Seeing


What do you see?

A old piece of rectangular wood. 

Crudely carved letters, with some out of order and one missing altogether. 

Perhaps a child’s attempt at a class project. If so, it would get a C, or worse, in carpentry class,  an F in English. 

What do you see? 

I see a single mom with two small children. The oldest (that’s me) is five, the youngest is one. 

It is around 1972. She is recently divorced, little money, living hand to mouth. It is a lonely feeling, rocking your two children in a tiny house, frightened of what the future holds…vulnerable. 

There is an old man next door, Mr. Pounders. I never knew his first name. I only remember him coming by from time to time, bearing food…and quarters. He would open my hand with his rough and gnarled fingers. Then he reached into his pocket and gave me quarters – a whole handful! – and tell my mother to let me get whatever I wanted. Unbounded joy for a five year old with a convenience store down the street stocked with every imaginable (at least to my imagination) candy. 

He would let go of my hand and I would turn quickly to go take my treasures to my room. My mother would clear her throat. 

“What do you say?”

I sheepishly turn. 

“Thank you, Mr. Pounders.”

One day he came in his truck. He had built a toy chest. I know now it was rather crude, but sturdy.

Another time he knocked on the door. Mom swung it open, and he was holding a rocking chair, just my size. 


I rocked most of that day, with a fresh batch of quarters in my hand. 

And then, on a cold day, Mom came into my little room, holding up another gift. “Look what Mr. Pounders made for you.”


What do you see?

A priceless work of art, the only art that matters – an expression of love. Its imperfections shine with the transforming light of generosity, of grace.  

Mom said, “The next time you see Mr. Pounders, you know what to say.”

Yes. Yes I do. 

No act of love is ever wasted. Every expression of love is beautiful, regardless of imperfections.

When a semi-literate retiree who piddles in carpentry showers a young, scared single mother and her two vulnerable children with his best gifts, made with care by his own hands, you know what to say. 

I suspect we are all of us surrounded daily by such grace, like quarters in our outstretched palms, like carved signs of love, sent from One who is love. And I suspect we all of us trudge or fly through our days noting imperfections in ourselves, in others, in the world…and miss the gift. 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God.

But only those who see take off their shoes;

The rest sit around and pluck blackberries. 

The question is always the same:

What do you see?

And when you have seen, truly and deeply…What do you say?

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. 

Garments of Life

I used to enjoy playing a game called “Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” It is based on the game “Six Degrees of Separation,” in which you try and see how many degrees of relationship you are removed from a celebrity. It is fun to try.

I can tell you that I am two degrees removed from Kevin Bacon. My brother Jonathan saw him in a restaurant in South Carolina and got his autograph. You’ll be happy to know that I am one degree removed from Phyllis Diller, and Dick van Dyke, if passing them on a street in their Malibu neighborhood and waving counts. In the same Malibu neighborhood I actually talked to Alan Arkin as he was getting his mail. He said, “Hi,” and I said, “Hi.” He said, “Have a great day.” I said, “You too.” Hey, it counts. And due to living where we do, I am only a couple of degrees removed from Taylor Swift, Dolly Parton, and Nicole Kidman. And then there’s that time our beach chairs were right next to Luke Bryan on the beach for a whole week. And I have a football signed to me by Nick Saban. I contend there’s no degree of separation there…we are one.

Of course on another level, it is a statement about the worship of celebrity and the superficiality that can entail, as if knowing someone who knows someone somehow entails a relationship worthy of the name.

Today, though, that’s what I believe this text invites us to think about – degrees of separation.

Jerusalem is where all the action is in the first part of the Book of Acts. It was the place in Luke where Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross, the place where the women discovered the empty tomb, and the place where the risen Christ encountered his disciples and gave them the command to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. For the first several chapters of his story in Acts, Luke has kept us in Jerusalem. But now, for the first time, Peter takes a few steps away from the city. Today we find him in Joppa, a small town on the Mediterranean Sea, northwest of Jerusalem by 40 miles, gathered with a group of disciples who live there.

It is really, by the game’s standards, only one degree of separation from Jesus, but it must have felt like so many more degrees to Peter, so many more miles from Jerusalem, from Jesus, when he got to urgent summons from some disciples in Joppa. One of their own is dead.

Luke takes care to tell us her name, in both Hebrew and Greek. She is Tabitha, Dorcas in Greek. Both mean the same thing – “Gazelle.” She must have been every bit the embodiment of that name. She is the only woman in the entire New Testament to be given the title “Disciple.” She is “devoted to good works and charity.”

