The Story of Life

This sermon was preached on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016 at Ashland Presbyterian Church, Hunt Valley, Maryland. 

John 20:1-18

We gather here this morning to tell the story of Jesus. The story of God’s resurrection.  

The authors of the gospel of John understand the power of story, and the absolute necessity of it. They understand that we cannot know God without stories; that we cannot know ourselves without them either.  

We are a people who love story.  

We speak of getting lost in a story, but part of what draws us to a story is the promise of finding: finding a different world, finding another time, finding ourselves.  

There is something in us that hungers for a story, an empty space that is shaped precisely to its contours. We reach for the threads that a story offers, we enter the rooms it opens to us, we inhabit the skin of another and somehow, in the hands of a good story, we are returned to ourselves.  

And we are perhaps holding the threads of our own stories a bit differently, or entering a new space within ourselves, or finding ourselves able to inhabit our own skin more completely. 

Elie Wiesel says that God created us because God loves stories. (Inspired and quotes from Jan Richardson, Where the Story Begins)

The beginning of the Gospel of John begins with one of the great opening lines of all time.  

In the beginning. 

It’s right up there with… Once upon a time, and in a galaxy far, far away. 

We all know that in order to write a great story, you need to have a great story. 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 

In him was life, and that life was the light of all the people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

The opening of John tells us who we are and where we exist in the story. We are the people, we are God’s story in motion. And where does the power of a story lie? What is it about this story that so compels us?

We are God’s people- alive, through Christ.  

Being the Son of God, “in him was life; and the life was the light of all the people” (1:4).   

Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (14:6).   

 His whole purpose for coming to earth “that we might have life, and have it more abundantly” (10:10).    

And this is not a condemning life, but a gift. For God so loved the world that he gave is son so we may have eternal life. (John 3:16)  

He tells Martha in comforting her after Lazarus dies, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26) 

 And of course the Easter story begins just as poetically as any other, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb…”

We see a woman, exhausted from the week’s events. She’s tired and frail, unable to sleep she gathers her supplies quietly, and makes her way from the place where she was staying to the private garden, the property of the wealthy patron who allowed 

Jesus’ body to be laid at the last minute.  

She has come to anoint the body, come to pay her respects; she has come to mourn the loss of the life of her dearest friend.  

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, he wasn’t supposed to die. Death wasn’t part of 

the deal, life was. He no longer exists in bodily form; all that’s left of him now is story. 

But that story doesn’t end the way Mary thinks it does. 

Death does not have the last word. As readers and studiers of story we are clued in to the fact that she is in a special place, a garden.  

The garden in which Mary stands mimics the one from another story, the story of creation. When God created a lush garden called Eden and we first learned of Godability to bring forth life.  

The garden is different now – not as pure – tainted with death and overgrown plants, touched by human hands. But that cannot stop God. 

In 1 Corinthians Paul tells the readers that resurrection is like a seed that must die to bring forth life. Jesus tells us that whoever wants to keep their life will lose it.  This is the moment of resurrection. The moment we realize that it is within the darkest, bleakest moments of life that we are at our most vulnerable. 

And like every good story, we have learned that the sweetest joy and the purest love comes from vulnerability. 

Mary is raw, the disciples are exposed. They are living in darkness and scarcity, facing a new reality that they never anticipated, and it came in the most cruel and violent ways.  

But it is within of that moment they find life. Real life. The life that Jesus spoke of, a live of abundant grace, and life of love and mercy, a renewed spirit.  

And they learn this lesson in a garden, the setting of our story. Because, we’re not the only thing God because God loves a good story.  

The garden reminds us that life is renewing, that we must become vulnerable, exposed to death, before we can resurrect into the next thing.  

The garden has a story in and of itself- it teaches us that life will find a way, no matter what.  

We plant a tree and suffocate it with cement.  

  
At it’s most vulnerable it not only survives it adapts to it’s environment. 

a seed scattered to the wind lands in mortar. 

  
We create suburban sprawl and waste fully abandon it, but life finds a way. 

  

Death will not have the last word, but it will have it’s day, for Jesus, it was 3 of them in fact. But on the third he was raised to new life.  

 Out of the depth of vulnerability — resurrection.  

So the story continues, and Mary mistakes Jesus as a gardener (poetic isn’t it?) Upon discovering who he is, he tells her not to cling to who he was. He’s different now, transformed by hardship, pain, and a journey.  

 

It’s a story unlike any other, the greatest story of all time the ending yet to be written, a story of relationship between God and creation that continues even to this day. 

