Month: April 2017

Thoughts on Easter Sunday

resurrection icon

There are two distinct parts, two distinct movements, two distinct encounters to this morning’s passage from John.  I think those two encounters also have a great deal to say to the church on Easter Sunday as well.

In the first movement of this passage Mary Magdalene and then Mary, Peter, and John have an encounter with an empty tomb.

Mary goes to the tomb and discovers that there is no body.  She runs back to where the eleven are, and reports to Peter and the Beloved Disciple this fact: “The tomb is empty;” more specifically she says, “They have taken the body of Jesus.”

Insult has been added to injury: we can’t even give Jesus a proper burial. Remember he was taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb before Sabbath began; Jesus’ followers have been in the house resting according to Torah, waiting until Sabbath ends to properly anoint his body and create the space for grieving.  That’s why Mary is at the tomb early on the first day of the week, she is there to anoint his body; she is there to grieve. And as far as she knows, the body is now somewhere else.  So she runs to the house where the rest of the followers are and tells them what she has seen. The tomb is open; the stone has been rolled away.

Then John tells of a dramatic footrace to the tomb, of Peter and the Beloved Disciple running together. I remember at command PT one day in Sasebo we were running sprints across the basketball court in the base gym.  I was lined up next to one of my RPs, who was quite a few years younger than me, but I pushed hard to beat him across the court. I tried, really, I did, but he outpaced me by a yard or two—a big grin across his face as he went by. Peter, likewise, tries to run with the presumably younger disciple, but the Beloved Disciple beats him to it, winning the foot race.

At the tomb the beloved disciple looks in, sees the wrappings, but does not enter.  Peter arrives shortly after and enters the tomb. I initially want to think that Peter goes into the tomb in his classic excessively enthusiastic style, speaking or acting without fully thinking it through. But then I imagine that, because he is on the heels of denying Jesus, that maybe his entry is more tentative, more tender.  He sees the wrappings used to cover the body of Jesus.  The beloved disciple then enters the tomb and together they see that the Body of Jesus is nowhere inside.  Then John says, “They saw and believed.”

Let’s stop for a moment and consider what did he/they see and believe?  There is no body: it has been taken/moved.  This is what they believe.  They believe that the tomb is empty; they believe Mary’s report.  John makes a point of saying, “for as yet they did not understand the scripture…”  They don’t yet believe, know, or understand that the empty tomb means Jesus is alive and that he has been raised; they don’t grasp yet that the grave cloths are cast aside because Jesus no longer has need of them, ever.

For them, in this moment, Jesus is like Moses; his body is in a place that no one knows. The tomb is empty. Happy Easter? And they go home, perhaps making up their minds to go back to life as they had known it.

And maybe there are a few people like this in the Church, maybe some here this morning. People who believe that there was an actual empty tomb on Easter morning, but they’ve walked away before meeting with the Risen One.  They’re going back to life as they have known it, they believe in the forgiveness of sins, but they haven’t met the Resurrected Jesus.  If it’s you, wait a while; Jesus is here. As one pastor said, “[for] centuries Christians have begun their journey of faith by running to the empty tomb.”*

They believed something, even if they didn’t know exactly what they believed: “there was something in the story that reached the deepest regions of their hearts and minds, where both doubt and faith are found. That is, in the resurrection God gave us such a miracle of love and forgiveness that it is worthy of faith, and thus open to doubt. The very doubts we may hold attest to the scale and power of what we proclaim. So the place to begin in the life of faith is not necessarily with those things we never doubt. Realities about which we hold no doubt may not be large enough to reveal God to us.”* Maybe the hope in our questions is that we are open to finding out more about what God can do, even if we’re not sure what that may be, even if that thing that God does is bigger than our ability to comprehend.

In the second major part of this passage we have Mary waiting alone and weeping. She’s been robbed of her chance at closure. She cannot complete the rituals of lamentation.

And whether it is because she can’t believe it, or maybe because she thinks that if she looks in the same place one more time he’ll be there, Mary looks back into the tomb.  (You know, like when you lose something and you look in the same place over and over and over again?)  That’s what Mary does. She looks into the tomb one more time. Maybe it was simply a way of saying good-bye.

As she looks in she sees two angels.  Sitting there among the wrappings that  once held Jesus’ dead body are two messengers there to attend to her in her grief.

Their question seems so obvious, but it’s an important question: “Why are you weeping?”

We’re taught to pay attention to the body language of people.  To look for signs of distress, not so that we can refer them to professionals, but so that we can be present with them in whatever moment of pain they are experiencing.  Aloneness in grief, makes grief that much harder to bear.  We’re invited to become messengers of hope for others, just as these angels are for Mary.