Here is a disciple of Jesus Christ, this far west of Jerusalem, a woman, with both a Hebrew and Greek name.  She appears to be the leader of a guild of widows who made garments for the sake of good works and charity. The widows are gathered around her lifeless body, weeping. When Peter shows up, they lift the garments up, like holy objects, which they most certainly were, these signs of her gifts, of her presence and importance. Their tears fall onto the clothing, their grief is raw. Something has been lost here. Luke doesn’t tell us about Peter’s thoughts, but I venture to say he felt so far away in that moment, from Jerusalem, here in this house with these grieving disciples and this lifeless gazelle.

Peter may not know it, but he is taking his first steps into a surprising world that is shot through with resurrection. And it is a much larger world than even he can imagine.

Already the resurrection power of Jesus is alive in that house, among those widows. Tabitha somewhere along the way heard the story of Jesus and was so captured by his Spirit that she devoted herself to his way in the world.

It happens. Allison Terry-Evans heard about all the clothes being discarded as refugees made their way across the Aegean Sea, arriving cold and soaked. All those clothes that might have been thrown away were piling up in every camp. She felt a call and had an idea. She founded the Dirty Girlz, who pick up all the discarded clothes, wash them, and re-distribute them. Our group saw the value of their work up close while we were in Lesvos.

One day, when Allison dies and her friends and family gather to grieve the loss, perhaps they will hold up a pair of socks, or a beautiful Syrian coat, or an Afghan quilt. Look at these signs. Look at what she left behind.

It happens. Brenda Hauk, a school teacher with special needs children begins to wonder why there are so few services that respect the dignity and autonomy and gifts of this adult population. She says she felt God’s call, and dedicated her life to founding BrightStone. And now Kate and her friends and so many more have a place, a sacred space, where their gifts can be called forth.

When Brenda breathes her last, and her family and friends gather to grieve, they will hold up artwork, food, the many gifts of those she loved that her faithfulness to God’s call brought forth.

Peter has seen these gifts. Who’s to say what he is thinking. But Luke tells us what he does. He sends everyone out. Can you see the change in Peter already? Impetuous, loud, always ready for the show. His is humble. He is alone with Tabitha. He gets on his knees. He prays. We do not hear what he prays, only that he does. It is tender moment, a holy moment, but it is also an unsure moment, a vulnerable moment. It may not have just been humility that made Peter put them all out, but fear – fear that he might fail.

I wonder if Peter was trembling as he prayed. We don’t know how long he stayed on his knees. But at some point, in prose as matter-of-fact as if he is narrating the preparation of dinner, Luke says that Peter looked at the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Her eyes open, and when she sees Peter, she sits up. Peter takes her by the hand and helps her up.

And that’s when they know. There is no degree of separation from the Spirit of Christ.

Tabitha no doubt got up from her death-bed and sprang into action befitting her name. She was restored to the community. She made more tunics. She continued to lead the little community of widows. And then one day, she died. The widows grieved yet again. But I suspect this time they did not grieve as those without hope. For this time they had seen a sign that a new age had dawned, and they knew that nothing could ever be quite the same again.

Since Anne has been taking classes for her Certificate of Ministry from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, I’ve been the beneficiary of some of her learning. Her last class was in Pastoral Care, and one of the things the professor encouraged was that every time you were getting ready to meet with someone, whether in the hospital or in the home or at the church, you should take a moment to set down whatever you bring with you – your anxieties, worries, distractions, to-do lists, your pre-conceived ideas of how the visit is going to go, your fear that you may not be enough or have the right words – you set it down so you can offer the gift of complete presence to the person. It was certainly one of Anne’s gifts long before she took the class, but it is a good reminder not only to pastors, but to all who want to give the gift of their time and presence to another.

But here’s the thing. That setting down, the opening of the door, the stepping into the room, is a place of incredible vulnerability. Things happen in such spaces as that.  You are opening yourself to the possibility that even resurrection can happen, transformation, new directions, new life.

I’m imagining some of your funerals right now – don’t worry, I’m sure they are all far off. But you notice we don’t call them funerals. We call them Services of Witness to the Resurrection. We call them that because we are witnessing to the hope of resurrection and claiming those promises for the one who has died. But we also call it that because we give witness to the ways resurrection power was part of the person’s life while they lived.

I’m imagining some of yours. Someone will come to me and hold up a garment and say, “I was having a hard time, and she was my Stephen Minister. She walked with me for over a year through my pain. She was the light of Christ to me.”

Maybe the ashes will be here at the font, and someone will approach and hold up a garment, “He was my covenant partner. He allowed me to ask question and listened patiently to my teenage worries. I’m a person of faith because of what Christ did through him.”

Standing outside at the Memorial Garden, someone will come up to me, lifting up a garment – “I was a stranger, new to this church, and he went out of his way to welcome me, to genuinely welcome me. He sought me out every Sunday. He might not ever know what that meant to me. It’s a big reason I became part of this community of faith. I felt the welcome of Christ through him.”

