God Loved the World This Way

God loved the world this way: she created it. We’re never told why. We’re never told for what purpose. Maybe it was just a joyful act of creation; the kind of thing an artist does. But, for whatever reason that she made a world, she made a world, and she made it good. And she gave it as a gift to itself.

And then we broke it. And God saw that the world was broken and came into the world as one of us: a little baby born in a manger in a backwater province of a powerful empire. He grew in wisdom and in stature and became a prophet to a dispossessed people. He taught and he healed and he performed wonders. And his people—some of his people—hailed him as a king.

And so we took the God who had come to show us a better way, and we hung him on a cross. We crucified him. We do it every day. “For whatever you do to the least of these,” he said, “you do it to me.”

And I know it’s a little weird to start off an Easter sermon this way. But you don’t get Easter without Good Friday. And you don’t comprehend the power of Easter without understanding the condition we were in.

Every person sleeping in a park, or under an overpass, or out in the woods, because they have no home to go to… is Christ, crucified.

Everyone who goes to bed hungry because they don’t have enough food to eat… is Christ, crucified.

Every refugee who is told that our country is full, every immigrant who is told to go back where they came from, every person who is called a terrorist just because of their faith… is Christ, crucified.

Every lesbian or gay or bisexual youth who is thrown out of their house because of their sexual orientation, every transgender person who is told they’re not really who they identify as, every genderqueer person who experiences violence… is Christ, crucified.

Every sick person who cannot find care, every prisoner who walks through the prison gate, every child who is bullied… is Christ, crucified.

And, yes, there are moments when we are Christ, hanging on that cross. And there are far more times when we are Judas, selling him out. And there are far, far, far more times when we are Peter, saying, “I do not even know the man!”

And this is where we are on Sunday morning, when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, go to the tomb that someone has laid their friend and teacher in. 

Every gospel tells this story a little differently. In Mark, it’s Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body with spices. In Luke, it’s Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and some other unnamed women going to the tomb to do the same. In John, it’s Mary Magdalene by herself, who just happens to go to the tomb.

And in Matthew, it’s Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, going to the tomb. Matthew doesn’t tell us why they went or what they were thinking or whether they were talking to each other along the way.

But… if you’ve ever been to the grave of a friend—especially a friend who died suddenly, especially a friend who you feel a little bit of survivor’s guilt over, especially a friend who you were cruel to just before they died—then I suspect you know why they were going. They were going to say, “I let you down… I wish things were different.”

God loved the world this way. When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to the tomb, there was an earthquake, and an angel of the Lord rolled the stone away from the tomb. And the angel said to the women,

Do not be afraid! I know that you’re here looking for Jesus, who was crucified, but he’s not here. He’s been raised. See, there’s the spot where he should be and he’s not there. Go tell his disciples that he has been raised from the dead, and tell them to go to Galilee, and tell them that he’ll meet them there.

Matthew 28:5-7

And the women ran away from the tomb with great joy. Their friend and teacher was alive! And the women ran away from the tomb with great fear. Their friend and teacher—who had been betrayed, who had been denied, who had been crucified—was alive!

And I can understand that joy. And I can understand that fear.

We are good mainline protestant Christians. We don’t talk about judgment a lot. But…

If Christ returned today—if the heavens split open right now and the Son of Man came in all his glory and all the angels with him—I wonder how he would see me. And I suspect he would see me surrounded by the bodies of the Christs I have crucified. I suspect he would see me surrounded by the disappointed faces of the Christs I have denied.

And if he followed human justice—if he demanded retribution and the satisfaction of his honor—then he would be justified in sending me into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And I wonder if Mary Magdalene and the other Mary had the same thought. We let you down… we wish things were different, but they’re not… do what you have to do.

But as they run from the tomb in joy and fear, Jesus—who had been betrayed, who had been denied, who had been crucified—appears to them. And he says, “Greetings! Do not be afraid. Go tell the others to meet me in Galilee.”

This is the good news of the gospel: you are forgiven.

There’s nothing you did to earn that. You are not forgiven because you did enough good deeds, or because you’ve lived a good enough life, or because you repented just right, or because you said the sinner’s prayer, or because you signed the little blank in the back of some tract.

You are forgiven—I am forgiven—because God loves the world this way. In spite of all the things we’ve done and all of the things we’ve left undone, God meets us on the road and says, “Do not be afraid.”

In spite of all the things we’ve said and all of the things we’ve left unsaid, God meets us on the journey and says, “Go get your friends and meet me further up the road.”

