Thursday, August 17, 2017

Persevere in Resisting Evil: Responding to Charlottesville

Like people all around our country and the world, I was horrified by the violence, the racial hatred, and the deliberate act of terror that killed Heather Heyer last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. 

I was particularly disturbed to see American citizens marching with Nazi flags and other white supremacist symbols while shouting slogans like “Blood and soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!” 

This is pure evil. And even more so when we recall how Americans of all races from the “Greatest Generation” made incredible sacrifices during World War II to eradicate the scourge of Fascism and Nazism from the face of the earth. Those brave Americans fought and many of them died to insure that all people - regardless of race, color, or creed - can live in freedom. 

The protesters who advocated for white supremacy last weekend dishonor the sacrifices of Americans who fought during World War II. They dishonor the sacrifices of Americans who struggled for liberty and justice for all in the Civil Rights Movement. They dishonor true patriotism and love of our country. They dishonor basic human values of decency, civility, and kindness. 

But as Christians, we must condemn this evil in even stronger terms. 

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission with the Southern Baptist Convention, hit the nail on the head when he wrote the following on Twitter

“The so-called Alt-Right white supremacist ideologies are anti-Christ and satanic to the core. We should say so.” 

And Bishop Jake Owensby of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana summed it up like this: 

“Racism is a sin. White supremacy is a racist ideology. Its presence in Charlottesville was undeniable. It is our responsibility as followers of Christ to denounce this hate and violence without resorting to hate and violence ourselves.” 

In the Baptismal Covenant, we promise to “persevere in resisting evil.” White supremacy in any form is evil. It is an assault on the dignity of persons created in the image of God. It is an assault on the teachings of Jesus, who commands us to love one another as he loves us (John 15:12). It is a form of hatred that separates us from God. For as St. John the Apostle writes: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). 

We find the way to resist evil in the love of Jesus Christ. For the love of Jesus is stronger than hatred. It transforms enemies into friends. It overcomes even death itself. 

What happened in Charlottesville reminds us that this world is shot through with sin and evil. This world needs saving. It desperately needs to see the light and know the healing power of Jesus’ love. May we be that light and that love. 

As we seek to resist the evils of racism and white supremacy by faithfully walking in love as Christ loved us, I invite you to use the following prayer from The Book of Common Prayer

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

God's Job, Not Ours: Sermon for Proper 11A 2017

Gospel reading for Proper 11A

One of the things I love the least is yard work. I’ve never been a big fan of mowing, edging, trimming, raking, pulling weeds, ripping out vines, or cutting back branches - particularly in the summer heat.

Maybe it goes back to my high school years when I was tasked with cutting the grass during summer breaks. Including an orchard and a field, our yard was huge. Even with a tractor mower it could take 3 hours to cut everything. Not fun!

There was, however, one outdoor job I liked. And that was spraying the poison ivy plants that seemed to pop up everywhere. Living on a cotton and soybean farm, I had access to chemicals that were like weaponized Round-Up. You could spray a poison ivy plant and within a few hours it would be burned to a crisp. It became my mission to seek out and destroy all of the poison ivy on our property. 

I did a pretty good job. But there was collateral damage. In my zeal to eradicate every single poison ivy plant, I occasionally took out a few flowers, destroyed a tomato plant in dad’s garden, and maybe even killed a small tree in the orchard. 

Sometimes the eagerness to get rid of things we perceive as bad can cause harm. 

We see that point in Jesus’ parable of the weeds in the wheat. A landowner sowed good seed in his field. But at night, when everybody was asleep, someone came and sowed weeds among the wheat. So when the wheat started growing, the weeds were right there with them. Seeing what had happened, the servants of the master asked him if they could pull out the weeds. They couldn’t stand the thought of letting the wheat and the weeds, the good and the bad, co-exist. They were impatient to set things right. And they assumed the master would say, “Yes, by all means, purify my field of those evil weeds.” 

But instead, the master told them “no.” He noted that if the weeds were pulled, the wheat would be uprooted and damaged. They would destroy the crop. So instead of trying to set everything right, the master told the servants to wait. Be patient. Let everything grow until the harvest. And then the weeds can safely be sorted out from the wheat. 

Perhaps it comes as a surprise that the biggest enemy in the parable is not the weeds or even the person who sowed the weeds. It’s the impatient servants who assume they know their master’s wishes. 

The real enemy is acting as if we mere mortals are the ultimate judges who are so good and righteous that we can identify, sort, and wipe out the bad. 

If we apply this point of the parable to religious life, it’s not hard to find examples of well-intentioned persons acting on what they believe is God’s will in ways that cause more harm than good. Their desire to purify the church of sin or purge society of evil is sincere. They mean well. And the problems they pinpoint may be real. 

But how easy it can be to make a mess of things by acting on the desire to eradicate evil! And how far removed that desire can be from the will of a God who graciously “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45). 

In contrast to our human, all-too-human impatience, Jesus’ parable portrays a God who is infinitely patient, gracious, and merciful. God is kind and loving to everyone, regardless of whether they are good or bad persons. God gives everybody time and opportunities to grow and change. For God takes no pleasure in the deaths of the wicked, but rather desires that they should turn from their evil ways and live (cf. Ezekiel 18:23 & 32). 

It’s easy to imagine that we can neatly classify the world into two camps: the good and the bad. And that we are among the good and have the godlike power and mandate to set all things right. But things are not so simple. For as one writer notes, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” 

That’s a powerful insight. It serves as a reminder that instead of pointing a finger of judgment at anybody else, or blaming external circumstances, I need to take a hard look into the depths of my own heart. Rather than getting fixated on the sin and evil of the world around us, Jesus invites us to look with courageous honesty at ourselves. And he warns us that all too often we may see “a smudge on [our] neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on [our] own” (Mt 7:3, The Message). 

For the truth is: I am just as capable of sin and evil as any other person. And I can’t change anybody else. I can’t change the world. 

But, with God’s help, I can change the world in me. I can change the world in my heart, where the decisive battle between good and evil wages every single day. 

That change comes through repentance. It comes through naming, confessing, and forsaking the wrong desires and sinful actions that draw us from the love of God. 

It comes through the humility of accepting that we are not superheroes who can single-handedly purify the world of evil and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

That’s God’s job, not ours. 

Our job is to trust and obey. 

Our job is to trust that all things are in God’s hands, and that in the end, God will sort everything out and set all things right. And our job is to faithfully obey God’s commands summed up by Jesus as loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. 