I don’t really have to imagine these conversations. I’ve already had them, and scores more just like them. The power of resurrection is calling forth the gifts of the members of this community of faith and transforming lives.

When they speak of you, what garments of life are they holding up that are signs of your gifts? You are baptized, so you surely have them.

And when they speak of us, First Presbyterian Church, what garments of life are they holding up that are signs of the gift of this church to our community, nation, and world?

They are surely here, among us, beautiful signs of resurrection…there is no degree of separation. Christ is risen! Amen.

By the Fire

I was being prepped by some friends for my examination on the floor of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee. It was the final step to becoming pastor of this congregation. The meeting was in Clarksville, at First Presbyterian. My friends said, “You need to be ready for Gudger’s question.”

“Okay, who is Gudger, and what is his question?”

“He’s a retired minister member of the presbytery, and he’s going to ask if you love Jesus?”

“That’s it?” I said. “Is it some sort of trick question?”

“No, but he will ask it. And it sometimes trips people up.”

I wondered how you could get tripped up on that one, but thanked them anyway for the heads up.

And then I spent several hours trying to come up with an answer. I assumed the presbytery had heard it asked and answered scores of times by now, and I wanted my answer to be memorable. A mere “yes” seemed pedestrian, expected, maybe even inadequate. How do you answer, really, such a question.

“Do you love me?” It is the simplest of questions, and the most difficult. Peter looks at Jesus, his face aglow from the charcoal fire, the smells of breakfast still lingering in the air – fish and bread. Peter’s stomach is full, his muscles aching from the swim and hauling the large catch of fish to the shore, when he hears it – the question.

He’s been expecting something ever since he heard one of the other disciples cry out, “It is the Lord!” He throws on his clothes and jumps in the water, swimming toward the shore frantically. He pulls himself up onto the beach, and rubbing the salt water out of his eyes, he sees it. A charcoal fire, Jesus standing next to it, fish and bread cooking over it. A memory hits him.

The last time he stood before a charcoal fire, out in the courtyard, while Jesus was being beaten and humiliated inside, Peter stood warming himself and denied him three times. Three times. As soon as he saw the fire, he had to know it was coming, a reckoning. But how heartbreaking the way the reckoning came; as a question, the simplest of questions. Three times.

“Do you love me?”

It is amazing what a simple question can reveal. I read several weeks ago about an author, Charles Duhigg, who in the course of doing research for a book, discovered that the basis of what at the time was one of the most productive car manufacturers was the belief that “even the most complex problems have simple solutions if you know how to look for them.” It was encapsulated in a method called “The Five Whys.” If there is a problem, start with the problem and work your way back with five why questions.

Duhigg decided to try it with his own family and one of their most unsolvable problems. They never got to eat family dinners anymore, though they wanted that to happen, there was just never time. Why did they not have family dinner? Because he and his wife always got home later than expected. Why did they get home later than expected? Because though they intended to leave the office by five, they never could because there were so many miscellaneous tasks that needed attention they didn’t get to throughout the day. Why had they ignored all those tasks? Because they arrived each morning at work just as the first meetings were starting, and so all the unread emails and memos were put off till the end of the day, where they were joined with other emails and memos that had accumulated. Why were they arriving later to work than they intended. Because although they always intended to leave home at 8 each morning and get the kids to school, they usually ran late and didn’t get out the door until 8:20. And, finally, why were they leaving the house later than planned? Because it always took so long to get the kids dressed in the morning.

So they made one small change. The last thing they did before bed was set out the clothes the kids would wear the next day. The family dinners started happening almost immediately. An evening problem that seemed unsolvable was solved by a small change in the morning with just five questions.[1]

You should try it. But I warn you. Don’t try it unless you’re ready to change; don’t try it if you really don’t want to know. Because five questions can get you to the root of things pretty quickly.

Jesus only needed one.

I don’t know that I have ever sat with a couple either in pre-marriage counseling or in counseling married couples that the question hasn’t come up, in one form or another. It is a simple question, easy to answer; and yet it is the most difficult question of all, because of what it means, what it asks, where it takes us every one. “Do you love me?”

It sometimes comes because an emotional distance has crept into the day to day. Sometimes it is asked because of a breach of trust. Sometimes it is asked because actions do not match the words.

“Do you love me?”

And whether you are talking about marriage or friendship, relationships between siblings or parents and children, always the question is implied. We really want to know, need to know, “Am I loved?” The question in any relationship worthy of the name is always there, in the background.

Peter has betrayed Jesus as much as Judas ever did. He denied him and abandoned him. He went back to fishing I suspect to escape his own grief and guilt, hoping the seawater would sooth his shame. All night he fishes, but nothing good ever happens in John at night. Now the day breaks. There is Jesus. The one he denied. Cooking breakfast. Offering food for Peter’s body. And then, the gift of gifts; food for his soul, in the form of three questions. Does Peter realize it as it is happening, how Jesus is offering him the chance to express his love as many times as he denied him? Jesus gently restores him, this broken and failed man; Jesus gathers him back to himself.

