Breaking the Pattern: A Sermon for Easter Sunday

medium_4334715768 MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church April 20, 2014 Easter Sunday Matthew 28:1-10 

28:1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 28:2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 28:3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 28:4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 28:5 But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 28:6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 28:7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you." 28:8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 28:9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 28:10 Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

Sermon audio is here (for a few months anyway--our free account only keeps the most recent 10 sermons)


I have a quiz for you… let’s see whether your brains are sluggish from too much Easter candy. What is distinctive about these phrases?

Do, O God, no evil deed! Live on! Do good!

Ma is as selfless as I am.

Was it a car or a cat I saw?

Lonely Tylenol.

A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.

Yes, these are all palindromes. Palindromes are words or phrases that read the same forwards or backwards. So if you read any of these phrases from right to left (and disregarding the spaces) you'll see the same phrase.

What you may not know is that this is palindrome week. All week long the dates have been the same backwards and forwards. Read them left to right or right to left, the numbers are the same:

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 4.33.06 PM

Each of these dates reads the same frontwards or backwards. 4-1-2-1-4. And the same would be true the next day. And the next and the next, all week long, April 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19. (Yes, it takes a special kind of nerd to figure this out. I’m just the kind of nerd who enjoys it.)

There’s something very satisfying about a palindrome. It’s very clever when you spot it. There’s an internal pattern to it. Whichever direction you start reading, you’ll end up with the same message. It’s like a seesaw that’s perfectly balanced. There’s this sense of perfection—a statement that’s the same no matter how you look at it.

But you will notice that palindrome week ended today, April 20. 4-20-14 is no longer a palindrome. That pattern has been broken.

And that’s not just a numerical statement. That is a theological statement.

Because today isn’t just April 20, it’s Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday, the day that breaks the old pattern. All of the days leading up to this one had their own logic and coherence. The world worked a certain way, backwards, forwards, however you looked at it… but on Resurrection Sunday, everything is turned upside down.

*          *          *

It is daybreak in Jerusalem. The sun is almost ready to spill its gold on the horizon. Maybe there is a mist on the ground, but it is not yet light enough for that mist to bathe the world in a holy glow. Instead that mist hangs over the city and countryside like a shroud.

It is daybreak, after the longest and saddest sabbath Mary and her friends had ever had.

Their friend and teacher had been arrested, beaten, humiliated and executed. His body had been anointed for burial and placed in a cave. The women make their way there, knowing what they will find: a stone rolled in front of the mouth of that cave with all the finality and silence of the whole world.

And as if the stone were not enough, there are guards. The poor women can’t even grieve in privacy, they have to deal with these agents of Rome, these smirking guards, who may have been the same ones who shoved a crown of thorns on Jesus’ head, the ones who divvied up his clothes two days before.

And yet the women come. In Matthew’s telling, they don’t come to anoint the body—that’s already been done. They don’t come with any purpose whatsoever.

They just come to Jesus’ grave, for the same reason that we visit cemeteries clutching tulips and hyacinths, or listen to the song that we danced to at the wedding, or make the Coca-Cola ham just like mother used to.

Because that’s what love and grief require of us.

But the women don’t have any expectation that something unexpected will happen. They know what they’ll find there. Grief, it seems, is its own sad palindrome—look at it frontwards, or backwards, it’s still the same message:

Dead is dead. The lost ones stay lost. There is no second chance. The person is gone and there’s no bringing them back.

Except. Except. Except the pattern gets broken this one time. This one time, two thousand years ago, a messenger comes and rolls up his dazzling white sleeves. This one time this ambassador from the heavens puts his shoulder against that rock and strains and grunts to move it… or maybe he just flicks it with the power of his angelic fingers. This one time he climbs atop the rock, straddles it like a child and says, “Look, Mary. Look. He’s. Not. Here.”

This one time, life stares death in the face and said, “Not today you don’t.”

I don’t know how it happened. I don’t even know what happened. But it has to be more than just the miracle of spring. It has to be more than daffodils stretching their green stalks into the air, and baby birds in nests, and caterpillars turning into butterflies.

It has to be more than that. Otherwise there’s no reason for us to be here. We’ve got better things to do with a beautiful Sunday morning. There are lawns to be mowed; there are bags of mulch stacked along the driveway, waiting to be raked over the hard soil of winter. There’s that email that’s been sitting in your inbox for far too long; you really should answer it. And hey, those checkbooks aren’t going to balance themselves.

And yet here we are. And we’re here because we don’t know how it happened, but we believe---we hope---we know (we hope)… that it’s more than just a metaphor.

Something happened that one time—resurrection happened that one time—and because it did, we look at every other death and grief and dead end and heartache and illness and loss and struggle and say, This is not the end. This is not over, not near over.

*          *          *

Several years ago I was at a church conference. It was the year after my father died and that anniversary was weighing heavily on me. One of the speakers was praying a prayer before communion, and it was going on in the way that those prayers sometimes do, until she got to this line.

Now I know, I know that what was written in her script was “Love is stronger than death.” And it is. And that’s what today is about.

But what she mistakenly said was, “Love is stranger than death.” And it is. And that’s what today is really about.

