“And I won the footrace!”

Easter Morning Sermon: John 20:1-18 – “And I won the footrace!”

A curious thing happened at the tomb.

Obviously, we celebrate the empty tomb.  We celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, we celebrate our salvation.  We celebrate our God rising from the dead and defeating death itself.  We celebrate everything about that empty tomb.

He is risen!  Alleluia!

But this curious thing happens, and the author of John – “The Beloved Disciple” – seems to gloss over it.

Mary arrives to prepare her friend for his final resting place.  She goes to his tomb the first moment the “Law” allows so she can give her friend care and compassion one last time.  She comes in love, ready to complete this awful and yet wonderful task for her friend.

And she finds an empty tomb!  Not the curious part I mentioned, but still very curious and very important.  She arrives to find a missing body.  She assumes – quite logically – someone stole the body.  So, she runs to Peter and “the beloved disciple” for help.

The men race to the tomb, and “the beloved disciple” – again, the author of this gospel – made sure anyone who reads this gospel knows he arrived first.  “The Beloved Disciple” and Peter both see the missing body – or rather do not see it – and then they believed Jesus’ body had disappeared.

For some reason they seemed to not believe Mary Magdalene – or at least doubt her – when she told them upon arriving wherever they were staying – and most likely hiding – but when they saw, they believed he disappeared.

And then they left.

Hence forth I will call them cowards because they ran in fear.  Read ahead to Jesus revealing himself to the disciples; he appeared as they hid behind a locked door, Peter and “The Beloved Disciple” hiding right along with the rest.

Peter and “The Beloved Disciple” saw the same things Mary Magdalene saw, they the same things she experienced, and they were men with at least one sword between them, giving them much greater ability to deal with a Roman or Jewish Leadership attack.

And they just finished spending three years with Jesus and devoting their entire lives to him.  The author calls himself “The Beloved Disciple.”  They should have felt some desire – or at least obligation – to find their friend’s missing body, or at least help Mary Magdalene figure out exactly what happened.

And they left like cowards.

Honestly, though, that should not raise eyebrows.  They acted like humans, like each one of us would in their situation.  They acted like their human selves.

I would have proved myself a coward in the exact same way.  I would never stand around and wait for the Romans to arrest or murder me while I figure out what happened to the body of my dead friend, and I would never wait for the Jewish leaders to lead a crowd to stone me.

Missing body, missing Robby.  Period.  They did nothing curious.

But Mary Magdalene does something very curious at the tomb: she stayed despite having every reason to run because her compassion for her friend outweighed the real, actual, logical fear she definitely felt.  She loved Jesus greatly, and she wanted to serve him one last time by giving him the final gift she could before they sealed him away for his final rest.

That should fascinate you.  The men from Jesus’ inner circle had too much fear and cowardice to show their dead friend the same level of compassion, but this loving woman risked her safety and possibly her life to show compassion and love to their dead friend.

Then Jesus does something equally curious: he appeared to Mary Magdalene first.

Why would he choose Mary Magdalene?  I cannot know for sure, but I believe he chose her in part because she showed him compassion and acted fearlessly in this moment.

She should have run.  She should have protected herself.  By staying, she placed herself in grave danger and did the exact opposite of the rational course of action.  She showed Jesus an irrational amount of love, even after his death, and I believe he rewarded and honored her love and compassion.

I believe Mary Magdalene saw Jesus first because she chose to show love and compassion instead of listening to her fear.

Part of this scene’s curiosity comes from Jesus revealing himself to a woman, a woman no one would believe.  In the patriarchal Jewish society under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire, a poor, Jewish woman had no power and no voice.

And Jesus chose to reveal himself to this woman first.

A very curious scene has unfolded alongside the curious event of Jesus’ resurrection.  Neither Jesus nor Mary do anything proper or what a rational, logical, worldly person would have done.  The whole interaction reeks of curious madness.

And perfection.

Maybe we need to stop looking for rationale or reason or logic and just love and care for each other.  Maybe we should express the most compassion and love we can without any motive or method apart from compassion and love.

Just love and show compassion to each other.

I find myself, as I think about just doing the compassionate, loving thing despite it going against logic, reason, and worldly instruction, looking towards Fred Rogers and how he served those who needed love.  A documentary about Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood comes out in the summer, and the trailer itself has a wonderfulness that speaks to me.

In it, producer Margy Whitmer describes what Fred Rogers did to make his show:

“You take all of the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite; you have ‘Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.’  Low production values, simple set, an unlikely star, yet it worked.”