Regardless of outward circumstances, we can live with confident hope. Not because of what we do. But because of what God has done, is doing, and will do. 

For in Jesus Christ, God has overcome death and the grave. A new creation has begun. The kingdom has come near. We have been reborn as sons and daughters of God. God’s saving love has been poured into our hearts as a gift that cannot be earned or deserved. And knowing that in the end God will right all wrongs, we can rest secure in that love for all eternity.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Church Buildings Matter

Church buildings matter.  Architecture speaks.  And a church building can be a factor in attracting and even converting people to the Christian faith.

Empirical research backs this up, as a recent article in The Telegraph attests.  "One in six young people are Christian as visits to church buildings inspire them to convert," reads the headline.  Here's an excerpt:

One in six young people are practising Christians, new figures show, as research suggests thousands convert after visiting church buildings.   
The figures show that more than one in five (21 per cent) people between the ages of 11 and 18 describe themselves as active followers of Jesus, and 13 per cent say they are practising Christians who attend church.   
The study, commissioned by Christian youth organisation Hope Revolution Partnership and carried out by ComRes, suggested that levels of Christianity were much higher among young people than previously thought. ... 
Around 13 per cent of teenagers said that they decided to become a Christian after a visit to a church or cathedral, according to the figures. 
The influence of a church building was more significant than attending a youth group, going to a wedding, or speaking to other Christians about their faith.

This is very hopeful and extraordinary news!

I shared this article with a friend who serves as a priest in the Church of Ireland.  He wrote back to say that this report has been getting a lot of attention in his neck of the woods, not least because it challenges the assumptions driving youth ministry and evangelism for the last decade.  

Too often the assumption seems to be that in order to reach young people and the unchurched, we have to downplay, minimize, or even jettison key aspects of the Christian faith. And so traditional doctrine, liturgy, music, church buidings, etc., come to be seen as impediments.  

This research coupled with data on church decline, suggest that this assumption is just wrong.  What if we can do a better job of evangelism by living more deeply into the traditions we have inherited, including church architecture that speaks of the transcendent in a world flattened out by suburban sprawl and smartphone screens?  

While it's true that the Church cannot be reduced to a building, this research serves as testimony to the incarnational truth that buildings (like bodies) matter.  Sacred space can speak the Word just as ceremonial, ritual, sacraments, and preaching do.  

A quote from Roman Catholic priest Romano Guardini comes to mind:

When you step through the doorway of a church you are leaving the outer world behind and entering an inner world.  The outside world is a fair place abounding in life and activity, but also a place with a mingling of the base and ugly.  It is a sort of marketplace, crossed and recrossed by all and sundry.  Perhaps "unholy" is not quite the word for it, yet there is something profane about the world.  Behind the church doors is an inner place, separated from the marketplace, a silent, consecrated and holy spot.  It is very certain that the whole world is the work of God and His gift to us, that we may meet Him anywhere, that everything we receive is from God's hand, and, when received religiously, is holy.  Nevertheless, men have always felt that certain precincts were in a special manner set apart and dedicated to God.  [quoted in Patricia S. Klein, Worship Without Words: The Signs and Symbols of Our Faith]

Fr. Guardini is right: walking into a church is like stepping into another world, a space that speaks of another reality, a world that is bigger, more mysterious, and more beautiful than much of what we experience day to day. 

There's a hunger for that "inner world," that sacred space that's set apart from the frenetic world of information and calendar overload.   And while it's certainly true that in our evangelism we need to go out and meet people where they are, we do well to not overlook or downplay the riches we have to offer inside sacred space where the mysteries of the Gospel are offered in Word and Sacrament.  

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Michael Ramsey: "The Moral Message of Christmas"

Today the joy of Christmas shines in a world that is darkened by sadness. How real are the gifts of human goodness, nonetheless: they are gifts from the God of Bethlehem who is their source; for God who took human flesh in the stable is God from whose store of love humanity’s gifts of love are drawn.

The stable is a symbol of Christ’s poverty. The characteristic that gave him the title poor was his simplicity. He did without many of the things that people crave. None did he criticise more severely than those who hankered after more and more possessions and who were preoccupied with money. The worth of a person’s life, he insisted, does not consist of possessions, for piling things up does not increase worth. People matter more than things, as people have an eternal destiny. Those who do not fuss about their standard of living and their luxuries are freer to love one another, to serve one another and to enjoy one another. Christ became poor, and he chose the way of simplicity; and if we follow him he promises us riches of his own, riches of happiness and brotherhood shared with one another and with him.

How did Christ become poor? By coming to share in the limitations, frustrations, and hard realities of our human life, our pains and sorrows, and even our death. The imagery of Christ’s riches and his poverty is a vivid picture of the Incarnation; but it is another thing to grasp its moral message and to live by it, the message of simplicity and self-sacrifice. Christ gave himself to us to enable us to give ourselves to one another: that is the message of Bethlehem to a world in trouble.

Come to Bethlehem once again: see the stable - see the child. Knowing that he is God made man, knowing that he who was rich has become poor for us, let us kneel in the darkness and cold that is the symbol of our blind and chilly hearts, and say in a new way: ‘yours in the kingdom, the power and the glory forever.’

- Arthur Michael Ramsey, 100th Archbishop of Canterbury

Quote taken from Glory Descending: Michael Ramsey and His Writings (William B. Eerdmans, 2005).

Monday, August 29, 2016

Staying the Course After the Flood: Sermon for Proper 17C 2016

Proper 17, Year C

A picture says a thousand words.

That saying hit home for me recently when I came across a picture that sums up the spirit of our people. The picture shows three men standing knee deep in flood water. In between them is a grill with meat cooking over the charcoal fire. The caption below the photograph says:

No diss to other states, but Louisiana folk are a different breed. We don’t stress over the situation, we make the situation better. So what if it floods and we have to stand in knee deep water, come on by and get yourself a plate of food. #WeGotYou!

It’s true. If anything, flood waters have increased the outpouring of love, generosity, and hospitality. It’s what folks down here do.

From the rescue work of the Cajun Navy; to the Cajun Army who organized supplies and mobilized teams of the young and old to gut out houses for people that in many cases they didn’t even know; to the Cajun Rosies who’ve cooked food, washed clothes, and set up childcare so parents could work on their homes; to volunteers in shelters; to folks from afar loading up trucks with supplies or sending money and gift cards; to church members making food and delivering meals - a spirit of generosity and hospitality has characterized the immediate aftermath of the flooding. It’s been amazing.