Death is death, it follows the rules. People live, then they die. Beginning and ending, it’s the logic of the world. But love, especially Easter love, is strange. It is unpredictable. Love can bring life out of death; love can move a stone away from a tomb and empty it of its contents; love can inspire a band of women to feel joy and fear. Fear and joy.

They don’t get it; they’re a little freaked out by it… but they like it, and they can’t wait to tell the others. The pattern has been broken.

*          *          *

It’s been twenty years since Hutus took up hate and weapons against their Tutsi neighbors in Rwanda, leading to a genocide that claimed some one million victims. In the two decades since those terrible events, the heartache has continued and in some cases intensified.

You can see the heartache on their faces. Pieter Hugo took these photos twenty years after the genocide.

What you see here are perpetrators standing with their victims. [Click here to view]

Yes, reconciliation has also occurred. An organization called AMI has brought together Hutus and Tutsis for counseling and training, culminating in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness. If forgiveness is granted by the survivor, the perpetrator and his family and friends typically bring a basket of offerings, usually food and sorghum or banana beer. The accord is sealed with song and dance.

Here are some of their voices.

“Mother Mukabutera Caesarea could not have known I was involved in the crimes against her, but I told her what happened. When she granted me pardon, all the things in my heart that had made her look at me like a wicked man faded away.”

“The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am like any human being.”

“I used to hate him. When he came to my house and knelt down before me and asked for forgiveness, I was moved by his sincerity. Now, if I cry for help, he comes to rescue me. When I face any issue, I call him.”

“After I was chased from my village and Dominique and others looted it, I became homeless and insane. Later, when he asked my pardon, I said: ‘I have nothing to feed my children. Are you going to help raise my children? Are you going to build a house for them?’ The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.” [source]

This is not what we expect. Hutus hated Tutsis and viciously attacked them. So of course Tutsis should hate them right back for what they did. It’s a palindrome---backwards, forwards, however you read it: hate begets hate. That’s what we expect to happen. That’s the way the world works. What goes around comes around. Someone hurts you, you hurt them right back. If your enemy has a weapon, you build a bigger one.

But love is stranger than death.

And this one time, a long time ago, the pattern got broken.

And because it happened that one time, it can happen all the time, again and again and again.


photo credit: kevin dooley via photopin cc

An Idol of the Idle---Easter 2013

Easter at Tiny began with the Ode to Joy flash mob:

(Thanks to Marci Glass for the tip.) Then for the choral benediction the choir sang verse 3 of "Christ is Risen" (tune: Ode to Joy). That was a spur-of-the-moment decision before the service started---awesome.

And here's the sermon. You can listen to it here, but fair warning that my voice is raggedy. And the sweet baby we baptized had lots to say as well.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church March 31, 2013 Luke 24:1-12 Easter Sunday

An Idol of the Idle

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again." Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.


It was five days before Christmas, 1943. Franz Stigler, a pilot for the German air force, had an American B-17 bomber in his sights and was moving in for the kill.

Stigler was a gifted pilot. He only needed to shoot down one more plane to receive The Knight’s Cross, Germany’s highest award for valor. And he was motivated too—his own brother had been killed earlier in the war. It was Americans who’d been bombing his home country and killing his comrades. It was revenge that drove him, not glory. 

The B-17 had already been badly damaged by enemy fire. Stigler could see entire areas of the fusilage that had been blasted away. Engine two was gone, engine four badly damaged. Several of the crew were clearly injured, or worse. It would be an easy shot.

Stigler pulled up alongside the aircraft, close enough to see the co-pilot and the pilot, Charles Brown, a 21 year old from West Virginia. He saw terror, desperation on their faces. And… he didn’t shoot. He nodded. He gestured for them to land so that their wounds could be treated in Germany, or Sweden. When it became clear that Brown wasn’t going to land—in fact Brown couldn’t figure out what was going on, why wasn’t this German shooting them down? was it a trick?—Stigler escorted the plane as far as he could and then finally left it somewhere over the North Sea. He saluted the Americans, and turned back toward Germany. (source)

Something stopped Franz Stigler from shooting down the plane. But what?

*          *          *

It’s been said that people come to church on Sunday morning with one question on their minds: Is it true? And at no time is that question more intense than on an Easter morning. Of all the incomprehensible, improbable stories in this book—parables and proverbs and poetry—this is the story that confounds us the most.

The women come to perform the ritual of burial for their friend, only to find the tomb empty of a body and cluttered with angels.

They come carrying the spices for death, and they leave clutching a story of life, a story that their dearest friends will not believe. 

…Is it true?

I think about the woman I know who has been battling a crippling mental illness for years. It’s hard for her to get out of bed. She can’t care for her child. Basic tasks like cooking take every ounce of focused concentration she can muster. She needs to know if the resurrection is true.

I think about twenty sets of parents in Connecticut, and the fact that there’s someone missing at their Easter Egg Hunts and Passover Seders this week. They need to know if new life is possible.

I think about this crazy world of ours: a madman in North Korea, a warming climate, a bickering Congress, a billion hungry people. Is it too late for hope? Are we too far gone?

Is it true? I don’t know. I don’t know.

I don’t understand how a heart can start pumping again after being still for three days. I don’t understand how a body, broken through the torture of a cross, can stand again, walk around, greet his friends, breathe out peace.

When Jesus’ friends hear the women’s story, they dismiss it as an “idle tale.” It’s a funny word, idle. The Greek here means “showy... but useless.” Useless. Imagine that.

