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The Story of Tonight: Easter Vigil 2018

The story of tonight is the story of all of us.

2T2he Story of Tonight

Easter Vigil 2018

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Wilmington

May I speak in the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

For those of you who may not know my connection to St. Paul’s or why I’m preaching tonight, I have known Ronnie Wise, your choirmaster, since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. And one of the things that Ronnie has always instilled in everyone he has come in contact with is a love of the arts, and we can all thank him for helping to make this week truly holy. That being said, I love musical theater and I’ve had the opportunity to see Hamilton on Broadway twice now—I think Ronnie would be proud. For those of you who haven’t heard of this Tony Award winning musical you must have been in the tomb with Jesus for the past few years. Because truly it has taken the scene of our cultural landscape by storm. The musical chronicles the story of our 10-dollar founding father, Alexander Hamilton from his earliest beginnings to his demise at the hands of Vice-President Aaron Burr. But one particular song caught my attention the last time I saw the musical. The song is called, “The Story of Tonight.” In the song, Alexander and his comrades are preparing for the inevitable conflict with the British and they sit in a bar. They talk about how freedom is something the British could never take away, no matter what they are told. They remark in the song that the story of tonight is the story that will be told by their children and their children’s children into posterity.

I tell you this story of Alexander Hamilton and the American Revolution because I feel like we have found ourselves telling the ultimate story tonight. Where we left off yesterday all hopes had been dashed and all life from the body of our Lord had been taken. We had been left feeling written out of salvation’s script with nails piercing our God’s hands and a spear in his side. And yet, for some reason, for love so deep and so divine God came back. God chose to be reconciled to humanity through Christ by re-writing the story of tonight to make it the story of salvation. A story we will tell our children and our children’s children into posterity. This story so amazing, so divine, requires us to take stock in the moments and glimpses of salvation we have heard tonight.

My mother-in-law, the good Catholic lady that she is remarked that Easter Vigil isn’t for the faint of heart, and it isn’t. We have ran a marathon of Scripture and at the finish line we see the story isn’t over, for when all had been lost and all had been taken we found God there. We found the heart of Easter and the heart of faith in the tension between despair and hope… We found God in the heart of the cross and empty tomb because Christ is alive, Christ is alive forevermore, and in that abundance Christ offers abundance of life to us as well. The story of tonight is amazing grace made incarnate—It is that  indescribable feeling of hearing the first hymn of Easter and knowing deep down that resurrection happened in the first century and happens in the twenty-first century.

The beauty of Easter is that the story of tonight is also the story of tomorrow, and tomorrow’s tomorrow. We are met with Christ’s triumphant victory over death, and the Eucharist at the table to remember that reality, and we find ourselves in communion with the saints of glory and the Triune God. But this Easter I am left with the reminder that Jesus did not tell Mary to stay at the tomb, but to go forth for God in the hope of telling others about what she had seen. The first preacher was a woman in whom the world saw nothing, but Christ saw hope. I wonder if perhaps that’s you, that you feel like Mary coming to the tomb tonight, not out of hope but out of despair and doubt.

If that is the case then you only need to find your Bible when you get home and flip to the stories we read, because these stories show us that God chose a people and God does not give up on the chosen of Israel. Through Christ’s blessing of resurrection we are made part of that covenant for the sake of a better world. Abram’s faith and Sarah’s story show us that through Christ the first Adam is redeemed and so are we. That’s always been the beauty of Scripture for me, that it’s not only the source of our knowledge of God but the source of our knowledge of each other. We see ourselves in Adam’s fall, in Moses’ call, in Ruth’s faith, in David’s song, in the prophet’s weeping, the sage’s keeping, the hope of time fulfilled in Mary and the fellowship of bread and wine. These stories are not just fairy tales but the story of all of us. The story of God come near and made known to ordinary and common folk. People who thought differently, crazy enough to believe that God could and would make a way. And the even crazier reality is that God did make a way—through the Christ we now call risen.

So this Easter, as you go from this place, as you take with you the Body and Blood of our Savior and the light of Christ that could not be overcome by death, may you also find anew the hope that God is not done with this world… A new day is coming, a new day is dawning, a new hope has been born out of death, that even amidst the tombs of our existence something new is happening. This hope, renewed through the beauty of the story of tonight tells us God has not given up and will never give up on the chosen people of God, from Genesis to the culmination of all things in time and space we know that God is with us and God is for us.

Take heart, because the story of tonight is the story of all of us, brought near to Christ and to the new creation of salvation through him. Take his body and his blood and find that in that story you who have been lost have been found, those of you who have been blind in the doubt and despair of Good Friday have found Jesus saying to you, “Greetings!” and in that Easter word of hope, we see the resurrection and life of the world to come forever and in abundance.

The story of tonight, is the story of life everlasting. So take, eat, remember and look forward. For both then and there, here and now, and there and then we will find Christ alive. Behold he is alive and alive forevermore, bringing to those who long for freedom the hope of resurrection. That’s the greatest hope, that despite everything going on in our world the future is redeemed and restored. So let us work to make this place and space in Wilmington North Carolina a story of resurrection. We have work to do, but may we do so in the livelihood of resurrection.

