Monthly Archives: April 2011

Fear and Joy

a sermon for Easter Sunday on Matthew 28:1-10
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on April 24, 2011 

Mary and Mary Magdalene were afraid, and for good reason. Their friend and teacher Jesus had been executed less than 48 hours before they decided to venture out to his tomb at the first possible moment to continue their grieving at this sudden and strange turn of events. When they got to the tomb, their fears became all the more real. An earthquake came as an angel rolled away the stone at the tomb, and even when they learned from the angel that Jesus had been raised from the dead, they still couldn’t help but be at least a little afraid.

Over the course of the ten verses in our reading from the gospel according to Matthew today, the words “fear” or “afraid” show up four separate times, first to describe the mood of the moment but then as an angel and later Jesus instruct them not to be afraid. Now resurrection doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would inspire fear – if anything, it seems like their response ought to have been great joy, for their friend and teacher Jesus was no longer dead but had risen to new life! But there was still something fearful going on here – as wonderful as it may have been to have him resurrected, Jesus was not where he belonged, where they expected to find him, in the tomb. Anytime there is a dead body missing from where it is supposed to be, fear and uncertainty are almost certain to follow, but this situation was made all the more fearful because Jesus had been executed by the political and religious authorities. This fear, though, was about more than a body not being where it belonged – the women were afraid of what the consequences of these things might be, concerned maybe that they could be accused of stealing the body, fearful of the ridicule the other disciples might have for them as they brought this strange news back from the tomb, and uncertain of what this latest turn in Jesus’ story might mean for them as they continued sorting out what his words and his life meant for them.

Amidst all this fear, Matthew reports that there was another emotion at hand as the women left the tomb: yes, they were filled with fear, but also great joy. This joy is something we’re probably more comfortable with – while it makes sense that the women would be afraid of Jesus’ resurrection, it also makes sense that the women would be glad to learn that Jesus is alive again, and so we emulate this feeling of great joy in our words and songs today, shouting and singing “Alleluia!” over and over again out of amazement at the incredible thing that God has done in raising Jesus from the dead. Our psalm for today lifts up this great joy once again, proclaiming “glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous” and stating confidently, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.” This kind of joy is certainly right for this day – to sing praise to our God who triumphs over even the powers of death, to embody our joy for God’s incredible work of raising Jesus from the dead. Yet somehow the women at the tomb weren’t fully there at joy yet – they walked away with fear too.

Is there any reason for us to fear this Easter? Is there any reason why we should be afraid of the dead things God might be restoring to new life in our individual lives, in our community, or in our church? Should we be trembling because the tomb is empty and new life is springing forth? Do we need to be afraid of what others might say to us and about us and even against us if the message of the resurrection is true? The reality is that the message of resurrection we have at Easter is deeply powerful, and it can and should inspire a bit of fear in us. Easter overturns all the assumptions of the world and says that death does not have the final word for Jesus – and by extension, for us. Easter threatens the power structures of the world, of the church, and of our lives by saying that death is not just a bad thing because it can be redeemed and things made new. The resurrection shows us that God is on the side of life and love, that God is not out to get us or punish us or destroy us, but instead God embodies in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ a new order that sets things on the path toward being whole and complete. And Easter shows us that there is always hope for something new – not just an empty hope for something to change one day in the courts of heaven but hope that God can and will act, here and now, to transform our world and make it as God intends.

And so it is in the face of these fears that the angel and Jesus speak to us as they did to Mary: “Do not be afraid.” Yes, we are rightfully afraid because the good news of Easter complicates things for us and others. The safe assumptions we’ve made along the way look a little less comfortable today. In the light of the empty tomb, we see that we may face uncertain times, difficult days, and even persecution as we wait for new life to come, because the tomb had to be full before it could be empty. The radical transformation of death we see today may even leave us wanting to cower in the corner in fear or walk away in despair rather than to face the difficulty of these days.

But in the face of our fear and our uncertainty and our lack of understanding, Jesus and the angel speak to us again: “Do not fear.” They don’t tell us that we are bad people for not understanding or believing the resurrection quite yet, but they do show us a confident measure of God’s presence so that we can be assured that God is with us in and through the one who died and was raised and so journeys with us through all uncertainty.