Stanley Hauerwas says, “It is surely right that all that Jesus is and does manifests God’s love for us, but it is no less true that Jesus asks us, as he asked Peter, ‘Do you love me?’”

“If you are like me, you would prefer to read the passage as one limited to that particular context in order to excuse yourself from having to answer. How on earth can I answer that question without immediately feeling trite? I suspect I am more ready to believe in Jesus than I am to love him.”[2]

It seems as if Jesus wants to get Peter to the root of things, to the reason why he exists, to the whole point of his being the leader of this band of disciples that will become the church.

Because you can build the most beautiful sanctuary and pay off the mortgage, you can preach and sing and pray and study, you can do service and mission for people close to home and around the world, but if you do not love Jesus, if all of this is not motivated by a heart that has been captured by his Spirit, then it all may be good and beautiful and even edifying, but it is not authentic.

I stood before the presbytery, anticipating Gudger’s question. Instead, someone else stood up and asked me about predestination. They knew I had come from the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination, which split from the Presbyterians over 200 years ago now over just this question, among others.

I thought, “Just like a bunch of Presbyterians; they are more concerned that I love John Calvin than Jesus.”

So I gave an answer. I wish I could say I remember what it was, but I got in, so I guess it was acceptable. I hope it was an answer that placed predestination in its proper light – as a halting and imperfect way of speaking of a God who loves us and claims us before we are even able to love and claim in return, and a calling to respond to that grace with lives of love and service.

After I answered, sweat pouring off me, a man stood up in the front pew. His voice was low, and I had to lean in to hear him.

“Do you love Jesus?”

I had been preparing something grand. But in that moment, all that came out was, “I do.”

And somewhere in my soul, deep, at the root of things, came a response – “Feed my sheep.”

And so it is for us all. The table is prepared. Hear the voice of Jesus calling us to dine. A charcoal fire awaits us at this breakfast, the whole broken and failed lot of us, the whole beloved band of us. We will eat. And as we eat, hear the question, because it is surely being asked.

“Do you love me?” Careful how you answer. You know what comes next. “Follow me.” Amen.

[1] New York Times, March 10, 2016

[2] https://www.faithandleadership.com/sermons/stanley-hauerwas-the-question-cannot-be-avoided

They Remembered

Empty.

The women walk, bearing the heavy spices and oils to anoint Jesus’ body. According to Luke, the last words they heard from Jesus were, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And then, empty.

Mark says the last thing heard from Jesus’ lips was, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” followed by a loud, anguished cry.

But whether you go by Mark or Luke, or Matthew or John, the result is the same. Empty.

The disciples scatter, the women observe from afar, the body of Jesus is taken down from the cross, limp and lifeless, carried hurriedly as the sun was setting and the Sabbath was beginning by Joseph of Arimathea and placed in a tomb. The stone was placed over it. Everyone went home.

Empty.

As a really young student pastor, I was called to go to the home of a man whose wife was sick and in the hospital, not expected to live. As we visited over coffee and pastries at his little kitchen table, he kept saying the hardest part of coming home at night from the hospital was the empty house. “It is not the same without her here,” he said, “It’s just empty, almost like there might as well be no furniture here, really. I just sit awake at night. Just so empty.”

Kim and I are what you call “empty nesters” now, which as you know means the little birds have flown away, one to Tokyo and one to Memphis. We heard and said all the positive things. Now we are going to be able to drop everything and go where we want when we want. Now I can watch what I want on television, complete control of the remote.  Now we can eat what we want, instead of accommodating other people. No more picking up after them. The laundry is reduced by half, really, more than half. Freedom. Liberation.

But the truth is, when we walked into the house after returning from the airport to send our boy to Tokyo and his sister wasn’t there waiting for us, the full force of that phrase hit us in the gut – empty nest. And it was months before I could walk by their rooms, their empty rooms, without a lump catching in my throat.

We’re better now, by the way. We’ve found the good in the empty nest, not least of which is more time with one another. And when Caleb gently floated the idea that in Japanese culture, when a couple has a baby they move in with one set of parents for the first several years of the baby’s life, and if he and Ryoko had a baby in the US, would that apply, we said, “This ain’t Japan.” So we’re getting used to it.

And yet, when our daughter is coming home, we are overcome with excitement; and when we video-chat with our son from around the world, we relish the connection, and long for more, to be able to embrace.

Imagine these women, arms tired from bearing the spices, preparing to do the one thing they can do to perhaps stave off this feeling of emptiness.  They see the stone rolled away, look inside, and…empty.