When I was little, I remember the first time I had a realization that I was going to die. I was in the back of my mom’s green minivan and had what later we would diagnose as my first bipolar panic attack. I was so scared of dying that I was screaming and whaling in the van and my mom, not knowing what was going on pulled off and held me close. She told me that though the world seem oft so wrong, God is the ruler yet. That though I would one day face death I could have hope that Jesus faced death too.

Years later I was driving here to preach to you, and my wife Stephanie and I were talking theology. She remarked, “Isn’t it worth preaching that Jesus experienced the fullness of everything we could ever experience?” Let those words be your story tonight: That Christ would go to Hell and back to retrieve you and me, and in so doing the whole of Creation was reconciled to God.

This is the hope of our eternal story—We will face tragedy and despair, and in that tension we will even face death. But Christ’s victory this night shows us that nothing at all can keep us from the love of God made evident in the empty tomb. The story of tonight can be found in the words of John 1: The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it. It tried, but it failed. “Where O death is thy victory? Where O death is thy sting?”—Paul would later write, and thanks be to God, that is the story we can tell the world. Amen, and Amen.

Harvard Faith and Life Lecture: The Sound of Silence

Harvard’s Faith and Life Lecture February 11th, 2018

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FOR A TIME, in the 1950’s the story goes—you could not go through the town in which I grew up without humming the Kingston Trio’s hit, “Tom Dooley.” The song has lyrics such as these: “Hang your down your head Tom Dooley, poor boy you’re bound to die, Hang down your head Tom Dooley, you killed poor Laura Foster and now you’re bound to die.” I’ve heard that song since I was a child and even the great late folk legend Doc Watson covered the song. What’s fascinating is that this song encapsulates a story of Tom Dulah, a 19th century Confederate veteran caught in a love triangle who was hung for the murder of Laura Foster on Depot Hill in Statesville.

Permit me, if you will, to take you to Depot Hill in Statesville, North Carolina. It’s May 1st, 1868 and this former Wilkes county native had been tried in Wilkes County and convicted of murder in the 1st degree. The art of capital punishment in the 1860’s was nothing short of a spectacle to behold. The town lore of my hometown states that the streets were filled with men, women, and children of all ages ready to behold the site of Tom Dulah taking his final walk up the hill to be hanged by the court’s order.

I’ve been fascinated with this story since I first heard it on the ghost tours around Halloween as a child. But I’ve become more fascinated with the spectacle witnessed at his execution sine I was in undergraduate school and studying prison literature. We certainly have come to a different understanding of capital punishment since the 1860’s, and though we haven’t abolished it as we should, we have a deeper willingness to keep those matters private to the courts and the state.

You may be wondering why I’m telling  you the story of Tom Dulah today. I feel as if clergy including myself, across this country  are speaking up on issues that matter. We are modern day Tom Dulahs. Sure we committed the crime of proclaiming love triumphant, no matter the cost, but we do not deserve the spectacle of hanging we are receiving in the court of pubic opinion by modern-day witch hunters.

But I don’t come today as a Tom Dulah saying the sacrifice of love wasn’t worth the cost of losing my job and my livelihood. It was, in fact, quite the opposite. The modern day church has become purveyors and spectators of the hanging of clergy. We are hanging our clergy out to dry. My Depot Hill was saying “Black Lives Matter” to millions of people on MTV as a pastor. My congregation thought I had endorsed a terrorist organization by saying those words and no longer wanted to be associated with me.

This has caused traumatic strife in my life. Professor Walton asked me to speak in this forum and lecture to the cost of speaking up and it is evident: I’m exhausted, I’m never home as a newlywed, and my health has had its rough patches. But in spite of it all, in spite of the realities of what I have faced. I look to Mark’s Gospel—For Mark’s Gospel makes it clear what good is it to gain the world and lose your soul?

73849_488724496041_7554491_nWHEN I FIRST MET the Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes I had him sign my books and I made a statement that I knew in my heart to be true: One day I will preach from your pulpit at Harvard. Every preacher worth their weight looks to that pulpit for strength, sustenance, and hope. For years it has been a place of innovation and creativity in homiletics, and I knew even in high school that I wanted to be a part of it.

Whether a preacher will tell you this or not, we all have a list. There are certain churches that we’d just love to preach from. For me, Harvard’s Memorial Church is at the top of that list. So when Peter Gomes’ successor at the Church Professor Jonathan L. Walton called me and invited me to preach I was in tears. I called my wife and my mom and I proclaimed that dreams do come true.

But then I had this sinking feeling, getting to this place had cost so much. I’ve lost friends who don’t even recognize my presence anymore, I’ve lost the respect of seminary classmates, I’ve lost faith (sometimes in God, sometimes in myself). I know that for these reasons, the pulpit of Memorial Church doesn’t look like it did when I was in high school. It’s now a sign of the cost of discipleship.