Fred Rogers did nothing right according to the standards of television, ratings, and entertainment, instead just doing what the children who watched his show needed.  Glory, honor, fame, riches, and security did not matter to Fred Rogers.  He simply desired to show compassion and love to children who needed it.

In his words, “And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved and capable of loving.”

Logic, rationale, effectiveness, safety, security, and comfort are all important, but they must take a back seat to showing compassion and love.  Forget what the world or the church or anyone else tells you to do, forget your selfish desires, forget “the right thing.”  Literally, we need to live in the example of Jesus, and of Mary Magdalene, and of Fred Rogers: act in love and compassion, without other motive or method, and outside of fear.

Peter and “The Beloved Disciple” ran in fear; Mary Magdalene stayed in love.

Forget fear; show love.  Amen.

THE NOTE:  I don’t preach from a manuscript; it’s something I gave up in the past couple of years ago to challenge myself and open myself to interacting with the congregation more.  My effectiveness instantly grew in spite of my delivery suffering.

Effectiveness over pride.  I’m less eloquent, but the Word is preached better.

Grace has a tradition that speaks to my soul, though.  I believe that there should always be an entry point to worship for everyone, in this case those who are hard of hearing or home-bound.   They have a printed manuscript available for those who struggle to hear and they send a manuscript to those who can’t attend.

You probably see my dilemma: no manuscript, no manuscript to print and give out.  So I decided to create a written version of my sermons.  Same basic outline, but in a smoother style of writing instead of the conversational style my delivery has.  It’s a good happy-medium and, as I said, provides the entry point to worship.

I’ve had a huge uptick in subscriptions despite writing very little, and I do a lot of writing for like 10 pairs of eyes, so I decided that I would start putting my manuscripts on the blog like I have done in the past with previous blogs (including this blog’s predecessor).

If you happen upon this little corner of the internet and have strong feelings about it, let me know.

Peace,
– Robby

My Stupid Expectations

So I have this voice in the back of my head that won’t stop repeating itself over and over again.

“It’s Easter; you’re sermon better be perfect!”

This voice never shuts up; every week, it’s either criticizing me because the sermon got done late, is going to be too long or too short, it is poorly exegeted, ad nauseam until it tries to convince me I’m a giant fraud.

I hope that’s not just me because otherwise this turned into a giant confession.  Oops.

Anyway, most weeks I can point my finger at the voice, tell it that it’s a dirty liar, and then go on with my life.  It never shuts up, but at least I convince it I’m actually in charge.

This week is different.  That voice is loud, and it has the advantage; Easter is important, and it decided to use that to break down my confidence.

“It’s Easter; that isn’t an Easter sermon!  You aren’t talking about salvation enough!  Now you’re looking only at salvation and missing any other message!  Wait, now you’ve forgotten salvation!  Where’s the empty tomb, moron?!?  That’s the same sermon they hear every year!  That’s a sermon they’ve never heard because it’s terrible!”

It’s like the importance of the day gave it a shot of steroids and made it mad.  And I listen because I’m a people-pleaser and the voice in the back of my head is someone to please, I suppose.

I swear this has a point other than me whining.

That voice has a purpose.  It does, in fact, make me strive for better sermons.  Every once in a great while the voice hits the nail on the head and makes me re-evaluate.  Even today it made me look deeper into a passage I’ve probably read a thousand times and find that thread I had never seen before.

But then it started yelling at me that I’m not allowed to preach on that!

I have this expectation that I will give the very best sermon of my career every week, and that my sermon will be the best sermon anyone hears in any congregation anywhere in the world.  I’ve worked on that expectation somewhat, but still the voice that makes me expect that of myself still lingers.

Growing up, my pastors always said that if they weren’t nervous walking into the pulpit, it was time to quit, and I have taken that to heart and applied it to myself.  And every week, painfully over-prepared or woefully under-prepared, I feel about the same level of nerves.

But my CPE supervisor said something to me that I have wrestled with since: he doesn’t get nervous preaching.  He said there’s a 50% chance he gives a great sermon, and a 50% chance he gives a terrible sermon, and that’s pretty much irrelevant because of the Holy Spirit.

Now, I don’t take that to the farthest conclusion, but I know if I’m being faithful, the Word will be preached.  I just need to drop the expectation that every week will be a master-class in preaching.

Or any week.  They can’t all be zingers, or even most.

Drop the silly perfection expectations for this week.  Yes, the Easter event defines our salvation and makes us Christians.  No, my Easter service does not.

Shut up, voice in the back of my head.

Peace,
– Robby

The Women

It’s Tuesday, which means it’s time for me to muse about what my sermon on Sunday is going to look like.  Aren’t you lucky?