In spite of all the things we’ve thought and all of the things we’ve left unthought, God meets us on the road and says, “I’m not finished with you, yet. There is still so much more to be done!”

God sees us in all our brokenness and says, “Let me heal you. Let me make you whole. And while I’m doing that, let’s go out together and find some more broken people and heal them.”

That is the gospel, in all its fullness. You are forgiven. God’s not done with you, yet. And if you weren’t afraid before… well…

We have been forgiven. Our slates have been wiped clean. Our debts have been paid. We have been created anew. Not just once, on a Sunday morning, a couple thousand years ago, but every Sunday and every day and several times every day. God keeps coming to us saying, “Do not be afraid. You are forgiven. I’m not done with you yet.”

And the central question of Christian ethics—the central question of Christian life—is, “What are you going to do with that?”

Because there are people sleeping in parks, and under overpasses, and out in the woods, because they have no home to go to…

And there are people who go to bed hungry because they don’t have enough food to eat…

And there are refugees being told that our country is full, and immigrants being told to go back where they came from, and people being called terrorists just because of their faith…

And there are lesbian and gay and bisexual youth who are being thrown out of their houses because of their sexual orientations, and transgender people being told that they’re not really who they identify as, and genderqueer people facing unimaginable violence…

And there are people who are sick and cannot find care, and prisoners walking through the prison gates, and children being bullied…

And so many others. So, so, so many others. All of us, in fact. Every last one of us.

We all need good news; we all need Christ. We all need you to be good news. We all need you to be Christ. We need you to be the hands of Christ, reaching out to help in any way that we need and in any way that you can. We need you to be the feet of Christ, walking alongside us on our journeys through this world. We need you to the mouth of Christ, reminding us again and again that we are the precious children of the God who is love; reminding us that we are loved and worthy of love.

God loved the world this way: she created it. We’re never told why. We’re never told for what purpose. Maybe it was just a joyful act of creation; the kind of thing an artist does. But, for whatever reason that she made a world, she made a world, and she made it good. And she gave it as a gift to itself.

And then we broke it. And God saw that the world was broken and came into the world as one of us: a little baby born in a manger in a backwater province of a powerful empire. He grew in wisdom and in stature and became a prophet to a dispossessed people. He taught and he healed and he performed wonders. And his people—some of his people—hailed him as a king.

And so we took the God who had come to show us a better way, and we hung him on a cross. We crucified him. We do it every day.

And, every time—Every. Single. Time.—God gets up. God looks at us in our brokenness and our guilt and says, “Do not be afraid. Go get your friends and meet me further up the road. I’m not finished with you, yet. There is still so much more to be done!”

God loves the world this way: she creates you. She makes you anew… again and again… an instrument of her peace and love and pardon, of her union and truth and faith, of her hope and light and joy.

So do not be afraid. Go and tell the world that Christ is risen; he is risen indeed! And carry him into the world, being the love of Christ for each other and for everyone you meet.

Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia! Amen.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

When I was in middle school, I competed in the Optimist Club Oratorical Contest. I don’t remember what any of the official topics were, but I remember that my very first speech for that contest was about how people don’t listen to kids or respect the rights of kids… and about how people really should listen to kids and really should respect the rights of kids.

And, of course, when I gave the speech at some ungodly morning hour—because Optimists meet for breakfast—the adults who were listening and judging… laughed. Because the idea of listening to kids and respecting the rights of kids is funny.

Now, I’m forty. I know, to some of you, that means I’m still a kid. And, to some of you, that means I’m positively ancient. But the truth is that I’m neither of those things. Statistically, I’m just a little more than halfway on my journey through this world.

And I get it. I really do. I get how easy it is to hear young people crying out for stronger gun control laws, or universal healthcare, or student debt forgiveness, or radical action against climate change, or a thousand other things… I get how easy it is to hear young people crying out for revolution, and laugh, and say, “They just don’t know how the world works.”

And I know how easy it is to look at the world, and how it is, and how it works, and say, “This is the world, and this is how it is, and this is how it works, and the best I can do is find a comfortable place for me and mine in this imperfect world… because we’re never going to make it perfect.”

I get it.

But I also remember. I remember what it was like to listen to someone who looked a lot like I look now, and hear them say, “You just don’t know how the world works.” And I remember what it was like to think, “You just don’t see how broken the world is; you just don’t see how the world could be.”