May it live on through you and through me. And all God’s people said…Amen. 

Undertow

From a very young age I learned to swim. It was important in my family. For my father, it was rivers and white water. Some of my first memories are of camping trips where my father, aunts, and uncles would whitewater raft and canoe.

For my mother’s side it was much more practical, the pool was our babysitter all summer. Swim team and lifeguards our parents. We rode our bikes a mile to the country club for 8am practice and wouldn’t return home until dinner. Occasionally my step-father would wave from the golf course once or twice a week.

Swim team taught me to swim, but dad’s lessons in the water taught me to survive. My dad has a degree in engineering and thinks like an engineer. I am not. However, I have a visual mind and learn by imagination. His ability to describe things for me were imperative for my learning. Over the years he taught me the ins and out’s of football, the strategy of the game through a board game we played together and then pointing things out during countless Sunday afternoon games. He taught me how to drive a manual transmission (which I still prefer and drive to this day) by describing what happens when you push the gas and release the clutch, I could feel the metal collide too fast and stall, or I could hear and feel the right pressure and speed and they came together and off I went.

Teaching me about water worked the same way. I think, in many ways, water was one of the first things I learned to respect. It was glorious, I was drawn to it at every turn, but it was also dangerous (read: compelling). Dad taught me about eddies and where to steer the boat. If I fell out I was to turn feet first as to not hit my head on a rock, wait for the rapids to end and swim to the side. And above all, never, EVER put yourself between the water and an object. Undertow was not to be messed with.

Water will find a way out, you may not.

It didn’t take long for this respect for water to turn to worship. It connected me to the earth, it flowed, constantly moving. I loved that you could never touch the same water twice in a stream or river or ocean. Water cleansed and was a symbol of life. This only strengthened the deeper my faith became. There are still two ways to get me to experience God almost immediately: Music and moving water.

After a few years I started to test the waters (see what I did there…). I sank my canoe on a class 4 rapid and laughed, I recovered the boat, it made for a good story. I started kaiaking which was easier to control and wasn’t putting other people in danger when I decided to “see what this thing could do”.

Looking back I was young and carless with my life, and there were many reasons for this, but then one day I was leading a youth group on a lazy Sunday afternoon down a river. I gave the youth group a healthy lecture on water and not to get out of the boat, etc. As we paddled along there were people partying, having a great time on the shores. I rolled my eyes, these people had no business being on a river, even one as tame as this. This is what lake canoeing was for (you can only imagine what I thought about lake canoeing!)

As my young companion and I floated lazily I noticed two couples off to the side, one had gotten their canoe stuck behind a tree, all it needed was a push, but they were doing it all wrong. All I had to do was canoe over, hop out of the boat for a second and give it a push. I made my way over, slipped off the side of my boat and there it was…

I was pulled straight under.

Stupid. Seriously. Stupid. I had broken the #1 rule, I put my body between the flowing river and an object. My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but death was inevitable and I knew it immediately.

But I was lucky. Us humans, are built for survival. It’s in our DNA. As I went down my hands flew up and I grabbed a branch, hoisted myself up and quickly hopped over the log, putting my body downstream from the tree. The people I was helping had no idea what just happened. I have their boat a push, we exchanged pleasantries, a couple of youth group kids clapped thinking I was a badass. I got back in the boat like nothing had happened.

I had forgotten to respect the water.

To respect the water is to respect life. There are many reasons why water in scripture is the symbol of life and therefore a symbol of God. For years after that incident I feared the water. Not a pool or a lake, but moving water, life giving water. I walked into an ocean one day and felt the pull under the wave and panicked. I knew I had a choice. I could stay and face the fear, learn from my carelessness or forever be sidelined from one of my most beloved joys.

This week as I swim in the ocean I happily collapse under the waves, I let my body float, and be carried, and cleansed. I respect the water, but I also know my part in her dance. I am not the type to be led beside still waters, but crashing, moving, flowing water restores my soul, and for that, I am deeply grateful.

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Bloom: End of Year Review

On January 1, 2014 I published this post: Bloom. As I explain it was not a New Years Resolution but an embrace of the year. Well, the year is not quite over, but with two weeks left I feel I can safely write a year in review.

Used With Permission

Used With Permission

Bloom, it was such an optimistic word. I talked about the layers of complexity, I touched on the fact that the bloom was still fragile, for me I had no idea how fragile this year would make me. My marriage ended, my home has been split apart, I am navigating as a single parent and a single woman. All the while pastoring a church full of complexity, as any institution. I’ve lost a staff member and creative partner to relapse. I’ve lost friends, not just in divorce, but through death. I’ve been heartbroken by the news and the state of the world over and over again.