We have no use for this story, the men tell the women. They blow off the tale as idle, a trifle, a silly wishful imagining that doesn’t mean anything and doesn’t demand anything.

Is the women’s story useless? Is it idle? That’s the harder question for me than “Is it true.” That’s the more convicting question than “Is it true.”

If the story’s an idle tale, then we can go home, take off our Easter bonnets, sit down to our honey ham and forget everything we said and did and heard this morning.

But if the living Christ is loose in the world, then everything is different!

Resurrection changes everything!

Hope changes everything!

*          *          *

And hope shows up in unlikely places.

That’s what Charles Brown and his crew discovered as a German pilot escorted them to safety, sparing their lives at considerable risk to himself. Because if it ever got out what he'd done, he could be executed.

But Stigler, you see, had studied to be a priest at one point. When he saw that crippled airplane in the sky, it was rosary beads he fingered, not the trigger on his plane. And when he left the B-17 to make its limping flight back to England, he said, “You all are in God’s hands now.” 

Franz Stigler looked at that shell of a plane and instead of seeing a tomb, saw a little bit of life left in it. Call it whatever you want: honor, chivalry, a kind of holy restraint… hope goes by many aliases. But whatever you choose to call it, it’s costly. It’s demanding. And it is not an idle tale.

*          *          *

But oh, it is so hard to find that hope sometimes! Charles Brown and Franz Stigler both survived World War II; in fact they met, decades later, and became best friends and soul brothers. But that same war claimed so many millions of lives, cut short by hate and violence.

It was 45 years ago this week that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of his Memphis hotel room. And so many others, peaceful and peacemaking, have lost their lives too. So what are we to do?

You may have seen the video recently, produced by the Anti-Defamation League for their 100th anniversary. It honors Dr. King, and Anne Frank, and many others, but more than that, it asks, “What if?” What if the outcome of their stories had been different?

It asks us to imagine:

It’s important to stand up against bigotry. But I see a much deeper message than that in this video. I see a call, not to give in to the idle tale. I see a call to live a resurrection story, a hopeful story. The work is not done. But if the Easter story means anything, it means that the outcome is ultimately assured. It means that the last word for Anne Frank and James Byrd and Mathew Shepard and Harvey Milk is not death, but life.

Because all of these people died, we must take up their fight for justice, freedom and peace.

And because Jesus was raised, we are able to do so… The resurrection is not an idle tale. It is our master story. It is our courage and our strength.

*          *          *

It all started a few weeks ago, when red curtains parted and a man walked out on the balcony wearing a simple white robe and cross, and gave a humble wave. No long speeches, no grand gestures. He asked the people to pray for him. The Pope asked the people for a blessing.

The next morning, he insisted on returning to the hotel where he had stayed before his election… because he wanted to pay the bill himself, as an example for other priests. He took a small apartment in the Vatican and opted not to use the fancy bullet-proof automobile for his first public appearance.

He has shared that during the conclave he sat next to Cardinal Cláudio Hummes of Brazil, whom he called “a great friend.” After the voting, Cardinal Hummes “hugged me, he kissed me and he said, ‘Don’t forget the poor!’ And that word entered here,” the pope said, pointing to his heart.

This week, he broke with tradition by celebrating Maundy Thursday services, not in the ornately decorated St. John Lateran’s Basilica with all its pomp and finery, but at a youth prison. Normally the Pope washes the feet of other priests, but on Thursday he washed the feet of inmates at the youth prison: the forgotten, the forsaken, the condemned. Among them were two young women. It is the first time the pope has ever washed the feet of women.

“This is a symbol, it is a sign,” he told them. “Washing your feet means I am at your service.”

We would expect nothing less from a man who worked as a priest and a bishop among the poor of Argentina, a man who has spent his ministry speaking up for the “least of these,” and who named himself after Francis of Assisi, a man beloved by people of all faiths the world over, a man known for his deep humility and faith, a man who wrote, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

Shane Claiborne has written that Christianity spreads not through force, but through fascination. It’s fair to say that many many people have been fascinated by this pope.

Here is the head of the Catholic Church and its one billion followers, with access to incredible power and influence and yes, wealth, reaching out to the least of these, embracing a life of humility as much as he is able.

It’s almost as if he takes the teachings of Jesus seriously. It’s almost as if the resurrection of Jesus is not just an idle tale. It’s almost as if the resurrection of Jesus is a story worth staking one’s entire life on.

Imagine that.

Imagine that.


More on Lent at Tiny Church, Plus Easter Musings

A few weeks ago I shared a little about our Lent series at Tiny Church. Here are a few notes for the second half of the season: Our series on the last week of Jesus' life continued on March 3 with the Last Supper. I didn't do much with the table since it was set for communion. The kids went to Sunday School that day (we do SS twice a month and the Upper Room twice a month) and they made chrysalises. They made tissue paper butterflies, which they put inside toilet paper tubes, wrapped them in purple tissue paper and tied them off on each end. They are currently hanging from the ceiling of our fellowship hall with the idea that the "new life" will emerge on Easter Sunday.

On March 10 we shared the story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Here is the table:

photo copy


The white candle I had burning the entire time. The three purple candles were lit at the beginning of the service, and each time Jesus returned to find the disciples sleeping, I extinguished one of the candles (I told the story from the chancel rather than the pulpit).