You see I thought I’d ride in here one day as a professor of homiletics on a white horse and tell Harvard what they could do better to save their souls. Now I’m more riding in on a donkey telling them that I’m lucky to have made it out of this part of life alive. But maybe that’s the lesson I’m supposed to take from such an auspicious pulpit: God doesn’t like preachers arriving on white horses with their swords drawn, God prefers them arriving on asses and sometimes being so foolish they are the ass. Because God does God’s best work when all hope is lost, when it’s early on a Sunday morning and the tomb seems insurmountable.

This hope for me is the same hope God offers all of us. We are meant to shine just as Christ did on the mount of Transfiguration. We are meant to show the world that it may be cruel but God is good. The cancer may return, the job may be lost, the child may never make it out of the womb but God’s kingdom is coming near and I am filled with certainty that it will be made right in our world. I know that doesn’t answer grave theological questions of theodicy but it gives me hope for the future and the future of the coming kingdom is that God draws near. God made us for resiliency and that resiliency will see us through to the last and final breath.

THE COST OF SACRIFICE is great but the sound of silence is worse than speaking up and failing miserably. Will we speak up when the moment is costly and the cost of discipleship is looming over us? Will we enable spectators and Twitter trolls to have the last word as they did with Tom Dulah? I’m not making excuses for a murderer, but I am not going to condone spectacular acts of execution for anyone whether figuratively or literally. We must all be called to act. We must all be called to speak up and speak out in God’s name. It may not be from Harvard’s pulpit but it will be from places that change who we are and make us into the people that God intended for us to be.

May we be bold in our resolve and in our resolutions of faith. May we be willing to walk away if it’s going to cost us our souls. I’m proud to be preaching today but I know as my confirmation mentor said when you pray to God for something you need to be specific. Sure it has been my prayer to preach from this place but it is not how I intended. But maybe that is the greatest gift of all.

Thank You.

The Art of Praying With People

Praying is an opportunity to be awakened to possibility

The other night I was tired, more tired than I have ever been. Shaking hands, taking pictures, celebrating the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is no small task at the King Center, and I found myself working hard to even stay awake. So when my friend Britney asked, “Can I pray for you?” I wanted to reply, “Why? I need a nap more than I need prayer.”

But being a good friend I allowed her to pray. She put her hand on my shoulder and prayed that God might provide rest and quiet-filled moments for me in the days ahead. She prayed that I wouldn’t feel alone and instead feel empowered to do the work ahead of me. She said amen, and I knew that those moments were some of the most holy of the day, and let me say all in all it was a holy day in general.

There is a value in praying with people. I’m going to hope that I start the practice of praying with people instead of just praying for people. I hope that I can intercede on others’ behalf just as Britney did for me. The great gift of praying with someone provides for us the opportunity to connect with each other and realize that God is working even when we don’t see it or can’t see it because of our blindness to the world around us.

Ultimately, praying is an opportunity to be awakened to possibility; The possibility that God might actually be listening, and hearing, and acting on our behalf. And if God is listening then God is keeping us close at hand and heart. These acts of prayer are more than just a heavenly phone call. For all of us, they should be life-lines of grace and hope for a better situation and peace in our lives.