An empty tomb does not mean anything other than the body is not there. The women, far from shouting, “Alleluia! He is risen!” instead are, says Luke, “perplexed.” Can it get worse than the cries from the cross, the final breath, the death of their Lord, the death of their dreams? Apparently so. Now, even the tomb is empty. Now they do not have the benefit of this final consolation – seeing his body, tending his wounds, caring for him this one last time. The tomb, even the tomb, is empty.

This is the place, the place where the bottom they thought they had reached was pulled out from under them, staring at the emptiness of the tomb – this is the place where something happens to them, where grace reaches into that emptiness in the form of two men, dressed, as Luke says, in dazzling clothes.

But as if often the case, grace doesn’t appear to them as grace at all. Now they are no longer perplexed, but terrified. They bow their faces to the ground in fear. Notice how, on this Easter Day we are more than halfway through the story and the only emotions we have felt are perplexity and terror.

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?” ask the men. And they don’t wait for the answer: “he is not here. He is risen. Remember what he said.”

It is only as they are reminded to remember, it is only as they recall the teaching of Jesus, that their perplexity and terror flee away, and they go and tell. The power of this Easter story is not in the empty tomb or the dazzling white clothes – the only thing those bring ultimately is confusion and fear. The power of the story is in the remembering. “Remember what he said to you.”

It is in this act of remembrance that they are finally able to see. It is in remembering that their emptiness is filled.

I have on more than one occasion visited with a person who is suffering from severe dementia. Those of you who have experienced this will know that it can be a frustrating time of reintroducing yourself to the one you care about, engaging in circling conversations filled with repetitive questions and confusing answers. But more than once, I watch the perplexity and terror fall from the faces of those who suffer as we begin praying the Lord’s Prayer, or reading Psalm 23, or saying the Apostles’ Creed. Emptiness is filled. Memory, those deep grooves formed in the soul in weekly worship, the years lived in the hearing of the old, old story; the memory restores them, even if for a moment, and they are part of that great company of all the faithful of every time and place, a community of memory.

When you find yourself in the place of emptiness longing for life, it is memory that ushers in the Risen One.

The women are not told to go to Galilee, but to remember what he said in Galilee – that the Messiah would suffer and die and on the third day rise again. As soon as they remember, it is Easter. He has yet to appear to them, but it is Easter, because they remember. “It is the kind of memory that doesn’t live in the past, but propels them to the future.”

There are times when we don’t remember – when pain or grief or the pressures of living propel us not to the future, but to the past, robbing us of our ability to remember well, and we commence to hunting for Jesus’ dead body.

One particular Lent and Easter was especially difficult for me for me; for lots of reasons it was one of those classic church worker Lent/Easter seasons, where we all trudged around the church offices counting down not to the joy of Easter, but to having it over with. Fatigue is what I remember most. It was one of those years when I grew weary of bunnies and eggs and flowers, and was tempted to respond to the greeting, “Christ is risen today!,” with “What do you know?” Not good.

Of course the pastor is not allowed to say that, so I took it out on my family. At the time we just had one child, and he was three or four. He commanded a lot of attention and energy that I did not have to give during those weeks. Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and two Easter Services were coming and I was not ready for any of them. Finally, Holy Saturday arrived, the day before Easter, and I was studying at home when my son came in, wanting to go outside on what was a beautiful Saturday and play. He was persistent, pleading even, tugging at me, and I finally semi lost it, snatched him up, and took him to his mother. I said, “I can’t handle him right now – – you know its Easter, right?” This was a rhetorical question, but it received an answer.

“Yes,” she said, “and it will be Easter whether the sermon is perfect or not. It doesn’t depend on you. But he,” pointing to the boy, “he does.

She was not dressed in dazzling white clothes, and I don’t think for a moment that she saw herself as a messenger of the Risen Lord at that moment – but she was. I was poking around in my sermon preparation like a graveyard, hunting for the body of a long-dead Jesus, and all along, he was alive, and the signs were all around, including the magnificent three year old gift tugging at my sleeve.

Christ the Lord is Risen today! Not yesterday, but today. We do not need to linger at whatever graves we may have found ourselves poking around in. If you are empty, looking around the tomb for some sign of life, be on the lookout for signs of God’s dazzling grace. It is surely there, if we believe what we say we believe, it is surely there, set loose in the world. And if you know someone in that place, you may be for them the messenger of that dazzling grace, sent by God to whisper in their ear, “Remember.” We all need to hear it. The world needs to hear it. “Remember what he said. Remember what he said.” Lift your voices, do not be afraid to be dazzling heralds of God.

 

He is risen!

He is risen, church!

He is risen, world!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.

