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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Easter, 2006

Date: 04/16/2006
Feast: Resurrection of the Lord
Church: Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Rev. James McTyre
Bible text: John 20:1-18

Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, the sermon was about praise, and how dangerous and exciting praise to God ought to be.
One of the examples I used was the age-old complaint of children (and a few adults) who say, “Mommm, Do I have to go to church today?
It’s so…”.
And then I had the congregation fill in the blank.
Roughly ninety-eight percent of you said, “Boring,” which – for the purposes of that particular sermon illustration – I considered the right answer.
On Monday, I got an email from a member of the congregation, the mother of a teenager.
She said she was pleased (as was I) to hear her offspring (who shall remain nameless) didn’t go along with the majority.
This teenager filled in the blank of, “Mommm, do I have to go to church?” with “It’s so… early.”
Ironically, this word, early, is the first word in the scripture we, and almost every church around the world, are reading this morning and every Easter.
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.

Early – is how Easter begins.
Early – is how new life starts.
Early – as people stretch their arms, and yawn, and scratch their bellies, and stumble to the coffeemaker – early is when and where the church of Jesus Christ starts.
Which means that while we have all these, “First” churches – First Presbyterian Church, First Baptist, First Methodist – if they REALLY wanted to be Biblically accurate, they’d name themselves, “Early” Presbyterian Church, or “Early” Baptist.
And see how many teenagers they’d get in worship.
To make matters even worse, not only does God start early, God starts on the first day of the week.
Remember, in the Jewish faith, the Sabbath isn’t Sunday; it’s Saturday.
So, on Jesus’ calendar, Friday is Saturday and Sunday is Monday.
You know how excited people are about Monday mornings?
Not only does God get started early, God gets started on the worst day of the week.
The church of Jesus Christ began early that first Easter morning.
While the rest of the world’s still sleeping, Jesus is already up.
God’s up to something -- before we get out of bed.
And not on a weekend, when there’s a little more time to reflect on God.
God got started on a workday.

Think about that as you’re driving to the office tomorrow morning.
Think about that as you’re getting the kids off to school, or starting your week of chores and commitments.
Think about that as you grab a cup of caffeine to get you going.
On God’s calendar, the Resurrection didn’t come on a holiday.
It came on a holy day.
God’s holy days are our work days, our early Monday mornings.
And tomorrow morning, as you’re on your way, if by chance you drive past a cemetery… and if by chance you see a woman kneeling by a grave, putting fresh flowers in a vase… you’ll see someone who looks very much like Mary Magdalene.
A person who gets up early on a Monday and goes to a cemetery is probably not someone who’s slept well the night before.
A person who behaves that way is probably someone who has tossed and turned while the rest of the world is sleeping.
A person who’s trying to figure out what in the world God is up to.
So, early on the first day of the week, while it's still dark, Mary comes to the tomb.
And she sees that the stone has been rolled away.
So 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."
Have you ever gone running in the dark?
More, have you ever gone running in the dark when you're scared?
Or angry?
Or crying?
Would Mary have slowed down as she tripped over tree roots, or as vines and briars scratched her face and arms?
Would she have had to stop to catch her bearings even in a place she knew like the back of her hand?

She went to Simon Peter and John.
Probably having their first cups of coffee and staring at the table.
Mary bursts in the door, breathless: "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."
Notice Mary doesn’t say, “I don’t know where they have laid him.”
She says, “We” – “We don’t know.”
When Mary says, “We,” she's speaking not just for herself, but for all of us.
She's speaking for all of us would-be disciples when we know something has happened, but we just can't say what.
We fear the worst, almost automatically.
The phone rings early in the morning, and we assume the worst.
We find a grave empty, we know the worst.

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.
The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.

The race to God is on.
But for God, and Jesus, the race is long over.
He (John) bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb.
He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.
Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.

When Jesus raised his friend, Lazarus, from the dead, Lazarus came walking out of the tomb with the cloths of death still wrapped around him, like a mummy.
Do you remember what Jesus said to the people there with their mouths hanging open?
“Unbind him, and let him go.”
But Jesus was never bound.
Whatever happened, Jesus didn't need anyone's help.
Jesus wasn't simply raised from the dead, Jesus cast off death.
Jesus shook death off him like a dog shaking off water.
Jesus rolled up death like old, used-up laundry – too stained, too worthless to ever put on again.
Jesus walked away from death.
And the power of God unbound him, all by itself.
And then he left.
He didn't tell anyone.
He didn't wait for the media.
He just left death behind in the darkness of the night, rolled away the stone, and was gone.
Jesus casts off the power of death for all humanity – and just leaves the empty tomb to speak for itself.