“Why are you weeping?”  They give her a place to name her pain and she takes it: “They’ve moved the body of Jesus and I don’t know where it is!”  And she turns as if to gesture to them the barrenness of the tomb, the emptiness of the garden, the vastness of places where his body could have been taken, and there he is.  There is Jesus.  But to her he is just the gardener with the same question as the angels in the empty tomb; she is blind with grief as he asks, “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”

It’s almost as if she can’t hear the second question or that to her it doesn’t matter—why would the gardener care who she is looking for? She gets right to the point.

“Where have you taken him?”  she cries.  “If you show me where he is, I will take him and tend to his body!”  To Mary he is just a gardener, and she is so blinded by grief and pain she can’t see him…until he speaks her name:  “Mary!”

I imagine like a parent comforting a child saying their name, rocking them back and forth, trying to get them to calm down.  “Mary!”

And in hearing the Risen Christ speak her name, she knows him for who he is.  And she falls to her feet in front of him.  The Gospel’s author says that her utterance of “Rabbouni!” means teacher, but it’s slightly more personal than that, a familiar, intimate name for a beloved teacher; she doesn’t just say, “Rabbi,” but “MY Rabbi!” Because Jesus spoke her name, Mary could move from mourning to dancing, from weeping to joy. From believing in an empty tomb to knowing the Risen Lord.

This is why I said to wait a while.  Jesus is here and he speaks our names: Daniel, Joey, Dianne, Angela… He speaks our names so that we will know him for who he is.

There are quite a few studies about newborns recognizing the voices of mothers based on learning their voice patters in utero; there’s not so much support with regards to paternal voice recognition (sorry Dads), but newborns and infants will respond to—turn to—recognize Mom’s voice and eventually Dad’s when they hear those voices frequently.  It may not necessarily create stronger bonds, but our children know who we are.

Mary knows Jesus because he speaks her name.  Jesus speaks her name because he knows she will recognize him and know that she belongs to him.  And he speaks our names this morning so that we will know to whom we belong and so that with our words, with our actions, with our lives we will testify to his risenness.

So off Mary goes, once again, serving as the Apostle to the Apostles, the first witness of the Resurrection, to announce her encounter.

“I have seen the Lord,” Mary told the eleven.  “I have seen the Lord…and it is so much better than the empty tomb.”


* Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2010-10-12). Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Location 13550). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.


Good Friday Thoughts


I rarely preach on Good Friday (and in saying that I almost feel like I should have a meme of the Most Interesting Man here or something: “I don’t always preach on Good Friday, but when I do…”); I rarely preach because I believe that sometimes the narrative is sermon enough for the day, but there is also a place for putting words to our grief. And grief is something we should allow ourselves to experience on Good Friday.

I said on this past Sunday that I have difficulty staying present in the celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem because my mind and my heart so quickly jump to what’s coming next; but I think many of us would rather rush from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the celebration of the empty tomb on Easter without pausing to allow for lamentation. I’m not convinced that the contemporary church is very good at, or very comfortable with the concept of lamentation.

My Bachelor’s Degree is in Art History. I had dreams of going to grad school to study the late medieval and early renaissance period of Eastern European art and standing in lecture halls pontificating on various works of the masters. I ended up in seminary with a Masters of Divinity degree, but before my graduation I had an opportunity to travel in Rome, Milan and Florence, Italy for about three weeks as part of a class in transcultural experiences. I finally felt vindicated in having a degree in Art History as we walked through museums and chapels. Standing, awestruck, in the middle of the Sistine Chapel looking up at that masterpiece of a ceiling by Michelangelo, and the Last Judgment painted over the altar; and seeing the work of the fresco artist Giotto in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence was humbling.

For an early fresco artist Giotto was a master at capturing expression. In particular there are frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua that depict the crucifixion of Jesus and his being taken down from the cross.  In each of these frescoes, Giotto adds angels soaring in the sky, weeping and tearing their robes, their faces twisted in aguish as God’s Beloved dies at the hands of fickle humanity.

On this day, we bear witness to the suffering servant of God.  We see the Son of God betrayed; we see the Son of God denied; we see the Son of God abandoned by his closest friends. We see, in so many ways, the suffering of Jesus.

And if we do not create room for grief, room for lamentation, we then there is little room to bear witness to the suffering servant of God.

It was Holy Friday at St. Innocent Orthodox Church in Eureka. The Priest took the Icon of the Holy Cross, gently laid the Icon of Jesus upon it and hammered the nails that would hold the icon in place. There was a dissonance between the care with which the icon was laid upon the cross, and the banging of the hammer on the nails. That dissonance was made apparent in the priest’s tears dripping on the icon. The lesson on the importance of lamentation was made clear and we were able to bear witness to the suffering servant of God.

