He is Risen, indeed. Blessed Easter, everyone.
So, after a Lent of blog posts, what have I learned? I love blogging, and am terribly undisciplined.
Each of my Lenten commitments fell by the wayside at some point, whether it was the #40acts picture challenge, my daily reading from early Christians, or the blog. Of course, Easter morning is not the day to flagellate myself about my shortcomings since Jesus' resurrection is a commitment to humanity despite our imperfections.
Yet, knowing my struggles is an important realization for Easter morning. The resurrection of Christ means that there is hope for new life, that holistic transformation is possible in the light of Christ.
So today, I am not committing to makeup all my failed Lenten disciplines. Rather, I am thankful for the way that this allowed me to grow in an area I have been trying to establish for so long - blogging - and for the realization that adding even more reading to an academic schedule is a silly way to try to discipline myself. I am thankful for the so many people I saw participating in #40acts, whose photos and reflections inspired me even amidst my shortcomings, and reminded me how central images are to the formation of our faith. I hope that in this resurrected life, I might become wiser in my decisions for disciplines to take on, and that I might receive a resurrected inspiration to continue with those disciplines that will help shape me into the image of our resurrected God.
For today's devotion, I'm including here a sermon I preached last year on Holy Saturday.
1 The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" I said, "Sovereign LORD, you alone know." 4 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones and say to them, 'Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.' " 7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.' " 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet--a vast army. 11 Then he said to me: "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.' 12Therefore prophesy and say to them: 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.' "
1 King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold, sixty cubits high and six cubits wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. 2 He then summoned the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials to come to the dedication of the image he had set up. 3 So the satraps, prefects, governors, advisers, treasurers, judges, magistrates and all the other provincial officials assembled for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up, and they stood before it. 4 Then the herald loudly proclaimed, "Nations and peoples of every language, this is what you are commanded to do: 5 As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up. 6 Whoever does not fall down and worship will immediately be thrown into a blazing furnace." 7 Therefore, as soon as they heard the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp and all kinds of music, all the nations and peoples of every language fell down and worshiped the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. 8 At this time some astrologers came forward and denounced the Jews. 9 They said to King Nebuchadnezzar, "May the king live forever! 10 Your Majesty has issued a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music must fall down and worship the image of gold, 11and that whoever does not fall down and worship will be thrown into a blazing furnace. 12 But there are some Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon--Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego--who pay no attention to you, Your Majesty. They neither serve your gods nor worship the image of gold you have set up." 13 Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, 14 and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, "Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? 15 Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?" 16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, "King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If the God we serve is able to deliver us, then he will deliver us from the blazing furnace and from Your Majesty's hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." 19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was furious with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and his attitude toward them changed. He ordered the furnace heated seven times hotter than usual 20 and commanded some of the strongest soldiers in his army to tie up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and throw them into the blazing furnace. 21 So these men, wearing their robes, trousers, turbans and other clothes, were bound and thrown into the blazing furnace. 22 The king's command was so urgent and the furnace so hot that the flames of the fire killed the soldiers who took up Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, 23 and these three men, firmly tied, fell into the blazing furnace. 24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, "Weren't there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?" They replied, "Certainly, Your Majesty." 25 He said, "Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods." 26 Nebuchadnezzar then approached the opening of the blazing furnace and shouted, "Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out! Come here!" So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego came out of the fire, 27 and the satraps, prefects, governors and royal advisers crowded around them. They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them. 28 Then Nebuchadnezzar said, "Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king's command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way."
Sermon – “For No Other God Can Save In This Way”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, God’s Son our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit: Amen.
“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell.” On this holiest of Saturdays, the day upon which we await to anoint the body of Jesus, we sit in this tension. The innocent Lamb of God, the One who created all good things, “descended into hell.” We, along with the disciples, remain outside the tomb where he was buried, away from the cross where he died, and wonder how we got this guy so wrong. Only a few days ago we shouted with the crowd, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Our hosannas, however, seem to have died with the last breath of Jesus. The one who should have overthrown Herod, who should have deposed Pilate, is now just beginning to decompose himself. Since it is the Sabbath, we await the morning so that we might dress his precious body, to give our friend and fallen revolutionary one last swath of dignity before he is gone forever.