Then the disciples returned to their homes.
The Bible says they ran to the tomb.
But when they left, it says they returned.
At a much slower pace.
They didn't go shouting and jumping and telling the world about Easter.
The disciples returned to their homes.

After a funeral, where do people go?
We go home.
A lot of times, we'll have a meal, provided by the church.
Not always, but most of the time, when we leave a cemetery, we go home.
When the world outside is upside-down, there's something instinctively comforting about the sight of the kitchen table, the piles of unfolded laundry.
Our table.
Our piles.
It may not be much, but it's home.
Maybe that's what Jesus was thinking when he just rolled the stone away and left the tomb without a word.
Maybe he had to start making his way home, too.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.
As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and 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.
They 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." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?
Whom are you looking for?" 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."

Jesus asks Mary, "Whom are you looking for?"
We’ve heard this before.
These are almost verbatim the very first recorded words Jesus spoke to anyone.
Back in Chapter One of this Gospel, Jesus – who has grown up and been baptized but as yet has said nothing in print – Jesus senses the disciples following him and he turns and asks them, "What are you looking for?"
And now, with almost the exact same words, Jesus signals to Mary, to us, the beginning of a new life.

But the question changes, just slightly, though.
It's no longer, “What” are you looking for, it's “Who?” God has changed from a what to a who.
Jesus – the Messiah – has changed from a concept, a dream of the night, into a real human being, who walks and talks with us in the daylight.
Everlasting life is a person.
Well, who ARE you looking for?
Who's going to rescue you from your graveyards?
Who's going to save you from your darkness?
Who's going to wipe away your tears?
If you set someone else up to do those things… if you set yourself up to do those things, you're always going to fail.
The whole search, the whole purpose of life is wrestling with the answer to that question.
Is God who we're looking for?
Or are we looking elsewhere for answers?

Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher).

Speaking her name, Jesus really, really turns Mary's world upside down.
And, he changes our world, too.
When Moses asks God for God's name, what does God say?
“I Am.”
All throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus repeats God's name, and takes it to himself.
“I Am.” “I Am the way, the truth, and the life.”
But now, when he has every opportunity to say, “I Am,” “I'm Jesus,” “It's me,” – when logically we'd expect him to follow the game plan and repeat the divine name, he says, instead, her name.
And at the sound of her own name, she knows who he is.

Jesus 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.' "
The whole world has changed, and if we read too quickly we almost miss it.
“Go to MY brothers.
I am ascending to my Father and YOUR Father, to my God, and YOUR God.” No longer is God solely the father of Jesus.
No longer is God only the God of the only begotten Son.
Jesus' Father is Our Father.
Jesus' God is Our God.
We are Jesus' brothers.
We are Jesus’ sisters.
We now share EVERYTHING shared between God and Jesus: Knowledge.
Eternal life.
We are God's children.
God knows your name.
And when God quietly, carefully, lovingly says your name, you know who you are.
And you know who God is, too.

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
The first Easter sermon was only five words long, and preached by a woman.
We church people make distinctions that God doesn't waste time on.
What counts in God's eyes is not whether you're male or female, young or old, rich or poor.
What counts is what you have to say.
And now Mary is going to tell us what she has to say.
Mary isn’t a mourner.
Mary has changed.
She starts a new job as a good-news-teller, an evangelist.
She didn't return home, as others did and do; she wasn't leaving a cemetery.
She thought it was a cemetery, but somewhere in the morning light it had morphed into a garden, a place of life, eternal.
So instead of returning home, she starts her new job – early – on the first day of the week.
She goes out and tells what she knows.