All Saints’ 2017: The Christian General

All Saints’ 2017

In the town I live in, nestled in the mountains of North Carolina there is a Christian bookstore. This store is known for its artwork and one piece of cliché art makes me want to gag every time I see it. The picture is of Robert Edward Lee holding a small child in an arm chair reading them the Bible. It’s titled “the Christian General.” I’ve often wondered where Robert Lee of the Confederacy is right now and what he would think of the squabble we’ve found ourselves in during this particular moment in history. It would be easy for me to say that Robert E. Lee is in the bad place, being tormented for his sins, the great multitude that there were. But ultimately that is not my job to determine or judge Lee’s final destiny. And that’s not your job either. Today is a day that reminds us of that. Today is a day we call All Saints’ Sunday.
If you’re steeped in the low church tradition like I am we were taught that this is a day where we celebrate those who have finished their course before we have. We mark, and commemorate those people who have made a difference for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And while I simply cannot comment on my famous relative’s eternal resting place, I can say this: What we do today matters. Because, 200 years from now history will look back on our moment in time and judge us for how we handled post-Charlottesville America. If you don’t believe me, just look back at how we view things like the Civil War. I mean even in my hometown it is still sometimes called the War of Northern Aggression. This All Saints’ Sunday we have an opportunity to challenge those notions of our past and look to God’s unfolding future for the rest of us left here feebly struggling to make it by.
We continue to challenge and to struggle by engaging in the work of anti-racism, of LGBTQ inclusion, and welcoming the undocumented person in our midst. Simply and directly, we do what Jesus would have done. And I’m not talking about the white Liberty University Jesus that Jerry Falwell espouses, I’m talking about the first century Palestinian Jewish Rabbi who gave us an alternative way of looking at life. This Jesus fellow, the one we worship every Sunday has no place in his kingdom for words like white privilege and white supremacy. These things should and will pass away.
When I was at seminary in the land of the Blue Devils at Duke University, my professor Dr. Stanley Hauerwas taught this big 100-dollar phrase, “realized eschatology.” It is this theological concept that we, the people of God play a role in making sure that things like racism, homophobia, and xenophobia pass away so that God’s kingdom can be enacted here on earth as it is in heaven. I mean did you hear the text from Revelation today? Salvation belongs to God, and there are people in this country, the empire we have created that are most certainly going through a great ordeal.
We have only to look at Philando Castile, Michael Brown, or Eric Garner to see that there are people of color who are dying in this great ordeal. The great ordeal we have faced since that “Christian General” surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse. We have not atoned for the sin of racism since America was conceived by our founding fathers. Sure we have made strides but this sin is now a festering sore, waiting to explode as Langston Hughes once wrote. So where do we go from here?
We stand. My great-grandmother used to remind me that a saint was a sinner who had fallen down and with God’s help had the courage to stand up again. We stand like the saints of old who had courage to believe that a nightmare could be a dream. We stand up for Jesus and for the sake of his coming kingdom. We say to this world that there is no place in God’s economy for what is going on right now in America. For in God’s economy there is hope for the hopeless, food for the hungry, and redemption and reconciliation for those bound by racism. We must address these issue of our time for the sake of the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Last night an interesting thing happened. A Muslim woman, a gay publicist, and a preacher from the Piedmont of North Carolina went to see the Book of Mormon at the Kennedy Center down the road from here. Now this sounds like the start of a bad joke but it wasn’t. The whole plot of the play for those of you who haven’t seen it revolves around conceptions of paradise and how to make it there. For all of us in that room, including my friend Ruwa and my friend Ory, we all have different conceptions of what the hereafter is about and what it means for the salvation of the world. But it didn’t matter in that moment and let me propose to you that in that particular moment we caught a glimpse at what the Almighty is after. Laying our swords and shields down by the riverside and seeing what might actually happen if we came together as Revelation foretells. In this particular instance the monikers and labels that society had given Ruwa, Ory, and myself didn’t matter because there is hope in the here and now and the then and there. We must make All Saints’ Sunday as much about the earthly plan God has for us as much as we make it about the heaven we all seek. Or, as Howard Thurman once said, “Don’t be so heavenly minded that you do no earthly good.”
In these instances of faith we see the saintly work ahead of us. We must dismantle racism, xenophobia, and homophobia in the church for the sake of the church’s future. If the church wishes to be an anchor of change in this world then we must be willing to move the dial on these issues in the days, weeks, and months to come. Because if you’re like me, you know that things can change drastically. The vision of Revelation is one we can have now as well as there. For we can gather around the table and sing the song in the heart of God. We can say Salvation belongs to God who is seated on the throne.
In these moments before we come to the Lord’s Supper may we be reminded that this holy meal may look odd on the outside but is the crux of our faith, especially on All Saints’ Sunday. It is where a piedmont preacher and a church on a mission can come together and find hope in a Eucharistic feast. We feast because we have hope. And if we have lost hope we are as Paul said a people most to be pitied.
This stuff we do and how we take the Eucharist into the world matters. When you leave this place after partaking of the body and blood of our Lord will you take that message to the streets? Will you show the people of Washington, D.C. that there is potential for us to come together in spite of our varied differences?
When I was 16 I lost a dear friend to a car accident the day before All Saints Day in 2009. That particular year my friend Abbey was supposed to come hear me preach because that is what she did oftentimes. She was so supportive. So every year I sing our closing hymn with a little more gusto for her and for her sainthood and I encourage you to do the same with the people in your life who you have lost. Let them be witnesses to justice and to faith. Let them be witnesses to hope and to grace… For we cannot finish the mission we have been given to end evil in this world without the saints cheering us on.
And while I said before I cannot tell you where Robert E. Lee is for his final destiny I can tell you now is a moment where we can all decide ours. Will we stand on the right side of history and speak for those who are oppressed? Or will we remain complicit in the silence or actions of our ancestors? We only have one time on this earth and we must make it holy. For in holiness a Muslim woman, a gay man, and a preacher whose ancestor is Robert E. Lee can come together and laugh like there is no tomorrow at a very inappropriate play. But in that moment we can know that it is holy and it is good. These are what saints are made of—so to future Saint Ory, and future Saint Ruwa, I give thanks that God did a mighty work last night to help us laugh in spite of what society would say divides us. I caught a glimpse of the kingdom of God and I hope you all will too in the table made ready since Jesus instituted this meal long ago—look for the holy moments friends, look for the moments of justice. It is between holiness and justice that we feast today. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

The Providence of a Silent God

A Response to the Events of the Weekend of August 12-13, 2017

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

1 Kings 19:9-18

August 13th, 2017

Broad Street United Methodist Church

Will you pray with me?

Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore. Let the search for our salvation be thy glory evermore. May I speak in the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

My little brother Scott and I were listening to the Wicked soundtrack on the way back from Chapel Hill last night after Marcus and Taylor’s wedding, and we listened to the hit song from that hit Broadway musical, “For Good” and in that song, it has words such as these (I’m not going to sing them because unlike my brother I was not given the gift of song), “I’ve heard it said, that people come into our lives for a reason bringing something we must learn, and we are led to those who help us most to grow if we let them and we help them in return, well I don’t know if I believe that’s true, but I know I’m who I am today because I knew you. Like a comet pulled from orbit as it passes the sun, like a stream that meets a boulder, halfway through the wood. Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, but because I knew you, I have been changed for good… So much of me is made of what I learned from you, you’ll be with me like a handprint on my heart. And now whatever way our stories end, I know you have re-written mine by being my friend. Like a ship blown from its mooring by a wind off the sea, who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, but because I knew you, I have been changed for good. ” Hold onto that song as we journey through the text today.