Though we await with assurance the resurrection of our Lord, the sensation of that first Saturday was failure and fear, death and despair. For Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Joana to carry burial spices to the tomb was to admit defeat. For the eleven disciples to huddle together in a home rather than face the death of their leader and friend, was even worse, a denial of their connection to his life, much less his suffering or death.
How often do we declare Jesus dead in our lives? How often do we deny our connection to Christ’s life and death? Whether because we feel we do not need him or we feel He has left us, we often carry burial spices in preparation to put Him forever away. When Christ appears irrelevant due to the power of secular forces like materialism or individualism, how often do we hide our allegiance with Him?
And yet, we vigil not because of our fear, but because of His faithfulness. We vigil not because of our abandonment, but because of His presence. And so as we wonder and mourn, as we struggle with the fact that the Son of God is dead, something else is going on, something that works against our fear and failure, that works to correct our sinfulness and our struggles. A nearly imperceptible movement of the Lord is at hand, though we cannot yet grasp it. In the depths of hell, in the dejection of death, where even angels fear to tread, Christ stands within the fiery furnace, and brings life into the flames meant for the destruction. Christ walks into the valley of the shadow of death, where dry bones pave the hellish highways, and speaks a word that draws sinew upon skeleton, speaks a word that wraps flesh upon dead frames, speaks a word that gives a pulse to still hearts and breath to still lungs. As we vigil, the Lord invigorates the dead.
When the Apostle’s Creed claims he descended into hell, it speaks of Christ’s descent into the depths of humanity’s division from God. Christ harrowed the gates of hell to protect those tossed in the fiery furnace, to deliver all those relegated to the trash heap of Gahanna, to remind the lost that they are not forgotten. On this holiest of Saturdays, while we mourn the death of Jesus in the relative safety of our own homes, Jesus breaks into the realms of despair, forsaking his own safety and instead bearing the blaze for us, for those who deserve to burn. By his very presence, Jesus deflects the force of the flames, and delivers from hell Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and all those throughout history who have rejected out without the hope of a savior.
On this night, precisely when all seems lost, when Jesus’ death seems final, when the light of the world seem lost in the shadows, God begins a greater work in the darkness. The dead Savior now knits together bones of the dead. Once dry and desperate, the God who knit together Adam and Eve from the dirt now takes these dusty skeletons and gives them new flesh, just as Christ took on flesh Himself. On Holy Saturday, a once deceased horde becomes an army victorious in the cross of Christ, for as He prepares to rise, so too does all humanity. The outcasts find inclusion in Christ who the world cast out. The dead become alive in Christ who the world killed.
This all seems nothing short of absurd. It seems too mysterious to be true. But on this holiest of Saturdays, the mystery is precisely where we find life. The mystery is that God became human for a purpose. God died for a purpose. To borrow a phrase from Nebuchadnezzar, tonight we find out that “no other God can save in this way,” because while we mourn our loss, Jesus is at work again giving life to the lifeless. Even if we cannot quite see it yet, even if the darkness remains where the light should reign, He will rise. Amen.
There is always something of an asterisk after the word "good" on Good Friday. Of course, there are entirely appropriate theological justifications for its goodness. We are blessed because of Christ taking on the curse that was rightfully ours. We live because Jesus died. Because of the Messiah's suffering we may thrive.
But let us not forget that this is a terrible, terrible day. As Melito of Sardis said 1800 years ago:
"He who hung the earth is hanging.
He who fixed the heavens in place has been fixed in place.
He who laid the foundations of the universe has been laid on a tree.
The master has been profaned.
God has been murdered."
The goodness of today is all God's, and surely not ours. Tonight, as the old hymn laments, we hear our mocking voices call out amongst the scoffers. It was our sin that held Him there.