So in the face of this incredible reality and hope of the resurrection, we can and should have fear and joy just as Mary and Mary Magdalene did – fear enough to realize that things must be different because of the incredible mystery and gift of this Easter day but joy enough to see that God has more in store for us than what we can understand and experience right here and right now.

May this fear and this joy open us to the good news of the resurrection this Easter and always as we go with Mary and the disciples out into the world with our eyes and our ears and our hearts open to the presence of our risen and living Lord Jesus.

The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia! Amen.


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No Way to Treat a King

a sermon on Matthew 27:11-66 for Palm/Passion Sunday
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on April 17, 2011

The week started out incredibly well for Jesus – the parade was fit for a king! After three years of ministry out in the countryside, he finally made his way to the big city, and the people seemed to be on his side. He enjoyed all the marks of royalty as he came into Jerusalem, with a colt and a donkey for him to ride, cloaks providing a comfortable place for him to sit, and a ceremonial carpet of palm branches and cloaks covering the road. As Jesus made his way through the crowd into the city, everyone was abuzz about this prophet coming in from Galilee, so once the chant got started, it only got louder along the way:

Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!

On Sunday, it was a parade fit for a king – but by the end of the week, everything had changed, and the crowd now shouted, “Crucify him!” This was no way to treat a king.

What happened in between these days? How did Jesus go from being lauded by seemingly everyone to being crucified and nearly friendless, from the latest and greatest hope for a real Jewish alternative to Roman rule to just another faded insurrectionist executed at the hands of the powerful? While it is difficult to sum up the six chapters of the gospel of Matthew that come between Jesus’ arrival on Sunday and his trial and execution on Friday, I think it is nonetheless fair to say that in the course of those five days Jesus managed to threaten nearly every institution of power and control in Jerusalem. From the Roman government to the puppet king to the religious leaders to the secular power-brokers, Jesus managed to anger nearly everybody. In the city of the establishment, he proclaimed that something new was breaking in, that God’s kingdom was bigger than any earthly government, that what God had in store for them was more than they could ever imagine and yet would require them to give up everything that they had. Along the way, everyone turned against Jesus – the establishment figures, the puppet government, the temple leaders, even some of his own disciples – and his message died before it could even begin to take hold. The establishment figures would rather kill Jesus than explore the real possibilities of freedom and new life. This was certainly no way to treat a king.

And so at the end of the week, our reading this morning reminds us that Jesus ended up caught up in a cycle of violence, spurned by those who cared for him, ignored by the people who once cheered for him, and feared by those whose livelihood and power was threatened by him. Everyone who could break the cycle stepped aside. Pilate tried to get the people to relent and washed his hands of the situation when they didn’t. The people insisted that the bandit Barabbas be freed and that Jesus be killed. The soldiers got caught up in the violence and mocked him all the more. Simon of Cyrene got pulled into the whirlwind and was forced to carry the cross part of the way. Innocent bystanders, religious leaders, and even those crucified alongside Jesus joined in mocking him. Even Jesus said nothing to refute the charges against him. And the Roman soldier standing guard only recognized the gravity of the situation when it was all over. This is no way to treat a king.

Throughout it all, though, Jesus remained faithful. This king didn’t need proper treatment in order to be kingly. This lord didn’t even need to be acknowledged by anyone in order to have power over everyone. Our response that helped break up our incredibly long reading today reminded us of this over and over again. While we may be able to do nothing more than “wonder and stare, fear and beware,” while “heaven and hell [may be] close at hand,” “God’s living Word, Jesus the Lord, follows where faith and love demand.” (John Bell, “Wonder and Stare”) If nothing else, the events of this week remind us of this incredible truth, that Jesus knows the full depths of our sorrow and pain and hurt because he went there himself, that God in Jesus Christ has experienced the worst of evil and violence that the powers of the world can bring because they attacked him with full force, that faith and love demand to be followed even when they lead to the darkness of the tomb.