What do you do with a silent God? Theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and countless others have probed that question from every tragedy like the World Wars or the Holocaust or September 11th or the Great Recession of 2008. What do you do when God is silent? What do you do when God is absent? These are very real questions in need of very real answers. Sure we could turn to Scripture and say that God shows up just in time but that’s harder to say to families of murder victims or the of the opioid epidemic. We could point to God’s plan in it all and how God works in mysterious ways, how many times have you heard that? These answers all fall strangely short in our 21st century lives. And unless you’re willing to be a fundamentalist and have blind faith they just don’t strike at the heart of the matter for people today. Relevant Christians and theologians in today’s world do not have all the answers, and that is perhaps the greatest thing we could take from today’s Scripture readings.

We have two very different places and contexts for today’s seemingly unrelated scripture lessons. God is absent in our reading of Joseph’s selling into slavery and his brother’s treachery. And Elijah is on the run from vicious people who want his head on the platter. We see that God is strangely absent in the ways that we think God should be present in this story. Shouldn’t God have intervened and saved Joseph and Elijah, two of the greatest characters in the Hebrew Bible? Shouldn’t God have saved them from affliction and the sword and slavery because God is good? These are all questions I’ve heard time and time again. And I didn’t have an answer until the other day when I was reading Rob Bell’s new book, What is the Bible? Bell points out that we read scripture incorrectly, we read it in bits and pieces and if you waltzed into worship today without knowing the greater context of the story you would think that God is silent, absent and mean.

But friends let me propose to you that reading scripture and our very lives as incidences in a story book is like trying to look at a whale with a microscope, sure you may see things that you may have never seen, but you also have to zoom out to see the larger picture. And the larger picture is this: God always redeems and restores. As theologian and preacher Sam Wells puts it, “We will never escape the fire, just like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, but God is with us in the fire.”

We can never answer why the Holocaust happened or why Jim Crow was even in the vocabulary of our language during the early 20th century. But what we can do is respond to these situational realities of hate with an overwhelming force of love. Because that’s precisely what Christ did on the cross. Christ was willing to experience the depth of the human condition so that we might live and receive an abundance of life. We threw death and God and God laughed it off on Easter morning. If anything, we should be careful that we don’t think God’s silence is God’s absence, but instead perhaps maybe we should view it as we’re not listening hard enough.

God was there when you received the cancer diagnosis or didn’t receive the promotion. God was there as you buried your spouse or your daughter far too early. God was there when your friend was killed in a car accident. God was there when your husband left, or your wife was barren. God was there. I promise you with every fiber of my being that God was there working and redeeming your story, just as God redeemed the whole of Creation two millennia ago.

I must confess that I have all too often tried to push God into a box like many of us have. I’ve cried out to God, “Where are you?” “Why here?” “Why now?” and I’ve oftentimes felt the deafening silence of God. But I’m reminded as John Wesley would be quick to remind all of us that God is a God of providential and prevenient grace, that grace present in our lives before we knew it could take root. God has been working since before time began to bring to completion your life for the sake of the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. And to borrow again from the Apostle Paul, “Now we see through a mirror darkly, then we shall see face to face.” You know that old hymn “We’ll understand it better by and by” has some credence here in this sermon. Because we cannot possibly understand the marvelous workings of God in this life, maybe we’ll understand it better on the other side of the Jordan. One can only hope. This is where I would have normally ended our sermon for the day and sent us on our way to Cozumel Mexican Restaurant or Sorrento’s Restaurant. But the events of yesterday require a different form of preaching and proclamation.

Today we’ve been talking about the silence of God, and the timing of God. But yesterday, there was a silence of a different kind, not the silence of God, but the silence of the church and her people. Yesterday, in Charlottesville, Virginia, the KKK, white nationalists, and Neo-Nazis marched on the town and attacked clergy, and counter-protesters in violent acts of oppressive racism. It was not safe to be black or a person of color in Charlottesville yesterday. So I have to ask you, what were you doing yesterday? God, who calls us not to silence but to redemption was watching, and if you didn’t see the oppression, if it somehow missed you on social media or the nightly news you only have yourself to blame. Because God is never blind to the suffering of people, and we can’t be either. Just two weeks ago from this very pulpit I proclaimed that God has no hands or feet or mouth but ours. And if you are silent at a moment like this, if you do not condemn the racism you see through whatever channels and avenues you have, you can leave church now because you’re doing church wrong.