Since the story was about Jesus praying, I gave the kids some prayer-related items to do in the Upper Room: I gave them a page with instructions for praying in color (I call them 'prayer doodles'), and a printout of this page on cardstock for them to make a prayer cube if they wished:

prayer cube

March 17 was a special day. I was away, recovering from the half marathon, and we had a completely elder-led service. We had a paperless order of worship, sermon, images on the projector, two guest musicians, luncheon afterwards, and the whole service was broadcast on Ustream. I eavesdropped from home and it was a wonderful sight to see.

March 24, Palm/Passion Sunday was heavy on the passion, since I told the entire story by heart---Mark 14 and 15. I kept the table simple: Black cloth spread flat, wooden cross in the middle, with a short white taper candle burning in front of it. We will extinguish several candles just like that one on Friday during the tenebrae service.

Now, Easter. None of this is formed yet, but I'm toying with a number of things:

First, I'm on the lookout for an Easter bulletin cover that doesn't stink. So many bad fonts. So many cheesy Easter lilies. Luckily we have a color printer so I expect I'll come up with my own image. I love this:


It's so Johannine, eh? But a couple of friends said it was "creepy". Whatever...

In terms of service: two years ago we started with a call to worship that wove in the song "He Lives In You" from The Lion King. While the song played, we stripped the black cloth from the table (leftover from Good Friday---the song starts tentatively which lends itself to a slow build), then gradually added elements: water for baptismal font, communion elements, candles etc.

Last year we did the call to worship from the fellowship hall, so that our Easter breakfast led immediately to the service. As the people flooded into the sanctuary, the choir sang a boisterous introit.

What to do to start the service this year? We seem to have more than our usual crop of people out of town, so I'm going with video images rather than something involving a lot of people. I'm thinking about the Ode to Joy flash mob---thanks Marci---you can google it if you want (though if you attend Tiny, don't google it, be surprised!).

I will definitely be weaving this video (which has gone viral bigtime) into the sermon:

And I still want to find a way to talk about that woolly bear caterpillar.

It is traditional for Tiny to have communion on Easter. I have mixed feelings about it, to be honest. I'm not sure how visitor friendly it is. Of course we welcome all to the table, but do visitors really feel welcomed if they're not accustomed to the eucharist? In any case, I'm contemplating a slide show of evocative images as we come to receive the elements, perhaps while listening to David Wilcox's song "Rise":

Beloved,  it is time for you to rise.  Time for you to RISE UP.. With a sudden sense of wonder | Though the promise goes unspoken As the joy comes to your eyes | When the joy comes to your eyes From the burden you've been under | For your soul was never broken

Beloved, it is time for you to rise, time for you to rise.

How about you? What are you planning?

A Religion of Unachievement


MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church March 25, 2012 Easter Sunday Mark 16:1-8

“A Religion of Unachievement”

The ending of the gospel of Mark is surprising. As you will see if you are reading along in the pew Bible, there is a shorter ending and then a longer ending that come after this. But those were added later. Centuries later. The very best manuscripts we have of the gospel of Mark has it ending at verse 8, which is what I will be reading.

Listen to this:

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.


That’s it.

That’s the whole resurrection story according to Mark, the earliest gospel. Matthew and Luke came 10-15 years later, which means that for a decade or more, this was the final word on Jesus’ resurrection:

They went out and fled from the tomb. Terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Ah, but then come the shorter and longer endings, to rescue us from paralysis and get our heroes moving again! Yes, of course. But as I read those new endings, I’m reminded of the Harry Potter world. The great wizard Professor Dumbledore had a wonderful device in his office called a pensieve. A pensieve stored memories, that you could view like a video recording and the memories would be as vivid as the day they happened. The problem is that people can tamper with those memories when they want to forget or cover up what really happened. You can tell a memory has been altered because they are a little fuzzier, a bit more vague. They don’t have that clarity or authenticity.

Now, there is a kernel of truth in Mark’s supplemental endings. Obviously the disciples did go and tell somebody, eventually, otherwise we wouldn’t be here two thousand years later. But I read those tacked on endings and they seem a little fuzzy, a little hastily composed, a little too willing to zoom past the fear and amazement and go right to the triumph of those brave disciples who shared the good news with the whole wide world, God love ‘em!

No… I want to stay with the original ending for a while. Because that ending feels very real and true to me. Of all four gospel accounts of the resurrection, this one might just be the one for us.

If you’ve ever wanted to keep your faith a secret because of embarrassment at what other people might think, this version will suit you quite well. If you’ve ever chosen the comfort of the life you love over a life lived in risky faith to a wandering revolutionary, this is your story. If you’ve ever asked yourself WWJD and known the answer but still not done it, welcome to Mark 16:8. There’s a lot of us who’ve taken up residence in this verse, stiff with fear, shuffling around scared and muttering to ourselves.

Meanwhile we croon to one another on a beautiful spring day: Christ is risen! I do it too—it’s such a nerdy church thing, but I love the singsong response, He is risen indeed. It’s comfortable and familiar.

And then I remember.

“He is not here,” says the messenger. Jesus is OUT! What was dead is now alive again, and everything we know about endings and beginnings is for naught, and nothing will ever be the same, neither you nor I.