To sum up where I’ve been throughout this Lenten series, here is a list of the people I’ve focused on, in order:

The Bystanders, The 12 as a whole, Peter, John, Judas, and The Jewish Leadership.

This week I was going to just do Mary, Mother of Jesus, but I realized something: we have a grand total of 3 verse that have anything to do with just Mary, mother of Jesus.  I can speculate on what she is feeling, but only as an outside without any real experience to empathize with her.  I can pretend I know the pain of child loss, especially senseless child loss, but I can’t actually empathize.  “Mary was at the cross, she was sad, and John took her as his mother,” it a pretty short and crappy sermon.

Though a short sermon gets the families home for ham sooner.  So maybe…..?

So I thought about this for a bit and I decided we have a lot of women in the gospel story of Holy Week.  Off the top of my head, we have Mary brother of Lazarus, Martha, Mary mother of Jesus, Mary Madeline, and the other women who were watching the tomb.  Women play just a pivotal role in Christ’s death and resurrection and this entire event would be entirely different if they weren’t involved.

I’m going to try to go in chronological order with the women.  How that will look as a practical matter is still to be determined but as a broad concept, I want to tell the story of Holy Week from the eyes of these women.  What did they experience, what did they feel, why did they do the things they did?

The first, then, is obviously Mary brother of Lazarus.  I touched on this part of the story with my Judas sermon but Mary brings a whole different view.  I find it interesting that she seems to know what is going on before even Jesus’ betrayer does.  She seems to understand that his end has come.  This is really her way of mourning, her way of giving Christ an amazing gift at the end of his life, her way of accepting his death.

I am reminded of lesson I got in seminary about funeral honorariums.  A lot of people in the class, myself included, initially thought that doing a funeral for a member of the congregation was just part of the job.  We certainly wouldn’t ask for honorariums and would have a hard time taking them.  (Oh, how innocent and pure we were as Juniors.)  Then we were hit with a stark reality check: the honorarium is a way for the family to thank you for helping them mourn.  In essence, it is part of the mourning process.  To deny them that is to deny them healthy mourning.

So, applying it to here, we have become Judases if we refuse to allow them to present their gifts of mourning.  We may not do it out of greed, but we have decided we know better what they should do with their money, and we’ve put our own desires above theirs.

So Mary is mourning in a beautiful way.  And Martha isn’t, focusing on fixing the meal and working.  So much could be said about that, but I’ll simply put this in there: people mourn in different ways.  Not every way is healthy, not every way is proper, but each of us mourns differently.  What Martha missed, though, is allowing herself to enjoy the company she had and instead worried so much about the appearance and the work that she missed the opportunity to mourn with Jesus.  Still need to flush that out some more.

Then we have Mary mother of Christ at the cross.  I don’t even know if I have words; maybe silence will speak louder than I ever could.  A moment for mourning, both for Christ and for those who we have lost.  A time of mourn.

Then we have Mary Magdalene.  Who went to prepare the body.  Who found the tomb empty.  Whom Jesus appeared to first.

I am reminded of Lamb by Christopher Moore.  Now, I won’t talk about any romantic feelings between Mary and Jesus, going one or both directions, but I think I can safely say she has a devotion to him that the other disciples and followers did not.  I would argue that she is probably his closest companion.  There is something special between them, and I can’t help but think that Moore touches on it better than anyone.  Even if she is madly in love with him (entirely possible – Jesus is pretty awesome), she knows who he is and knows, at least in her soul, how this is going to end.  You don’t fall in love with Jesus and expect a long, happy life.  If nothing else, the Pharisees have given her ample reason to fear Jesus’ death.  I don’t see anything in scripture that lets me think she was shocked or surprised by his death.

Pained, jarred, and saddened?  Absolutely.  Shocked?  Probably not.

His resurrection, though, that was pretty amazing and shocking.  What I think we need to focus on, given her devotion, is that she didn’t recognize Jesus even when she was so devoted.  If his closest companion, the woman whom so much is written and speculated about the nature of their relationship, cannot recognize him, the change that happened was miraculous.  He was no longer the same man.  His resurrection was so healing and transformative that the new cannot be recognized as the old.

We are so changed by Christ.  Whenever someone interprets new life as a Spring thing, with baby chicks and bunnies, I want to scream.  The new life is not a birth; it is a rebirth.  It is taking something that was before Christ and transforming it into its perfect form.  Christ was transformed from is flawed body into a perfect version of his human self.  Radical transformation.

So yeah, that’s where we’re going.  From a point of mourning to a point of radical transformation given out of radical love.  It’s ought to be a decent sermon.

To preaching and sharing the Word.

– Robby