When we’re baptized into the United Methodist faith or make a profession of faith, we are asked if we reject evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, and if for some reason you are sympathetic to the white nationalists, if this is making you squirm in your pew then you need to reconsider your place in the kingdom of God. Because in the kingdom of God there is no racism allowed, and the last will be exalted. So that’s bad news for Broad Street. For too long, we have sat on the throne of exaltedness as the downtown, rich, white church, trust me, I’ve been complicit in it as well. Until we get off our thrones and into the streets to proclaim and re-claim what racism has taken away, we’ve missed the point of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Now before you all leave, I want to offer a word of hope. It’s easy to be the white Christian moderate and say this isn’t all about me, but God has commanded us to speak up to small and big acts of oppression. So that may mean condemning the racist joke or standing up for the woman who needs a raise because they make 70 cents on the dollar compared to men. Perhaps it’s hiring Jaquan instead of Jim, or saying enough is enough and that black lives matter to God. When you ignore the fact that white matters more than black you are being silent to a population of God’s children. But today, you can change for the better, because God knew you and knows you, because of the handprint on your heart like in the musical Wicked, you have been changed for good. And you can speak up and speak out in God’s name. That is the greatest and most hope-filled news of all. Because we knew God, we have been changed, for good.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Potter and the Kingdom of God: A Sermon for Christ the King, Year C

Harry Potter taught me more than just about magic, but about a theological way of thinking.

Luke 23:33-43
When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

November 24th, 2013, Christ the King Sunday

Will you pray with me?

Great God of Light,

Let this King’s cross become the shape of our lives; let this Lord’s compassion form our hearts; let this Shepherd’s embrace welcome us to Paradise. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

September 1st, 1998 changed American culture forever. A little known BritishMV5BNjQ3NWNlNmQtMTE5ZS00MDdmLTlkZjUtZTBlM2UxMGFiMTU3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUwNzk3NDc@._V1_UY1200_CR90,0,630,1200_AL_ author’s book was published in the United States and the Harry Potter craze began. The Harry Potter series chronicle the story of Harry, the orphaned boy wizard whose glasses and lightening bolt scar captivated a generation. The author who wrote the first book on napkins now has more money than the Queen of England, and we are all eternally grateful for a series that told us the story of the boy who harnessed not only magic, but life itself.

In the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry has arrived at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and is hearing stories about the elusive sorcerer’s stone, this elixir of life is the key to eternity, and Harry must find it before the dark Lord Voldemort does. The dark Lord Voldemort and Harry already have a history as Voldemort had killed Harry’s parents. As Harry searches for this stone, this key to eternity, Harry wants to use it for good by keeping it out of the hands of evil. Throughout the course of the book he has to traverse various adventures and eventually does find the sorcerer’s stone. As Harry destroys the stone he realizes that Voldemort cannot touch him for some reason and cause him harm. As professor Dumbledore explains, “Your mother died to save you when Voldemort tried to kill you. If there is one thing evil cannot understand, it is love. Love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves it’s own mark. To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.” But we’ll get back to that.

Let’s clear the air; we shouldn’t be hearing this text today, should we? We come this Sunday on the cusp of the liturgical New Year, with Advent a stone’s throw away and we hear words of crucifixion. I’m not exactly sure why the lectionary decides this year to veer off and take us down the road towards Golgotha but part of me is glad that we do. We need to hear these words, ‘Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom.’ These desperate words come from a criminal. Now this criminal was not any ordinary crook, the Greek words used here for criminal and context clues as to how this man was being killed meant that this man had like Jesus, incited trouble for the Roman Empire. This man got what he was asking for and standing on the abyss of the afterlife he begs Jesus to remember him.

One of the things I love about Jesus is he often ends up doing way more than any of us could ever imagine or hope for. Jesus looks lovingly at his companion opposite him on a stage set for all time and space to see and says, ‘Truly I tell you, you will be with me in Paradise.’ Friends I think we need to take Jesus at his word.

We don’t take Jesus at his word anymore do we? As progressive Christians we have an answer for everything. If we trust what Jesus actually said then truly we too can be with him in Paradise. Deeper than that if we take Jesus for what Jesus said in the text today then we can see that truly anyone can be with God in Paradise. You see today Christians often use heaven and hell as cosmic bargaining chips by which we ignore the hells around us. We use the afterlife as a proverbial game in which someone might attain that if they vote the right way, look like they deserve it and are card carrying members of the rotary club.

You see this is precisely the mentality Christ the king comes to combat on the cross. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for we all one in Christ Jesus. What might that look like for us today? In Christ there is neither Republican nor Democrat, there is neither gay nor straight, there is neither immigrant nor legal citizen for we are all one in Christ Jesus. Perhaps this is best summed up in the story of St. Lawrence. After the death of Pope Sixtus II, the prefect of Rome demanded that Lawrence gather all the wealth of the church and present it to the emperor. Lawrence asked for three days to gather the wealth and on the third day he came back with the poor, the lame, and the diseased and looked the prefect in the eye and said, “These are the church’s riches. The Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.” Lawrence was martyred for his actions but in his death and his presentation of the church we see exactly where God calls us to be. We see the plight of the crook on the cross begging Jesus to remember him and we see Jesus doing so much more.