And so we join the journey, making our way with Jesus through the “Hosannas” and into the city gates even though we know where this journey must lead, trusting that God will offer us something more than we can imagine along the way and will transform this moment that is no way to treat a king into a moment of faith, hope, and love for all of us. May God give us strength for this and all our journeys as we join Jesus along the way of the cross and into the hope of the resurrection.


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Something More in Store

a sermon on John 11:1-45 for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on April 10, 2011

The mood was dark and uncertain even though the day may have been beautiful. Jesus’ friend Lazarus had died, and after four days he had finally joined his friends and family to visit the tomb together. They had hoped that Jesus would come and visit Lazarus before he had died, maybe even bringing a miraculous healing to his unnamed illness, but this was seemingly too much to ask of a busy itinerant preacher and teacher in Galilee in those days, though Jesus’ plans were certainly complicated by the bounty that was out on his head in that time.

Even though he didn’t make it to visit before Lazarus died, Jesus was not unaffected by the death of his friend. Yes, he often stood aloof and seemingly disconnected from the humanity of his disciples and friends, but in this moment he fit right into the crowd, weeping and mourning with them as they walked to the tomb where Lazarus had been buried. He seems to have known all the things that awaited him there – the large stone at the entrance to the tomb, the uncertain women who were afraid of the smell that they would find if they rolled away the stone, and the grief and hurt and pain that grew only deeper as he neared the place where Lazarus had been laid to rest. Still, Jesus’ prayer in this time was filled with hope – hope that his words and presence would not be in vain, hope that his friend’s life would not come to such a strange and uncertain end, hope that God was not done working in and through Lazarus and Jesus, for there was more going on here than either of them could ever imagine.

So at the tomb, with the large stone rolled away, the smell of death at hand,  and God’s presence invoked through prayer, Jesus cried, “Lazarus, come out!” Suddenly Lazarus emerged from the tomb, still wrapped in the linen cloths of a dead body, and yet he was very much alive. Jesus’ simple words from earlier echoed loud and clear in that moment: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Even standing at the tomb, there was something more in store.

Just three weeks ago, I like Jesus joined the throng of mourners who had made their way to the graveside of my grandmother who had died a few days before. I too hadn’t made it to see her before she died, but I knew there was nothing I could do if I had – while it would have been good to see her one last time, she was so sick that it would have been all the more difficult to have my last memory of her be so different from what I had known my whole life.

But also like Jesus, I was overcome with grief and love standing at the tomb. I remembered so much about my grandmother there at her grave – her simple way of approaching life that made things easier for everyone, her incredible love for me and so many others that she showed so often in her words and actions, her deep faith that sustained her and so many of us all along the way. As I stood there remembering her incredible life, I remembered the others who were buried there alongside her – my great-grandparents who I did not know well but who had journeyed from North Dakota to the Mississippi Delta late in life, and my beloved grandfather who also showed me such love and care as I grew up from the spoiled only grandchild into the still-loved young man whom he always imagined I would become.

There at those graves, I felt waves of emotion rush over me much as they had for Jesus, but my memories came alive then even though the ones at the center of them would not. I knew that there was no chance in that moment that my grandmother would rise from the dead, and if someone had called out to her as Jesus did for Lazarus at any point in our mourning for her, we certainly would have had that person taken away! Nonetheless, it was a comfort to know that even though she would not rise up again then and there, Jesus’ words would be true for her just as much as they were for Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Even at that grave, even if it weren’t immediately obvious and evident and real, there was something more in store.

As we look around here amidst the beauty of these days, amidst the hope that we sometimes see in our midst, we too see signs that we stand at the entrance to a tomb sometimes – faithful friends leaving our midst for one reason or another, increasing struggles and financial challenges for our life together, shifting commitments that make it harder to do what we’ve done before, uncertainty of countless kinds over so many things turning into anxiety and paralyzing fear. We look around and see that there are plenty of others here with us – seemingly countless churches struggling to find their way in a changing world, so many faithful people confused by different approaches to the life of faith and the path of following Jesus in the midst of a world that is very different from what we knew even a few years ago, even some people who would seem to have it all sorted out and yet are willing to stay in the trenches with those who struggle to figure out something new. If we look closely, we may even see the other tombs around us where the church as it was once known now again lies dead – but so often Jesus seems nowhere to be found, if we even look for him. We expect that he’ll be off someplace else where things are more alive, not out here in the tombs with the dead folks, not in this place where people are struggling to figure out what is next, not in this dark and uncertain place where all of us are wondering what lies around the next corner for us.