I’ve struggled more days than not this year to get out of bed. I’ve revisited more issues and had more triggers come up in this year than any other. I doubled my therapy sessions. I’ve cried almost everyday. I’m exhausted all the time. Every time I’ve turned a corner or another week there’s been “one more thing” that’s happened.

This year has been the shittiest year of my life. By far the most painful.

I think about the word bloom, I thought the word was picked because I was blossoming, opening, spreading my wings to fly. But in all reality, the year taught me how fragile life is. Which brings me back to the bloom of a flower. It is the most fragile part of the plant. The roots, the stalk, the leaves all sturdy, but the bloom needs to be protected. There are countless elements that can harm the bloom. Too hot/cold, too much/little water, it rains too hard, the wind blows too hard, animals eat them. Even if the bloom survives all these elements it still only lasts a few days before death. It is the definition of fragile.

One of the things I admire most about blooms is their ability to protect themselves. During the day they open wide and bask in sunlight, at night, they close in and protect themselves. I will shine because of this year, and am many ways I am. I have grown in confidence in myself and my abilities more than ever before. There has been a renewal of self-respect and allowing myself grace. I have also discovered the beauty of allowing others to help me, that’s the thing about your world being completely different than it was a year ago, I’m too tired to hold up that heavy wall I’ve been using to keep people out.

Last year I struggled to find a word to define my year. Even when I picked “Bloom” I was in a lot of denial about my life and the circumstances of what was happening around me. However, it has not been an inappropriate word, just turned out a little differently than expected.

2015’s word, however, has come freely and easily. It’s coming soon, wait for it…

Love and Life

St. Louis, MO Chicago Sun Times

Ferguson, MO, protests for Michael Brown
Chicago Sun Times Photo

I’m supposed to be writing a paper, one more paper for my class and I’m free, but I’m stuck thinking about love and life, and if I don’t get it out my paper will never get done. Oh, inspiration and the Holy Spirit. My last post was about overcoming shame, depression, suicide, and choosing love and life.

I have had multiple conversations lately where I have talked about God choosing us, God choosing love, and life being a virtue. By the way, everyone should stop reading this post and go read Derrick Weston’s post on this subject RIGHT NOW! With Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Ferguson, suicide and depression all in this last few weeks the importance of talking about life and loving seems invaluable. 

All of this got me thinking. I believe I equate love and life when it comes to theology. Derrick talks about hearing a sermon where faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love (1Corinthians 13) but that the greatest of these is actually life. Yes, but what’s the difference? Here’s how that chapter begins:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

As a pastor I love and hate this text, as we equate it to human love, and we should strive for this in humanity, maybe that’s part of our problem, we see this kind of love as unattainable, and it is if perfection becomes the goal, but it is attainable in the ways that our broken humanness will allow.

We could have everything, but have not love, we are nothing. 

Love, in my mind, could be replaced with life, love could also be replaced with God. God is love, 1 John says over and over again, pounding it into my brain. God is love. All love comes from God. Again, replace that word with life.

The word for Spirit is also the sound of breath, I cannot say it more beautifully than Rob Bell does in one of his Nooma videos. We come to life when we can say the name of God and we die when we can not longer say the name of God.

There is no conclusion to this, just pondering. God is love, God is life. To live is love and to have this love/life is to be of God. 

The Overcoming of Shame

Shame, boat loads of shame, day after day, more of the same. ~the Avett Brothers

Shame3

I am visiting one of my oldest friends and his wife for a few days. She and I are very similar in personality, (which is really not surprising) and I am amazed by her. She has 4 kids, is ex-Navy, a stay at home mom and loves it. She shows me that it’s okay to love your kids and also not be that kind of mom that lives through your kids, that you have needs too, that your needs are also valuable, that this is the way to not only survive, but to thrive in life.

I need people like Jessica in the world, I am privileged to know her.

Yesterday afternoon we had returned from the beach, the two of us and the six kids, everyone was showered and clean and we sat them down to watch the Lego Movie. As we were talking we got on the conversation of living our lives in the open. It’s a common thing we extroverts do. I mean we all have secrets, yes, but the reality of the extrovert is that we process out loud, which means that some of the things “normal” people (read introverts) would keep private, we just kind of put out there.