Darn right they were afraid.

Brian Blount says, “Fear is a natural reaction to discipleship whose content is the way of the cross. If you’re not afraid, you don’t understand.”

If he’s dead in the tomb, we can follow his teachings, and they’re beautiful and they make the world a lovelier place. But if he is alive… then there is a power that’s loose in the world that shatters the rules—a power we cannot explain, control, or understand.

And that’s scary.

The preacher Tony Campolo has talked about fear and failure. It’s his story, but it’s one we’ve heard all too often lately.

When I was in High School there was a kid who was gay.  We made fun of him.  You would say we bullied him, but we didn’t push him or hit him, we just made fun of him. Well, we did bully him.

Friday afternoons we had Phys Ed. and when we’d all go in to the showers he was afraid to go.  And when he did go in all by himself, we waited with our wet towels and when he came out we whipped him with our towels and stung his naked body.

I wasn’t there the Friday when they grabbed little Roger and dragged him into the shower room and shoved him into the corner, and as he doubled over in the fetal position, five guys urinated all over him.  He went home and he went to bed at about 10:00, his parents said.  It was about 2:00 in the morning when he got up and went into the basement of his house and he hanged himself.

It was at that point that I knew I was not a Christian.  Oh, I believed the Bible.  I believed the Apostle’s Creed word for word.  I was sound, I was solid, I was orthodox.  But if I were a Christian, I would have been Roger’s friend.

And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

*          *          *

It’s happened again like clockwork: another magazine article published the week of Easter, something designed to capitalize on people’s religious curiosity in order to sell magazines. These articles usually deal with some archaeological discovery; last year it was a set of nails that may have been those used on the cross of Christ. This year, it’s Christianity itself that is the fossil.

Newsweek’s cover article is called “Christianity in Crisis: Why we should ignore politicians, priests, and get-rich evangelists, and just follow him.” According to the author, a Catholic named Andrew Sullivan, Christianity is on the ropes: fewer people are attending church or professing faith. People claiming no religious affiliation is at an all-time high, and growing year by year.

Meanwhile the message of Christ has been coopted by political leaders: “On one side, the Republican base is made up of evangelical Protestants who believe that religion must consume and influence every aspect of public life. On the other side, the last Democratic primary had candidates profess their faith in public forums, and more recently President Obama appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast, invoking Jesus to defend his plan for universal health care.”

In contrast to these Christian power-grabs, Sullivan lifts up the example of St. Francis of Assisi, a man whose faith and gentleness are legendary. Francis “insisted on living utterly without power over others. As stories of his strangeness and holiness spread, more joined him and he faced a real dilemma: how to lead a group of men, and also some women, in an organization… And it tormented, wracked, and almost killed him. He had to be last, not first. He wanted to be always the ‘lesser brother,’ not the founder of an order. And so he would often go on pilgrimages and ask others to run things. Or he would sit at the feet of his brothers at communal meetings and if an issue could not be resolved without his say-so, he would whisper in the leader’s ear.”

This is the kind of humble discipleship we see in the gospel of Mark, through the lives of the women who were unwavering in their devotion to Jesus. They go to the tomb to anoint the body of their friend, and one question is on their lips: “Who will roll away the stone?”

As they gather up their spices… “Who will roll away the stone?” As they tie their coverings on their heads… “Who will roll away the stone?” As they make their way through the deserted early-morning streets, with the sunrise in their faces: “Who will roll away the stone?”

They don’t figure out ahead of time how they’ll manage it. They don’t say “Eh, that stone’s too heavy,” and decide not to go. They just gather up their supplies and trundle down the road, shoulder to shoulder. They do that one small thing they’re able to do. They go right up to the limits of their own ability. They go, knowing that they may be thwarted by a big immovable object. They go, knowing it may be a fool’s errand for them to go. But go they must. Because the anointing is theirs to do—a small, beautiful thing. They go in hope and possibility that even though they are too weak to move that stone, maybe something might budge it.

And behold… the Way opens up for them. And it’s astounding.

Andrew Sullivan concludes his article by talking about the saints of our faith.

[They] became known as saints not because of their success in fighting political battles, or winning a few news cycles, or funding an anti-abortion super PAC.

[Their] Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement.

The religion of unachievement creeps up on the moment, spices in hand, because that is what love requires. The religion of unachievement stands alongside the gay teenager and says, “That’s enough. Stop.” The religion of unachievement is in the whispering of St. Francis, or in a Birmingham jail with Dr. King, or in the church that’s opened itself to the day laborers who congregate near their building, or in a million other places where people may be afraid, but they are not fearful—afraid, but not full-of-fear.

Where will we live out this religion of unachievement? We, who crow “Christ is risen… he is risen indeed”? Because if Mark is our resurrection story, then we have to write the next section. Thanks to a quirk in the original Greek, the gospel of Mark ends with the word “for.” It is a conjunction: that bit of grammar that connects two thoughts together. The story ends in a fragment. What will the next section be?

At home this week we were talking about Easter, and my four year old said, “Jesus died on the cross because people were mad at him.” I asked, “Then what happened, James?” He said, “Jesus is alive again.” And I said, “What an amazing story.” And he said, “And it’s still not over.”

No James. No, it’s not over.

Thanks be to God.