Even more so, we must take our place alongside the Sanhedrin and Pilate as we concomitantly condemn Him and wash our hands of Him, as though we can escape our role in God's crucifixion. We must take our places alongside the soldiers, mocking His lordship and whipping Emmanuel. We must take our places alongside the disciples, found anywhere but alongside their master and friend. We must take our places alongside Peter, denying Christ in a last ditch effort to save ourselves.
But God chooses us anyway. In spite of our very worst, Jesus offers the very best: Himself.
So, this Friday is good, but only despite us. We are the asterisk to Good* Friday.
Here, in the midst of Holy Week, God seeks to reorient our perspectives. In the midst of our anxieties, disagreements, and struggles, in the midst of our joys, celebrations, and successes, we find Jesus.
Wherever we are as Christians - conservative or liberal, pacifist or just war theorist, organs and choirs or bands and choruses - it is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that restores meaning in our lives. Tonight, Jesus washed his disciples' feet and shared a last meal with them, then walked toward condemnation at the hands of a friend.
Jesus did this even when we all were His enemies. Alone, he took on a death meant for us, and gave us a life born in Him.
So, next time you find someone you disagree with - whether they're too conservative or too idealistic or too stodgy or too insert anything that's not like you - remember that they're dignity is tied up with yours, in Jesus.
This week is holy because Christ chose us, all of us, rather than Himself. When we were still yet enemies, Christ died for us. Let's try to look at one another through that lens of compassion.
The Paschal Triduum starts tomorrow.
The triduum is a three day service that begins on Maundy Thursday and concludes with the Easter Vigil. There are many variations of this service within various Christian traditions - some conclude without a vigil but instead with the sunrise service, for instance - but in general they all look toward the resurrection of Jesus.
Of course, the triduum doesn't last throughout each day. Rather, there are great liturgical pauses on Thursday night and Friday night, where the entirety of the worship is not concluded until the tomb is empty.
This feels weird to many, myself included, probably because we like closure, and these day-long pauses can interrupt our daily lives. How do we live without the completeness of the triduum?
But seriously, the great pauses in the triduum force us to consider the vitality of the resurrection, which of course disrupts our daily existence. Incompleteness and confusion reign without an empty tomb. Though Christ is at work, we await with hope for resurrection, knowing only that we cannot see God, that God seems dead.
And so the triduum gives us the chance to liturgically recognize the disruption of our world wrought by Christ on the cross. We begin Maundy Thursday, and pause after the God of the universe cleans dirty feet. We return Good Friday, and pause after the God of the universe bleeds out for our brokenness. We regather Holy Saturday to vigil, to wait, to hope for resurrection and redemption.
And we find an empty tomb. Excitement and confusion, hope and fear. We would see Jesus, but even then, we must wait.
Within the liturgical renewal movement, it has become increasingly trendy to implement the practice of a Palm/Passion Sunday experience that both celebrates Jesus' final entry into Jerusalem (Palm) and Jesus' final days, including the crucifixion (Passion), on the last Sunday of Lent.
Proponents (rightly) claim it is a historical tradition of the church to commemorate Christ's passion prior to Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Opponents (rightly) claim that the tradition was that Passion Sunday was the fifth Sunday in Lent, which started a two-week observation of Passiontide where the church liturgically journeys with Christ toward the cross, and that the sixth Sunday was, and is, properly Palm Sunday as an intentionally brief and awkward pause for celebration of Christ as Messiah even amidst his incredibly mortal walk toward death.
Not that you care, but that is the history.
It is important because the current manifestation of Palm Sunday of the Passion of Our Lord (yes, the title is cantankerously cumbersome) now fuses the readings of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the service with a reading of an entire passion narrative (in layman's terms, the story of Christ's betrayal and crucifixion).
Celebration and damnation all wrapped up into one service. It is anxiety inducing, as though the worship service had two competing personalities. Liturgically, it grasps at historical straws and attempts to fuse two days into one.