The trick is sustaining that generosity and hospitality. Because the recovery from this disaster is going to go on for a long time.

That’s why our faith in Jesus Christ is so important.

For we follow a Lord who came, not to be served, but to serve. We follow a Lord who got his hands dirty in the trenches of helping others.

Jesus gave his life to free people from the oppression of sin and sickness. He put the needs of others first. He fed the hungry, consoled the sorrowful, healed the sick and brokenhearted, made room for the displaced and the lost, and befriended the stranger.

That is the way of Jesus Christ. That is the way of abundant life. And that is the way of perfect love.

Our scripture lesson today from the letter to the Hebrews offers a blueprint for how we can continue practicing the generous love of Jesus Christ in witness to the good news that Jesus’ work of rescuing and renewing continues in his church through ordinary folks like you and me.

So let’s take a closer look at some of the verses in this passage from Hebrews.

“Let mutual love continue” (Hebrews 13:1).

Or, as another translation puts it: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 13:1 NIV).

In our baptisms, we are adopted by God into His family. We become members of God’s household. We become brothers and sisters to one another, and members of a family that spans the ages and the globe.

Sometimes, as in our own families, we have our differences. Sometimes there’s conflict. Sometimes we squabble. And sometimes we hurt each other. It happens.

But as a family in Christ here at St. Luke’s, we are committed to sticking it out together. We are committed to caring for one another. We are committed to the long haul.

So here’s the core truth: we are going to move forward together as one family in Christ. And we are going to make it through all of this stronger and more committed to doing God’s work in this community.

Let’s listen again to the letter to the Hebrews.

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers” (Hebrews 13:2).

Here we are reminded that the love we have for each other in our parish family is not meant to be exclusionary. We are not meant to be a club or a clique that allows only “the right kind” of people to belong. Nor are we meant to be a place that runs away or hides from the challenges in our community.

Rather, God calls us to cultivate an outward focus that welcomes the stranger in our midst.

And by welcoming, I mean more than just a handshake and a “Good morning, how are you.” I mean being intentional and proactive in reaching out, making connections, listening, cultivating relationships, and receiving strangers into our group so that they may also become members of our family, our sisters and brothers in Christ. 

“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3).

In other words, remember those who suffer as though you were suffering. Practice radical empathy.

Many among us have suffered greatly recently. Many have lost most or all of their worldly possessions. Many had to be rescued by boat from the rising waters. Many are left feeling shell-shocked and broken.

I’ve heard some folks say, “It’s just stuff.” It’s true that we’re talking about inanimate objects. And Lord knows it’s true that we’d rather lose that than lose people. Thank God more people weren’t lost!

But it’s not true that “it’s just stuff.” Our possessions carry meanings and values that go well beyond price tags and appraisals. For that reason those possessions cannot easily be replaced. And some of them are priceless.

Just think about it. The table that belonged to grandmother. The wedding photographs. The prayer book that your great-grandfather used. The Bible your parents gave you at confirmation. The letters you received so many years ago from the girl who eventually became your wife. Then there’s your mother’s wedding dress. And the album with photographs of your children when they were babies. Or the high school yearbook signed by everybody in your graduating class.

The list of such things that were lost could go on and on. To lose them is heartbreaking.

It’s hard enough to lose one or more of those possessions. But to then also lose most or all of your home - it’s emotionally and spiritual like experiencing the death of a loved one. The suffering is all too real. We show respect for each other’s dignity, and we give ourselves permission to grieve, by not minimizing the loss.

And if we who were fortunate to stay dry have feelings of “survivor’s guilt,” rather than letting those feelings paralyze us, we do well to channel those feelings into empathy for the grieving and the suffering, and to then translate that empathy into action.

Which leads us to the next point from the letter to the Hebrews.

“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16).

Sometimes we are blessed to give to the church. Sometimes we are fortunate to receive from the church. The devastated need to receive. And those who were fortunate to avoid the floodwaters have not only an opportunity but a moral obligation to give.

Jesus gave himself for us, holding nothing back, but giving his life. Following his example, the Gospel calls us to do good and to share what we have. Every offering - no matter how small it may seem - is important. It makes a difference. May we continue in the coming weeks and months to do good and to share generously in ways that give glory to God.

And then there’s one of the great verses from all of the Bible:

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

Circumstances in our lives will change. There will be good times and bad times. There will be times of joy and times of sorrow. Times of abundance and times of scarcity. And we can’t always predict or control what happens.

But regardless of circumstances, the love of Jesus Christ will never change. That love remains constant and steady. Flood waters can’t wash that away. Nothing in all of creation can ever separate us from the love of God given to us in Jesus Christ.

Regardless of what we’re going through, we can count on Jesus. He is forever faithful and reliable. He will never leave us or forsake us. For he is the Good Shepherd of our souls. He will guide us along the path that leads to new life. He will give us the courage and the perseverance to stay the course as together we rebuild our lives.

So let us not grow weary of doing the good work of loving each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Let us not grow weary in welcoming the stranger into the fold.

Let us not grow weary in showing empathy for the suffering, generously sharing our time, talent, and treasure for the spread of God’s kingdom, and trusting in the love of Christ for each one of us.

For by doing so, we will reap a harvest of blessings (cf. Galatians 6:9). We will fulfill our Lord’s command to love one another as he loves us. And we will strengthen the bonds of affection that unite us to one another and inspire us to live more deeply into our mission of caring for one another, spiritual growth, and bringing others closer to God through Jesus Christ.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon after the Louisiana Flood

Proper 16, Year C

Save me, O God, 
 for the waters have risen up to my neck.

I am sinking in deep mire,
 and there is no firm ground for my feet.

I have come into deep waters,
 and the torrent washes over me. …

Save me from the mire, do not let me sink;
 let me be rescued … out of the deep waters.

Answer me, O LORD, for your love is kind;
 in your great compassion, turn to me. (Psalm 69:1-3, 16, 18)

Since last weekend’s devastating flood, these words from Psalm 69 have been echoing in my mind and heart. They capture the feelings of fear, desperation, and helplessness that so many have felt as rising waters damaged homes and businesses and vehicles, even entire communities, rendering thousands of people homeless and countless others destitute. The sheer magnitude of what has happened and the pressing needs of so many are staggering.

We’ve seen some of the worst that Mother Nature can unleash. And in response, we’ve seen some of the best that people filled with compassion can do.