A Prayer for Easter

Weeping comes for a night, but joy comes in the morning, O God of power and might.

Death has been defeated and we shout Alleluia!

Let all that we do today be a prayer of praise.

For many of us, it is an Easter just like the others, with Easter bonnets and Sunday best, with the ringing of bells and hymns of joy, with the preparing of meals and gathering around tables and hunting for eggs…

But let this be an Easter like no other. Let us see and hear with resurrection eyes and ears.

Let us discern signs of new life in the usual places—a new baby, the beauty of nature; and in unusual places… who knows where we might find you if we but look?

It is daunting to be resurrection people even as we read and watch the news— news of continued violence, poverty, suffering and despair. We drink in these stories with our morning coffee, day after day, and wonder where the Easter’s gone.

One year ago we celebrated your resurrection, and it seems little has changed in our world since then— Easter seems an idle tale in the wake of lives destroyed by war, children abused, a creation spoiled, and endless bickering among our leaders— too much hand-wringing and too little willingness to do the difficult things.

Close to home, we know loved ones who have felt the sting of death in their families; people who struggle to survive the loss of a job, people entombed by depression or a crippling illness.

Yes, resurrection eyes are not blind to pain. Resurrection ears are not deaf to cries of suffering.

But resurrection people see your goodness that outlasts and overpowers any darkness we can experience or concoct.

Easter is the climax of the story, but not the end. You alone can roll away the stone, but we are called to run, and tell: “We have seen the Lord! Come and follow! Believe, and live!”

If we don’t, who will? Resurrect us, O God of new life—resurrect us from our complacency and fear. You have the power to do it.

Faith and Doubt---Where I Begin

A non-religious friend of mine read the sermon and said this, among other things:

Your approach made me feel it's possible that religion can be open to the non-religious, which is a nice feeling---but it also leaves me wondering that if the central myth of Christianity being true or not is irrelevant to believers, what's the difference between believers and nonbelievers?

Our conversation went all over the place from here, but this is what I said to him initially. I post it not because it's all that polished or finished, but because it's where I start with these kinds of conversations.


There's a book out right now called something like, "What's the least I can believe and still be a Christian." It attempts to strip out the more literalist stuff that is not really the core of the gospel. Do I have to believe Genesis 1 is scientific? No. Do I need to believe that Jesus somehow has a claim on my life and that impacts how I live? Yes.

Your basic question is right on. Perhaps there isn't much difference between believers and non-believers. If Jesus' vision of the kingdom of God/heaven is an enacted thing, you don't need to profess Christ in order to be a part of it. And Jesus said as much (he who is not against us is for us---though he also said the opposite somewhere else, so whaddyagonnado).

What I hope to do in my preaching is to speak a word to people who are what Flannery O'Connor called  "Christ-haunted"--who struggle with profound doubt (and really, what person with a brain doesn't doubt?), but who just cannot quit Jesus. And the best I can come up with for those folks is this idea of master stories (not my own invention). What story are we living in? Might makes right, look out for #1, only the good die young? Or life out of death? So last Easter was the anniversary of King's assassination. And I said [paraphrased] "it is crazy to think that a bullet could put an end to Dr. King's dream." That's where I see resurrection.

And for people who aren't inclined toward faith that's ridiculous. The man died and his children were left without a father and there were riots in the streets. I can't argue with that. But there were also redemptive elements in the aftermath too.

Roger Ebert's review of Of Gods and Men (the movie I mentioned in the sermon) was interesting. He just could not get his head around the monks' decision to stay and be killed. If they had left, he said, the group of them would have had a hundred years or so of service to give to the poor in some other community. I respect that view and also recognize it as the product of an atheist mind. I'm pretty utilitarian myself, but that calculated way of looking at their lives demonstrates a lack of understanding of what motivates them. Those monks are not primarily social service providers, they are participating in a story of Christ's emptying himself for humanity, even unto death.

I don't know if the faith thing is genetic or what, but it's clear there are people who just aren't oriented that way. I'm not sure there's anything I could say to them and it's probably insulting to try, so peace be upon them. But for people who perceive the world in a more intuitively faith-based way, I hope I give them a place to stand, or pace around scratching their heads, or whatever they need to do.

It's not so much that the truth of the Christ myth is unimportant, but that the facticity of the physical resurrection is a red herring in that pursuit of truth. By living in the way of Jesus, we participate in the resurrection story, and that brings its own insight, even if that insight results in a further lack of clarity.

Like Augustine said, "It is solved by walking."


What do you say?

Easter Opening

I wanted to share with my clergypals something we did yesterday in worship that I felt was simple but effective.

One of the tensions in the church is how much to emphasize the passion of Christ on Palm Sunday. It seems unfair to "cheat" Palm Sunday and insert too much Maundy Thursday/Good Friday into it, but attendance at those midweek services is usually a fraction of what it is on Sunday. So, many pastors reason, it makes sense to at least acknowledge the themes of MT/GF, otherwise most people don't get them at all. And resurrection without a death is cheap grace. But what about starting Easter with Good Friday, and giving the Easter crowds a little taste of that theme? I'd personally never seen that done, but it makes sense.

At Tiny Church, we hit the Palm Sunday themes pretty hard two weekends ago---even sang "Joy to the World" after the sermon. We shifted to passion late in the service---really, just the last hymn. During "Go to Dark Gethsemane" we extinguished the candles, recessed out with the Bible, and draped a heavy black cloth on the communion table.