Perhaps you might be able to tell that I am not a proponent of this iteration of Lenten celebration. But the thing about Jesus is that He chooses to work on us despite our liturgical preferences.
Tonight's service of Palm/Passion Sunday (the full name is too much, even for me) was perfect for our community. Without inappropriately delving into details not meant for public consumption, there were many reasons for us to celebrate, and many reasons for us to lament. Feelings of joy and sorrow were competing for space in our hearts and minds.
What festivals like Palm/Passion Sunday do is allow us to admit that we are simultaneously sinners and saints. We are the same people that laud Jesus' coming to Jerusalem and then crucify him outside the city. We are people that welcome Jesus and betray Jesus. We are people that wave our palms and instigate passions. Tonight, in the liturgy, God showed up and revealed that we can often be Palm/Passion people. We too are entirely wrapped up with celebration and damnation, full of anxiety and yet, thankfully, fully justified by the grace of God.
I still don't advocate for Palm/Passion Sunday for every community. Most often, I think we should allow the fifth Sunday of Lent to inaugurate Passiontide, then give Palm Sunday its full due on the sixth Sunday. But that doesn't mean that, when other traditions rule the day, Christ can't work through them.
In fact, the Holy Spirit is intent on using even the things that irritate us most to remind us of who we are. At our best, we give God glory, laud, and honor. At our worst, we shout "crucify him!" We are sinners and saints at the same time.
And God comes to us anyway.
Perhaps the most ridiculous illnesses are the ones that keep us from our responsibilities, even though you could do hard labor.
For instance, my allergies have kicked into high gear and led to a low grade flu. I could still do landscaping, construction, or any other physically strenuous gig. Surely, I'd be uncomfortable, but between sneezes and runny noses, I could get it done.
But when you work with people in certain contexts, different priorities arise. Musical practices, Bible studies, and worship services can hardly suffer the constant interruptions of sneezes and sniffles that alternate every twenty seconds or so. When that leads to randomly occurring bloody noses, all the worse. And when all that means you end up in an incredibly confined space, sharing germs that lead to fevers and other symptoms, at some point you have to pull back and let someone else take a lead.
For me, I constantly struggle with this dichotomy. I could work, but I can't do the work I'm called to do. It feels silly and selfish to sit at home when I could be helping.
I remember the first time I led worship without one of our campus pastors. He called me, under very similar circumstances, and said something to the effect of, "the sun doesn't rise or set on whether or not my butt is at the front of the church." His allergies were killing him, and he came down with a cold, and he tried and tried to rationalize coming in despite his clear illness and risk to himself and others. I found out later that his wife used the line about the sun rising or setting, but it was fairly accusatory, and he cleaned up the language.
I stayed home tonight because my wife reminded me that the sun doesn't rise or set depending on my attendance at any given event. Jesus still shows up at worship. Everyone has valid approaches to scripture. And we have great musicians (including Michelle) that can figure out music without me.
Have you ever been punched in the gut?
It was the Holy Spirit, and it was uncomfortable.
Because, foremost, the Holy Spirit is strong.
But more than that, the Holy Spirit is a sparring partner that works for the good. The Holy Spirit is, at times, supposed to punch as as she trains us for the fight against the forces of evil and sin at work in the world. It is training for kingdom building alongside our King, Christ Jesus.
Now of course, I wasn't physically hit. But I received news that physically affected me. It quite literally took my breath away. It brought tears. I was dizzy, and confused, and definitely off guard.
Now, the good thing about sparring partners is that they don't kick you while you are down. This is how I knew this was the Holy Spirit, because rather than destroy me, the Holy Spirit acknowledged my defeat. Once you're beat, a sparring partner lets you rest, picks you up, and begin to teach about how to avoid the body blow next time around. God works for the good in all situations, even if those situations don't feel terribly good.
Now, this does not mean that God causes all pain or suffering in the world (I'll address this theodicy in an upcoming post, but suffice it to say, humanity is largely responsible for the vast majority of the suffering we see in creation). Rather, sometimes, what we take for evil is, rather, God's intervention to help us prepare for the real encounters with evil.