And I think there’s a little bit of that in our reading today. You see…

After Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey… 

After the crowds spread palm branches and cloaks on the road…

After they shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven…”

After all of the pomp and circumstance of the triumphal entry…

Jesus goes to the temple, the house of God, the center of everything.

And he destroys it.

This is a weird moment. Jesus enters the outer courts of the temple and sees the people buying and selling, and the people changing money from the coins of one land to the currency of another… and he wigs out. 

He chases out the people who are buying and selling. He flips the tables of the money-changers. He hurls the seats of the people selling sacrificial doves. He throws a tantrum.

And it’s disturbing, because those people aren’t breaking the rules.

It is the week before Passover. You know the story. Once upon a time, the people of Israel lived in slavery in Egypt. God saw their suffering and sent a prophet to free them, and to lead them out of Egypt and into the land that was promised to their ancestor Abraham.

And every year since, the people of Israel gathered to remember the story and make a sacrifice. Every year since, the people of Israel gathered to say, “You are our God, who led us out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; and we shall have no other gods before you.”

And, while they were together at the temple, they paid the temple tax.

It can be hard for us to understand, but Passover at the temple was a logistical nightmare. People flooded into Jerusalem from all over. And it was hard to travel with an animal that was going to be sacrificed—a lamb or a goat, one year old, without blemish—so there were people there to sell sacrificial animals.

And not everyone had local currency that they could use to pay the temple tax. So there were people there who could exchange it.

Now, of course, there were people who were taking advantage of the situation. There were merchants who preyed on their customers. There were money-changers who charged exorbitant rates. There were problems, sure. But, probably, most of the people in the outer court of the temple were trying to make a living by providing a necessary service.

And here comes this guy… who had just ridden into town on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey… to chase them out and flip their tables and hurl their seats and throw a tantrum.

And I need to be clear about this. Jesus walks into the outer court of the temple and, basically, throws out the offering plates and tears up the direct debit forms and destroys the economic engine of the temple, the house of God, the center of everything. The temple isn’t a business, but it is a business… and Jesus is tearing it down.

And in this moment, he breaks the economic status quo, and the political normal, and the religious status quo. Maybe only for a little bit… maybe only for a few hours or a few days… but still.

Hosanna?

After Jesus destroys the temple…

After Jesus chases out the people who are buying and selling…

After he flips the tables and hurls the seats…

After the din and chaos of a holy tantrum…

The blind and the lame come to the temple, and to Jesus… and he heals them.

The chief priests and the scribes see what is happening… and they hear the children—the children—cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

And they—the chief priests and the scribes—get angry.

“Do you hear what those kids are saying? Do you, Jesus, mister rides in on a donkey and overthrows the temple, hear those kids praising you?”

“Yeah. You didn’t see that coming?”

You see, Jesus keeps committing these prophetic acts. 

Zechariah once said, “Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” So Jesus did. He said to the people of Jerusalem, “Here is your king.”

And Isaiah once said, “Thus says the LORD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples, and I shall gather more to them, besides.’” So Jesus enforces the rule. He says to the people of Jerusalem, “This temple will be a house of prayer for everyone, or it will be nothing.”

And the people in power—the chief priests and the scribes—find that threatening enough. And I get that. He is disrupting the nice comfortable way things are. But what really gets them—what really makes them mad—is that the kids saw him and that they liked it. 

He is corrupting the youth. He is showing them that the way the world is isn’t the way that the world has to be. He is demonstrating that the way the world works isn’t set in stone. He is teaching them that things could be different than the way they are now.

He is dangerous.

After Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey… 

After Jesus destroys the temple…

After he performs signs and wonders…

After he preaches and tells parables…

After he shares dinner with his friends and says prayers in a garden…

After a friend kisses him; after a traitor kisses him…

He will be hung on a cross and laid in a tomb.

Because that’s the way the world works. Because that’s the way the chief priests and the scribes and the Roman authorities make it work.

But now, those children know better. They know that the world doesn’t have to work this way. They know that things could be different. And they know when to cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

And that matters. It mattered then. It matters today.

It matters because those kids who are crying out for stronger gun control laws are the ones who are living with gun violence in their schools.

It matters because the young people who are crying out for universal healthcare are the ones who wonder whether they will ever be able to afford even the most basic medical care.

It matters because the people my age who are crying out for student debt forgiveness are the ones who expect to be paying off student loans until we retire or beyond.

It matters because the teenagers crying out for radical action against climate change are the one who will have to figure out how to live with higher sea levels and less predictable weather and worse snowfalls and more dangerous hurricanes, and more consistent droughts, and more polluted air and water.