On Good Friday we did a Tenebrae service with seven candles on the communion table. These were all extinguished except for the one on the far right. It seemed right to have one remaining candle as the other lights dimmed or went out, and to have it off-center, since there is something off-kilter and out of balance about the death of Christ.

Sunday morning the black cloth was still there, and the off-center candle was lit again. The pulpit and chancel was mostly bare (although the lilies were there on the front wall because they have to be arranged ahead of time... what're you gonna do?)

We adapted this call to worship from the book Before the Amen, which was perfect for our purposes:

Leader:            Look! The dawn is breaking. Morning is on its way. See, on the hillside the sun is beginning to rise! People:            Leave us alone and let us sleep. We doubt the good news; We see nothing but darkness. Leader:            Look! The tomb is open. A new day has begun. People:            Leave us alone and let us grieve. We have lost hope, and all our dreams are dead.

Then we played the song "He Lives in You" from The Lion King musical. If you know the song, it starts low, with the word "Night," but builds and builds until it ends in joyful adulation, with the words "He lives in you, he lives in me; he watches over everything we see" repeated throughout. From the moment I saw that show in Atlanta I thought "I will use that on Easter some day." Only took 8 years...

So during the song I had people come forward and "bring Easter" into the sanctuary. First someone came up and took the candle off the table and used it to light the other candles in the chancel. Then I removed the black cloth with a nice swish at the first mention of "He lives in you." The next section was a flurry of activity: white tablecloth on table, communion elements brought down the aisle, large bowl placed on the baptismal font, pouring of water with a big flourish, pulpit adorned with Easter parament, procession of Bible and placement in pulpit.

Then we picked up with the rest of the call to worship:

Leader:            But look! The grave is empty. The stone is rolled away. The Lord is risen! People:            He is risen indeed!

The folks who participated are not dancers, including me. I'd always imagined some kind of liturgical dance to this song, but this was authentic for Tiny Church, and I think it worked well.

Sometimes, while I'm leading worship, Margaret likes to come up and stand quietly next to me. She doesn't need acknowledgement, she just wants to be close. Yesterday she saw me coming down the aisle and came up beside me and took my hand. So she and I swished off the black cloth together. Then I had her bring in one of the loaves of bread. Very lovely... especially since Margaret likes to skip in the aisle. Yes, Easter is definitely a day for skipping.

BTW, if anyone ever does this, make sure you use the reprise, the one Rafiki sings, not the one Mustafa sings. He sings "They live in you." Not as good for Easter... though maybe on Trinity Sunday.

I kid...

BTW, a friend of mine who heard I was going to do this decided to wake her teenage kids on Easter morning by playing this song. That makes me so happy to picture it.

He is risen indeed.

They Did Not Understand---A Sermon for Easter

MaryAnn McKibben DanaIdylwood Presbyterian Church April 17, 2011 Easter John 20:1-18


They Did Not Understand

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look* into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew,* ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

It’s happened again, like clockwork. Every year around this time there’s an article in which someone breathlessly announces some piece of Jesus-related archaeology. This year? Someone has found a pair of nails that could have been those used to nail Jesus to the cross. (It’s always amazing to me how these discoveries coincide with Easter.)

These artifacts always get used as evidence by all sorts of people to lend credence to their own points of view. “You see, this all really happened and we’ve got doodads to prove it!” some people crow triumphantly. Others sneer, “You faith people really grasp at straws. Even if the nails were used to nail Jesus to the cross, that doesn’t make him the Son of God and it certainly doesn’t mean he rose from the dead.”

At the heart of all of those statements and arguments and what’s at the heart of our even being here today is one simple question… one profound question:

Is it true?

Is it true that the body was not just stolen by grave robbers, but risen from the dead?

Is it true that the pile of linen wrappings and the cloth rolled up like a beach towel were signs that Jesus was alive?

Is it true that the man whom Mary saw in the garden with dirt under his fingernails and a smudge on his face was not the gardener, but the resurrected Christ?

Is it true? they asked on that first Easter. Is it true? we ask, 2000 years later.

We ask with the skepticism of our age: Is it true? Do people really still believe this? Can’t this holiday just be a nice cultural festival to celebrate spring? Nobody takes resurrection seriously anymore.

Or we ask with our radar attuned to the hypocrisy we see on the part of seemingly pious people: Is it true? Because the people who call themselves Christians sure don’t act like it’s true… what with their judging and hating gays and scapegoating immigrants and committing the very same sins they condemn in others.

Or we ask with all the desperation and hope we can muster, because we have loved ones struggling for life, we have despair over the state of our planet, we feel beaten down by the suffering that seems to flow to the ends of the earth: Is it true? Is death really not the end? Does the fate of this tiny planet in a remote corner of the Milky Way really matter? Is our history and our civilization heading somewhere?

…Today may be Easter but it sure looks a lot like Good Friday out there.

* * *

Mary arrives at the tomb, spices in hand, ready to anoint a dead body. She’d waited, you see, during the Jewish Sabbath (and the Passover, no less) until she could prepare the body. She went with haste, while it was still early morning, not because she expected “it” to be true, not because she knew this was the first day of a new creation, but because she had a job to do. For all she knows, it’s still Good Friday.

