Beyond the Tomb
March 26, 2023
Note on context: the congregation was invited to wear pajamas to church in commemoration of three years since the beginning of the COVID lockdown.
There’s a funny thing about calendars: the same day keeps coming around each year. I know that’s an obvious thing to say, but have you ever noticed how we’ll attach so much significance to certain days? We’ll take the time to get dressed up and invite friends over every year on our birthdays. We commemorate events like Veteran’s Day and Independence Day. The whole world shoots off fireworks at the new year! When something is important enough, we like to set aside a day just to focus on it. That’s why we’re wearing pajamas today!
I’d been talking about doing this for at least two years now, and I think it’s a good way to celebrate and remember. See, three years ago, y’all remember, we had no choice but to worship in our pajamas. We sat on our couches and sipped coffee while watching our TVs or smartphones or tablets or laptop screens, and worshipped apart, together. We did it because we had to. We had to keep each other safe; we had to slow the spread of a deadly virus; we had to react to this thing that shuttered the entire world.
Too Wonderful to Believe?
March 19, 2023
“If something sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.” So goes a very well-known and well-followed saying that many of us know, and one that I have heard since forever. On the face of it, it’s a pretty good piece of advice. If something sounds too good to be true, someone might be trying to pull the wool over your eyes. You might be dealing with a scammer. It’s good to do your due diligence about things, and not just accept something at face value. But this helpful piece of advice, as I see it, has really gotten out of its lane.
Far from sticking to too-good-to-be-true purchases, this phrase is often used in any situation where something good has happened. If you’ve been having a really good week, this saying is conjured up as a reminder that you shouldn’t trust your good luck too long. If you meet someone, a friend or colleague or date, and they are just really great—just wait and see. It’s a phrase that spills out of its lane and demands that we be cynical and pessimistic, assuming the worst of everything and everyone. If something really good happens, so many of us have been trained to wait for the other shoe to drop. If something truly amazing happens, we’ve been trained to look for who’s lying or pulling the strings to take advantage of the situation.
The Seed of Doubt
March 12, 2023
During my last year at seminary, I went on a mission trip to Haiti with a group of classmates. While we were there, we got used to a certain rhythm of things—getting up around sunrise, working with the Haitians to build a new church, playing with the kids, and games of marbles and dominos before bed. But every morning, there was a woman who would come by with her donkey, bearing two saddlebags of water to refill our water tanks that she brought up from a well.
On Sunday, after worship, we all decided our activity for the day would be to hike to this well where the woman got the water. It was a pretty long hike! And when we got there, it was one of those wells with a big long lever to pump the water. So, having nothing else to do, we decided to pump water for anyone that came by—which both entertained and confused the Haitians who got to laugh at these silly Americans who were acting like children.
Love Like Jesus
March 5, 2023
“For God so loved the world” might be the most well-known line in the Bible. This verse that we heard from our gospel reading today is so well known, and quoted in so many different places, that many people have called it the “summary of the gospel.” It shows up all over the place, from billboards on the interstate to t-shirts and bumper stickers; Tim Tebow is known to people outside of football solely on the fact that he would write John 3:16 under his eyes before each game just so people might look it up.
The sheer gravitational pull of this verse causes everything else around it to fade into the background. It really is the summary of the gospel. It really does say something incredibly profound. But what does it mean? Summaries, by their definition, take large and complicated topics and boil them down to something more approachable. But summaries also rely on letting some things be assumed for the sake of keeping it short. So I want to unpack it a bit, and look at some of the assumptions that are made about these words. And specifically, I want us to look at “for God so loved the world.”
Where Will We Go?
February 26, 2023
The past few weeks have been filled with some pretty crazy, unsettling stuff. There’s the distant but disheartening news of the earthquakes that happened in Syria and Turkey, and the ongoing war in Ukraine. The national news was captivated by that Chinese spy balloon, followed by more unidentified flying objects; then that huge train derailment and chemical explosion in Ohio threw more confusion into the mix. And closer to home, the tragedy of teenage car wrecks have mixed with the onslaught of this week’s roller coaster of a winter storm. We’ve even been thrown off by having to cancel our Ash Wednesday service. Confusion, uncertainty, fear—that’s what greets us this first Sunday in Lent.
And maybe we’ve spent the last few weeks wondering how to cope? What do we do in the face of the uncertainties and fearful confusions of the world? The prophet Joel speaks to a time that felt a lot like our times. Most likely writing his prophetic words after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, Joel was speaking to a people who were feeling dislocated and uncertain. A famine was apparently looming, and they were trying to get their feet under them in the home they’d lost once before. There was social confusion and hard times everywhere. And Joel gives some salient advice.