But even before we hear any words that might revive us, we see Jesus standing in our midst, offering his simple reminder to us as he did to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus weeps and mourns the pain of the struggles that we face and joins us on the journey to the tomb as he too is overcome by grief and uncertainty. And just when we think that we have died – and perhaps only when we have given up everything that makes us think we are alive! – we find Jesus, praying for us, demanding that the tomb of the world as we thought we knew it be unsealed, and calling out to us to rise up anew, not just to be resuscitated into the life we once knew but to rise into something new that embodies the new creation for us, here and now, together.

Amidst all of our struggles and uncertainties, Jesus promises that we are not done yet, that new life can and will take hold in our midst if we are willing to let the old die and to trust the call of the Spirit into something new, that there is something more in store for us and for our world.

So as we stand before the tombs of our lives, wherever and whatever they may be, may we see Jesus standing beside us, weeping along with us, mourning the things that are past, rolling away the stones that seal things up, and calling us to rise up to new life not just so that we can live as we lived before but so that we can better embody the fullness of life we see becoming real in him as he too walks the path through the valley to the cross and conquers death once and for all to make all things new.

May these final days of our Lenten road show us this way as we walk with Jesus – and Jesus walks with us – now and always, trusting that there is something more in store.



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More Than Meets the Eye

a sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent on John 9:1-41
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on April 3, 2011

Sometimes Jesus is just weird. He spent forty days in the wilderness, after all, to get ready for a ministry of three years among the people of Galilee. He felt it important to start out that ministry with a visit to an itinerant preacher who hung out near a muddy stream and “washed” people there. And as he continued his work, he often spoke in strange parables that made little sense to anyone until he explained their meaning and purpose.

In our story today from the gospel according to John, Jesus embodies his weirdness in all its fullness. As he walks along the road with his disciples on the Sabbath, they discover a man who had been born blind. The disciples ask him one of those tough questions that every pastor dreads: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” As he responds about the origin of this man’s sufferings, Jesus gets weird: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus continues with a strange and unprovoked philosophical declaration of who he is and what he is doing, but then things take one final unexpected, weird turn. Jesus bends down, spits into the dirt along the road to make a little mud, and without asking permission rubs the mud into the blind man’s eyes. He then instructs him to wash in the pool of Siloam, and afterward the man is able to see.

The rest of the long reading we heard this morning is all about what happens after this strange miracle – the puzzled response of the man born blind who can finally see the world in which he lives, the leering response of the Pharisees to this strange healer and his powers that seem to be free from any Sabbath regulations, the questioning of the blind man, not Jesus, as some leaders in the community wonder whether he had actually been born blind, the unexpected transformation of the man born blind as he experience Jesus’ power for himself and gradually turns to follow him as well, and Jesus’ final declaration that the real blindness here was not in the one who had been healed but in those who could not see the power of God working in this time and place.

Throughout it all, the blind man is confused and hurt and bewildered by everything happening around him, but he maintains one simple thing: “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” He doesn’t understand it, he can’t pinpoint how it happened, and people just won’t believe him – but somehow he is finally able to see the things around him and gradually becomes able to see that God had done this work in and through him.

But in the midst of all these strange things and this one important claim, I just can’t let go of how weird Jesus seems – his strange response to the questions asked of him, his healing of someone who didn’t ask for it, and especially this strange mix of saliva and dirt that somehow mixed with the water of Siloam to become a miraculous healing balm for this man born blind. Part of this surely stems from the reality that Jesus worked and lived in a world very different from our own. The healing arts of Jesus’ time were not rooted in medical knowledge like our own but rather in a strange mix of the supernatural and the traditional. The now-obvious recognition that sharing bodily fluids like saliva can transmit sickness and disease was not something that was understood in Jesus’ time. The simple assumption that sin of some sort, from some source, was responsible for all illness was rarely doubted or even questioned. And the recognition that sight is something we all can lose even if our vision tests at 20/20 doesn’t seem to make sense in our world today where even a computer can seemingly see so many things.