Until this flood, I’d never heard of the Cajun Navy. It was incredibly moving to see footage of ordinary citizens in our communities hitching boats to their trucks and driving to the flood waters to launch out on search and rescue missions, sometimes for hours at a time, all day and all night. They rescued hundreds - perhaps even thousands - of people and hundreds of pets. And they risked their own lives to do it. They are heroes.

We also give thanks for the Louisiana National Guard. I read that they rescued 19,000 people in flood-affected areas.

Then there are the many individuals and Red Cross workers who have opened up shelters for flood victims. They’ve housed and fed thousands of people, many of whom have lost everything. Everyone who has volunteered in these shelters has saved lives and has brought hope to the hopeless.

There are folks like you who have answered the call to serve by cleaning out flooded houses, making and delivering food, offering shelter in your homes, giving money and gift cards and supplies, referring people to community resources that can help, keeping all persons affected in your prayers, and making it clear that you will be there for those in need for the long haul.

And then there was the outpouring of people from our church, our school, and the larger community who yesterday unloaded supplies from Rome, Georgia for police officer and other families in the community whose homes flooded. People of all ages were down in Witter Hall working hard to unload and sort. It was a truly amazing sight.

I cannot begin to say how proud I am of the many ways that members of St. Luke’s have put their faith into action by loving God and loving our neighbors. You are doing the work of Jesus Christ. You are living sermons that proclaim the Good News that God has come among us in Jesus to rescue and renew.

Many of us have been concerned that the national news media has largely ignored this disaster. But via social media, the word has spread far and wide. I was even contacted by a priest in the Church of Ireland with whom I’ve corresponded over the years. He recently offered Mass for St. Luke’s in Belfast Cathedral. We are remembered by people all over the world who care and who are holding us in their prayers.

A few days after the flooding started, I met an elderly African American lady who had lost everything. And yet, she was filled with faith and hope for the future. Knowing all of the unrest we’ve experienced this summer in Baton Rouge, she looked me in the eyes and said: “I think God wants to use this to bring us all together.”

She’s right. God does want to use this tragedy to bring us all together.

Just as flood waters don’t discriminate on the basis of income, wealth, race, gender, politics, or creed, our call is to care for others regardless of who they are. Just as God reached out to all persons through his Son Jesus, God wants us to reach out in love to everybody who’s hurting and needy.

To do that, we have to rely on our faith and the hope that it gives us for the future. Our ultimate hope is in God. We need to remember how to act on that hope so that it bears the fruits of righteousness in lives restored to fullness of life.

Our scripture reading today from the prophet Isaiah points us in the right direction. It’s a passage that addresses issues God’s people faced when they returned from exile and had to rebuild their lives.

You may recall that in the 6th Century B.C., the Babylonians laid siege to Jerusalem. They demolished the Temple. They destroyed the Davidic monarchy. They hauled the Israelites out of their homes, carrying them off to a place whose language, customs, and religious practices were alien. Losing the land, the monarchy, the Temple, and their homes, the Babylonian Exile destroyed the outward and visible signs of God’s presence and favor. The feelings of abandonment and desolation for the Israelites must have been overwhelming. They lost everything but their lives.

But now, after nearly 60 years of exile, the people have returned to the ruins of their homeland. Now they must begin the long, hard work of rebuilding.

Precisely because the work of beginning again can be so hard, people can get discouraged. Sometimes, in the face of so many needs, people can be tempted to take shortcuts that leave the destitute and the vulnerable behind.

And so, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God offers this counsel to His people:

“If you get rid of unfair practices,
 quit blaming victims,
 quit gossiping about other people’s sins, 
If you are generous with the hungry
 and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, 
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
 your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight. 
I will always show you where to go. 
 I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places -
 firm muscles, strong bones. 
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
 a gurgling spring that never runs dry. 
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
 rebuild the foundations from out of your past. 
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
 restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
 [and] make the community livable again.” 
    (Isaiah 58: 9-12, The Message)

There’s a lot to unpack here. But it can all be summarized by saying: Act justly.

Resist temptations to take moral shortcuts. Don’t take advantage of the vulnerable. Don’t focus on other people’s shortcomings by pointing fingers of blame.

Instead, God calls us in the weeks and months to come to be as generous in responding to needs as we were during and in the immediate aftermath of the flooding.

Feed the hungry. Rescue the oppressed. Befriend the lost and the lonely. Make friends with strangers. And when things get difficult and people make mistakes, resist the temptation to assign blame. Instead of asking who’s right and who’s wrong, ask: Who is hurting? Who is hungry? Who needs a safe place? Who needs help? Reach out with open hands and open hearts.

That’s what it looks like to act justly.

But there’s a second part of God’s counsel to His people who must rebuild their lives and begin again. And that can be summarized by saying: keep Sabbath.

Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, here’s how God puts it:

“If you watch your step on the Sabbath
 and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage, 
If you treat the Sabbath as a day for joy,
 God’s holy day as a celebration, 
If you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’
 making money, running here and there - 
Then you’ll be free to enjoy God!
 Oh, and I’ll make you ride high and soar above it all.” 
   (Isaiah 58:13-14, The Message)

There’s an important reminder here that in the aftermath of disaster and in the midst of rebuilding, it is imperative that we honor God by making time for worship on our Sabbath: Sunday, the Lord’s Day, the day on which we remember and give thanks for the resurrection of Jesus, the One in whom all of our hopes find their fulfillment. For by coming together to worship God, we will find our strength renewed and our hopes for the future restored. We need that if we’re going to move forward together.

I think the call to keep Sabbath also includes the need we all will have in the coming weeks and months to take time out from the busyness and the stress of rebuilding. We must not push ourselves too hard. We must be gentle with ourselves. We must take time for rest. We must make it a priority to take time apart to keep company with God in prayer and meditation on a daily basis, lest we burn ourselves out.

Act justly and keep Sabbath.

That’s God’s counsel to us as we work to begin again.

We are now rebuilding and raising up the foundations for future generations.

We are repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in. And just as God was with His people who had to rebuild in the past, God is with us today.

God will show us where to go.

He will give us fullness of life in even the emptiest of places.

And out of the darkness and destruction, God will bring the beauty and joy of new life for us all.

Stay strong. Keep the faith. Persevere in prayer. Hold on to one another. Act justly. Keep sabbath

And remember that bidden or unbidden, God is among us to comfort and sustain, to guide and protect, and to bring to fulfillment His perfect will for the renewal of all things.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Faith After the Flood

Below are my initial thoughts after the recent devastating flooding in south Louisiana.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. … Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:1-2, 4).