Preached Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016

While it Was Still Dark

“While it was still dark.” As soon as we hear these words in John, we should remember other ones as well:

From some of the very first words in the Prologue: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

“There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus. He came to Jesus by night…”

Jesus came to Samaria. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came…”

“Jesus spoke to them saying, ‘I am the light of the world.”

Judas leaves the table on Maundy Thursday to go betray Jesus. John writes, “And it was night.

For John, light and dark, night and day, take on significance. The Samaritan woman, who becomes the first proclaimer of good news in his gospel, is bathed in light, while Nicodemus, who cannot grasp the meaning of Jesus’ presence, comes under cover of night. And so it is in John. Light and dark, night and day are more realities of the soul than the sky.

So when you see that Matthew writes about Easter, “As the first day of the week was dawning…” and when Mark writes, “And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen…” and Luke writes, “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn…” and only John, only John writes, “while it was still dark…” we should know, right away, that more is at work here than just the time of day.

For John, Easter happens while it was still dark, while the world was still in the grip of the power that sent Judas out the door; something happened in the midst of the darkness that forever changed it. John’s Easter story is a story of God’s work in the dark.

And it seems as though John doesn’t want to just tell us it was dark. He wants us to experience the dark, telling his story in such a way that we experience the uncertainty that comes with night-time excursions. Why is Mary Magdalene there? She’s not coming to bring spices – John tells us that already happened, even gave us the weight – about a hundred pounds. He says she came alone, but when she runs back to Peter and the other disciple, she says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” And how does she know Jesus is not in the tomb. John says she only saw the stone taken from the entrance to the tomb, but didn’t go in.

Peter and the unnamed disciple race to the tomb, and John calls it like the Olympics, taking the time to tell us that the beloved disciple is winning, arrives at the tomb first, but then, inexplicably, looks inside, sees the linen wrappings, but doesn’t go in. It is left to Peter to rush headlong into the tomb, where he sees not only the lower wrappings, but also the wrapping that went around Jesus’ head. Then the other disciple comes in, and, says John, believes. What, exactly, he believes we are not told. The disciples come out of the tomb, say nothing to Mary Magdalene, and just go home. That’s when the angels are suddenly there, and then just as suddenly, Jesus, whom she presumes to be the gardener, is present and the angels are gone.

I think John intends to tell the story in this confusing way, this stumbling about in the dark, because he knows this is how we all of us ultimately experience resurrection – in the dark. And I think he means to tell us that this is a story about what God is doing in the world. Resurrection doesn’t happen because we can accomplish it. The church cannot make it happen. It is sheer gift. Jesus was dead. God raised him, in the dark of night. And this is how it still happens with those of us who follow the one who said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

When John says, “While it was still dark,” we remember what was said earlier in John, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

When Mary makes her way in the darkness to the place where her Lord’s beaten, bloodied corpse lay, we remember, “the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil.”

When the disciple Jesus loved sees the empty tomb and believes, we remember, “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.”

And when Mary strains to see one she supposes to be the gardener and hears him say her name, we remember, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

This is not a story in the end that makes sense – it is a story about God’s light breaking out in the darkness and the confusing, exhilarating, sometimes bumbling and sometimes beautiful ways those who see it are transformed. We cannot grasp this story; it grasps us. We do not understand resurrection; we experience resurrection. This is how resurrection happened, John tells us, and it is still the way it happens – in the uncertainty of the dark, in God’s time and in God’s way.

Back in December, I found myself awake in the middle of the night high on a hillside in below freezing weather overlooking the Aegean Sea. I had recently been trained to use night vision binoculars, and I had them up to my eyes, going back and forth in the way I had been trained, looking for boats – dinghies, really – that might be filled with refugees trying to make their way from Turkey, whose lights I could see illuminated in green, on the other side of the sea, the five kilometers to Lesvos, Greece, and the safety, at that time, of Europe.

It is hard even now some months removed to describe the feeling of knowing that for those few hours on my shift, I and the person working with me had the responsibility and the very lives of those who might dare make an attempt to cross on such a cold night. I scanned the night sea, the waves cast in green by the night vision, looking for human shapes on the water.

My shift ended with no sightings, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I got back into the tent and tried to sleep. “Thank you God,” I prayed, “that no refugees were unlucky enough to attempt to cross on my patrol.”

Sometimes now I think about the world, and all of humanity, as that little five kilometer stretch between Greece and Turkey, imperiled, uncertain, dinghies without a captain. John was right – it is still dark.

And yet, there are these outposts of resurrection. The world is teeming with resurrection life. God’s life has been set loose in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord. Even now, he is at work in the world, in places like Lesvos and Damascus and Franklin, through people like you and me. God is at work through us. God is at work in you, flooding whatever darkness you may experience with resurrection life. The light shines in the midst of the darkness. And even though we may grope about, even though all is not yet clear, on this day we know that love is stronger than hate, hope is stronger than despair, life is stronger than death, light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Something has been set loose in the world.