But throughout this story, Jesus’ greatest weirdness comes through when he insists that the worldview of his time – and of ours too – leaves something out. When his disciples ask him who sinned in order to make this man blind, he proposes an interesting new way, that sin was not responsible but rather that God was so that God would be glorified in his healing. It’s an astounding idea, that God makes people suffer in order to be glorified, and I don’t think it can go unquestioned, even though Jesus himself utters it. Some might explain away this suffering by saying that the man born blind didn’t suffer since he never knew what it was like to see, but that’s a copout if you ask me – God certainly gives us eyes for a reason, and when they do not work as God intends, we certainly suffer. Others have argued over the centuries that God’s providence is responsible for everything, good and bad, suffering and joy, and we certainly hear echoes of this in our own day too. Between our everyday thank-yous to God for providing a good parking place and the too-common assertion that bad things that happen in our lives and in our world are simply a part of “God’s plan,” we put a lot of emphasis on what God provides us, and if we do it well in the framework that Jesus provides here, it potentially provides glory to God.

But some in our day have taken this perspective to its logical end and pointed to God’s providence and glory as the explanation for nearly everything that happens in our world. I’m not speaking of the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of our world who blame natural disaster on human sin – that’s actually the perspective Jesus explicitly denies here! – but rather of some of those quieter voices who imply that God sends disaster to open new mission fields. Yes, in recent weeks, some have actually suggested that God sent the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster upon Japan so that the church can show off its care for people there and bring them to believe. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I would be compelled to believe in a God who sent a disaster that killed my neighbors, friends, and even family so that I can see what he is up to. But thankfully that’s not at all what Jesus says here – he simply makes it clear that in this specific individual, in this particular healing, God’s work of healing providence was made clear. This story can’t explain how and why everything happens, and God’s glory is not the reason for every child born blind, but here, in this time and this place, Jesus invites us to see more than meets the eye and watch as God breaks through our expectations to do the unexpected.

At the core, that’s the real weirdness that Jesus gets at here, not so much the healing without permission, not his strange and evasive answers about who did or did not sin here, not even the dirt and saliva that he uses to make the healing happen. The real weirdness here is that Jesus calls us to put aside our assumptions about how things happen, to set aside the ways that everything has worked before, to stop trying to see as we have always seen before, for the reality is that we have been, are now, and will forever be blind if we keep trying to see as we have always seen. Even the man born blind who suddenly was able to see has to keep working through things two and three times to sort out the new reality of his sight, but eventually the power of his simple transformation story overcomes all the questions as blindness fades into sight and confusion becomes understanding.

Jesus’ strange new worldview challenges us to look at things anew, to pay attention to what is really going on around us, to make sure that we aren’t just seeing what we have seen before or what we want to see now, and then to respond, recognizing where God is at work and stepping in ourselves to work where work is still needed. Jesus casts aside the way we have always thought things should be and insists that there is more than meets the eye here, that we need to think anew about how can be and should live together in our changing world. We can’t just assume that every problem can be attributed to our own actions or the actions of others, and God doesn’t set us up to fail or face suffering, yet somehow God still puts these things before us – the struggles that make us who we are, the strange and different things that are inherent in our birth, maybe blindness, deafness, shortness, red-headed-ness, baldness, left-handed-ness, gayness – these things that the world too often discounts and that make our lives hard – and yet God insists they can show God’s glory.

There is more than meets the eye in these things and in everything that God gifts us in the fullness of our humanity. We may not immediately understand it, we may not always see it right away, we may certainly be angered and frustrated by our different reality, but we nonetheless can trust that God can and will use everything about us for the fullness of God’s glory. So may God open our eyes to see God’s glory in all the strange and wonderful things around us in these days – and inspire us to respond to this new and different and wonderful and weird world with new hope and life now and always. Lord, come quickly! Amen.

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