Dear People of God,

The recent devastating flooding that has affected all of our lives has left us shaken, heartbroken, and grieving. So many have suffered damage to homes and the loss of vehicles and treasured possessions. The sheer magnitude of what has happened, and the pressing needs of thousands of people, is staggering. It will take months and perhaps years to fully recover.

It sometimes feels like it’s too much to bear. But we will make it through this. We will do it together as a St. Luke’s church and school family. We will do it as fellow citizens of the great state of Louisiana. And we will do it by relying on our faith in a God who knows us each by name, who loves us, who cherishes us as precious, and who promises that the waters of affliction and the fires of adversity will not take us down.

God will see us through this. He’s already doing it through people who are reaching out in love and concern to all who have been affected. And He will continue to do so by giving us the strength and the perseverance we need to move forward.

As a church, St. Luke’s will continue to find ways to be a part of this important work of living our faith by bringing hope and healing to those needing help to rebuild their lives. So many of you have already participated in those efforts by cleaning out flood-damaged homes, making food, giving money to the clergy discretionary funds, and contributing supplies for needy police officer families. Thank you!

Please continue to be on the lookout for other opportunities to live our faith by reaching out in love to the needy in our church and our community. We will communicate that information via the church website and church emails.

I feel blessed to be a part of the St. Luke’s community. When the call goes out to St. Luke’s to help, you can be counted on to respond. It’s a moving example of putting our faith into action. I am proud of the many ways we are living out our mission of caring for one another as God in Christ cares for us.

As we work our way into the recovery and rebuilding phase of this disaster, I invite you to add the following prayer to your daily prayers:

Dear Lord, we pray for those whose lives have been devastated by rain and flood. Protect the vulnerable. Strengthen the weak. Give comfort to the grieving. Bring relief to the suffering. And may our response to all in need be generous and such as would bring you praise. Amen.

Love and blessings to you all,
Fr. Bryan

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Sermon after Baton Rouge Police Shootings

Many thanks to you all for joining us for today’s Healing Service. We offer this service every Wednesday at this time. It allows us to come together as Christians to bring into God’s presence those things in our lives that are painful and difficult to cope with, and to remember those people in our lives that are in need of healing in body, mind, or spirit.

On this day in particular, we bring into God’s presence our broken hearts, our wounded spirits, and our grieving city.

Everyone who knows what has happened over the last several weeks, culminating in the horrific events of this past Sunday morning, is shaken to the core. For all of us, and perhaps especially those who live in the vicinity of where the shootings occurred, and for all the families of law enforcement officers, it’s felt at times like a war zone. And that’s traumatizing.

Frankly, it’s still hard to believe that all of this has really happened. I sometimes catch myself shaking my head in disbelief. This is not the way things are supposed to be. This is not what God wants for our city, for our state, and for our nation.

People are hurting. People are angry. People are confused. People are scared.

But in the midst of the tragedy and violence that have rocked Baton Rouge, we have also seen great courage and profound love.

Jesus said: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). We saw that love in action this past Sunday morning as police officers ran towards danger, straight into harm’s way, to protect us. Three of those officers made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives out of love for this community. No one has greater love than that. While we are heartbroken by their deaths, we are grateful for their service. We will never forget Deputy Brad Garafola, Officer Matthew Gerald, and Corporal Montrell Jackson.

On behalf of St. Luke’s, let me say to all who serve in law enforcement that we love you, we respect you, we support you. We are thankful for your willingness to risk your lives every day to serve and protect us. And we shall continue to hold in our prayers those who have died, those who were injured, their families, the police and sheriff departments, and this city of Baton Rouge.

What has happened has filled us with anxiety and fear. And there’s fear about could happen next. Considering what we’ve been through, that’s completely understandable. To feel fear is a natural response to such cold and calculating evil.

But my friends, we cannot give in to fear. We cannot let fear define how we respond and how we move forward.

Fear is one of the potent weapons of the Enemy. Because left unchecked, fear will divide us. Left unchecked, fear will pit us against each other. Left unchecked, fear will deepen the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts, and strengthen the walls that separate us.

We cannot let that happen.

Fear will tear us apart.

But love will bring us together.

“There is no fear in love,” John tells us, “but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

And what does “perfect love” look like?

It looks like Jesus.

Perfect love looks like Jesus, who came to seek and to save the lost, the lonely, and the hurting.

Perfect love looks like Jesus, who came to break down the barriers that divide us.

Perfect love looks like Jesus, who reached out to strangers to draw them into the family of God.

Perfect love looks like Jesus, who reached out to enemies to make them friends.

Perfect love looks like Jesus, who was willing to sacrifice his life so that we may live.

Perfect love looks like Jesus, who turned an instrument of shameful torture and death into a throne of glory.

Jesus casts out fear. Because Jesus is the incarnation of God. And God is love.

The love of Jesus dispels the darkness with light and casts the fear from our hearts.

The love of Jesus brings us together.

The love of Jesus gives us hope for the future.

The love of Jesus will carry us through this, making us stronger and more determined than ever before to uniting as one family of God throughout this city of Baton Rouge.

“I appointed you to go and bear fruit,” Jesus said, “fruit that will last” (John 15:16).

Jesus has appointed you and me to go and bear the fruit of living his love. It’s a love that casts out fear and brings people together. It’s a love that gives us a foretaste of what it will be like when God’s kingdom has come on earth as it is in heaven. It’s a love that foreshadows the creation of a Beloved Community of all races and nations that gather in harmony around God’s throne.

So let us offer our fears and our anxieties.

Let us offer our prayers for peace and unity.

Let us offer our prayers for hope and healing.

Let us ask for the courage and humility to reach out and form relationships with people in this community who differ from us, trusting that they’re just friends we haven’t yet met.

And let us trust that God will take all that we offer, bless it, and then give us in return the strength and the grace we need to be lights that shine in the darkness with his love and healing grace.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

"Go and Do Likewise": Being Good Samaritans in a Time of Social Strife

Below is the text of my sermon for Sunday, July 10. I preached this sermon in the wake of the shootings in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas, and the protests that began occurring across the nation (including here in Baton Rouge just up the street from St. Luke’s at the intersection of Goodwood Boulevard and Airline Highway). Of course, much more can and perhaps should be said. But this sermon is an initial attempt to offer a biblically faithful pastoral response. I share it in the hope that all of us will continue to pray and work for the peace, healing, reconciliation, and justice that God wills.