So tonight, I was punched in the gut. I lost my breath and shed a tear. But I trust that, as I take a minute to rest, the Holy Spirit is now more interested in picking me up, training me for the next round, and giving me the tools to face the future as a child of God.
I'm incredibly late with this entry. A few days of discernment in the midst of the call process required some pretty significant attention, as well as confidentiality, but I'm back, and veritably bursting at the seams with stuff to say.
I am so incredibly thankful for the Lutheran Campus Ministry at the University of South Carolina and how they have helped me see the vital role of an active community in preaching. You see, my STM thesis is on a model of preaching that incorporates spoken word poetry and conversation within the liturgy. It hardly looks like sermons common to the 20th century, but it has been an experiment in how a flattened hierarchy allows everyone within the priesthood of all believers to take an active role within liturgical proclamation.
And these people just rock my socks off with insight. Each week at our Lenten services, we talk of how God's love meets us in the everyday journey, in the heights of ecstasy, and in the depths of grief. Each week, this kind of preaching model is affirmed not because I am it's author, but because the allotted space allows for a dynamic conversation that reveals a vitality of faith impossible without multiple voices speaking perspectively on the presence of God in our lives.
One young woman in particular offered an invaluable insight a few weeks ago. As we talked about the concept and content of love, one student raised up the reality that love requires negotiation. In response, I queried, "I don't understand when people say that love doesn't compromise, because as you just said, love requires us to compromise." After a brief silence, this remarkable young woman remarked, "Perhaps that's just it. Love is the uncompromising principle that allows us to compromise in our relationships. Without love, compromise is impossible."
I was, and am, blown away. Without her perspective, this never would have made it into the conversation. Even more importantly, she shared this from the perspective of a senior who faces the unknowns of the future, from a place where love is a daily requisite in order to make it through the day. Even if I had said it, her voice and experience brought a meaning to the content that I simply could not have brought.
So, I am thankful for them, not only because they have allowed me a place to put my thesis into practice, and not only because they have welcomed me as a mentor and friend in these past few months, but because they have taught me so much. They have become my mentors in faith, my friends in Christ, and for that, I am forever thankful.
At some point in a project, you have to be honest that you have nothing new to say, or at least nothing worthwhile, at least not yet.
And even that is not entirely true. Some wonderful things and some heart wrenching things are happening right now, but because of requested confidentiality, I can't publish them at this level. Trust me, when I am able to share, I will. But as of now, this ejournal experiment is seeming quite difficult because I must filter much of what I say.
This can feel dishonest, if not with you all, then definitely with myself.
In another light, this is a vital practice for congregational ministry. I have much weighing on me, and it is not all appropriate to ubiquitously share everything I know. There is a difference between keeping secrets and selectively sharing information. A church budget is everyone's information. The marital issues of a particular couple is not. At some point, we must discern what is appropriate to share, and how to share it. The internet is often the last place, rather than the first place, information ought to be shared.
This has a lot to do with prayer. Those situations on my heart are a constant conversation piece with God, and with a select few people who are praying on my behalf, as well as offering wisdom, discernment, and companionship along the journey. Consider again a couple whose marriage is on the rocks. Not everyone needs to know that, but there ought to be a select few people, including their pastor, who share in prayer, discernment, support, and guidance for each individual as well as the couple as a whole. This isn't dishonest, but it is a healthy approach to dealing with sensitive information.
So perhaps I do have something worthwhile to say.
Be careful what you publish on the internet. Sometimes internet is better shared in person, where people in flesh and blood can take joy in your celebration, or mourn alongside your grief. Get a select group of people who you trust and love to pray for you. You can let the entire internet know, eventually. First, consider how sensitive the information is, the people who will be affected, and how that knowledge will shape your future.
You might need a group of close friends to help discern the answers to questions like those, and I am thankful for those who have been a part of my discernment process as of late.
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.