In John’s gospel the depth of Jesus’ suffering are summed up in the words, “I am thirsty.” Three small words, and yet they are so relatable. I remember days in the Philippines with Marines where I could not keep enough water in my camel back and my blouse was dripping with sweat. While the quantity of sweat may be unique to me, we all have known moments of physical thirst; we all understand the importance of water for survival. And yet there are still places in the world where humanity attempts to get water for their thirst by squeezing fists full of mud into buckets. And we know that Flint, Michigan is still without a solution to their water crisis that began in April 2014. “I am thirsty,” Jesus says as his life seeps away and death closes in.

“I am thirsty,” Jesus says in a moment when his closest friends are hiding in fear, as his mother looks on from a distance. Perhaps he names the deeper thirst we all experience from time to time: the thirst of abandonment. I remember, twenty some years ago, gathering my closest friends and asking for support as I struggled with addiction, and seeing those whom I had asked to bear that weight with me walk away because the reality was too much to handle. I remember the loneliness of not wanting to tell my family about the trouble I was in.

In the play and mini-series Angels in America Louis Ironson and Prior Walter have to come to terms with abandonment as Louis leaves Prior upon learning that Prior has AIDS. As Prior is lying in a hospital bed asleep, Louis sneaks away saying to the nurse, “Tell him I said goodbye.”

“I am thirsty,” says Jesus from the cross.  And in those three words he identifies with the physical thirst of the poor in Central America and arid regions of South and Eastern Africa. And in those words Jesus identifies with the spiritual and emotional thirst of those who are lonely and abandoned and marginalized.

In identifying with the suffering of humanity, Jesus is at one with us and we are at one with God. In this act of giving all the suffering of humanity to God in the atonement of the crucifixion, Jesus calls us to a life of repentance.

Repentance is not just acknowledging that Jesus saves us from our sins in an “O Happy Day when Jesus washed my sins away” kind of way; it’s about calling us to repentance as we recognize that we are called away from suffering.

We are called away from the slavery of our own suffering, to journey in the wilderness like Israel learning what it means to be free.

We are called away from causing the suffering of others, and called to bind the wounds of those who suffer.

And as we bear witness to the suffering Servant of God, as we open ourselves to the lamentation befitting this day, we are also called away from turning a blind eye to the suffering of those around us. We are called to see, to bear witness, even to grieve, and then we are called to respond with compassion so that those around us who know thirst, also know, or at least begin to know, that they are not alone.

“How Much Ya Run?”

These are my running shoes. There are many like them, but this pair is mine.

The other day I saw a post about running on the Insta-photo-sharing site that said something like, “If you want to run, run a mile; if you want to change your life, run a marathon.” Something like that at any rate.

I was thinking about that quote on my morning run today (I have never run a marathon, btw) and I came up with my own version:

“If you want to run, run one mile, or three miles, or five miles, or even a marathon because when you run, your life is changed.”

Maybe even this: “If you want to run, run as far as you want to; if you want to have a life changing experience, run a trail and listen to the birds cheer you on; share the trail with bunnies and lizards, and breathe with the trees. That’s life changing.”

How ever far you may run, let the run be for you and your own growth, otherwise you sound like these guys from an SNL skit back in the day:

how much ya bench

Divine Synchronicity 

I live in an interfaith household. My wife is a Conservative Jew and I am a Mainline Protestant Pastor.

If you want understand how that works, I will simply say this: it works because we allow it to work. We respect one another and we respect our traditions. 

Plus, we get all the Holy Days!

Case in point, yesterday was Palm Sunday and we began the journey of Holy Week. Tonight we begin Passover. 

It just so happens that we are also a vegan household, so our Seder is set up in such a way that there aren’t any animal products. A roasted beet stands in place of the shank bone, and an orange is in the place of the egg. (The orange is also on our table because we’re inclusive and believe that women have a rightful place in Jewish life, and so does our LGBTQ child.)

So this week we get Divinely appointed Synchronicity, much like how this past winter we celebrated Chrismukkah. 🙂

So enjoy a few photos of our table, and Chag Sameach to you (and a blessed Holy Week, too!)

Thoughts on Palm Sunday

icon palms

There’s that saying…stop and smell the roses…or stop and smell the flowers. I try really, really hard to cultivate that into my life: letting myself be overcome by the beauty of a sunrise, literally stopping to smell roses, or fresh herbs (especially rosemary or basil).  There is something in those moments where time seems to come to a standstill and I am just present, breathing in the scent of the flower, or the herbs; soaking in the grandeur of the sunrise or the sunset.

But for whatever reason, I struggle with stopping and celebrating the Entry into Jerusalem. As much as I may try to let myself get swept up with the crowd and their shouts of “Hosanna!” their cries of “Save us Lord!”—as much as I may try to be there, to be present, my mind races to what’s coming next. My heart races to the way the shouts will change from celebration to condemnation; from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!”

I try.  Every stinking year, I try.