If we have good news to tell, if we have mission projects to build, if we have children to mentor, if we have something to say on behalf of Jesus Christ, we should say it loud and say it clear.
Even if it’s only five words.
Five words was enough for Mary.
You don’t have to bounce out of bed, ready to sing and frolic.
You just have to wake up.
With Easter, God changed the world.
And we didn’t even know.
While we were sleeping, God changed Mary.
God changed us.
“Early” is how the Easter story starts.
So is that a good thing or a bad thing?
If you’ve been up all night, crying, it probably seems like God’s late. Long overdue.
“How long, O Lord, how long?”
If you’re new to the church, or if your faith isn’t as strong as you think it should be, you might be feeling guilty because YOU’RE the one who’s late.
Like George Goebel said, you feel like the world’s a tuxedo and you’re a pair of brown shoes.
The basic doctrine of the Presbyterian church, and what makes us different from a lot of other churches, is that we seize on that one word, “Early.”
God started early… on you.
God started early… on your salvation.
God started early… on loving you, on forgiving you, on loving you again.
Like Mary, before you even recognized who in the world Jesus was, he called your name.
And he’s calling your name right now.
When you hear his calling, in whatever form it takes, you’ll be changed.
Early in the morning or late at night.
Early in your childhood or late in life.
When you’re talking about committing your life to Jesus Christ, it doesn’t matter whether you’re early or late or in-between.
Because no matter when you start, God’s already at work.
No matter when you start, Jesus is already at work.
Go and tell that – and you’ll be on time for work.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
April 9, 2006

Palm Sunday is kind of a kids’ Sunday, so let’s do something the kids did about 2000 years ago.
Let the choir say, “Praise God!”
Let the section of pews between the choir and the aisle say, “Hosanna!”
Let the center section say, “Praise the Lord!”
Let the section on the left-wing say, “I’m on the left-wing?” (“Alleluia!”)

Did you ever have an argument like this with your kids?
Or when you were young, did you ever have an argument with your parents that sounded like this?
“Mommmmm. Do we have to go to church? It’s so… [say the word] boring.”
The kids are always the ones who convict us of our sin.
Knowing what Jesus said about the religious leaders of his day, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if as a boy he had said something similar to Mary.
“Mommm. Do I have to go to synagogue? It’s so… boring.”
The Bible doesn’t tell us that.
But the Bible does tell us that when he grew up and became a rabbi, people flocked to Jesus because he was anything but boring.
“He speaks as one with authority,” they said about him.

Palm Sunday is the last road sign before Easter.
Palm Sunday tells us in a big, bold way to, “Listen! Something amazing is going to happen. Something so wonderful, so outrageously anti-boring, you’re just not going to believe it.”
Palm Sunday clears a path to Easter.
Palm Sunday clears a path not by chastising us for having a boring, hum-drum, dull, same-old same-old existence.
Palm Sunday clears the way to Easter by showing us how to praise.
And by showing us there’s more to praise than just saying, “Amen.”

His disciples borrow the colt of a donkey.
And Jesus rides into Jerusalem during Passover, looking probably very much like the picture Megan drew for the cover of your bulletin.
The crowds hail Jesus as their new king, the Messiah they’d been promised who would break the chains of their political oppression.
They sing, “Hosanna! Save us, now!” and they drape their cloaks and palm branches before his path.
Did you ever stop to consider what an incredibly dangerous political act this would have been?
A dangerous religious act, too, for that matter.
It’s as if Jesus is making a mockery of how Caesar would triumphantly ride a tall stallion into a conquered land.
A donkey’s colt that’s almost too small for a grown man to ride.
It must have looked almost humorous.
For a crowd to hail this as king, would be as insulting as you could get, if you were Caesar.
Imagine what someone like, say, Saddam Hussein would have done if some upstart Jewish cleric rode into Baghdad to the sound of cheering crowds.
Probably about what the Roman Empire would have done, just more efficiently.
So on Palm Sunday, we – the church – hand our children palm branches and tells them to praise Jesus, just like the children did on the road to Jerusalem.
But we don’t think about the implications of teaching them to praise.