Friends we come here to this Christ the King Sunday, this Sunday when we enthrone Christ in the throne of our hearts and minds and as Lord of all Creation and we are on the brink of Advent, the expectation that Christ came, Christ rose, and Christ will come again. What if we as a church started treating each other like the Messiah was in our midst. Because let me fill you in on something, the Messiah is already here. For we are called to be like Christ to people and experience Christ in people, that ultimately, is what the kingdom of God looks like.

Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise. All of us here are still waiting for the fulfillment of that promise. We wait with expectancy and with fervor as Christ stands above time and space bringing the hope that we can take God for what God has spoken to us through the prophets, the martyrs, the saints and Christ himself. Perhaps we need this text this week because it shows God’s way of ruling is far superior to our way of ruling things. It’s almost comical that we threw the worst we had at Jesus, a cross, and Jesus laughs in the face of death with a holy laughter that echoes through our own lives and our own deaths as well.

There are things in life that we will never be sure of and eternity is one of them. But perhaps not only what happens after death is Paradise, maybe dying with Jesus, knowing the Savior of the nations stands with us to face what he has already faced is as close to Paradise as we will get this side of the Jordan.

What is Paradise for you? If I could have my paradise it would be at my grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve. You see Nana has one of those artificial trees that is older than I am, it must be at least 30 years old and the lights flicker but the warmth of the room is full and bright. I remember the first year after my uncle had died and many of us wondered how we could celebrate such a holiday in Paradise without my uncle there. God has mended, God has restored, nothing is ever the same, there will always be a place missing at the table but we must hold our past in Paradise on earth in tension with God’s future Paradise prepared for us since before our pasts occurred. God reminds us in this text that at the fruition of our lives God will keep God’s word. If that is the case then we need to be so bold as to proclaim it for ourselves, we must actually believe these words, we must commit them to memory and recite them in our last moments, ‘Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

Fifty years ago this past Friday John Kennedy was shot and killed by a gunman’s bullet. I’m sure some of you remember where you were that fateful day. John Kennedy, the king of what became known as an American Camelot famously said, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Friends we come to this place asking too many times what the kingdom of God can do for us, sure it promises us eternity and bliss, which is good, but what else does the Kingdom of God demand of us? It demands we become the very Christ for others, we must live incarnate the kingship of faith. This kingship is not wealth or fame or crowns. No this kingship involves a cross, and a crown of a very different kind.

Have you ever wanted a second chance? This text offers precisely that. It offers Paradise, what the Jewish faith knows as the second Eden. How are we preparing to be with Jesus in Paradise? How will we be when we are faced with our cross?

Church do you see where I’m going with this? God’s love for us was so strong on the cross that even in our own deaths love will come out triumphant. As in Harry Potter when Voldemort could not touch Harry because of his mother’s love, God loves us so much that it leaves a mark on us so that we can laugh at death and know that it has been swallowed up in victory. Therein lies our hope on this Christ the King Sunday. Our hope should not be in elixirs of life or sorcerer’s stones that promise eternity from anything other than Jesus. When we ask Jesus to remember us that is a love that death and hate and evil cannot overcome.

There was a 2012 movie released that struck a particular chord with me. Silver Linings Playbook tells the story of Pat, a man with bipolar disorder who is released from a psychiatric hospital and moves back in with his parents. Determinedsilver-linings-playbook.jpg to win back his estranged wife, Pat meets recently widowed Tiffany Maxwell. She tells Pat that she will help him get his wife back if he enters a dance competition with her. The two become closer as they train and Pat, and a romantic comedy ensues in the process. In one of the most pivotal scenes in the movie Pat’s father declares, “Let me tell you, I know you don’t want to listen to your father, I didn’t listen to mine, and I am telling you you gotta pay attention this time. When life reaches out at a moment like this it’s a sin if you don’t reach back, I’m telling you it’s a sin if you don’t reach back!”

Holy People of God whether you are coping with disease, with loss, with mental illness, with struggles far too deep to name in words, may you be ready to experience the coming kingdom of God. For God is reaching out to you and when God reaches out to you at a moment like this, it’s a sin not to reach back. You have to listen to your father for you have been given a mark just like Harry Potter, a mark of love that no one, not even the powers of hell and death could hope to tarnish. For God’s love is too strong and those powers are too weak.  You are the face of God’s beloved. You are marked as Christ’s own forever. Jesus remember us, when you come into your kingdom.

When Resurrection Happens Best

You see resurrection happens best early in the morning on the first day of the week because it’s so unexpected and forgotten about.

John 20:1-18

On this most holy day where we mark the resurrection of our Lord, won’t you pray with me?

O Christ who rose victorious over the grave, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight for you and you alone are our strong rock and our redeemer. And may I speak in the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

When does resurrection happen best? I must confess to you this year that I let Easter sneak up on me. This isn’t because I don’t love Easter, I love singing Christ the Lord is Risen Today and Lift High the Cross. But for some odd reason this year, it doesn’t feel like resurrection happens. Now don’t worry, your pastor isn’t turning into some atheist hell-bent on telling you that God doesn’t work in our lives or in the life of our world. I’ve just been so consumed with other things and other realities, that I forgot the resurrection. So today, permit me if you will, to work through this resurrection business with you.