I even allow myself to think that if I just sing “Hay-Sanna, Ho-Sanna, Sanna, Sanna, Hay” from Jesus Christ Superstar that I can celebrate, but then I end up thinking that Jesus needed a PR person to help manage the expectations of the crowd and I’m right back where I started: I’m not in the moment of celebration, I’m jumping forward into Friday.

After all, this is such a backwards, upside down moment. We know this passage of scripture as “The Triumphal Entry Into Jerusalem.” But, Jesus is not on a white war horse, nor is he brandishing swords and banners, surrounded by soldiers.  He is not Gandalf riding down the hill at first light in the battle of Helm’s Deep; he is not Tywin Lannister riding into King’s Landing to save Cersei and Tommen. Jesus does not enter Jerusalem in a manner befitting a King.

He rides into Jerusalem on the back of a borrowed donkey. He is surrounded by a flash mob of sorts, a rag tag crowd of misfits—the blind, the lame, the outcasts, the marginalized. Even though we name today Palm Sunday, there are no palm branches, at least not in Matthew’s narrative. There are tree branches and cloaks, but no palms.  Maybe because palm branches would be too easily identified with the Maccabean revolt and were known as symbols of resistance against Rome.

Jesus enters Jerusalem in an almost anti-triumphal way, which is the way he does so much of his work. Jesus is the King of working in ways that no body really seems to understand. He is the embodiment of the passage from Isaiah, where the Lord says “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9)

The triumph here is that we encounter a moment where Jesus allows himself to be publicly outed as the Messiah; this is what Matthew tells us with his references to the prophets.  Matthew frequently points to prophetic anticipation of the Messiah with his use of the phrase, “This this took place to fulfill what had been spoken…”

Matthew quotes both Isaiah and Zechariah in his prophetic fulfillment: “Say to daughter Zion, ‘See your salvation comes….” (Isa. 66:11b) and “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech. 9:9)

I imagine that the people may have remembered these passages, or maybe Matthew puts them there because he is trying to convince the Jewish seekers of his church that Jesus is the awaited One. Either way, these passages of Messianic anticipation remind us that the people were expecting something, maybe something mighty, maybe a powerful display of anti-Roman sentiment.  Something like the cleansing of the temple—which three of the four gospels put in close proximity to Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. Expectations are very high at this point and the crowds are ready to shout aloud because their king and their salvation has come.

I wonder, was the foal of a donkey a way of Jesus attempting to manage the expectations of the crowd?  Passover isn’t that far away; the people are gathering in Jerusalem in anticipation of the festival that remembers God’s mighty act of deliverance. There is an energy to the crowd because they have seen (or heard from those who had seen) Jesus healing those who suffer; the stories of healing and forgiveness and feeding have spread throughout the region and the crowd is there to witness the spectacle that is surely going to unfold in Jerusalem.

Will this be the time that he throws Rome out of the Holy City? Is this the day of our deliverance? Is the the inauguration of the great and terrible Day of the Lord? The onlookers are there and they hear the crowd and they see the parade; but wait, he’s on a donkey? Why a donkey?

Well, didn’t the prophets say Messiah would come on a donkey?

Hosanna, Lord! Save us, Lord! Do a miracle, Jesus! Heal me, Jesus! Hosanna! Feed me, Jesus! Hosanna! Save me, Jesus! Hosanna!

We aren’t that much different than the crowd. Not really. We have our expectations of what Jesus will do for us.  We come to Jesus, more often than not, looking to him for what he might do for us, not for how we might join him in his ministry of reconciliation. Wanting Jesus to give us this one particular thing, or for him to work in this one particular way.

What if we showed up in the celebration and waited to see how Jesus was going to move, or how Jesus was going to save, or how Jesus was going to work? What if we showed up in the celebration, trusting that Jesus will do something, but open to the mystery of what that thing might be?

Sara Miles tells the story of walking into a church in San Francisco, unsure of what to expect and yet, finding her life transformed:

“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamental crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything…

Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food—indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people. (xi)”*

Palm Sunday leaves me unbalanced, in the same way Sara Miles describes her first communion. Maybe because we jump from the celebration and the Hosannas, to the narratives of betrayal, denial, torture and death. The thing is, regardless of how we may expect Jesus to show up, or what we may expect Jesus to do when he shows up, our reason for celebration with songs, and psalms, and palms, is that Jesus does show up. This is the thing that makes me stop on Palm Sunday; not the shouts of the crowd, but the One who sits on the donkey.  Jesus is there in the midst of our confused celebration and he is loving us and he is waiting; waiting for us to open our hearts the way that the gates of Jerusalem were opened.

*Sara Miles, Take This Bread. (Ballantine: New York, 2007).


Palm Sunday Attacks in Egypt


Remembering in prayer today the victims of two attacks on Coptic Churches in Egypt.

May the One whose entry into Jerusalem we remember today, bring Peace to the Nations and also bring peace to our warring hearts.

Lord, have mercy.