Then she said something I can’t get out of my head; she said that she had to get over a lot of shame to live that way. Then last night I found out that Robin Williams died. Shame came back to me. Not me, as in my shame, which I have plenty of, but just being reminded of all the same we all carry with us.

I obviously don’t know the intimate details of his life, but we do know depression, addiction, and I dare say, shame, has a lot to do with suicide.

I wrote a sermon about healing and reconciliation not too long ago, you can read the whole sermon here or listen to it here, but here’s the quote that’s pertinent:

The researcher and author Brené Brown has some helpful differentiations in this way, she says: “I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

Guilt- psychological discomfort for failing to live up to our values or beliefs.

Shame- feeling unworthy of love and unworthy of connection.

One of these is healthy, one of these is not. I cannot read scripture in any way that does not prove to me over and over again that God believes we are worthy of connection and relationship, I cannot and have never read scripture in a way that says that God believes that we are unworthy of love.

Love and life are far more important than any shame that we may feel for failing to live up to expectations. Love and life are valued by God far more than anything else in this world. When shame overcomes us, we must struggle that demon away, remembering that love and life are valuable, that shame is not the voice of God, God does not shame, for God is love and life.

I believe in the words of Revelation 21, that a new heaven and a new earth will come, that every tear will be wiped, that mourning shall cease. I do not believe this is a cosmic event though, I mean maybe it is, but that’s a whole other blog post. That these “new beginnings” are part of the ebbs and flows of life.

I also believe and hold strongly to the words of Psalm 30- that joy comes in the morning, that God will turn our mourning into dancing.

These things have been true in my own life, and even as I write now I mourn a great loss in mine, I live in the hope of these things. But in order to do that, shame has to be put in its place.

Shame is not the voice of God, love and life are.

Impossible

 ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’ -Matt 19:26

Impossible. It’s like saying “never” isn’t it? And the advice always was “never say never”. Now I am not superstitious, I don’t care about black cats, walking under ladders, or jinxes.  I am careful to never say never.

Most parents have this experience, before we had children we would walk through the grocery store and hear and parent and child and think “I would never treat my kid that way, what is that parent doing to that poor child.” Now I walk through the grocery and think “What is that kid doing to that poor parent?” Or really, “Wow, that parent needs a break, I so get that”.

I need a break right now, but a break is not in the cards for me for a while. There is a lot to juggle and I will do my best, and it feels impossible. Sometimes life is so overwhelming that staying upright feels impossible. It is common, as a pastor, to hear from people, when they are wading through the depths of hell, that their faith in God is questioned. Or maybe even find it impossible to believe in God anymore. I will hear “If there is a God then why…” fill in the blank.

I don’t know why, and honestly, I’ve never found why questions very helpful to me in life. They are unanswerable when it comes to pain and suffering. So I try to avoid asking them. But questioning God or even the existence of God is good in my opinion. It’s healthy in the midst of pain. Go for it, but here’s also what I believe, that in the midst of pain and suffering I believe more deeply in God’s presence.

Because I believe in the resurrection and the life. I believe in the God of overcoming impossibility. It’s like Alice in Wonderland.

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I believe in the impossible, not because I can make it happen (although I might die trying…) but because nothing is impossible for God. I am hopefully optimistic, it’s who I am, but I am also willing to admit when I have had my fill and need a break. Things may not be impossible for God, but there are impossible things in our world.

Despite all of this, I think I’ll take up the Queen’s ritual and believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast and maybe get a little closer to God in the process.

 

Curses

Curse you new routine! Making my kids get up too early and scream all the way to school. Really because they went to bed too late.  They need more sleep but they also need to see their parents.

Curse you technology that family time is now spent looking at the tv, computers, iphones and ipads one (or two for everyone)

Curse you unusual thing that happened this morning to mess me up.

one-does-not-simply-curses_o_176553Curse the internet full of knowledge, memes and cute kitten videos that keep me distracted, links that lead to links.

Curse you email, text messaging, twitter, and facebook for helping to share every idea I have the moment I have them and filling others inbox’s with half processed thoughts.

Curse you winter rain- be cold or don’t- snow or don’t but quit lurking over us that the brother in the back of the car that is “not touching us” with his finger in our face.

Curse it all. Because then I can truly understand the blessing this life really is.

The Blessing that my husband and I have good jobs and a safe place to take our kids each day.

For the blessing of being connected with friends and family at the touch of a button.

Blessings for the unexpected and opportunity to meet new people.

Blessing of the quest for the unexpected and being reminded that I am not in control of this world.

To God be the Glory.