It matters because the kids who are crying out for revolution are the ones who have to live with the results of not having a revolution.

And I’m forty. I’m just a little more than halfway on my journey through this world.

And I get it. I understand how easy it is to hear young people crying out for revolution, and to laugh, and to say, “They just don’t know how the world works.”

But is possible that those young people—and all of the oppressed and marginalized people who get told, again and again, that they don’t know how the world works—know the secret that we should all know: the world doesn’t have to work that way.

We are Christians.

We are a people who wait breathlessly for Palm Sunday, when a new king will ride into the world on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

We are a people who wait anxiously for Palm Sunday, when a new high priest will destroy the dirty and dangerous engine of this world.

We are a people who wait hopefully for a cosmic Palm Sunday, when Christ himself will make a new heaven and a new earth, free from the sins that plague this one.

We are a people who offer ourselves lovingly to Christ, so that he might use us to start building that new world.

And part of that work it listening to those who call for the world to work differently, who call for more love and more generosity and more grace. 

Part of that work is catching ourselves when we think, “But the world doesn’t work that way,” and asking, “How could the world work differently?” 

Part of that work is standing shoulder to shoulder with the revolutionaries, looking at the one who is riding in on a donkey and overturning tables in the temple, and shouting, “Hosanna!”

You see, we are Christians. We are not about what the world is. We are about what God calls the world to be. We are about the Kingdom of Heaven.

Amen.

‘Baga! (2019)

Every year for the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of trekking back to my alma mater for the annual Knox Rootabaga Jazz Festival. I go partly for the fun of seeing old friends and making some noise in the Alumni Big Band. But I also go because this jazz festival at a small liberal arts college in Illinois is a place to hear truly innovative jazz. This year featured Xavier Breaker Coalition and Mark Guiliana Space Heroes, two groups doing amazing things and that you should definitely check out.

Of course, the festival also featured the Knox Jazz Ensemble, including a performance of a piece written by a member of the Cherry Street Combo (Knox’s premiere jazz combo). One of the amazing things about Knox is that it has a jazz program that punches well above its weight. This year’s ensemble is no exception. And, even better, it’s has a lot of freshmen in it. They are going to be a powerhouse in the coming years.

The All Night Oil Shop

Once upon a time, when I was young, I was a terrible Boy Scout.

I had been a Cub Scout. I had worked my way through the ranks. I was a bobcat, and a tiger, and a wolf, and a bear, and a webelos. It wasn’t too difficult. The Cub Scout motto is, “Do Your Best.” And if there’s one thing I can do, it’s my best… even when my best isn’t that good.

But then I became a Boy Scout.

Now, the way I remember is that when I became a Boy Scout, I got the first rank for just showing up. After that, I was supposed to earn merit badges. My friends and peers earned merit badges. They became Tenderfoots and First Class Scouts and whatever. Some of them even became Eagle Scouts. And that’s pretty impressive.

I don’t think I earned a single merit badge. It turns out that merit badges aren’t a big motivator for me. And, anyway, the only one I really wanted was the archery one. So, after I fell further and further behind my peers, I stopped being a Boy Scout.

The Boy Scout motto is, “Be Prepared.” And I was not. I rarely am.

Today’s reading is another parable. And if you listen to preachers and read commentaries, it’s about being prepared.

You see, the kingdom of heaven will be like this.

There will be a wedding, and there will be bridesmaids. Some of them will have their stuff together. When it’s time to go meet the groom for the wedding banquet, they’ll grab their lamps and some extra oil. They will be prepared. And some of them will not have their stuff together. When it’s time to go meet the groom for the wedding banquet, they’ll grab their lamps and nothing else. They will not be prepared.

Well, the groom will be late. All of the bridesmaids will fall asleep. But, around midnight, the groom will finally show up. And someone will see him in the distance and shout for the bridesmaids to come and meet him.

The bridesmaids who have their stuff together will trim their lamps. They will be ready to go to the wedding banquet.

And the bridesmaids who do not have their stuff together will trim their lamps and realize that they don’t have enough oil. They will turn to their neighbors who have oil and say, “Hey, we don’t have enough oil and our lamps are going out. Can you give us some of yours?”

And the bridesmaids who have their stuff together will reply, “No. If we give you some of our oil, there won’t be enough for us. Go to the all night oil shopand buy some.”

So the bridesmaids who don’t have their stuff together will do just that. And while they’re gone, the groom will arrive, and gather the people who are ready, and go to the wedding banquet, and close the door.