Mary is the first one there, and she’s the first one to see the resurrected Christ and to touch him, and to be spoken to by him. But she’s not the first person to believe the resurrection; she’s not the first to realize what has happened. That happens earlier in the story, and someone else gets that honor. Someone else “believes” the resurrection, there in verse 8, before Jesus even shows up to Mary in the garden… but we don’t know his name.

Peter runs to the tomb with a person John calls “the other disciple,” who gets there first. And this disciple does not stand at the tomb’s entrance and peer in. He does not squint into the gloom, refusing to cross that threshold. No, he goes into the tomb. And then, and only then, does he see and believe. He goes into a place of death and finds life instead.

And here’s the comforting thing, for me anyway: (verse 9) This other disciple believes, even though he has not understood the scripture up to now. Think of it. The very first person to believe in the risen Christ didn’t see the signs at all. The first believer was confused about who Jesus was and what he was all about. He didn’t get it.

When he saw Jesus turn water into wine, he didn’t get it.

When he heard Jesus proclaim a message of love and forgiveness, he didn’t get it.

When he saw Jesus break a couple loaves of bread and bless a basket of fish and feed 5,000 people, he didn’t get it.

When he heard Jesus thunder “Lazarus, come out of that tomb!” he didn’t get it.

I’m thinking that if Jesus’ disciple and constant companion believed in the resurrection without understanding the whole thing, maybe it’s OK for us not to understand it.

So let me say to you today: I don’t get it.

But if the resurrection is something we crave, if new life is something that we want to stake our life on, if a reborn creation is the master story in which we dare to live and move and have our being… we can’t just stand at the door of the tomb and analyze things. We can’t perch our glasses on our nose and survey the scene. We’ve gotta enter in. We’ve gotta bend down, get close to it, we’ve gotta see it first hand. We’ve got to enter the tomb in order to see and believe. We’ve got to be that unnamed disciple. Someone asked me this week, “Do we not know who that guy was?” Do we not know who the unnamed disciple was who believed but did not understand?

I say, we know that disciple’s name.

The disciple’s name is MaryAnn.

The disciple’s name is David.

The disciple’s name is Emily… Myrtle… Steve… Bruce.

The disciple saw and believed, but did not understand.

* * *

The disciples’ names are Luc, Christophe, Christian, Jean-Pierre, Paul. They were Trappist monks, originally from France, living in Algeria during the 1990s. Their story is the subject of a new movie called Of Gods and Men.

These monks live peacefully among the Muslim villagers, they run a clinic, they attend coming of age festivals for the children, they study the Koran as well as the Bible, they worship Christ and love one another as family. A group of Islamists, extremists, begin to terrorize the village. They systematically and brutally begin to murder all foreigners. The Muslims in the village recognize this as an utter corruption of Islam, and they are frightened. And so are the monks.

They have a choice to make: do they leave the village and return to France? Or do they stay with the people of the village, whom they love? Do they leave and go to a safer place to serve another community for the remaining years of their lives? Or do they remain committed to be the body of Christ among and with their Muslim neighbors, knowing that that commitment could lead to their deaths?

Most of the movie centers around the process of making that decision. At one point Christian tries to explain what their Trappist community is all about and he says [paraphrased], We are called to love our neighbors. We can’t do that from a distance. We are called to be intimately involved with their lives. Close to them, their joy and their pain.

We are called to be close to them.

We are called to enter into the tomb, not stand at arms’ length. We are called to enter into places of suffering, places of pain, places of mystery and darkness and perplexity. Because that’s what Jesus did. In his death he crawled inside every agony we can imagine and proclaimed that those agonies are not the end. He emerged on the other side, looking something like the gardener, disheveled, but ready to plant and cultivate a new heaven and a new earth with those willing to pick up the shovel and the plow alongside him.

As I watched the film I was stunned at the monks’ commitment to the way of Christ, especially since I knew how their story ended. I felt convicted by their faith, even as I felt grateful that I will probably never have to make such a stark choice.

But maybe the lessons of the film are not so divorced from our own experience. Because while they are wrestling with this decision, they are chopping firewood. They are putting honey into jars and selling it in the marketplace. They are digging through a box of donated shoes to find just the right size for a little girl and her mother. They are rejoicing at another shipment of medicine that comes in. They are celebrating with friends. They are washing dishes. They are singing and they are keeping silent. They are drinking wine and eating. They are doing ordinary things… ordinary things with great love. They are in the tomb, completely immersed in human experience and human suffering and human mystery and joy… not peering in from a safe distance.

So maybe while we are asking, Is it true? we might try some things.

We might try looking the person in the eye who’s holding the cardboard sign or the battered paper cup half-full of loose change.

We might put away the smartphone when our loved one is talking to us and hear what they’re saying and maybe even the message behind the words.

We might write a letter or make a phone call; we might make our voice heard in the halls of power to speak up for justice and peace for all people.

We might plant a tree that we will never see fully mature.

And we might tend to this moment as if it is the most precious thing in God’s kingdom.

We might go about our work, or our relationships, with the same great love as those monks, working to partner with God in this reborn earth that we seek to believe in even as we fail to fully understand it.

Is it true?

How does the life we live answer that question?

What do you, the unnamed disciple, say?