We are an Easter people. While it was still dark, while we were weeping at the empty tomb, staring into the void, we heard our name and the call to follow. There’s a resurrection post out there somewhere with your name on it, somewhere where it is still dark. Whether that darkness is within or without; whether you need the light or need to be the vessel of light for another, today, with Mary, we can turn and hear our name, and know the words spoken at the very beginning are still true – “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Let us go, without fear, for Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Amen.

Preached Easter Sunrise, March 27, 2016

Dancing in Black

(I wrote this for the Holy Week devotional guide for Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where I am pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree. The growth and community I have experienced there has been transformative. I am grateful to the seminary for inviting me to share these words. It was an honor.)

The courtyard is a mass of children, older ones in soccer uniforms, younger ones toddling about, all with one thing on their minds: Easter eggs. They carry their baskets with the care of a waiter balancing a tray heavy with food, careful not to let the nourishing fare of chocolate kisses, peanut butter cups, and various assortments of colorful candies fall to the ground, where they might be scooped up by a fellow hunter. Their joy radiates out from the courtyard in squeals as they find yet another, and another, colorful egg. To see them from afar, it looks like an intricate dance.

In the center of the courtyard is a white metal Celtic cross, rising from the ground, the clear focal point around which the entire facility was built, the place where the eye is automatically drawn.

It is draped in black.

When I first arrived to serve this congregation, I was horrified at what I referred to as the Annual Holy Saturday Sacrilege. I tried to use my new pastor honeymoon period to get the egg hunt moved. I remember taking a wise and influential, as well as liturgically-sensitive ruling elder out to the courtyard to witness the spectacle. “Do you see that cross, and all those children, hunting eggs on Holy Saturday? I feel there’s incongruence here, a mixed message.”

She turned to me and said, “I agree. I think Holy Saturday is one big mixed message. Let the children hunt. It seems fitting.” And she turned and walked back inside, leaving a confused pastor in her wake.

What do we do with this strange day, after the torments of Good Friday, the failures of courage, the startling wail of Jesus about the abandonment of God? What do we do when we sense in the closed tomb encasing the body of the Anointed One not a thin place, but a chasm so large it hints at nothingness?

This may be the most honest day of Holy Week. It dares to say that the darkness of the chaotic Good Friday lingered into the quiet desperation and grief of Saturday in such a way that the church called it “Holy.” And therefore we can dare to say in the midst of the darknesses that consume our lives and the life of our world that even there, in that place, in whatever tombs encase us, even there, hidden from our sight, a presence abides, and makes even Saturday holy.

The children seem to sense it, this holiness hidden like an egg in the tall grass, a splash of color hinting at joy to come. And so they dance around the cross draped in black, acknowledging the Holy, anticipating…what exactly?

It is too soon for us to say. After all, it is Holy Saturday. There’s incongruence, some mixed messages, a fair amount of confusion, dancing in black. In other words, the place we most of us live a good bit of the time. That place -dare we say it? – is holy.

Even You

It happened so fast and was so bizarre; none of us had a chance to react before it was already underway.

He got this look in his eye – a wild and gentle spark glinted from them. And the next thing we knew, he was up, shedding his clothes. I looked around. Did anyone else find this strange? Has he lost his mind, disrobing right here in front of us? I saw the looks of silent shock on everyone’s face. No one moved but him.

He reaches for a towel and ties it around his waist. He takes the empty basin sitting by the door and picks up a clay pitcher, fills it with water, and carefully pours it into the basin. I still hear the sound of it, like a stream, and I can see the droplets splashing up out of it as he pours.

And then, he kneels down at James’s feet. James – he is part of the duo with his brother that we call “Sons of Thunder.” There’s a reason for that. There was that one time when Jesus was talking on the road about coming here to Jerusalem and being killed. And James and his brother John – whose feet Jesus is now washing – they asked him if they could sit, one at his right and one at his left, when he entered the kingdom. I know them well, those two. All bluster, always scrambling for power, trying to one-up everyone else.

And yet, he washes them. They will flee when he dies. Run like scared children. And yet…he gently takes each grimy foot in his hands, and with great tenderness rubs them clean. He washes them…even them.

Now he’s moved on to Thomas. Thomas, always questioning Jesus at every turn, refusing to trust. Thomas was one of the ones on the road one day when several of the followers got into a big argument. It was right after he had told us again about coming here, to Jerusalem, and how he was going to be beaten and spat upon and die. No sooner was he finished than several started arguing about who among the followers was the greatest. Can you believe that? It’s me that Jesus loves the most. No, clearly I am the most indispensible. You’re crazy, I’m the one. He always lets me sit right next to him at the table. And Thomas was right in the middle of it all.