This past week I wrote what I thought was a really nice sermon for today. It had an attention-getting introduction, a body that developed themes from the scripture readings with practical application for daily life, and a conclusion that tied it all together. It was a nice package. I was looking forward to sharing it with you all.

But by Friday afternoon, after the heart-breaking and tragic events of days earlier, as helicopters circled over St. Luke’s and our neighborhood, and protesters gathered at the intersection of Goodwood and Airline, I realized that I just could not deliver it.

I’m sure we’re all aware of the recent shootings in Baton Rouge and in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota involving police officers. And then there was the horrific incident in Dallas in which 5 police officers were murdered and 7 others wounded. Many are calling it the most deadly attack on police since 9/11.

People are angry. People are anxious. People are scared.

There’s a depth of pain and anguish in our communities that only God can fully understand.

Please pray.

Pray for those who died. Pray for those who were injured. Pray for all who mourn.

Pray for those who feel shut out and ignored.

Pray for the fearful, the lost, and the lonely.

Pray for everyone serving in law enforcement, and especially our neighbors at the Police Department. They put their lives on the line every day to serve and protect us. It’s been a particularly anxious and difficult time lately for them and for their families. Pray for their safety.

And pray that cool heads will prevail over hot tempers.

I really don’t know how to adequately respond to everything that’s happened. I certainly don’t have all the answers. And I’m definitely not interested in political spin.

As a priest and as a pastor, my concern is for the wounded hearts and souls of people who need the comfort and hope that only Jesus Christ can give. My concern is that we find ways to connect the hope we have in Christ with the realities of daily life, including the awful things that have recently happened in our community and our nation.

I believe that as persons of faith, it’s important to address painful matters. And that we do so with humility and with the willingness to work together for the common good. Authentic Christian faith must be willing to face the realities of this world - the good, the bad, and the ugly - with honesty and with a message of hope that brings people together in loving service to God and neighbor.

Christianity calls us not to escape from the world but to engage the world. The world is fallen. The world is broken. The world is enslaved to powers that corrupt and destroy God’s creatures. The world needs saving.

The truth of the Gospel revealed in Jesus Christ shows a better way. It’s a way of hope, healing, love, justice, and peace. It’s a way of salvation that God has initiated and that God will bring to fulfillment. And we are invited to be a part of God’s great work of salvation.

We can be confident that this is true because we believe in a God who faced the horrors of Good Friday and rose victorious over the grave on Easter Sunday.

As Easter people living in a Good Friday world, we believe in a God who dispels darkness with light. We believe in a God who trumps hate with love. We believe in God who brings peace out of strife. We believe in a God who transforms enemies into friends. We believe in a God who triumphs over death with eternal life.

Today’s Gospel reading speaks to us about what it means to live as Easter people in a Good Friday world. It’s one of Jesus’ most famous stories. And it begins with an act of brutal violence.

A man was traveling to Jericho from Jerusalem when he got waylaid by robbers. They beat him up, stole everything he had, and then left him on the side of the road half dead.

Some time later, a priest came down the road. But when he saw the injured man on the roadside, he passed by on the other side. The same thing happened when a Levite came down the road. Both turned a blind eye and walked away, leaving the man to die.

But then a Samaritan showed up. When he saw the injured man, “he was moved with pity” (Luke 10:33). And so he went to the man’s aid, tended his wounds, took him to the safety of an inn, and paid for any further expenses.

We may have heard this story so many times that we’ve forgotten how shocking and offensive it would have been to Jesus’ Jewish audience. And that’s because hatred between Jews and Samaritans had been heated and long-standing. Jews didn’t have any dealings with Samaritans. They detested Samaritans for their mixed marriages and heretical religious practices. They regarded them as racially, ethnically, and religiously inferior. And Samaritans felt just as much bitterness and hatred towards Jews.

The walls of bitterness, suspicion, fear, and hatred between Jews and Samaritans had been in place by Jesus’ day for over 500 years. So Jesus’ story of a Samaritan’s act of reaching out to help an injured Jew flew in the face of long-standing prejudices and social conventions.

In Jesus’ parable, the Samaritan saw - not a label or a category, not an enemy, not someone to fear or hate - no, the Samaritan simply saw a human being who was suffering. A human being in pain. A human being in need of help. And what he saw moved the Samaritan with compassion to reach out with love and kindness across the barriers dividing his people from the Jewish people.

Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that all people are our neighbors. And just as Jesus’ hearers were surprised by the Samaritan’s act of kindness, we who call Jesus Lord and Savior are called to surprise the world by reaching out in love when everybody else expects us to hate.

There have been many voices clamoring for our attention over the past several days. And those voices will continue to speak in the days to come. Whether on television, social media, or in the depths of our anxious hearts - those voices come from many people and places. It can be confusing.

But as disciples of Jesus Christ, we have clarity. For we know that any voice that calls for hatred contradicts the Gospel. Any voice that dehumanizes people contradicts the Gospel. Any voice that whips up fear and seeks to pit people against each other contradicts the Gospel. Any voice that encourages violence to persons or property contradicts the Gospel.

We do well to shut those voices out and listen instead to the voice of the One who points to the good Samaritan and says, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

“Go and feel compassion for those who suffer.”

“Go and treat all persons, particularly those who are in need, as your neighbors, and do what you can to assist them.”

“Go and look beyond labels and stereotypes to see others as human beings.”

“Go and treat everybody with love, dignity, and respect.”

Putting Jesus’ teaching into practice by doing what the Samaritan did is not easy. It requires courageous faith. We have to be willing to trust that the power of God’s love is stronger than hatred, stronger than fear, stronger than prejudice, and stronger than violence. And we have to muster up the courage to act on that trust.

We can be confident that God’s love really is that strong. For through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s love has forever triumphed over sin, evil, and death. And in the end, God’s love will wipe away every tear, calm every fear, and make all things right.

May God grant us the courage to share His love with others so that the world may see and know the truth that the way of Jesus Christ brings salvation, everlasting life, and peace.

May we be agents of healing and reconciliation in this community.

And may God pour out his saving grace in our city, in our nation, and in the world.