Palm Sunday’s kind of a problem for mainline, Protestant, Presbyterians like us.
We come to church, we expect it to be decent and orderly.
We sit in church with our hands folded, smiling politely at the children with their palm branches.
We enjoy Palm Sunday, but we’re not gonna start rolling in the aisles or anything.
The problem is that there’s almost nothing polite or hands-folded about the Palm Sunday story in the Bible.
Palm Sunday in the Bible is more like one of those Gaza Strip political and religious demonstrations we see on TV.
Palm Sunday in the Bible is THIS close to spiraling out of control, into some sort of crazy crowd mentality uprising where citizens clash with the government, and rocks are, and tear gas is launched, and nightsticks are swung.
Palm Sunday in the Bible is nothing like a decent and orderly church service.
Praise – Praise of God – Praise of Jesus Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords – Praise is a dangerous act.
We don’t think about it that way.
We’ve watered down praise so there’s nothing political or dangerous about it at all.
The popular churches these days are “Praise” churches, that have “Praise” services, and sing “Praise” songs.
Praise is “hip,” praise is “cool.”
Praise is safe.
But praise – as it appears in the Bible, especially on Palm Sunday – praise is bold; Praise is risky.
The Bible’s idea of praise yanks us out of our comfortable seats and says, “Put your hands up!” – from reverence or from arrest, or both.
Saying, “Praise God,” or saying, “Jesus is Lord,” – singing “Hosanna!” could get you killed in the Bible, and still can in certain places.
But instead of being a revolutionary act, we hand our children palm branches and tell them to remind us how it might have looked.
We’ve got to be really careful what we’re teaching our children.
Because some of them, like Megan and Roddy, take us seriously.
They take the gospel truth as, well, gospel truth.
Someday, these children who look so cute holding palm branches are going to be more than ready to hold us accountable for what we’ve taught them.
The same kids who wave the branches around us someday will very likely wave them in our faces.
Because when they hit 18 (or younger) they’re going to want to decide whether they want to keep coming back to church, or if the praise we sing doesn’t match the praise of our actions.
Is church boring? Or is it a place of praise?

Praise is more than just saying, “Amen.”
Praise is more than wishing for safety.
Those of you who went to Mexico on mission trips before we got smart and started going to the equally foreign land of Kentucky –
Do you remember how the congregations in those Mexican churches sang?
If two hundred people came to worship, they sang in at least two hundred different keys.
And they didn’t care.
In fact, the more off key they were, the louder they sang.
It was awful.
It was beautiful.
It was music to God’s ears.
And it was anything but boring.

Praise is more than just being happy and saying, “Praise Jesus,” when we get a good parking space, or hit the traffic lights just right.
Praise, by its very nature, has to have an element of danger; otherwise it’s just… boring.
Do you ever think about what you’re saying when you sing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow?”
Not the government, not your credit card company, not your work, not your grades – God is the place from whom all blessings flow.
Do you ever think about what you’re saying when you praise Jesus Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords?
Not the government, not the teachers, not your mom – Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
If you’re not getting in trouble for saying these words, someone’s not paying attention.

Psalm 34 says, “I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.”

Psalm 148 says, “Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike, old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him.
Praise the LORD!”
And the Psalm (Psalm 118) we read earlier said,
 Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!        O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.        We bless you from the house of the Lord.     The Lord is God,        and he has given us light.

That’s so much deeper, so much more challenging than looking around and rolling your eyes while singing, “Praise God. From whom all blessings flow.”
Praise isn’t just an act of joy.
Praise isn’t just an act of rebellion.
Praise is a holy, a defiant act of life.
And if we feel praise, if we sense the danger and even the foolishness in praise, we can sing God’s praise when life is good, and when life is just plain awful.
We can sing praise in an oncologist’s waiting room.
We can sing praise when we lose a job.
We can even sing praise at the grave.
And we sing God’s praise in those times not because we’re denying the sting of life’s arrows, but because the life that flows from Jesus Christ is stronger, the power that comes from God is greater, the courage breathed into us by the Holy Spirit is more triumphant – than anything else in life or in death.
The good people of Jerusalem took their scripture seriously on that first Palm Sunday.
I would like for God to know that we did as well on this one.
Instead of concentrating on disappointments… instead of being distracted about what we’re going to have for lunch… instead of falling into the deadly trap of boredom… can WE praise?
Can we set our hearts and minds on Jesus Christ?
Can we welcome, praise, his entry into our life?
Can we sing and pray, and live and breathe, with enough hope, with enough confidence, with enough radical faith – that we don’t care how silly, or how childish, we might look?
Can we stand in open defiance of the powers of this world that separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?
Can we?
Can we praise that dangerously?
Instead of relying on our children to show us how to praise, can we show them how good it is – before they dismiss yet another generation of church-goers as pleasant, but boring old people?

I conclude with the words of the Apostle Paul (Phil 4:8):
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Praise God!
Praise the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest!