, is why I enjoy my chocolate bunnies.

And so, in short, it’s a good day. So be happy. Throw your hats in the air. Celebrate. Or, as the kids say: turn up. Amen.

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Pastor Anna’s favorite Easter card of all time.

1. Stephen Colbert, The Late Show, 8 April 2017.
2. The Exsultet, an ancient Easter proclamation. Learn more here.
3. N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, New York: HarperOne, 2008. 
4. St. John Chrysostom, Easter Homily. Another translation can be found here.