Monday, May 2, 2016

N. T. Wright: What is the Gospel?

"In and through Jesus the living God opened the great door of his new world, which he's been intending to make, and invited us all to come through it with him." - N. T. Wright

Monday, April 11, 2016

Sermon for Easter 3C 2016

Easter 3C

Back in my middle school days, during the summers I often attended a Christian camp on the Mississippi Gulf coast. It was for all ages, so there were little kids, teens, and adults in attendance. For a week we all lived together immersed in fellowship activities, Bible studies, and worship, and we had access to a beautiful beach. The week culminated with a worship service that included an opportunity to publicly recommit our lives to Christ.

The week was a powerful religious experience. The sense of God’s love and presence was so real! At the time, it felt life-changing. But after making the long drive back home, returning to the routines of daily life, and certainly by the time school started, the experience began to fade as things went back to “normal.”

I’ll bet that many of us have had similar experiences. Whether it’s going on a retreat, attending a workshop, participating in a worship service, or in any number of other ways, it can feel like God is the most real thing imaginable and that our lives will never be the same. Then after a few days or weeks, we find ourselves back where we started, and the original power of the experience becomes a memory.

Something similar has happened in today’s Gospel reading.

It’s now been perhaps a few weeks since the awful events of Good Friday and the glorious miracle of Easter Sunday. The disciples have personally encountered the risen Jesus on two occasions. It’s hard to imagine what that must have been like. They watched as the man they had followed and loved for three years was arrested, tortured, and executed as a common criminal. They knew that his dead body had been laid in a tomb. They had cowered in fear for their lives, certain that the same authorities that killed Jesus would come for them next. And in the midst of their fear and grief there was guilt and shame for having betrayed and abandoned their master. It seemed that the power of darkness had won.

And then their world was turned upside down. First, it was a strange message from some of the women who had discovered Jesus’ tomb empty. Strangers had told them that he had risen. And then Jesus appeared to them. He was not a ghost or a phantom. He was truly alive again as a whole person. God had raised Jesus from the dead. And by raising Jesus from the dead, God had begun the work of fulfilling the ancient prophecies of creating a new heaven and a new earth, a world no longer held in bondage to the tyrannies of disease, death, and decay. In a surprise move that nobody expected, the light of life had defeated the darkness of death.

By encountering the risen Jesus, the disciples had been raised from the depths of despair to the glorious heights of joy, new life, and renewed hope for the future.

But somehow, after a few weeks, that initial experience - and the feelings of euphoria and sense of purpose it brought - began to fade.

And so one day Peter said to the other disciples, “I’m going fishing. Want to come along?”

By going fishing, Peter was not taking a break for a favorite hobby. Instead, he was going back to his old way of life as a fisherman. It’s almost as though the past three years of following Jesus, and the joyful experience of meeting him alive again after his death, had never happened. For Peter was returning to the life he knew before he ever met Jesus, a life he was comfortable with, a life that wasn’t always easy and certainly required hard work, but was at least more predictable than following a rabbi who whips up controversy, creates enemies among the powerful, and then gets crucified.

But Jesus wasn’t going to let Peter slide back into the old status quo. He had other things in mind for Peter.

And so Jesus showed up again, revealing himself to be the source of abundant life with the disciples’ miraculous catch of fish. And then, in an act of humble service and hospitality, Jesus invited the disciples to share breakfast, cooking fish and breaking bread with them on the seashore.

Just as Peter denied knowing Jesus three times while warming himself at a charcoal fire, Peter now expressed his love for Jesus three times over breakfast at a charcoal fire. Jesus offered Peter forgiveness, restored fellowship with him, fed and nurtured him, and then commissioned him. Jesus transformed Peter from a lowly fisherman into a shepherd of the sheep. Jesus empowered Peter to become a leader within the household of God who would nurture, feed, lead, and guide others along the pathway of discipleship, energizing and spreading a movement for God’s kingdom that would change the world.

On any given day, we may not always feel it. It may not seem real. Or maybe it once did but that seems like so long ago. Or there may be doubts and questions about it that give us pause. Or we may suffer from a lack of self-confidence that makes us hesitant to fully own it.

But the truth is this: to encounter the risen Jesus, to share his death and resurrection in baptism, to be fed by him in the Eucharist, to receive his forgiveness and love, is to be changed from the persons we once were.

The old way of life governed by anxiety, driven by self-centered protectiveness, and fearful of being vulnerable enough to open our doors and our hearts to anyone and everyone - including especially the strangers in our midst - that way of life died with Jesus on the cross.

And with the resurrection of Jesus, a new way of life has been born - a life governed by love and trust, driven by the desire to share the Good News of Jesus, and open to touching and being touched by the lives of anyone we meet in the hopeful expectation that such encounters will tear down walls of fear and mistrust, and widen the circle of love and fellowship in God’s kingdom.

You and I may not share the same status as those first apostles whose preaching and teaching transformed the Roman Empire and ultimately changed the world. But, like Peter, we are called by God to use the gifts we’ve been given to care for and feed the flock of Christ.

What that looks like will differ from person to person. It may mean teaching a Sunday school class, or being a teacher in our Day School. Or serving as an usher, a greeter, or an acolyte. It could mean becoming a Lay Eucharistic Visitor who takes the Blessed Sacrament to the sick and the shut in. Or serving as a lector or chalice bearer. Or serving on the Altar Guild or singing in the choir.

But it’s not just about particular works of church-related ministry. Responding to Jesus’ call to watch out for each other, to care for each other, to feed and nurture each other, and to welcome everyone as He welcomes us is a full-time, comprehensive way of life. It’s about being changed into persons who think more about the needs of others than ourselves. It’s about being disciples of Jesus Christ.

Thinking this through, Christian author Thom Rainer says that we need to recover “the biblical understanding of what it means to be a part of the body of Christ.” He writes:

“We join our churches expecting others to serve us, to feed us, and to care for us. … [But] God did not give us local churches to become country clubs where membership means we have privileges and perks. He placed us in churches to serve, to care for others, to pray for leaders, to learn, to teach, to give, and, in some cases, to die for the sake of the gospel.”

Many of you are familiar with a prayer attributed to St. Francis. It beautifully summarizes the heart and soul of what it looks like to follow Jesus. As I share this prayer with you, I invite you to listen carefully to the words. Meditate on their meaning. Let the words speak to the depths of your heart and soul. And, like Peter, I invite you to be open to hearing how God is calling you to let go of old ways of life to embrace the new resurrection way of life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Let us pray:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let us sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is discord, union.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy.

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console.

To be understood as to understand.