The World Behind the Curtain
February 23, 2023
Have you ever had a day where everything went right? One of those days when you felt on top of the world, there was an extra bounce in your step or a little extra pep in your attitude? Hopefully we’ve all had a moment, a day like that. Maybe your wedding, or the day the person you asked out said “yes,” or when you finished a really well-done home improvement project or piece of art, or when you made the absolute right decision for your life and really turned the corner on your own wholeness. When we have those moments, those days that glow with goodness and happiness, those are mountaintop experiences. They’re these great times we always cherish, momentary highs in the ordinariness of life. And some of us get blessed to have more mountaintops than others, but it doesn’t seem to take away from how wonderful they are when we experience them.
Peter, James, and John got a unique opportunity to have a mountaintop experience. I can imagine they must have felt something special was happening when they were the only ones that got to go with Jesus up the mountain that evening, but they couldn’t have expected what was waiting. Like nothing they’d ever seen before—Jesus suddenly glowed like the sun, his clothes dazzling white, with two people standing beside him who turned out to be the two most important figures in Jewish history—Moses and Elijah. It must have felt like they’d gotten an exclusive peek at heaven itself.
Not in the Headlines
February 5, 2023
This time of year, there is a lot of buzz on various talk shows and commercials making guesses about shows and movies that might make an appearance on the different awards ceremonies. It is awards season, so maybe you’ve heard on the radio or seen on a talk show or brief snippet on the news about some movie or show that’s up for a Golden Globe or an Academy Award. Now, some of the shows and movies they keep talking about I have actually seen—but most of the time I haven’t. And somehow, even when very few people I know have seen these shows and movies, they seem to get a lot of airtime. They get a lot of attention. They get a lot of headlines.
It’s funny what and who seems to end up in the headlines, right? I remember for months it seemed like the news couldn’t get enough of talking about the debacle over at Twitter with Elon Musk’s blunders taking over. Or the media buzz that seems to happen with the British royals when Prince Harry came out with a new tell-all book. Or even recently when the headline kept popping up about Tom Brady officially and really retiring this time. There are certain people that our society has decided we need to talk about all the time, the people who are important, apparently, and who should have our attention.
January 29, 2023
You may have noticed that our Old Testament reading this morning sounded suspiciously like we already read it two weeks ago. And that’s not just your imagination! It’s recounting the third commandment—honor the Sabbath and keep it holy—both times. But two weeks ago, we were reading when God first gave the commandment on Mount Sinai. It was given just as the Israelites were about to go wandering in the wilderness for forty years. God put the emphasis on creation because God was about to make a new people out of the Israelites out there. This week, we’re reading from when Moses was repeating the commandments to Israel before they finally entered the Promised Land. And there’s a different motivation here.
See, in the days to come Israel was going to cross the Jordan River, enter the Promised Land, and settle down as God’s people in the land they were promised. They were going to be the rulers, owning the land and making the decisions. And this was a whole new generation—no one but Moses, Joshua, and Caleb were alive when the Israelites were still slaves in Egypt. No one had any experience of the hardship that their parents and grandparents endured under the Egyptians. And it would be really, really easy for them to go into this new land and replicate the same injustices that were inflicted on them in Egypt. Pay attention to the last line of how God delivers this commandment: “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”
January 22, 2023
I know that it’s been a couple years, but I’m sure we all still remember the Shutdown at the beginning of the pandemic. Remember how everything got eerily still? We couldn’t go anywhere for the longest time. And then there were the trends that popped up of “pandemic skills”—hobbies that people picked up in their downtime while they were stuck at home. Didn’t it seem like everyone suddenly started making sourdough bread? But then, after the shutdown was lifted and we started emerging from our homes, there was this meme that started floating around.
It basically said, “if you didn’t come out of the shutdown with a new skill, then it wasn’t because you didn’t have the time—it was because you did use your time” or something like that. And while I get the sentiment of whoever came up with it, I also think it says something extremely unhealthy about what we think unstructured time is for. Whether they meant to or not, the author of the meme put a burden of guilt on anyone who didn’t use that time the way the author thought it should’ve been used.
January 15, 2023
There are a lot of differences between Wisconsin and North Carolina, but one of the biggest differences I’ve experienced, I think, is winter. It’s not just that it gets colder, or that here we get snow every year, or that there are people who take their trucks onto the frozen surface of a river to set up a shack and fish. It’s also how much shorter the days get. True, the days got shorter down south too, but it feels like an entirely different level up here. It’s almost as if the very creation is emphasizing how the winter almost invites us to cozy up with a blanket and, like the bears and squirrels, hibernate until the sun comes back.
Creation sure does seem to reflect a certain willingness to rest, doesn’t it? In this season of shorter days and longer nights, colder weather and limited options for activity, nature answers and slows down. The trees lose their leaves and go dormant. Animals find burrows and nests where they curl up and hibernate for the colder months. The soil takes a break from growing everything from crops to wildflowers underneath a literal blanket of snow. So when we hear from Exodus this morning how God is explaining the reason behind the Sabbath—the day of rest—God cites how all of creation came into being in six days, and then God rested on the seventh. Rest is built into the very fabric of creation!