Later, the bridesmaids who do not have their stuff together will return from the all night oil shop. They’ll knock of the door and shout, “We’re here. Open up!” And the groom will reply, “I don’t know you.”

Yeah. The kingdom of heaven will be like that. The people who have more than enough will not share. The groom will not let people who are late enter. There will be no grace.

So, have your stuff together. Grab some extra oil on your way out and keep awake. You don’t know when that groom is going to show up and take you to the wedding banquet. And you don’t want to be standing in front of a closed door in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

So be prepared!

The problem is that I’m not prepared. I don’t have my stuff together. I don’t know how much oil I have. I’m just trying my best. And I’ll bet that a lot of us are in that same situation… and least some of the time… even the Eagle Scouts.

And on top of it, no one knows when Jesus will show up. No one knows the day or the hour. And I’m not sure that an extra flask of oil is going to be enough.

What’s someone who’s just trying his best to do?

God loved the world this way. God looked at the world and saw suffering and sin. God put glory aside and became one of us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live instead of long for more. When we nailed God to a tree, God forgave. And when we buried God in the ground, God got up. And we have faith that God will return and finish the work that God started.1Rachel Held Evans. Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Kindle ed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015. p. 46.

Sometimes, in some churches, we say it this way: Christ has died; Christ has risen; Christ will come again.

But Christ has been going-to-come-again for a long time. The groom is very late. And here we are with our little lamps, trying our best to be the light of the world and doing our best to keep those lamps trimmed and burning. But, sometimes, the oil runs out.

And it is easy, in the midst of trouble, to get distracted. It is easy, in the middle of the Lenten wilderness, to focus on the wrong thing.

It is easy, when we think that we have just enough oil in our lamp, to look at our neighbor who doesn’t have enough, and say, “I can’t share. I won’t have enough.”

It is easy, when we think that we don’t have enough oil in our lamp, and no one will share with us, to say, “Christ is late. I have time and more than enough time. I can leave, and go to the all night oil shop, and get some more. I’ll be back before Christ returns.”

It is easy to say, “I will take a break from grace… and try to do this on my own.” It is easy to say, “I will take a break from grace… and try to get preparedfor Christ to come back.”

But here’s the thing: there is not one of us—there is not one of us—who can guarantee that we have enough oil to make it through the long dark night until Christ returns. We all see our lamps run dry from time to time. It happens to the people in the pews. It happens to pastors. It may have happened to you now and again. I know it has happened to me now and again.

There are times when our faith runs low. It happens.

And if we have our stuff together, we can fool ourselves into thinking that if we just hold onto the little bit that we have left, we’ll be okay. And if we have our stuff together, we can even look at our neighbor who doesn’t have enough and think, “Thank God I’m not like them. Thank God I’m prepared. Thank God I can do this on my own.”

And if we don’t have our stuff together… well… we can think that we just need to walk away. Maybe we can find an all night oil shop.

Now, I need to be careful here.

Sometimes, we need to walk away from our congregation or from the church. It is true. I have been there, and I will not criticize anyone for saying, “I need a little time away.” And I will not stop praying that anyone who walks away for a season will come back… or find another faith community that meets their needs.

But I also believe that when our faith is low, we can find support in this church, in this congregation, in this community.

There will be times when you cannot sing the hymns. There will be times when the tunes seem monotonous and the words ring hollow. And in those times, you can rely on the melodies of your neighbors. We can sing the hymns for you.

There will be times when you cannot pray the prayers. There will be times when the words are buried too deep in your soul and it feels like no one is listening. And in those times, you can rely on the words of your neighbors. We can pray for you.

Literally. We can sing in your stead. We can pray on your behalf. We can add oil to your lamp until the flame burns bright again.

And then, when your neighbor cannot sing—when the tunes seem monotonous and the words ring hollow—you can sing for them

And when your neighbor cannot pray—when the words are buried too deep in their soul and it feels like no one is listening—you can pray for them.

Literally… in their stead… on their behalf. You can add oil to their lamp until the flame burns bright again.

In your long dark night of the soul, we can gather around you with our little lamps and cast a little light. And, as the seasons pass, we will all have the chance to do that for each other. That is the joy of a community of faith… that we—not each of us on our own, but all of us together—can keep our lamps trimmed and burning.

Because, it turns out, we are the all night oil shop. And that means that none of us have to wander off. We can all be present when the groom comes: when Christ returns, and fills our lamps with oil, and lights the whole world.

Thanks be to God.

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