To be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

N. T. Wright: "This is the Christian gospel"

The good news is that the one true God has now taken charge of the world in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection. The ancient hopes were indeed fulfilled, but in a way nobody had imagined. God's plan to put the whole world right had finally been launched. God had grasped the world in a new way to sort it out and fill it with his glory and justice as he'd always promised. But he had done so in a way beyond the wildest dreams of prophecy. The ancient sickness which had crippled the whole world and humans with it had been cured at last so that new life could rise up in its place. Life itself has come to life and is pouring out like a mighty river into the world in the form of a new power, the power of love. The good news was and is that all this has happened in and through Jesus, and that one day it will happen utterly and completely to the whole creation, and that we humans - every single one of us, whoever we are - can be caught up in that transformation here and now. This is the Christian gospel. Don't let yourself be fobbed off with anything less. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Sermon for Easter Day 2016

It’s amazing the difference one word can make in the meaning of a sentence or phrase.

That really hit home for me many years ago when I was serving a small church in Mississippi. It was Easter Day and the church was packed. It was time for the service to begin. The choir was lined up for the procession into the church. The prelude was coming to a close and the organist was playing the first notes of the opening hymn. Reading what was printed in the bulletin, I saw that the way we were kicking off our Easter celebration, the song that would unite our voices to joyfully proclaim the triumphant heart of our faith, was by singing:

“Jesus Christ IF risen today.”

Of all the bulletin bloopers I’ve seen over the years, that’s one of my favorites.

“If risen” versus “Is risen” - one word makes all the difference in the world. One word moves us from a place of hesitation, doubt, and even despair to faith, hope, and new life.

But we have to start where the first disciples started. And that’s with an obvious fact: Jesus really and truly died on the cross. His lifeless body was laid in a tomb. The women who got up early on the first day of the week were expecting to anoint a dead body. There was no wishful thinking on their part as though some of them might have been saying, “Well, sure, Jesus was crucified and died two days ago, but he might be alive again.” Like everybody who’s ever lived, those women knew that dead people stay dead. End of story. 

And so, when they discovered an empty tomb, they didn’t respond with joy. Instead, as Luke tells us, “they were perplexed about this” (Lk 24:4). They were confused. Something was clearly wrong. They were probably wondering if somebody had stolen Jesus’ body. But before they could speculate about what had happened, Luke tells us that “two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them” (Lk 24:4). Stricken with terror, the women fell to the ground. And that’s when they heard the first Easter proclamation as the strangers said: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen” (Lk 24:5). 

“He has risen.” 

That was a mind-blowing message that collided head-on with the facts about life and death. That a man whom everyone knew had died and been buried was alive again - it made no sense. 

No doubt, these women were more perplexed now than when they first discovered an empty tomb. With hearts filled with grief, fear, and wonder, they hurried back to the disciples to tell them what had happened. And in response, Luke tells us that “these words seemed to [the disciples] an idle tale and they did not believe them” (Lk 24:11). 

The disciples’ first response to the Easter message was unbelief. They couldn’t accept such a far-fetched story. Because everybody knows that death is a one-way street. 

But in spite of the doubts, in spite of how crazy it sounded, the message stirred something deep inside of Peter. He had to check it out. For what if it actually turned out to be true? What if Jesus really had been raised from the dead? And so Peter ran to the tomb to see for himself. But like the women, all Peter got was a confirmation that the tomb was empty. 

In the Gospel reading for today, the women and the male disciples didn’t actually get to see the risen Jesus for themselves. They did not get to hear his voice, see his face, or reach out to touch him to confirm that he was risen. All they had to go on was a message, a word about Easter. They were confronted with the choice of either rejecting that message as utterly absurd and ridiculous, or embracing it in faith as the most important truth ever proclaimed in the history of the world. 

Gathered here in church, you and I are in the same position as those women and men on that first Easter morning so long ago. We, too, are confronted by a message that defies logic and common sense. We are also invited to ask the same questions that moved Peter’s heart: “But what if it’s really true? What if Jesus really did rise from the dead?” And based upon the testimony of those first Christians who did eventually see Jesus alive again, we are encouraged by the Church to move from fear, doubt, and unbelief to a faith that commits our lives to Jesus as the crucified and risen Christ of God. 

For if it’s really true that Christ is risen, then everything changes. 

If Christ is risen - if God really raised the dead Jesus from the grave with a body no longer subject to disease, death, and decay - then a revolution akin to overturning the law of gravity has been unleashed into the world. Death is no longer a one-way, dead-end street, but instead a doorway into eternal life. 

If Christ is risen, then everyone baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection shares in his victory over death. And for those who have died in the Lord, life is changed, not ended. This means that those we love but see no longer are not forever lost, but are resting safely in the loving presence of a living Lord. 

If Christ is risen, then the prophet Isaiah’s vision of God creating “new heavens and a new earth” has already started (Is 65:17). For by raising Jesus, God has given us a foretaste of what it looks like for those ancient promises to be fulfilled. It looks like a world that knows no weeping, hurting, or destruction, but instead is filled with life, security, abundance, loving communion between God and humanity, and the righting of all wrongs in eternal peace and harmony. 

If Christ is risen, then might does not make right. Instead, Jesus’ way of love, mercy, and forgiveness stands eternally vindicated as the God-approved way to abundant life for everyone. 

There’s no doubt about it: the Easter message turns the world upside down. It flies in the face of experience and common sense. It mocks the pretensions of human wisdom. It undermines our faith in the all-sufficiency of reason. It boldly announces that a Power has been unleashed into this world against which tyrants and bullies, sickness and disease, loss and grief, fear and shame, sin and evil, and death and decay are powerless. 

And it also underscores a beautiful truth: that God loves this world in all of its dazzling diversity, and that God loves each and every one of us, so very much that He will go to any lengths for our salvation, including suffering the ravages of death and hell so that we don’t have to. 

My friends, we are not gathered today to “to enshrine the dead Jesus in the tomb of memory.” On the contrary, we are gathered to celebrate the surprising victory of God over the forces of evil and death through the resurrection of his only Son. We are gathered to renew our trust in the power of God’s love, a love that death can not contain. We are gathered to celebrate our faith in a risen Lord. 

For Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and bestowing life upon those in the grave. 

There is no longer anything to fear. For the tomb is empty. The Lord is risen. Death has lost its sting. God’s plan to heal and redeem all of creation is underway. And our lives are now “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). 

And so we can say with the Psalmist: “On this day the LORD has acted; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118:24).