And yet, he washes him. Thomas will not be around when Jesus breathes his last. He will not hear the horrific cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” He will refuse to believe. And yet, there are those feet in Jesus’ hands, clean. He washes him…even him.

It’s when he moves toward Peter that the spell is finally broken. Peter of course is a “ready, fire, aim” kind of guy, always spouting off when he would best be silent. And he asks kind of a ridiculous question, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Well, apparently so. That’s kind of what’s going on here.

But that’s Peter. It was Peter that time, after the Lord had said he was going to be coming here, and the Messiah would die, who took him aside and scolded him like a child. Jesus really gave it to him, too. “Get behind me Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things!” This time, he’s a little gentler. “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Peter, as usual, is undeterred. “You will never wash my feet.”

When Jesus says the only way to share with him is to be washed, Peter, true to form, wants a whole shower – hands and head, as well as feet. Such an oaf.

Peter will deny him. Even while Jesus is being mocked and beaten, Peter will stand out in the courtyard and deny not just once, not twice, but three times. He will curse and say he does not know the man, the man who just now takes up his feet and tenderly washes…even him.

And then he got to mine.

The other day a man came into the office, asking for the pastor. The receptionist took one look at him and knew he was coming by asking for money. So she discreetly dialed me and said, “Someone’s here asking for you.” That’s code for, “They need money.

I walked out of my office, because I didn’t want the person to make it back there. I was tired and busy, working on a sermon. I was frustrated with the uptick of these requests. It seems they all have a network, I thought, and when you help one, they put the word out, and next thing you know there are twelve in a week. I got to the receptionist area

He looked and smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a while. I asked him to step with me out into the hallway. He was taller than me, but stick-thin. His eyes were sunken. “Pastor,” he said, “Would you pray with me?”

This is always the way it goes, I thought. First it’s the prayer and then the ask. I’m too busy for the formalities.

“How can I help you, really?” I said.

“Pastor, I’m really in need of prayer. I’ve got this surgery coming up.”

“I can give you $20” I said.

“I appreciate that,” he answered, and I said, “Stay right here and I’ll get you a check.” I wrote the check, went out and handed it to him, and said, “That’s all we’ll be able to do for you” as I was walking him to the door. “Next time you’ll need to go to Graceworks.” And I turned and left him standing in the half-open doorway, standing in need of a prayer, a blessing, a word of hope that was not to be on this day.

I drove the nail a little deeper into the tender hands and feet of my Lord. I denied him, with his sunken gaze and smelly clothes; I sent him packing with twenty bucks and zero compassion. Love one another as I have loved you, he said on that night. I failed

And yet, there are my feet in his hands, I feel the water go over them and his soft hands, not yet bloody from the nails. He washes me…even me.

And then he’s moving on, around the table. He kneels at the feet of a woman who is wearing a yellow jacket. Blood runs from a gash on her forehead and down her face. Her black hair looks grey with ashes. On one foot is a black shoe that looks like it has been shredded. The other is bare and bloody. She sits with one leg over the metal arm of the airport chair in Brussels, her face a picture of shock, with a vacant stare. He takes her feet and begins to wash, the blood mingling with the water in the basin. He washes her…and says, “love one another as I have loved you.”

And on he goes. He is kneeling at the feet of a man who is wrapped in a garbage bag that he’s turned into a makeshift tent. All you can see is his face. He’s shivering with in the cold. When Jesus takes his feet, they are caked in mud. He hasn’t eaten in several days. His wife and children, wrapped as well in trash bags, are nearby. In his quaking hands he holds a notice from the authorities that he will be forced back to Turkey, and he fears there he and his family will either die or be shipped back to Syria, where they will surely die.

Jesus takes his feet and washes. It takes some time. Jesus lingers there, washing him…saying, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

And then he gets here. To this room, this part of his table.

He kneels at your feet. You may believe you are not worthy. If he only knew, surely he would not wash me, you may think. If he knew the denials, the failures of courage. If he knew the sins. If he really peered into my heart, deeply into those places I keep hidden behind the carefully manicured façade, the good looking put-together mask I wear. If he knew the truth about me, the real truth, the one I run from with a busy calendar and a thousand daily distractions, the silence I avoid so I can avoid looking within, so I can avoid him. If he knew, he would not wash me.

Yes, it is true, all of it true…what we have done to him, what we have done to one another, what we have done to ourselves. Yes, all of it, all of it, true.

And yet. Feel your feet in his hands, washing, washing you clean, making you part of him. And hear his words as he washes, hear them well, for in them is the hope of the world he loves and for which he died.

“Love one another as I have loved you.”

He is healing you, forgiving you, calling you, washing you…even you. Amen.

Preached Maundy Thursday, March 24, 2016