I can remember growing up and being the cross bearer at my home church in Statesville. And one Easter, as I was carrying in the cross, proud of my place and status in the church as the cross bearer, I suddenly realized I was being upstaged. A man, who looked nothing like the demographics or socioeconomic status of the congregation had entered the church with his umbrella folded and under his arm. He walked past me and down to the altar and prostrated himself at the altar while the choir and congregation sang the hymn we opened with today.

I was furious, why in the world would someone upstage my big moment to carry in the cross? Why would someone take away the spotlight from me? But then I realized, he needed Easter and I did too, and I was missing the point of it all. I was so consumed with my reality that I forgot about the beauty of hearing the angel say, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” I forgot the beauty of Mary hearing Jesus’ voice and realizing that life could be different for her and the rest of humankind because of this moment.

You see resurrection happens best early in the morning on the first day of the week because it’s so unexpected and forgotten about. We’re in a culture that has forgotten about early in the morning on the first day of the week because we are so consumed with other realities and presuppositions about how things should look and how we should all act.

Look at this way: I have close friends who bring me out of my own resurrection shell by dancing with me in Target even when I don’t want to, or taking me on a bachelor party before my wedding and wiggling me out of my shell there. My own fiancée Stephanie inspires me to come out of my resurrection shell by telling me that chronic illnesses like the one I have is only as powerful as we let it be. My parents pull me lovingly out of my resurrection shell by giving me a beautiful and wonderful childhood for me and my brother by sacrificing so much. The resurrection is a powerful force that works in our lives and brings to fruition all that we can possibly be. Because you see the resurrection happens both here and now and then and there. We have the potential to be resurrected today.

I think this reality speaks to Bethany United Church of Christ. Last week, we committed ourselves and our livelihoods to this church and its resurrection. Now we have to begin to roll the stone away. We have to say to one another that this place, this church, this building, these people are worth fighting for in the search and battle for resurrection. But here’s a secret: Christ has already won. There is no height nor depth, nor anything in all of creation both in the earth, above the earth, and under the earth, that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus… Absolutely Nothing. There is no power or principality that can keep you from experiencing the resurrection.

I want to be careful here, because I was raised in the Methodist, Wesleyan tradition and we can be quite moralistic and pietistic, meaning that we are consumed with the goodness here and now. Let me be clear: the resurrection changes everything. The resurrection that we will celebrate in the creed and in the Eucharist is something that matters because we are finite. But in the finite realities that we face, when relationships fall apart, when we lose the job, when we have to retire because of disability, when the specter of death looms over us, Christ will be present because Christ is risen indeed. We who are Christian can proclaim the resurrection in Target by dancing, in chronic and terminal illnesses by fighting and proclaiming death does not have the same sting it once had, and in the very grips of death itself we can sing, because God will make things right again. God will raise us from our metaphorical deaths, and our physical deaths, because that’s when God does God’s best work.

If you need any proof, you should go over to the Bethany United Church of Christ Facebook page and see the pictures from the Easter egg hunt, we had at least 15 children there, ready to hunt for eggs and have a snack. We need to re-imagine and re-invigorate the way we do this thing called church, to where those 15 children don’t just show up when cupcakes are present, but when church is happening on a Sunday morning like this one.

You know growing up I always wanted to be pastor, and so I read every book I could on being a pastor and a few years back Eugene H. Peterson put out a book that said this, “I don’t want to end up a bureaucrat in the time-management business for God or a librarian cataloguing timeless truths. Salvation is kicking in the womb of Creation right now, any time now it could happen. Pay attention.”[1]  Friends, Bethany United Church of Christ has an announcement to make this Easter Sunday… We are pregnant. We are pregnant with anticipation for the resurrection of this church. We are begging God’s Spirit and God’s grace to be present in this space every time we gather for worship, fellowship, and administration. And though I will never experience pregnancy and a family of my own is so far off in the distance, I know that when you’re pregnant, you have to make ready that which needs to be made ready, you have to prepare for the beauty of childbirth and of all that it entails.

So today, how are you preparing to be born anew as this church? Are you inviting friends to worship? Are you coming to this place to join in membership and in fellowship with us? How are you making ready a highway for God in the desolate and dark places? How are you, after being met with the forces of death proclaiming that Christ is risen? We are people of the resurrection, we are a people and a community pregnant with potential to roll the stone away.

Wendell Berry is a prolific poet and prophet of the modern day. He has this poem that’s been on my heart lately and as any good preacher knows an Easter sermon is not complete without three points and a poem… So let me share parts of it with you. Close your eyes and let this be your Easter prayer:

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap.

Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.[2]

Won’t you continue in prayer with me now?
God who called to Mary by name. Call to us also in the darkness of our own souls. Offer us resurrection so that we too may practice it with hope, reliance, and a sense of dignity in the face of sorrow. This we ask in Christ our Lord’s name. Amen.

[1] Peterson, Eugene H. Pastor.

[2] Berry, Wendell. Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front (Edited by Rob Lee for context and time)